Iowa will have nine scholarship running backs, possibly, on its roster next fall.
Nine. Yes, nine.
If you think that’s crazy — and you might — consider Iowa and Kirk Ferentz’s history with the position.
Part of this is the 2004 effect. That was the year Iowa won a Big Ten co-championship with a mighty, mighty defense and quarterback Drew Tate’s right arm. We got to know Drew Tate’s right arm because Iowa’s offense ran out of legs.
The Hawkeyes lost Jermelle Lewis, Albert Young, Marcus Schnoor and Marques Simmons to injury and were left with Sam Brownlee, a walk-on. He was running back enough to spring Tate’s play-action magic.
This season, Iowa was dangerously close to the bottom of the running back tank.
First, Shonn Greene told ESPN walking off the Raymond James Stadium field after the 2009 Outback Bowl that he was going pro. Everyone saw this coming, so true freshman Jewel Hampton was groomed. He carried the ball 91 times for 463 yards and a then-freshmen record seven TDs.
Hampton tore an ACL during a non-contact drill on a practice field in late June.
Suddenly, it was redshirt freshman Adam Robinson and true freshman Brandon Wegher. Wait, it was up to them after now-senior Paki O’Meara fumbled in the UNI game.
When Robinson suffered a high-ankle sprain and Wegher a rib injury at Michigan State, it was Wegher and the rib injury, with true freshman Brad Rogers on the bench.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t going to pull the redshirt off Rogers, but Rogers’ status was elevated to “if Wegher goes down, you’re it.”
Wegher fought through pain and came up with 118 yards and three TDs against Indiana. Then, two weeks later at Ohio State, he was forced to sit after a reaction to pain medication. Ferentz revealed after the Minnesota game that Wegher suffered from an intercostal muscle injury.
So, then Robinson flew off the bench just three weeks after the ankle injury to rush for 74 yards on 20 carries against Ohio State, the Big Ten’s top defense. He reaggravated the ankle and showed up for the Orange Bowl with a shoulder sprain suffered during bowl practices.
Wegher cleaned up Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl with 113 yards on 16 carries, including a 32-yard TD run in the fourth that sealed Iowa’s 24-14 victory.
Wegher finished with 641 yards on 162 carries and a 4.0 yards per carry, a stat that steadily climbed after bottoming out somewhere near 3.3 midseason. He also scored a freshmen record eight TDs, beating Hampton’s seven. He also caught 13 passes for 112 yards.
Robinson finished with 834 yards on 181 carries — a respectable 4.6 yards per — and five TDs. He caught 10 passes for 80 yards.
They carried the ball 343 times with one lost fumble. They blocked well, too (see Wegher on the McNutt TD pass in the Orange Bowl).
So, next year.
Here’s what we know — Iowa will have four sophomore running backs in Hampton, Robinson, Wegher and Jeff Brinson (who missed the season after ankle surgery). O’Meara will be a senior and will likely resume his role on special teams.
Redshirt freshmen Rogers and Josh Brown join in officially this spring.
In about three weeks, Iowa likely will sign Marcus Coker, a 6-0, 220-pound blaster of a running back from Baltimore, Md., who rushed for 1,567 yards and 20 TDs, and De’Andre Johnson, a 5-8, 210-pounder from Monsignor Pace in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Remember, position changes, injuries and academics could shape this, too.
But let’s go from there:
Adam Robinson (so.) – He went from afterthought, maybe No. 4 on the depth chart behind Hampton, Paki O’Meara and Brinson, to strong candidate for Big Ten newcomer of the year (edged out by Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland). He finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing and would’ve broken 1,000 yards without the ankle injury that cost him 2 1/2 games. Remember, Robinson started last spring as a safety, an experiment that quickly ended. 2010 forecast — Strong contender for No. 1 carries. The Ohio State performance stands out. That was coming off a high-ankle sprain. He lacks breakaway speed, but is strong and shifty.
Brandon Wegher (so.) — According to offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe, Wegher was No. 5 on the depth chart in August. All along, the 5-9, 205-pounder was a candidate to return kicks, but that after sitting out UNI, his role exploded. He had three 100-yard games to two for Robinson. Showed an extra gear in the Orange Bowl, outrunning four Georgia Tech defenders into the end zone. 2010 forecast — Strong contender for No. 1 carries. Wegher’s toughness impressed coaches. Ferentz picked up on that and mentioned it early. Before you move him to safety or slot receiver, remember that he was recruited as a running back and wants to play running back. Ferentz doesn’t often, if ever, force players to switch. Right now, there’s no reason to ask Wegher to switch. He was the best running back in the Orange Bowl. He’s the type of back who goes for 1 or 2 yards eight or so times and then breaks a 19 or 32, just as he did in the Orange.
