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Assume the Position 2009: Running Back

It's about that time again.  For the next three months, BHGP will be previewing this year's Iowa Hawkeyes, position-by-position.  Naturally, as the earth revolves around the sun, things will change.  Therefore, we're starting with the position where we are most certain, and ending with the position of which we are least certain.  To date:

1. Quarterback
2. Offensive Tackle
3. Safety
4. Linebacker
5. Tight End

Tonight: Running Back

Shonn Greene wasn't the only halfback wearing a cape

How do you replace Shonn Greene?  How do you even start?

In case you forgot, Shonn Greene just had the greatest single season by an Iowa halfback since Nile Kinnick, put up 1800 yards rushing, had more than 100 yards in every game, won the Doak Walker and Big Ten MVP, should have been in contention for the Heisman, and shouldered the load for the most run-heavy Iowa offense of the decade.

So, again, how do you replace that?  The first step: Form a committee.

The Starter, We Think

Jewel Hampton (#27, 5'9", 210, Sophomore) - On its face, Jewel Hampton is the obvious choice at halfback.  He's the only non-PAKIBOMB halfback with experience, after all.  He showed flashes of brilliance last year, especially against Indiana and Minnesota.  He's at the top of the depth chart on July 20.

There are reasons to be concerned about Hampton, though, reasons big enough to question whether he will be the opening day starter:

  • Size - Hampton's frame isn't exactly Greene-esque, which is fine; Fred Russell wasn't a large man by any stretch of the imagination.  The problem is, Hampton is built like a bowling ball, and runs more like Greene than Russell.  The shiftiness and elusiveness might be there in small quantities (just ask Minnesota), but he could take a pounding this year running between the tackles.  It wouldn't be a big deal, except for...
  • Injuries - I don't need to remind you of Hampton's offseason injury issues, but I will anyway.  He entered spring camp with a hamstring pull and missed the first few practices.  He then picked up an undisclosed injury late in the spring and missed another couple of practices.  Of course, that was followed by the phantom ACL tear.  Only the late spring injury was contact-related, which is a good sign; he might be able to take the pounding.
  • Experience - Hampton might have 91 carries more than his closest competitor, but 91 carries does not a career make.  Throw in the nagging injuries that kept him out of spring, and the distinct possibility that he could miss a portion of August camp, and the experience gap might not be as significant as we assumed.

Put it all together, and I don't think we're certain that Hampton is the starter.  It's still more likely than not, of course, and Hampton will get significant playing time regardless.  Just don't buy that #27 jersey quite yet.

The Posse

Jeff Brinson (#44, 5'11", 215, Freshman (RS)) - Ah, the excitement of expectation.  Brinson has been the subject of puff piece after puff piece this offseason, and rightfully so.  He was a universal 3-star prospect from St. Petersburg, Florida who stuck with Iowa despite a late push by the Gators and 'Noles.  Brinson entered fall camp last year with a decent chance of avoiding the redshirt and taking the backup role, but was injured and missed a week.  That injury effectively forced the redshirt, ended his season, and vaulted Hampton into the depth chart.

Without a spring game, it's hard to get a bead on Brinson's running style, especially given the fact that he comes out of a single wing high school offense.  All indications are that he could play thunder to Hampton's lightning, picking up the bruising between-the-tackles yards when needed.  He enters fall third on the depth chart, but make no mistake; with a good (and injury-free) fall camp, it's not out of the question he grabs the top line.

Paki O'Meara (#25, 5'11", 211, Junior) - On the other hand, DAS PAKIBOMB will not be the starting halfback.  He's been in the program for two non-redshirt years.  He carried the ball 21 times last season for a less-than-spectacular 62 yards, and exhibited none of the elusiveness or power needed from a top-line halfback.  With that said, he was excellent in blitz pickup as a third-down backfield option (he was also, arguably, the best backfield receiver on the team), and a revelation on special teams.  Barring a metamorphosis never before seen, expect more of the same.

