IOWA CITY — In the last third of 2013, Damon Bullock lost his spot.
The senior went from running back 1b to six, 10, four, three and three carries in Iowa's final five games. While Bullock's carries diminished, junior Jordan Canzeri took advantage of his opportunity, gaining 58, 165, 50, 59 and 34 yards during that stretch. When running back 1a Mark Weisman was slowed by injuries, Canzeri wedged his way past Bullock and into the plans.
Bullock saw the writing on the wall and decided to do something about it.
“Damon Bullock has really had a good August, which is really pleasing,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “You talk about seniors raising their level of performance, he's done a good job.”
And so now, going into the Hawkeyes season opener Saturday against Northern Iowa, Bullock is once again, at least according to the depth chart, running back No. 1b. The Mansfield, Texas, native is listed as a co-starter alongside Weisman, also a senior. (By the way, this will be the first time since 2007, when Albert Young and Damian Sims finished their careers, that Iowa has had a pair of senior running backs.)
Bullock saw the writing on the wall and punched the clock during fall camp.
“I was thinking a lot this year, it's my last year,” said Bullock, who's ranks 10th in rushing for Ferentz-era running backs with 1,000 yards on 257 carries. “I had to come into it completely comfortable and completely ready to do anything the coaches asked me to do.
“It's been a long time now. I've got to be trusted by the entire coaching staff. I just went out there and played my game and didn't think about it. I just played my game, Damon Bullock football.”
How the running back carries might go has been a hot topic during the offseason. Ferentz and running backs coach Chris White acknowledged that Weisman was overused early last season. White called him a “Old Faithful.” They acknowledged that, but they also declined to lay out a concrete plan to preserve Weisman or how the running back thing will work.
Ferentz did throw out the phrase “using him intelligently” and it wasn't about Wiesman but sophomore LeShun Daniels, a 6-0, 230-pounder who played last season as a true freshman. Iowa coaches discussed redshirting Daniels, but his camp performance kept him in the conversation.
Bullock said he believes running back will, once again, be a “hot hand” thing. Ferentz said it's been discussed, but, considering the quicksand that has swallowed a huge share of Iowa running backs in recent seasons, the staff wants to keep its options open.
“We haven't really talked about it in that detail, but we feel good about all four,” Ferentz said Tuesday when asked about the ideal number of carries for each running back. “We'll just kind of play it by ear. Again, the big thing is if we can — as opposed to some of the games in the past — hopefully, we'll have Mark Weisman healthy in the fourth quarter, not healthy but fresh, where he can really be going strong.”
The comfort zone, security blanket, “Old Faithful” factor.
The hard numbers show that Weisman has been highly productive (his 1,790 career rushing yards is No. 14 in Iowa history), but oft-injured. Bullock's numbers have been steady, but he trended down last season and is now in a rejuvenated mode. Canzeri's numbers certainly trended up last season. He finished with more yards (481) than Bullock (467) in 44 fewer carries.
“Everyone is trying to prove themselves,” said Weisman, who wasn't tackled in camp. “The competition within the running back group has made everyone better.”
Maybe that shadow of doubt cast by noncommital answers from coaches on carries and workload has been a motivator. The only element of the plan that we can honestly decipher is that Iowa wants to use Weisman for the knockout punch.
Then again, it is Iowa running back, a position that saw 10 players leave the UI before their eligibility was up between 2008 and 2012. The door can never totally close on anyone.
Bullock is a great case study for this. Last fall, Iowa had a junior whose production shrank. This August, Iowa had a motivated senior who took in coaching points and was open to fine-tuning his running style.
“When do I stiff arm? When do I lower my shoulder?” Bullock said when asked about changes in his game. “Having a wider base in the hole and making different cuts, stuff like that.”
Iowa has four running backs. The game is played with one ball. The framework for how this math might work will start to go up Saturday.
And, yes, the running backs are as interested as we are in how this all might work.
“You have to ask the coaches how exactly it might work, but I don't think they even know,” Weisman said. “We'll see how it works.”
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