Four Downs -- The Running Backs (spring version)

The RB/slot, is that a real thing? Who's the fullback?

Published: March 22 2013 | 5:32 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 1:05 pm in
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QUICK LOOK BACK: How far back do you want to ? For bandwidth purposes, let's keep it to the field and who's still here.

Potential No. 1 RB Jordan Canzeri suffered a torn ACL last March. Virtually untested Damon Bullock carried 30 times for 150 yards and the game-winning TD in Iowa's opener against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field. It was just the ninth time in the last five years that an Iowa running back turned out a 30-carry game. Then, in week three, Bullock suffered a concussion coming down head-first on a defensive back's knee. He was headed to another 150-yard performance with 77 in the first half against Northern Iowa.

True freshman Greg Garmon replaced Bullock for maybe a series before his elbow was bent the wrong way.

Then, it was Mark Weisman. A walk-on. A fullback. A weightroom warrior. Weisman left Air Force because the regimentation was too much. Once he nailed the regulation way to make his bed, he slept on the floor to keep it that way. He lost nearly 20 pounds.

So, of course Weisman was going to work. And he totally did, rushing for a team-high 815 yards and eight TDs. You could argue the the 6-0, 235-pounder lifted Iowa to its only two Big Ten wins of the season. He averaged 8.43 yards a carry with 177 yards and a TD against Minnesota. And then at rainy, stormy East Lansing, Weisman chugged for 116 yards and sent the game into OT on a 5-yard run with 55 seconds left.

He suffered an ankle sprain on the run. Two games later, he suffered a pulled groin. Weisman sat out two games before carrying 29 times for 91 yards in the season finale against Nebraska.

FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Health will always be No. 1 on this list, but Iowa should be able to massage this in '13.

Of course, Iowa has shown in the past that if it has a clear-cut No. 1 running back and he holds up, he'll get between 250 and 300 carries. Marcus Coker was the last with 280 carries for 1,384 yards and 15 TDs in 2011. Iowa went RBBC (Running Back By Committee) in '10 and '09 and it worked well enough. Shonn Greene carried 307 times in '08 (most for a running back in the Ferentz era) and won the Doak Walker award in 2008.

Weisman is in the same league as Greene (235) and Coker (230) as far as body type. Think about the leap he took last season. He started August as the No. 2 fullback, won the job and then showed enough burst and running back skill to work into that position the week of practice before Northern Iowa. He went from the fringe to helmets hitting him in the hip every play.

Weisman carried just 14 times during a four-week stretch (ankle vs. MSU; groin vs. Northwestern). Iowa's O-line also lost two starters and suddenly the offense was without a go-to anything.

Bullock missed four games because of the concussion. The 6-0, 200-pounder rebounded nicely in his return, gaining 107 yards against Northwestern, but suffered a bruised lower back on 23 carries against Purdue and missed the final two games of the season, six total for the season.

Redshirt freshman Barkley Hill (6-0, 210) is on his way back from a torn ACL suffered in August. Canzeri (5-9, 190) almost returned to the lineup during the season and should be engaged this spring.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Greg Garmon, who rushed 38 times for 122 yards as a true freshman last season, transferred in December. He received an open transfer release from Iowa and enrolled at Butte College (Calif.).

At 6-1, 190, Garmon is a tall, shifty back. Was he a fit in Iowa's offense? Could Iowa coaches have carved a role for him in the offense? The rhetoricals will pour out until Garmon makes the move back to FBS and does something on the big stage. Bottom line, he's an athlete you like to have on your roster and now he's not on Iowa's.

Fullback Brad Rogers had back surgery in December and has decided to take a medical redshirt. His playing career is over, leaving a hole at fullback. With the graduation of Jacob Reisen, walk-ons Adam Cox and Macon Plewa are the only fullbacks.

That opens the door to the possibility that Weisman moves to fullback. If he does, he'll do it probably closer to 250 pounds and with an expanded role in the offense. Iowa fullback has been a statistical non-starter logging just 15 carries for 59 yards the last six seasons.

Without trying to read too much into what "might be" with Greg Davis' offense, it does seem as though he would like to use running backs as receivers. Last season, Weisman caught 15 passes and Bullock 18. Garmon caught another eight.

