Ferentz won't let himself get too excited about running game

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Asked if he felt better about his running game than in recent seasons, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz squirmed in his chair like someone sitting in the dentist's office waiting for a root canal.

"You never feel too good about anything, especially right now," Ferentz said.

Right now is Saturday's 11 a.m. game with Northern Iowa. Ferentz will walk down the tunnel with his team and onto the field at Kinnick Stadium for his 16th season opener as the Hawkeyes' head coach. He'll be chomping his gum while his gut churns, anxious and nervous at the same time.

Ferentz won't tip his hand much about the running game, though he did admit it's in a lot better shape than it was two seasons ago. But the real proof that it's on solid footing again is this: Ferentz revealed that he considered redshirting sophomore running back LeShun Daniels.

Daniels changed Ferentz's mind by showing in fall camp that he belongs on the field. So that means there will be four running backs with game experience in uniform: Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri and Daniels.

And waiting in the bullpen are two redshirt freshmen Ferentz is excited about, Akrum Wadley and Jonathan Parker.

That's quite an upgrade from recent years when running back was a cursed position at Iowa. Injuries, suspensions and transfers wore the "next man in" mantra down to the bone. Instead of who's left, the question on Saturday becomes, "Who gets the carries?"

"You'd have to ask the coaches," said Weisman, who shares the No. 1 spot on the depth chart with Bullock. "I don't think they even know. We'll see how it works."

Weisman, Bullock and Canzeri have combined for 754 carries and 3,385 yards. Daniels had just 36 carries and 142 yards as a true freshman. But maybe he'll be the hot hand on Saturday.

Iowa's recent history with Northern Iowa suggests a surprising storyline. In 2009, Iowa's starting running back was junior Paki O'Meara. It was his first career start. But a redshirt freshman, Adam Robinson, came off the bench to provide a second-half spark in the 17-16 victory.

When the teams met in 2012, Bullock (concussion) and freshman Greg Garmon (elbow) were knocked out of the game. The next man in was a fullback named Weisman.

"There was no one left that knew how to play besides me," Weisman said. "I was just thrown in there."

Weisman entered the game late in the second quarter and introduced himself to Hawkeye fans by rushing for 113 yards and three touchdowns in the 27-16 victory.

"Two years ago we weren't sure if we had a Big Ten running back," Ferentz said. "We found out we did. Damon did a good job when he was available. And Mark, I think, did a great job. But yeah, we're a little further down the road now."

Miles and miles further down the road.

"Everybody has experience now," Bullock said. "Everybody is coming in with a full head of steam. Everybody's healthy."

Who gets the carries? Ferentz said they'll play it by ear. He said Bullock had a great fall camp. And keep an eye on the improving Daniels.

"He's gotten stronger and running behind his pads now," Weisman said. "He's a big guy who can wreak a lot of havoc in the secondary and against linebackers, running guys over. Now he's finally got the pad level down where it needs to be. He's going to be a factor this year, definitely."

Ferentz has talked at length about managing Weisman's carries, so he's fresher late in games and, more important, healthy at the end of the season. Weisman rushed for 815 yards as a sophomore and 975 as a junior. Only a pile of injuries kept him from that 1,000-yard mark.

A plateau he hungers to reach?

"I don't know, sure," he said. "As long as we're producing in the running game, it doesn't really matter."

There's been a lot of talk this fall about Iowa's upgraded passing game. But make no mistake about it. With a good offensive line leading the way, anchored by all-America candidate Brandon Scherff at left tackle, the running game will determine the success or failure of the 2014 season.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.