Iowa Football

Iowa might have enough running backs for a S.W.A.T. team

If this competition doesn't produce a reliable, go-to back or backs, it will be picked on all season

Iowa Hawkeyes running back coach Derrick Foster (right) gives some pointers to running back Henry Geil (30) during a ball retention 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 (right) gives some pointers to running back Henry Geil (30) during a ball retention 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 — Some of the conversation with Iowa’s running game and running backs dealt with standards.

The numbers that seemed to register most deeply were 4.5 yards per carry and 150 yards per game. Now, Iowa can win without hitting these numbers, but, generally, Iowa doesn’t control a game without getting somewhere close to 4.5 and 150.

And then Iowa has to win games by doing things outside of its comfort zone. Yes, like throw the ball. It also drains margin of error from defense and special teams.

So, at 3.95 yards per carry and 148.4 yards per game last season, maybe Iowa was closer to standard than everyone thought. What allowed Iowa to make that work, however, was quarterback Nate Stanley’s 142.3 passer rating on third down (fourth in the Big Ten).

Don’t try to fit all avenues of success through Iowa’s rushing numbers, but the offensive line coach feels better at 4.5 yards per carry.

“In my mind as an O-line, we take a goal into each game, that’s 4.5 and you’d like to see 150 yards rushing,” offensive line coach Tim Polasek said this week. “Those numbers don’t correlate with wins and losses. That’s more about the explosive plays, red-zone efficiency and third-down production.”

Running backs coach Derrick Foster wants to take the 4 yards the O-line clears and add 2 or 3 more.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“I think that’s really important and a realistic goal for us,” Foster said. “It’s definitely doable. I think we have to take that next step forward say, ‘Hey man, I’m going to make more than they block.’”

You can’t launch a post on Iowa running backs 2019 without talking about the lack of explosive plays in 2018. The Hawkeye running backs produced just six rushing plays of more than 20 yards. Iowa had seven (wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette took a jet sweep 20-plus on one attempt) and finished last in the Big Ten. In the three seasons before, the Hawkeyes had 17, 18 and 20 20-plus runs.

More than anything else, that was the difference between having a back of Akrum Wadley’s caliber and not having a back of Akrum Wadley’s caliber. Wadley accounted for 3,633 yards and scored 35 TDs in three seasons.

This is year two without Wadley. Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin had the stage last season. They’ll share it with Henry Geil, Tyler Goodson and Shadrick Byrd.

“They all have these nice cars they really want,” said Foster, who’s in his second season at Iowa. “I told them you have speed zones. You have to understand when it’s time to hit the gas and when it’s time to be patient.”

The spring depth chart has Sargent on top with Young No. 2. Kelly-Martin is working back from injury, a familiar theme he’d love to leave in 2018.

On one hand, Sargent’s 2018 was kind of remarkable. He transferred in from Iowa Western Community College in early June. He downloaded as much of the offense as he could and led Iowa with 745 rushing yards and nine TDs.

Sargent’s 360 yards in November was almost as many Wadley produced in November 2017 (378).

More is expected.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

“There’s competition in the room, definitely,” Sargent said. “Every day, we’re studying our film and getting into our playbook. It’s non-stop. We’ve been competing the whole offseason in the weight room.”

Sargent liked how he ran through tackles last season. As the season went on, he said his patience improved. That’s the “speed zones” thing Foster talked about. Running backs find out quickly what the difference between patience and hesitation is. That was a lesson Iowa’s backs took in last season. First thing Foster talked about in what he saw was indecisive eyes.

“There were some games where I didn’t know what my O-linemen were doing at all,” Sargent said. “I was just trying to get to my read. This year, I’ve studied with the O-line. I feel like I know which guy I have to make miss.”

In regard to Kelly-Martin, injury took a major bite out of his 2018. He suffered an ankle injury in the opener. It lingered the entire season. He also had a concussion about a third of the way through the season.

Kelly-Martin never really got to show the world the running back who pretty much won the job in camp last fall. After 24 carries for 98 yards against Maryland, Kelly-Martin only had 23 carries over the last six games.

No back in 2018 took root. Young eclipsed double digit carries just four times. You thought maybe he was the odd man out, but then in the season finale against Nebraska, Young rushed 18 times for 83 yards and a TD.

This is a job that’s dying to be won. And we’re not talking about a photo finish. This job is begging to be grabbed by the facemask. That’s the kind of opportunity that brought a pair of running backs from Alabama (Byrd) and Georgia (Goodson) to Iowa.

A quick review of Byrd, a 5-10, 212-pounder who’s already on campus, from Kelly-Martin: “Definitely a strong runner. I give him props for coming early and right out of high school and actually running the ball like an Iowa running back right off the bat. That’s what he’s been doing.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Is six backs enough? Is it too many? That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Is it overreaction to last season? Iowa didn’t really have three running backs for much of 2018. The margin for error evaporated with Kelly-Martin’s injuries. Most weeks, Iowa went into a weekend with just two healthy running backs.

“I think that’s plenty. That adds some value of depth in the room,” Foster said. “ ... You look at last year, we only had two running backs we could truly rely on. We only had two guys with real-time game experience. It got slim really quickly.

“I think with having six, that allows you to have some depth and feel a little more comfortable with the guys going into the game. I think with the style we play, you definitely need some depth at this position for sure.”

What’s really happening is competition. Don’t buy a 2019 Iowa running back’s jersey. Well, don’t buy it in July. Let it play out.

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

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.