'This unit can show a lot more': Iowa's running back unit ready to charge after seesawing 2018

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Last season’s backfield merry-go-round provided little clarity on how 2019 will unfold. At various points, all three of Iowa’s top running backs had moments of brilliance and irrelevance.

The man who topped the Week 1 depth chart spent most of the year and ensuing spring hobbled with injuries. The strong-spoken veteran delivered dominant showings, then disappeared for weeks at a time. The newcomer who was seemingly buried had the most reliable finish.

At least for now, sorting out the weekly workload for Ivory Kelly-Martin, Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent remains undetermined. Sargent topped the preseason depth chart with Young listed as the immediate backup — but the 2018 carousel proved much can change in a moment’s notice.

The trio claims unselfishness permeates the running back room — egos and personal expectations have disappeared amid this committee approach. After a pedestrian year on the ground where Iowa lacked explosive gains and breakout performances, the Hawkeyes are hoping for a more on-brand rushing return.

“This unit can show a lot more,” Sargent said. “Based off a lot of film that we’ve watched, there were a lot of plays that we missed out on — a lot of yards that we’ve missed out on. This year, I know we’re going to capitalize.

“It’s an unselfish room. We’re just competing. It doesn’t matter if you’re number one, two or three on the depth chart. If one game Ivory starts, if one game Toren starts — it really doesn’t matter. We’re just going out there to compete and win the game and help the team.”

Toren Young, Mekhi	Sargent, and Ivory Kelly-Martin stand for a photo during Hawkeye football media day Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.

All three had at least three games with 16-plus carries, and yet it wasn’t until the final two regular-season games that Iowa finally had a century-mark rusher. The Hawkeyes ranked last in the Big Ten, and fifth-worst nationally, in runs of 20-plus yards.

The committee approach gave Iowa options in trying to locate the hot hand — but often, there was no fire to find. Another year of experience for everyone hopes to yield better results.

“Obviously, not every game is going to be this guy’s best game,” running backs coach Derrick Foster said. “Hopefully, it is. But hopefully, we have that guy behind him who’s ready to go. Of course, you would like to play all three of them if you could. Ideally, if we could get all three of them in there and get them going, then that’s what we want.”

It truly is a three-man setup now that Kelly-Martin is back full-strength. An ankle injury suffered in game one lingered throughout the year, forcing him to miss five games in all. He had only one rushing touchdown after a decent season-opener.

Health issues bled into the spring, causing Kelly-Martin to have sporadic participation. He’ll likely have to fight even harder than he did last fall — when he won the starting job out of fall camp — but the rejuvenated junior is eager to compete.

“Fighting that injury battle is not fun,” he said Friday. “It can be lonely sometimes, but teammates always kept me up. Being healthy now is great and being able to do what I know I can do to help out the team.

“It was tough, that’s for sure. But since the day I was injured, I knew it was going to be a battle throughout the season — dealing with it and everything. But we have great team doctors. Right now, I’m feeling good. Right after the break after spring practice was a good chance to get ready for fall camp and charge ahead.”

Call that a microcosm of the unit’s mindset pushing forward. Although the Hawkeyes have solid offensive weapons around their running attack, the ground game needs to pull its weight if Iowa is to meet its budding 2019 expectations.

Options are there.

Can the backs mesh cohesiveness with results?

“We obviously have room to grow,” Young said, “and we’re looking forward to seeing how this year goes.”

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.