Harty: Iowa Backs Lag Behind Badgers
What I’m about to say won’t make the Iowa football team’s 7-6 record from last season look or feel any better.
It won’t change the sobering fact that Iowa has lost three consecutive games to Wisconsin.
And it won’t necessarily provide any hope or inspiration for next season.
But what if Melvin Gordon had honored his verbal commitment to Iowa instead of switching to Wisconsin, where he became a megastar at running back?
I ask that question because it’s been suggested to me more than once that Gordon’s presence was the only difference between Iowa and Wisconsin on the field last season. The Badgers needed all of Gordon’s 200 rushing yards and his 64 receiving yards to escape from Kinnick Stadium with a 26-24 victory last season.
One position certainly doesn’t decide a football game, but Iowa’s two-point loss to the Badgers in November was about as close as it gets. The two teams seemed evenly matched at most of the other positions.
So perhaps Iowa isn’t that far from being respectable again in football.
The problem is that Iowa doesn’t have a dynamic running back who is capable of carrying an offense throughout the course of a season and rarely has under veteran coach Kirk Ferentz.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, always seems to have a dynamic running back, its latest game-changer being junior-to-be Corey Clement. He rushed for 949 yards and scored nine touchdowns as Gordon’s backup last season.
“You need at least in college football two backs,” Iowa running backs coach Chris White said Wednesday while meeting with reporters. “And I’d love to sit here and have Melvin Gordon run it 50 times a game for us. We don’t have that right now.
“We’ll make the best. We have very talented running backs here.”
It’s sort of a mystery to me why Iowa hasn’t landed more celebrated running backs under Ferentz because all the pieces seem to be in place for them to shine.
Ferentz’s strives for balance on offense, but let’s not fool ourselves. He wants to run the football between the tackles more than anything else.
Combine that philosophy with a sturdy offensive line and with a running back as talented as Shonn Greene and you have the potential for greatness. Greene achieved greatness in 2008 by gaining a school-record 1,850 rushing yards and being the recipient of the Doak Walker Award, which is given to the nation’s top college running back.
That season marked one of the few times recently that Iowa has had an edge over Wisconsin at running back. The Hawkeyes used that edge in 2008 to defeat Wisconsin 38-16 at Kinnick Stadium.
Only once since then, though, has an Iowa running back rushed for at least 1,000 yards in a season. Marcus Coker rushed for 1,384 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2011.
However, he was suspended from the Insight Bowl that season and then transferred from Iowa to Stony Brook.
Coker is part of a long line of running backs who have met an early demise at Iowa, either because of disciplinary reasons, injuries or personal problems.
So it’s fair to say that attrition has hindered Iowa’s ability to have dynamic running backs.
But only to a certain extent because recruiting also is to blame.
I’d feel differently if some of the former Iowa running backs had transferred to schools in the power five conferences and had some success.
That’s not the case, though.
Brandon Wegher tried to transfer to Oklahoma after his one season at Iowa in 2009, but things didn’t work out. He instead became a star at NAIA Morningside, where he used up his eligibility last season and now hopes to play in the NFL.
Adam Robinson led Iowa in rushing in 2009 and 2010 before finishing his career at Minnesota State. Jewel Hampton and Mika’il McCall both had moments where they shined as Iowa running backs before transferring to Southern Illinois.
Greg Garmon only played one season at Iowa in 2012 before transferring to a junior college, never to be heard from again on the football field.
Northern Iowa was the beneficiary of Iowa’s last two running backs to transfer – Barkley Hill and Michael Malloy.
So it’s not as if the power five schools wage a bidding war when an Iowa running back transfers. That to me says a lot about Iowa’s recruiting.
Most of Iowa’s running backs were lightly recruited by the power five schools in high school. The two exceptions were Wegher and Garmon.
There is a reason Mark Weisman led Iowa in rushing in each of the past three seasons despite playing out of position as White pointed out on Wednesday.
“He was a fullback playing tailback,” White said of the 240-pound Weisman.
It’s not Weisman’s fault that the other running backs failed to beat him out. If you want to blame somebody, blame the Iowa coaches for not recruiting better running backs.
Now in fairness to senior-to-be Jordan Canzeri, he might have been able to surpass Weisman on the depth chart if he could’ve just stayed healthy last season. Canzeri is more explosive than Weisman, but Canzeri is also smaller and more fragile.
LeShun Daniels, a 225-pound junior-to-be, also had his season cut short by an injury a year ago. Daniels once was committed to Boston College, so perhaps that says something about his ability because at least Boston College is a power five school.
It remains to be seen if Canzeri or Daniels can carry the load for an entire season. It’s more likely that they’ll be asked to do it together.
You expect running backs to succeed at Wisconsin, whereas at Iowa you hope they will. That’s a big difference.