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Iowa running backs coach Derrick Foster answers questions about a run game that averaged less than 4.0 yards per pop last season. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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Iowa running backs coach Derrick Foster would dearly like to see his group of players put up more yards per game and produce more “explosive” plays in 2019.

Yards per carry? That, too.

“We play a game of inches,” Foster said on Wednesday’s “Hawk Central” radio hour on KxNO in Des Moines. “So any way that you can gain an extra yard or get an extra inch, by any means necessary, let’s figure out how to do it.”

Foster was responding to a fan’s Twitter question noting that the Hawkeyes averaged only 3.86 yards per carry the past two seasons. In the two seasons before that, it was a gaudier 4.47. That’s not the only measure of success for the ground game, Foster said, but if his backs can rip off more chunks of yardage, that number will surely increase. And that’s his primary focus in his second season leading the position.

Iowa got 745 yards from Mekhi Sargent (4.7 per carry), 637 from Toren Young (4.7) and 341 from Ivory Kelly-Martin (3.5) during a 9-4 season in 2018. But only seven carries produced gains of 20 or more yards, those explosive plays Foster kept harping about.

“A lot of those times maybe the guys were second-guessing themselves on some reads. Where now I think they’re seeing those reads and they’re able to identify the right reads, the right leverage,” Foster said after the spring practice sessions for his top three backs, all juniors.

“I have a lot of confidence that these guys will get better and that these guys have gotten better and that we can improve those rushing stats.”

Sargent continues to lead the pack

Sargent was listed as the starting running back heading into the spring, with Young as his backup. Kelly-Martin, continuing to battle injuries, is third. Foster reiterated that that’s still the “pecking order” heading into fall camp, where the competition will resume.

Kelly-Martin was touted as the most complete back last August and won the starting job for the season opener, only to be derailed by a series of nagging injuries. So this summer he is a bit of a wild card in the competition.

“We felt he could be that guy that could create those explosive plays,” Foster said of Kelly-Martin a year ago.

“He kept a positive attitude about (the injuries). Now that he’s had some time to heal and rehab, I think he has a little chip on his shoulder coming into the season. He’s ready to come in and show that he’s ready to be that guy.”

Foster's first recruit the next big thing?

Tyler Goodson of Georgia is about to arrive on campus as Foster’s first running back recruit. They share a Deep South heritage. (Foster is from Alabama.) Foster began evaluating Goodson the minute he was hired by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz last spring.

“He’s a high-character guy and he’s a work-hard guy,” Foster said of Goodson.

“Then, once you put the film on … he makes people miss in small spaces, able to stop and start really quick, able to make people miss in the open field and also display the fact he can lower his shoulder when he had to and be able to make explosive plays for his offense. So we saw explosiveness. We saw elusiveness. We saw a kid with great vision and we saw a kid that was tough from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint.”

Foster said he hopes Goodson, along with fellow rookie Shadrick Byrd of Alabama, can come in and compete for playing time immediately. But battling for a starting job? That would be a tall order, Foster conceded.

Last year's freshmen have some proving to do

A year ago, it was Henry Geil of Wisconsin and Samson Evans of Illinois who embarked on Hawkeye careers with high hopes of carrying the football. Neither has become a factor in the running back race, though, and Foster wasn’t exactly subtle when asked why.

“We need to see more,” Foster said. “One day, everything looks good and one day everything looks shaky.

“There’s only one ball to go around. So at the running back position, you’ve got to be pretty hungry. You’ve got to want it pretty consistently. You’ve got to show up more times than not in order to earn that spot. So I think those guys have some developing to do.”

Consider Geil and Evans officially on notice.

Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.

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