Hawkeyes back gets the Greene light

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If you bought a desk or a table at McGregors Furniture, he might have helped you carry it to your car.

If you frequented one of the local gyms in Coralville or Iowa City, he might have been pumping iron a few feet away.

You probably didn't notice him. Sure, he was a big, strong guy. Maybe he played sports at one stage of his life, but not now. Star athletes don't punch the clock in the warehouse at McGregors. Star athletes don't work out by themselves at Gold's Gym.

"They probably would be surprised that it was me," Shonn Greene said.

Last year, Shonn Greene was just a guy. Academic struggles at Iowa had forced him to leave the school and the football team and try to boost his grades at Kirkwood Community College.

Greene's ineligibility prevented him from using any of Iowa's on-campus facilities. He spent the year studying on his own, working out on his own and hauling furniture at McGregors. He remained connected to the program through his roommate, Hawkeyes running back Albert Young, but he spent most of the year by himself.

"Everybody doesn't come out of stuff like that," Greene said. "But I just kept doing what I had to do and came out of it OK."

If "OK" means reclaiming your starting job, rushing for more than 100 yards in the first eight games of the season and vaulting to No. 3 nationally in rushing average (144.3 ypg), then yes, Greene came out OK. The truth is he's better than OK, better than anyone could have imagined following a year in exile.

The guy moving furniture last year is moving opposing defenders this fall with a 5-foot-11, 235-pound frame that makes NFL scouts drool. Michigan State running back Javon Ringer receives the Heisman hype in the Big Ten, but Greene boasts better numbers. Greene has 86 fewer carries than Ringer but only 25 fewer rushing yards (1,179-1,154).

His 6.52 yards-per-carry average is the best nationally among players with at least 150 rushes this fall.

"I thought [former Hawkeyes star] Aaron Kampman would play well in Green Bay; I never knew he was going to be an All-Pro player, a perennial All-Pro," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's probably a fair analogy with Shonn. We thought he'd be a real good back, but he's playing in the backfield as well as anybody I've been around."

Greene's goal coming into the season seemed modest: just get on the field, some way, somehow.

"I didn't think it would turn out like this," he said, "but it did and it's a blessing."

A few things need to be cleared up regarding Greene's time away. The first is true, the other exaggerated.

There was the infamous quote about Greene, delivered by Young when asked how his roommate was doing. Greene declined interview requests last year and didn't speak with ESPN.com or other national media members until this week, when Iowa has a bye.

Young said Greene spent much of his time watching TV, leading some to believe Greene wasn't serious about trying to return to the team.

"It was something to laugh about, just all fun and games," Greene said. "When I was on the football team, I didn't have that much time. But [last year], I was just going to school and worrying about my academics, so I had a little bit more time on my hands. So I was doing that, watching TV here and there."

There was some chatter that Greene had become a couch potato and would return to the team looking more like a nose tackle than a running back.

"Some people were saying I was 270 [pounds] or something like that," Greene said. "The most I got up to was about 250. Then I started working out a little bit more and more as time went by, and I got back down to 230."

Stamina and durability were concerns in training camp and during the first few games. Greene debuted with 109 rushing yards on 22 carries against Maine but received just 13 carries the next week against Florida International (he still had 130 yards).

He eventually got into game shape and has received 25 or more carries in two of the last three games. Greene's size and powerful running style takes a toll on opposing defenders, several of whom have complimented him after games.

"I remember Michigan State, [safety] Otis Wiley, he came up to me," Greene said. "We were kind of going back and forth in that game. He gave me a good pop, I gave him a good couple pops. And after the game, he was like, 'Man, you're a tough guy.'"

Wisconsin found out just how tough Greene is last Saturday, as the junior racked up career highs in rushing yards (217) and touchdowns (4) in a 38-16 win.

"Very powerful, has a great center of gravity, he's able to bounce and make plays happen in a short amount of time," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "As we saw on Saturday, if you're a secondary player and you try to tackle him high, you're not going to have any success. You have to be able to leverage the football on him.

"I realize why Iowa stuck with him as long as they did and kept grinding with him because he's a great fit for their offense."

Greene committed to Iowa in 2004 but had to spend a year at a prep school in Connecticut after failing to qualify for admission. He showed plenty of potential as a sophomore in 2006, averaging 6.4 yards a carry as the No. 3 running back behind Young and Damian Sims.

Bigger things were expected last season before the academic problems surfaced. But Greene worked his way back.

"I never felt sorry for myself," Greene said. "I was, I don't know if you want to say saddened by it, but I was upset about it. I talked to coach Ferentz and we had a plan and I just had to do what I had to do to get back."

Young helped out, encouraging Greene to keep working hard and maintain his focus. Greene attended several Hawkeyes games last fall and met with former teammates who told him how much they wanted him back.

"Any time a player is forced to back away from football for whatever reason," Ferentz said, "they probably have a little deeper appreciation for what they missed and what they weren't able to participate in, the opportunities that might have been there. They probably come back a little bit hungry and a little bit more determined."

Those terms certainly apply to Greene, who is being talked up as a candidate to enter the NFL draft a year early. Greene celebrated his 23rd birthday nine days before Iowa's season opener and certainly has the size and skills to excel at the next level, but for now, he "doesn't want to jump off into any of that."

He's too busy enjoying the moment.

"There's a lot of people that might have just stopped and gave up football and stuff like that," Greene said. "But I had to stick with it. I had that experience. I wouldn't call it a good experience, but I had that experience. So I know how to handle things a little bit better."