If one could encapsulate the fate of Hawkeye tailbacks in a single word that word would be "ugh."
I won't rehash the details, but with the ACL tear of prohibitive starter Jordan Canzeri, the Hawks find themselves in what has become familiar territory.
In effect, next season's starting running back will probably be by committee, and that committee will consist of redshirt sophomore De'Andre Johnson, true sophomore Damon Bullock, walk-on transfer junior Andre Dawson, walk-on redshirt sophomore Marcus Binns and true freshmen Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill.
Meanwhile, the fullback position will be ably handled by returning starter, junior Brad Rogers. His backups will be senior Jonathan Gimm and sophomore Matt Meyers.
By the Numbers
Unfortunately, there isn't much to go on here.
The combined FBS collegiate statistics of all available and healthy Iowa running backs are: 42 ATT, 182 YDS, 4.33 YPC, zero TD. They also have five receptions for 48 yards and zero touchdowns.
Most of the carries were in garbage time, while most of the receptions were picked up by fullbacks or Bullock while he was a receiver last season.
In truth, the worst statistic of all is that there are two fumbles in those 47 touches.
That, as much as anything, is Kirk Ferentz's biggest worry as regards the running backs.
Issues Headed Into 2012
Which brings me to the biggest issue with the running backs in 2012—fumbles and pass protection.
When one goes back to the decimation of the Hawkeye running backs in 2004, as well as the legend of Sam Brownlee, there is one key statistic regarding the walk-on from Emmetsburg.
Forget his 2.4 YPC average. Forget his goose egg in the TD column. Forget a long run of 15 yards and less than 100 carries on the season.
The most important statistic was that Brownlee didn't allow the ball to hit the turf once in 98 touches.
Turnovers are the ultimate sin in Kirk Ferentz's system, and they are something that the inexperienced Iowa running backs will have to pay particular attention to.
Whoever starts may or may not be the most "talented" back, but he will be the most trustworthy with the ball and the best blocker.
Another issue concerns the running backs as outlet pass catchers.
In 2011, Marcus Coker was the Hawks' fourth-leading receiver with 21 receptions. Nine of those receptions went for a first down.
In 2010, Adam Robinson was also the fourth-leading receiver.
Hawkeye fans have grown used to players that can catch the ball out of the backfield. Furthermore, according to new offensive coordinator Greg Davis, catching the ball out of the backfield is "something that's really important in what we're doing." This held true in the spring game.
Other than that, the key issue is palpable, and won't be fixed without time: Iowa is desperately short on experienced tailbacks.
Positives Headed Into 2012
To begin, the fullback situation is in good hands.
While there were extenuating circumstances, it was not entirely a coincidence that Marcus Coker's season began to pick up the same game that saw Brad Rogers' return.
Also, as regards the receiver out of the backfield, one has to assume that Damon Bullock is dependable, as he spent half of last season at receiver.
Speaking of Bullock, he had an impressive 84-yard touchdown run during the spring game. While much of the credit for the run goes to the offensive line, Bullock showed he has big-play ability. Breakaway speed like that has been absent from the tailback position since Brandon Wegher in 2009.
Lastly, running back is the most talent-inherent position on the field.
A back has to learn to run routes and blocking schemes, as well as how to run lower to the ground in order to avoid injuries and be more responsible with the ball in his hand.
Moreover, learning patience in Iowa's zone-blocking system is key.
Nevertheless, a running back either has it or he doesn't, and there is no way a player that doesn't have "it" is going to become a top-notch running back.
There will be two true freshman backs in the 2012 class.
The second is Cedar Falls' Barkley Hill, who is less heralded than Garmon, but his one-cut running style is a perfect fit for the Hawks' zone-blocking schemes.
I'm not saying there won't be a learning curve for these two backs, but I am saying that help is on the way, and while experience is an issue, there will be depth.
Not applicable, as, right now, every player has to be considered a potential starter.
Outlook for 2012
Who will be Iowa's top running back in 2012?
Iowa will look to open up the run with the pass, which makes Greg Davis' earlier comment about catching the ball out of the backfield that much more poignant.
Iowa is not in 2004 mode. Yet.
The Hawks have players, and to the coaches and particularly running back coach Lester Erb's credit, Iowa has plugged inexperienced backs into the starting lineup since 2009. All of them have done respectably, if not superbly.
Assuming the remaining backs stay healthy, they will assert themselves well.
As previously mentioned, it will be running back by committee.
I expect the key members of that committee to consist of Bullock, Johnson and one of the true freshmen, with Bullock holding down the starting spot at the beginning of the season.