Running Back Committee

Since the rumbling times of Sedrick Shaw, Iowa fans have known the number of the Hawkeyes featured running back as well as their own phone number. Well, for the first time since Shaw took over in 1994, it looks like the team might start the season with a running back committee. Senior Writer Rob Howe examines the situation.

Maybe we should have expected it. The Iowa coaching staff has shown throughout its six years here that anything can happen, and it adjusts to take advantage of the team's strengths regardless of history.

But Kirk Ferentz must have caught a few of you off guard on Monday when the coach said this month's running back competition wasn't likely to produce a feature back.

Most of us were picturing a Ladell Betts or Fred Russell setup, where one guy totes the ball 20 plus times a game and another guy might spell him here or there. Shoot, we prepared for that last year before our backfield ended up looking like a M*A*S*H unit.

"I don't think I see us in the situation (of looking for a featured runner) right now, at least at this given point," Ferentz said at his Monday press conference. "It's still early, but somebody to me really has to elevate themselves from the pack. I'm not sure I foresee that, but you never know.

"It was pretty clear with those two guys (Russell and Betts) that they were the guys at that point."

Asked if he sees the position breaking down as a running back by committee situation where they rotate backs based on each guy's strengths, Ferentz stopped short of committing to that idea.

"We haven't given it a lot of talk, yet," he said. "We're just looking to see where we're at and who we have and those sorts of things. It would be a wonderful problem to have in contrast to last year. But I think all of the guys have something that they do a little better than the other. We'll wait and see."

What we have here, is an extreme break from the recent norm. Up until last year when the three top running backs went down with ACL tears, we've been used to one guy carrying the load.

Sedrick Shaw paced the Hawkeyes in rushing from 1994-96 carrying the ball 710 times in that span. Tavian Banks took over in '97 (260) attempts, followed by Betts ('98-01, 1,541) and Russell ('02-03, 502).

We should view this development as a positive, however. It works. Auburn flourished with a two-back system last season with Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams. And there's the classic example of Eric Dickerson and Craig James.

Heck, Jermelle Lewis piled up 123 carries for 709 yards as Russell's able backup in '02. Nick Bell and Tony Stewart carried the ball 166 and 157 times, respectively, in '90.

"Everybody wants to be that feature back," Iowa sophomore Albert Young said. "That's what we're all shooting for. But if we do it like a rotation, shoot, that's good. Sometimes you get tired out there."

I would be a little more worried about the situation was their not precedent for finding the best solution by this coaching staff. You need look no farther than last year's ability to win the Big Ten Championship with the second worse rushing attack thanks to letting a sophomore quarterback improvise.

If nothing else, this idea of running back by committee will keep are message boards here at cruising at high speed. Close your eyes and picture the posts pining to see more of Young, Marques Simmons, Marcus Schnoor and Damian Sims. And you know, oh do you know, that the Shonn Greene Fan Club already is approaching record membership.

Perhaps this situation could spiral out of control with all these guys battling for so few carries. It might be compared to wrestling Roseanne Barr for that last Oreo. Having spoken with the principles in this competition, it seems like they're all, for now at least, willing to share.

"It's great to have so many talented guys," Simmons said. "You saw what happened last year. So, whoever has their number called, it's time to go."

Realistically, though, there are only so many carries to go around, right?

"That's true," Simmons said with a chuckle. "We'll see what happens. It's a long summer still. We have a ways to go until Sept. 3."

You could hear the confidence in Simmons' voice. He has been running with the No. 1 team since the spring, and clearly felt like he was going to stay there.

All these guys believe they can get the job done if called upon, and that's also a good thing.

"In my mind, I don't really worry about that now," Young said. "During camp, everybody's a team, everybody's got everybody's back, and everybody's going to get out on the field. But also, you've got to want to be the man. I look at it more as if I play my game and I have a good camp, I'm playing. And that's how I look at it. I don't really worry about anybody else."

Strong words, but Young backs it up with the most overall talent in this running back group. The coaching staff likely will find a way to get the sophomore on the field. And don't be surprised to see him paired with one of the other running backs, going in motion and slipping into the slot. This guy receives the ball exceptionally well.

"It really is a lot like last year at the beginning of the season," Schnoor said. "We had a lot of running backs. A lot of things can change. People can get hurt. But as of right now, we're probably five deep in the backfield with guys that could possibly start. It's good for the team. The competition thing is healthy for us. By the end of camp, something will come out of it."

However, even if we see a rotation/committee, a few of these talented backs face disappointment.

"Reasonably, three guys will get a lot of carries, maybe four," Schnoor said. "That's just me talking. But we're deep, and there's a lot of talent back there."

I would tend to agree with Schnoor that up to four guys will see action. But it also makes sense that running backs need carries to get in a groove. Fred Russell once said that he didn't really get going until he carried the ball four or five times.

In that sense, barring injury, expect Young get the most reps. He definitely possesses the most versatility and really keeps the defense off-balance. Simmons should see his fair share of action as will Schnoor. Sims could be the odd man out on this thing, although he looked sharp in the spring and explodes through the hole the best of the backs.

And…All right, I admit. Shonn Greene intrigues me.

Stay tuned.

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