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August 17, 2009

Iowa counting on Hampton to carry the load

Run hard, Jewel.

Run fast, Jewel.

Growing up in Indianapolis, those messages were delivered often to Jewel Hampton during football games in the yard with his dad.

It was there, between the curb and front step of the house, that Hampton began to forge the running style that has defined his still-developing career at Iowa.

"No doubt about it," Hampton says. "Me and my father would get after it. He taught me so much about the game, the little things. He also taught me how to compete and play hard. I have tried to carry that with me at every level, running hard, running ..."

Hampton stops for a moment, searching for the right word.

"You have to run angry," he says.

Hampton also will be running out of obscurity this season; he will be in the spotlight as he attempts to replace Shonn Greene, one of the nation's top running backs last season. Greene ranked second in the nation in rushing with 1,850 yards (142.3 yards per game) and scored 20 touchdowns last season, when he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back.

But just as quickly as Greene arrived out of nowhere - he had missed the 2007 season because of academic reasons - he was gone, opting to turn pro early and becoming a third-round pick of the New York Jets.

Following a bowl-less 2007 season and spate of off-field issues, many people across the state were grumbling about the direction of the program before last season. Had coach Kirk Ferentz lost it? Was Iowa destined to be a second-tier Big Ten program after a remarkable run of success earlier this decade that included two Big Ten titles in three years from 2002-04?

But fueled by Greene, the Hawkeyes posted a 9-4 record, highlighted by a stunning victory over then-unbeaten Penn State in November that ended the Nittany Lions' national championship hopes. Even better: Iowa concluded its season of redemption with an Outback Bowl victory over South Carolina that was the Big Ten's lone postseason triumph.

Now, with Greene gone, it's Hampton's turn.

"He isn't as big as Shonn, but he's a hard-nosed, tough, aggressive runner," Ferentz says. "He isn't a blazer, but he has good speed."

Hampton will try to join a fraternity of standout Hawkeyes running backs of recent vintage that includes Nick Bell, Albert Young, Ladell Betts, Ronnie Harmon and Fred Russell.

Running royalty
Three of the nation's top six rushers last season were from the Big Ten, but the conference is starting over at running back this season. Here's a look at the nation's 10 top returning rushers:
Player School Yards YPG
1. Jahvid BestCalifornia1,580131.7
2. MiQuale LewisBall State1,736124.0
3. Kendall HunterOklahoma State1,555119.6
4. Vai TauaNevada1,521117.0
5. Jacquizz RodgersOregon State1,253113.9
6. James StarksBuffalo1,333111.1
7. Damion FletcherSouthern Miss1,313109.4
8. Jonathan DwyerGeorgia Tech1,395107.3
9. Michael SmithArkansas1,072107.2
10. Noel DevineWest Virginia1,28999.2
"I don't think the game plan is really going to change; it's just a different person in the backfield," says Hampton, who was a high school teammate of Virginia Tech tailback Darren Evans at Indianapolis Warren Central. "The offensive program is going to keep running. I know it's going to be here when I'm gone, too. It's going to stay the same."

Hampton, who is 5 feet 9 and 210 pounds, surprised many last fall as a true freshman, when he rushed for 463 yards and seven touchdowns; the touchdown total set a school record for a freshman.

"Jewel played really well," tight end Tony Moeaki says. "At the same time, Shonn was a freak last year, almost like a superhero. It will be tough to replace Shonn, but it will be exciting because all of the guys on offense have to raise our level of play to make up for his absence."

Iowa got a scare over the summer when Hampton suffered a knee injury in workouts. And he recently aggravated the injury and is listed as day to day.

That somewhat clouds the picture in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes, ranked No. 21 in the coaches' preseason poll, are a sleeper contender in the Big Ten. There are eight starters back on defense, which paced the Big Ten and ranked fifth in the nation in scoring defense (13.0 points per game) and was second in the league and 12th in the country in total defense (291.0 ypg).

Offensively, the line will be one of the best in the nation, and insiders feel the receiving corps is one of the best in recent school history. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi showed flashes down the stretch that his best days are ahead of him.

That leaves the running back situation. Iowa's schedule includes Big Ten road games at Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State. To win at those venues, the Hawkeyes will need to run the ball - a lot.

"We are counting on him to play well for us and be a big part of what we are doing," Ferentz says. "We aren't counting on him to be a 1,500-yard-plus guy. But we will give him what he can handle, that's for sure."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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