POSITIONAL AWARENESS 2020: RUNNING BACK

By Patrick Vint on October 7, 2020 at 11:01 pm
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© Bryon Houlgrave/The Register, Des Moines Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC
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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, quarterback.

PREVIOUSLY: 

1. Wide Receiver

Eligibility Remaining*    
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
10 Mekhi Sargent SR 5-9/210 Halfback          
41 Colton Dinsdale SR 5-11/232 Fullback          
21 Ivory Kelly-Martin JR 5-11/205 Halfback          
15 Tyler Goodson SO 5-10/200 Halfback          
38 Monte Pottebaum SO 6-1/244 Fullback          
40 Turner Pallissard SO 6-0/250 Fullback          
23 Shadrick Byrd FR(RS) 5-10/210 Halfback          
20 Keontae Luckett FR(RS) 5-10/205 Halfback          
32 Johnny Plewa FR (RS) 6-0/235 Fullback          
4 Leshon Williams FR 5-10/210 Halfback          
25 Gavin Williams FR 6-0/215 Halfback          

* These are their current eligibility status, but the NCAA's decision to grant a blanket eligibility waiver to fall athletes (even those who compete this year... which is essentially just football players) mean that everyone here would also have a year of eligibility to use next year. We'll have to wait and see how that decision impacts things moving forward. 

THE CHOSEN ONE

TYLER GOODSON (#15, Sophomore, 5'10", 200 lbs, North Gwinnett, Suwanee, GA)

I'm going to need to go outside, turn around three times and spit for having typed it, but it finally feels like Iowa has exorcised the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God from the program.  It's been nearly a decade since the last time the Hawkeye backfield was decimated by the then-usual mix of injuries, academic issues and violations of team rules.

That's what made Tyler Goodson's ascension to the top of the running back depth chart last season so remarkable.  In past seasons, a guy like Goodson, a relatively-undersized three-star true freshman from Georgia, might get a shot because everyone else was knocked out by AIRBHG.  We have seen freshman halfbacks work at Iowa in the past, after all, generally out of necessity.  This wasn't that.  This was a guy sitting fourth-at-best in a crowded 2019 depth chart forcing his way to the top by simply becoming the most explosive and most consistent halfback on the roster.

Goodson finished the season with just over 800 yards from scrimmage on 158 touches, including 24 catches out of the backfield.  That, despite the fact that he didn't have a defined role in the offense until the second half of the season, despite the fact that he was splitting carries even when he became the established starter, despite the fact that most of his production came at the end of a long Big Ten campaign.

It was despite the fact that Goodson, of the northeast suburbs of Atlanta, was posting his best numbers in the teeth of his first Iowa winter.  Thirteen touches for 65 yards against Northwestern.  Thirteen carries for 94 yards and a score on a cold November afternoon against Minnesota.  And his only 100-yard rushing game, 116 yards on another thirteen carries, to push Iowa past Nebraska on Black Friday.

So what for an encore?  Goodson surely has the quickness to make the killer cutback on the outside zone, but probably needs to be more decisive in choosing a lane.  He'll have to do that behind a more inexperienced offensive line, which is going to make his abilities as an improv more important.  But all of this is the sort of improvement we look for from an upperclassmen.  That we're here with Goodson, just a true sophomore, bodes well for his future and that of the offense.

THE SENIOR CITIZEN

MEKHI SARGENT (#10, Senior, 5'9", 210 lbs, Key West/Iowa Western C.C., Key West, FL)

Iowa usually likes its backfield cluttered and varied.  The speed and explosiveness of Akrum Wadley was paired with the between-the-tackles downhill force of Leshun Daniels.  Same for Jordan Canzeri and Mark Weisman.  Damien Sims and Albert Young.  In Iowa's 2019 backfield, that was supposed to be Sargent and Toren Young.  In the season opener, Sargent had eighteen touches for 165 yards and a score.  He was going to be Iowa's alpha back for at least the next year.

But then Goodson happened, and most of Goodson's carries came out of Sargent's quota. Sargent ran the ball 119 times last year, but just 21 of those carries came in the season's final five games.  He only made one of his 14 catches in those final five weeks, as well.

Young left the program during the offseason, and there really isn't another guy of his type on the roster, no human bowling ball waiting in the wings.  Iowa could hand every possible carry to Goodson this year, a la Shonn Greene 2008, but Goodson doesn't have Shonn Greene size; typically, backs of Goodson's size split carries in Kirk Ferentz's offense.  That means it's probably Sargent who will act as the understudy, a capable facsimile to use when necessary.  It won't be thunder and lightning, but it should still be effective.

