Even with an experienced running back and an offensive line that produced a pair of NFL Draft picks, the Iowa running game wasn’t exactly dominant last season.
The Hawkeyes ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in rushing offense, seventh with 163.1 rush yards per game.
And with that aforementioned running back and those aforementioned offensive linemen gone this offseason, what will the running game look like in 2015?
There are two main issues to address: replacing running back Mark Weisman and replacing the two stalwarts along the O-line, Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal.
In the backfield, it’ll be a multi-back job highlighted by LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri. Canzeri had 494 yards last season as Iowa’s second leading rusher behind Weisman. Daniels had just 15 carries in five games as a sophomore, limited by injury. Sophomore Derrick Mitchell Jr. is the team’s third back.
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Head coach Kirk Ferentz is excited about this combo, and he said their progression this offseason alleviated concern he had about the running game after last season wrapped up.
“My concern, it was significant back in January. I was really concerned about that part of our game and the running back position in particular,” Ferentz said during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. “I think the good news is that LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri have had a good year going back to January. They’ve handled every phase of the program really well, they’re both practicing really well.”
As for how the Hawkeyes will split carries among their running backs, Ferentz had an answer for that, too.
“LeShun will start the game. But Jordan has done a great job. I think you almost have to talk about the two on the same line because that's how I see them,” Ferentz said during his Tuesday press conference. “They're different types of backs, but they both have had a good year. Again, I go back to January for both guys. They're healthy now. Every phase that we've gone through they've done a really nice job. As a coach, you kind of bank on what you see, how players work, how they practice. That's the best way to project how they're going to play. Both of those guys have been in games too, so it's not like it's anything new for them.
“But we'll just kind of play it by ear, see how it goes. I don't know if we'll go with the hot hand guy, maybe use Jordan a little bit more on third down. I think we have a nice opportunity to mix it up a little bit.”
The other aspect, the offensive line, is a little less certain.
There are two players who have played a lot of games in Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh. But the other three spots will be dominated by younger players, meaning a bit of uncertainty.
Still, unsurprisingly, Ferentz is confident.
“With our linemen, we have some new guys,” Ferentz said. “We knew we had some work to do there at some of the positions, but I also think we have some really good players coming up. I think they’ll do fine. They’re going to have some growing pains early in the month September, but I think based on what we’ve seen — and the players I’m talking about, for the most part, have been in our program for several years, so we just think they’re on the right path to ending up having really good careers here.”
Part of that confidence, though, stems from the experience and leadership of Blythe. Can he follow in Scherff and Donnal’s footsteps and be one of Iowa’s next big-name O-linemen?
“Center is a really important position on just about every football team, and for what we do he's really important. He is our signal caller up front,” Ferentz said. “And it's important to have somebody in there that we have a lot of faith in, and that's certainly the case with Austin. He's earned that from Day 1. He's done a great job. I just mentioned (quarterback) C.J. (Beathard) getting better as a player, I would say the same thing about Austin Blythe, particularly since June, took off. He's really accepted the role of being a senior. That's important, not only as a leader on the line but our entire football team.”
The season-opener against Illinois State isn’t your run-of-the-mill non-conference cupcake game against an FCS foe. The Redbirds were in the FCS national championship game last season. And their run-defense numbers were stellar, holding opponents to just 121.9 rush yards per game, though that was against a schedule of entirely FCS opponents.
Still, it’ll be an important test for the Hawkeyes, who need to establish a more consistent and effective rushing attack in 2015.