IOWA CITY, Iowa – The anticipation for Iowa sophomore running back Jewel Hampton's return from knee surgery and a one-game suspension has reached a fevered pitch in Iowa City.
Meanwhile, Adam Robinson keeps moving the chains.
Robinson, an unheralded sophomore from Des Moines, rushed for 109 yards and three first-half touchdowns on Saturday as the ninth-ranked Hawkeyes overwhelmed Eastern Illinois 37-7.
Hampton will finally be back for next week's home game with rival Iowa State, and many believe he'll give the Hawkeyes a much-needed home threat out of the backfield. He and Robinson will split the carries next week, but in the opener, Robinson continued to display the type of gritty, well-rounded play that's won over Iowa's players and coaches.
"Adam is just a tough guy and he runs hard," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "You have to really work to bring him down, and I thought he gave us a real spark out there and helped our young offensive line."
Hampton has always been seen as the future star of Iowa's backfield after shining as a backup to Shonn Greene in 2008. But he tore his ACL last summer, and Iowa split the duties between a pair of untested freshmen: Robinson and Brandon Wegher.
Wegher set Iowa's freshman record with eight touchdowns, and Robinson set the school record for rushing yards by a freshman with 834. But Wegher lasted just two days in fall camp before leaving for undisclosed personal issues, and while the door is open for him to return, the Hawkeyes have moved on as though Wegher isn't coming back in 2010.
That left Robinson and Hampton to battle it out for carries, and it's clear that Hampton opened eyes with his play in August. Even Ferentz, whose not one to dole out praise lightly, said Hampton looked "terrific" in practice, and it's not hard to envision how much better Iowa's often-languid offense could look with a truly explosive back like Hampton carrying the mail.
But Robinson has shown the ability to do all the little things needed to win games.
None of his runs on Saturday went longer than 16 yards, but he averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the first half and helped put the game essentially on ice by the break. Robinson also caught three passes for 43 yards, and the value of his ability to pick up blitzes and help keep quarterback Ricky Stanzi's shirt clean was certainly amplified during the brief period when Stanzi went to the bench after tweaking his knee.
Robinson was also running behind a line with three new starters, but he helped that transition appear seamless in the opener.
"(Robinson) is an interesting guy. He never seems like he's too fazed by anything," Ferentz said. It "looked like he really did a good job of making decisions out there and he's a good pass protector. He's not at all bashful about doing that. He really quietly has developed into a pretty good football player and we are really excited about his future."
Still, there are those that see Robinson as a placeholder until Hampton comes back.
If ever there was a moment that encapsulated Robinson's time with the Hawkeyes, in came in the second quarter on Saturday. With Stanzi on the sideline because of the tweaked knee, Robinson ran for 14, 2, 14 and 6 yards to complete Iowa's third scoring drive of the day.
Hardly anyone noticed, though. Everyone was focused on Stanzi, who quickly bounced up and returned to the game.
"He's a gamer. He's always there and you know he's going to make huge plays," Stanzi said of Robinson. "He was able to run the ball very hard, very effective, made a lot of guys miss. Then in the pass game he opened up really nice for a couple of check-downs and once again made a lot of guys miss and made some first downs and that's huge for us."