IOWA CITY - Forgive the Iowa football coaching staff for speaking cautiously about the prospect of running backs Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock playing together.
It doesn't seem to take much to jinx Hawkeyes backs.
Iowa had a third consecutive season of rushing issues in 2012, and Weisman and Bullock were forced into extended action amid a mix of injuries and roster turnover. Each subsequently suffered through setbacks of their own as the Hawkeyes stumbled to a 4-8 finish.
But Weisman and Bullock showed they're Big Ten-quality backs when healthy, and Iowa is excited about the idea of pairing the bruising Weisman and the speedy Bullock in the same backfield in 2013.
"You've got to put the best players on the field," first-year Iowa running backs and special teams coach Chris White said. "We're trying to get (Bullock) spread out in space and see if he can play some wide receiver type of deals in formations. And with Mark being the featured running back and vice versa. I think the more we can do from one personnel package and get into multiple formations ... I think it's a great idea."
As strange as it might sound, the running backs were a bit of a positive for the Hawkeyes last season. And both got opportunities because Iowa simply wasn't set at tailback.
Bullock, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior, stepped in after star Marcus Coker transferred and junior Jordan Canzeri blew out his knee. Bullock ran for 150 yards in a season-opening win over Northern Illinois, but a concussion in mid-September limited him for the rest of the season. Bullock finished with 513 yards rushing and caught 18 passes despite playing just six games.
Bullock might be a bit leaner than the Iowa lead backs of recent memory. But his speed and pass-catching ability should provide the Hawkeyes versatility as they try to jumpstart an underperforming offense.
"Damon is a really talented player, and what he's focused on right now is little things. Exchanging the football, getting the ball high and tight, not loose on his body, really being a physical, complete player," White said.
The 235-pound Weisman was about the last player Iowa ever thought could be the featured option in their offense.
But the walk-on former fullback moved steadily up the depth chart after arriving from Air Force. He ran for 661 yards and eight touchdowns in a stunning four-week display from September through mid-October. Ankle and hip injuries kept Weisman sidelined for the bulk of the Big Ten season.
Still, White said he's seen enough tape to believe Weisman can be a star in the Big Ten - and the two are spending the spring working toward that goal.
"I'm trying to make Mark a big-time back, and he's buying in. He's not just a slobber knocker. He's going to knock it full. I want Mark to break arm tackles. I want Mark to really stick his foot in the ground and run through a guy or run around a guy or stiff-arm a guy or break a tackle," White said. "I'm challenging Mark to be a complete back and catching the ball out of the back field. He's perfectly capable of doing that."
It's easy to envision how much of a boost a healthy Bullock-Weisman tandem could give Iowa's offense, especially since the Hawkeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback. The return of Canzeri should also be a positive. The redshirt sophomore appears fully recovered from an ACL tear and should, at the least, give Iowa a playmaker in the return game and depth behind Bullock and Weisman.
The Hawkeyes have always been at their best under coach Kirk Ferentz when they can run the ball at will, allowing them to control the clock, set up high-percentage play-action passes and give their defense the rest it needs.
Of course at Iowa, the phrase "if they can stay healthy" is a constant caveat with the backs.
"They carry themselves in a different light. You know, they're walking around with a little bit more confidence," White said. "We need to stay healthy. We need depth."