IOWA CITY, Iowa — The end of Iowa’s four deadly horsemen era coincided with a 27-20 victory against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl last December.
Akrum Wadley was the last running back from the Hawkeye’ 2015 season, which ended in the Rose Bowl. Wadley LeShun Daniels, Jordan Canzeri and Derrick Mitchell all took turns carrying the load that season and each were successful. Wadley is off to the NFL later this month, and that chapter of Iowa history is closed.
Now comes a new regime of Iowa running backs, led primarily by sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Both played sparingly last season behind Wadley but rolled up a few impressive statistics along the way. Young carried 45 times for 193 yards and 2 touchdowns. Kelly-Martin contributed in his first semester on campus with 184 yards on a whopping 9.2 yards per carry and 3 scores.
So far, they’ve impressed new running backs coach Derrick Foster.
“Both of those guys give great effort and their attitudes are phenomenal,” Foster said. “They come every day ready.”
Few places are as physical as Iowa when it comes to playing running back. That includes practice, where backs sometimes are just hit and other times they’re hit and taken to the ground. This spring, with only four running backs, Iowa has pulled back on some of the complete tackling — but not all of it. That’s forced coaches to straddle a line between keeping backs healthy and preparing them for Big Ten football.
The limitations also have forced the backs to take more turns in group and team drills.
“It’s definitely a little bit harder,” Young said. “There are more reps when you’re doing drill work, your reps are coming a lot faster. But overall it’s been good. We’ve been pushing each other, we’ve been coaching each other up. We’ve got a good group of running backs, so we’ve been doing a pretty good job.”
Young and Kelly-Martin are the headliners this spring with Kyshaun Bryan and Cam Harrell also seeing action. Bryan was out with injuries for most of last fall and redshirted. Harrell, who also redshirted last year, has bounced from defensive back to wide receiver and now to running back.
As for Young, not only is he the most experienced back, he carries himself like a leader. It’s important with such a young group.
“Toren, as crazy as it sounds, he’s way ahead of his years,” Foster said. “He’s a very mature young man who accepts accountability, he leads by example, who is very vocal. I think those are the things that he prides himself on and we see [them] in him. Toren sets an example, not only on the field, he sets an example on the weight room, outside football in the classroom as well. I think those guys look at him as a big brother type of leader.”
Young (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) willingly accepts that role as the group leader. But he’s far from a finished product. He’s a freight train running the football but needs to learn patience. That’s something of which he’s trying to acquire in spring practice.
“You want to move quick and try to do things fast and as a running back you’ve got to slow things down and let plays develop,” Young said. “That’s my biggest thing this offseason and the spring is slowing things down and letting plays develop. I remember the North Texas game and there’s some other games I had a couple of plays where I was so excited I made a cut too fast. My biggest thing is just trying to slow things down and see the play develop.”
Kelly-Martin (5-10, 200) is the opposite style of runner. Kelly-Martin worked from the slot a few times last year and has quickness to which only Wadley can compare in recent memory. He had a 57-yard burst against Nebraska and finished fourth in Big Ten kickoff returners at 21.3 per return.
“He’s one of the quicker guys and makes a lot of cuts, he can break tackles,” Young said. “I’m more of a north-south guy, a physical guy, try to run through guys. So I think we complement each other pretty well.”
“Toren’s a bigger back,” Foster said. “He’s more of a downhill back. Direct, powerful. His vision is really good. I think with Ivory, he’s very elusive. He has some suddenness and quickness between the tackles and make a lot of guys miss in tight spaces. Whereas Toren, if you’re in his way, he may run over you.”
Iowa might not have enough backs comprising four deadly horsemen, but the Hawkeyes have their own steak-and-sizzle to this backfield. Will they eat like Wadley and the boys? It depends on how they develop over the rest of spring and training camp.