Promising Iowa running back Jewel Hampton seeks starting job after lost 2009 season

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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."