ASSUME THE POSITION 2014: RUNNING BACK

Eric Francis

We're not ready to declare AIRBHG dead after one season, but Iowa looks strangely loaded at halfback.

Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.

Previously:

1. Quarterback
2. Defensive Tackle
3. Tight End

Today: Running Back

Eligibility Remaining
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
45 Mark Weisman SR(RS) 6-0/240 Halfback
5 Damon Bullock SR 6-0/205 Halfback
33 Jordan Canzeri JR(RS) 5-9/195 Halfback
29 LeShun Daniels SO 6-0/230 Halfback
10 Jonathan Parker FR(RS) 5-8/180 Halfback
25 Akrum Wadley FR(RS) 5-11/180 Halfback
?? Markel Smith FR 5-11/210 Halfback
?? C.J. Hilliard FR 5-10/190 Halfback
38 Adam Cox JR(RS) 5-11/230 Fullback
42 Macon Plewa JR(RS) 6-2/235 Fullback

Changes in the NFL rules, shortened careers due to prolonged abuse by coaches, and reliance on the zone running scheme has made the star NFL halfback a thing of the past.  A first-round halfback is now a rarity, and the fullback isn't even a serious position in most NFL offenses.

Iowa's lack of star power at halfback is for other reasons entirely.  It's not as if Kirk Ferentz hasn't recruited four-star halfbacks, after all.  But AIRBHG has been especially cruel to top-rated running backs at Iowa.  The last three four-star-rated running backs at Iowa -- Greg Garmon, Marcus Coker, and Brandon Wegher -- totaled four seasons with the program.  What is left: A former walk-on, four two-stars, and three young three-star recruits at halfback and a pair of walk-ons at fullback.  But if Iowa's original running game is based on the Denver zone scheme, they've found plenty of Terrell Davises.

פטיש

Mark Weisman (#45, Senior (RS), 6'0, 240 lbs., Stevenson HS (Buffalo Grove, IL))

The 2013 version of Mark Weisman looked an awful lot like the 2012 version.  As he did in his breakthrough sophomore season, Weisman led the Hawkeyes in attempts (227), yards (975), and rushing touchdowns (8).  He accounted for 41.7 percent of Iowa's total carries, 41.7 percent of Iowa's total rushing yards (that those are identical is the most Mark Weisman Stat ever), and 44.4 percent of Iowa's rushing scores.  If you took his 2012 numbers and adjusted for the fact that he was a fullback for the first two weeks of that season, his yardage is basically identical.

Weisman's season even followed the same game-by-game pattern.  As he had done in 2012, the Hebrew Hammer went over 20 carries and 100 yards in every September game as a starter (save for Western Michigan, which was such a bloodbath early on that Ferentz could rest his workhorse).  Much like 2012, he suffered an injury in early October and spent the middle of the season hobbled.  And as he had the year before, he came back with a vengance against Nebraska and did things like this:

Iowa-bounces-off-tackle-for-touchdown-best-college-football-gifs-2013

Duong'd

It's runs like that that have made Weisman a favorite among Iowa fans, just as bruising backs on past Iowa teams have built a following.  Weisman, though, is much more Nick Bell than Shonn Greene.  Like Weisman, Bell was big -- at 6'2 and 255 pounds, even bigger than Weisman -- and sneaky fast and did not shy away from contact.  But Bell also only had one 1,000-yard season and never carried the ball as many times as Weisman has in each of the first two years (again, extrapolated for Weisman's two-game stint at fullback in 2012).

Bell was also more productive than Weisman.  Like, a lot more productive.  Like first team all-conference on a 6.1 yards per carry average productive.  And therein lies the problem with Weisman. Iowa's line posted some thoroughly average running stats last season: 3.11 yards per carry on standard downs, with 39.5% of carries going for five yards or more.  Part of that is Iowa's offense, which has been posting those same stats for nearly a decade.  But if you are of the belief that a running back's job is to extend the five-yard carry given by his line (as Football Study Hall is), a large part of the problem was Weisman.  In 227 carries last season, Weisman extended a run past ten yards just 23 times, and had just seven carries of 15 yards or more (and three of those came against Missouri State).  The stats only confirm what the eyeballs already know: Mark Weisman is not an explosive running back.

