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Pat Harty: Why won’t the NFL draft Iowa’s running backs?

[ 0 ] April 9, 2014 |

Running backs and receivers took center stage Wednesday for the Iowa football team.

None of them were present, but their position coaches had plenty to say on their behalf.

Iowa running backs coach Chris White and receivers coach Bobby Kennedy both met on their own with the media Wednesday to discuss spring practice, which currently is in full swing.

Both coaches — to nobody’s surprise — spoke highly about the effort being put forth this spring by the players. They raved about working under Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. And they gave every impression that the program continues to move in the right direction after doubling its win total last season with an 8-5 record from the previous year.

But then I had to kill the buzz by bringing up the NFL draft.

That’s often a source of pride for Iowa coaches because sending players to the NFL is one of Ferentz’s strengths. Iowa’s NFL pipeline, which includes 52 players drafted under Ferentz, I would assume is a key selling point to recruits.

ladell betts 0409

Former Iowa running back Ladell Betts of New Orleans is tackled by Carolina Panthers safety Jordan Pugh at the Louisiana Superdome in the 2010 season.

 

White and Kennedy don’t have that luxury, though, because of the 52 players drafted, only three were receivers and two were running backs.

Quarterback is even worse, with Ricky Stanzi the only Hawkeye quarterback selected under Ferentz in 2011.

Iowa receivers’ poor showing in the NFL draft is easier to explain than running backs’, given Iowa’s preference to grind between the tackles under Ferentz. From Ladell Betts to Fred Russell to Jermelle Lewis to Albert Young to Shonn Greene to now Mark Weisman, the list of featured running backs at Iowa is impressive.

And yet, Betts and Greene were the only running backs from the list to be drafted.

White wasn’t aware of Iowa’s draft history at running back, or lack of it, when asked Wednesday if it hurts recruiting. He’s been a member of Ferentz’s staff for barely a year.

“I think what we try to sell is our brand of football, and if you’re a running back, wouldn’t you want to at least look at our place, with our style, our offensive line?” White said. “So I haven’t heard that, and it might be out there.”

I have no proof that it’s out there. I’ve just wondered for a while why Iowa has had so few offensive skill players get drafted.

It makes sense that White would sell Iowa’s brand of offense to running back recruits, because it’s tailor made for them.

What doesn’t make as much sense is why so few running backs have been drafted. Iowa’s high rate of attrition at running back probably has something to do with it.

But is it simply that most of them lacked the physical skills to play in the NFL, but they compensated by being in the right offense in college? That seems like the most reasonable explanation to me.

Each running back has a different story.

Russell was fast enough to play in the NFL, but he barely stood 5-foot-8, if that.

Lewis was a physical freak until his body was ravaged by injuries.

Ferentz’s area of expertise is the offensive line, so that helps explain why those five positions have produced the most NFL draft picks under his watch. The simple fact that there are five positions to choose from on the offensive line also helps to explain it.

That also helps to explain why 11 defensive backs have been selected under Ferentz, with four starters to choose from each year.

Iowa’s receivers have been criticized at times under Ferentz for not being play makers, caused mostly by a lack of speed, size or both. That was especially true during the 4-8 season in 2012 when Iowa made completing a forward pass seem close to impossible.

Marvin McNutt finished his career in 2011 as Iowa’s all-time leading receiver with 2,861 yards, but despite those numbers and despite standing 6-foot-4, McNutt still lasted until the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, where the Philadelphia Eagles finally selected him.

There doesn’t appear to be a receiver on the current Iowa team who is on course to get drafted, although it’s hard to judge the underclassmen and it’s impossible to judge those that haven’t played yet, which include four redshirt freshmen.

It’s fair to say, though, that Iowa has to upgrade its talent at receiver, whereas the talent at running back seems adequate for the Big Ten.

Kennedy hopes to use Iowa’s pro-style offense to his advantage in recruiting receivers.

“You know, I’ve had very favorable responses from the guys that I’m recruiting,” said Kennedy, who also has been on the staff for barely a year. “But, also, I think we have something to sell. If you look at the National Football League, there’s 32 teams in the league, probably 16 of them run the West Coast offense, 16 of them run the three-digit system that we use.

“So to me, selling kids to come and play in a pro-style offense so you’ll have a comfort level that if you are good enough you’re going to step into one of those places, if you get drafted, if you sign a free-agent deal. You at least have a 50/50 chance of kind of knowing what’s going on when you come in. So we’re getting good response from recruits. It’s a crapshoot sometimes. You’ve just got to hit the pavement and keep going.”

The NFL draft is all about identifying talent and potential. Plenty has been identified at Iowa, but rarely has it been an offensive skill player.

That’s not a criticism, just an interesting fact.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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