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Iowa Football 2021 Position Previews: Running Back

If Iowa’s offense hopes to take a step forward this season, its running backs will need to prove that they can carry an even greater load.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

While Iowa’s coaching staff places a premium on achieving offensive balance, the cornerstone of the Hawkeye offense has always been its running game. A strong ground attack allows Iowa to control the clock, enables its powerful offensive linemen to wear down opponents, and minimizes the opportunities for drive-killing sacks and turnovers. Factor in an offensive coordinator who once remarked that he wished the Hawkeyes could run the ball 70% of the time, and one can easily see why the ground game is such an important component of Iowa’s offensive scheme.

Fortunately, Iowa’s coaches have no shortage of talented options to choose from in the running game this season. A dynamic starter, veteran backup, and two promising redshirt freshmen offer the Hawkeyes a versatile array of weapons to deploy at tailback when they keep the ball on the ground, while their hard-hitting fullback is poised to build on on his promising sophomore campaign and create ample running opportunities for his teammates. If Iowa’s offense hopes to take a step forward this season, its running backs will need to prove that they can carry an even greater load in both the running and passing game.

Any conversation about Iowa’s running back room starts and ends with Tyler Goodson. A first-team All-Conference selection in 2020, Tyler Goodson led the Hawkeyes in rushing years (762), total yards (914), and touchdowns from scrimmage (7) last season, establishing himself as one of the most dynamic sophomore running backs in the country.

A versatile player who can line up virtually anywhere on the field, Goodson is a threat to make plays as both a runner and a receiver and added a new dimension to the Hawkeye offense last season when he began receiving direct snaps out of the wildcat formation. Goodson will likely be the primary focus of most opposing defenses in 2021, so it will be up to the coaching staff to find creative ways to ensure the talented junior back gets sufficient touches in space.

As Goodson vies to join the pantheon of the best running backs of the Ferentz era, he will have new resource to assist him in that quest in 2021, someone who has already accomplished that feat himself as a player. New running back coach Ladell Betts, who totaled over 4,300 yards from scrimmage over his four year career at Iowa before spending nearly a decade in the NFL, has already earned positive reviews from Goodson, and it will be fascinating to see whether Betts can help Goodson take his game to the next level this season. Is Goodson can make the leap from an All-Big Ten caliber running back to a legitimate All-American contender, Iowa’s offense could see a huge spike in production in 2021.

The Hawkeyes also have an experienced option behind Goodson who can rotate in to help keep the star ballcarrier fresh. Ivory Kelly-Martin returns for his fifth year in the Hawkeye program and is hoping to avoid the injury bug that has hampered his production for the past several seasons. Kelly-Martin showed great promise scoring three rushing touchdowns on an impressive 9.2 yards per carry average as a freshman and actually started the 2018 campaign as Iowa’s lead back before injuries saw him supplanted by Mekhi Sargent.

Iowa’s coaches remain high on Kelly-Martin (Kirk Ferentz commented this fall that he views the fifth-year senior as a second starter for the Hawkeyes much in the same way Sargent was in 2020), and if he can manage to stay healthy he could rediscover the form that had fans so excited about him entering the 2018 season. Kelly-Martin occasionally lined up next to Goodson in the wildcat formation last season, and a healthy dose of that scheme could increase the number of snaps in which both players are on the field together this year.

The Hawkeyes also have two intriguing young options who could compete for carries at tailback. Redshirt freshman Gavin Williams was one of Iowa’s spring standouts and has added some needed quickness and agility to complement his aggressive downhill running style. While Goodson and Kelly-Martin run with more of an explosive burst, the 6’0, 211 lb. Williams could earn reps as a short-yardage or change of pace option in 2021. Fellow redshirt freshman Leshon Williams (no relation to Gavin) may also have earned a look after his scintillating performance during the fall scrimmage that saw him break off two huge gains on the ground. If Williams can replicate that performance in a game setting, the coaches may find it difficult to keep him off the field.

Iowa is not likely to play more than four running backs this season, but there are other young tailbacks on the roster worth keeping an eye on. True freshman Deavin Hilson is an exciting prospect out of Des Moines North who could develop into contributor for the Hawkeyes down the line but may need a year or two of seasoning after playing an extremely condensed senior season due to the coronavirus. Freshmen walk-ons Zach Brand and Max White add additional depth and are likely to redshirt or contribute largely on special teams in the first few seasons in the program.

Opening up holes for Iowa’s tailbacks will be junior fullback and human road grader Monte Pottebaum. Pottebaum looks like a player out of a different decade; not only does he lead block like a player straight out of the 1990s, but his long blonde mullet makes him look more like an extra in a Bill Ray Cyrus video than a major contributor to a competitive college football team in 2021. However, Pottebaum’s skill as a blocker and a pass catcher (he had three receptions for 39 yards last year) make him an important cog on Iowa’s offense, and his strong play should help pave the way for a big year from the Hawkeye tailbacks. Fellow fullbacks Turner Pallissard and Johnny Plewa provide depth behind Pottebaum, and true freshman walk-on Denin Limouris could eventually end up slotting in at that position as well.

Iowa’s running back room is full of promise, but questions abound entering the 2021 campaign. Can Tyler Goodson take his game to the next level? Can Ivory Kelly-Martin hold off the Williams boys to retain the #2 running back spot? How many linebackers and safeties will Monte Pottebaum eviscerate over the course of the year? If Ladell Betts and Iowa’s offensive staff can maximize the talent of the Hawkeye running back room, the offense could be in line to make some serious noise this year.