March 01, 2011
Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Sophomore Iowa running back Marcus Coker.
• Typecasting. Coker showed up last summer looking every bit the part of a burly, Big Ten-ready thumper at 6-feet, 225 pounds, and as one of the most hyped members of the Hawkeyes' incoming class. He was also bound for a redshirt: With sophomores Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher and Jewel Hampton in front of him on the depth chart and a broken collarbone in the first week of fall camp, Coker was staring at two or three years on the bench before his shot at significant carries.
That was in August. By the end of September, Wegher had left the team, Hampton had suffered a season-ending ACL tear for the second year in a row and Coker was slowly ascending into the backup role behind Robinson. With A-Rob banged up down the stretch, Coker assumed a lion's share of the workload in November, and went into the bowl game as the essentially the only weapon at the offense's disposal in the wake of a Great Reckoning that officially purged all three veteran backs and the school's career receiving leader from the roster in a little under week in December – which was fine, actually, after Coker's MVP turn in the Insight Bowl upset over Missouri, establishing him as an All-Big Ten-caliber back almost overnight.
• Best-Case. Obviously, Coker didn't appear out of the mist on Dec. 28: He'd run for 129 on 22 carries in the Nov. 6 win over Indiana, his first start, and for 90 yards in the season finale against Minnesota. He'd also ripped off 70 yards on just nine carries against the Big Ten's best rushing defense, Ohio State, including a 26-yard sprint that set up his first career touchdown, a one-yard plunge that put the Hawkeyes up 17-10 in the fourth quarter.
But it was clearly his 33-carry, 219-yard touchdown effort in the desert – highlighted by a 62-yard TD sprint in the first half and a long, skull-rattling first-down run in the second – that set the template for Coker to take over as the full-time, between-the-tackles workhorse. Fortunately, that's a template Iowa fans are intimately familiar with, most recently with Shonn Greene, a thick, bowling ball of a back who rumbled for a school-record 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2008, going for at least 100 yards in every game. That level of consistency productivity is beyond ambitious for anyone, including Coker, who's still looking to go for 100 in consecutive games. But he's built to handle 20 to 25 carries on a weekly basis, and at last year's rate (5.46 yards per carry), a steady diet behind a veteran offensive line could easily challenge for the Big Ten rushing crown at 1,200 to 1,500 yards for the season.
• Worst-Case. With Robinson, quarterback Ricky Stanzi and receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos all gone, Coker looks like The Man on offense after essentially one big game. Setting aside the somewhat … fragile reputation of Hawkeye backs under Kirk Ferentz, and Coker's own injury history, building an offense around the notion of a sophomore with four career starts as a week-in, week-out 20-carry workhorse isn't generally the card you'd want to draw from the "Random Offensive Scenarios" stack. Iowa has always lived and died with a conservative, run-first philosophy, but new quarterback James Vandenberg isn't going to scare many defenses with his arm, and aside from Greene, the Hawkeyes haven't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since 2005, the last time they won at least a share of the Big Ten title. Even including Greene, they haven't finished in the top 50 in total offense since 2006. Assuming he stays healthy, Coker could be bound for an awful lot of charges into a no-man's land of overloaded fronts.
• Fun Fact. Assuming his official university bio is correct, Coker may be the only major college football player who is also an astrophysics major, which – along with his back-to-back "Gentleman of the Year" awards for community service as a junior and senior high school in Maryland – makes him quite arguably the most interesting man in the world. Among other things, Iowa's Department of Physics and Astronomy oversees the Iowa Robotic Observatory, which is basically a really fancy telescope, though personally I prefer to think Coker is focusing his talents on the Interstellar Medium and Galactic Center.
• What to expect in the fall. Coker's going to get his chance to be a star, because no one else on the offense is abot to assume the role. With a new QB, four returning starters up front and a 230-pound tailback, this is shaping up as a stereotypical, grind-their-bones Iowa attack. Based on the bowl game alone, Coker is as solid a candidate for a 1,000-yard breakout as anyone in the Big Ten, but under the circumstances, it's likely to come as a result of a lot of hard, unspectacular work, without a lot of fireworks.
Nothing new there, though the sustainability of that philosophy will depend on the defense. Just hope for Marcus' sake that he's getting plenty of rest.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.