IOWA CITY, Iowa – Mark Weisman generated enough buzz in the spring of 2011 that his new teammates at Iowa started to wonder where the walk-on had come from.
Weisman arrived after just one semester at Air Force, a stint that helped him clarify his academic and athletic goals.
"I remember we were all sitting around joking like, 'Why Iowa?' and he goes, 'Well, you're one of the last teams to use a fullback,'" said James Ferentz, Iowa's senior center and the son of coach Kirk Ferentz. "When his time came, he was ready to answer the bell."
Just not as a fullback.
Weisman, now a sophomore, is set to make his first start at tailback on Saturday when the Hawkeyes (2-1) host Central Michigan (1-1) in their final nonconference game of the season. Starting running back Damon Bullock is doubtful for Saturday's game with a head injury, and freshman Greg Garmon could miss the game with an arm injury.
Weisman was forced into extended carries last week against Northern Iowa after Bullock and Garmon went down. He responded with 113 yards rushing and three touchdowns off the bench as the Hawkeyes got past the Panthers 27-16. Though both Bullock and Garmon could be back for the Big Ten opener against Minnesota on Sept. 29, Kirk Ferentz is comfortable with the bruising Weisman as his No. 1 tailback, at least for now.
"Would he be our go-to guy, our predominant back? I don't know. Only time will tell. But I think he certainly showed that he can do some things out there competitively," the coach said. "He brings a different tempo running the football than everyone else. I think there's a place for everything in football, so if it fits in, it fits in."
How Weisman ended up in such a spot is a combination of hard work on his part and unbelievably bad luck on Iowa's.
Weisman was a first-team all-state pick at Stevenson High in suburban Chicago, rushing for 1,657 yards and 22 touchdowns as a fullback who, like he did last week, got the majority of the carries.
Weisman saw himself as more of a traditional fullback in college, and the lure of a secure post-football future and the triple-option rushing attack led him to Air Force. Weisman quickly realized that academy life wasn't for him, and he transferred to Iowa because he figured he'd want to go to school there even if football wasn't an option.
But it was, even if few thought Weisman would see much playing time with junior Brad Rogers ahead of him. The 6-foot, 225-pound Weisman then outperformed Rogers in fall camp and earned the starting fullback job.
It's hardly a spot for glory.
Outside of the occasional dump-off pass or short-yardage run, Iowa fullbacks are trained to clear holes for tailbacks and keep their quarterbacks from getting drilled in passing situations.
Then Iowa literally ran out of healthy, eligible running backs.
Three backs; 2011 starter Marcus Coker, Mika'il McCall and DeAndre Johnson, were gone by fall camp. Two more, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill, were out with significant knee injuries. Freshman Michael Malloy turned up sick earlier in the week and wasn't available.
Bullock was cruising along with 77 yards on his first 13 carries Saturday before his head met an opponent's knee, knocking him out of the game in the second quarter. Asked if Bullock had suffered a concussion, Kirk Ferentz would only say that Bullock took a "pretty good shot."
Garmon went down a few minutes later, and Iowa was forced to turn to Weisman — and it went better than anyone expected.
Weisman, often with two forearms draped over the ball, bullied his way through the heart of the Panthers defense. Weisman didn't bother to put the moves on anybody, instead putting his helmet down and driving it into would-be tacklers.
"I love contact. I choose not to juke, whether it's because I don't have the juke moves or not — but I like contact, too," Weisman said.
It certainly helped that Iowa's offensive line opened some massive holes against the Panthers. But much like Coker, who rushed for 1,384 yards and 15 TDs behind a no-nonsense, downhill style, Weisman kept the chains moving for an Iowa offense that had been terrible in its first two games.
"You never know until a guy gets on the game field and performs," Kirk Ferentz said. "We're hardly out of the woods yet. That was one performance. But it was certainly encouraging."
The Hawkeyes have scored a paltry four touchdowns all season. Three belong to Weisman, whose grinding playing style and humble, unassuming persona have made him a locker room favorite.
"It's funny the difference one player can make," James Ferentz said. "If you get a guy in there who can just get everybody going, maybe that's all it takes."