Leistikow: Signs pointing to Toren Young as Iowa's next workhorse back

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Just in his second year of college, Toren Young already carries a surprising distinction: Old guy in the Iowa running-backs room.

“It definitely feels weird,” the 20-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin, said Tuesday.

As Hawkeye spring football practice enters its third week, the running-back room is filled with newness. (OK, “filled” is a stretch — there’s ample elbow room with just four scholarship running backs available and with the fullbacks having been shifted to the tight-ends room with Brian Ferentz.)

Iowa football running back Toren Young runs through a practice drill during a spring football practice on Wednesday, March 28, 2018, at the Iowa football performance center in Iowa City.

There’s Young, who just wrapped up his redshirt freshman season, and three guys still in their first year of college: Ivory Kelly-Martin, Kyshaun Bryan and Camron Harrell (a newly converted defensive back).

Young’s even got more time under his belt here — one redshirt season, then 45 carries in 2017 — than his position coach: Newly arrived Derrick Foster has been on the job barely 2 months.

“I lean on him a lot,” Foster said, “to make sure he manages the room as a player.

“It may sound a little funny, but he’s way ahead of his years. He’s a very mature man who accepts accountability; who leads by example. He’s very vocal.

“I think those guys look at Toren as a big brother.”

High praise.

Beyond leadership, though, Young has the best odds to be the answer to this question: Who will succeed Akrum Wadley as Iowa’s next 1,000-yard rusher?

Now, before anointing Young, it’s worth remembering at this time a year ago we had no idea Iowa would be signing a graduate-transfer running back with more than 3,000 FBS yards in James Butler. Something like that still could happen.

But, for now, Young is on Iowa’s No. 1 line for a reason. Many reasons, actually.

First, he’s developed those culture-building qualities that Iowa coaches love to see.

They even let him be “mic’d up” at a recent Hawkeye practice, a sign that they’re comfortable with the things he’s saying, the example he’s setting.

Second, in an answer that surprised me, Foster said Young (a burly 5-foot-11 and 221 pounds) is the team’s best receiver out of the backfield.

We’ll see how that plays out; Young has one career reception for 23 yards. Wadley generated 64 catches over his final two seasons on top of being a two-time, 1,000-yard rusher.

Third, Young does have a track record of durability — something this program might especially need this fall with such a lack of proven depth. (Remember, even during Iowa’s 12-win season in 2015, four different running backs got featured because of backfield injuries.)

In his senior year alone at Monona Grove High School, Young carried 333 times for 2,779 yards and 28 touchdowns. For his varsity career, he logged more than 700 rushing attempts.

“In high school,” he said, “I was used to that workload. That’s definitely a goal (here).”

Yes, signs seem to be pointing toward Young being the guy.

What’s worth remembering, though, is that last fall, when Iowa needed a No. 2 back, he wasn't given that opportunity. After Butler was fractured his elbow in Week 3 against North Texas, Young did not play in Iowa’s next two games. He gained 115 yards on 26 carries in Big Ten play, most of it in low-stress situations (blowout wins or losses).

Young admitted he wasn’t able to pick up the pass-protection schemes quickly, a key part of being on the field at Iowa. Stopping a blitzing linebacker could be the difference in quarterback Nate Stanley staying healthy.

Another thing Young has been working on this spring: Patience. He was too eager to run through the first hole he saw as a redshirt freshman.

“I remember the North Texas game (when he carried 19 times for 78 yards) and some other games I got to play in … I was so excited that I just made a cut too fast,” Young said. “My biggest thing is just trying to slow things down and see the play develop.”

I do anticipate Iowa planning to use Young and Kelly-Martin as a 1-2 punch in 2018, much like it did with LeShun Daniels Jr. and Wadley during the Outback Bowl season of 2016.

“Toren and Ivory, they go together," Wadley said last week. "Toren’s the bruiser. Ivory’s more make-you-miss. They’re both good."

Kelly-Martin, in glimpses, showed the kind of speed and shiftiness that Wadley brought to the table consistently. Kelly-Martin (5-10, 200) averaged 9.2 yards a carry as a freshman, including a 57-yarder at Nebraska.

“He has some suddenness and some quickness between the tackles,” Foster said. “He’s able to make guys miss in tight spaces.”

But Kelly-Martin did lose a fumble against Illinois, then didn’t get a carry in the next five games; and Foster said he’s had some drops in the pass game this spring.

Bryan sounds like he’s a distant third to Young and Kelly-Martin. I wouldn’t be surprised if incoming freshman Henry Geil (6-1, 215) challenges for immediate playing time.

Foster said he told his small room: Be ready for competition when Geil and Samson Evans arrive in June.

But for now, the trust and respect needle seems to be pointing in Young’s direction.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.