IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Sophomore Ivory Kelly-Martin will likely start the season as Iowa's top running back, according to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
The move could be categorized as a mild surprise given that fellow sophomore Toren Young was listed ahead of Kelly-Martin on a depth chart released in fall camp. But Kelly-Martin, who appeared to be slotted as an option on third downs and in the return game, has shown Iowa's coaches that he has the potential to become an every-down back in their system.
The Hawkeyes (8-5 in 2017) host Northern Illinois on Sept. 1.
"He's got wiggle. He's got some power. He's got really good balance," Ferentz said. "One thing he does a nice job with is catching the ball out of the backfield."
Kelly-Martin, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, saw the field as a true freshman in 2017 largely because he was one of the fastest players in the program. He averaged 9.2 yards on just 20 carries, scoring three touchdowns, while averaging 21.3 yards on kickoff returns.
Kelly-Martin appears to have distanced himself in the three-man battle to replace Akrum Wadley, partly because he has proven in practice that he can pick up blitzing defenders. Kelly-Martin, Young and newcomer Mekhi Sargent likely will split carries -- especially early in the season -- as Iowa looks to improve on a rushing attack that ranked just 97th nationally with 139.2 yards per game last year.
Sargent ran for 1,449 yards in just 10 games at Iowa Western, while Young had 193 yards rushing and a pair of TDs for the Hawkeyes in 2017.
"If we're going to be successful here, we need to be able to run the football, and we need to do it when everyone knows we're going to do it. Otherwise, we have no chance," Ferentz said. "If we can't establish the run game from the opening snap of the season to the closing whistle of game 12, I think it's going to be hard for us to have any kind of sustained success offensively."
Iowa's biggest question mark with the season opener less than two weeks away is the back end of its defense, where it lost all three of linebackers along with All-American cornerback Josh Jackson and other key members of the secondary.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Tuesday that junior Amani Jones is "setting himself apart" at middle linebacker, which should be encouraging for the Hawkeyes because of how important that position is in regards to communication for the entire defense.
"We're excited so far with where we're at. We're comfortable with the guys we have, but obviously we've got a lot to do yet," Parker said.
Sophomore Matt Hankins and junior Michael Ojemudia appear locked in as the starting cornerbacks. But true freshman Julius Brents has worked his way into the rotation, likely in nickel packages at first.
"He's done a good job of understating where he has to be and what he has to do," Parker said of Brents.
Parker also mentioned another true freshman, Riley Moss, as a defensive back that stood out as Iowa looks to rebuild its secondary.