Iowa running back recruit Kaleb Johnson eyes early playing time at a position of need
Kaleb Johnson is approaching the long-awaited June 12 date with growing excitement.
That's the day the Iowa football incoming freshman running back will finally arrive on campus. It's a date that's been circled since he signed with the program last December.
Depending on where you look, Johnson is a three- or four-star recruit in Iowa's 2022 signing class. The Ohio native hasn't participated in any other sport since signing, devoting all of his time to making sure he's ready from the moment he enrolls.
"I've been working out every day focusing on football," Johnson said. "(Running back coach Ladell Betts) gave me a workout plan, but my trainer is mixing in his own thing with coach Betts' stuff, so it's like both."
The scope of these workouts is focused on improving Johnson's hip flexibility and quickness. He's different than the running backs that Iowa's had in recent years. Betts said as much about the 6-foot-1, 216-pound prospect when his signing became official.
"In recent years we haven't had a 'big' running back in the program," Betts said in a statement. "Kaleb brings a physical presence to the running back room with his size and speed and should be a great addition to an already talented group."
Iowa's running back room is in a transitional state. Veterans Tyler Goodson and Ivory Kelly-Martin are gone and the remaining backs on the roster have only 94 career carries among them. This spring, the Hawkeyes carried three scholarship running backs in Deavin Hilson, Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams but Hilson suffered a serious leg injury and the timetable on his return is unknown.
Help is on the way in the form of Johnson and fellow 2022 signee Jaziun Patterson out of Deerfield Beach, Florida. With opportunity for playing time present, conversations between Betts, Johnson and Patterson throughout the spring have been about making sure the rookies are prepared to hit the ground running.
"I talk to them both about making sure they're in shape," Betts said this spring. "You always need a stable of backs, and I preach that to the guys coming in. Make sure you're ready, because you don't know when your opportunity is going to come. When it does come, you don't want to show up out of shape or have missed that opportunity. But those guys are hungry. They're ready."
Johnson watched Iowa's spring practice period from afar while finishing his last high school semester. Iowa's top two returning backs, Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams, enjoyed the majority of the reps while walk-on Zac Brand got a lot of work with Hilson out. Admittedly, there wasn't much contact between Johnson and his fellow Hawkeye backs through spring as he looks ahead to the competition this summer and fall.
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"I paid attention to the spring game," Johnson said. "It's a weird feeling, because I see the running backs playing superb, but I'm a confident person, so I feel like when I get there I'm going to help make (the running back room) more progressive. They're improving and doing great, but on my end I'm always a competitive person so I'm going to have a little confidence."
According to Johnson, his competitiveness is one of the traits that Betts loved the most during his recruitment. A glance at his high school career shows a track record of early contributions. His varsity career began as a freshman after he was inserted into the starting lineup due to injury. Johnson rushed 800 yards in each of his first three seasons while splitting carries and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (1,0002) as a senior on 127 carries, with 14 touchdowns.
He believes he'll be a perfect fit in Iowa's zone running scheme given his playing style.
"I think I'm going to be the best at doing it," Johnson said. "Their scheme is what I really love running: through the holes and also to the outside. I feel like their running scheme will make me superb when I get there. And their offensive line, they're all just big. I feel like I can maneuver through them, so it's going to be pretty cool."
Johnson pinpointed a few running backs that he studies. The names include newly drafted Breece Hall from Iowa State, NFL running backs Najee Harris and Derrick Henry, and Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen. The average height and weight of those four is 6-foot-1½ inches and 235 pounds. Johnson has the height and will likely tack on a few pounds in Iowa's strength program.
Like Allen or even Goodson at Iowa before him, Johnson is eyeing an impactful freshman season in the Big Ten. The door is certainly open to make a move on the depth chart.
"I'm looking forward to getting into the playbook," Johnson said. "Adjusting to everything physically and mentally and just knowing my role."
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 email@example.com.