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The Best of the Black and Gold: BHGP Ranks the Greatest Running Backs of the Ferentz Era

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Behind every great rushing team is a star running back, and the Hawkeyes have seen several great runners come through the program during Ferentz’s time as the head man.

Outback Bowl Photo by Erik Campos/The State/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

This offseason, Black Heart Gold Pants is undertaking the unenviable task of ranking the greatest players of the Kirk Ferentz era. From 1999-2019, we’re emptying the memory banks, popping in the highlight tapes, and embracing the controversy as we try to determine who stands out as the best of the best. We’ll start by ranking the top five players at every position group before moving on to the top 25 players regardless of position. Rankings are based on college performance and do not take professional success into account.

Iowa has long held a reputation for being a run-first team, and that has not changed during the Kirk Ferentz era. Behind every great rushing team is a star running back, and the Hawkeyes have seen several great runners come through the program during Ferentz’s time as the head man. From the bruising battering rams to the shifty speedsters, these gifted ballcarriers have often served as the engine of the offenses on which they played and helped shape the entire identity of the team by enabling the Hawkeyes to control the clock for the duration of games.

Before we begin our rankings of the top five halfbacks, however, it’s important to acknowledge the players who line up directly in front of them but are behind much of their success: fullbacks. The fullback may be a dying position in college football, but it remains alive and well in Iowa City. Between the bulky lead blockers like Tom Busch and Brady Ross to the more versatile offensive weapons like Jeremy Allen and Edgar Cervantes, the Hawkeyes have been blessed with considerable talent at the fullback position. It’s fitting, however, that the most famous Ferentz-era fullback Mark Weisman is best known for his time playing at another position: tailback.

5. Albert Young (2004-2007)

Injuries derailed the first two years of Albert Young’s Hawkeye career, but the talented runner from New Jersey proved to Iowa fans that he was well worth the wait. Young emerged as the breakout offensive star of 2005, rushing for a Big Ten-leading 1,334 yards and 8 touchdowns on a career-high 249 carries. Young was never able to replicate these numbers again due to both declining offensive line play and the emergence of Damian Sims as a capable complimentary runner, but still managed to total 3,876 yards and 25 touchdowns from scrimmage over his career. Young’s 3,173 career rushing yards also rank him third in program history.

Young was virtually the only cog of Iowa’s 2007 offense that consistently worked. Despite playing behind a porous offensive line that surrendered 46 sacks, Young still managed to gain 1,180 yards from scrimmage and score 7 touchdowns. His crowning achievement that season came in his superhuman performance in Iowa’s win over Michigan State where he carried the ball 34 times for 179 yards and two touchdowns.

4. Akrum Wadley (2014-2017)

Like DJK last week, Akrum Wadley’s legacy is inevitably complicated by his deteriorating relationship with both the program and the fanbase in his post-playing days. But on the field, Wadley was one of the most dynamic offensive players to come through Iowa City since Tim Dwight and Tavian Banks left school in the 90s. Wadley ranks fifth in career rushing yards with 2,872 and fourth in career rushing touchdowns with 28, and his four rushing touchdowns against Northwestern in 2015 tie for the most by any Hawkeye player in a single game.

Wadley was an explosive ball-carrier who could make defenders miss in space, turn the corner and get to the outside, and absolutely torch opponents in the open field. He posted consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons in 2016 and 2017, but Wadley was also a dangerous weapon catching the ball out of the backfield, and the two most exciting plays of his career both came on receptions instead of hand-offs.

Wadley never earned higher than third-team All-Big Ten (a distinction he received in both 2016 and 2017), but few Hawkeye players during the Ferentz era could strike fear into the heart of opposing defenses quite like Wadley.

3. Ladell Betts (1998-2001)

Ladell Betts is the poster boy for perseverance and sustained excellence over the course of his college career. A four-year starter at Iowa, Betts was one of the lone bright spots for three dismal teams before earning co-MVP and second-team All-Big Ten honors after leading Iowa to its first bowl game in the Kirk Ferentz era. Betts was Iowa’s go-to offensive weapon for most of the season and posted huge games in pivotal wins against both Indiana and Minnesota to help the Hawkeyes reach six wins.

