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Will the true freshmen play this season at running back for the Iowa Hawkeyes?
Gavin and Leshon Williams are 1 and 2, but Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson are pushing for playing time
Editor’s note: Fifth in a nine-part series looking at each Iowa football position ahead of the 2022 season.
IOWA CITY — To redshirt, or not to redshirt.
In the case of Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson, that decision might end up being made for them.
The true freshman running backs have gotten a lot of work in fall football camp for the Iowa Hawkeyes. That’s by necessity.
Anticipated starter Gavin Williams has been out with an injury, though apparently he’s back practicing now. That bumped fellow sophomore Leshon Williams up to getting reps with the No. 1 offensive unit, and Johnson, Patterson and redshirt freshman Deavin Hilson filling in behind him.
It has been an invaluable learning tool for the entire group, especially Johnson and Patterson. Johnson is a 6-foot, 212-pounder from Hamilton, Ohio, and Patterson a 5-10, 188-pounder from Pompano Beach, Fla.
“I feel like it’s helped me,” Patterson said. “I take it as it comes every day. Learning behind these guys every day, they’re teaching me the ropes, teaching me the concepts. I’m just taking it all in and learning as much as I can learn. If I get an opportunity to get on the field, I’ll be grateful.”
“It would be big, I mean, that’s my goal,“ Johnson said of playing this season. ”But it’s not my (immediate) goal. My goal is just to adjust to how I’m playing, adjust to the offense, adjust to how to read the defense, adjust to Leshon and Gavin and helping me adjust to the playbook.”
Replacing Tyler Goodson’s production at tailback could be a committee thing by the time it’s all said and done.
Gavin Williams got the start when Goodson opted out of January’s Citrus Bowl and rushed for 98 yards. Leshon Williams got his first meaningful playing time in the bowl and had 42 yards on 10 carries.
He looked good in Iowa’s recent Kids Day scrimmage.
“I gained a lot of confidence in the bowl game,” Leshon Williams said. “I mean, I’ve always had confidence, but that gave me a lot more confidence. That gave me a real game under my belt, more experience. Really, it helped the game slow down for me and let me know I am capable of doing a lot of good things.”
Hilson is a Des Moines North grad who didn’t see any game action and has been held back by injury. Then there’s Johnson and Patterson.
Not a lot of experience around. Not at all.
“Just by virtue of our depth, it was a real opportunity for both freshmen to come in,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We were going to find out what they were, who they were. I'll go back to the summertime. Our first-year guys are in the first group. They train at 6 (a.m.), and (strength and conditioning coach) Rai Braithwaite is telling me the guys are coming every morning, 5:40, 5:45 (with) ‘How you doing, Coach?’ all that stuff. That's really unusual for guys a month out of high school, really unusual.
“They have good personalities. They really learn well on the field and they both have some talent, too, which always helps. But they've just got the right mindset. So I'm feeling a little bit better about our whole situation than I was maybe a month ago or so when I saw you in Indy.”
Iowa running backs coach Ladell Betts redshirted his first year at Iowa after coming in as a highly touted recruit from the Kansas City area. He went on to play in the National Football League.
But that was then, and this is now.
“I know it’s a little bit uncommon these days, but it helped me a lot,” Betts said. “I have that conversation with all my guys, because you just never really know. You don’t know how fast someone is going to develop. You just don’t know what that depth chart is going to look like right now. Sometimes the end result isn’t how it all started. I redshirted and went on to have a pretty good career. Some guys don’t redshirt, and maybe the NFL is in the cards, maybe it’s not.”
Betts was asked how he feels the touch level at running back is going to end up working out.
“That’s a very tough question to answer,” he said. “Right now, you just don’t know who’s going to be healthy, you don’t know what that pecking order looks like just yet. And, really, a lot of that (pecking order) is determined by health. When that game week comes, we know who’s healthy, we know who should be available, we’ll be able to make that decision.”