Iowa RB Coker rolling after slow start

Iowa RB Coker rolling after slow start

Published Nov. 9, 2011 5:22 a.m. ET

Iowa running back Marcus Coker is double-majoring in physics and astronomy while shouldering a heavy load for the Hawkeyes.

Until a month ago, Coker might have been too smart for his own good.

Coach Kirk Ferentz thought the sophomore, who'd missed practice time because of an injured shoulder, was overanalyzing the game. So last month he called Coker in for a meeting and essentially told him to stop thinking and start running.

Since then, Coker's been as good as anyone in the country.


Coker has rushed for 647 yards and eight touchdowns in his last four games and now leads the Big Ten with 1,101 yards rushing heading into Saturday's divisional showdown between Iowa (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) and No. 13 Michigan State (7-2, 4-1) in Iowa City.

''That's the type of person I am. I overthink everything,'' Coker said. ''Just going out there and play has helped a little bit.''

More than a little bit, actually. Coker now ranks sixth in the nation in rushing yards, which is even more impressive when considering how effective Iowa has been through the air this season.

The road to 1,101 yards wasn't easy.

The expectations for the 6-foot, 230-pound Coker were high coming into this season after he piled up 219 yards and two touchdowns against a stout Missouri defense in the Insight Bowl in 2010.

Iowa's offense is a good place for a bruising, straight-ahead back like Coker, who wears number 34 in part because of former NFL great Earl Campbell. It seemed natural to assume Coker would put together an All-Big Ten type of season in his first one as the starter.

But Coker often looked slow and tentative in September. It had many wondering whether the shoulder he hurt in fall camp was worse than he was letting on.

Coker fumbled twice in a rain-slogged opener and finished with just 41 yards as Iowa beat Tennessee Tech 34-7. The star of that one was his backup, true freshman Mika'il McCall, who dazzled on seven runs before breaking his ankle.

Coker bounced back with 140 yards in a loss at Iowa State. But he needed 35 carries to get there, and after a 13-3 loss at Penn State on Oct. 8 Coker was averaging just 4.3 yards per carry.

A quick meeting with his coach was enough to get Coker's mind right.

''He just wasn't running decisively,'' Ferentz said. ''He got to game time and was probably overanalyzing, overeading, those types of things, which is typical of young players.''

Coker responded with 124 yards against Northwestern and 139 against Indiana, scoring twice in a pair of wins. Sensing Minnesota was vulnerable to the run, Iowa build its game plan around Coker and he came through with 252 yards rushing - the third-highest total in school history.

That the Hawkeyes somehow lost to the Gophers had nothing to with Coker while Saturday's 24-16 win over Michigan had a lot to do with him. He rushed for 132 yards and two more touchdowns against the Wolverines, who still rank second in the Big Ten with just 15.7 points per game.

McCall, who has recovered from his ankle injury and was ready to go against Michigan, didn't touch the ball once. Ferentz had intended to get McCall some carries, but was hard to stay away from Coker.

''I've been practicing hard and it's been showing up in the games,'' Coker said. ''The (offensive) line has been doing a great job and (fullback) Brad Rogers has been doing a great job. It's pretty hard not to get good stats when you've got those guys blocking for you.''

Coker's biggest test yet will come against the Spartans.

Michigan State has the league's second-best rushing defense and its best passing defense. The physical Spartans don't leave much room to maneuver, though Coker prefers to create his own space by running through defenders - and that doesn't require much thinking at all.

''Everybody has different personalities. Some people tend to analyze too much or overanalyze or be too hard on themselves, and he leans in that direction,'' Ferentz said. ''A lot of time, going back to basics really helps you a little bit. But again, practice and playing helps you more than anything.''