Brandon Wegher (#3, 5'11", 206, Freshman) - Speaking of expectations, the crown jewel of the 2009 recruiting class has already been told he's returning kicks; with the redshirt burned, some time at halfback is inevitable.  If he even approaches the hype, it should be something special.

Wegher comes to Iowa via Sioux City Heelan, not exactly a football factory.  As we said on signing day:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the most highly-regarded incoming Iowa halfback since Jermelle Lewis.  Brandon Wegher comes to campus fresh off a 3A state championship, and burdened with all the expectations of a fanbase desperate for a Tim Dwight sequel.

First, on that high school championship: It's not as if Wegher was a part of the Heelan offense; he was the offense.  He ran for 3,238 yards (all-time Iowa record) on 362 carries, caught 9 passes for another 110, racked up 54 touchdowns (another all-time Iowa record), and kicked the field goals for good measure.  The Legend of Brandon Wegher was already well-known in western Iowa entering this season, but any doubt about his ability left the building two weeks into the season.  Harlan entered its game with Sioux City Heelan as the traditional 3A football powerhouse, with a win over Heelan in the prior season.  Wegher dropped 330 yards on them.  Nobody even came close to beating Heelan the rest of the way.  Heelan's playoff run generated some of the most hyperbolic newspaper writing of the year.

Wegher is the most recent - and most heralded - product of Iowa's continuing recruiting inroads into western Iowa and eastern Nebraska.  Once the exclusive territory of Nebraska and Iowa State, western Iowa is now some of the most fertile Hawkeye recruiting ground in the country, providing Wegher this year and two highly-coveted commits already for next season.  Say what you will about Reese Morgan as a line coach - let's not kid ourselves, the line is coached by Ferentz at least as much as Morgan - but his in-state recruiting success is unparalleled by any coach in school history.

Could See the Field

Jayme Murphy (#17, 5'11", 210, Junior) - It appears as if the experiment with safety is over, though nobody seems quite sure why.  Rather than stay in the defensive backfield and provide much-needed depth, Murphy is now the fifth or sixth in line to the running back spot.  Fortunately, the position change didn't sap him of his ability as special teams guided missile.  Expect more of the same.

Adam Robinson (#32, 5'9", 205, Freshman (RS)) - He's a halfback.  He's a safety.  He's a halfback again.  He might be a slot receiver.  Either nobody knows what is going on with Robinson, or those who do aren't saying anything.  Likely a special teamer and possible change-of-pace.

The Fullbacks

Brett Morse (#36, 6'3", 236, Junior) - Morse, like so many Iowa fullbacks before him, won a place in my heart sometime around week 2, when, after whiffing on two goalline blocks midway throught the first quarter against Florida International, he returned to the huddle, punched himself in the side of the head repeatedly, then crushed a safety in the hole to spring Greene across the goal line.

As Morehouse documented, fullback production has declined consistently since 2001, to the point where Morse could play an entire season as a starter and only carry the ball 5 times.  You can't really expect more this year; not even Tom Busch got double-digit carries.

Wade Leppert (#47, 6'0", 245, Sophomore) - I'd skip him (after all, how many fullbacks are we really going to use?), but I love this story:

Not long before last season started, Leppert, a 6-0, 235-pounder from Mundelein (Ill.) High School, was a total outsider. As a four-year starter at linebacker and fullback in high school, Leppert was a pure fullback. He wrote letters to Ferentz and the Iowa staff, basically begging for a shot.

"I asked (running backs coach) Lester (Erb), who is this guy and why is he bothering us?" Ferentz said. Then, in two December practices last fall, Leppert opened eyes.

"That’s when I asked, OK, who’s this Leppert guy again? Where did he come from?" Ferentz said. "(Fullback) is what he’s built for, it’s what he wanted to do."

Tenacity, thy name is Leppert.  Too bad he won't see significant time until he's senior.