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IOWA CITY — With Iowa running back, there is the obvious and there is the mystery. It was obvious early last season that the Hawkeyes depended on Mark Weisman.
“We’re the first to admit he’s a comfort zone for us,” second-year running backs coach Chris White said. “We feel comfortable there, and all of the sudden, the game is on the line, there’s Old Faithful.”
The mystery is this season. How is it going to work with Weisman, a 235-pound senior who has 1,790 yards and 16 TDs the last two seasons, with junior Jordan Canzeri, who opened eyes with a late-season surge in 2013, with senior Damon Bullock and sophomore LeShun Daniels?
“We were just talking two days ago how to handle it, how many carries Mark should get early in the season?” White said. “We will not get into a deal where we’ll say we’ll cut him off at 25. We don’t want him to go 40 carries a game.”
Iowa is OK on the running back-as-commodity front. Pretty much. Weisman is proven, but has had chunks of seasons take away due to injuries (torn groin, sprained ankle in ‘12; sprained foot, elbow in ‘13). Canzeri averaged 6.5 yards a carry, but he had only 74 carries. Bullock has 1,000 career rushing yards. Daniels comes in an intriguing 6-0, 230-pound chassis.
Everyone in on this conversation used the word “rotation.” Let’s try to stick with that concept for a minute.
The way Iowa used Weisman last season affected him physically. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and White have admitted it wasn’t fair to play Weisman when he wasn’t able to be physical.
White cited last season’s victories over Iowa State and Minnesota. Weisman carried 59 times in those two games for 292 yards. The “security blanket” factor is punctuated by time of possession. Against the Cyclones, Iowa held the ball nearly 17 minutes longer than ISU. Against Minnesota, it was more than 12.
“We rested him and I think he performed well in the last three games, but we wore him out in the Minnesota, Iowa State games,” White said. “That was probably our fault, or my fault.
“They couldn’t tackle him and that’s what he does. You get him into the fourth quarter, their defense is tired and we’re just running it down their throat. Our line is coming off the ball and we’re running over them. You don’t want to take him out.”
Weisman is built for what Iowa wants to do and be in the running game. “Just having the ability to run a strong guy up in there, there’s some real value in that, too,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz joked about having two plays, the inside and outside zone. They have more, of course, but Iowa grinds out all the nuances of both plays in practice.
“No,” said offensive tackle Brandon Scherff when asked if he ever got sick and tired of practicing zone plays. “That’s what you come here to do, run that zone play. It’s a physical play and that’s what we like to do at Iowa. We want to be physical against [the defense]. We want to try to move someone against their will and open holes for Mark and Damon and all those guys.”
The zone plays are a physical statement, but there’s much more to it. Think offensive coordinator Greg Davis blindly calls zone plays to appease his boss? Last season, quarterback Jake Rudock sometimes went to the line of scrimmage with three options for play calls. What the defense does matters. The quarterback’s pre-snap read digs into the secondary.
“When we run what we would call an outside zone play, we’re looking to attack certain fronts, certain defensive spacing, coverages, all these things that tie together,” offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “We don’t haphazardly run plays and personnel things and things like that. I know sometimes it’s a myth or statement ... What we do when we determine how we’re going to run plays and attack defenses, there is a lot of thought that goes into that and a lot of it is just structural. How you attack a defense, how you’re going to execute your assignments, how you’re going to work together, how are you going to create an advantage over the defensive front, those are the questions you have to answer before you decide to run a play.”
Weisman is made for the zone grind, but Canzeri (5-9, 192) has earned the coaching staff’s trust. That can be traced back to one play against Wisconsin last season. After three quarters of pretty much nothing against the Badgers, Canzeri, after going the three previous games without a carry, broke a 43-yard run.
“It didn’t hurt his confidence and it certainly didn’t hurt ours,” Kirk Ferentz said. “In the Nebraska game, he did some good things there, too. I think he’s worked hard and earned our respect.”
White said, “He’s stronger than you think. He’s weightroom strong. Some of those 190-, 195-pound backs with strong legs and upper-body strength, they’re more durable than sometimes with Mark, who’s taking a pounding. Jordan has the elusiveness where he doesn’t take the pounding that Mark does. He knows how to avoid some tackles. We’re excited about the change of pace that Jordan can add.”
In summary, the mystery remains, but White did put some parameters on what could happen. They know they have Weisman and want him to be a finisher.They’ve allowed Canzeri into the circle of trust. Bullock remains the third-down back (who also wants to be considered for first and second down). They needed to see Daniels kick into gear this spring.
It’s not an easy answer in August. This will be a weekly topic with weekly variables.
“It’s our job to 1) incorporate the other backs earlier, get into the fourth and then have a fresh Mark Weisman wearing their butts out,” White said. “That’s what we hope to do.
“We feel that Jordan can come in right now [snaps fingers] and he’s a first- and second-down back. He can take a lot of the carries away from Mark. We have to find out about LeShun. LeShun has got to make a move, and he did in the spring. Same thing with Damon. He wants first- and second-down reps. He is our third-down back. He’s got to prove that in this preseason. He did that in the spring. He’s made some adjustments to his running style, and that’s pleased me.”
The running backs have processed the mystery this way: “We’re a selfless group and we just really care about winning, getting better as a player and as a team,” Weisman said. “The only way to do that is the competition out there and just getting better from it. That’s not the Iowa way, to toot your own horn. Give credit to the offensive line when it’s due, and it’s always due for them, and just try to be the best teammate and running back that you can.”
But make no mistake, it is a competition. The four running backs in contention for carries want to be the ones who solve this mystery.
“When we’re out on the field, we all compete,” Canzeri said. “We’re all pushing each other as hard as we possibly can. The competition is there and the persona of saying ‘I want the reps’ is there, but we’re all humble and we’re all good with whomever starts.”
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