Iowa seeks freshness at running back

Two years ago, Iowa had a simple goal with its running backs: just get somebody on the field.

An unusual stretch of misfortune -- handed down by AIRBHG or some other dastardly entity -- had crippled Iowa's once-formidable running back room. So when a 240-pound sledgehammer named Mark Weisman essentially came out of nowhere and grabbed the football, Iowa simply jumped on his back for as long as it could. Weisman recorded 98 carries during a four-game stretch from mid-September to mid-October in 2012. He opened the 2013 season with 85 carries in Iowa's first three games.

If Weisman records a similar workload early this season, something has gone very wrong for the Hawkeyes. One of the many luxuries Iowa enjoys entering the 2014 campaign -- along with a favorable schedule, a stable quarterback situation and solid line play on both sides of the ball -- is depth at running back. Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock might not be known names around the Big Ten, but both have started games and add to Iowa's backfield mix.

Weisman likely will enter the season as Iowa's lead ball-carrier, but his workload should be much more manageable. The goal is to keep all the backs fresh for the stretch run, which includes late November home games against West Division challengers Wisconsin and Nebraska.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to use everybody in a smart way," coach Kirk Ferentz told ESPN.com. "It's a good mix for us."

Although Weisman looks and at times performs like a workhorse back, he has a point of diminishing returns. In 2012, he recorded 673 yards and eight touchdowns during the 98-carry stretch between Sept. 15 and Oct. 13, but he suffered an ankle injury in the final game against Michigan State. He had just 14 carries the next two contests before sitting out two weeks to heal.

Weisman had 100 yards or more in four of Iowa's first five games last fall, while accumulating 119 carries in the process. But another foot injury, also against Michigan State, limited him both in practices and in games for about a month. He had no more than 13 carries in the five games between Oct. 5 and Nov. 9.

"We've kind of seen it for two years," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "As the season goes on and his carries begin to mount, there comes a point where he's not quite as effective as he was early. Though Mark would never say a word, I’ve got to think his body's getting beaten up."

Canzeri's emergence late last season suggests a better carries balance for Iowa's backs. As Weisman healed, Canzeri had 332 yards on only 43 carries in Iowa's final four regular-season contests, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. He produced runs of 43 yards against Wisconsin and 37 yards against Nebraska and contributed as a receiver in wins against both Nebraska and Michigan.

Iowa improved from 101st nationally in rushing in 2012 to 50th last year.

Two springs ago, Canzeri had positioned himself as Iowa's likely starter before tearing his ACL. Despite a quick recovery, he sat out the 2012 season and worked on pass protection, among other things.

"I just knew it was a time to get stronger, get faster and get better," Canzeri said. "It was fortunate that it was during the 4-8 season that no one really wants to think about. Before I was confident, but I was smaller and my speed was my main attribute. Now I've gained another year and gotten stronger and more mature and have built into a more complete football player."

Ferentz looks at Canzeri differently than he did a year ago, expressing "total confidence" in the junior to contribute significantly. Bullock actually has more career carries (263) than Canzeri but likely will be used as a third-down back because of his strong pass-blocking and pass-catching skills (39 career receptions).

Each back has his own style, as Ferentz notes, but their differences aren't as stark as they were two springs ago. Sophomore LeShun Daniels, at 215 pounds, adds another power option, and Ferentz said the team's depth at fullback with Adam Cox and Macon Plewa is the best it has been in his tenure.

"Whoever's out there can do all those same things," Canzeri said, "which is good because when the person who has the hot hand is getting tired, the next person that comes in isn't just filling in but someone who can get the job done just as well.

"It's really cool to see."

It should lead to a fresher and faster group of backs, especially when Iowa needs them most.