Why Iowa assistant Ladell Betts is a big believer in the Hawkeyes' young running backs
Iowa running backs coach Ladell Betts knows better than anyone what it for a Hawkeye back to reach the NFL. He was a multiple time All-Big Ten selection at Iowa from 1997-2001 and played eight years in the NFL.
He's back in Iowa City and in his first season as running backs coach. Within the room he sees another All-Big Ten back junior Tyler Goodson as having what it takes for the NFL as well.
"I don't think there's any limitations to his game," Betts told reporters on Wednesday. "I think he's an every-down back. He's a guy that can run the ball, catch the ball and shown to be a capable blocker. I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be in the NFL."
Additionally, Betts was fortunate to walk into a running backs room that had another veteran in senior Ivory-Kelly Martin. With Goodson, the two are an experienced 1-2 combination that the coaching staff have the upmost confidence in despite the pedestrian rushing totals through four games.
"When those two are willing to be coached and accept responsibility," Betts said, "that's all you can ask for and that's what they do. To Tyler and Ivory's credit, especially Ivory being the oldest in the room, they definitely try to impart wisdom and knowledge (to the younger running backs) and make sure they're on their P's & Q's."
There's an interesting dynamic within Iowa's running back room where there's two established players and the rest are freshmen just beginning their journey. The other three scholarship running backs are redshirt freshmen Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams and true freshman Deavin Hilson.
Betts praised Hilson's work ethic in practice. He's been named scout team player of the week once already this year, a testament to that but has a ways to go in development.
Let's focus on the two most immediately in line for carries: Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams.
"The two young guys in the room are very talented," Betts said. "I think people will be pleasantly surprised when they get a chance to watch both of them play. I'm sure it's tough for them not to get reps as a competitor. I know that feeling, I've been in that position."
With two veterans dominating the workload, Betts is preaching three simple words: continue to work to the younger backs. Gavin Williams capitalized on that work two weeks ago against Kent State when his number was called following two fumbles by Kelly-Martin.
He recorded four rushes for 17 yards in Iowa's 30-7 win. Kelly-Martin is still firmly the No. 2 running back but since Betts' arrival, Williams has impressed him.
"I've always been impressed with how he approaches practice," Betts said. "With him getting an opportunity to get into the game two weeks ago when Ivory was struggling, I think he showed me and the coaching staff that he can be counted on in tough situations.
"That was a tight ball game when he had to step in there and even got a 4th & 2 for us so I think his confidence is growing and the coaching staff's confidence in him is growing."
Then there's the breakout player from August's Kids Day scrimmage: Leshon Williams. He recorded two 40-plus yard runs on that day, leaving an impression. The carries haven't come yet this year but that doesn't mean he's not capable according to Betts.
"He's going to be a major contributor to this football team," Betts said. "He's ready right now but unfortunately the room is pretty crowded. I think Leshon's a lot quicker than people realize. He's got quick feet and the ability to make people miss which I think people will be surprised to see."
Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, it's likely that Betts' praise of the two young backs won't be featured until 2022.
The challenge for Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams is to continue to abide by the cliché of trusting the process. For Betts, his challenge is keeping young players engaged. Fortunately, he has personal experience in waiting in line. That doesn't make his job any easier but it adds a human element when relating to his players and to this point, they've responded.
"As a human being and former player, I can relate," said Betts, a highly decorated recruit out of Blue Springs, Missouri. "I share those stories with them. I redshirted my first year here or I went to the NFL and wasn't the starting running back so I know the feeling of getting reps in practice but not necessarily the game.
"To their credit, they haven't pouted or complained, but I'm not crazy, I know they want to play and when that time comes they'll be ready."
Goodson and Kelly-Martin are proven commodities and it's known what's expected of them for the remainder of the 2021 season. With Goodson's potential NFL prospects and Kelly-Martin's graduation, the future of the running back room is a question mark in the years to come.
But less so to Betts.
"They have a lot of opportunity to learn from the guys ahead of them," Betts said. "Because at some point we'll need them, we'll need everyone in the room. They'll be ready."
Kennington Smith is the Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org