Coaches Figuring Out RB Puzzle

Iowa enters Saturday's season opener against Northern Iowa with a deep stable of running backs. The biggest question heading into 2014 is how the coaches will use them.

Asked how he expected the running back carries to be divided, Damon Bullock chuckled. The senior remained in the dark about his role and that of his position mates.

The one clue we've heard throughout he offseason about how the assignments will shake out was how the coaches want to lighten Mark Weisman's workload. The refrain was repeated by head coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday. Beyond that, we'd have to wait until Saturday's season against Northern Iowa (11 a.m., BTN) to find out how that will happen.

Weisman, Bullock, Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels "definitely" are in the picture to play, Ferentz acknowledged on Tuesday.

"We haven't really talked about it in detail, but we feel good about all four.  We'll just kind of play it by ear," the coach said. "So we'll see how it goes, but we're comfortable with all four guys.  They've really done a nice job back there."

Weisman (6-0, 240) has paced the Hawkeyes in rushing the last two seasons. The former walk-on from Air Force opened each year strong but wore down and dealt with nagging injuries. He barreled for 615 yards through the first five games of '13 and 360 over the final eight contests.

"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," Ferentz said.

Bullock (6-0, 205) started the first two games last fall before giving way to Weisman. By season's end, he'd been passed by Canzeri on the depth chart and relegated to third-down duty. He did it well as a blocker and in rolling up 20 receptions for 173 yards to go with 467 on the ground.

Iowa Running Back Coach Chris White said on media day earlier this month that Bullock was motivated this offseason to show he was an every-down back.

"I've focused on not leaving the third-down role because a running back needs to pass block and be trusted on the most critical down," Bullock said. "But any back wants the ball a lot so I want to make the role into first- and second-down carries and just try to make plays for my team."

The Texan's hard work seemed to pay off. He began the month behind Weisman and Canzeri on the pre-camp depth chart. The latest incarnation of the two-deep showed him listed as a co-starter with Weisman.

"Damon Bullock has really had a good August, which is really pleasing," Ferentz said. "You talk about seniors raising their level of performance, he's done a good job."

Canzeri (5-9, 192) started the Insight Bowl against Oklahoma as a true freshman in '11. He redshirted the following season after tearing his ACL in spring ball.

The New York product patiently waited his turn behind Bullock and Weisman last fall, getting a total of three carries in the team's first four conference games. With the offense stagnant in Week 5 against Wisconsin, Canzeri ripped off a 43-yard run, showing the big-play ability the unit had been lacking.

The coaches awarded Canzeri with 20 carries the next Saturday at Purdue and he responded with 165 yards and a touchdown. Over the final for games of '13, he averaged about 11 attempts a contest.  

With proven commodities like Weisman, Bullock and Canzeri in the stable, the Iowa coaches considered red shirting LeShun Daniels, who played as a true freshman in '13. While that still could happen, Ferentz said Tuesday that the 6-0, 230-pound bruiser from Ohio earned the right to play this season.

"He and (tight end) Henry Krieger Coble, are guys that really elevated from a year ago offensively," the coach said.  "Yeah, he's right in the mix right now.  The big thing we have to do right now is just try to use him intelligently."

Daniels' inclusion in the plans, however loose they may be, would seem to coincide with the desire to ease get wear and tear on Weisman. White and Ferentz are saying that they'd like to get the senior a breather earlier in games so he's fresh in the fourth quarter. Iowa still wants a big back to spell him and Daniels fits the bill.

The days of teams slamming a feature back at an opponent seem to fade away more each year. Many programs use multiple backs. Still, it could be tricky getting four different player carries each week.

"Everybody has been bringing it this entire camp and everybody is ready to play and ready to showcase their skills and we're going to do it together as a team. Whoever has the hot hand at the time is going to play," Bullock said.

A belief has existed for years that a running back needs to receive a bulk of carries in order to realize a rhythm. But that set-up has been challenged with teams running more plays and rotating ball carriers.

"I don't think you need to get into a flow or a rhythm," Weisman said. "I think you just need to stay mentally tough. Coach Ferentz is always talking about staying mentally tough, mentally in it. That's a huge thing, especially at the running back position when you don't know when you're going to be in the game. You just have to stay mentally in it and when you're number is called you have to give it your all and help the team any way you can."

Behind the top four backs are red-shirt freshmen Jonathan Parker and Akrum Wadley. White says they're coming along but need to become more consistent.

Iowa finished 50th nationally in rushing among FBS teams in '13. The Hawkeyes posted 179.9 yards per game on the ground and 4.2 yards a carry.

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