THE FORGOTTEN MAN

IVORY KELLY-MARTIN, (#21, Junior, 5'11", 205 lbs, Oswego East, Plainfield, IL)

Three years ago, when Kelly-Martin broke through as a contributor in his true freshman season -- averaging nearly 10 yards per carry in spot duty -- we thought his trajectory would look something like the standard Iowa halfpack prodigy: Supporting role as a sophomore, starting spot as a junior and senior, nothing but yards and touchdowns ahead.  But the sophomore boom never really materialized: 97 carries, 341 yards, a couple of scores, as Kelly-Martin was passed by the JUCO transfer Sargent.

By the time of the opener in 2019, Kelly-Martin was behind Sargent and the true freshman Goodson in the pecking order.  With no real path into the depth chart, Kelly-Martin took advantage of the new redshirt rule and shut his season down after four games, preserving a year of eligibility and moving out of Sargent and Young's graduating class.

Iowa could use Kelly-Martin as a Swiss Army Knife.  He can run the ball, he's shown some ability as a receiver, and he was a fairly-effective kick returner as a true freshman.  The issue, though, is a rare one for Iowa: Whether this offense has enough touches available to get some to a talented and experienced upperclassman.  The receiver room is full in a way it hasn't been in over a decade.  The running back depth chart already has a couple of guys with Kelly-Martin's skill set.  Ihmir Smith-Marsette has established himself as one of the best kick returners in the nation.  Kelly-Martin has been patiently waiting his turn, but it remains to be seen whether that patience will be rewarded.

WHILE YOU WAIT FOR THE OTHERS

SHADRICK BYRD (#23, Freshman (RS), 5'10", 210 lbs, Thompson, Alabaster, AL)
KEONTAE LUCKETT (#20, Freshman (RS), 5'10", 205 lbs, New London, New London, IA)

If there's someone who might break through this year, look for Byrd.  For one, he has the build to play "thunder" to the "lightning" at the top; he looks like a young Shonn Greene in size, speed and running style.

Second, Iowa has had horrible results with recruits outside the proverbial 500-mile radius of Iowa City, mostly because they are forced to wait their turn away from home for years.  Goodson and Brandon Smith might be the first sign of a new philosophy: If Iowa is going to invest the time and money into recruiting the South, it's going to find a way to get these guys on the field.  We haven't seen a snap of Byrd in black and gold yet, but if he's got a future in the program, look for Iowa to find a way to get him in action this year.

Luckett played eight-man football (he was all-state at both running back and linebacker as a senior) and was recruited as a preferred walk-on.  The learning curve at halfback isn't as steep as most, but it's still probably steep enough to keep Luckett on scout team this year as the coaches decide where he best fits.

THEY WERE ONLY FRESHMEN

LESHON WILLIAMS (#9, Freshman, 5'10", 210 lbs, Richards, Chicago, IL)
GAVIN WILLIAMS (#25, Freshman, 6'0", 215 lbs, Dowling Catholic, West Des Moines, IA)

Gavin Williams surprisingly ended up as the top in-state recruit, at least according to Rivals, mostly because Michigan offered late.  He opted to enroll early, which would normally give him a better-than-normal chance of seeing the field this year.  But without spring football, that advantage is significantly reduced.  With that said, he's a big back, and Dowling runs a lot of zone, so it's not out of the question he carves out a niche this season.

Leshon Williams didn't have the recruiting stars, but he's got speed and shiftiness to spare.  Probably a redshirt given the number of similar guys already on the roster, but we would have said the same about Goodson last summer, so never say never.

THE BLOCKERS

TURNER PALLISSARD (#40, Sophomore, 6'0", 250 lbs, Lincoln-Way East, Frankfort, IL)
COLTON DINSDALE (#41, Senior, 5'11", 232 lbs, Gladbrook-Reinbeck/Iowa Western C.C., Reinbeck, IA)

MONTE POTTEBAUM (#38, Sophomore, 6'1", 244 lbs, West Lyon, Larchwood, IA)
JOHNNY PLEWA (#32, Freshman (RS), 6'0", 235 lbs, Franklin, Franklin, WI)

Iowa's reliance on fullbacks has ebbed in recent years, but you could see some of these guys situationally in 2020.  The favorites for playing time are probably Pallissard and Pottebaum, who each got one carry last year (both for zero yards); Pottebaum also featured on Iowa's special teams unit, which is generally a good sign.  Dinsdale moved from linebacker to fullback this year after missing last season due to injury, so he could also figure.  And Johnny Plewa is that rarest of birds: A legacy fullback.  His brother, Macon, played the position at Iowa on the 2015 squad.

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