Iowa running back: Spaghetti Road
IOWA CITY -- Shonn Greene's last carry for the Iowa Hawkeyes was an 11-yard TD run with four seconds left in the third quarter of the 2009 Outback Bowl.
It capped a glorious season, one in which Greene set records for rushing yards (1,850 yards) and TDs (20).
Before Greene had his helmet off, he told the world his plans to declare for the NFL draft. It wasn't exactly a shock. Greene had one year of eligibility remaining and would've been a 24-year-old senior at Iowa if he had returned.
"I don't think there's really a lot more I can do here," Greene said. "People talk about the Heisman, but I think that's a lot of politics. I don't like getting caught up in all of that, so I just figure I'll try my chances."
Shonn was gone, a third-round pick of the New York Jets. He's set up for possible No. 1 carries this season. He earned a $905,000 signing bonus and will make $713,350 this season.
When Greene left, for whatever various and inglorious reasons, Iowa running back short circuited.
Academic indigestion. Concussions. A sudden, unexplained camp dodge. A custody case. Of course, ACLs, a staple of running back drama. Marijuana. An eviction notice.
It barely even sounds like football.
The journey from Greene to Marcus Coker, the 230-pound astronomer and heir to the throne, has been a spiral staircase that has sometimes wobbled but, in the end, delivered some from the bottom to the top. Or vice versa, depending on your definition of the top when it comes to Iowa running back.
When Greene left the game, a true freshman named Jewel Hampton took the ball.
And the tour begins.
Hampton finished the Outback with 54 yards on just 12 carries. He scored a then-freshman record seven TDs as Greene's backup in '08.
"The future looks bright for Jewel," offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe said. "He's got a lot of the things that we're looking for."
"I think between Jewel and [Jeff] Brinson we're going to have a 1-2 running attack that can stand up to anybody in the country," lineman Julian Vandervelde said.
Foot injuries derailed Brinson, a promising 220-pounder. He transferred to Central Florida and recently suffered a second torn ACL and called it a career.
Hampton didn't make it to feature back at Iowa. He suffered a partially torn ACL during summer workouts in '09.
"We're hopeful, we're optimistically hopeful," Ferentz said. "He injured his knee. All signs have been very, very positive since that time. We'll certainly know more when we hit the practice field, maybe sooner. But I think right now everything's been very positive. We're optimistic that we're going to be there."
"Yeah, I think any running back would be afraid when you hurt your knee. It would be heartbreaking to have your season taken away," Hampton said during Iowa's media day Friday. "But I just kept a good head about it and, hopefully, things will go well for me this season."
And then, Hampton finally was declared out for '09. He ended up taking a redshirt season.
"Feels like two cars got into a accident into his heart, and his dreams [were] in the front seat!!!!" Hampton wrote on his Facebook page.
The first carries of '09 went to Paki O'Meara, a walk-on who, up until this start against Northern Iowa, was a career special
teamer. He fumbled on his first carry of the second half. Iowa ended up blocking two field goals at the end to save a 17-16 victory.
"Yeah, a guy can come back from (a fumble)," Ferentz said when asked about O'Meara. "We're not passing out life sentences, that's for sure."
Redshirt freshman Adam Robinson took it from there. His first career start was the next week at Iowa State.
"This is my dream," Robinson said. "It's a great feeling. It's indescribable. I can't even think of the words right now."
Also against Iowa State, true freshman Brandon Wegher introduced himself to the Iowa fandom, rushing for 101 yards and a TD and snaring a one-handed screen pass that jump started Iowa's offense.
"There are times when I'm afraid to throw a guy out there, I guess," Ferentz said, before adding facetiously, "It's only running back. If he fumbles, don't worry about it."
Robinson and Wegher had their ups and downs, but the duo showed toughness -- Robinson suffered a high-ankle sprain and bounced back; Wegher pulled a muscle in his ribcage that required shots to dull the pain -- and they were productive in 2009, rushing for a combined 1,475 yards and 13 TDs.
Wegher finished off Georgia Tech with a 32-yard sprint for a TD that sealed a 24-14 victory in the 2010 Orange Bowl.
Iowa went into 2010 with Robinson, Wegher and a mended Hampton.
"The only thing I know is competition is great at any position, and that's one position (running back) where we will have good, healthy competition if things pan out," Ferentz said. "We'll see what happens, but hopefully it's going to be a good situation for us."
That quote came in March. Already with the "ifs"? It was as if Ferentz knew what was coming.
Wegher showed up for 2010 media day.
"All three of us are going to work hard during camp," Wegher said. "We'll see what happens."
Wegher's last day on the Iowa football team was the next morning. He walked out of camp.
"We're hopeful he chooses to come back to the team at some given point," Ferentz said. "There's no timeline or anything like that. I think it's just important he gets things settled in his mind and feels good about it.
"Personally, I can't imagine him not coming back, but you just never know."
So, Robinson and Hampton.
Hampton tore his other ACL week 3 at Arizona.
"I'm just trying to keep a level head right now," Hampton said.