It's the last number of that Football Study Hall analysis where Weisman's true value shows, however.  While Iowa's running game was middling in most circumstances, it was one of the best in the country at getting positive yardage; just 16.6% of Iowa carries -- one in six -- finished with no gain or a loss of yardage.  And again, while Iowa's line gets some credit, equal billing has to be given to Weisman, who generates positive yardage on nearly every attempt.  That positive yardage keeps the explosiveness-challenged Iowa offense on schedule, burns clock as Kirk Ferentz is wont to do, and punishes opposing defenders.  In doing that, Weisman is the essential Kirk Ferentz running back and has value far beyond the statistics in this system.  It's why the converted fullback is getting a third season as a starter.

The Inside Man

Jordan Canzeri (#33, Junior (RS), 5'9, 195 lbs., Troy (N.Y.) HS)

Contrast Weisman's output with that of Canzeri, the halfback Iowa turned to when Weisman was dinged up and ineffective in October and early November.  Canzeri had become a cause célèbre to the message board crowd in late September, with Weisman's absurd workload piling up and his production diminishing, but the only early sign that he might factor in the 2013 offense was 13 garbage time carries against Western Michigan.  He did not play in the month of October, a startling fact given that Weisman ran for just 117 yards in those three games.

A 43-yard run against Wisconsin on an inside zone cut back against the grain gave a glimmer of what he could bring to the offense, and a 20-carry, 165-yard day at Purdue cemented his position as the shifty interior runner that Iowa so desperately needed.

Weisman was at his best when the offensive line could seal an edge and let him turn upfield on the stretch play, a scenario that occurred with decreasing regularity as the season progressed.  Canzeri brought the natural antidote to a team overplaying the stretch, the inside zone with a cutback against overpursuing defenders.  And while Canzeri never quite matched the Purdue performance again -- he broke a 37-yard run against Nebraska but totaled just 143 yards in the season's final three games -- he was so effective that Weisman started running the inside zone and looking for a cutback by the end of the season.

Iowa used to be able to juggle two halfbacks with widely differing skill sets like Weisman and Canzeri, and the offense has not changed one iota from those days.  With the emphasis again on keeping the running backs 'fresh' -- an emphasis that was lost about 12 minutes into the 2013 season -- Canzeri should get his shot.  He's shown that he knows what to do once he gets it.

We Don't Know What To Tell You

Damon Bullock (#5, Senior, 6'0, 205 lbs., Mansfield (Tex.) HS)

Look, Damon Bullock is one of our favorite players ever.  His Vine account is the funniest thing to come out of Iowa football not named Pat Angerer Press Conference.  His honesty with reporters is commendable in a program that hides even the most mundane facts from the public eye.  He's clearly a bright, articulate young man who also happens to run fast.

In a post-Canzeri world. though, Damon Bullock is a man without a home.  He was third on the team in rushing last season despite getting 44 more carries than Canzeri.  He averaged just 4.0 yards per carry, and failed to meet even that modest mark in eight games (including Western Michigan, which, yeesh).  He was held to 12 yards or less in five of Iowa's last eight games, and was shut out in six carries during the final two contests of the season.  The highlight of his season was a 47-yard catch-and-run against Michigan State, a play that showed what he could do if given space to work.   He's being used as a one-cut back, but he doesn't have the one cut necessary to make that work; far too often, he was taking a handoff and running into a wall of defenders.  If Iowa could utilize him in the slot or the flat, he might be something, but Ferentz's steadfast dedication to blitz pickup has trumped any serious attempt to make a running back into a serious receiving threat, and that leaves Bullock as the odd man out.

