The Iowa quarterback usually plays lightning rod for fan opinion. The saying often goes that the most popular Hawkeye is the backup signal caller.
Jake Christensen steps into that spotlight again this season after struggling in his first year as a starter. As much as consistent play from him is important, the real key to offensive success in 2008 might line up behind him in the backfield.
When Kirk Ferentz released his latest depth chart on Wednesday, walk-on Paki O'Meara, a sophomore, and junior college transfer, Nate Guillory, were listed 1-2. Their next carry will be their first in Division I football.
Iowa said good-bye to Albert Young and Damian Sims, who combined for 1,467 yards and nine touchdowns rushing last season. In his nine previous seasons, Ferentz has coached three of the school's all-time leading rushers in Young, Ladell Betts and Fred Russell.
The Hawkeyes will enter this fall with the most unsettled running back situation in the Ferentz Era. The 2004 campaign turned into a mess because of injury, but that team went into the season with Jermelle Lewis, Marquis Simmons, Marcus Schnoor (a walk-on, but a senior) and Young as a true freshman.
Iowa flourished that season because of a dominant defense and a freelancing quarterback in Drew Tate. The Hawkeyes turned to walk-on Sam Browlnee at running back, and although the guy was all heart, the team finished near the bottom of the country in rushing.
That situation you didn't see coming. It was freakish to have that many injuries at one spot. But as sure as that bug was an aberration, so was the success Iowa enjoyed without a strong back.
O'Meara was a fine Iowa high school back at Cedar Rapids Washington, but he didn't turn enough heads to earn a scholarship. He might emerge as the next Rick Bayless, who walked on to success at the position in the mid-80s, but there's a better chance that he will not be.
"You probably have to go back to Rick Bayless," Ferentz said. "That one worked out pretty well. It's a bit more unusual, more typical to see a lineman emerge or something like that."
Running back is a position of pedigree maybe more than any other on the field. It's very difficult to coach up a guy that doesn't have a high level of natural ability and instinct once you get to high major college ball or the NFL. The roll call for successful walk-on backs nationwide would be pretty short.
The signing of Guillory excited many Hawkeye fans because of his big-play ability and physically similarities to Russell. The newcomer has struggled with blocking as did Russell, who became better as he learned technique and increased strength.
"That's the biggest challenge for a young back, learning how to block then knowing who to block, those two things," Ferentz said. "That was something (Russell) had to learn. It was a process for him. He was basically totally lost that first spring.
"I had that conversation with Nate a while back. Hey, we didn't expect it all to click for you right off the bat, but it's a bit like those Brad Banks stories. That first spring really gives you a chance to find out where you're at, find out what you're supposed to be doing. The trick will be to put that to his advantage in August."
Iowa lists Guillory at 5-10, 185, which can be viewed as generous measurements. While being smaller makes it more difficult to be a natural blocker, Ferentz believes it can be done with practice and understanding.
"Nate's small," the coach said. "Fred wasn't big when he got here. The smaller you are, the more technique-conscious you have to be. Hopefully we're not going to put him into a situation where he's got to block a 240-pound linebacker all day long.
"At some point, they've got to block too, they've got to know how to do it, otherwise it's tough to have them playing a lot. It's hard to jerry-rig it where a guy doesn't have any responsibility."
Another walk-on, Jayme Murphy, has worked at No. 3 this spring. He produced at Dubuque Senior High, and like O'Meara has been very valuable on special teams, but he's not a guy that you'd envision as your feature back.
After O'Meara, Guillory and Murphy you hear crickets. Jevon Pugh, who started camp as the No.1 after being used sparingly last season as a true freshman, is no longer with the team, having left due to home sickness.
The hopes of many Hawkeye fans (and Ferentz) rest in what might be arriving for summer camp. Shonn Greene is expected to rejoin the team after spending the last academic year at Kirkwood Community College working on grades. It will take a while for him to get back into football shape.
"He's OK," Ferentz said when asked about Greene's condition. "All that being said, no matter what he's doing, it's been a full year that he's been out of the program. You don't make that up in two weeks time. We have to really, all of us have to be smart about the approach, his conditioning, then once it's football, be smart about what we do with him. We can't expect him to show up and be the same as he was when he walked out."
Greene still is completing his course work at Kirkwood and needs to qualify academically, something the coaches feel confident that he will do. He then would begin working out at Iowa again in the summer.
Ferentz also has stated that he'll need to get something out of a pair of true freshmen – Jeff Brinson (Florida) and Jewel Hampton (Indiana). The coach has not had a first-year guy carry the main load in his time and there haven't been many in the history of the program.
Running backs face an easier transition from high school to college than most other positions, Ferentz said. There seem to be examples around the country every year.
Iowa doesn't require its incoming players to report to campus at the beginning of summer. As long as they're here by the start of August camp, they're fine. Many of them come in anyway to take summer classes, work out in superior facilities or just to get acclimated to the environment.
"The most important thing is being in shape when we start," Ferentz said. "Usually the thing that would hold a younger player back is not being able to stay up with everybody else. That's typically the case.
"The more they can do to make sure they're in a really competitive shape, that's usually the biggest adjustment at any level you go to, can you stay with the crowd, practicing, things like that. If you're not in shape, you're more inclined to get hurt, and it spirals the other direction."
It's probably fair to say that Brinson and Hampton have been told about their opportunity. You would hope that would inspire them to be in the proper condition to keep up.
"At least with running backs you have a better chance of having those guys show up in better condition," Ferentz said. "If you recruit a 330-pound DL, it's a bit of a struggle."
Even though it's only the middle of April, it's a muddy picture at a key position in Iowa's relatively conservative offense. Ferentz likes a balanced offense, but would prefer the run set up the pass.
Time will tell if someone will emerge this season as the next guy pushing his way into the Top 5 for all-time rushers. It also could clear up as a situation where two or more guys share the workload.
"We'll see how it goes," Ferentz said. "To think that (the true freshmen) are going to be able to jump in there and be ready to go right off the bat, it's not realistic. We'll just see what everybody is capable of doing. Hopefully by that time Nate is a little bit more accelerated. He should be ahead of the younger guys. We know what we have with Paki and Jayme. We'll try to put a good plan together and see how it all pulls together."
While Ferentz doesn't enjoy the security of a known quantity at running back, he does feel confident that things will work out even if by committee.
"If we could order up a guy that could give us 1,600 yards every season, we'll take one of those and just put it all to rest," Ferentz said. "But it's like that at every position. You play with what you have and try to be smart about it, knowing, too, that even if we had one of those 1,600-yard guys that could change in one practice.
"In a perfect world you'd like to have an all-Big Ten performer returning for three more years, but that's not realistic. We've been at both ends of the spectrum so we'll work our way through it."