Iowa Football: Why Can't the Hawkeyes Keep a Running Back?
With each lowering of his shoulder, the unlikely legend of Mark Weisman gained steam.
Legend may seem dramatic, but it’s the product of a unique cocktail; the embodiment of the region’s blue-collar values in a likable football underdog, and an accompanying tidal wave of social media diffusion from a semi-desperate fan base over the course of an otherwise unremarkable afternoon.
The first part is all Weisman.
There are two endangered species that have been known to flourish at Iowa in the Ferentz era: walk-ons and fullbacks. Weisman is a running back by pure circumstance, a fullback by trade.
And not the kind of fullback who longs for the day he’ll magically morph into the shifty running back whose spotlight he helps create with blocking schemes he is destined to feel in his joints as the years pass along with his place in fans’ consciousness.
"I love contact. I choose not to juke, whether it's because I don't have the juke moves or not - I like contact," Weisman said (via The Republic).
Suburban Chicago upbringing be damned, he is rural Iowa in football cleats.
The fans role is more complicated.
Iowa fans have the classic flyover-state chip on their shoulder. For a fan base that has experienced arguably the most successful ten year stretch in their program’s history—three consecutive top-eight finishes, two Big Ten titles and a BCS victory in the 2010 Orange Bowl—there is seemingly perpetual unrest.
It appears to be a fan base constantly at odds with its place in the national, let alone Big Ten, hierarchy. On one hand, there is the ever-present belief Iowa can reach the heights of perennial national players like Michigan and Ohio State, which results in online chatter and bar stool conjecture about the heat of Kirk Ferentz’s seat.
On the other hand, the same people calling for the job of a coach they feared would jettison them for the NFL on numerous occasions, are prone to overrating players who would never see the field for the programs they fancy their equals.
There is nothing wrong with that. And with the otherworldly misfortune at the running back position it is especially justified in the case of Weisman.
So it was on Saturday, a proud Big Ten program hosting an in-state rival, in the loosest sense of the word rival, and a walk-on fullback igniting a social media fire through the act of trucking the defensive backfield of a FCS school.
The reaction to Weisman’s proficiency and bruising style was initially tongue-in-cheek overstatement.
Weisman for Heisman!!!
As the game wore on and Weisman continued to punish the UNI defense, the reaction turned into completely serious overstatement.
He’s a young Mike Alstott!
Even Hawkeye legend and radio commentator Ed Podolak was making comparisons to Shonn Greene before the game was over.
What was it about Weisman’s 113-yard performance against a physically overmatched FCS team that elevated the narrative from face-value enjoyment to genuine comparison of a walk-on fullback to the running back that owns perhaps the greatest single season in Iowa Football history?
It is likely the reality of lowered expectations at a position we’ve seen decimated for the better part of a decade.
AIRBHG vs. Juggernaut
Appropriately enough for Hawkeye fans, the AIRBHG appears to follow many of the same stages as grief. At least the first four:
Denial: There is no such thing as "Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God!"
Anger: Damn you, "Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God!"
Bargaining: I'll donate to the charity of your choice if you just spare Mika'il McCall.
Depression: I'm not getting excited about 150 yards when he'll be knocked out by the third week.
Just when acceptance was about to set in, the man they call Juggernaut swooped in to fight off AIRBHG.
Seriously, Weisman's teammates call him Juggernaut, after the character from X-Men.
Sometimes it takes a mythical hero to overcome the mythical antagonist you have created as a coping mechanism after a decade long run of horrendous misfortune at one position.
Thanks to advancements in medical technology, knee injuries that once ended football players' careers are now merely eight month hiccups separating Iowa running backs from their next torn ACL.
With all due respect to broken legs, broken ankles, broken collarbones, high ankle sprains, concussions, dislocated elbows, and general illness, the torn ACL is the gold standard of Iowa running back injuries.
Iowa's running back injuries of the last five years:
2008 – Jeff Brinson injured/redshirts.
