QUICK LOOK BACK: Kirk Ferentz saw the bottom of the running back barrel again in 2009. That makes an impression on a coach who prefers to run the football.
After Michigan State, Iowa was down to Brandon Wegher. And the true freshman had a painful intercostal rib muscle injury that made breathing painful. The next step was true freshman Brad Rogers, who made the trip to Michigan State the previous week. It never came to Rogers, but only because redshirt freshman Adam Robinson came back a week early from a high-ankle sprain that cost him two games.
Iowa coaches once again saw the running back depth chart drain to the bottom, not to the depths of 2004 but close. That kind of explains the fact that Iowa will go into the 2010 season with seven scholarship RBs -- Wegher, Robinson, Jewel Hampton (back from ACL repair), Rogers, Paki O'Meara, Marcus Coker and De'Andre Johnson.
Panic set in when Hampton suffered his torn ACL at the end of June. Robinson and Wegher never backed down. Wegher's yards per carry dipped to 3.3 around midseason, but he finished with a respectable 4.0 on 162 carries, including three 100-plus efforts. Without the ankle, Robinson would've been a 1,000-yard rusher. He finished with 834, averaging 4.6 yards an attempt.
Robinson and Wegher carried the ball 343 times with just one lost fumble.
Fullback Brett Morse had five carries for 35 yards and caught eight passes with one TD last fall, a breakout year for touches for Iowa fullbacks. More importantly, Morse's blocking really picked up in the midseason. He really seemed to learn how to use his 6-3, 240.
FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: Are there enough carries?
Hampton was poised to be the man. He came off a true freshman season where he scored a freshman record seven TDs (broken by Wegher's eight in '09), gained 463 yards and averaged an impressive 5.1 yards a carry. Then, the ACL.
He'll be a year removed from the ACL surgery by the time Iowa begins its 2010 schedule. He should be hungry, he should be physically ready.
They were thrown in early, but Robinson and Wegher more than proved they are Big Ten running backs. You know about Ferentz and the toughness factor. I'd submit Robinson and Wegher's performances in 2009 as among the toughest of the Ferentz era. How do I define that? They didn't flinch. They did their jobs. They played through pain. Wegher's rib injury cost him one game, and that was because the pain medication made him ill at Ohio State. Robinson came back a week early from the high-ankle and played the Orange Bowl with a shoulder that needed offseason surgery and likely putting him on the shelf this spring.
Robinson and Wegher split 30 carries a game nearly down the middle last season, with Robinson carrying 16.5 times a game and Wegher 13.5.
Now add Hampton.
THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: As of now, right this minute, no one else has transferred. When
I started previewing 2010 in January (hey, I didn't have a basketball beat this year), Iowa had nine scholarship running backs.
Josh Brown and Jeff Brinson have transferred.
Iowa coaches thought they were going to get a WR body in Brown. They got a midsized running back. Brinson's health never came together at Iowa. His foot issues were still apparent at Orange Bowl practices.
Marcus Coker comes to Iowa with some recruiting stripes. The 6-0, 228-pounder rushed for 1,698 yards and 23 TDs as a senior at DeMatha Catholic High School in Washington D.C.
De'Andre Johnson is a compact but powerful back at 5-8, 210. He won Iowa coaches over with a fabulous junior season, gaining 1,121 yards with 10 TDs for Monsignor Pace in Miami. He suffered a torn ACL going into his senior year and missed the season.
Coker has a chance to play. If he shows something in August camp, he could be the No. 4. Coming off the ACL, Johnson will likely redshirt.
SECOND DOWN -- BATTLES BREWING: How will this work?
First, I think it can work. Robinson, Hampton and Wegher might list in the 210-pound range, but that's rounding up. The reality is Iowa has three smallish backs. You hope it won't be for the players' sakes, but injury likely will be a factor here. It was with all three last season, it likely will be again this year. The Big Ten puts a lot of punishment on 5-8 or 5-9 and 200-ish RBs.
This is why it's good to have three rather than two. Are they interchangeable? Maybe a little. Robinson and Wegher showed excellent hands and dependable blocking last fall. Robinson might have a slight edge in running ability, but it's hard to say that after Wegher's Orange Bowl performance. Hampton's hands are an unknown, but he didn't shy away from contact as a runner or blocker in '08.
Harsh reality of football dictates they'll need all three.
FIRST DOWN -- "On Iowa" prediction for 2010: I predict creativity.
Iowa's offense is now as deep at running back as it's ever been under Ferentz. There is room for creativity, finding ways to use and keep all three happy. Could be in the passing game -- Wegher seemed to take to the five-wide spread Iowa ran a handful of games last fall. Could be in the running game. Each series could bring a fresh running back. That would be to Iowa's advantage, especially with an O-line that will be three-fifths new.
Because he's coming back from an ACL, Hampton likely will begin a step behind Robinson and Wegher. He'll see his first contact since the 2008 Outback Bowl (albiet extremely light contact) in August. It will take some time for Hampton.
Right now, I believe the carries/series will go 1) Robinson, 2) Wegher (who should have spring all to himself) and 3) Hampton.
But it's Iowa running back. Injury likely will shape this.
Morse should build on a solid junior season at fullback. Rogers could see reps there, too.
All of the Big Ten's top running backs from 2009 return. Wisconsin's John Clay led the conference with 1,517 yards and 18 TDs. Penn State's Evan Royster will be back. He averaged 89.9 yards a game last fall. Without QB Daryll Clark, Royster might see more of the load. Purdue's Ralph Bolden was just a sophomore last season when he gained 935 yards. The Ohio State duo of Dan Herron (600, seven TDs) and Brandon Saine (739, four TDs) return. Actually, it probably should be trio with QB Terrelle Pryor leading the Buckeyes with 779 rushing yards.
Illinois' Mikel Leshoure (734, five TDs) and Indiana's Darius Willis (607, six TDs) also had promising 2008s.
Ferentz on the army of RBs: "I can't remember us having too many good players at any one position. I certainly can't remember us having too many running backs. My memory is a little bit recent right now. I was just happy this past year to have two in one game.
"And it seems like that's kind of how it shook out years past. But I think we do have an opportunity right now to have a good group. And that's really important, because as you know we like to play with balance. We like to have tight ends on the field. More than occasionally we like to run the football if we get that opportunity."