Hawkeyes taking advantage of running-back trio

Ivory Kelly-Martin, Toren Young, and Mekhi Sargent join forces to give Iowa a deep backfield full of potential.


Joseph Cress

Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin catches a touchdown pass during an NCAA football game between Iowa and Illinois in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini, 45-16.

Pete Ruden, Sports Editor

If you want a quick preview of what Mekhi Sargent can do on a football field, all you have to do is turn on Netflix, scroll to “Last Chance U,” Season 3, Episode 1, and the film is right there.

Spoiler alert: In that first game on the popular documentary series, Sargent racked up 170 yards and a touchdown on the ground, while adding 32 yards on 2 receptions and another score in Iowa Western’s 70-21 slaughtering of Independence Community College.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Sargent said about being on the show. “… It was before morning workouts, which are at 6 in the morning … I woke up pretty early just to watch ‘Last Chance U.’ ”

Sargent — a self-proclaimed downhill runner who also possesses plenty of tools — is set to find playing time behind Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young on the depth chart, and all three bring a different set of skills to the backfield.

Kelly-Martin possesses a bundle of speed, and he flashes it with big-play ability, helping him earn the starting job. His specific skills — full of speed and elusiveness — helped him to 9.2 yards a carry in 2017 and 4 touchdowns on just 24 touches.

Young, then, serves as more of a power back.

In addition to Sargent’s profile as a north and south runner, he can catch the ball and be an effective receiver out of the backfield. He credited his coaching staff at Iowa Western for helping him become faster and stronger in his year in Council Bluffs.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said the duo of Kelly-Martin and Young is reminiscent of former Hawkeye running backs Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels, while Sargent is kind of like James Butler but not an exact duplicate.

“During my time here, we’ve never had too many backs, that’s for sure,” Ferentz said. “None of these guys have production in Division-1 football at this point, so, hopefully, they’ll get that going, and then, hopefully, we’ll have to strategize how we’re going to use them, but I think we’re going to need all three, and my guess is we’ll have plenty of opportunity to use all three of them.”

The offense has been fortunate enough to have a committee in the backfield in recent years. In 2015, Iowa boasted Jordan Canzeri, Daniels, and Wadley. Wadley and Daniels returned in 2016, and Wadley and Butler carried the load in 2017.

A deep backfield is important, as evidenced against Northwestern in 2015, when Wadley was the only available ball carrier after Daniels was out to begin with and Canzeri got injured.
The increase in numbers allows Iowa to shake things up and get any player the ball when he’s hot.

“When you have three guys in the stable who are healthy, then it’s just kind of a matter of who has the hot hand, where are things at a certain point of the game, and how those things kind of shake out,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said.

He said all three could split carries until someone emerges as the feature back.

Although the Hawkeyes were only planning on having two running backs receiving the majority of carries, having Sargent around will keep Kelly-Martin and Young fresh, allowing for an even more deadly ground game.

“This offense, we like to run the ball, and we’re not going to be able to do that with just one guy,” Kelly-Martin said. “Having those other guys is a huge help in making our offense even better.”

Now, with Wadley gone, the backfield is short on experience. Last year, Young had a carry in six games, while Kelly-Martin had a touch in five, showing that neither has been the feature back at the Division-1 level.

Still, the backs have a plan to get things flowing.

“We all want to feed off each other’s energy,” Young said. “We talked about it as a group of running backs — we want to set the tone when we’re in the game or in practice, whatever it may be. We want to set the tone, we want to work hard, we want to block hard, we want to run good routes, and just be crisp when we’re in the game. We have common goals.”