CHICAGO – The Iowa running game never got untracked last season. The struggles at the position paralleled those of the team.
That makes a lot of sense. A strong rushing attack has been a staple for the Hawkeyes when things are going well.
Iowa had the power in the bruising Mark Weisman, who became just the sixth player to lead the team in rushing for three years in a row. He signed as a free agent with Cleveland in April and likely will play fullback in the NFL.
Weisman performed admirably, albeit out of position. He picked up tough yards. Defenses knew where to find him, however, and didn’t have to honor a big-play threat.
Iowa is hoping that dynamic changes in 2015. Much of the potential rides on the health of oft-injured upperclassmen Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels.
"I think it has an opportunity to be a strength for us if we can keep pushing forward," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said of his running game during last week’s Big Ten Media Day here.
Canzeri was listed as the starter on the spring depth chart. Daniels has moved to the top on the pre-camp two-deep.
"I think what it really reflects is that we’re really pleased with both guys. They both have shown flashes in their time at Iowa but injuries have impeded some of their progress that we had hoped for. Both guys really had good springs. You knock on wood. You want everybody to stay healthy and stay safe but I really feel good about it," Ferentz said.
Canzeri (5-9, 192) was expected to be Iowa’s lighting to Weisman’s thunder a year ago. Instead, he battled injuries throughout the campaign.
"I think he could have really helped us but he was never right. He flashed but really since camp it just didn’t..it’s been so different this year, knock on wood. Let’s hope he just stays healthy. And he had issues. It wasn’t just in his head. He just never quite got right," Ferentz said.
Canzeri toughed it out to see action in 11 games with one start. He ranked second on the team with 494 yards on 102 attempts. Given time to heal, he paced Iowa with 120 yards on 12 carries in January’s Taxslayer Bowl.
It seems as though Ferentz and the fans have waited for Canzeri to stay healthy since he started in the Insight Bowl against Oklahoma as a true freshman at the end of the ’11 season. After sitting our ’12 with a knee injury, he posted Iowa’s best rushing performance the following year when he ripped off 165 yards and a touchdown against Purdue.
Daniels (6-0, 225) saw limited action in the first seven games of ’14 before a leg injury sidelined him until the Taxslayer. Overall, he carried just 15 times for 49 yards and a score as a true sophomore.
"In LeShun’s case, we probably didn’t give him enough rope last year, maybe. Or maybe it’s just because he looked so good this spring that maybe we should have run him a little bit more," Ferentz said.
Daniels trimmed down during the off-season and his play during April drew rave reviews from the coaches. With it, some folks outside the program wondered if he would serve as the team’s feature back with Canzeri handling third-down duties.
Ferentz doesn’t see it that way.
"I think both of those guys could be good third-down backs but I think they can both be good every-down backs. To have two great options back there, it would be a really nice thing for us," he said.
Third-year sophomore Akrum Wadley (5-11, 185) was given a chance to complement Weisman last fall but struggled with ball security. He produced when he didn’t fumble, gaining 186 yards on 33 carries, including 15 for 106 and a touchdown against Northwestern.
During preparation for Wisconsin last season, the coaches utilized receiver Derrick Mitchell as a scout team running back to imitate Badgers all-American Melvin Gordon. He performed so well, that they moved him to the position.
"On top of (Daniels and Canzeri), I think probably the big bonus we had in the spring was we had Derrick Mitchell’s emergence. He really transitioned well and I thought showed a lot in 15 days. It’s exciting to think that we have 25 days for him to continue to improve," Ferentz said.
With four potentially viable options to carry the ball, Iowa might be opening camp this week in the best position it’s been at running back in recent memory.
"Long story short, where we are right now we feel really good about both those guys and are excited to see what Derrick does moving forward. And Akrum, too, hopefully he takes some steps forward this August," Ferentz said.