Up next in our 2023 season previews is the running backs. Traditionally an extremely strong position group under Matt Campbell, the tailbacks took a significant step back last season following the departure of Breece Hall. Jirehl Brock led the way with 99 attempts for 445 yards, followed by the oft-injured Cartevious Norton, Eli Sanders, and Deon Silas.
We know for sure that Deon Silas is out of the picture after transferring to Maine after last season, and Jirehl Brock was named in the ongoing investigation by the Iowa DCI regarding gambling by student-athletes, so it’s unlikely he will see much, if any, playing time in the 2023 season.
The 2023 recruiting class saw two new freshman backs enter the program. The first was Carson Hansen from Lakeville, MN who brings versatility to the program as a gifted pass-catcher out of the backfield. Early reports from fall camp around Hansen have been very positive, with some talk going around of him potentially seeing snaps this season as a receiving back.
The other new running back is Abu Sama III from Southeast Polk in Des Moines, who boasts game-changing speed. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you heard about his record-setting 372-yard, six-touchdown performance in the Iowa State Class 4A State Championship game. He’s been another regular in the fall camp rumor mill as a standout player, and may be practicing his way onto the field for some early carries.
Leader of the Pack
Right now, the starter at running back is anybody’s guess. Eli Sanders and Cartevious Norton have both received their fair share of hype early in their careers and have some snaps under their belt, so it’d be fair to assume it will likely be one of those two on the field for the first snaps against UNI. However, we can’t forget about Stanford transfer Arlen Harris, who is getting rave reviews as a pass blocker, a trait Matt Campbell is known to love.
Eli Sanders probably features the best speed of those three names, but desperately needed to work on his vision as a ballcarrier and learn how and when to find space. Norton turned heads in the spring ball in 2022 and in his limited carries in 2023, but injuries held him back significantly throughout last season. Harris is a somewhat unknown commodity at this point as a ball-carrier, having registered just two carries for one yard last season in Palo Alto.
If Sanders has improved his vision and Norton stays healthy, I’m guessing those two will lead the team in carries this season. However, it will be difficult for this group to take any significant leaps forward in production without improvement from the offensive line and a playcalling scheme that more effectively plays to the strength of each back.
As mentioned, much of the 2023 outlook for this group rests on the shoulders of people outside this position room. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for improvement from this group. The upside is that each of these players brings something unique.
Eli Sanders brings experience and one-cut speed. Norton is a violent runner. Harris can block. Hansen is a versatile pass catcher. Sama has game-breaking speed and elusiveness. Any of these players are talented enough to take snaps and get touches right away this season, but I’m guessing we’ll see two or three really float to the top by mid-season.
Right now, I’m guessing the depth chart at this position has Eli Sanders OR Cartevious Norton OR Arlen Harris at the top, with Carson Hansen OR Abu Sama following closely behind. Heck, we might even have a rare Quadruple-OR on our hands with this group.
No matter who starts, I think we can expect to see improvement in this room.