CHICAGO – Is there validity to the change-of-pace philosophy?
The Iowa football team is about to find out, thanks to the deepest and most diversified running backs corps of coach Kirk Ferentz’s 16-year tenure.
“We have two sets of guys who are pretty distinctly different,” Ferentz said during Tuesday’s session of the Big Ten meetings. “It looks like we’re at least going to have some options, and an opportunity to mix things up a little bit.”
In short: Mark Weisman (6-foot, 240 pounds) and LeShun Daniels Jr. (6-0, 230) are capable of wearing down defenders, while Jordan Canzeri (5-9, 192) and Damon Bullock (6-0, 205) can leave them breathless.
“Sometimes, it gives defenses fits,” said Warren Herring, Wisconsin’s starting nose guard. “You’re trying to get acclimated to one back, and then you’ve got to hurry up and focus your attention on another back who can move.”
There are several benefits. Sharing carries reduces the physical toll on tailbacks and keeps them fresh for the fourth quarter.
A primary objective, however, is to keep would-be tacklers off kilter.
“I would say it kind of drives you nuts,” Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell said. “You just have to stay focused and know which kind of back is in.
“It’s just knowing who you’re going up against and what to expect.”
That uncertainty can impact defensive alignments.
“If you have a ground-pound running back, guys are kind of coming up, to come down hill,” Russell said. “Whereas, if you have a change-of-pace, the guys are on their heels a little bit.
“They’re making sure they don’t miss.”
Rutgers defensive end Darius Hamilton talked about the mental effect.
“When you have great backs and can do a lot of things with them, I think it matters,” Hamilton said. “I think it gets into your head, if you let it.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time Iowa featured a diversified backfield.
During an undefeated run through the Big Ten in 2002, Fred Russell and Jermelle Lewis became an effective thunder-and-lightning combo.
The Hawkeyes made another Orange Bowl run in 2009, behind the rushing of Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher.
But many opponents have come to expect a straight-ahead approach.
“I kind of think of Iowa and Michigan State as the same, because they’re both power-running teams,” Indiana linebacker David Cooper said. “When I think of Iowa running backs, I think of Weisman.”
Weisman was the Hawkeyes’ leading rusher last season, with 974 yards on 226 carries, but he was slowed by injuries.
“I think being fresh is more important than change of pace,” Weisman said. “I think it definitely can have a momentum swing out there, but just being fresh and being healthy is the most important thing at the running back position.”
And being predictable, no matter how punishing, allows defenses to get into a rhythm.
“Every defender would like to go against somebody who just pounds it all the time,” Cooper said, “and not want to run around, do a little scat.”
So, what’s the verdict? Will mixing things up help the Hawkeyes move closer to the Big Ten’s West Division title?
“I used to over-analyze a lot of things,” Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis said. “Now, I’m just trying to be simple.
“Whoever has the ball, tackle him.”