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No. 6 ... Remember how the Mark Weisman experience started? It was 2012. Iowa had a comfortable lead against Northern Iowa. Running back Damon Bullock seemed to be on his way to a 200-yard day and then, wham, his head lands on a UNI safety’s knee and he’s out with a concussion. Then, true freshman Greg Garmon (who left Iowa after 2012 and whose story has taken a tragic turn) stepped in and had his elbow go the wrong way.
Iowa turned to Weisman, a walk-on sophomore fullback who the week before had what would’ve been a TD pass in a 9-6 loss to Iowa State slip maddeningly through his fingers. Wait, what? Who was this guy? You ran the name through your Hawkeye computer brains and you came up with walk-on, transfer from Air Force and that was about it.
He rushed for 113 yards and three TDs that day. The 6-0, 240-pounder has gone on to lead the Hawkeyes in rushing each of the last two seasons and has a two-year total of 1,790 yards and 16 TDs. That puts him No. 14 on Iowa’s career rushing list, ahead of Nick Bell, Rick Bayless and Ryan Terry.
And yet, Weisman freely admits he remains a work in progress as a running back.
“I think I get tackled in the open field a bit too much,” Weisman said. “I lower my shoulder, but sometimes you just have to break those tackles. You’ve got to get off with a stiff arm, a subtle juke move. I’m not going to be juking people out of the stadium, but a subtle juke move is sometimes just as good. I’ve got to work on that stuff in the open field.”
There are other subtleties. Weisman is aware of reads, where his eyes and feet go and reacting to a defense. That’s also something he’s constantly honing.
“We have certain reads on every play and sometimes you don’t know what you’re seeing out there on the field,” Weisman said. “The film doesn’t lie. You’ve got to get in there, watch the film and critique yourself. [Running backs coach Chris] Coach White had us watch every play that we ran last year and critique ourselves on it. That was definitely a humbling thing.”
Here’s White on what he wants his running backs to read: “You’ve got to train your eyes. The biggest thing with our offense is hitting your landmarks and reading the proper linemen. For the inside zone specifically, you need young kids to not, what we call, press the hole. They’re impatient, so they get the handoff, they see what they want, they see where they want to go, and they go there right now. Well, you have to affect the linebackers and the defensive line so you need to push it up in there and then jump it or stay play side. If your read tells you to stay play side, if you’re reading the 3 technique and we reach the 3 technique [outside defensive tackle], we’re going to stay play side; 3 technique doesn’t get reached we’ve got to jump it back.”
If Weisman has another Weisman-type season — around 1,000 yards and eight or so TDs — he’ll have more career yards and TDs than Owen Gill, Ronnie Harmon and Shonn Greene. Any way you cut it, that’d be amazing production for a former walk-on fullback.
Metered Weisman ... One thing is for certain, you’ll see a lot less Weisman early in the season.
Last year, Weisman ran through 53 percent of his carries in Iowa’s first five games. He suffered foot and pectoral injuries against Michigan State (the nation’s top rush defense in ‘13) and only hit 20-plus carries one more time last season (24 at Nebraska). He recorded four 100-yard performances in those first five games, but none after that.
“I think everyone in the room would agree that we probably wore Mark out a little bit,” White said. “His productivity diminished a little bit after the Michigan State game. He stuck his cleat in the ground a little bit and hurt his foot, and he had a stretch for four or five games where we really didn’t practice him a lot, and it showed on the field, and he didn’t get as many reps. But I thought he finished the season well against Michigan and Nebraska.”
And offensive coordinator Greg Davis: “We have found over two years that when Mark is healthy, he is really productive. We want to be conscious of the number of carries, because he’s not a guy who’s going to jump sideways very often. He’s going to attack the tackler. So as the season wears on, then his production suffers somewhat and that’s what Jordan [Canzeri] was able to step in last year.”
And head coach Kirk Ferentz: “In Mark’s case, he runs so hard, he’s so physical as a player, the caution with him is just overdoing it. We’ve done that in the past. Last year we kind of had to pull back to get him back to where he was going at an effective rate. If you don’t pull him back, he won’t. He’s one of those guys.”
So, less Weisman. Expect flexibility in Iowa’s running game and more carries for Canzeri and perhaps Bullock and sophomore LeShun Daniels.
How it might work ... This remains to be seen. Weisman sort of morphed into a short-yardage back at the end of last season. In Iowa’s final five games, Weisman converted 13 of 19 short-yardage rushes (yardages between 1 and 9 yards), scoring four TDs and picking up nine first downs. Iowa won four of those games, by the way, with Weisman finishing and Canzeri moving sticks. It worked well, along with an offensive line that was at its best and wide receivers and tight ends who were invested in the blocking aspect of their games.
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 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? Quarterback Jake Rudock was an unanswered question early, so Iowa relied on Weisman and the offensive line to head lock games. That took a toll and that led to Canzeri getting his big shot.
How it’ll work? White said in the spring that’s what they were trying to figure out. I do think that Iowa coaches felt their running backs were stronger at the end of the season when they were healthy. I think they liked “healthy” and “running backs” in the same sentence. I think the numbers showed that, too.
Outlook ... Some fullback talk came up with Weisman this spring. Maybe in the future (NFL), but more than likely not at Iowa. Iowa has fullbacks it likes. Iowa likes Weisman as a running back. And why not? He’s poised to become one of the school’s top 10 career rushers.
You want to see him do that against the big-timers on Iowa’s schedule this year. That’s why you’ll probably see a lot less of Weisman early in the season. Iowa wants to see that, too.
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