POSITIONAL AWARENESS 2019: A SMASH AND GRAB AT RUNNING BACK

By Mike Jones on July 30, 2019 at 9:30 am
Nebraska never tackled Mekhi Sargent
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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Positional Awareness is our annual rundown of the Iowa depth chart, from the position where we are most confident in what Kirk Ferentz intends to do to, well, tight end.

Previously on Positional Awareness:

  1. Quarterback
Eligibility Remaining      
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
36 Brady Ross SR 6-0/246 Fullback #1          
10 Mekhi Sargent JR 5-9/212 Halfback #1          
21 Ivory Kelly-Martin JR 5-10/203 Halfback          
28 Toren Young JR 5-11/223 Halfback #2          
45 Joe Ludwig SO 6-0/241 Fullback #2          
22 Samson Evans FR(RS) 6-0/210 Halfback          
30 Henry Geil FR(RS) 6-0/215 Fullback          
40 Turner Pallissard FR(RS) 6-0/242 Fullback          
1 Nolan Donald FR 5-9/182 Halfback          
15 Tyler Goodson FR 5-10/190 Halfback          
20 Keontae Luckett FR 5-10/180 Halfback          
23 Shadrick Byrd FR 5-10/212 Halfback          
41 Johnny Plewa FR 6-0/230 Fullback          

Netflix and Thrill

HB #1: Mekhi Sargent (#10, Junior, 5'9", 212 lbs, Key West, Key West, FL)

One year ago, we knew two things about Mekhi Sargent: 1) He appeared in Netflix’s Last Chance U; and 2) He was a JUCO superstar, rushing for an impressive 1,449 yards on 204 attempts (7.1 YPC) and 14 touchdowns and was named the NJCAA offensive co-MVP of the year. He joined the program early, captured Kirk Ferentz’s attention, and was in the discussion for carries in 2018.

The carries came early but the results were…statistically just OK. Sargent scored an impressive four touchdowns but only notched a paltry 3.5 YPC in the first half of the season. What we noticed, though, was that Sargent was a different type of back. Young was the bruiser, IKM was (supposedly) the speed and Sargent was the dynamic runner. He’d shimmy, shake, and make defenders miss but the issues were some of the same that we saw with Akrum Wadley: he’d take too long to develop a play and get tackled for a negligible gain.

Then, something clicked. Whereas Sargent couldn’t quite get it going in the first half of the season, in the second half he rushed for 505 yards, averaging 5.7 YPC. He started picking his lanes with more confidence, putting his head down and using his unexpected power to drive down the field. His most impressive performance came against Nebraska where he rushed for 173 yards on 26 attempts (6.7 YPC), two touchdowns, and also caught a touchdown. The film:

That was a true workhorse performance from Sargent and while there were plenty of highlights in that video, you should turn your attention to :57 – 1:17. On the first play he cuts, cuts again, spins away from contact and keeps churning his legs, refusing to go down. On the second play he does much the same, using his low center of gravity to stay on his feet and keep the ball moving up the field. This is what Sargent is: a powerful running back that uses his balance to move the ball instead of brute strength. He’s not a blunt object. He’s a dynamic running back. Let’s hope he’s even better in year two.

Rolling Thunder

HB #2: Toren Young (#28, Junior, 5'11", 223 lbs, Monona Grove, Madison, WI)

If you’re looking for a blunt object, there’s Toren Young. You probably remember the 2018 preseason stories about him growing up with Ron Dayne’s kids, his work ethic, and how he was expected to become Iowa’s feature back. And when the season kicked off it looked like that could be the case. In the first three games he rushed the ball 43 times for 234 yards (5.4 YPC) and two touchdowns. Oddly, against Wisconsin and Minnesota he only rushed 11 times. Things looked like they were getting back on track against Indiana as he rushed 19 times but then…it got weird.

It made sense that Young would lose carries to Sargent as the latter was becoming a better player as the season wore on. But Young losing carries to Ivory Kelly-Martin? IKM carried the ball more than Young against Maryland, Purdue and tied him with three carries against Northwestern. He got back in the mix to close out the season but there was that four game stretch where Young got the running back by committee treatment despite obviously being the second-best back on the field. This March, Kirk realized it:

Well, yeah, Kirk.

