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Running on mystery backs

By Marc Morehouse, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa –

Dec. 24–SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If there was a grieving process for suspended running back Marcus Coker, it appears to be over.

Iowa’s schedule for the Insight Bowl was in full throttle at Friday’s practice at Chaparral High School. Every running back ended up sweaty during a speedy practice. And that’s because every running back will be called upon to replace Coker’s 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns against No. 19 Oklahoma (9-3).

From true freshman Jordan Canzeri to senior walk-on Jason White, the starter won’t matter. Everyone will be used, including fullback Brad Rogers who used to be a running back.
First, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had no update on Coker, who was suspended Tuesday for an unspecified violation of the UI Student-Athlete Code of Conduct.

“You can ask it a thousand different ways and I’ll give you the same answer,” Ferentz said after practice. “We made a statement, violation of the code of conduct and that’s where it’s at.

“His situation, the coaching situation, we’ll turn our sights on that in January.”

The answers from quarterback James Vandenberg and wide receiver Marvin McNutt weren’t much different.

“It’s a great opportunity for the other guys,” Vandenberg said. “We have full confidence for the guys who are going to step in. They’ve been working their butts off everyday, learning as much as they can, getting their timing down. Everyone is looking forward to seeing them in action.”

Said McNutt, “You have to treat it like an injury and move on.”

White has been listed as the No. 2 running back all season. He never really was the No. 2, but he did replace Coker when Iowa went with an empty backfield and five wide receivers. Canzeri was slowed by a hamstring injury late in the season and was seldom used when healthy.

Redshirt freshman D’Andre Johnson is the No. 2 rusher for the Hawkeyes, which isn’t saying a lot, but he wore a red jersey and stayed out of contact in practice Friday. True freshman Damon Bullock is in the mix. Fullback Brad Rogers used to be a running back and remembers the plays, Ferentz said.

Rogers is the biggest of these backs weighing in at around 225 pounds, but he doesn’t have Coker’s skill set. The rest of the field fits into the smaller-back category, which could change the tempo of Iowa’s offense.

“We consider that every week, if it fits or not,” Ferentz said. “It’s not out of the question [a faster pace], but we’ll see how the game goes, too.”

Vandenberg pointed to maintaining balance instead of backing into a no-huddle situation, which worked against Pitt but didn’t against Penn State.

“You can’t just pass it against this defense,” he said. “You’ve got to have a little of both. If this defense can key on one thing, have fun trying to do it because it won’t be fun.”

Ferentz talked about some of the mystery running backs after practice. (“Mystery” refers to the lack of carries after Coker. Canzeri, Bullock, Rogers, Johnson and White have a total of 39 carries going into the Insight Bowl.)

Asked if Canzeri could be used in a similar way the New Orleans Saints use smallish running back Darren Sproles, Ferentz pointed to the way Oregon State used smallish running back Jacquizz Rodgers.

“It’s not impossible that a smaller guy could play well,” Ferentz said. “We were enthused with what we saw Jordan do three months ago. Now, it’s his turn.”

Bullock fell off the face of the offense after a fumble in week four against Louisiana-Monroe. He hasn’t had a touch since and was moved back to wide receiver where he started the season. Now, the 6-foot, 195-pounder is back to running back and it’s likely where he stays.

“I really think he’s best suited for running back,” Ferentz said. “We were toying around with the other, but I think that’s where he’s best suited for the long run. We’ll see where it goes.”

Rogers did play running back, in case you don’t remember. He switched in with Coker against Ball State last season. Soon thereafter, Rogers, who missed the first four games of the season after a cardiac complication, was a fullback.

“He remembers the plays,” Ferentz joked. “Fortunately, our plays aren’t that complex, so it makes it a lot easier.”

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