Four Downs — The Running backs (spring edition)

Situation will dictate who goes where and when and how many times

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QUICK LOOK BACK: Iowa running back carried the Hawkeyes early, when Jake Rudock made his first steps as the Hawkeyes quarterback. Then, against better defenses ("better" actually equals three of the top 10 rush defenses -- Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State -- in the nation last season), Iowa's run game kind of went to sleep along with winning prospects.

In winning three straight to end the Big Ten season, Iowa's rush became efficient and occasionally explosive.

Mark Weisman went from 30-carry workhorse to short-yardage specialist. In Iowa's first five games, he averaged 23.8 carries a game and clicked off 53 percent of his carries (119) for the season. Iowa closed the season with four wins in its final five games. During that stretch, Weisman converted 13 of 19 short-yardage rushes (yardages between 1 and 9 yards), scoring four TDs and picking up nine first downs.

Weisman came out of the Michigan State game with foot, elbow and pectoral injuries. During the next five games, he carried just 48 times, averaging 9.6 carries a game.

Enter Jordan Canzeri. He opened eyes with a 43-yard run against Wisconsin, when Iowa averaged just 3.44 yards a carry, and was used efficiently down the stretch. In Iowa's final five games, Canzeri carried 50 times for 366 yards (10 carries a game for 7.32 yards a carry).

During these five games, Iowa backs carried 20-plus times just twice (Canzeri 20 at Purdue; Weisman 24 at Nebraska). Weisman carried 20-plus in four of Iowa's first five games.

As a running option, Canzeri's role grew in the final five games, while Damon Bullock's carries shrank. He had just 26 carries for 103 yards. Canzeri finished with 481 yards to Bullock's 467 on 44 fewer carries.

Patterns? Rudock was an unanswered question early, so Iowa relied on Weisman and the offensive line to head lock games. That took a toll. Iowa's staff finally said "the heck with it" and gave Canzeri a real shot (he has zero carries in the three games before Wisconsin). Canzeri took advantage of his opportunities. Bullock's strength is in the passing game, as a receiver and blocker.

FOURTH DOWN — CRITICAL QUESTIONS: Did the early workload slow Weisman?

You could argue it a couple of different ways. He handled the number of carries fine, but Michigan State's defense landed some body blows that might've changed how Iowa used him. Also, Iowa really ran into brick walls with MSU, Ohio State and Wisconsin, averaging 3.51 yards on 75 carries in those three games. Weisman's carries had to change because keeping that up would've been a feat and it didn't work enough against the Big Ten's upper crust.

Why did it take so long to get to Canzeri? Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis cited ball security in the Outback Bowl build-up (Canzeri had two fumbles, one lost, last season). That was part of it, but I also think it was what head coach Kirk Ferentz saw Iowa's offense as, at least early.

The Hawkeyes played muscle ball. A big part of that was Weisman, who is an ATV to Canzeri's Ducati. Weisman is built to run through imperfections (missed blocked, linebackers, arm tackles and general traffic). You look at Weisman and you see it. Don't discount Canzeri's strength (last year he benched 385 as a 190-pounder), but that is a factor that Weisman has over him, just as Canzeri has agility over Weisman.

This play (well-blocked 37-yarder vs. Nebraska) maybe makes the point:

Does Iowa's substitution pattern at running back telegraph too much? Bullock settled nicely into the third down RB role, the passing down guy. “Damon is really a special guy,” Davis said. “Not only is he good as a running back, but he’s really good in the passing game, both as a blocker and a receiver." Then again, down and distance is probably the biggest tell, or at least was last season.

What about the other RBs (LeShun Daniels, Michael Malloy, Barkley Hill, Akrum Wadley, Jonathan Parker, Markel Smith and C.J. Hilliard)?

The short answer is what about them? Daniels really did get a shot last season when Weisman went down. OK, let's qualify "shot." He got carries, important ones, after Weisman was injured. Not a sustained "shot," but a shot. Can he do more? The better question is can he earn more?

Same stands for the other backs (as of now, Iowa will have 10 RBs on scholarship next fall). Can they earn sustained shots at being "the guy"? Options will be explored. Iowa was No. 72 in the nation with 63 rushes of 10-plus yards. Iowa can always use more explosion. On the other hand, don't look for that exploration to override the known quantities.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Incoming freshman Markel Smith is the addition.

On paper, he's a tremendous get for Iowa and has potential to be the jewel of the 2014 class. Smith enjoyed a spectacularly productive career at St. John Vianney in St. Louis (the big school game in Missouri). He finished as Missouri’s No. 2 career rusher with 7,144 yards to go along with 79 touchdowns.

The high side for Smith is Montee Ball, a fellow St. Louis prep. Smith had scholarship offers from Missouri and Mississippi. The primary competitors for the rest of Iowa’s backs were Indiana, Iowa State, Tulsa, South Dakota, Boston College, Temple, UConn and Air Force.

Smith is smart enough to know none of that means a thing.

