IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Tuesday that he’s happy with his top three running backs midway through training camp and that he expects all of them to get carries this season.
But it was clear one running back has started to outperform his peers — Ivory Kelly-Martin.
“If we opened the season (this week), he’s going to be behind center carrying the football,” Ferentz said of Kelly-Martin.
The Hawkeyes are replacing 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley this fall, and there are three sophomores in line to split duties. Toren Young has been listed as the starter on depth charts, with Kelly-Martin as his backup. It appears those roles have reversed this month.
“He’s got some wiggle. He’s got some power. He’s got really good balance,” Ferentz said of Kelly-Martin.
That last part is important. It’s what separates the good running backs from the average ones — the ability to absorb an initial hit without going down and instead keep moving forward for extra yards.
Ferentz also praised Kelly-Martin’s abilities as a receiver and pass protector when called upon, calling him a “four-down player.”
But Ferentz also expressed confidence in Young and junior-college transfer Mekhi Sargent. He knows that all three of them will be needed this season, comparing it to 2015, when Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels Jr. and Wadley all had productive moments, just not always in the same game.
Keeping the three running backs healthy is paramount. Ferentz pointed to the 2015 game at Northwestern, when injuries left only Wadley to power the ground game. If he had gotten hurt …
“The next step is we’ve got a fullback in there running inside zone, and I don’t know that anybody wants to see that besides their parents,” Ferentz quipped.
It’s a situation he’s desperate to avoid in 2018. And it sounds as if Kelly-Martin will be the first one called upon in the Sept. 1 opener vs. Northern Illinois.
Pointed message for suspended tackles … and rival coaches
A bigger challenge for Ferentz heading into Week 1 is that both of his starting tackles, Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, are suspended. There are three candidates in line to replace them, but Ferentz was not ready to name a starting group.
Mainly, he seemed disappointed in the situations that led to the suspensions. For Wirfs, that was an arrest for driving while intoxicated. For Jackson, it was an unspecified violation of team rules.
“We have a situation that is all of our own doing. This is the University of Iowa. You cannot get out of jail on Thursday and play on Saturday. That’s not how it works here,” Ferentz said.
“So people are worried about discipline issues, things like that. I don’t see it that way. I see isolated incidents that we’re going to address and we’re going to take care of moving forward so that we don’t have an issue. And really, frankly, if you’re not going to do the things that we’re going to ask you to do off the field, then you don’t deserve the opportunities to be on the field. I think it’s pretty simple. So the whole team sees that, ‘Hey, look, it’s an opportunity for other guys to step in.’ In a perfect world, I think the best lesson we can teach some of these guys not playing in Game 1 is they didn’t have a job in Week 2. Boy, that would be great if some guys stepped in and took those jobs over.”
Breaking down the first part of that Ferentz quote, it’s likely he had two targets in mind: Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio allowed cornerback Chris L. Rucker to play in a 2010 game at Iowa two days after he got out of jail on an OWI arrest; and last season, Iowa State cornerback Brian Peavy was arrested for criminal mischief on the Thursday before a game at Kansas State, which he subsequently started.
The last part of the quote seems like wishful thinking, at least for now. The three players who might earn starts at tackle against Northern Illinois appear to be junior Levi Paulsen, senior Dalton Ferguson and redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger.
“I’m not as confident to give you a starting lineup right now,” Ferentz said of the offensive line formation for the opener.
“We’ve got to figure out really in the next four days what gives us the best chance to win going forward.”
So clearly, Iowa is still searching for answers at those two important spots heading into game week. And Jackson and Wirfs are just as clearly on notice: Their starting positions aren’t guaranteed.
Max Cooper's rise gives Iowa a WR quintet
Ferentz said he would like to have a solid rotation of six wide receivers. He’s not quite there yet, but he has identified a fifth option that he likes, which is a positive development since Iowa’s open scrimmage Aug. 11 appeared to show only a clear top four.
Those are Nick Easley, Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Kyle Groeneweg.
Add sophomore Max Cooper to the list.
“I think Max has grown up a little bit. That’s part of it. Last year, this was probably the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life,” Ferentz said of the 6-foot, 185-pound native of Waukesha, Wisconsin.
“He’s got very sneaky speed, I think, for his physical appearance. But he didn’t have much girth (last year). So this was a guy that, if the defense made contact with him, you could really forget about any kind of spacing or any kind of speed.”
That’s not a concern anymore, apparently. And that’s good news for an Iowa position group that never seems to have enough options.
Bakcup QB search: Still searching with one week to go
Ferentz was not ready to declare a winner in the battle between redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell and true freshman Spencer Petras, who are vying to become the primary backup to quarterback Nate Stanley.
“I do think the picture is becoming a little bit clearer every day,” Ferentz teased. “But we’re going to let it play out for just a little bit longer.”
Ferentz said he would like to anoint either Mansell or Petras so that there would be a defined option if something were to happen to Stanley, rather than trying to “piecemeal” game action for both and then deciding. So it sounds as if a No. 2 quarterback will be proclaimed next week.
Ferentz also related an amusing story about the progress Petras has made since arriving on campus in January.
“The day he was here on his official visit, my wife and I had a child (Connolly). So just to put it into perspective for Spencer, my daughter just started crawling yesterday. He’s out there taking reps with our second offense, getting us in and out of things. He’s like walking,” Ferentz said.
“When you look at where he was eight months ago vs. where he is right now, it’s really hard not to be pleased with the guy. But the flip side of that is, nobody really cares where he was eight months ago if we put him into a football game.”
On special teams: No decision on punter, still seeking a leader for group
Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods also spoke to reporters Tuesday, but didn’t have much new to report since media day Aug. 10.
There has been no decision on a punter between junior Colten Rastetter and sophomore Ryan Gersonde.
“It’s been incredibly competitive in camp. I like the direction those guys are going. Right now, I think they’re drastically improved from last year,” Woods said.
In the return game, Groeneweg, Smith-Marsette and Amani Hooker remain the top three options to field punts, For kickoffs, it’s Groeneweg, Smith-Marsette and Kelly-Martin.
Riley Moss of Ankeny Centennial is the true freshman who has stood out the most on special teams, Woods said.
“He seems to be natural at finding the ball,” he said.
And there’s still no clear leader for the special teams unit as a whole. That was a captaincy held down by Kevin Ward in recent seasons, and it’s a void that shouldn’t be underestimated, Woods said.
He pointed to fullbacks Brady Ross and Austin Kelly as potential special-teams captains. He said middle linebacker Amani Jones and safety Jake Gervase are providing valuable leadership there, but both have their hands too full starting on defense to also be full-time special-teamers.
“I think it’s important just so everyone knows a guy to turn to, a guy that they know is going to be dependable, be accountable, that they can look to for questions, any leadership,” Woods said.
It’s one of those roles that most fans pay little attention to. But it is important, so keep an eye on this one.