IOWA CITY — Running back is a position of strength for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Hawkeyes return their top four running backs from last season who combined to rush for 2,065 yards and 11 touchdowns. Iowa’s depth, added with an offensive line which returns three starters and is anchored by first team All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Schreff, should give the Hawkeyes a potent ground-attack this season.
Iowa’s depth at running back has come a long way in a short period of time.
“Two years ago, we didn’t know if we had a Big Ten running back on our roster. Right now I think we have four guys that we can put in the game and have confidence in,” said Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz. “The challenge for us in that regard right now is to really figure out what the smartest way to use those guys would be during the course of the season. If we can keep them healthy, we will have four options in each game. Plus, we have a couple of young guys coming up that we’re eager to see more of this camp.”
Senior Mark Weisman took advantage of an opportunity two years ago to become Iowa’s featured running back.
Weisman walked on to Iowa as a fullback after transferring from Air Force in 2010. After sitting out the 2011 season, Weisman took advantage of injuries in the third game of 2012 season against Northern Iowa and rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries in a 27-16 win. The next week he gained a career-high 217 yards and again scored three touchdowns against Central Michigan.
Weisman missed two games in the 2012 season due to injuries, but he led the team with 815 yards and eight touchdowns. Last season, Weisman gained a team-high 975 yards and scored eight touchdowns. His 227 carries were fourth among Big Ten running backs.
At 240 pounds, Weisman enjoys the contact of the game, but the bumber of carries he receives this year could be cut back to suit his running style.
“Mark’s a really good runner and a really good football player, but it would be better for us if we could have him fresh in the fourth quarter of every game, plus the fourth quarter of the season,” Ferentz said. “We’ve got to be careful about that.”
Weisman, however, is willing to do whatever is best for the team.
“Whenever they want me to go in there, I’m going to go in and give it my all at all times,” Weisman said. “We have a lot of guys who can run the ball and do it effectively. We’re just making each other better out there. It’s good competition, but we’re all pretty selfless. We just want to help the team any way possible.”
Senior Damon Bullock earned playing time as a freshman and started the 2012 season opener. He rushed for 150 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown against Northern Illinois.
Bullock rushed for 77 yards in the third game of the 2012 season against Northern Iowa, but he left in the second quarter due to an injury which forced him to miss the next four games. He returned with 107 yards rushing against Northwestern, but injuries cost him the final two games of the season. He ended his sophomore year with 513 yards and three touchdowns in 136 carries.
Bullock ran for 467 yards and a touchdown on 118 carries as a junior, but his role on the team changed toward the end of the season.
“Last year I was more of a third-down back,” Bullock said. “This year, I want to go into it doing as much as I can, whatever coach needs me to do. I want to progress — to be in there on first and second down as well.”
Bullock caught 20 passes for 173 yards last season and has 39 receptions for his career.
“I want to continue to progress on pass blocking,” Bullock said. “I’ve grown as a running back and a receiver since I’ve been here. This year, I want to put it all together.”
Junior Jordan Canzeri played in seven games, which included one start, as a freshman in 2011, but a major knee injury during spring practice cost him the 2012 season.
Canzeri returned and saw his playing time increase by the end of the 2013 season. He rushed for a career-high 165 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries a win at Purdue. He gained 366 of his season-total 481 yards in the final five games of the season.
Canzeri hopes to fill a bigger role this season.
“I’ve been working on everything — staying in a base while running, staylong low, cuts, bends, pass protection and the little things — just so I can be an all-around better player,” Canzeri said.
Canzeri says his teammates in the backfield are helping him become a better player.
“We’ve really spoke with one another about really harping on the little things,” Canzeri said. “If one of us is going, the person behind you should be critiquing you, so if your steps are a little wrong or your base is a little off or anything at all, we want to tell each other right away just so we can get it fixed right away.”
LeShun Daniels Jr.
Sophomore LeShun Daniels Jr. saw action in seven games as a freshman. He rushed for 54 yards on 13 carries in a win against Western Michigan and finished his first season with 142 yards on 36 carries.
“Getting on the field helped a lot,” Daniels said. “I may not have played as much as I would have liked, but it was good for me. I got great experience playing out there and learning from the older guys, I thought it was a good year.”
Daniels, at 230 pounds, is a running back more in the mold of Weisman.
“I try to emulate all of their styles, but with my size, I’m a lot closer to Mark than I would be to Jordan,” Daniels said.
Although the four are different types of backs who bring different things to football field, one thing they share is a talented offensive line blocking for them.
Iowa returns three starters with Scherff leading the way. Center Austin Blythe and right guard also return as starters, while Andrew Donnal, in position to be the starting right tackle, has three career starts.
“It’s so important to have an offensive line like that,” Weisman said. “There is nothing better for a running back to have such great offensive linemen like we do. It’s so fun running bahind them. It makes our job pretty easy.”