IOWA CITY — Growth for Iowa running backs starts in an unlikely place this spring — with their eyes.
Running backs assistant Derrick Foster believes the Hawkeyes have the wheels to compete, but what Iowa players see and how they react to what they’re seeing is at the root of developing a more productive rushing attack.
"There were some games last season where I didn’t know what my ‘O’ linemen were doing at all. I was just trying to get my read," said Mekhi Sargent, the Hawkeyes’ top returning rusher. "This year, I’ve studied with the linemen, and I feel like I know which guy I have to make miss."
He’s not alone.
Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin join Sargent in returning for their junior seasons, working to build on what they learned as part of a backfield rotation last season.
"There is competition in the room, definitely," Sargent said. "Every day, we’re studying our film and getting into our playbook. It’s nonstop."
Kelly-Martin believes that competition is positioning the Hawkeyes to gain ground.
"I think the experience we picked up last year and what we learned from it is making a difference," Kelly-Martin said. "Knowledge, discipline, understanding the big picture, those are all things I think we’re all working to get a better handle on."
Foster counts on that.
He spent part of his first offseason on the Iowa staff breaking down every carry from the 2018 season.
Foster watched how plays developed, concentrating on what Hawkeye backs were seeing and how they reacted.
His objective is to help Iowa ball carriers become more productive and seize opportunities to create more explosive plays with the ball in their hands.
The Hawkeyes totaled just five runs of 20 or more yards last season, less than one-third the number Iowa had collected the previous two seasons when Akrum Wadley was the team’s primary ball carrier.
With three running backs seeing their first significant action at the collegiate level last year, there were times when the inexperience of the Hawkeye backfield showed.
The team reached its goal of 150 rushing yards in six of its 13 games, but the thing Foster likes about Iowa’s returning backs is the potential he sees to improve the team’s average of 3.95 yards per carry from 2018.
As a goal, Hawkeye coaches talk about averaging 4.5 yards per attempt, but Foster expects more as he works with each of the backs who continue to compete for a starting opportunity next fall.
"I think we’ve been able to identify the mistakes," he said. "What I’m trying to train these guys to do is to look at certain things and ignore certain things. Sometimes, running backs’ eyes can get a little busy and we miss certain cuts."
Some of that involves simply understanding the nuances of Iowa’s zone blocking scheme, not only how it sets up and works but also how defenders tend to react to what they are seeing.
"The more times they see different things and different movements, the better they will get with their eyes and the better they will be able to run with their eyes and their feet, controlling things a little more," Foster said.
That helps lead to the patience Foster preaches as a key component to making it all work.
Through the first half of Iowa’s spring practices, Foster senses growth.
He has encouraged his running backs to review their work as he did, studying with an eye focused on improvement and learning from their experiences.
"They’re starting to see what we’re doing," he said. "They’re starting to see the offensive line movement, understanding the defensive play and linebacker leverage and all that."
That is giving the entire group a chance to move forward this spring.
Sargent led Iowa in rushing last season, gaining 745 yards on 159 carries while Young rushed 136 times for 637 yards and season-opening starter Kelly-Martin picked up 341 yards on 97 attempts despite being slowed much of the season by an ankle injury.
A redshirt freshman, Henry Geil; a true freshman already on campus, Shadrick Byrd; and a true freshman who will join the mix this summer, Tyler Goodson, will add to competition.
"There are plenty of good backs in our program," Kelly-Martin said. "It feels good to finally be healthy and be able to compete again. I think we’re going to keep pushing each other. We’re pretty competitive, and I think that’s good for all of us."
Foster likes what he sees developing in the Hawkeye backfield as Iowa backs work to see what will ultimately lead them to the most success.
"They all have these nice cares they really want, but I told them you have speed zones," Foster said. "You have to understand when it’s time to hit the gas and when it’s time to be patient."