“If they [coaches] think I can fill the spot next year, I won’t back down from any challenge,” the 5-10, 210-pounder said. “I’ll put the work in to start, of course, but if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to have to work harder. I’m just training and working hard on everything for Iowa.”

C.J. Hilliard (5-10, 185) will begin his Iowa career at running back. Maybe he stays, or maybe he plays defense. Iowa is short on safeties. Quote from midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt: "What I like about him is he’s going to be able to do everything that’s going to be asked of him. He can run between the tackles, he can play on the edge. He can catch passes out of the backfield and he’ll be a good blocker for you. He’s a good all-around back."

There have been no subtractions. There have been plenty of rumors about subtractions, but, officially, as of this moment before spring practice begins, there have been no subtractions. Is it reasonable to believe -- with 10 scholarship running backs potentially up to bat this fall -- there could be a few? Sure, but let's wait for it to be official.

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: How or how much each running back is used will be one of the first questions that comes up in Iowa previews. Serious Iowa previews, anyway. A cursory glance will show Weisman with double the yards of both Canzeri and Bullock (more than both combined, too) and that is likely where the thinking will stop.

How and when and against whom did each RB earn their yards? The answer is that the is situational. Iowa will look at running back like a Swiss Army knife. If they need a spork, in goes Weisman. A knife? Canzeri. An allen wrench, it's Bullock's turn.

One thing that will shape that: If Ferentz believes Iowa can simply muscle a team, then you're probably looking at Weisman and you're probably looking at him behind left tackle Brandon Scherff and probably on a zone run into the short side of the field, where space is made by brute force. You probably won't see that to the degree you did at the beginning of last season, but if Iowa can push and shove its way to a win, it will.

And . . . maybe the Hawkeyes are to the point where if they can run around, they might. Wadley, who'll be nursing a wrist injury this spring, and Parker are smallish backs (in the 180-pound range) who are made for speed. Canzeri certainly showed that. Bullock has gear, too. The Hawkeyes need to be more explosive. They have backs with speed. Do they engage?

FIRST DOWN — SPRING AND BEYOND: A couple of notes: Iowa ran the ball pretty well last season. It didn't against its best opponents, but in the backdrop of Ferentz's 15 seasons, it was top third.

Iowa ran the ball 556 times last season (tied for sixth most in Iowa history). That’s three more than the 2002 Hawkeyes (553) and the fourth time in the KF era the Hawkeyes rushed 500-plus times. If you’re looking for patterns, it probably leans fewer rushes equal more losses. In 2012, Iowa rushed just 404 times and, of course you know, finished 4-8. The only years Iowa ran the ball fewer times were 2000 (403) and rock-bottom 1999 (339).

Iowa ran 152 more times than ’12 and improved its output by nearly 1,000 yards (862). That’s the second biggest improvement for a KF team (the 2001 Hawkeyes rushed for 2,104 yards compared to 1,090 for 2000).

The 2,338 rushing yards rank No. 3 in the Ferentz era.

Also, it started all Weisman, but certainly didn't finish that way. He rushed 226 times (sixth most in KF era) for 41 percent of Iowa’s carries. As far as percentages to one back go, that’s tied for eight in the KF era. In 2011, Marcus Coker soaked up 62 percent (280) of Iowa’s carries. In 2013, Bullock received 21 percent of Iowa’s carries; Canzeri 13 percent.

-- The story resembles the passing game. The Hawkeyes could use more big plays. Iowa finished 99th in the nation with just 11 runs of 20-plus yards. Iowa sets up to grind, but you've heard Ferentz and Davis mention it. Big plays sure do help.

This points to Canzeri. The junior had five carries of 16-plus yards (7 percent of his carries) and 13 of 10 to 15 (18 percent). Weisman had seven carries of 16-plus (3 percent) and 19 (8.4 percent). This is 226 carries for Weisman against 74 for Canzeri. This also isn't questioning what Weisman brings and what he is. Remember, it's ATV vs. Ducati. It's vehicle that can go anywhere and over and around most everything in its path and a finely tuned speed machine that can maneuver in and out of traffic.

Two very different football animals that work well in their given territories (although, you could argue that we don't really know how far Canzeri's speedometer goes).

-- Bullock has to be one of the hungrier players on Iowa's offense. He's a versatile running back. Can he be enough of a running back this year to reclaim his number of carries? In the wake of Canzeri's rise, it's hard to imagine Bullock getting his nine carries a game just because.

-- Going off last year's performance, Daniels will be given "best of the rest" award. Again, after Weisman, Canzeri and Bullock, it's situational fit, need and earning it. Daniels, at around 225, sets up to be Weisman No. 2. Wadley and Parker could be cast in Canzeri/Bullock roles.

Perhaps this spring is important for those three. They'll get live carries and they are the next tier. Weisman and Bullock are seniors. Canzeri is a junior. This is the group, add Smith and who knows about Malloy/Hill, that will start positioning itself for '15.


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