Brown: Sore Hawkeyes sorely missed home-run RB threat

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa's lack of a consistent running game in 2014 had as much to do with the lack of a home-run hitter in the backfield as it did with execution between the tackles.

"I think that's fair," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Monday.

In a season when the Hawkeyes went face-to-face with a bevy of long-distant threats such as Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin, Tevin Coleman of Indiana, Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska, James Conner of Pittsburgh and David Cobb of Minnesota, no one dressed in black and gold could counter.

"We just haven't been really healthy at (running back) overall," said Ferentz, who is preparing his team for a Jan. 2 date with Tennessee at the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. "That part's been a little frustrating. I think our line has blocked pretty well. But that's not saying it's been perfect. We've had some inconsistency."

Outland Trophy winner and consensus all-American left tackle Brandon Scherff is still kicking himself over a block he missed against a Northwestern linebacker that would have opened the door for a long Akrum Wadley touchdown run.

"There are always things you wish you could have changed," Scherff said.

Jordan Canzeri, who owns the best burst in the team, has been injured and a step slow all season. LeShun Daniels had ankle surgery and missed the final five games. That left senior Mark Weisman; Wadley, a freshman; and senior Damon Bullock as the best options. Just twice did a Hawkeye back break the 100-yard mark — Wadley against Northwestern (106) and Weisman against Illinois (134).

Weisman has power, but acknowledges he had holes there for big runs that he didn't have the speed to get through. Wadley was a bright spot, but was fumble prone. Bullock was injured against Wisconsin and is done for the season.

The good news is that Canzeri is rounding into shape, and Daniels will likely play against the Volunteers.

"Jordan, to me, he's looked better the last two weeks than he has all season long, which is encouraging, too," Ferentz said. "So hopefully we can get him to the game healthy, and give him a chance to run a little bit.

Daniels' progress in his return from injury has exceeded expectations.

"I think it's fair to say he'll play, based on what we've seen so far," Ferentz said.

Wadley brings a little sizzle to the field, but keeping the ball in his hands is a must to become a dependable back for the long run.

"He's got really good potential," Ferentz said. "Ball security is an issue. That's something we've tried to work with him on. He's got to get stronger and mature physically, too. But I like what he's doing."

Jonathan Parker's 5-foot-8, 180-pound frame isn't made for 25 carries a game, but his speed will continue to make him a threat as a utility player. Iowa is redshirting C.J. Hilliard, a 5-10, 185-pound back from Cincinnati.

"He's got to pick his holes and hit them," Ferentz said. "He's not the biggest guy in the world."

Iowa has a commitment from Karan Higdon, a 5-10, 190-pound back from Sarasota, Fla. Another possibility is Markel Smith, a 5-10, 210-pounder out of St. Louis, who signed last year but played the past season at Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y.

Smith remains on Iowa's radar, thought Ferentz couldn't comment on him.

"Can't talk about prospects," Ferentz said.

Ferentz got a back out of Milford Academy in 2001 named Fred Russell.

Remember him? A guy with a burst.

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