Is Ivory Kelly-Martin the new Akrum Wadley? Iowa fans can dream

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nate Stanley uttered the five words every Iowa football fan wants to hear regarding the team’s new starting running back.

“He’s a lot like Akrum,” Stanley, the Hawkeyes’ junior quarterback, said Tuesday when asked about Ivory Kelly-Martin. 

That’s a reference to Akrum Wadley, who high-stepped his way to back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and into Hawkeye folklore the past two autumns. Wadley was as entertaining of an offensive player as Iowa has produced in recent years.

“He has the ability to make those big plays, whether that be running the ball or catching it out of the backfield,” Stanley continued, referring to the sophomore heir apparent in Kelly-Martin.

Kelly-Martin, speaking to reporters later as his team gets prepared to face Northern Illinois in Saturday’s season-opening game at Kinnick Stadium (2:30 p.m., BTN), agreed with the comparison.

“There’s definitely some traits between me and Akrum,” Kelly-Martin said. “He was a very versatile running back, so I tried to get some of that from him. And also, he was a very smart running back and had a really good knowledge of the game in general, and that’s also something I took from him.”

Kelly-Martin emerged this summer to take over the top spot on the depth chart from fellow sophomore Toren Young. Mekhi Sargent, a transfer from Iowa Western Community College, is the third part of that job-share at running back. All three have three years of eligibility left.

And all three will play, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said later Tuesday, making it clear that merely naming Kelly-Martin the starter was not an indication that he’s far ahead of Young and Sargent.

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Kelly-Martin is the lightest back, but promises he can run up the middle

Kelly-Martin is a native of Plainfield, Illinois, and this is a funny story: He was actually being recruited to play at Northern Illinois by assistant coach Kelton Copeland. Copeland then took a job as wide receivers coach at Iowa. He and Kelly-Martin ended up coming here in the same year.

“Just going out there and really showing my best effort and showing that I’m very coachable,” Kelly-Martin said when asked what he did this summer that prompted his rise on the depth chart. 

“Being in the starting spot, there’s a little pressure. But we train for this. Coaches will have a great game plan in that I just have to execute.”

Kelly-Martin, at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, is the lightest of Iowa’s three options at running back. If that sounds a little like Wadley, who famously struggled to keep his weight up, Kelly-Martin was also quick to note that he’s more than capable of running through the middle of the line when called upon.

“There’s always a lot of talk about outside perimeter runs with speed backs, and throughout the years I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m an all-around back,” he said. “I can make a move through the middle, being able to get through the holes really fast. That’s a great thing. … Being low, having your pads low and getting those hard yards, I pride myself on that as well.”

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz told reporters a week ago that Kelly-Martin was capable of being a “four-down” back. That means catching passes, blocking, helping out on special teams.

Kelly-Martin said it also means accepting the less glamorous side of the position, what he called “the little things.”

“Everything besides scoring touchdowns,” he clarified. “Seeing the defense, knowing what’s going on on the offensive side, who’s blocking who and what your job is no matter whether you’re getting the ball or not.”

Kelly-Martin focuses on forging a bigger role in Iowa's passing game

Kelly-Martin played in all 13 games as a true freshman. He rushed for 184 yards and three touchdowns. He returned 19 kickoffs with an average of 21.2 yards. He caught only four passes, but one of them produced a touchdown. 

That’s the versatility he was talking about. He said he’s been spending much of his time perfecting his role as a receiver, both coming out of the backfield and split out into the slot.

“I worked day in and day out on working on my hands, working on my eyes and working on my routes,” Kelly-Martin said. “And it’s been paying off so far.”

There will be questions about his durability, of course. Carrying a heavy workload as a first-year starter, at his size, may not be feasible. It also doesn’t sound like that’s the plan, with two backups that have earned the coaches’ faith.

“I feel like I can get as many carries as the offense is willing to give me. I’ll be able to produce and I’ll be happy with what I get,” Kelly-Martin said.

The second-year player has already learned the most important thing about being a running back: Always praise the big guys who are trying to clear lanes in front of you. Kelly-Martin said he’s been paying close attention to what his blockers are up to.

“Once you really get into what those offensive linemen are doing, that really helps because they’re going to do their job no matter what,” he said.

Spoken like a veteran.