Iowa Football

4 Downs with Iowa's running backs: Passing game is a big differentiator between Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young

Sargent is the one going out for passes and staying in to block; Ivory Kelly-Martin might have a say

Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin (21) participates in a drill during the final spring football practice in Iowa City on Friday, April 26, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin (21) participates in a drill during the final spring football practice in Iowa City on Friday, April 26, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

A closer look at Iowa’s running backs entering the 2019 season.

The running backs: Mekhi Sargent (5-9, 212, jr.), Toren Young (5-11, 223, jr.), Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-10, 203, jr.), Tyler Goodson (5-10, 190, fr.), Shadrick Byrd (5-10, 212, fr.), Henry Geil (6-0, 215, fr.), Keonte Luckett (5-10, 180, fr.)

The fullbacks: Brady Ross (6-0, 246, sr.), Turner Pallissard (6-0, 242, #fr.), Joe Ludwig (6-0, 241, so.), Johnny Plewa (6-0, 230, fr.)

First Down

Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young are the lead backs after camp. As runners last season, their numbers probably weren’t what they wanted them to be.

Sargent’s numbers went up throughout the season and he finished with 745 yards and an impressive nine TDs (getting it done at the goal line). Young finished with 637 yards and five TDs. He stayed consistent and found a bit of a role as a “second half” running back. At 223 pounds, Young can run with the kind of physicality that wears down a tired defense. Around 55 percent of his 136 carries (75) came in the second half.

The real differentiator is who does what in the passing game.

Sargent ran 177 routes in plays last season. Young ran 76 routes. Sargent had 17 receptions on 26 targets. Young had seven receptions on eight targets.

Sargent also had the one of the best “yards after catch” on the team with 9.3 yards after contact. And maybe the biggest thing that gives Sargent a boost as far as passing snaps go is his pass blocking. Sargent has a knack and generally holds his ground even when blitzers have a running start. That’s a serious undervalued running back trait.

One last Sargent/Young note: Sargent thrived running to the tight end side of the play. That won’t be T.J. Hockenson this year, so plan accordingly.

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Second Down

One minor storyline going into fall camp was how the staff would chop up reps for all those running backs.

Running backs coach Derrick Foster gave this answer on how he wants reps set up for the backs to show what he wants to see.

“I went back and was able to go through some inventory of plays we’ve run throughout camp,” he said. “That allows you to see, ‘He’s had this rep, hasn’t had this rep.’ I’ll go through and chart who I want in on certain reps (which take into consideration personnel, scheme and play).”

What does the running backs coach need to see?

“I want to get a detail,” Foster said. “One guy might not have had a chance to run this play to the left, one guy might not have had a chance to run this play to the right. We want to build those libraries for these guys.”

Third Down

Let’s not forget that junior Ivory Kelly-Martin did win the running back job in camp last season. He has something the Iowa staff likes. Last season, he had injuries, mostly a high-ankle sprain in the opener that just never let him take off.

So, you didn’t really see Kelly-Martin last season.

“It was all of the little things we have to do,” Kelly-Martin said. “It was putting in extra time with film study or putting in a little extra time after practice. Grab a quarterback and doing something with him. And just football knowledge, it allows you to play a lot faster. That’s something I really picked up. That was one of the biggest things that helped me get out there.”

Does he feel like he has to prove himself once again?

“Obviously, you want people to know how good you are, but it’s still a team,” said Kelly-Martin, who finished with 341 yards but missed four games and only had eight carries in the final four games. “You want to do as much as you can for the team. If we compete with each other as running backs, that will help the team get better.”

Fourth Down

Sort of have to make this about fullback.

Brady Ross is back for his senior year. He missed seven games last season after suffering a foot injury at Indiana. He’s a three-year starter at the position. His job is to lead isolation plays through the middle of the defense and hitting linebackers with as much ferocity as he can.

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Touches? Between Ross and Austin Kelly, a senior who replaced the injured Ross, the Hawkeye fullbacks went out on route 51 times in 2018. They combined for five targets and had five receptions. So, no, fullback probably isn’t in line for an avalanche of touches in 2019.

Fullback is a relentlessly physical position. They are depended on to set a physical tone in practice, so Iowa often bundles its fullbacks in pairs. Going into the first game week, redshirt freshman Turner Pallissard (6-0, 242) is the backup. He’s brand new.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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