Four downs with the running backs (spring edition)

We could see the dreaded RBBC in 2012

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April 3, 2014 | 2:24 pm

QUICK LOOK BACK: Once again, it's awkward here.

You know what this should be. This should be a whole big thing on Marcus Coker, his 1,384 yards, 15 touchdowns and potential to dent the Iowa record book in 2012.

But you know it won't be. Coker was involved in a sexual assault investigation. No charges were filed. The investigation is closed. The victim didn't want to press charges. He was suspended for the Insight Bowl and was still under suspension when he decided to withdraw from the UI in January and transfer to Stony Brook (N.Y.) University, an FCS school.

We don't know if Coker declined to go through a reinstatement "process." We also don't know what exactly that process is. Either way, Coker is gone and Iowa is, again, back to panning for running backs.

It's crazy to suggest this is how Kirk Ferentz wants it. What coach wouldn't want 1,400 yards and 15 TDs at the top of the depth chart? They all would.

The NFL theory on running backs is that they're disposable. The Patriots made a living last season off of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. How many times have you drafted Kevin Faulk in fantasy football? How many times have you picked him up off the free agent scrap heap? The Packers milked Ryan Grant and James Starks for a Super Bowl and a 15-1 regular season.

NFL and college are two very different notches on a running back's odometer. The disposable theory doesn't work with Ferentz and Iowa. It might seem like it because of circumstance and turnover the last few seasons, but look at the leading rushers during the Ferentz era:

1999 -- Ladell Betts (857)

2000 -- Ladell Betts (1,090)

2001 -- Ladell Betts (1,060)

2002 -- Fred Russell (1,264)

2003 -- Fred Russell (1,355)

2004 -- Sam Brownlee (227)

2005 -- Albert Young (1,334)

2006 -- Albert Young (779)

2007 -- Albert Young (968)

2008 -- Shonn Greene (1,850)

2009 -- Adam Robinson (834)

2010 -- Adam Robinson (941)

2011 -- Marcus Coker (1,384)

This clearly shows that if Ferentz has a running back he trusts and who produces, he will keep going back to that RB.

When Iowa's running back depth chart is healthy, there also is a plan for succession. Fred Russell was the logical choice after Betts and after Jermelle Lewis tore his ACL. Albert Young might've been a four-time rushing leader if an ACL didn't end his '04 season.

Starting with Shonn Greene in 2008, the running back depth chart has been sketchy. Greene came out of nowhere in '08 to win the Doak Walker. Adam Robinson moved up the depth chart when Jewel Hampton tore an ACL. Robinson was the last RB standing in '10 after Hampton suffered another torn ACL and Brandon Wegher left the team.

Robinson was dismissed for disciplinary reasons. Enter Coker. Exit Coker. And that brings us to 2012 and what could be a RBBC (the dreaded acronym for "Running Back By Committee).

FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: New offensive coordinator Greg Davis has said if he has a horse, he will ride him. That proved out during his stint as offensive coordinator at Texas. When the Longhorns had go-to backs in Cedric Benson and Jamaal Charles, Davis went to them.

In his first year at Iowa, a go-to will need to emerge. If you take out Sam Brownlee's 94 carries as Iowa's leading rusher in 2004, the average amount of carries for Iowa's leader during the Ferentz era is 229.1.

Jordan Canzeri -- As a 172-pound true freshman, Canzeri carried 22 times for 58 yards against a solid Oklahoma defense in the Insight Bowl. He's in the mid-180s now. Will he be big and strong enough to handle 200 carries?

Damon Bullock -- He shifted between wide receiver and running back. Ferentz said during the Insight that he thinks running back is the spot for Bullock. He was involved in the Insight gameplan, but didn't get a carry.

Jason White -- If the fifth-year senior emerges as a 200-yard carry back, he'll be one of the better stories in the Big Ten. Remember, as a walk-on fourth-year player, he walked out with the seniors last year. He's back and he's on scholarship.

De'Andre Johnson -- Huge spring for the sophomore from Florida. He was passed over for playing time last season by Canzeri and Bullock. He has ground to make up.

Brad Rogers -- He's the fullback, but he remembers the running back playbook. Where will fullback fit in with a new offensive coordinator?

Greg Garmon -- He'll be a true freshman at 6-1, 200 pounds. Rivals.com midwest analyst Josh Helmholdt said: "He’s listed as a bigger kid, but I thought he was more of a sprint-type running back, more of a guy who lines up next to the quarterback in the shotgun. You can flex him out in the slot, too. He almost looks like a wide receiver, because he’s a little bit tall and lanky." He's playing in 2012 and might end up being the jewel of the 2012 recruiting class.

Barkley Hill -- The 6-footer told me on signing day that he weighed 210 pounds. I saw no reason to dispute that. He's put together and is built for the Iowa one-cut zone blocking scheme. He's also playing in 2012.

There are your running backs. There is your committee.

THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBRACTIONS: Coker is gone. He spoke at Stony Brook on Friday. Here's the link. Enough of the why Coker departed, let's go a little into what Iowa's offense loses in the 6-0, 230-pounder.

