Leistikow: Iowa's rushing attack will look different in 2020, and that's a good thing
IOWA CITY, Ia. — With perhaps the best collection of wide receivers in the Kirk Ferentz era if not Iowa football history, there’s a tantalizing thought that the 2020 Hawkeyes could be poised to produce Saturday after Saturday of aerial fireworks.
But the only way you’ll see Spencer Petras slinging the ball 40-plus times a game is if the Hawkeyes are constantly playing from behind.
And that’s hardly a Ferentz formula recipe for success. The approach for 21-plus years has been to slow the game down and bank on being better fundamentally than the other team for 60 minutes. That basis for a plan won’t change in Year 22, even with Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. out wide.
But there are changes in store, Hawkeye fans, and reasons to be encouraged.
Because the collection of running backs is probably Iowa’s best since at least 2016, when LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley each enjoyed 1,000-yard seasons.
“The depth at running back, I think it’s dynamic,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Thursday in surprisingly bullish comments at a historically cursed position group, most (in)famously in 2004 when injuries took out the Hawkeyes' top four running backs. “I am cautiously very excited about that position.”
Don’t forget, 50% of Iowa’s eight-game regular season in this delayed, Big Ten Conference-only schedule will be played outdoors and after Thanksgiving. A good run game is weather-proof and can grind out the opponents’ soul.
While we’re talking percentages, let’s flash back to December’s Holiday Bowl availability with Brian Ferentz. He said that “in a perfect world” he would call run plays 70% of the time.
“That would mean we were winning,” he said then, “all the time.”
Brian Ferentz’s optimism about the position stems from the top three, all of whom have been No. 1 on the depth chart at some point during their Hawkeye careers.
Sophomore Tyler Goodson (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) presents the type of explosion and pass-catching ability that Ferentz surely absorbed during his four years on staff with the New England Patriots.
Goodson is the clear No. 1 on the depth chart. Iowa is 4-0 when he starts. Goodson said this week that the game has slowed down for him. From what we’ve seen, he deserves to get the most carries, but it’s reassuring to know he’s got backup.
Senior Mekhi Sargent (5-9, 209) proved to be an emerging answer to run-game woes late in 2018, racking up big outings against Illinois and Nebraska to end the regular season.
He’s quietly picked up 1,308 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns in his two years at Iowa and has shown an ability to make gains after contact. Perhaps Sargent could be the Hawkeyes’ top goal-line option.
And don’t forget Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-10, 204). The coaches sure haven’t, even though Kelly-Martin was limited to six carries for 23 yards last season before opting to take a redshirt.
Kelly-Martin began the 2018 season on the top line of the depth chart before being slowed by a Week 1 ankle injury. Here’s a sort of odd (and somewhat sad) statistic: Kelly-Martin owns the longest Iowa rushing play (57 yards, at Nebraska in 2017) over the last three seasons.
“These guys have taken their games and excelled tremendously,” running backs coach Derrick Foster said Thursday. “… If you get them in the box one-on-one, it’s hard to wrap them up and tackle them. They’re tough runners.”
You probably should be reading this with a mix of excitement and skepticism.
Because Iowa’s rushing numbers in three seasons with Ferentz as offensive coordinator have been subpar. They’ve been 90th or worse in the FBS all three seasons in yards per carry (3.76 in 2017, 3.95 in both 2018 and 2019).
But here’s some good news, perhaps. Both Kirk and Brian Ferentz have acknowledged that the way Iowa runs the football is getting some tweaks. The younger Ferentz said his eyes were opened after the Holiday Bowl, in part after seeing that end-around runs with wide receivers accounted for Iowa’s first two touchdowns.
Those receivers mentioned earlier?
They, too, can be a much heavier part of the way Iowa runs the football in 2020.
“I had to make an evolution,” Brian Ferentz said. “(Receiver runs) were always secondary plays in my mind; they protect the inside runs. That’s how I envisioned it my entire career. I’m not sure I see it the same way anymore.
“I think we have very capable ball handlers that can make plays in space like that. So, I do think that needs to be a bigger part of our offense going forward.”
Here’s another candid comment about personnel Brian Ferentz made Thursday.
“You can be the best coach in the world, and you can have the best schemes in the world. But without personnel, you won't be very good,” he said. “And in my experience in coaching … I’ve always been a better coach when we had really good players.”
And although we in the media can’t get eyes on this team during the COVID-19 era until the Oct. 23 or 24 season opener at Purdue, we definitely got the vibe this week that Iowa feels very good about its skill-position players.
Air Iowa in 2020? Probably not.
“For us," Brian Ferentz said, "it's always going to start with the running game.”
Ferentz knows the blueprint. Over the past five seasons, Iowa is 45-2 when it rushes for at least 100 yards; it’s 2-15 when it doesn’t.
But even if (when) the Hawkeyes stay true to their run-game roots, you likely won't be seeing a traditional ground-and-pound approach. With any luck, the run game will be consistently hitting big plays that have sorely been missing since 2016.
Smith-Marsette, the speedy senior, offered a final tease: “We look forward to showcasing what we’ve been working on.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.