IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the first time since spring, fans and media were allowed to watch Iowa’s football team at the annual Kids Day scrimmage at Duke Slater Field at Kinnick Stadium.
Rightfully so, all eyes were on the Hawkeyes’ offensive backfield and the quarterback position. However, it was the signal-callers’ teammates beside them, the running backs, who had the strongest showing offensively.
It’s understood that All-Big Ten running back Tyler Goodson is the No. 1 back, but the question loomed: Who after him would contribute most? At the conclusion of the scrimmage, head coach Kirk Ferentz was pleased with what each candidate for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart brought to the table.
“We knew what we had in Tyler (Goodson) and Ivory (Kelly-Martin),” Ferentz said. “Leshon (Williams) has continued to improve and really has impressed us the first week here and Gavin (Williams) has been steady since he showed up a year ago.”
Each of the four running backs in the mix — Goodson, Kelly-Martin and Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams, both redshirt freshman — scored at least one touchdown, with Goodson and Gavin Williams scoring two apiece.
The most important and encouraging sight for the Hawkeyes was that Kelly-Martin looks fully healthy. It’s been a long road for the native of Plainfield, Illinois.
As a sophomore in 2018, he lost his starting position to injury and hasn’t recovered it since. At the end of the 2020 season, as the No. 3 running back behind Goodson and departed Mekhi Sargent, he suffered a torn ACL and missed all of 2021 spring practice.
Eight months later, he’s back and made his presence felt throughout the scrimmage, particularly through the air. He had three receptions, including a touchdown catch from quarterback Spencer Petras.
Goodson flashed the ability that landed him on the Doak Walker Award watch list. Unofficially, he recorded over 100 total yards from scrimmage, including a 34-yard pass from Petras and a long run on the plus side of 50 yards.
He and Kelly-Martin figure to create a formidable 1-2 punch, but at this point, Ferentz sees Kelly-Martin as more than just a backup.
“We look at him as a starter, much like Mekhi last year,” Ferentz said. “He looks to be fully healthy right now. Having he and Tyler back there gives you two guys who are really experienced, tremendous guys and tremendous players. That’s one position we’re obviously not worried about.”
The focus then shifts to the competition for running back No. 3 between Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams. Both redshirted last season due to running back depth and are in line to receive real snaps for the first time this season.
It’s unclear where Leshon Williams was on Iowa’s depth chart leading up to the scrimmage, but he arguably had the best day of all.
On one of his first plays from scrimmage, he took a handoff for a 47-yard touchdown run down the sidelines. After making several catches throughout the scrimmage, he broke another long run, this time for a 60-plus-yard gain.
He’s been on the coaches’ radar through the summer but seems to perform better in these types of environments.
“He plays better when he has pads on,” Ferentz said. “He’s just one of those guys who plays a little better when it’s full speed.”
As Ferentz has described, the offensive play in fall camp has had its shares of highs and lows. Outside of rushing and receiving, one area where the backs performed especially well Saturday was in pass protection.
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When Iowa’s defense blitzed, the running backs picked it up the majority of the time. That led to several big plays, including a 68-yard touchdown pass from Alex Padilla to redshirt freshman Diante Vines.
Blitz pickup will continue to be a focus leading up to the season-opener on Sept. 4.
“That’s encouraging because that usually comes last,” Ferentz said. “If you’re a back, you need to be able to protect and protect the football. It was encouraging with the blocking, but we still need to work on that.”
Overall, Ferentz described the scrimmage as a “good day of work” with three weeks until the opener. Offensively, it was a strong day overall and perhaps a Kids Day scrimmage first: The offense walked away getting the better of the defense.
“Usually we can’t make a yard,” Ferentz said. “And it’s been that way most of the preseason thus far. We had some holes open up (today) and that was good to see and the guys ran the ball hard and ran it well. We hit some passes, too, so that’s all encouraging, but it’s kind of up and down and back and forth.”
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org