IOWA CITY — No matter how many times you tumble the dice through roller in the big game of Iowa running back Yahtzee, Toren Young’s No. 28 is going come up.
Probably on four of the five dice. Maybe all five.
Iowa is about halfway through spring practice and Young, a 5-11, 221-pound redshirt sophomore, seems poised to be the featured back, or at least the back who sees the majority of the carries. One of those. Fellow sophomore Ivory Kelly-Martin is set up to be the change-of-pace back or running back No. 2. He’s 5-10 and 200 pounds.
You’re seeing it now. Young and Kelly-Martin are maybe a LeShun Daniels-Akrum Wadley starter kit. That duo combined for 2,139 yards in 2016. It’s too early to say where this will go exactly, but the blueprint for Iowa running back 2018 involves Young and Kelly-Martin.
And it really involves Young, who’s not a total newbie at this. The Madison, Wis., native rushed 45 times for 193 yards and two TDs last season.
As a redshirt sophomore, Young also now is the senior voice in the Iowa running backs room, which has plenty of space this spring with only four scholarship running backs available. Also, fullbacks have been shuffled into the tight ends group and are now coached by offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
Derrick Foster is in his first months as Iowa’s running backs coach. He’s happy to have Young, a veteran face who’s well aware of and totally working on being the guy who says and does the right things with his teammates.
“I definitely lean on him a lot,” Foster said during a Tuesday news conference. “I want to make sure he manages the room as a player. I try to give those guys some accountability and he’s the one I make sure takes on that role and has full responsibility.
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“... He’s way ahead of his years. He’s a mature young man who accepts accountability and leads by example. Those are the things he prides himself on and those are things we see in him. I think the guys do look at Toren as a big brother and a leader.”
Young wants to be exactly that.
“It definitely feels weird,” Young said of being Iowa’s oldest back in terms of age and experience. “It is different, but it’s kind of exciting being put in that leadership role.”
One question with Young that will remain a question until next fall is why he didn’t get more carries in 2017?
Sure, part of this was the players ahead of him. Akrum Wadley was one of the most productive backs of the Ferentz era. In the last two seasons, Wadley finished fourth and fifth in the Big Ten in yards from scrimmage (112.5 yards a game in 2017; 107.4 in 2016). Since 2011, only one other Hawkeye has finished in the top five of the league in that category (running back Jordan Canzeri had 99.3 yards from scrimmage per game in 2015).
And then, senior graduate transfer James Butler started the season ahead of Young. Butler sustained an elbow injury against North Texas and missed four games. During that stretch, Iowa went 1-3, failed to rush for 100 yards in all three losses and gained just 381 rushing yards (3.2 yards on 119 carries).
You’ll find few new starters on Iowa’s roster who have a bigger, brighter green light than Young.
Young said he’s worked on timing, finding tempo and reading run keys. There is nuance to running back. Timing is crucial. Some of that has been Young’s offseason homework.
“You can be too late or you can be too early,” Young said. “Most of it comes down to finding that good tempo. You get that through practice reps. Read and press your keys. Those D-linemen, they like to two gap a lot. That’s one of the toughest situations. They’re two gapping and you make a cut too fast and they jump and they’re right there.
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“That’s been my biggest challenge, just slowing it down, pressing it and letting things develop.”
In Young, Iowa should have a back whose style of play fits what the Hawkeyes need. Young will break tackles. He’s not going to dance.
Kelly-Martin, on the other hand, might dance.
“Toren is a bigger back, he’s more of a downhill runner, direct power. His vision is really good,” Foster said. “I think with Ivory, he’s very elusive. He has some suddenness and quickness between the tackles and is able to make guys miss in tight spaces, whereas Toren, if you’re in his way, he might run over you.”
The road map is there for the power back/slasher approach that Iowa has employed since 2011. That year, Marcus Coker rushed for 1,384 yards on 280 carries. Since then, Iowa has had two backs with 100-plus carries until last season, when Butler’s injury kept him nine carries short of 100 (Wadley’s 252 carries were the most for an Iowa back since Coker 2011).
Of course, any talk of Iowa making it through a season using just two running backs is fantasy football. You know Iowa will need more than two. Right now, redshirt freshman Kyshaun Bryan probably is No. 3 with redshirt freshman Camron Harrell seeing carries this spring. Incoming freshman Henry Geil will be here in August.
This begs the question, with just four running backs this spring, can the running backs coach afford to put players in the doghouse? For example, last season, Kelly-Martin fumbled against Illinois and then didn’t see another carry for six games.
Foster kind of laughed. You can tell this is something he’s thought about.
“You get creative, you have to,” Foster said with a laugh. “Most of the time, you don’t beat them up too badly about it, but you make sure he understands the magnitude of ‘we don’t turn over the ball.’
“One thing I say is make sure you give the ball to the ref after the play. That shows I protected the football as well as I should have. But to your point on that, you have to be smart about it, you have to teach it. ... I might pull him for a couple of reps, get another guy in there and then I’ll get him right back in. You want to build that confidence.”
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