What's the status of Iowa's running back room? Saturday's scrimmage provided some clarity

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz circled fall camp practice No. 10 as a big day for his running back room. Saturday's Kids' Day at Kinnick scrimmage would be the first practice in front of a crowd and it'd be the first time live tackling in full pads.

During Friday's team media day presser, Ferentz expressed confidence in the returning backs, sophomores Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams, and said it'd be the first big test for true freshmen Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson.

Iowa worked them during Saturday's scrimmage (unofficially 46% of total plays were runs). Post-scrimmage, Ferentz said he felt his two freshmen performed well. 

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"Quite good, they've been practicing really well since they got here," he said. "I was really anxious to see both Jaziun and Kaleb and they've been practicing very well, they appear to be really mature young guys for first-years. Today was a positive step." 

Patterson led all running backs with an unofficial 16 carries. Johnson had five carries and was used heavily in pass protection. Both running backs received spot reps with the first team offense while alternating with the second team offense. Patterson received almost all of the third team reps. 

The freshmen backs have been impressive since arriving in June. Their maturity has allowed for them to adjust quickly to the program. Ferentz noted that during summer workouts, both were regularly arriving early to sessions. 

"They train at 6 a.m., and (strength and conditioning coach Raimond Braithwaite) is telling me the guys are coming every morning, 5:40, 5:45," Ferentz said. "(Saying) 'How you doing, coach?' All that stuff, and that's really unusual for guys a month out of high school. That's really unusual." 

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Gavin Williams was held out on Saturday for an injury. Ferentz said on Friday that Williams has been out for the last week or so with a "camp injury" but it's not serious and he will be back soon. 

His absence has allowed Leshon Williams to receive the bulk of the first team reps of late. Williams was the first team running back for the majority of Saturday's practice and took advantage, scoring two touchdowns. 

Within the program Leshon Williams has been steadily rising. Ferentz said Williams came to him last season requesting more work and reps and received his opportunity during bowl practice.

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"I felt like he was a really good player last December," Ferentz said. "We had total confidence going into (last year's Citrus Bowl) that (Gavin and Leshon) would play well and I think they did. Leshon, I mentioned a year ago, that spring is really when he started ascend in my opinion and he's done nothing but just keep getting a little bit better, so it's fun to watch him." 

Gavin Williams has maintained the No. 1 running back spot dating back to the Citrus Bowl. A leg injury to redshirt freshman Deavin Hilson left the room thin during spring practice. Now that there's a full complement of backs available this fall, Williams appreciates that there's more competition. 

Iowa running back Leshon Williams (4) gets a high-five from teammate Gavin Williams during the Kids Day at Kinnick scrimmage Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City,.

"The competition's great, that's what you want," he said. "That competition's going to bring the best out of everyone. For whatever reason if they need to go into the game, the need to be ready. And that's the challenge that I've put on everybody: try to compete. Try to do your best and win some playing time." 

While he's out, Williams is focusing on staying sharp mentally. He said that includes going through his assignments and the finer details of each play (offensive alignments, defensive formations) from the sidelines and serving as a player-coach to the freshman backs. 

Challenging his fellow backs, increasing his knowledge of the playbook and pushing the competition forward (when healthy) are all elements of what Williams sees as his next step: becoming a bigger leader. 

Braithwaite, the strength and conditioning coach "put that challenge on me this off-season, of stepping up and becoming that leader," Williams said. "I feel like I've tackled that challenge well but I still have some work to do." 

Iowa running back Leshon Williams runs with the ball during the Hawkeyes' final spring NCAA football practice April 23 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa Cit.

Hilson is another running back that the coaching staff is high on but who has been limited by injury. He's back at practice now but saw a limited role in Saturday's scrimmage. As he continues to work back, running back coach Ladell Betts foresees a special teams role soon. 

"I think he can (find a role on special teams)," Betts said. "He's had that year to develop, he's been on scout team and given us some good looks and is starting to transition. So I think he can and he will." 

Betts noted that setting specific pecking orders for carries is a long ways out, and a lot of that will be determined by the health of the room leading up to the first game. He and Ferentz left Saturday's scrimmage more encouraged about the position, especially with Johnson and Patterson continuing to gain momentum.

"I'm feeling a little bit better about our whole situation than I was maybe a month ago (at Big Ten media days)," Ferentz said. 

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 ksmith@gannett.com.