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Iowa Football 2019 Position Previews: Running Back

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If Iowa’s ground game is to improve in 2019, it has to start with the players carrying the rock.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Northwestern at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Iowa Hawkeyes have always operated with a run-first offense during the Ferentz era, and that game plan seems unlikely to change as Kirk enters his 21st year as head coach. What has changed, however, is Iowa’s ability to run the ball as successfully as it has in years past. Looking at the national rankings for rushing yards per game, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns over the past four seasons, it becomes clear that Iowa’s running game has been experiencing something of a backslide (per CFB Stats):

How Iowa’s Run Game Stacks up Nationally

Year YPG YPC Rush TDs
Year YPG YPC Rush TDs
2015 49th 59th 12th
2016 67th 65th 71st
2017 97th 104th 84th
2018 95th 94th 88th

While the Hawkeyes did improve their ground game slightly in 2018 after a frustrating season full of seven and eight-man fronts, Iowa has still experienced a precipitous decline in the both the output and efficiency of its running game since winning the Big Ten West in 2015. No game better summed of the frustration surrounding this element of Iowa’s offense than its matchup against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl, when Iowa’s three running backs combined for 4 yards on 11 carries, or an average of .36 YPC.

While Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley does return for his senior season, the departure of All-Big Ten tight ends Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson will deprive the passing game of its two most consistent targets and two of the most dangerous mismatches the Hawkeye passing game has been able to deploy in years. For Iowa’s offense to take a step forward in 2019, its running backs will be asked to show much greater consistency. Whether this improvement will be led by one player or by a committee has yet to be determined.

The veterans:

If one player emerges as the feature back in 2019, Mekhi Sargent seems to be the most likely of the returning running backs to do so. Sargent is the most balanced of the running backs on Iowa’s roster; he has the strength to break tackles, can make defenders miss in space, can catch the ball out of the backfield, and displayed excellent vision throughout his first season with the Hawkeyes. Sargent was Iowa’s lone offensive spark for much of the game against Penn State, often generating big plays at times when the rest of the unit appeared unable to do so.

However, Sargent’s finest hour came in Iowa’s win over Nebraska, when the sophomore took over the game and repeatedly gouged the Husker defense for big gains on the ground.

As a junior college transfer and a late addition to Iowa’s 2018 recruiting class, Sargent learned Iowa’s offense on the fly last season, which might explain why some of his strongest performances came during the latter half of the year. With a full offseason under his belt, Sargent will be counted on to show real improvement entering his junior year, and should have every opportunity to secure the starting job during fall camp.

Another player in contention for carries is Toren Young, the bruising 225 lb. junior and Iowa’s resident power back. Young is a load to bring down and displayed an ability to run through tackles that was unmatched by his peers.

Young’s acceleration leaves something to be desired, but he has decent speed once he is able to get a head of steam behind him, and he has shown just enough nimbleness and body control to provide hope that he can improve his ability to beat defenders in space.

With only eight catches to his name, Young has not shown himself to be much of a receiver at this point in his career. His lack of receiving prowess often seemed to cut into his playing time, as Young frequently found himself taken off the field in obvious passing situations. Still, even if Young fails to display other complimentary skills during his junior year, he has managed to find the end zone eight times over the past two seasons, and his powerful running style and ability to fight through contact to gain extra yards should guarantee him a role in goal line and short yardage situations.

Finally, Ivory Kelly-Martin should have an opportunity to regain the starting job that he lost over the course of the season. After showing promise as a freshman and emerging as a standout during fall camp, Kelly-Martin struggled with nagging injuries and fumble problems last season, falling outside the top two spots on the depth chart by the time spring practice rolled around. Still, there is a lot to like about Kelly-Martin’s potential, starting with his speed.

Kelly-Martin is not only fast enough to turn the corner and beat defenders in the straight-away, but he also hits his top-end speed remarkably quickly, giving him a burst off the line of scrimmage that none of Iowa’s returning backs can match. He has also displayed soft hands as a receiver, and Iowa’s coaches felt comfortable moving him into the slot at times last year.

If Kelly-Martin can improve his ability to run through contact, secure the football, and stay healthy, he will have an opportunity to make good on the potential he displayed in the leadup to the 2018 season.

The young guns:

Iowa’s younger players will also have a real shot to work their way into the rotation in 2019. The leading contender among Iowa’s fresh faces is incoming freshman Tyler Goodson, who drew comparisons to Akrum Wadley throughout his recruitment. Goodson was an absolute stud at North Gwinett High School in Georgia, and his speed, shiftiness, and skill as a receiver may very well allow him to overtake Iowa’s veterans by season’s end.

Also new to the fold is Shadrick Byrd, a tough-running 5’10, 210 lb. back out of Alabama. Unlike Goodson, Byrd made his way to Iowa City this spring and was able to participate in practice with his new teammates, where he managed to turn some heads. Ivory Kelly-Martin praised Byrd for, “running the ball like an Iowa running back right off the bat,” and our recruiting writeup of Byrd noted his patience, and backfield vision even as a high school player; maybe Byrd will be mature beyond his years and ready to contribute from day one?

Iowa fans should recognize at least one of Iowa’s freshmen running backs this year, as Henry Geil saw the field in two games during his redshirt season. Geil didn’t show much in his limited action (15 carries for 37 yards, 2.47 average), but he had a decorated prep career coming out of Green Bay, and the coaching staff thought highly enough of him to give him carries as a true freshman. With a full year under his belt, Geil should have a real shot to crack the rotation in 2019.

Samson Evans, a fellow redshirt in 2018, has been described as both a wide receiver and a running back at various points throughout his career at Iowa, but is currently listed as a running back on Iowa’s official roster and thus deserves mentioning here. Evans won multiple Player of the Year awards as a high school quarterback in Illinois and is as athletic as any player on the roster but may need a bit more seasoning before he is ready to emerge as a regular contributor as a skill player. If Evans finds his way onto the field this year, it will likely be in a role similar to those that Jonathan Parker and Paul Chaney Jr. had previously; getting the ball on plays like jet sweeps, screens, and reverses designed to put him in space.

Nolan Donald and Keontae Luckett are walk-ons who are likely to either redshirt or play exclusively on special teams, so unless a certain running back-hating deity is feeling especially wrathful this year, they aren’t expected to compete for carries.

Don’t forget about the fullbacks!

If Iowa’s running game is going to take a step forward this season, the players who line up directly in front of the tailbacks will have to bring their ‘A’ game as well. Senior Brady Ross seems like a lock for the starting job, and his strong play throughout 2018 certainly warrants him receiving the benefit of the doubt. Ross missed seven games to injury as a junior but threw some great blocks while he was on the field and managed to touch the ball ten times through six games, a fairly high usage rate for an Iowa fullback.

Sophomore Joe Ludwig is set to serve as Ross’ backup and managed to see the field in six games in 2018. Turner Pallissard and Johnny Plewa (whose brother Macon also played fullback at Iowa) are also on hand to provide much-needed depth.

Iowa was one of only fourteen teams not to have a single rushing play of 50+ yards last season, and their only play of 40+ yards came in their season opener against a team from the MAC. It’s safe to say that Iowa’s running game needs to improve in 2019, but fortunately the Hawkeyes will have no shortage of contenders ready to lead those efforts.