IOWA CITY — One thing Damon Bullock appears to be is a good sport.
When he was the senior, leader, two-year captain, star running back at Mansfield (Texas) High School, his coach called him into the office the spring of Bullock’s junior season. Jeff Hulme planned an April Fool’s Day joke and Bullock was the lead actor.
Hulme, Mansfield’s head coach, had an earring rule: Players could wear them in school, but had to take them out in the weightroom and on the field. On this particular day, Bullock was instructed to leave in his “big ol’ diamond stud” earrings.
“I told him, I’m going to tell you to take them out and you’re going to say no and be real defiant and we’re going to get into this big argument,” Hulme said. “He pulled it off. He ought to be a drama major. He was a great actor.
“He did a great job. You have to ask him what he’s majoring in. Find out if it’s drama, he’d be really good at it.”
Bullock plays running back for the Hawkeyes. You can’t script the drama that has come with that in the last four years.
Since 2008, 10 running backs have left the Iowa program before their eligibility was up. It’s been a toxic mix of off-field behavior and fate. Sophomore Jordan Canzeri remains iffy for ’12 after suffering a torn ACL in this spring, so Bullock and his 10 carries for 20 yards as a true freshman last season are the leaders in the clubhouse for No. 1 option this fall.
As the drama goes with Iowa running backs, nothing is set and nothing likely will be set at any given point during the season.
Bullock is in competition with true freshmen Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy. Fullback Brad Rogers might see some time at running back. Walk-on Andre Dawson could be an innings eater. Canzeri wants to return, but he’ll only be six months removed from ACL surgery. That amount of time is pushing it for any position much less running back.
Speaking of knees, true freshman Barkley Hill suffered what looked to be a serious injury to his left knee in last Saturday’s scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. There’s no official word, but he couldn’t put weight on the leg, there was a pop and he needed to be taken to the lockerroom on a golf cart.
“The one thing it does is keep me young,” running backs coach Lester Erb said. “Every time I walk in the room, everyone is young. You have to continue to be detailed with these guys. You can’t assume anything with any of them right now.”
Here’s what we know: Bullock was the No. 1 through spring practice and the front end of fall camp. He’s been the one taking the hits and going through the grind.
“He took a good fall yesterday and landed in a delicate spot and when I went to bed last night, I didn’t expect him to be here today practicing,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said after an open scrimmage earlier this month. “To his credit he came out and practiced. That’s good, that’s life as a running back. You get sore. That’s a step forward for him. He was out here working.”
Bullock is the anti-drama candidate. He’s lived under the radar since a broken collarbone left his recruitment cold three games into his senior season at Mansfield. He rushed for 200 yards in each of his first two games. The collarbone snapped and that was it.
Until two days before signing day when Ferentz called.
“You know how high school recruiting is,” said Bullock, who rushed for 1,606 yards and 22 TDs as a senior. “You usually play your sophomore year and then your junior year is the break out year. Not having that for recognition going into my senior year, most everyone in the district had offers, so I was just coming in hungry, just ready to showcase my skills
“Iowa finally came through and said, we’re going to offer you. My family just went crazy. Just coming from Texas and being underrated, it’s just great I have this opportunity.”
Bullock arrived in Iowa City, was almost immediately switched to wide receiver, where he played one game before Mika’il McCall’s injury sent him back to running back. Caught inbetween, Bullock never found traction at either spot, catching one pass for 11 yards and rushing 10 times for 20, including a fumble.
But hey, this a kid who sat without a scholarship offer until two days before singing day in 2011. And even then, Iowa coaches couldn’t discuss him because his letter of intent got stuck on a FedEx truck in a snowstorm.
At 6-0, 195, Bullock is on the smallish side for a Big Ten back. He claimed he’s full service and said his time at wide receiver last season helped him build those skills and learn the offense.
“I’m a versatile guy,” Bullock said. “I’m pretty much a guy who can catch the ball, you can put me outside at receiver and back at running back. I’m going to protect the quarterback as much as possible and run the ball and carry it like my life depended on it.”
