Iowa football grows ground game heading into new season

Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young have emerged as the top two running backs for the Hawkeyes, and they're trying to help Iowa get back on track on the ground.

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Iowa football grows ground game heading into new season

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) tries to run through a tackle during a game against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sep. 15, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers 38–14. (David Harmantas/The Daily Iowan)

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) tries to run through a tackle during a game against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sep. 15, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers 38–14. (David Harmantas/The Daily Iowan)

David Harmantas

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) tries to run through a tackle during a game against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sep. 15, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers 38–14. (David Harmantas/The Daily Iowan)

David Harmantas

David Harmantas

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) tries to run through a tackle during a game against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sep. 15, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers 38–14. (David Harmantas/The Daily Iowan)

Pete Ruden, Sports Editor

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Last season, Ivory Kelly-Martin locked up the No. 1 spot on the running back depth chart with his performance in camp before the start of the season.

This season, the opposite happened. Instead of Kelly-Martin leading the charge for the Hawkeye backs, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young have separated themselves as the clear top two in the backfield.

“I think both guys bring a real individual, unique skillset in some ways,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “Toren Young’s running the ball as good as he ever has; he’s a tempo setter. Mekhi is kind of a jack of all trades, a little bit of a utility knife.

“What we have to do is do a good job of doing a balancing act there. Those are certainly two of our best players — let’s keep them involved in what we’re doing offensively.”

That’s not to say Kelly-Martin won’t get playing time. At one point or another last season, each back earned the starting role, and Iowa utilized all three of them.

Ferentz also noted that he has been impressed with the way the freshman class has acclimated itself to the college football lifestyle. Ferentz said he thinks there will be some good players coming from the class. That’ll only help the Hawkeyes if some of them — such as three-star running back Tyler Goodson — can get used to things in the backfield as well.

After all, Iowa has averaged less than 4 yards per carry the past two seasons. That’s why the Hawkeyes are looking to get back on track on the ground.

“I think if you’re going to win football games, you need a consistent running game, and we’re trying to win more than nine games, so we’ll definitely need a consistent running game,” Ferentz said. “That’s been an area of focus since 1999. I don’t think anybody would tell you that we don’t feel like we fell short the last two years, so we need to get that established right out of the gate.”

Safety first

While the starters at safety are expected to be set with Geno Stone and Kaevon Merriweather roaming the secondary, there’s still a competition going on.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said sophomore Jack Koerner could help at the position and senior Wes Dvorak has raised his stock.

Both players have seen the field in their careers, but not much. With Amani Hooker gone, the Hawkeyes will need to start developing some depth at safety in case something goes awry.

“There’s a lot of competition in the back going on,” Parker said. “I don’t really have anything nailed down yet, but here in another week or so, I’m going to start making decisions of who’s going to be the guy, and they have to get the reps.”

Backing it up

 Iowa hasn’t officially named its backup quarterback yet, but the coaching staff feels more comfortable with the progression of Peyton Mansell and Spencer Petras after having time to evaluate them, Ferentz said.

Mansell completed 5-of-8 passes for 83 yards and an interception passing in 2018, with 31 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Petras attempted one pass that fell incomplete last season.

Although the Hawkeyes don’t want to rely on a backup, the comfort level of the coaches should make the team feel much better moving forward.

“Two more weeks of evaluation, basically, so the picture becomes much clearer,” Ferentz said. “You learn more about everybody’s capabilities, and I think it would help you establish a plan of what you want to be moving forward if you were playing without Nate.”

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