Spring Outlook: Running Backs in Search of Big Gains

April 11, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Derrick Foster brought new meaning to breaking it down. Iowa’s running back coach spent part of his offseason watching every carry from the 2018 campaign.

He thoroughly studied each back as plays developed. He focused on what they were watching. He sought to unlock their potential.

The Hawkeyes managed just five runs of 20 or more yards last fall. Two resulted in at last 30 yards.

“I think we’ve been able to identify the mistakes,” Foster said. “I’m trying to train these guys to look at certain things and ignore certain things. Sometimes running back eyes can get a little busy and we miss certain cuts.”

Iowa’s zone blocking scheme requires detail from the ball carriers. It’s like a waltz where each step is important as is continuity. Patience is more than a virtue.

The Hawkeyes experienced growing pains with inexperienced backs. Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin came into last season with a combined 65 carries at Iowa, most of them coming when the games’ outcomes had been decided.

Part of maturity is studying film and understanding, not only the blocking pattern, but tendencies of defensive linemen and linebackers. They play a large role in the backs’ best route for success.

“The more times they see different things and different movements, the better they get with their eyes and are able to run with their eyes and their feet, controlling a little bit more,” Foster said.

He saw his backs and the offensive linemen on different pages at times last season.

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“It’s not pointing fingers. We collectively have to do a better job,” Foster said.

Iowa began ’18 with a three-man committee of Sargent, Young and Kelly-Martin. When all were healthy, they rode with it for most of the season.

Foster indicated this week that it was too early to tell if that plan would remain in place in ’19. He has been coaching them as if they all were going to play.

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Sargent (5-9, 212) appeared to separate himself from the pack late in the regular season. He rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the final two games, averaging 6.8 yards on 43 carries. Kelly-Martin (5-10, 203) was slowed by injury then.

The Hawkeyes returned to a committee for the Outback Bowl with Sargent carrying seven times (-3 yards), Kelly Martin five times (0 yards) and Young three times (7 yards) against Mississippi State’s stingy defense.

For the season, Sargent carried 159 times for 745 yards (4.7 per carry), Young 136 times for 637 (4.7) and Kelly-Martin 97 for 341 (3.5). That worked out to 392 attempts for 1,723 yards (4.4) for the trio.

Foster sees the three veterans being at a level above the younger backs. That group includes redshirt freshmen Henry Geil (6-0, 215) and Samson Evans (6-0, 210), and true freshmen Shadrick Byrd (5-10, 212) and Tyler Goodson (5-10, 190).

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Goodson chose the Hawkeyes ahead of reported scholarship offers from Michigan State, Nebraska, Kentucky, Washington State, West Virginia and others. He’s drawn comparisons to former Iowa standout Akrum Wadley for his elusiveness and burst.

The underclassmen will have to show Foster they can handle the system and playbook before vaulting ahead of the experienced backs, however.

“It depends on how fast they adapt, how fast they adjust to the speed of the game, how fast they pick up this offense. We’ve still got guys who have been here a few years learning our offense,” Foster said.

The position coach encouraged self- scouting this offseason. He asked his backs to go back and watch every carry like he did.

“They’re starting to see exactly what we’re doing. They’re starting to see offensive line movement, understanding defensive play and linebacker leverage and all that,” Foster said.

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