Kirk Ferentz: This unsung player 'really bailed us out'

Pat Harty
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Iowa fullback John Kenny (47) and tight end Henry Krieger Coble celebrate a touchdown against Pittsburgh.

The Iowa football program is a place where fullbacks refuse to die, even during a potential crisis.

In an age when more and more offenses have abandoned the fullback position in favor of putting another receiver in space, the Iowa fullback continues to thrive under head coach Kirk Ferentz, but almost exclusively as a blocker.

It's a role that brings far more pain than glamour, so it takes a person who is willing to sacrifice on behalf of the team, but also somebody who's tough and fearless.

Somebody like John Kenny.

The redshirt freshman from Carmel, Ind., is helping Iowa to overcome two critical injuries at fullback after switching from linebacker early in the season. Kenny has played extensively at fullback in each of the past two games and is listed as the starting fullback heading into Saturday's Big Ten opener at Purdue.

"I'm liking it so far, and just getting an opportunity to be on the field is cool," Kenny said Tuesday.

Unlike many of his Iowa teammates who rarely left the playing field in high school, Kenny played exclusively on defense.

His switch to fullback put Kenny on offense for the first time since middle school. His two catches this season were his first since his middle-school days.

"It was a pretty big adjustment just lining up behind the quarterback and looking at the defense," Kenny said. "The first week was pretty weird, but after that I kind of got the hang of it, just knowing my assignments and the playbook the best I could. It just came down to reps and execution in practice. I got the hang of it."

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Kenny is easy to please when it comes to playing football. He just wants to hit somebody on the opposing team. Playing fullback allows Kenny to do that on a regular basis, much like playing linebacker, only the roles are reversed.

"It's a lot of fun just delivering the blow whether you're on defense or offense, just being the most physical player," Kenny said. "I think that's what it comes down to. Who wants it more is going to be more physical."

Iowa running backs Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock get most of the attention as the primary ball carriers. But it's often the fullback who gets them loose in space with a key block. Kenny did that on several occasions during last Saturday's 24-20, come-from-behind victory at Pittsburgh.

"I would say a lot of it is instinct, and then either just block the first guy or block a certain player," Kenny said. "But it's just being physical, basically, and opening up a lane for the running backs to run through."

After sputtering in the first three games, Iowa's rushing attack finally started living up to its reputation against Pittsburgh. Weisman rushed for a season-high 88 yards and scored both of his touchdowns during the second-half comeback with Kenny often as his lead blocker.

It's reasonable to think that injuries to Iowa's top two fullbacks contributed to the rushing woes. Junior starter Adam Cox suffered a season-ending knee injury early in preseason, while junior backup Macon Plewa has missed the last two games with an injury and isn't expected to play against Purdue on Saturday.

"That's a good story ... we had a real good feel about what we had there with Adam and Macon, and now we're down two in that count," Ferentz said. "John's really not perfect, but he's really adapted to it pretty quickly and really bailed us out."

Kenny wasn't the first linebacker to switch to fullback this season in response to the injuries.

Redshirt freshmen Drake Kulick and Steve Manders both made the switch shortly after Cox went down, as did true freshman Aaron Mends, temporarily. But Kenny has since emerged as the best option.

Kenny was encouraged to make the switch by Iowa linebackers coach Jim Reid.

"He told me that my quickest opportunity to see the field would be at fullback," Kenny said. "So I went over there and I just did whatever I could to help the team. And that's where I ended up."

Saturday's matchup against Purdue is special to Kenny for two reasons. He always has looked forward to returning to his home state, but now Kenny will return as Iowa's starting fullback instead of being buried on the depth chart at linebacker.

He has three former high school teammates who play for Purdue, including starting linebacker Jimmy Herman.

"It's different preparation," Kenny said of starting. "I feel like it's just different being a part of the team on the field instead of cheering everyone on, just being in the game plan more. It just a different experience, but I like it."

Kenny is uncertain whether his long-term future is on offense or defense. He grew up playing linebacker and was recruited to Iowa as a linebacker. But he's a team-first guy.

"I'm willing to go back to linebacker," Kenny said. "I don't know, we'll see what the future holds. I can't really tell right now.

"But for this season, as far as I know right now, I'm a fullback."