Hawkeye football mailbag: Is Toren Young Iowa's best running back?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

By the stats and by the eye test through four games, Toren Young has been Iowa’s most dominant and productive running back. So why is Ivory Kelly-Martin still the starter?

That was one of many excellent questions during a lively Hawk Central Facebook Live session during our usual noon timeslot Wednesday.

The answer: It’s complicated.

Iowa running back Toren Young's game-by-game rushing totals have been 84, 68, 82 and 34 yards ... although he garnered just six carries against Wisconsin.

Young has been reliable. He leads the Hawkeyes’ trio of sophomore running backs, which also includes Mekhi Sargent, in almost every category — even in size, at 5-foot-11 and 221 pounds.

Young leads Iowa with 49 carries, 268 rushing yards and a 5.5 yards-per-carry average. He has the team’s longest run, a 40-yarder that changed the course of the season-opening 33-7 win against Northern Illinois. Young runs with an edge that gets the crowd excited. And he has impeccable character, as the lone sophomore on the team’s 12-player leadership council.

“But of the three, he's the least apt to be a guy you would flank out wide, that type of thing,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “… I can say the same thing about a lot of guys we've had. But he's really a good player, and we know who he is. Really a dependable guy we trust immensely."

Kelly-Martin (30 carries, 134 yards) missed two games with a sprained ankle, but he's the listed No. 1 because he gives Iowa the most play-calling flexibility. At 5-11 and 200 pounds, Kelly-Martin is also Iowa’s fastest running back with the best hands. Sargent (44 carries, 151 yards; two catches, 55 yards) adds wiggle that’s worthy of six to 10 carries a game.

To Ferentz, it’s like having three starters. Kelly-Martin, though, gives him the home-run potential that could come to fruition this week. Minnesota allowed touchdown runs of 64 and 81 yards in its last game, a 42-13 loss at Maryland.

“All three of those guys seem to be, I think, what will work for us,” Ferentz said. “They all have a good role, a positive role. I'm really happy about it.”

Other stuff from Facebook Live …

TOPIC: Should Iowa change up its defensive-end rotation?

Another week, another round of A.J. Epenesa snap-count questions … which, by the way, continue to be justified.

One user suggested that Epenesa play every down on one side and let Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson rotate on the other. I wouldn’t go that far. But I would pair Iowa’s ultra-talented sophomore with Nelson more often — with Epenesa at his usual right-end spot. I'd try a Hesse-Chauncey Golston pairing as well.

When I rewatched Wisconsin’s winning drive against Iowa two weeks ago, Epenesa and Golston were on the field, and Nelson and Hesse were standing on the sideline. If it was an Epenesa/Nelson pairing, would the result have changed?

Perhaps coming out of the bye week, Iowa’s coaches will be more willing to mix and match. My guess is you’ll see Epenesa’s snap count (he had 22 out of 66 against Wisconsin) go up going forward.

TOPIC: Should Iowa be more wide-open in its approach on offense?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Brian Ferentz would do well to repeat what he’s done the past two games, when the Hawkeyes have averaged 474.5 yards overall and 7.03 per play. The offensive coordinator’s philosophy is to find winning matchups from week to week — a formula his previous employer, the New England Patriots, has long mastered. So don’t be surprised if the run/pass balance continues to vary by the week.

This week: I expect the Hawkeyes to attack a Gophers’ run defense that allowed 315 yards against Maryland.

TOPIC: Any other injuries to worry about?

We know that outside linebacker Nick Niemann (leg injury) is out this week and will be replaced by sophomore Barrington Wade. The status of cornerback Matt Hankins (undisclosed) was not settled as of Tuesday.

But frankly, Iowa has so far staved off losing a major player to an injury in 2018. The entire offense should be its healthiest since Week 1. Kelly-Martin (ankle) and offensive lineman Cole Banwart (leg) said the bye week helped their ailments.

Saturday’s opponent hasn't been as fortunate. Top running back Rodney Smith (4,073 career all-purpose yards) and top defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. are out for the season for the Gophers.

TOPIC: Can Iowa still reach the Big Ten championship game?

Of course. It’s just not very likely. Had Iowa beaten Wisconsin, I would have put its chances of winning the Big Ten West at least 67 percent. Now, it’s more like 10 percent.

In a convoluted way, Northwestern’s loss to Michigan actually hurt Iowa’s chances even more — reducing the odds of a three-way tie with the Wildcats and Badgers, which would have mitigated Wisconsin's head-to-head tiebreaker over Iowa.

The cleanest path for Iowa (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) to make it would be to finish 7-1 from here on out (back-to-back road games at Penn State and Purdue will be tough) and to have Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0) lose three times. With Badger road trips to Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue, it’s not impossible.

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.