It's been a long road since mid-season 2004. I'm sure every Iowa fan remembers.
Iowa had lost their top three halfbacks to ACL tears and their fourth one to a high ankle sprain. They were down to Sam Brownlee, the unknown walk-on from Emmetsburg, IA, population 3,616.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 2009 season and, in the words of Yogi Berra, it was "deja vu all over again".
Doak Walker Award winning tailback Shonn Greene had left for the NFL with one year of college eligibility remaining.
Jewell Hampton, Greene's backup from the previous season and the heir apparent to the starting tailback position, was lost for the year with a leg injury.
Jeff Brinson, a redshirt freshman, and the only other tailback that had been on scholarship in '08, had on-again, off-again health issues.
When Kirk Ferentz released the two-deep for the first game against UNI, the starting tailback was walk-on Paki O'Meara.
Nothing against the Paki-bomb, who is a great special teams player and, from all accounts, a great teammate, but he was not who the Hawkeye faithful wanted to see lined up behind quarterback Ricky Stanzi.
However, tailback is arguably the position on the football field that most requires certain innate abilities. This is not to say a tailback doesn't have skills he needs to learn: blocking assignments, running routes, reading his blocks, etc. Nevertheless, eventually, a tailback either has it, or he doesn't.
And if Paki O'Meara had it, he wouldn't be a walk-on.
Nonetheless, on September 5, 2009, when the Iowa offense took the field against FCS opponent UNI, Paki was starting. Thankfully, that didn't last long.
At the beginning of the second half Paki fumbled the ball, an absolute no-no for a Ferentz-coached running back.
After that, former grayshirt safety and redshirt freshman Adam Robinson took over. And Iowa never looked back.
Well, sort of. Robinson wound up splitting his carries with true freshman Brandon Wegher.
Moreover, the two of them had their share of injuries over the year. Robinson got a high ankle sprain against Michigan State and missed two games.
Meanwhile, Wegher had some sort of hand and rib issues that nagged him for much of the year and kept him out of the OSU game.
Regardless, in 2009, A-Rob and Wegher combined for a very respectable 1,475 yards on 342 carries. Between the two of them they also accounted for 13 touchdowns (five for A-Rob and eight for Wegher).
Now Hawkeye fans find themselves looking forward to the 2010 season with a relatively loaded backfield.
A-Rob and Wegher will be back. Jewell Hampton will be back and should be 100% recovered from his injury. Hopefully, Jeff Brinson will be back and will be able to contribute to the offense.
On top of that, two freshmen that redshirted this past season, Josh Brown and Brad Rogers, will be available to play.
Furthermore, Iowa expects to sign two backs in this upcoming recruiting class-- Marcus Coker out of Maryland and DeAndre Johnson out of Miami.
Needless to say, in 2010 there will have to be quite a few injuries before Iowa starts playing walk-ons.
However, this brings up a new problem. Players don't come to a FBS program—or FCS program for that matter—with the intention of riding the bench. They want to play.
And tailback, much like quarterback—allows for a limited number of available players to get on the field.
Two tailbacks can platoon and each can get a good amount of touches. Beyond that, unless there are injuries, three tailbacks are a certified logjam.
So who will it be? Who will be the primary ball carrier(s) for Iowa next fall.
In my opinion, you can cross off the two true freshmen. They will redshirt.
You can also cancel out Brown and Rogers, except in backup roles. Also, they might move up the depth chart if there are position switches, but we'll come to that shortly.
As for Brinson, I think he is too far behind the curve at this point to catch up. I could be wrong; he could have a major breakthru. However, I wouldn't surprised if he finishes his career without getting any meaningful snaps.
This brings us to the top three: A-Rob, Hampton and Wegher.
Firstly, I don't think there will be a primary ball carrier the way there was in 2008 with Shonn Greene. I think Iowa will have two ball carriers that split the load fairly evenly.
It should also be noted that when platooning tailbacks, it is ideal to have backs with different styles. For example, a between-the-tackles runner goes well with a speed back. A straight ahead back goes well with a scat back.
I will start by saying that I like Wegher and Hampton, but I am a huge fan of A-Rob. He's a between-the-tackles runner with impressive vision and patience for a freshman. Furthermore, he is blessed with superb balance and fairly soft hands. He does not have the speed you'd want in your tailback, but I think his balance and ability to break tackles make up for that.
Short of that breakaway speed, A-Rob is a prototypical Big Ten back, ala Shonn Greene-- though not as good. Sorry Hawk fans, at Iowa we're lucky if that set of skills comes along once a decade.
Meanwhile, Jewell Hampton is more of a speedy runner. At a listed 5'9", 200 lbs., he had better be.
In 2008, while backing up Shonn Greene, Hampton ran for a very impressive 463 yards on 91 carries. This was an average of 5.1 per carry.
However, those numbers are somewhat skewed. Remember, he went against defenses that were softened up by Shonn Greene . Furthermore, those defenses were game-planning against Greene and not him.
Finally, unlike both Wegher and A-Rob, Hampton has never started a game. I realize his 13 games played carries as much weight as the other two backs, but starting and backing up are completely different animals.
Like Hampton, Wegher is also a speed back. Nevertheless, despite having almost equal carries with A-Rob—162 carries to A-Rob's 181—I think Robinson was decidedly the better back this year.
Despite his natural gifts, I don't think Wegher quite possessed the vision that Robinson had. The good thing is that comes with time and experience.
One other aspect of A-Rob's and Wegher's play that is worthy of mention is their playing beyond their experience levels.
In those combined 342 carries they tallied exactly one fumble (by Wegher). That would be an impressive statistic for a senior, let alone freshmen. Their blocking was quite solid and one heads-up play by Wegher in the Orange Bowl particularly impressed me.
On the first down run before he had his 30-yard touchdown gallop, Wegher saw that he was going get caught from behind and had the awareness to stay in bounds , thereby keeping the clock running.
Again, that is awareness that is well beyond his years.
In closing, it is my opinion that one of Iowa's two backs next season will be A-Rob. As I said, he is a prototypical Big Ten running back and that is not something either of the other two candidates really brings to the table.
I think the other feature back will be Hampton. Between A-Rob and Hampton Iowa will have a nice thunder-and-lighting combo.
Of course, I do feel that Wegher is far too talented to keep off the field. I think that with free safety Brett Greenwood running out of eligibility next year, the opportunity will be there for Wegher to make the switch to defense.
Furthermore, Greenwood doesn't currently have any notable backups. It is also worth noting that Wegher displayed particularly good hands over the course of the season. This is not the first quality one looks for in a safety, but it helps.
All in all, 2004 is long gone. The tailback position at Iowa looks to be in at least three pairs of trustworthy hands.
Yes, that is a problem, but I'm sure it's a problem Kirk Ferentz wishes he could have every year.