The Battering Rams

Adam Cox (#38, Junior (RS), 5'11, 230 lbs., Stillman Valley HS (Chana, Ill.))
Macon Plewa (#42, Junior (RS), 6'2, 236 lbs., Franklin (Wis.) HS)

The segment of the fan base obsessed with beating Wisconsin for Wisconsin kids is oddly quiet about Macon Plewa, who walked on at Iowa despite having the same opportunity at the only other school left using a fullback that does not rhyme with "Banford".  But Plewa can play; while he only got one carry and three receptions last season, it was still a considerable uptick from the production of every Iowa fullback since, what, Edgar Cervantes?

Yes, this segment is written only to mention Edgar Cervantes.

The odd thing was, Plewa was actually bested by fellow walk-on Adam Cox, who caught three passes and ran FOUR times last season.  His 67 total yards (and 17.0 yards per catch average) were augmented by a 35-yard reception against Minnesota, a figurative finger in the eye of the Gophers that is aging like fine wine.

Both guys will get ample playing time this year, especially because trip-tight end, the formation which absolutely cannot use a fullback, doesn't look as obvious as it did last season.  Expect a handful of carries and yards for each.

While You Wait for the Others

LeShun Daniels (#29, Sophomore, 6'0, 230 lbs., Harding HS (Warren, Ohio))

In most years, Daniels would have been crucial, a freshman running back ready to play when needed.  But with AIRBHG's peculiar absence from the scene in 2013, Daniels' first year on campus was semi-wasted on 36 largely meaningless carries, 19 of which came against Missouri State and Western Michigan.  Should the inevitable happen, the glass on the PULL THIS LEVER FOR ANOTHER WEISMAN case is already cracked, but his true value comes as the Hebrew Hammer's replacement in 2015.

Akrum Wadley (#25, Freshman (RS), 5'11, 180 lbs., Weequahic HS (Newark, N.J.)

His story -- a two-star recruit who produced insane numbers and a state tournament run for a high school five miles away from his actual school because his actual school didn't have a football program -- is fantastic.  His speed is undeniable.  But Wadley, like Daniels, looks a lot like a guy that Iowa already has available, right down to the two-star northeastern pedigree.  Unfortunately, he also appears to have caught Canzeri's penchant for nagging injuries.  There's some buzz that he could return kicks this year, which is intriguing.

Jonathan Parker (#10, Freshman (RS), 5'8, 180 lbs., Christian Brothers College HS (St. Louis))

If you thought Wadley was undersized, Parker is positively Russellian in stature.  Iowa threw him a last-second offer, luring him away from Tulsa.  His name was quite literally the last one mentioned by Greg Davis during his spring practice press conference, and even that was not in any sort of significant context.  He's buried for now, and likely won't see action for another couple of years.

Markel Smith (#??, Freshman, 5'11, 210 lbs., St. John Vianney HS (St. Louis))

As previously mentioned, the last three four-star halfbacks to enter the program have all flamed out.  Greg Garmon claimed he didn't like Iowa's offense, then resurfaced at a junior college, a strong indication that it wasn't offensive philosophy as much as actual Philosophy that was the problem.  Marcus Coker played as a freshman and started as a sophomore before getting into some sort of trouble and leaving the team.  Brandon Wegher became a human supernova.  Throw in Rodney Coe (who never even made it to campus) and Kalvin Bailey (who was not much better) and suddenly the last four-star running back to make it to a third year in the program is Albert Young, who committed in 2003.  It becomes Markel Smith's job to break that streak; for once, it looks like Iowa can use a redshirt to give him a chance.

C.J. Hilliard (#??, Freshman, 5'10, 190 lbs., St. Xavier HS (Cincinnati))

Hilliard is so buried on the depth chart and in excess of requirements that he is already rumored to be moving to the defensive backfield.  If he makes the move, he could join his younger brother, who is one of the nation's top linebacker recruits and lists Iowa among his top 5.  Or at least he can avoid having his brother tackle him when Iowa next meets Ohio State in 2057.

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