IOWA CITY — Mekhi Sargent gets it. So does Alaric Jackson.
For the 19th-ranked Iowa football team to have the type of success it hopes to have in 2019, the Hawkeyes will need to find a way to get some traction with their rushing attack.
"That’s where it has start for us. We have to do a better job of running the ball and that’s on all of us," said Sargent, Iowa’s top returning rusher.
Jackson, preparing for his third season in the lineup at offensive tackle, sees that as well.
He pointed to Iowa’s inability to run the ball against Mississippi State in the Hawkeyes’ Outback Bowl win as an example.
The Hawkeyes finished with negative rushing yardage in their most recent outing, held to minus-15 yards on 20 carries in a performance that now provides motivation for improvement.
"That wasn’t Iowa football. We know our run game has to improve," Jackson said. "That’s blocking, that’s consistency. That’s been a priority for us since we got out on the field for the start of spring ball. We have to do a better job."
For the Hawkeyes, that starts by putting one foot in front of the other and taking one step at a time beginning with the first snap of the season in today’s 6:40 p.m. opener at Kinnick Stadium against Miami (Ohio).
Iowa will look to establish the run game by putting the ball in the hands of multiple backs.
Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin all started games in the backfield for the Hawkeyes last season and open 2019 at the top of the depth chart in a running back room that only gained quality depth during the offseason.
True freshmen Shadrick Byrd and Tyler Goodson have impressed Iowa coaches since arriving on campus and will likely end up with the ball in their hands at some point this season.
"As we’ve learned in the past, you can never have enough good running backs," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz suggested last week that there could be times when more than one of Iowa’s running backs will be on the field at the same time.
Young doesn’t mind that at all and is entering the season expecting the Hawkeyes to use a sort of running back by committee approach to the position.
That’s not entirely new for Iowa, which has played to its strengths based on opposing defenses at running back frequently in recent seasons.
From the speed of Akrum Wadley to the power of LeShun Daniels, there has been a time and place for backs of different styles in the Hawkeye backfield during the same season.
Sargent, Young and Kelly-Martin will continue that this season, starting in the opener against a RedHawks team which returns seven starters from a defense that helped Miami (Ohio) build a 6-6 record last season.
All three are juniors, and Sargent led Iowa with 745 yards on 159 carries, the lowest season-leading effort for a Hawkeye back since Sam Brownlee led an injury-decimated running back corps with 227 yards on a 2004 team which shared the Big Ten title.
Young rushed 136 times last fall, gaining 637 yards, and Kelly-Martin gained 341 yards on 97 carries.
"Everyone is going to get a chance. The coaches have made that clear," Young said. "One game, it might be one guy and the next game it might be another guy. We’re all good with that."
Coach Kirk Ferentz sees an opportunity for Iowa to spread the ball around between multiple backs this season.
Sargent and Young were not among the most-heavily recruited players on the Iowa roster, leaving both humble and hungry.
“The number one word I would use with (Sargent) is that he’s very appreciative of his opportunity here, just to be in a Big Ten program and have an opportunity to get on the field and work. He’s a tremendous teammate," Ferentz said.
"I would use the same word with Toren, too. Toren has been a guy who works very hard. He’s very appreciative of the opportunities in front of him, academically and athletically."
They share another trait as well.
"Both guys have improved a great deal," Ferentz said. "I really think they were better players in the spring than they were last fall, and I think we’ve seen growth and improvement this August as well. So, I’m anxious to see a lot of guys on the field to see what they can do in a game atmosphere."
Sargent is anxious, too.
"We’ve been working hard since January to be ready for the season and take it to a new level," Sargent said. "It’s time to bring the juice. That’s our job."