Betts was not the biggest, fastest, or most athletic running back to come through Iowa under Ferentz’s tenure, but he was certainly the most consistent. A gifted runner and receiver, Betts ranks fourth in career all-purpose yards with 4,397 in addition to being ranked second in career rushing yards (3,686) and fifth in career rushing touchdowns (25). He is also the only Hawkeye in program history to lead the team in rushing four consecutive seasons. Betts may not have won many games in the black and gold, but few fans can deny his impact or his worthiness of inclusion on this list.

2. Fred Russell (2000-2003)

There were few if any running backs smaller than Fred Russell, but very few Iowa running backs proved capable of leaving bigger footprints on the field than the 5-7 speedster from Michigan. Russell is one of the shiftiest running backs to ever pass through Iowa City, and relied on his lightning-quick footwork and fearless style of play to excel on the field. Hiding behind behemoth offensive linemen like Robert Gallery, Eric Steinbach, and Bruce Nelson, defenders often failed to spot Russell until it was too late to stop him.

Russell is the only running back of the Ferentz era to rush for over 1,200 yards in multiple seasons, and his success as a ballcarrier earned him first-team All-Conference honors in 2002 and a second-team distinction in 2003. Russell ranks sixth in program history in career rushing yards (2,760) despite leaving school before his senior year and is the only running back to make two appearances in the list of Iowa’s top ten single-season rushing totals. His 194 rushing yards on an incredible 11.4 yards-per-carry against Minnesota in 2002 helped the Hawkeyes clinch a share of the Big Ten title,

while his MVP performance against Florida in the Outback Bowl served as a perfect coda to his fantastic Hawkeye career.

Yet as great as Russell was during his time in the black and gold, there was no chance of him unseating the player who unanimously claimed our top spot in the rankings. This fan favorite emerged as the surprise of college football in 2008, coming out of absolutely nowhere to produce one of the greatest seasons by any ballcarrier in Hawkeye History.

Paki O’Meara!!!

Penn State v Iowa Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

1. Shonn Greene (2005-2006, 2008)

When Shonn Green left Iowa after the 2006 season, nobody expected him to ever rejoin the team, let alone that he would win the Doak Walker Award, Jim Brown Trophy, and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award, earn first-team All-Big Ten and All-American honors, and finish sixth in Heisman voting.

What made Greene the obvious choice for the #1 spot?

“The numbers, the hardware and the Gang Greene shirt in my closet. And the memories. Man it would be nice to have a Doak Walker Award winner more often.” -JPinIC

“His transformation from furniture mover to All-American was a frequent story all season, and one that makes his incredible year even more memorable.”- tNels20

Greene was a battering ram incarnate. Virtually impossible to bring down with one defender, Greene was an unstoppable force who ran with a combination of violence and grace rarely seen in college football. Greene was the only running back in the country to rush for 100+ yards in every game in 2008 and set single-season program records for rushing yards (1,850) and rushing touchdowns (20) while averaging a whopping six yards-per-carry. Greene’s highlights are simply too numerous to mention in one article, but they include a 217 yard four-TD performance against Wisconsin and a 211 yard game against Purdue that saw him absolutely rip the soul out of one poor Boilermaker defender over the course of the afternoon.

One of the biggest “what-ifs” in program history is what the 2009 Hawkeyes might have accomplished had Greene returned to school instead of forgoing his senior year for the NFL. Still, while other Hawkeye running backs had longer, more productive careers, no Iowa ballcarrier can match the magic of what Shonn Greene accomplished in 2008.

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BHGP Composite Rankings:

5th (tied)- Albert Young

5th (tied)- Fred Russell

3rd- Akrum Wadley

2nd- Ladell Betts

1st- Shonn Greene

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Stop by next week to see our ranking of the players who put the “gold” in “black and gold”: quarterbacks.