IOWA CITY — When the season started, intrigue surrounded Damon Bullock and his role in Iowa’s offense.
The 6-0, 200-pound junior was listed as a running back, but he also lined up in the slot and played some wide receiver. He showed up in 2011 camp as a running back from Mansfield, Texas, but ended up as a wide receiver in Iowa’s opener against Tennessee Tech.
“I’m playing running back and then moving out to wide receiver, do a little bit of both, mostly running back,” Bullock said on the eve of Iowa’s opener against Northern Illinois.
It’s been mostly running back for Bullock.
This season, everyone knew there was Mark Weisman, the 235-pound fullback/running back hybrid. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer he could see Weisman carrying the ball 20 times a game and so he has, averaging 21 carries a game going into the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) trip to No. 3 Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) this weekend.
For Bullock, the RB/WR intrigue is gone. He’s the No. 2 running back behind Weisman with 65 carries for 256 yards. His numbers are on pace to match last season’s 135 carries for 516 yards. A couple of things to remember there: Those carries came in six games, before a series of concussions sidelined Bullock for six weeks and before Weisman ascended to Iowa’s No. 1.
As a receiver out of the backfield, Bullock has 13 catches for 113 yards and a TD. He had his best day two weeks again against Michigan State, catching five passes for 71 yards, including a 47-yard TD.
Bullock’s versatility is there, but his role remains a “get to” in the playbook as opposed to a “go to.” That’s not Bullock’s fault as much as it’s Iowa searching for a workable, consistent identity beyond the power running game.
“Damon has really improved the last couple of ballgames,” Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “The numbers in the one game [Michigan State] may not reflect this statement, but sometimes we see things hopefully before they happen. The last couple of ballgames he’s played pretty well. His blitz picked up, his vision.
“I think earlier in the year he was looking for some home runs and not following his blocking. Damon brings something that’s a little bit different. And we need both of those guys [referring to Weisman] working at a high level to be able to get what we want out of them.”
Bullock definitely copped to the “home run” feet earlier this year.
“First-game jitters,” he said about the Northern Illinois performance. “I saw a big hole a couple of times and I just thought too much about which way to go. You look back on film, there are a lot of things I could’ve done better.”
Bullock and Weisman are totally different players and people. Weisman, a former walk-on, is a straight-forward in his manner and running style. He began his college career at the Air Force Academy. Bullock is a little more abstract. During the conversation about “home run” feet, he used the term “lotta more” a couple of times and smiled to himself, knowing how funny it sounded (perhaps he was quoting Clubber Lang, the Mr. T character from “Rocky III,” who told the old boxer, “I gotta lotta more.”)
Don’t put it past Bullock, who’s done Comedy Central quality work on his Vine account.
“He’s a funny guy, brings energy to the team, he brings a lot to the team,” Weisman said. “He brings different things off the field and on the field.”
Obviously, there’s one ball and it’s harder for running backs to wedge their way into the rotation, especially with a clear-cut starter and then role players.
Weisman is about as clear-cut as it gets in the Big Ten. The junior is No. 2 in the conference in percentage of team carries with 45 percent of Iowa’s carries (126 of 279). Only Michigan’s Fitzgerald Toussaint has a higher percent of his team’s rush attempts (48 percent, 123 of 256). With 65 carries, Bullock is at 23 percent.
“He’s had a good month I’d say now, I think he’s doing really well,” Ferentz said about Bullock. “In a perfect world, we’d like both those guys to be contributing.”
How can it all fit together to help Iowa’s offense move the ball? Bullock’s receiving skills might be a key in the next six games. Everyone is going to try to force Iowa out of its comfort zone, checking Weisman and forcing sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock to move the team through the air. That points to the quick passing game and, most likely, Bullock.
“We need the quick game, quite honestly, to be an extension of the run game,” Davis said. “So, when we’re sitting up there and the box is beginning to be loaded and we can flip it out to a slot receiver on a quick out for 6 yards, like we did the other day to Damon. For us, really, those were runs. For us to be as good as we can be, the quick game has to be good. And hopefully that sets up something down the field.”
Weisman, with just one catch for 8 yards so far this season, conceded that element of the game to Bullock, who has 32 career receptions for 291 yards and one TD.
“He’s definitely a way better receiver than I am out there,” Weisman said. “He’s better at making people miss in space. He’s a better option there, but he runs the ball a lot, too, so defenses can’t always think pass when he’s in there.”
Top 10 B1G Running Backs in percent of their team’s carries
1. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan — 123 of 256 for 48 percent
2. Mark Weisman, Iowa — 126 of 279 for 45 percent
3. (tie) Akeem Hunt, Purdue — 71 of 165 for 41 percent
Tevin Coleman, Indiana — 91 of 22 for 41 percent
5. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State — 95 of 248 for 38 percent
6. (tie) Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska — 114 of 308 for 37 percent
Zach Zwinak, Penn State — 92 of 247 for 37 percent
8. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin — 90 of 253 for 36 percent
9. James White, Wisconsin — 88 of 253 for 35 percent
10. Donovonn Young, Illinois — 61 of 196 for 32 percent