Dan Cagley's 2002 Offensive Backfield Preview

Although TE Dallas Clark and WR C.J. Jones return as passing threats, the Iowa coaches have to replace top receiver Kahlil Hill, starting QB Kyle McCann, talented FB Jeremy Allen, and the school's second best statistical rusher in school history – Ladell Betts. McCann fought off the disapproval of fans and the media at times to throw for 2,028 yards and 16 TDs while Betts ran 222 times for 1,113 yards and 10 TDs even though he was slowed by injuries at the beginning and end of the season.

For his career, Ladell ran for 3,739 yards 25 TDs and caught 71 passes for 692 yards and two TDs before getting drafted in the second round this spring by the Washington Redskins. After losing players like Ladell Betts, the Iowa Backfield is not an experienced unit compared to the previous year or two, but two of the three positions should be fine to say the least. Although Betts was smart, tough, durable, had good hands, ran between the tackles well, and was the one of the best backs in school history, there are three tailbacks on the roster capable of having a big statistical season while trying to fill his shoes. Junior Aaron Greving (5-11, 207) is not as big as Ladell, nor does he have the moves and speed of former Hawkeye Tavian Banks, but he has a very good north-south running style that should do well behind this year's experienced OL. Aaron may not be flashy, but he does everything pretty well and has held on to the ball so far in his career. Last season, he ran 60 times for 333 yards and 7 TDs, but got the attention of many in the state when he ran for 115 yards and a touchdown in the 19-16 bowl win over Texas Tech.

Aaron would perhaps be the clear cut No. 1 back after that performance had he not injured his ankle in spring practice. He was still listed at the top of the depth chart last week, but now might not play against Akron in the opener because of an injury to the other ankle. "(Last season) Ladell lined up each and every Saturday and played like a champ," said Coach Ferentz, "and Aaron has practiced and played like a starter not only this season, but last year as well."

Fred Russell only got 21 carries last season, but turned them into 141 yards and one touchdown. Coach Ferentz said in his news conference that Fred would start if Aaron was held out of the Akron game, but the team should not miss a beat if that happens. Russell (5-8, 185) is not as big as Greving, but he is strong and also likes to hit the hole quick with a north-south style of running. "Our game plan doesn't change with Fred in the game," said Coach Ferentz. "Sometimes that happens with different type backs, but Fred loves to stick his head in there and run between the tackles." Although Fred is not as experienced or as big as Greving, he is one of the fastest and quickest players on the team roster. His runs in the spring game last season were a blur of quick moves, and his hands have gotten better each year on campus. With his quickness, toughness, and ability to hide and get lost behind the Iowa OL, Fred will give opposing defensive coordinators some headaches this fall.

The third tailback that the coaches have high expectations of is sophomore Jermelle Lewis (5-11, 208). Rated as the best running back on the East Coast coming out of high school in Connecticut, Jermelle excelled in football, track, and weightlifting before he arrived on the Iowa campus, yet he got lost during his time in Iowa City. Declared academically ineligible last season, Jermelle was also not working as hard on the football practice field as the coaches would have liked. He was removed from scholarship after becoming ineligible, but did not run away from his problems and stayed in school. He has since regained his eligibility after working harder academically and, not coincidentally, has started to work harder and perform better on the practice field as well. "Jermelle has been practicing the way that Fred started to last season," said Coach Ferentz. "Jermelle seems to be very focused right now and is starting to understand what it takes to play in the Big Ten."

Jermelle still dances too much and does not have the quickness of Russell (not many people do), but he does have good size and strength to go with very nice overall speed and a fluid running style. He might have the best overall talent on the roster, but needs game experience. He should get it this Saturday if Greving is not playing, as he and Russell were both listed as the backups to Greving on the most recent depth chart.

There will be a drop-off at fullback this season as no one on the roster has the talent of Jeremy Allen. Junior Edgar Cervantes (6-3, 240) will start the Akron game, but not much separates him from sophomore Aaron Mickens (5-10, 235). Both men have taken turns being listed as the starter on the two-deep roster in the months since last season. Mickens seemed to be the better runner in the spring game, but Cervantes looked a little better as a lead blocker. Neither has the package of blocker, tough runner, fluid runner, pass receiver, and overall athletic ability that Allen had, but as long as they block well, things should be fine.

Most media members in the state have thrived on trying to create and write about quarterback controversies at the U of I the last several seasons, but there will be no controversy this season if starter Brad Banks (6-1, 185) stays healthy. The senior is only in his second year in the Iowa program, but he has made tremendous improvements since stepping on campus in January of 2001. The former junior college WR and QB threw for 582 yards and four touchdowns in an Iowa uniform on 41-68 passing. He made mistakes and did not always adjust to blitzes in the Iowa State and Texas Tech games, but looked flawless in the spring game this year, as he was 18-21 for 337 yards and four TDs. He should continue to impress and progress this fall as long as he remains healthy. Whether he becomes an excellent player like Senaca Wallace remains to be seen, but he has talent.

The major reservation most people had about Iowa after the spring game was depth at QB. As long as Banks stays healthy, the team should do well. However, after Brad, the other quarterbacks performed poorly. To make matters worse, third-string QB David Raih (6-5, 197) had season ending shoulder surgery, while highly touted true freshman Jason Manson (6-1, 185) has mononucleosis causing him to sit out for the next month. He may be a redshirt candidate this year. The only quarterback on the roster that was on the team last fall is redshirt freshman Matt Bohnet (6-3, 222). However, Bohnet threw only one pass in the spring game, and in the words of Coach Ferentz this week, "needs to continue to progress."

The only quarterback that sounds close to being ready to help the team right now is junior college transfer Nathan Chandler (6-7, 250). The biggest quarterback on the Iowa roster since Mark McGuire's highly touted brother Dan in 1987, Nathan struggled in the spring game much like Brad Banks did in the spring contest of 2001. Chandler was a first team all-American in junior college, and according to Coach Ferentz, has started to show his talent as he is learning the system and getting used to his surroundings. "Nathan has really started to hit his stride like we hoped he would. We are real pleased with how he looks more comfortable." If he can handle the learning curve like Banks did last season, he should eventually be fine. The report on him is that he has a nice arm and moves very well for his size. Hopefully Banks stays healthy and Nathan gets his feet wet during the season in mop up duty during blowout wins. If injuries take place at this position, look out since Coach Ferentz feels the third QB spot "is a little cloudy."

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