IOWA CITY - One of the tried and true statements coaches like to make during spring practice is that their teams aren't ready to play a real game quite yet.
If the University of Iowa football team had to play a real game next week, it probably wouldn't be ready to run the ball much.
The Hawkeyes, long known for their punishing running attack, will wrap up spring ball next week with serious questions to answer about their running back situation.
Iowa running back Damon Bullock (32) loses his helmet after getting hit by defensive back Nico Law, right, and James Morris, center, during Iowa’s annual college football spring scrimmage on Saturday in Iowa City.
Iowa will be down to a pair of unproven sophomores, Damon Bullock and De'Andre Johnson, and two true freshmen come August.
"They've really improved every day, basically, and that's the good news," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday following an open practice at Kinnick Stadium.
But the Hawkeyes have had plenty of bad news lately regarding running backs.
Iowa always seemed to find success plugging in the next guy on the depth chart despite a streak of awful luck with lead backs over the past few years. But the departures of star Marcus Coker, who was suspended for the Insight Bowl in December for unspecified misconduct and later left the football program, and promising freshman Mika'il McCall left Iowa thin at tailback.
It only got worse this spring.
Sophomore Jordan Canzeri, an undersized but speedy back that Ferentz more than once compared to New England Patriots sparkplug Danny Woodhead, tore the ACL in his knee and won't be medically cleared until at least September.
Canzeri figured to be the starter after leapfrogging Bullock and Johnson for the job in Iowa's loss to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl. But that spot will now likely go to Bullock, Johnson or newcomers Greg Garmon or Barkley Hill - both of whom have yet to graduate from high school.
Bullock, who won't turn 19 for another two weeks, came to Iowa as a running back but was shifted to receiver as a freshman. He's been moved back after catching six balls for 28 yards, and on Saturday he drew perhaps the loudest cheers in Kinnick with a long touchdown run.
Johnson, a 5-foot-8 redshirt sophomore from Miami, rushed for 79 yards on 18 carries in mop-up duty a year ago.
"We lost (Canzeri) a while ago and it seems like the guys even picked up the pace a little bit more," Ferentz said. "(Saturday) they made some errors, especially (Bullock). But that's what you're out here for, and hopefully we'll get those out of our system during this period and then also during August."
If they don't, expect Garmon or Hill to see serious playing time.
Garmon is 6-2 and 200 pounds, and he chose the Hawkeyes over Miami and Arkansas. He was a two-time all-state pick for McDowell High in Erie, Pa., and could, at the very least, be in consideration for return duties.
Hill, from nearby Cedar Falls, was committed to Iowa State before making a late switch to Iowa, perhaps in part because of the opportunity for early playing time. At 6-0 and roughly 215 pounds, Hill should have the size needed to run between the tackles.
"I think with both Barkley and Greg, we're going to encourage them to try to get ready and do the best they can over the course of the summer and we'll evaluate them in August," Ferentz said.
If there's a silver lining to Iowa's woes at running back, it's that the Hawkeyes have never been as open to changing their way of thinking as they have been this spring.
New offensive coordinator Greg Davis has replaced Ken O'Keefe, who spent 13 years running essentially the same pro-style attack with inconsistent results. Davis came to Iowa City equipped with new ideas for the Hawkeyes, whether it's more no-huddle offense, moving around tight ends or switching up the tempo to confuse defenses.
Davis's game plans might be more flexible as far as compensating for a dearth of quality running backs is concerned.
That being said, the Hawkeyes could still use someone ready to step in and take over as the starter.
"They've had a lot put on their plates. They've gotten a lot of reps and they've really grown a lot this spring," quarterback James Vandenberg said of Bullock and Johnson, who weren't made available to reporters. "There's a still a lot of things they can clean up, just being able to think fast, certain protections and routes and they're not always on the same page as everybody. But they're young and they're going really hard, and that's all we can ask for right now."