IOWA CITY — Of course, the competition is fierce. It’s running backs in football. The Hawkeyes just finished a month of practices to figure out the position.
They kind of ended up where they finished 2018. Juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young are the lead backs in what most likely will be a “running back by committee” situation. How many members on the committee remains to be seen.
The coaching of a running backs room with six or more viable candidates has to be a study in patience and presence. You can’t harp too much. You can’t praise too much. You have to make sure everyone is getting a fair look, or at least understands where they are on the depth chart and why.
Yes, running back is a singular position and, totally, only one can carry the ball at a time.
Take “running back” out of it. Can everyone competing to become “American Idol” pile into the same classroom every day and hear their instructor praise and criticize while sitting directly across from their competition? Or is that show “American Ax Fight?”
Sargent and Young showed up Tuesday without any axes hanging off their bodies. Head coach Kirk Ferentz likes his running backs room.
“When I was driving into work this morning, I heard somebody on the NFL Network talking about the Patriots running back room,” Ferentz said. “And the guy — whoever was the expert — he had played, I guess, in that division and followed that division pretty closely and went through the whole group of guys they have.
“And it got me thinking about our room. Quite frankly, we’ve got a really good room of backs right now.”
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Maybe it’s this with Sargent and Young. Maybe the roads they took to get here are so unconventional that they simply don’t know how to be “give me the bleeping ball” No. 1 running backs.
Young, whose only college football offer was from Iowa, could’ve done this. After a season with 136 carries and 637 yards, Kirk Ferentz did say a few times in the winter and spring that, yeah, Young could’ve gotten more carries in 2018.
All players have their big sitdowns with Ferentz in January and February. This is when Young could’ve walked.
“Every day is an opportunity to get better,” said Young, a Madison, Wis., native. “I don’t get too caught up on depth or who’s going in at this point of the game, because I know it’s going to take more than one guy. It’s going to be all of us. All of us understand that.”
That “more than one guy” thing is exactly a “committee” approach to running back. And if you look at Iowa’s running back usage the last five years, the “RBBC” (“running back by committee”) approach has been in place really since 2014. There’s been a back with around 200 carries and one with 150ish. From Mark Weismann and Jordan Canzeri to Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels, this has been a committee approach for a while.
“There are times guys want to be in the game, there are ups and downs,” Young said. “Everyone is going to get their opportunities. One game, it might be one guy. The next game, it might be the other guy.”
Sargent, who led Iowa with 745 yards and nine TDs, didn’t get any offers coming out of Key West (Fla.) High School. He went to Iowa Western Community College. He excelled during his redshirt freshman year in 2017, rushing for 1,449 yards and 14 TDs and earning All-American honors. Offers followed, with Iowa, Louisville, New Mexico State and Northern Iowa. Sargent could’ve stayed for his sophomore year at IWCC, but the Iowa offer was enough.
Last week, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Sargent and Young were going to start as “the guys” in 2019.
Here is Sargent celebrating that moment.
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“In a sense, I’m where I wanted to be at the start,” Sargent said. That was it. After that, it was team stuff.
Can a running backs room be “American Idol” or does it have to be “American Ax Fight?” The simple question — are Young and Sargent buddies? — shows that it doesn’t have to be bloody.
“When I came here, Toren was one of the first guys I met, he was my neighbor,” Sargent said. “The first day I came here, they welcomed me like a brother. From there, Toren and I have been really close friends outside of the game.”
They all agree it’s going to take more than one. Ferentz said Tuesday that no freshman defensive player likely will go beyond the four games for redshirt status. He didn’t say the same for freshmen on offense.
True freshman running backs Tyler Goodson and Shadrick Byrd still could have their names called. There’s also junior Ivory Kelly-Martin. That’s five running backs in play for Saturday night against Miami (Ohio).
“They’re guys we’re definitely considering playing, both offensively and special teams,” Ferentz said. “We’ll keep talking about when we do or don’t do that, but they’re both in the picture right now.”
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