Can Iowa's running game return to prominence again in 2018?
During Kirk Ferentz’s long and mostly impressive run at Iowa, the success that’s come has often been because of a strong running game. Talented backs, solid linemen up front and a true commitment from the coaching staff made running the ball a priority.
But things went awry last year, and the Hawkeyes’ inability to run the ball consistently contributed greatly to a five-loss season.
Sure, Akrum Wadley rushed for 1,109 yards, but his per-play production was way down. He averaged only 4.4 yards per carry, a huge drop from his previous three years, when he averaged 5,6, 6.0 and 6.4 yards per carry from 2014 through 2016.
Wadley is gone now, as is No. 2 rusher James Butler (396 yards). In step Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin into the top spots on the depth chart. They seem to be the early leaders in the clubhouse for carries, but that could always change.
A third back could get into the mix, or even a fourth, according to Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
Asked Brian Ferentz if he saw a 3-pronged approach w/ Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin & Mekhi Sargent at RB.
His answer: “If history tells us anything, we’re going to possibly need a four-pronged approach. We go through backs pretty fast.”
— Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) August 11, 2018
The interesting addition to the running back mix is Sargent, a junior college transfer from Iowa Western who played high school ball in Key West, Fla. He led all JC running backs in the nation last year with 144.9 rushing yards per game.
According to reports, Sargent is fitting in well with his new team and has all the tools to contribute immediately for the Hawkeyes. Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell sees similarities between Sargent and wide receiver Nick Easley, who also played at Iowa Western and led all junior-college receivers with 72 catches in 2016. Last season, Easley made an immediate impact at Iowa last year with 51 receptions for 530 yards.
“You have to figure we hit lightning twice,” said Bell, who saw Sargent at a bowl game when he ran for 151 yards. “He broke tackles. One or two guys couldn’t bring him down. He is compact, has some wiggle, and catches the ball well out of the backfield.”
A young guys worth keeping an eye on is freshman Henry Geil. He has a ton of talent and could push for carries early as well.
Iowa averaged only 3.8 yards per carry a year ago, its lowest average since 2012. They’re hoping to see that change this season, and there’s plenty of good reasons to believe they will.
Even though the sample size is small with Young and Kelly-Martin, the skill is clearly there. Another huge issue that should help is that Iowa should be able to throw the ball better this year as well. Nate Stanley is solid at quarterback and the Hawkeyes’ receiving corps might be its best in decades. That should get defenses out of eight-in-the-box lineups, which Iowa saw a lot of a year ago.
One issue early, though, might be the depth problems along the offensive line. It’s especially problematic in the Week 1 opener against Northern Illinois, one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference.
Iowa has three linemen suspended for the first game, starters Alaric Jackson and Cedrick Lattimore for a violation of team rules, and starting tackle Tristan Wirfs, who has been suspended for a game because of an alcohol-related arrest during the summer.
Those suspensions should put the Hawkeyes on upset alert the first week, and might force us to wait a while to determine how good this running game can be.