2009 – Jewel Hampton (ACL).
2010 – Marcus Coker (broken collarbone), Hampton (ACL, again), Adam Robinson (concussion).
2011 – Mika’il McCall (broken ankle)
2012 – Jordan Canzeri injures (ACL), Barkley Hill (ACL).
The AIRBHG talk was limited when Damon Bullock left Saturday's game. After Bullock laid on the turf motionless for several minutes, watching him leave under his own power was a welcome sight.
When his replacement, Greg Garmon, walked off with his arm hanging heavy at his side the levy broke.
The rampant AIRBHG talk lasted approximately one UNI defensive back. After the first of Weisman's many lowered shoulders, the dialogue changed dramatically.
In the context of that moment, Weisman was like Shonn Greene.
While injuries have played a role in derailing any shot Iowa has had at continuity at running back, someone always seems to step up. In 2008 it was Greene. In 2009 it was the combination of Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher.
Weisman may not be All-Big Ten, but he certainly looks reliable, and with Iowa's history, reliable is a welcome change of pace.
Academic and Conduct Issues
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What is less reliable than a young man between the ages of 18 and 22? Sixty of them.
Something fans tend to overlook when analyzing college athletes is the fact they are observing individuals in their teens and early twenties, a demographic with the ability to be extraordinarily responsibility-averse.
The dangerous assumption about scholarship athletes at big time programs is their position makes them more responsible than the average student. It does not. It forces a great deal of responsibility upon them, but that responsibility is not necessarily accompanied by inherent perspective or wisdom beyond their 18 years.
Iowa running back behavior Issues in the last five years:
2007 – Dana Brown assaults girlfriend, is kicked off team.
2010 – Brandon Wegher quits team before season, eventually transfers. Hampton transfers before bowl game. Robinson arrested for marijuana possession while suspended from Insight Bowl, eventually kicked off team.
2011 – Mika'il McCall is suspended for undisclosed reasons, eventually transfers (January, 2012).
2012 – Marcus Coker transfers to Stony Brook. De’Andre Johnson cited for disorderly house, later for speeding and evading police, kicked off team. Greg Garmon busted for possession of marijuana and paraphernalia.
Part of the reason fans have become instantly enamored with Weisman is the same reason he had an easy time gaining the respect of his teammates; he is all business on the field, but humble and likable off it.
Weisman transferred to Iowa because he wanted to play fullback, but also because he believed it was a university he wanted to attend if football didn't work out (via The Republic).
Those are attributes of a young man you are confident will represent your team and your university appropriately. But you should not be shocked if he slips up, because that is what 20-year-old kids have a tendency to do.
Iowa has had a ton of conduct issues from the running back position, and they will continue to deal with similar mistakes. That is not the work of an Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God, it is the work of immature young people trying to become men while balancing school, football, girls, freedom and local celebrity status.
That is infinitely more difficult than staying healthy.
Is Weisman the Guy?
If there is one thing we can learn by following the revolving door of Hawkeye running backs it is not to take anything for granted. Every player is one bad break on-the-field from the training table or one poor decision off-the-field from being called into Kirk Ferentz's office.
Do we blame AIRBHG for the fact that Albert Young, who graduated in 2006, is the last Iowa running back on scholarship to complete his senior season with the Hawkeyes or is it a combination of bad behavior and worse luck?
Whether you side with mythology or misfortune and mischief, there is no denying it's been a long time since Iowa fans have been able to watch a running back grow with the program. There is also no denying the struggles at running back have conditioned those same fans to appreciate their runners on a game-by-game basis.
Weisman will get his first career start at running back when the Hawkeyes host Central Michigan on Saturday, but don't expect him to be a long-term solution.
The coaching staff will likely turn the keys back over to Damon Bullock when he is cleared by team doctors, moving Weisman back to fullback where he'll give up carries and his body to clear the way for Bullock's star to resume it's rise.
That's why he walked on at Iowa in the first place.