IOWA CITY — Iowa had a pretty good haul going for running backs in the 2010 recruiting class. The Iowa coaches liked Mark Weisman, but not enough to offer a scholarship.
Which, at the time, made sense. The Hawkeyes had Marcus Coker on the way in from DeMatha Catholic, a renowned program in Maryland. Coker was rated a four-star running back by Rivals. Then from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Iowa had De’Andre Johnson, a short-but-stout running back who was coming off a torn ACL.
Weisman started as a fullback for three seasons at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill. He was a plow horse, rushing 335 times for 2,806 yards and 38 TDs his junior and senior seasons.
Iowa running backs coach Lester Erb, who also recruits Illinois, had a lot of talks with then-Stevenson coach Bill Mitz about Weisman. Still, Iowa was full at running back and had just switched Brad Rogers to fullback.
Walk-on was all the Hawkeyes could offer.
“I talked to Lester about him immensely when he was coming out of high school,” Mitz said. “Coming out of high school, there was a little bit of interest coming from Iowa. In my mind and in his heart, I think that’s where he always wanted to be.”
Air Force Academy ended up being Weisman’s lone scholarship offer. He committed in June and lasted a semester.
There’s no animosity with Weisman and Air Force. It just didn’t work.
“Service academies aren’t for everybody,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The legend Weisman had trouble making his bed to AFA regulation. The legend, in this case, happens to be true.
“I’ve had other guys go out there and I thought they wouldn’t make it and then they did make it through all the boot camp stuff,” Mitz said. “Mark made it through all that, but I guess there were other things he couldn’t handle. He told me for two weeks he slept on the floor because he couldn’t make his bed right. As far as football, he was a little upset.”
This made Mitz sort of scratch his head. Mitz was a former offensive lineman at Drake, back when Drake was a Division I-A program playing the likes of Iowa, Iowa State and, well, Division I-A programs.
He was in on the ground floor with Weisman, who reported his freshman year at Stevenson a 145-pound running back who didn’t particularly enjoy contact. That wasn’t going to do for the Patriots. Weisman knew he had to build his body.
All the weightroom that’s come out on Weisman since became the first Iowa player to rush for more than 300 yards and score six TDs in a two-game span since Tavian Banks in 1997, true. Mitz said Weisman worked out at school, went home and ate and then headed out to a sports performance academy for more training.
During the Stevenson years, Weisman put on 85 pounds, growing into a 230-pound fullback, three-year starter and . . .
“When he was a senior coming out of his junior year, you know how you usually vote for captains?” Mitz said. “Mark’s work ethic and the way he approached everything, I just told the kids, there’s not going to be any voting for captain this year. Mark Weisman is our captain.”
Weisman lost 20 pounds in basic training. After watching the body he built melt away and sleeping on the floor, he decided the service academy route wasn’t for him. He transferred at the end of the fall semester in ’09.
“They break you down and build you up their way,” Weisman said. “It’s tough there. . . . The school there is unbelievable, the job opportunities afterward are great, but it just wasn’t a fit for me. It just didn’t fit me.”
Mitz was on the phone with Erb right after Thanksgiving. Ties and trust come in handy when you’re lobbying for one of your players. It might’ve helped that Mitz’s daughter, Jennifer, worked four years in the Iowa football office in the early 2000s. It also might’ve helped that Weisman came in as a risk-free walk-on.
“No promises,” Weisman said.
The word on Weisman spread slowly even after he was in Iowa City. He was where he wanted to be, sure, but he also was the new guy and a walk-on fullback at that.
“Nobody really knew who he was until we finally cracked him and finally got him to say something,” said junior fullback Brad Rogers, who Weisman replaced in the starting lineup. “The running back room is a really close room. After awhile, he realized we weren’t enemies, we all were friends no matter who did what here. He realized that and opened up toward us.”
During Iowa’s spring game, no one outside of the program really knew who Weisman was. He didn’t have any touches.
“He doesn’t show a lot of emotion out there, unless he busts out and gets a touchdown,” guard Matt Tobin said. “Otherwise, he’s always ready to go for the next play and that’s what we’re taught, kind of like the O-linemen. Always get ready for the next play.”
In the first August scrimmage, Weisman showed the outside world a little bit. He rushed for 39 yards and caught a pass. Hey, it was something to go on. During the next scrimmage, he rushed once for 3 yards.
When did Iowa know what it had?
“When he got here two springs ago, the kind of pad level he ran with, he raised your eyebrows,” center James Ferentz said. “The first day we had a scrimmage and went out and tackled, it took more than one guy to bring Mark down. That’s when everybody realized hey, we might have a pretty good player on our hands.
“That’s his mentality. He goes to work everyday, he’s your typical lunch pail guy. He doesn’t care about yards or stats, he just wants to hit somebody.”
For whatever reason, Erb gave Weisman running back snaps in practice during prep for the Northern Iowa game. That worked.
“We didn’t know how nimble he would be, how athletic he would be, how he would be at making the reads and the cuts you have to make,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That was our thought process a couple of weeks ago. Let’s give him more of a look than the token ‘Brett Morse [fullback 2007-10] carry on third-and-33, let him carry for 10 yards when everyone is backpedaling.’ ”
In two weeks, Weisman is second in the Big Ten with six rushing TDs, has 22 fewer yards than Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (360 to 338) on nearly half the carries (93 to 53) and has played his way out of fullback (“I kind of like what I’m seeing on the back end too,” Kirk Ferentz said with a wry smile) and into a scholarship.
Ferentz said on his radio show Wednesday night that Weisman will receive a scholarship in January. This seems like a solid investment, like one of those AAA bonds.
“He’s going to make the most of his opportunity, I can tell you that,” Mitz said. “He’s got all those attributes. He can block well. His work ethic is second to none. I know Iowa has great players and they’ve all had that work ethic. They’ve had Dallas Clark and Bob Sanders. Kirk’s done a great job.
“Mark fits that mold of Iowa player to a T.”