Iowa enters spring practice with as much uncertainty and untested talent at running back, as possibly any time in the Kirk Ferentz era. That goes along with a new running backs coach directing the talent. Hawkeye aide Carl Jackson retired after 22 years in Iowa City. He'll be replaced by Lester Erb, who previously worked with the receivers.
Albert Young and Damian Sims accounted for 97% of Iowa's rushing yards last season. The talented pair accounted for 1,467 net rushing yards last year with Young totaling 968. Young was a co-MVP for the 2007 squad. Young finished his Hawkeye career with 3,173 rushing yards, good enough for third on Iowa's all-time rushing charts. He also wound up with 4,121 all-purpose yards, which ranks sixth on Iowa lists. He led the Hawkeyes in rushing the last three years and had 25 career touchdowns, a figure which ties him for third with former Iowa running back Ladell Betts. Young is a former first-team all-Big Ten running back. Sims had 1,504 career rushing yards and, along with Young, provided a great one-two punch for the Hawkeyes. Iowa will miss the experience, talent and leadership provided by both Young and Sims.
Sophomore Jevon Pugh was the only other running back with any experience on the roster, even though that was just 17 carries last year. Last week, Kirk Ferentz announced that Pugh was no longer a part of the football team, leaving Iowa incredibly thin at the position this spring. Pugh was listed as the co-starter on the pre-spring depth chart with junior college transfer Nate Guillory.
Who's On Campus Guillory (5-10, 185) carried 325 times for 2,644 yards and 28 touchdowns at Coffeyville Community College last year. He enrolled in January and is currently practicing with the team. While one would assume Guillory will get a lot of work and plenty of evaluating time this spring, Iowa's recent history with working out running backs in April might fly in the face of that logic. After Jermelle Lewis blew out his ACL in spring ball a few years back, Ferentz has taken a ‘hands off' approach to his running backs in the spring, or at least the backs that have experience and know the drill. Iowa is not in that situation this spring. Guillory will have to be put through the paces in order for the staff to get some idea of what they have there.
Sophomore Paki O'Meara (5-11, 210) saw limited action last season and will provide depth along with sophomore Jayme Murphy (5-11, 207).
Who's on the Way
Junior Shonn Greene (5-11, 227) will be on the roster again this fall after spending a year in the junior college ranks. He could be a significant factor in the race for the starting nod. Greene rushed for 378 yards (5.5 average) and scored three touchdowns during the 2005-06 seasons. He adds some badly needed experience to the mix.
When asked if a true freshman running back was going to get a look this coming fall, Kirk Ferentz had this to say: "I don't think there is any doubt. You hate to depend on players who are not with you in the spring, but there's no doubt that some of the freshmen will get a chance. With Shonn, we have seen him against Big Ten competition. But where will he be at physically? And he has work to complete (in the classroom) before he is accepted back into school. So I think our true freshmen will have opportunities."
Iowa signed three players that carried the ball in high school: Jeff Brinson (6-0/205) from St. Petersburg, Florida, William Lowe (5-10/170) from Glenville, Ohio and Jewell Hampton (5-11/200) from Indianapolis, Indiana. Lowe is a likely candidate for another position, so Brinson and Hampton figure to be the true freshmen that will get a big time look at playing time for this coming year.
Both of those players will arrive on campus with the physical size and attributes that Iowa likes in their running backs. Both will be over 200 pounds and can carry the ball in between the tackles. Both have reported 40-yard dash times in the range of 4.50 seconds. If they have legit 4.60 times, that would be fantastic. They are powerful backs as well.
The 2008 Outlook
If there is one position where freshmen can make an impact in the Big Ten above any other, running back would seem to be that position. We have seen numerous examples of that in recent years, with Michigan's Mike Hart, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, etc. So I wouldn't count out Brinson or Hampton making an impact on next year's team.
Shonn Greene has been and continues to be the huge wild card here. I said in November that Iowa's biggest recruiting target in the Class of 2008 was Shonn Greene and getting him back on campus and in uniform.
I believe that more now than ever. It remains to be seen as to what kind of shape he will be in when he arrives on campus and how far away from taking snaps he will be. Plus, as Ferentz said, Greene still needs to finish up some work in the classroom. He has two years of eligibility remaining.
In my perfect world, Greene comes in ready to play, physically and mentally, and lives up to the promise that we have all seen from him carrying the football in a limited role in addition to being a special teams star. His time on special teams will probably come to an end due to lack of depth at this position and his strong chance of being the featured back.
Guillory will have his chance to shine some this spring and get the system under his belt before the real competition begins in August.
Iowa was decimated at this position in 2004 and still won a Big Ten title when it's leading rusher was Sam Brownlee at under 300 yards for the season. That was a dream season and something that we might never see again, given that level of adversity. We saw the adversity at wide receiver last year.
Let's hope that everyone we have mentioned stays healthy in 2008; injuries at Iowa are never a good thing, but this position begins with one arm tied behind its back, at least on paper.
A strong showing by Greene in August would make me feel very good about things, because I believe he has the talent to be an exceptional player.