By Adam Hensley
Iowa football’s bread and butter is to pound the ball in the running game — that’s no secret. The coaches and players will echo that philosophy, because the Hawkeyes have a history of solid ground games.
Entering the 2018 football season, Iowa running backs aren’t full of experience by any means. Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin are the only backs on the depth chart who saw playing time in 2017.
“We like our running backs; there just aren’t many of them,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said in March. “So there’s a lot to like, but not a lot of guys to like, if that make sense. We’re definitely thin there.”
As a team last season, Iowa tailbacks totaled 1,882 yards on 408 carries and tallied 16 touchdowns. Young and Kelly-Martin accounted for only 20 percent of the group’s yardage (377 yards) and 5 scores.
Iowa opted for a featured-back approach, turning to Akrum Wadley on the ground last season. James Butler carried the ball 91 times, but it was clear that Wadley was the top dog. With Wadley now a member of the Tennessee Titans, Iowa has a hole to fill.
Young enters 2018 as the experienced back, when compared with Kelly-Martin. He’s been with the program for two seasons (the first one a redshirt), so he knows the system. But both backs got solid in-game experience last season.
“I think we feel confident that we have talented players, and I know we’re inexperienced, but certainly not as inexperienced as we’ve been at other positions in the past,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said in an April press conference. “You’ve got both guys who have carried the ball in live action when it counted, not just in mop-up duty. So both guys have made plays for us in games, in tight ballgames. They just haven’t made as many as maybe what we’re used to bringing back the last few years.”
But that raises the question — will Iowa come out with a featured back, a guy who can carry the ball 25-30 times a game? Or will the Hawkeyes opt for a running-back-by-committee approach to 2018?
Young is a downhill runner who thrives on a bruising, low-pad-level style of play, while Kelly-Martin is a flashy, agile tailback who relies on speed.
In 2016, Iowa’s one-two punch of LeShun Daniels Jr. and Wadley — two backs with the same contrasting styles — split carries fairly evenly, with Daniels touching the ball 213 times and Wadley 168. Each notched more than 1,000 yards on the ground, and each scored 10 touchdowns.
Iowa also relied on a committee the season before. In 2015, Jordan Canzeri led the Hawkeyes with 183 carries (the lowest number of carries for a team-leading running back since 2012, when Mark Weisman tallied 159), totaling 984 yards. Daniels and Wadley touched the ball 145 and 83 times, respectively, that season, as Iowa boasted a 12-win season.
Let’s say that to be a featured back, you need to have at least 250 carries in a season. Wadley’s 2017 totals match that, but other than last season, Iowa only has two seasons over the past 10 with a true featured back — Marcus Coker (281 carries, 1,384 yards, 15 touchdowns) in 2011 and Shonn Greene (307 carries, 1,850 yards, 20 touchdowns) in 2008.
So, in recent years, Iowa has leaned toward the committee approach; in seven of the past 10 seasons, the Hawkeyes have had at least two running backs with at least 100 carries. Expect that to continue this season.