IOWA CITY — As Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young separate themselves from the pack of potential starting running backs at Iowa, they cannot separate themselves from one other significant thing.
It will take a collaborative effort that extends beyond the back with the ball in his hands for the Hawkeyes to create a more effective rushing attack.
“That’s everybody, not just the backs,’’ Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Tuesday. “To win football games, you have to run the ball well. We’re trying to win more than nine football games this season so we have to run the ball well.’’
The Hawkeyes won nine of the 13 games they played last season while averaging 148.4 rushing yards per game, finishing 10th among Big Ten teams in moving the ball on the ground.
Growing the effectiveness of Iowa’s ground game is something Iowa players have heard a lot about while working toward an Aug. 31 season opener against Miami (Ohio) under the lights at Kinnick Stadium.
“We all have a role in making us better in the run game,’’ offensive tackle Alaric Jackson said at the Hawkeyes’ recent media day. “It’s not just one part of the offense, it’s all of us doing our job a little better to make it all fit together.’’
Ferentz senses progress on the practice field, but will wait to see what transpires in games before making judgment on if Iowa is making strides toward its goal.
“The last two years, our run game has not been what it needs to be and that is something we are working to establish right out of the gate,’’ he said.
Ferentz is pleased with what he has seen collectively from Iowa’s running backs.
He sees potential in freshmen Shadrick Byrd and Tyler Goodson, likes the way Ivory Kelly-Martin has run now that he is healthy and appreciates the progress Sargent and Young — Iowa’s top two rushers last season — are showing since beginning camp and at the top of the depth chart.
“Toren Young is running the ball as good as he ever has,’’ Ferentz said. “He’s a tempo setter and Mekhi is kind of a jack of all trades, a little bit of a utility knife. He’s doing a good job and continues to build off of what he did for us a year ago. They are a clear one and two right now.’’
Ferentz said their growth is mirrored in the progress he has seen from quarterback Nate Stanley in making quicker, more decisive reads and in the development of a group of receivers that continues to wait to find out if Michigan transfer Oliver Martin will be eligible this season.
Juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette and redshirt freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. continue to fill a rotation that Ferentz said would grow to five deep if the NCAA grants Martin a waiver to compete this season.
Martin is being prepared to contribute this season as Iowa waits for the NCAA decision.
“The good thing is that there are plenty of receiver reps to go around in practice, so it’s easy to keep him involved,’’ Ferentz said.
Iowa continues to work to grow depth on its offensive line as well.
Ferentz said it is possible that the Hawkeyes could play more than five players based on the progress he has seen in fall camp.
“Ideally, we’re trying to get to seven, eight, nine but I feel good about where we’re at and where I hope we are headed,’’ he said.
With Jackson and Tristan Wirfs anchoring the tackle positions and Tyler Linderbaum expected to start at center, Ferentz said Cole Banwart, Levi Paulsen, Landan Paulsen, Mark Kallenberger and Cody Ince continue to compete for time at the guard spots.
“We have a lot of guys in the mix there and we’re continuing to look for some clear separation,’’ Ferentz said. “We have 10, 11 days left before the opener, so we’ll continue to work to see where it leads.’’