Iowa RB Jewel Hampton seeks starting job

Iowa running back Jewel Hampton entered his sophomore year with

the starting job all but locked up.

It’s a plum gig in an offense that prominently features the lead

back, and it might still be out there for Hampton. But

season-ending knee surgery, the emergence of two talented young

backs ahead of him and an offseason arrest that led to a one-game

suspension have all clogged Hampton’s once-promising career

path.

Hampton enters his third fall camp as an unlikely third-stringer

looking to prove himself, and he’s a long way to from where many

thought he’d be as Iowa started practice Friday. The Hawkeyes

finished 11-2 in 2009 and beat Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl for

their first BCS bowl win.

Hampton was forced to redshirt following a knee injury last

summer and entered fall camp listed behind fellow sophomores Adam

Robinson and Brandon Wegher on the depth chart.

”I’m just trying to keep a level head. Things happen. You’ve

just to move past them. I’m just really looking forward to this

season, and that’s what’s keeping through the rough times,”

Hampton said.

It was only two years ago that Hampton was viewed as a classic

Iowa success story in the making.

A lightly regarded recruit out of Indianapolis, Hampton worked

his way up a thin depth chart in 2008 and became the backup to

Shonn Greene, the Doak Walker Award winner that season as the

nation’s top back.

Greene racked up 1,850 yards rushing and a school-record 20

touchdowns. But there wasn’t much of a drop-off between Greene and

Hampton, who rushed for 463 yards and a seven touchdowns – then a

school record for a freshman – on an impressive 5.1 yards a

carry.

Greene announced he was leaving for the NFL a year early moments

after an Outback Bowl win over South Carolina, clearing the way for

Hampton to assume Green’s spot.

It seems little has gone right for Hampton since.

He blew his knee out just weeks before the season started,

stirring up some doom and gloom among Iowa fans who had already

anointed Hampton as the program’s next great back.

But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz turned to redshirt freshmen Robinson

and true freshman Wegher in mid-September, and the Hawkeyes caught

fire.

Robinson and Wegher might have been untested, but they proved to

be a formidable 1-2 punch as the Hawkeyes rolled off nine straight

wins and shot into the national championship picture.

Robinson rushed for 834 yards and five touchdowns, and Wegher

had 641 yards rushing and eight touchdowns – breaking Hampton’s

record with a 32-yard score to seal the Orange Bowl win over the

Yellow Jackets.

Hampton participated in non-contact drills during spring ball

and is now completely recovered from knee surgery. But Hampton, 20,

was arrested in downtown Iowa City in early June. He later pleaded

guilty to public intoxication and has been suspended for the season

opener against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 4.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has yet to reveal specific plans for

Iowa’s logjam of sophomore running backs, preferring to let the

situation sort itself out over the next month or so.

Ferentz aid Friday that Hampton is ”fine” mentally, though,

and it sounds as though he’ll get a fair shot at playing time.

”They’ll be plenty of carries. If we have a Shonn Greene story

emerge through the course of the year…that guy’s going to get

more carries than the others. But right now, I’d really handicap it

as a pretty even race, and we’ll see how things go,” Ferentz

said.

For all the promise Robinson and Wegher showed in 2009, Hampton

has the potential to outshine them both. He’s got quick feet and

plenty of speed, which has been Wegher’s best attribute so far, and

the ability to keep drives alive with tough inside carries like

Robinson.

But Hampton has to first prove he’s ready for both the mental

and physical burden of the starting job.

”I’ve been out for too long,” Hampton said. ”I’m just looking

forward to competing and trying to get back on the field.”