CHICAGO — When Toren Young looks around the running back room at the Iowa football complex, he sees a space filled with potential and expectations.
It’s crowded quarters as the Hawkeyes prepare for the start of practices on Friday.
Young is among three juniors who shared the load at running back a year ago. They’re joined by two redshirt freshmen and a pair of true freshmen who all have their eye on the opportunity to move the Iowa running game forward one step at time.
"We have to be better than we were a year ago. We all understand that and we see the ability to make that happen," Young said at the recent Big Ten kickoff. "It’s going to take all of us."
Iowa’s ground game in 2018 was sporadic.
The Hawkeyes ranked 95th in the country with an average of 148.4 yards per game, and Iowa’s average of 3.95 yards per carry ranked 94th.
Iowa backs recorded only seven runs of 20 yards or more during the Hawkeyes’ 9-4 season, and it took 11 games before Mekhi Sargent became the first Iowa back to rush for 100 yards against an opponent when he gained 121 yards on 17 carries against Illinois.
Mississippi State gave Hawkeye backs even more to think about during the offseason, holding Iowa to a negative 15 rushing yards in Iowa’s Outback Bowl win over the Bulldogs.
"We look at last year as a whole, and we know we can do better than that," Young said. "We’re working together in the running back room in ways we never have."
The numbers speak for themselves, but a review of tape opened the eyes of the backs who had the football in their hands.
"You look back and you see the opportunities that were there, the opportunities that we missed," Young said.
Iowa backs have had a new way to see those missed opportunities this offseason.
Running backs assistant coach Derrick Foster has had his players watching coaches' clips of their work, images that are providing Hawkeye ball carries with a bigger picture of what is taking place on the field.
"He’s showing us how coaches break down film, and it’s a big difference," Young said. "We often get caught up as running backs just looking at the run. How did we do? We’re just watching ourselves."
"Now we’re seeing different things," Young said. "Where is that safety? Where’s the (defensive) rotation? How is this offensive lineman going to play against a three technique? What front is the defensive line running? We’re really seeing the big picture, and that really helps with vision and anticipating things."
That is helping Iowa backs develop a greater understanding of what it takes for the ground game to be more productive.
Hawkeye offensive line coach Tim Polasek indicated during a news conference last spring that the goal for Iowa’s offense is to average 4.5 yards per carry.
He said that, along with an offense that produces five plays of 20 or more yards per game — either on the ground or through the air — are what it takes to play what he labels "championship-level football."
Learning from the lessons gained as a trio of first-year contributors, Young said Iowa backs are committed to carrying their share of the workload.
He believes the Hawkeyes have the potential to find a rhythm, whether coaches ultimately decide to rotate backs or settle on one primary ball carrier.
"All three backs are talented, and it’s tough," he said. "You go into different games and you may have a match up or a guy that you like in this game versus the other. The answer is that there is no perfect rotation. You only get so many offensive plays in a game, and you’re going to run the ball only so many times. It’s about what you do when your number is called."
Young said Foster, now in his second season of working with Iowa running backs, seems more comfortable with his personnel now as well.
"I think he feels like has a better handle on what we’re about and what we can do," Young said. "He seems more comfortable with us, and we’re more comfortable with him."
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz senses a very competitive camp at the position, although he believes the three returning veterans will have an initial edge based on their experience.
Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin join Young in returning after combining for 392 carries and 1,732 yards a year ago.
They’re joined by redshirt freshmen Henry Geil and Samson Evans and two incoming freshmen. Shadrick Byrd enrolled early, participating in spring drills after arriving from Alabaster, Alabama, while Tyler Goodson joined the program in June from Suwanee, Georgia.
"It is a position where young guys can play," Ferentz said. "We’ll keep an open mind and we’re going to put our best guys on the field. That’s our goal, regardless of who it is."
Ferentz welcomes the depth he sees in the running back room as the start of fall camp nears.
"It’s a great problem to have," Ferentz said. "We’ve been on the other end of the equation before."