-- Durability: Coker hurt his shoulder in camp (again, not the broken collarbone before 2010) and played in 12 straight games. He was there for every critical series. He was much better in the first half than the second (5.46 yards per carry vs. 4.17), but he averaged 4.24 yards a carry and scored six fourth-quarter TDs last season.

-- Power: Coker's vision and quickness are up for debate, but his power is untouchable. He was rarely arm-tackled and after breaking the line of scrimmage, always made the first defender pay.

-- Production: Goes without saying. He played just 19 games at Iowa and is 12th on the school's career rushing list with 2,006 yards. He averaged 5.1 yards on 394 career carries at Iowa.

Mika'il McCall was suspended for unspecified reasons prior to the Nebraska game and subsequently left Iowa. He'll be a sophomore running back at Southern Illinois this fall. McCall had a blazing start, rushing for 61 yards and clearly outplaying Coker in Iowa's opener against FCS Tennessee Tech. He suffered a broken ankle and didn't reappear until Purdue in November, when he carried twice for 4 yards and fumbled. The 6-foot, 225-pounder was positioned to challenge Coker and provide a 1-2 punch. It never materialized.

Let's count White as an addition. He has eight career carries for 46 yards, so the value here is experience and leadership. White has been the emergency running back since the 2010 Insight Bowl. It's his last shot and he'll give the position an honest competitor to keep anyone from getting complacent.

The headline newcomers are Garmon and Hill.

Garmon comes life-tested. He beat non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and having his home burn down in the sixth grade. Hill will walk onto the Iowa campus with 6,127 career yards. Very few running backs walk onto Iowa's campus with that number on their resume.

Going off the YouTube highlights, Garmon seems to have really great "zero to sixty" acceleration. Shows great vision. He likes to cut runs back across the grain, something that could get him smacked on the Big Ten level. Has shiftiness and good speed. Could also help on special teams (although it's been rare for true freshmen win return duty under Ferentz).

Hill is a north-south back who has uncommonly good balance. He stays balanced coming out of contact, which is exactly what you want. He can see and hit the cutback and lateral movement is better than you might think.

Both are members of the committee.

SECOND DOWN -- BATTLES BREWING: Let's face it, the whole thing is a battle.

Canzeri certainly has an "in." He put up 86 all-purpose yards against Oklahoma. After looking for a legit shot at playing time -- Canzeri had just nine carries for 56 yards going into the bowl game -- it came in buckets against the Sooners, one of the top defenses Iowa faced in 2011 (Penn State, Michigan State and Nebraska were in there, too).

One performance is all we have to work with. What do you take away from Canzeri vs. Oklahoma?

-- Fearless: He was a true freshman weighing in at 172. Iowa didn't shape its running game to save him from contact. He averaged just 2.64 yards a carry, but Iowa averaged just 3.5 yards a play against the Sooners.

-- Versatile: The fact that Canzeri caught six passes showed Iowa coaches wanted to get him the ball. Canzeri looked good in space, with the 9-yard screen pass going for a TD.

-- Tough: Oklahoma knew it was going against a 172-pound true freshman running back and came after Canzeri. He didn't back down.

Is Canzeri a 200-carry running back in the Big Ten? He might not have to be and can still be as productive with 100 or so carries and 40 or so receptions. Maybe question with Canzeri is touches. If the Insight can be used as a guide, those could be coming.

Iowa coaches seem to be set on Bullock as a running back. He had 10 carries for 20 yards in '11, so it's impossible to gauge the possibilities. How much did starting the season at wide receiver stunt his development at RB?

Johnson has an uphill climb. He did average 4.4 yards on 18 carries, but didn't have a rush in Iowa's final five games. Also, he was held out some in the bowl practices with an unspecified injury.

Andre Dawson is enrolled and will walk on. He had eight FBS offers, including Iowa and Wisconsin, before picking FCS Northern Iowa in 2010. He played at Iowa Western last season (six games, 47 carries, 263 yards and three TDs). He's 6-2, 220.

Michael Malloy also will walk on at Iowa. The 6-0, 180-pounder is a WR/RB. He was extremely productive as a junior at Sioux City Heelan before he suffered a torn ACL his senior season. He played some for Heelan's basketball team in March, so recovery must be going well.

It's hard to say what's up for fullback in Iowa's offense. If Ferentz holds true to form, Iowa will use the position under Davis. The role remains uncertain, but the depth chart would go Rogers, senior Jonathan Gimm and junior Jacob Reisen.

FIRST DOWN -- PREDICTIONS FOR 2012: It's hard to see Iowa having a 1,000-yard back this season.

That's not the end of the world for a Ferentz team. Iowa has had 1,000-yard rushers in seven of Ferentz's 13 seasons in Iowa City. Iowa's record in seasons without a 1,000-yard back is 42-32, so give Iowa's staff credit for finding other ways to win. (Although, the classic example was the Big Ten title team of 2004, when Sam Brownlee led Iowa with 227 yards. Of course, that offense was lifted by one of the best defenses of the Ferentz era, including the best D-line.) When Iowa does have a 1,000 back, the Hawkeyes are 54-33.

Iowa could very well be a "pass to set up the run" offense in 2012. The production could go a 100 different ways. That's how RBBC goes.   

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