Looking for a breakout Iowa running back? Leshon Williams may be that guy for the Hawkeyes
After two years of waiting, Iowa sophomore running back Leshon Williams received his opportunity in the last game of the Hawkeyes' 2021 season.
With regular starter Tyler Goodson opting out of the Citrus Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft and senior backup Ivory Kelly-Martin battling injury, Williams stepped into a feature role for the first time in his career.
Williams only had 10 career carries prior to that. He finished the game with 10 carries for 42 yards. Overall, Iowa rushed for 175 yards and 5.8 yards per carry in their 20-17 loss.
He's expecting a lot more work to come his way in 2022.
"I processed (Goodson opting out) as an opportunity," Williams said. "Getting a lot more reps help. There's nothing like being in a game and seeing a blitz full speed. Just me getting into the bowl game and getting a lot more experience is going to help because now I have a game under my belt and I got a feel of the speed of the game and how it goes."
Williams is squarely in the mix for Iowa's starting running back competition as spring practice nears a close. He and fellow sophomore Gavin Williams are the top two running backs returning this season with redshirt freshman Deavin Hilson behind them.
The trio are the only scholarship running backs on the roster right now, the Hawkeyes will welcome two incoming freshmen in June. Reps were hard to come by last season in a crowded backfield but running back coach Ladell Betts has seen Williams seize another opportunity this spring.
"Leshon has grown the most since I've been here," Betts said. "Leshon didn't have a grasp of the offense so when I got here he was kind of learning from me the plays and the expectations. Now he's got clear understanding of what he's supposed to do, where he's supposed to be and why he's supposed to be there. And now you have a chance to see that talent unfold."
Last season, Betts praised Williams' ability and projected that he'd be a future contributor. He noted that one of the biggest challenges for young players who aren't playing is staying engaged and abiding by the cliché of trusting the process. One of the biggest influences on Williams' development was Goodson himself. The two running backs are close friends and were training partners in the off-season.
Last summer, Williams traveled with Goodson to his native Atlanta, Georgia during their Fourth of July break for a series of Southern-style workouts including running uphill carrying large rocks and pulling ATVs behind them.
"I got really close with Tyler in the years I've been here," Williams said. "We trained a lot on speed and strength & conditioning. He also taught me some routes and other things, just veteran stuff to know."
Beyond training, Williams credits Goodson, along with Kelly-Martin and current Jacksonville Jaguar Mehki Sargent, with teaching him nuances of the game. He's much more comfortable than he was two years ago and, with Gavin Willams, forms a duo that Betts feels good about in every situation.
"There's really nothing that I'm uncomfortable putting them on the field for," Betts said. "Whether it's two-minute, third down, first-and-10. They're complete players that can do what's needed to do."
Williams will bring a different style of running back to the Hawkeyes' rush offense this year. His natural running style is sticking his foot in the ground and moving downhill, as opposed to Goodson who operated best in open space with his speed. He's also a bigger running back than Goodson, listed at 5-foot-10 and weighing 208 pounds. That physical run style was on display in the Citrus Bowl but that's not to count out his shiftiness either.
"He runs behind his pads and has good pad level," Betts said. "I think what will surprise people is Leshon has more wiggle than people think. In the bowl game, he was running people over but he has the ability to make people miss too, you'll get to see that as the year goes on."
On Saturday, Williams will have another opportunity to showcase his growth at their annual open practice. Due to low numbers and injuries, Leshon and Gavin Williams will be the only scholarship running backs participating.
The excess number of reps don't bother Williams at all. He hopes it's a sign of things to come this fall.
"I feel like Gavin and I are a good duo," Williams said. "We fit each other well and I feel like we can do a lot this year with helping the team running the ball. (Goodson) was great and we learned a lot from him but we feel like we can fill the shoes."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.