Iowa Football

Checking in with Iowa running backs coach Derrick Foster

6 running backs should do it for 2019, it really should

Iowa Hawkeyes running back coach Derrick Foster encourages one of his running backs during a drill at practice in the team's indoor practice facility in Iowa City, Iowa on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes running back coach Derrick Foster encourages one of his running backs during a drill at practice in the team's indoor practice facility in Iowa City, Iowa on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — In the end, the Iowa rushing game was average in 2018.

Grand totals go this way: The Hawkeyes finished 10th in the Big Ten with 1,929 total rushing yards. That ties for 10th best during Kirk Ferentz’s 20 seasons at Iowa (the Hawkeyes also had 1,929 in 2010).

It felt worse because the times Iowa’s running game didn’t work, it really didn’t work. You don’t have to go far for that.

Iowa won the Outback Bowl over Mississippi State with minus-15 rushing yards. During a three-game losing streak in late October/early November, Iowa rushed for 135, 118 and 64.

That’s two seasons of less than 2,000 yards for the Hawkeyes. That’s not a terrible thing, but obviously, more is better.

And all the running backs return, so expectations will be higher. What really sticks out, however, is the seven rushing plays of 20-plus yards the Hawkeyes generated in 2018.

That number was last in the Big Ten (by four ... to Rutgers) and 124th nationally. It also put a ton of pressure on the passing game to come through on third down. Of course, it also showed how good Akrum Wadley was for the Hawkeyes. Iowa had 17 rushes of 20-plus in 2017 with Wadley at running back.

You didn’t have to ask Iowa running backs coach Derrick Foster about it. He brought it up. He knows that’s hanging out there.

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“These guys have big-play ability, it’s not like we don’t have right now,” Foster said. “It’s just that we haven’t seen it. It’s coming, I truly believe that. I think we’re a tackle away from having more explosive plays. I think we’re a misread away from having more explosive plays.

“I think we’ll get there. Sophomores this year, juniors next year, I think we’ll be fine.”

The question that spurred that response was on incoming running backs Tyler Goodson and Shadrick Byrd and if they have skill sets that could immediately help the Hawkeyes.

“They do, looking forward I think they do,” Foster said. “Just from speed and explosiveness.”

The junior trio of Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin will be joined by Byrd and Goodson and that probably should be it. You probably won’t see Iowa haul in a running back during the summer like it has the last two summers.

Six scholarship running backs should be enough. Really, it should.

Of the junior core, Sargent really grew last season. He took an offer last summer after his freshman season at Iowa Western Community College, after rushing for 1,449 yards. Sargent got No. 3 carries until the final two weeks of the season, when he put up back-to-back 100-yard games with 17 carries for 121 yards (against Illinois) and 26 for 173 against Nebraska.

Sargent ended up leading the Hawkeyes with 745 yards on 159 carries with nine TDs. He showed good vision in running the read-option with QB Nate Stanley. Sargent also was Iowa’s best back as far as elusiveness and getting to the outside on outside zone plays.

Young’s numbers show that he moved chains, finishing with 637 yards on 136 carries. Iowa used him a lot in the second halves of games, when it wanted some game control with a powerful running back. But 10.5 carries per game says Iowa wanted something else out of running back or couldn’t get a ball-control mentality out of the gates in a lot of games.

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Kelly-Martin won the job out of camp last fall and sprained an ankle in the opener. He also suffered a concussion and had another ankle injury. He missed four games and only carried the ball eight times in Iowa’s final four games, but he couldn’t be consistent on the cuts he made in fall camp that won him the job with ankle injuries. Kelly-Martin had enough speed to get an outside zone to the perimeter, but he wasn’t physical enough to break a tackle and make 3 yards into 8.

Sargent won the starting job at the end of 2018. Can he keep it?

“They're all able to bring something to the table,” Foster said. “I don’t want to lock someone into the ‘for sure’ guy. Mekhi is the starter, but when we’ve needed Toren Young to step in and be that guy, he’s been that guy for us.”

The thing that stands out for redshirt freshman Henry Geil is size. He’s 6-1, 215. He played in two games and rushed for 37 yards.

“I think now things are starting to slow down for him a bit,” Foster said. “He has a lot of room to grow on technique and fundamental things.”

You can see the wheels on Byrd and Goodson in their Hudl videos. They also come out of read-option offenses with a QB in shotgun probably 100 percent of the time. Byrd had 15 offers, including Louisville and North Carolina. Goodson had 32 offers, including Michigan State, Iowa State and Nebraska.

With three healthy veteran running backs last season, it felt like Iowa was in survival mode, especially with Kelly-Martin suffering an ankle injury in week 1.

With six running backs, it won’t be that way next year. The push will be more for “who can do this,” and not for “who’s left?”

“We had three backs that we feel pretty good about putting in the game, but the reality is we typically went into a game with two healthy, even when Ivory was dressed out,” Ferentz said. “I’m not sure he could have gone in and played effectively. It’s been a while other than practice recently, but it’s been a while since we’ve really seen him go. So that’s a tough deal for a back if he’s not ready, and I guess I’m just kind of leaning that direction where we can’t have too many backs, and I think both guys that we signed are really capable guys.

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“They’re going to come in and compete hard, and if they can enter into the mix, that would be a great thing for us.

“But you know, it’s a tough position.”

Ferentz era rushing totals ranked

1. 2002 — 553 rushes for 2,784 yards (214.2)

2. 2015 — 568 for 2,544 (181.7)

3. 2008 — 515 for 2,435 (188.7)

4. 2013 — 557 for 2339 (179.9)

5. 2003 — 535 for 2,241 (172.4)

6. 2016 — 502 for 2,234 (171.8)

7. 2014 — 514 for 2,120 (163.1)

8. 2001 — 488 for 2,104 (175.3)

9. 2005 — 436 for 2,096 (174.7)

10. (tie) 2010 — 449 for 1,929 (148.4)

2018 — 488 for 1,929 (148.4)

12. 2006 — 432 for 1,865 (143.5)

13. 2017 — 481 for 1,810 (139.2)

14. 2011 — 454 for 1,790 (137.7)

15. 2007 — 438 for 1,515 (126.2)

16. 2009 — 454 for 1,485 (114.2)

17. 2012 — 404 for 1,476 (123.0)

18. 2000 — 403 for 1,090 (90.8)

19. 1999 — 339 for 1.028 (93.5)

20. 2004 — 428 for 871 (72.6)

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

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