"You've got 11 guys on the other side of the ball trying to kill you or essentially take your head off," Robinson said. "If you're running in there tiptoeing and trying to ease your way around things, it's not going to happen. You have to bring more intensity than the guys who are trying to tackle you."
And it was working. Robinson was among Big Ten rushing leaders the first half of the season.
"All we're asking him to do is carry the ball," Ferentz said. "A lot of backs nationally do it. They do it in the pros, too. I don't think we're asking for anything that's out of the ordinary."
"It kind of annoys me sometimes, because I get the feeling that I'm not good enough," Robinson said. "When I've had a good game, people are still looking for something else, something bigger, something better. It kind of annoys me, but then I think back to, 'hey, I'm in here doing it and they're not.'"
Then, he suffered a concussion late Oct. 30 against Michigan State.
"Adam continues to play really well. He just does a great job. But to play in a schedule, in a conference like we are in and a schedule like we have, we are going to need more than one guy," Ferentz said.
Coker made his first start the next week at Indiana, rushing for 129 yards on 22 carries.
"I don't know, he's quiet," Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi said when asked about Coker. "He doesn't talk. He doesn't talk at all. That's how you like your freshmen. That's how they should be. He does a great job, so everybody respects him a ton because of how he plays."
Robinson made it back the next week at Northwestern and rushed for 108 yards.
"Adam is just a tough football player and he's been that for us for two years," Ferentz said. "It's always the first thing I think about when I think about Adam Robinson."
The next week against Ohio State, Robinson suffered concussion No. 2. Also, he didn't start against OSU because of what Ferentz termed "academic indigestion." Robinson's last play in an Iowa uniform left him dazed on the Kinnick turf.
"I feel bad I led him into that hit," Stanzi said. "I never want to do that as a quarterback. It kind of knocked him out with my stupid throw."
It was down to Coker for the season finale
He rushed 21 times for 90 yards, but fumbled during Iowa's last-gasp driving, eventually sending Floyd of Rosedale to the Gophers, 27-24.
And then the real carnage.
Two weeks later, in the wake of the drug-related arrest of wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Hampton and Robinson were the central figures in a joint press conference with Ferentz and UI athletics director Gary Barta. Hampton was gone; Robinson was suspended for the Insight Bowl.
"We wish him the best of success in the future," said Ferentz of Hampton in a release.
Hampton's departure was explained as a "mutual decision." He broke the news on his Facebook page.
"Former Hawkeye!!! wats next????"
To which, Robinson replied, "hmm…. first and for most… LIVE IT UP!"
Also in December, Wegher asked Iowa for a release from his scholarship. Iowa granted it, but not to Big Ten Conference schools. Wegher ended up walking on at Oklahoma for the second semester. In March, just more than a month into the semester, OU coach Bob Stoops announced that Wegher was gone.
"Yeah, he’s not with us anymore,” Stoops said. “That didn’t last real long."
Last week, Wegher enrolled at Iowa Western Community College and will play running back for the Reivers this fall.
"He hasn’t lost too much,” IWCC coach Scott Strohmeier said. “He’s pretty good.”
The same day Hampton's departure was announced, the UI disclosed Robinson would be suspended for the Insight Bowl. Then, on the eve of the game, Robinson was arrested and cited with marijuana possession.
Just days after the Insight, "Running back Adam Robinson has been dismissed from The University of Iowa Football team," Ferentz said in a release. Robinson remained on scholarship through the school year.
In a January news conference at his Des Moines lawyer's office, Robinson made an impassioned plea for another chance.
"I've always wanted to be a Hawkeye," Robinson said. "I have no wishes or desires to leave the Hawkeye team."
On March 24, 2011, Robinson and Hampton were among four Hawkeyes named in an eviction notice. Current Hawkeyes Marvin McNutt and Jordan Bernstine also were named.
Ferentz announced definitively in May that Robinson wouldn't return to the Hawkeyes.
"He's going to be going somewhere else. . . . He won't be with us," Ferentz said.
Just this week, the University of Minnesota Duluth, the defending Division II champions, announced that Robinson was admitted into school and is a member of the football team. He'll sit out this season because of transfer rules.
After leading the nation in running back drama in 2010, Iowa has Coker, a sophomore astronomy and physics major. He He'll be backed up by Jason White, a junior walk-on, and freshman Mika'il McCall, whose father is former heavyweight champion Oliver McCall.
"You'd like to have experienced guys, guys staying in the program," running backs coach Lester Erb said. "Sometimes, you've got to work with what you're dealt. The good thing is we have some really good guys in this group right now and I'm really excited to work with them."
Coker seems to be light at the end of a very nutty tunnel. On the field, he crushed Missouri in the Insight Bowl, rushing for 219 yards and two TDs. Off the field, he's in physics classes. The goal is to someday work in a NASA observatory.
"I got my telescope when I was 7 years old," Coker said. "I've been staring at the stars ever since."Maybe, just maybe, things are looking up at Iowa running back. Maybe. Just maybe.