Either way, Hulme wants Bullock to send him a picture. In the Mansfield football fieldhouse, there’s a picture of former Tiger Stepfan Taylor, who’s put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at Stanford. Hulme has a former player who’s knocking at No. 1 in Iowa City and he’s proud.
“Everybody knows Stefon,” Hulme said. “I want everyone to know who Damon is.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT IOWA RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK
The depth chart
No. 1 – Damon Bullock, so., 6-0, 195; Nos. 2 – *Barkley Hill, fr., 6-0, 210; Greg Garmon, fr., 6-1, 190; Jordan Canzeri, so., 5-9, 180; Brad Rogers, jr., 5-10, 230; Andre Dawson, jr., 6-2, 207; Nate Meier, fr., 6-2, 235; Fullback: No. 1 — Rogers; Nos. 2 — Johnathan Gimm, sr., 6-3, 240; Mark Weisman, so., 6-0, 225; The rest — Jacob Reisen, jr., 6-2, 231; Adam Cox, #fr., 5-11, 210; Berkley Grimm, 5-11, 233. #= redshirt freshman; * — Hill suffered a knee injury Saturday and his season appears to be in question.
This is hardly settled going into the final week of fall camp and, let’s face it, it might not be settled for a couple of years. If there’s a No. 1 RB on the roster, he’s going to have to rise above the pack definitely. Without consistent practice viewings, we have no idea if someone is moving in that direction. Going into the second week of fall camp, Bullock held on to No. 1 reps with Hill, Malloy and Garmon also getting carries. What will the running back be asked to do in first-year coordinator Gerg Davis’ offense? How much of an RB is FB Brad Rogers? He hasn’t seen a lot of reps at RB, but his value is at FB. Is Hill’s injury a season-ender?
The No. 2
If you look at Iowa’s carries over the last five years, a couple of patterns emerge. 1) If Iowa has a big, durable running back, it will ride him. Last season, Marcus Coker rushed 280 times (fourth most in Iowa history), which was 60 percent of Iowa’s 453 carries. In ’08, Shonn Greene won the Doak Walker while carrying 307 times (second most). 2) When Iowa doesn’t have this back, it has shown it can adapt. In 2010, 2009 and 2007, Iowa had two backs reach 100-plus carries. There is no pattern, however, in success. Behind Greene, the ’08 Hawkeyes were a killing machine when it found its stride and a QB. Last year, Coker had the fourth-best season in Iowa history and the Hawkeyes finished 7-6. One more pattern, significant carries have never trickled down to a third back. Fullback — Mark Weisman, a transfer from Air Force, showed ball skills and decent lateral movement in scrimmages.
Yeah, sure, Greg Garmon was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia this summer in Erie, Pa. He also lived through having his home burn to the ground when he was in sixth grade and, oh yeah, beat back non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was in junior high. He’s faced real adversity and is still standing. Now, can he be “the guy” at some point this season? He’s 6-1 and closer to 190 than 200. From Josh Helmholdt, Rival.com’s midwest recruiting analyst: “He’s listed as a bigger kid, but I thought he was more of a sprint-type running back, more of a guy who lines up next to the quarterback in the shotgun. You can flex him out in the slot, too. He almost looks like a wide receiver, because he’s a little bit tall and lanky.” Barkley Hill was a late commitment to the Hawkeyes, after nearly 10 months of commitment to Iowa State. His reason? He saw a better fit in Iowa City. Hill is a one-cut back with excellent balance, made for a pro-style I offense, which is Iowa. From ESPN.com, “Barkley grows on you as a running back prospect. He is a non-flashy runner but very consistent, tough and productive. Has a solid build on a sturdy frame but is narrow through his hips and lower-body. Not a homerun threat but he has deceptive straight-line speed and outside burst for a downhill runner.” After Saturday, though, the question with Hill is whether or not his left ACL is torn and when or can he return in ’12?
– Marc Morehouse