Hawkeyes enter training camp with three running backs in search of a workload

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Only two running backs in the Big Ten Conference carried the football more than Iowa’s Akrum Wadley last season.

Wadley’s workload was by necessity, not design. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, like many of his peers these days, believes strength lies in numbers when it’s time to hand the ball off. James Butler was supposed to split time with Wadley, but missed four games with an elbow injury.

The result: Wadley had 252 carries to Butler’s 91.

Iowa sophomore Toren Young is hoping to be testing himself against Big Ten defenses other than his own this fall as the Hawkeyes search for a new lead running back.

A new year brings a new dilemma for Ferentz’s offense. Wadley and Butler have moved on. In their wake are three inexperienced sophomores vying to earn the lion’s share of those 343 opportunities to tote the rock.

It’s more likely to be a job-share, though.

“You always have to have guys ready. It’s just the nature of the position,” said former Ohio State running back and current college football TV analyst Robert Smith. “You try and get the ball in different guys’ hands really to try to diminish the amount of wear and tear that one individual has to have.

“But when you have a go-to guy, you have a go-to guy. And you want to make sure that that guy gets the carries.”

That last sentence provides the opening that Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent are eager to burst through. Every running back dreams of being a workhorse, even as that is becoming a dying breed.

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Rodney Smith rushed 229 times for 977 yards as a Minnesota junior last season. He wants to stay busier this fall, even while acknowledging the obvious.

“A running back only has so many hits in him. That’s the pro of having somebody else with you in the backfield,” Smith said during Big Ten media days in Chicago last week.

At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, Smith pointed out another consideration to bear in mind when it comes to Iowa’s trio of young running backs:

“You develop into being able to endure the Big Ten season.”

That means gaining strength. That means mastering the playbook. Running backs who are both durable and versatile are in vogue. Smith caught 17 passes last year and can also return kicks. 

“You’re not just looking for the big bruiser as much now,” said Robert Smith, who also starred with the Minnesota Vikings. “You want guys that can flex out if at all possible because of the mismatches that creates.”

What coaches don’t want to sacrifice is the sheer bravado it takes to play such a punishing position.

Rodney Smith was asked if he finds himself heading toward the sideline at times to avoid some of those hits that he knows will eventually catch up with him.

“No, that’s actually against the running back rules at our school,” he said. “Coach (Kenni) Burns says running out of bounds is like stepping in pee.”

It appears that unpleasant analogy has done its intended job. Smith said he has no idea what the punishment would be for such a transgression; it’s never happened in his time with the Gophers.

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Karan Higdon enters his senior season at Michigan with less mileage than Rodney Smith. He has been in a backfield job-share with Chris Evans. Still, Higdon managed 994 yards on his 164 carries a year ago, for a gaudy 6.1 yards per attempt.

Higdon, a onetime Iowa commit, is disappointed that he wound up six yards shy of 1,000. He said that’s one reason he didn’t enter the NFL draft this spring. Instead, Higdon packed on 15 pounds in the offseason (up to 205 on his 5-10 frame) and is hell-bent on reversing the most disturbing trend of Michigan’s 2017 season.

“I think we wore down in the fourth quarter,” Higdon said, a remarkable concession for an athlete to make. “(The increased size will) propel me in a better position to handle a heavier workload. … I think I’ll definitely get a lot more and I’ll need a lot more. I’ve worked enough to get that and show that I can handle it.”

Higdon wants 20-25 carries per game. It’s a common refrain for lead running backs, who often cite the need to get more touches in order to get into a rhythm, or to wear down defenses.

To which Robert Smith said: Don’t let them fool you.

“A lot of guys say that because they don’t want to come off the field,” Smith said. “You get your mental reps in even when you’re not playing during the course of the week and anticipate things.

“Runners don’t forget how to run.”

Smith said, while the era of the 30-carries-a-game running back may be over, it has become easier to manage such workloads in some modern offenses. Those that don’t use fullbacks, or feature a lot of two tight-end sets, force defenses to respond in kind.

“The types of carries aren’t going to be as difficult physically. There’s normally lighter personnel on the defense,” Smith said. “The linebackers need to be able to cover a lot of space so those guys aren’t the 250-plus-pound guys that you used to have that could only play in a phone booth.”   

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Of course, Iowa is one of those offenses that still uses fullbacks at times. And there’s no question that talented tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson will be in the lineup together more often than not. So whoever carries the ball for the Hawkeyes may frequently be facing “heavy” defensive packages.

What that means for Young, who is the most likely candidate to emerge as a workhorse at Iowa, is that he must prove he can be effective in every offensive formation. If not, it’s more likely that running back duties will be split up.  

“If you have certain sets that one guy seems to feel more comfortable in, obviously you change up there so you can use him,” Robert Smith said. “But then again, you don’t want a situation where you’re tipping your hand about what you’re going to run by putting certain guys in.”  

All of this will be what Iowa’s coaching staff will begin sorting out when training camp opens Friday. Sargent, a late-arriving transfer from Iowa Western Community College, is still a bit of an unknown quantity after all.

Ferentz sounded in Chicago like he’s leaning against using any individual running back extensively.

“We’re happy with a job-share. I think it’s worked well for us,” he said. “The one thing we don’t have at that position is experience, so we’re happy to have those three guys on our team and hoping to see their growth as the season goes on.

“If you have one that’s clearly better than everybody, then, yeah, you’re going to feed them as much as you can.”

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Only six Big Ten Conference running backs rushed more than 200 times in 2017:

Name                                School                       Carries       Yards      YPC

Jonathan Taylor                 Wisconsin                 299             1,977      6.6

Justin Jackson                  Northwestern             287              1,311      4.6

Akrum Wadley                   Iowa                          252               1,109      4.4

Rodney Smith                   Minnesota                  229               977         4.3

Saquon Barkley               Penn State                 217                1,271       5.9

L.J. Scott                         Michigan State            201               898          4.5