Jewel Hampton (so.) — Some internet rumors wafted in December that Hampton packed on some LBs during his knee rehab. Check the picture below. After smelling success in 2008, Hampton took a backseat to injury. This is going to be one motivated and hungry running back. And “hungry” in a good way, of course. 2010 forecast — Hampton has to be considered a front runner for No. 1, but where will the knee be? He hits holes aggressively and angrily, averaging 5.1 yards a carry in ’08. In ’09, Robinson averaged 16.5 carries a game with Wegher averaging 13.5. Someone’s plate is going to have a little less on it.
Jeff Brinson (so.) — An ankle injury suffered in camp derailed the 5-11, 220-pounder’s season. He had one carry for
7 yards against Iowa State and then was on crutches and eventually had surgery. During the Orange Bowl, Brinson went through sprints with the other injured players and had ended up limping. The next chance to see him will be in April during spring practice. Will he be ready? He was Iowa’s best back last spring, when Hampton was slowed with a hamstring. 2010 forecast — He is No. 4 right now, probably looking at special teams, if he’s healthy. Brinson is a big body, maybe Iowa’s closest to Shonn Greene. If injuries or academics or position changes or whatever hits, Brinson could be splitting carries. It can happen that quickly.
Paki O’Meara (sr.) — He’s a special teamer and a good one. That’s OK, isn’t it? Jayme Murphy became a folk hero on special teams. Not a damn thing wrong with it. O’Meara carried nine times against UNI, fumbled and then carried seven times the rest of the season. It didn’t work out at running back. 2010 forecast — Special teams, maybe a turn on kick return.
Brad Rogers (fr.) – Rogers is a thick bowling ball of a running back. Not sure about his speed and vision, but he’s a full 225. His body needed some shaping coming into school last fall, but when it fit the fan, he was the back Iowa dressed and took on the charter to East Lansing. That’s got to say something. 2010 forecast — I don’t see a role where he carries the ball. It’s going to be hard for the younger backs to make an impression. There are only so many reps.
Josh Brown (fr.) — Listed at 5-11, 200, but came to Iowa more in the 220-range. Originally listed as an athlete, Brown was moved to running back early in camp and stayed there. His body also needed shaping, Ferentz said. 2010 forecast — I hate to say “position change,” but Brown did come in as an athlete. Wide receiver, safety, it’s impossible to say, but I could see that in this situation.
De’Andre Johnson (incoming fr.) — As a junior, Johnson carried 155 times for 1,121 yards and 10 touchdowns for an 11-3 Monsignor Pace team. This season, he suffered a torn ACL in the second game. He had the surgery Oct. 7 and is rehabbing fine. The 5-8, 210-pounder picked Iowa over Minnesota, Duke, Colorado State, and Troy. 2010 forecast — Because of the knee injury, I think Johnson will redshirt.
Ellis Jordan (fr.) — A walk-on from City High. Jordan doesn’t have great size (5-7, 180), but he had 1,457 yards and 15 TDs for the state champion Little Hawks last fall. Has instincts and knows what it means to be a Hawkeye.
Brett Morse (sr.) – Had a great Orange Bowl. At 6-3, 230, he has the body that can seal LBs at the point of attack. Has decent wheels and good hands, so on the few times Iowa calls the fullback’s number, he comes through.
Wade Leppert (jr.) — At 6-0, 245, he’s a thumper. He broke into the lineup last year, but fell behind after a few injuries last season. I believe he’ll take over when Morse is one.
Jacob Reisen (fr.) — Haven’t seen him play a lot of football yet, but I like the 6-2, 233 frame. He’s still Iowa’s only bona fide grayshirt. Shows he really wants to be here. He could contribute on special teams next season.
Jonathan Gimm (so.) — I believe he is a fullback. He’s 6-3, 235, so that’s a good start. He’s played TE, so blocking is natural for him. He probably has good hands, too. He made this change sometime last year, so maybe he could make some waves this year and push for No. 2.
David Ryberg (fr.) — The 5-11, 215-pounder comes in as a walk-on from Cedar Rapids Xavier. Could develop into an LB headache.
Give me your “leaderboard,” if you will. Who do you think gets carries and why?
I appreciate the responses. Your feedback keeps me on my toes and helps me see things from different angles (smarter?).