By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Texas running back Eno Benjamin had just recently de-committed from the Iowa football team when somebody whose knowledge, opinion and objectivity I greatly respect had a message for Hawkeye fans.
The message was not to fret over losing Benjamin because Iowa had another running committed to its 2017 recruiting class who was as good, or maybe even better, than Benjamin.
That was in reference to Ivory Kelly-Martin, who as of now, according to Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, sits atop the depth chart at running back as a true sophomore.
“I think right now if we opened the season, he’s going to be behind center carrying the football right now,” Ferentz said of Kelly-Martin after practice on Tuesday.
Brian Ferentz was quick to include sophomore Toren Young and junior-college transfer Mekhi Sargent in the mix at running back, saying there are two other guys they feel real good about carrying the football and that it’s good problem to have.
But it also was clear that Kelly-Martin has distinguished himself in practice so far this summer.
His ability to play on all three downs, including passing situations, has helped the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Kelly-Martin create some separation as Iowa's tries to replace its top two running backs from last season in Akrum Wadley and James Butler.
“I think that’s one of Ivory’s strengths,” Brian Ferentz said. “Obviously, he’s got some wiggle. He’s got some power. He’s got really good balance.
“I heard a pretty smart guy once talk about backs and whether or not guys have balance. Can they get hit and continue to run? Some guys can and some guys can’t. And he’s a guy, Mekhi is the same way, very difficult to bring down. They have enough power, but if you don’t bring them to the ground, they will find a way to stay upright and keep moving.”
Kelly-Martin was the other running back in Iowa’s 2017 recruiting class. His status as a three-star recruit from nearby Plainfield, Ill., paled in comparison to Benjamin’s status as a four-star recruit from talent-rich Texas.
Benjamin also had a more impressive offer list and was all over social media promoting his bond with the Hawkeyes.
But Benjamin violated Kirk Ferentz’s rule about visiting other schools as an Iowa commit and that caused his relationship with Iowa to unravel.
Benjamin signed with Arizona State where he is expected to be a key contributor at running back this coming season.
So there doesn’t appear to be a loser in this case with Benjamin and Kelly-Martin both in position to play significant roles as true sophomores.
Toren Young, a third-year sophomore, was listed as Iowa's starting running back throughout spring practice, and on the most recent depth chart that was released on media day earlier this month.
That’s why it was kind of surprise when Brian Ferentz said Kelly-Martin would be the starter.
Kelly-Martin’s versatility appears to have given him a slight edge.
“One thing he does a nice job of is catching the ball out of the backfield, so that gives him a third-down element,” Brian Ferentz said of Kelly-Martin. “There is plenty of stuff that we do to release those guys and get them involved.
“But the flipside of that is sometimes you have those guys on third down that do a great job of coming out of the backfield and catching the ball. But they’re not so good at stepping up in the A gap and handling pressure when we need to be in a six- or seven-man protection. He can do that, which gives him that added element of really being a four-down player for us. And that’s a pretty good deal.”
Injuries always are a concern at running back, so Brian Ferentz feels fortunate to have three players he trusts at that position.
“We still feel real good about the three guys we have,” Brian Ferentz said. “You look at a guy like Mekhi Sargent, he just continues to impress you.
“So going into camp I felt we had two guys we felt pretty good about. Now I feel we’ve got three guys we feel pretty good about. Hey, that’s great right now week zero. I’m hoping in week twelve we still have three guys we feel pretty good about, because if the past is any indicator.”
Kelly-Martin showed flashes last season as a reserve running back. He rushed for 184 yards and scored three touchdowns while averaging an impressive 9.2 yards per carry.
He also returned 19 kicks for a 21.1 average.
As for Benjamin, he rushed for 142 yards and scored one touchdown as a true freshman for Arizona State last season.