Iowa signed a pair of smallish backs -- Jonathan Parker and Akrum Wadley -- with the idea of motioning them into the slot or lining them up there. Head coach Kirk Ferentz talked this winter about formations that had Weisman and Bullock on the field at the same time, but neither were healthy at the same time, so that never materialized.

Will this concept show up on the field? Iowa won't back away from the zone running scheme. Could there be modifications?

Along with Parker and Wadley, Iowa signed Ohio RB LeShun Daniels. At 5-11, 220, Daniels is in the big-back mode. Iowa wants to keep

the big back presence, but the RB/slot hybrid seems to be on the drawing board.

"With the way our offense is progressing, Damon Bullock had a ton of success with what he did early on before he got injured, and then we can not only play him at running back but also as a slot receiver," Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson said. "That’s where you get the next two guys, Jonathan Parker and Akrum Wadley, in the mix. We feel very strongly that those two guys can help spell Damon in that role.

"One thing we felt we needed were guys who had a shot to hit the home run when you handed the ball to them or got the ball out to them in space. That’s where you see part of our recruiting going toward. . . . When you don’t have to pound it 3 or 4 yards a carry every time, if you can find the guy who can make the 30-, 40-, 50-yard run, that helps out your offense.”

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: This depends on whether or not Davis is re-drawing the RB position.

If not, then Weisman will carry 200 times and the other backs will split the other 200 or so. And then injuries and AIRBHG and all that.  If the RB/slot hybrid idea sees the field, Iowa seems to have several candidates for that spot (Bullock, Canzeri, Parker, Wadley).

Does Iowa have big back No. 2? No, unless Daniels can fill that role as a freshman. Weisman was a third-year sophomore last season and is a weightroom fanatic.

Then again, Iowa was ready to roll with Bullock and Garmon last season, and, as many of you have pointed out, coaches kind of backed into Weisman (although he practiced at RB prior to the UNI game, so someone knew what they were doing).

If Iowa leans more traditional, the RB spot probably slots this way:

Weisman

Bullock

Canzeri

Malloy

Hill (if healthy)

Andre Dawson (if he's free from whatever scholarship qualification that kept him off the field last season)

Parker, Wadley, Daniels

If you see two backs, Weisman will be one and the other will come out of what might be August camp's best competition.

Bullock and Canzeri will be interesting to watch. Bullock showed sparks last season and Ferentz mentioned what Iowa missed with him out of the lineup more than once during news conferences this winter. Canzeri has been a rehab beast and begins next season as Iowa hungriest player.

If Weisman doesn't play fullback -- or a derivative -- who does? Davis has maintained that he will use a fullback. Iowa does run some ISO, but it also ran more empty backfield last season.

FIRST DOWN — WHAT COULD HAPPEN: This is nuts.

-- Weisman could rush for 1,200 yards and 12 TDs. He averaged 16 carries in 10 games last season, but if you throw out the five and nine carries he got when injured against Penn State and Northwestern, he averaged 18 carries in eight games. He could get plenty of opportunities.

One question that comes up with Weisman is the competition he faced. He did a lot of damage against Northern Iowa (113), Central Michigan (217) and Minnesota (177). CMU was No. 93 in the nation in rush defense; Minnesota was 72nd and UNI is an FCS school. The counter to that is the Michigan State game, running 26 times for 116 yards when the No. 8 rush defense in the nation pretty much knew Weisman was going to get the ball.

-- Weisman could play a fullback/running back hybrid and rush for go for 1,200 yards of total offense. This number needs to be weighed against competition, but Weisman did have six of Iowa's 23 plays that covered 30 to 49 yards. They were all rushes from the line of scrimmage.

-- Iowa has to be serious about increasing impact plays on offense. Last season, the offense produced the Hawkeyes longest play in just five of 12 games. In five other games, Jordan Cotton kick returns were Iowa's longest plays. Iowa won just one (MSU) of those games.

-- Bullock could have 1,200 yards total offense and eight TDs. Again, is the RB/slot thing for real? Also, Bullock showed he can play running back in Iowa's offense.

-- Let's go with 800 yards total offense for Canzeri. He's No. 3 right now and if he works his way into the rotation, it'll take some time.

-- Malloy was really close to playing last season. That didn't come out of nowhere. He must've opened some eyes in camp.

 
 
 
 

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