IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s running back situation last year was more of an aberration than almost any other time in the Kirk Ferentz era.
The Hawkeyes were blessed to have two top-notch running backs who each rushed for 1,000 yards. It was the first time in school history Iowa had a duo exceed that magic number. Perhaps most impressive is LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley stayed healthy long enough to accomplish the feat.
Entering this season, Iowa appeared to have a similar duo with Wadley and incoming graduate transfer James Butler. Wadley zoomed to 1,081 yards last year alongside Daniels. Butler ran for 1,336 at Nevada. But by the second half Saturday against North Texas, both runners were out with injuries. Wadley injured a right ankle in the first half, and Butler appeared to have dislocated his right elbow.
That’s the pattern most Iowa observers remember. There’s 2004, when the Hawkeyes were down to their fifth running back by season’s end. In 2010, the triple-headed monster of Jewel Hampton, Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson were out of the program by the bowl game. Then in 2012, Iowa was so depleted it converted walk-on fullback Mark Weisman to full-time starting running back. Even two years ago, the Hawkeyes’ top three runners all missed games with ankle injuries.
The perpetual issues at running back promoted popular Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants to nickname the situation AIRBHG (Angry Iowa running back hating God). Every time a running back goes down, fans blame AIRBHG.
The all-too-familiar situation against North Texas, however, turned from pain to gain on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Toren Young and first-year player Ivory Kelly-Martin combined for 152 yards on 30 carries and 2 touchdowns while replacing Wadley and Butler. All but 2 carries and 3 yards came in the second half. They helped turn a 14-10 halftime deficit into a 31-14 victory.
“Toren is a tough, hard-nosed runner — that’s his deal — and Ivory has impressed us with his ability to focus,” Ferentz said. “He’s a really quietly serious guy, and that’s unusual for a guy just out of high school like that.
“He has a good skill set on top of it, and, to me, it was no surprise that they played well. I think we all had really good confidence in them. You always worry about a guy’s first couple of carries, just to get his confidence level, but both those guys really did some good things, and they both missed a couple of runs [Saturday] they will see on film which will help them down the road, but they both gave us — they’re a big part of us winning this game.”
Young is a 5-foot-11, 220-pound bruiser in the mold of former Iowa running back Marcus Coker, who rushed for 1,384 yards in 2011. Young has good feet, a nice burst and big-time power. In high school at Monona Grove (Wis.), Young ran for 2,779 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior. He redshirted last year and saw his first action at Iowa on Saturday.
By game’s end, Young led the Hawkeyes with 78 yards on 19 carries. It was more of a workload than he originally expected, but he was happy to receive extended action.
“I was eager,” Young said. “Last year I was excited for this upcoming season. The first two games went by, and I was just patient. I just want what’s best for the team, and so I finally got my opportunity and it felt good.
“I’ve been a downhill runnner, north-south, trying to be physical. [I] like to lower my pads.”
Ferentz told Young in practice to remain patient for his opportunity, which Young said he took “with a grain of salt.” As for Kelly-Martin (5-11, 195), who saw action as the kick returner the last two weeks, he worked his way into the rotation with a stellar August camp.
Kelly-Martin ran for 1,360 yards and 22 touchdowns his final season at Oswego East (Ill.) High School. Not only does he display rare quickness and speed for his position, Kelly-Martin powered into the end zone twice in the fourth quarters on runs of 2 and 6 yards, respectively. He finished with 74 yards on 11 carries.
“He’s very quick, and he does not like to get tackled,” Young said of Kelly-Martin. “So he runs hard, and he’s able to run past people and make a move on a guy. He’s a good player.”
Wadley likely will play against Penn State on Saturday, while Butler’s situation is more wait-and-see. But if either is limited, Young and Kelly-Martin proved they can step in and contribute.
“We’ve got a good running back room, and there’s two really good running backs in front of me,” Young said. “So I’m just sitting back and learning a lot from them. They always tell me when my number’s called to be ready.”