Iowa Football

Iowa running backs: Ivory Kelly-Martin won camp

The Hawkeyes will need all three running backs, they always do

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Ivory Kelly-Martin (21) is photographed at the Hawkeyes’ football media day Aug. 10, 2018, at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes running back Ivory Kelly-Martin (21) is photographed at the Hawkeyes’ football media day Aug. 10, 2018, at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Ivory Kelly-Martin had a camp. And now Iowa has a change atop the running back depth chart.

You can quibble about what “depth chart” even means with Iowa running back. Kelly-Martin and fellow sophomores Toren Young and Mehki Sargent will play. Iowa will need all three.

But this is a genuine change on the depth chart. Iowa listed Young in the top spot through spring and going into camp. On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Kelly-Martin will be the back behind center in the opener. Qualified starter. Again, Iowa is going to need all three.

“One thing he does really well is catch the ball out of the backfield, so that gives him a third-down element,” Ferentz said. “The flip side is sometimes you have those guys on third down who do a great job coming out of the backfield and catching the ball, but they’re not so good at stepping up in the A gap (around the center) when we need to be in a six- or seven-man protection.

“He can do that and that gives him the added element of really being a four-down player for us and that’s a pretty good deal.”

Sometimes some info trickles out of camp. Kelly-Martin has shown good vision, isn’t afraid to duck into the smallest crease and finishes runs. The 5-10, 200-pounder from Plainfield, Ill., did average 9.2 yards on 20 carries last season. Yes, it was in rout time, but 9.2 yards per carry is an attention-getter.

“I think right now if we opened the season, he’s going to be behind center and carrying the football,” Ferentz said. “Like I said, there are two other guys we feel good about carrying the ball. That’s a good problem to have.”

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People probably should’ve seen this coming. Kelly-Martin did start the spring game. He also started and tied Sargent for the most carries with 12 in the open scrimmage on Aug. 11.

What else? Like Akrum Wadley, Iowa’s template for the undersized, quick back, Kelly-Martin played gunner on punt unit last season and made four tackles. Also like Wadley, he did have a fumble against Illinois and that kept the ball out of his hands for five games.

We’re not going to make this about fumbles. One isn’t a lot. His next carries came at Nebraska, when he rushed for 90 yards on six carries and scored one of his three TDs.

Let’s start with that. What was it like to get the next carry?

“It was good,” Kelly-Martin said with a laugh. “It was a lot better, that’s for sure. When you do something like, it’s bad and coaches will move you back a little bit. But we’ve put in a lot of work, we know it can’t happen. Coaches need to have that level of trust.”

Moving on.

Kelly-Martin has moved to the next stage of his development.

“I feel comfortable in this offense, I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I know it front and back,” he said. “We learn new things every single day. It’s constant building and learning new things. You have to know what you can do. You have to know your role on the team.”

One thing about Iowa running back this season is new position coach Derrick Foster. Sometimes, when there’s a new coach, that’s a fresh set of eyes on the position. In this case, Brian Ferentz served as the running backs coach last year (his first as Iowa’s offensive coordinator). So, this is a lot of educated eyes on Iowa running back.

That’s a big “yes” vote for Kelly-Martin. He stood up in camp, which might be when it matters the most.

“I’m working on everything,” he said. “Every day I pick something new to try to improve on. If we improve on one thing every single day, we’ll improve as a football team.”

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Generally, Iowa’s trio of running backs cover the bases for what Iowa usually wants to be in the running game. The generalization that head coach Kirk Ferentz only has eyes for the big backs is simply not true. That question was answered with Fred Russell in 2002 and the door was slammed shut on the topic forever by Jordan Canzeri and Wadley.

Kelly-Martin and Sargent fit this role. At 5-11 and 221 pounds, Young is the power back, possibly short yardage and probably more than just that.

Yes, Kelly-Martin has won camp, but the door always will be open.

“In my experience, that stuff just kind of works out,” Brian Ferentz said. “You go back to I guess 2015, you had Jordan Canzeri just less than 1,000 yards (984), I’m not sure what Akrum finished with (496) and then LeShun (Daniels) was over a thousand maybe (646), I don’t know, but you had three guys who took the bulk of the work that year. Shoot, there were various points in the year where only one of them was getting carries. ... I think it’ll work itself out, but when you have three guys in the stable who are healthy, then it’s a matter of who has the hot hand and where things are at in a certain point of the game. That’s how those things kind of shake out.”

From these three backs to the offensive line, everyone is intent on breathing some life into the running game. It didn’t hit standard last season. Iowa’s 3.76 yards per carry was its worst since 3.65 in 2012.

In games against teams with fast-paced offenses, Iowa likes to sit on the ball with the running game. It failed to rush for 100 yards in all five losses last season.

“If we’re going to be successful here, we need to run the football and we have to be able to do it when everyone knows we’re going to do it. Otherwise, we have no chance,” Brian Ferentz said. “You look at the way we rushed the football last year, that’s not going to be good enough to win at a consistent or championship level in our league. That’s what we’re striving for.

“ ... If we can’t establish the running game from the opening snap of the season to the closing whistle of game 12, I think it’s going to be hard for us to have any sustained success offensively.”

Huddle Up: Iowa Running backs

RUNNING BACKS — This could end up looking like 2015. That was an excellent comparison by offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Iowa had a big back in LeShun Daniels. That’s Toren Young. Iowa had two smaller, quicker backs in Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley. Canzeri had 32.2 percent of the Hawkeyes’ carries (183); Daniels 25.5 percent (145) and Wadley had 6.8 percent (83). Don’t tattoo that anywhere. Way too many variables for that.

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Ivory Kelly-Martin — Has the wiggle instinct. Has some power. Doesn’t have great size. Maybe a Mighty Mouse kind of back. He had a great camp and let’s see where that goes.

Toren Young — He’s too invested not to have an impact on this team. Iowa has drifted into backs who can do well in space and who are viable receiving targets. Young has fluidity that helps him as a receiver. He also has 221 pounds that will help him be a runner.

Mekhi Sargent — If Sargent really hits it with the Hawkeyes, you have to credit Iowa Western for helping him develop. Sargent took his redshirt year at the Council Bluffs community college after rushing for 4,821 yards at Key West (Fla.) High School. He didn’t get any major offers. After his redshirt season, Sargent earned first-team juco all-American with 1,449 yards. He dropped some weight at Iowa Western and kept his power (31-inch vertical his senior year at a scouting event).

FULLBACKS — Brian Ferentz is coaching tight ends and fullbacks this year. That could lead to a few more touches for the big fellas, but their primary mission will be blocking. Iowa has made fullback a tandem position the last few years. It could go that way again this year. One thing, you’ll probably see more tight ends in the backfield and that could hack into the fullback position’s snap count.

Brady Ross — The 6-0, 245-pounder can move for someone who’s built like an oven on wheels. At Kids Day, the first two plays the first-team offense ran were checkdowns to Ross. He snagged both. Good hands, good athlete. And, of course, he has the banger mentality fullback needs.

Austin Kelly — Steady special teams player. Solid-looking fullback body.

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

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