Young is a known commodity at this point. He’s a bruiser, sure, but he also has some sneaky athleticism:

Here’s to Kirk & Co. maintaining their outlook and recognizing that Young is a talented player that can compliment Sargent by physically hurting people who try to tackle him.

While You Wait for the Others

Ivory Kelly-Martin (#21, Junior, 5'10", 203 lbs, East, Oswego, IL)

The 2018 campaign didn’t go as expected for Ivory Kelly-Martin. He was expected to be the speed to Toren Young’s power. He was expected improve on a 2017 season where he averaged an absurd 9.2 YPC. He was expected to burst through defensive lines and leave linebackers in the dust. Then…the injuries came. He was banged up in the very first game of the season against NIU and didn’t see the field again until week four. There was a solid performance against Wisconsin and then there was a whole lot of meh. In a four-week stretch where he was dealing with a “head injury” or an ankle injury, he rushed 42 times for 160 yards (3.8 YPC), he didn’t play against Illinois and was ruled out against Nebraska.

In retrospect, it’s unclear why the coaching staff went with IKM over Toren Young, considering IKM was afflicted for the better part of the year. So if you were disappointed with what you saw in 2018 take comfort in knowing that Ivory was playing hurt damn near all the time. We’ll reevaluate when he plays a season at full strength. If possible.

Henry Geil (#30, Redshirt Freshman, 6'0", 215 lbs, Preble, Green Bay, WI)

Samson Evans (#22, Redshirt Freshman, 6'0", 210 lbs, Prairie Ridge, Crystal Lake, IL)

Geil only played in two games last season and thanks to the new rules, kept his redshirt. At 6’0", 215 pounds, he’s a Toren Young-type runner and is probably #4 on the depth chart. 

Evans has never played a down at Iowa, though he has an interesting story. He was recruited as a consensus 3-star quarterback with offers from Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa State, Syracuse and Army. The offer from Army was telling, as he was an option quarterback in high school that rushed for a comical 2,211 yards as a senior. When he committed, he told the media that Iowa was looking at him as a wide receiver. Apparently, that was not the case as he turned into a running back and redshirted his freshman season. An option quarterback turned running back? That could be entertaining.

They Were Only Freshmen

Nolan Donald (#1, Freshman, 5'9", 182 lbs, Morton, Morton, IL)

Tyler Goodson (#15, Freshman, 5'10", 190 lbs, North Gwinnett, Suwanee, GA)

Keontae Luckett (#20, Freshman, 5'10", 180 lbs, New London, New London, IA)

Shadrick Byrd (#23, Freshman, 5'10", 212 lbs, Thompson, Alabaster, AL)

Goodson is a unique player as it’s rare to see Iowa get a commitment from Georgia. Especially when that 3-star recruit has 33 (!) offers, with some notable schools being Michigan State, West Virginia and Nebraska. His game supposedly resembles Akrum Wadley’s so it’s totally not out of line to expect him to be the next Akrum Wadley. Byrd is another unique player as he’s from Alabama. A 3-star recruit, he had offers from a number of Sun Belt teams and committed to Iowa due to his relationship with Derrick Foster, another Alabama guy. Donald and Luckett are walk-ons soon to be honorable mention All-Big Ten defensive backs.

The Fullbacks:

FB #1: Brady Ross (#36, Senior, 6'0", 246 lbs., Humboldt, Humboldt, Iowa)

FB #2: Joe Ludwig (#45, Sophomore, 6'0", 241 lbs, Middleton, Middleton, WI)

Turner Pallissard (#40, Redshirt Freshman, 6'0", 242 lbs, Lincoln-Way East, Frankfort, IL)

Johnny Plewa (#41, Freshman, 6'0", 230 lbs, Franklin, Franklin, WI)

Admit it: This is what you came here for.

BRADY ROSS MEET THE NEW BOSS SAME AS THE OLD BOSS. The Hawkeyes won’t miss a beat at fullback as Ross is a returning starter back to full health after a high ankle sprain. He’s just your average Iowa fullback: one time walk-on, Iowan, who used to be a linebacker. Joe Ludwig is basically the same guy but from Wisconsin. Pallisard has always been a fullback but BONUS: he’s also a long snapper. If the name Plewa sounds familiar it’s because Johnny’s older brother Macom was a fullback for the Hawkeyes from 2011-2015. Is there anything more Iowa than a legacy fullback? I think not. 

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