NCF Nation: Brian Calhoun
Last Saturday, he carried the ball 35 times in Iowa's 27-21 win against Iowa State. According to the school, only five Hawkeyes ball-carriers have heard their number called more often in a game. Weisman's workload came a week after he logged 30 carries, then a career high, in a win against Missouri State.
Just three games into the season, Weisman has 85 carries, 10 more than any other FBS player (Boston College's Andre Williams has 75) and 21 more than any Big Ten back (Ohio State's Jordan Hall has 64). If Weisman continues this pace, he'll finish the regular season with 340 carries, which would break Sedrick Shaw's team record of 316, set in 1995.
Take that, AIRBHG!
"John McKay's quote comes to mind, 'The ball's not that heavy,'" Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, referring to the former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach.
Weisman's workload might be unique in most leagues, but not the Big Ten. A Big Ten back -- Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell -- led the nation in carries last season with 382, and another, Wisconsin's Montee Ball, was third with 356. Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead both ranked in the top 10 nationally in carries in 2011.
The Big Ten has had at least one player rank in the top 10 in carries in eight of the past nine seasons. Michigan State's Javon Ringer led the nation with 390 totes in 2008, and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun topped the chart with 348 in 2005.
The league's continued emphasis on the run game and power football contributes to the trend. You see more big, burly ball-carriers in the Big Ten than other leagues.
Bell, who played last season at about 240 pounds, certainly fits the description. The 6-foot, 236-pound Weisman came to Iowa as a fullback and has the frame to take a pounding.
"It takes a special guy to run the ball 390 times, like Le'Veon did," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can do it game to game 25 times, but that guy's got to get hot. They're plenty durable enough to do that."
Ferentz has had several bell-cow backs at Iowa, including Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, who ranked fifth nationally with 307 carries in 2008.
"It's not easy for anybody who's playing a lot of plays," Ferentz said. "They've really got to take care of themselves and they've got to be mentally tough, too, because anybody who's playing college football, most of them are sore by now."
Ferentz credits Weisman for staying in "phenomenal shape," but he also doesn't want to overwork the junior.
"It's really important that we utilize the whole group and really bring them along," Ferentz said, "so Mark can be at his best the whole season."
The league's best running back played quarterback (Michigan's Denard Robinson). Illinois' Mikel Leshoure flew under the radar but was a nationally elite back in every sense of the word.
But after those two, meh. The league boasted some solid backs -- Edwin Baker, James White, Dan Herron, Adam Robinson, John Clay -- but no one you had to watch every time he took the field. The Big Ten's real star power could be found on the defensive line, as five players went on to become first round picks in the NFL draft.
This season, it's all about the running backs in the Big Ten. The league boasts four players averaging more than 105 rush yards per game, all of whom rank among the nation's top 21 rushers. No other league has more backs in the top 25 nationally than the Big Ten.
So who's the Big Ten's best running back in 2011? It's already one of the more spirited debates around the conference.
Let's meet the candidates (in alphabetical order):
- Wisconsin junior Montee Ball
- Nebraska junior Rex Burkhead
- Iowa sophomore Marcus Coker
- Penn State sophomore Silas Redd
Now let's take a closer look at each player and how they stack up.
Vitals: 5-11, 210, junior from Wentzville, Mo.
2011 stats: 162 carries for 1,076 yards and 21 touchdowns, 119.6 ypg, 6.64 ypc, 13 receptions for 229 yards and 3 touchdowns, 1-for-1 passing with a 25-yard touchdown
Supporting cast: Ball has the best supporting cast of the four candidates. He runs behind one of the nation's best offensive lines, a group led by NFL prospect Peter Konz. His quarterback, Russell Wilson, is a Heisman Trophy candidate and has brought a new element to Wisconsin's offense. His backup, James White, is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
The quote: "He's definitely our best practice player. Nobody has practice that hard at that position since I've been here." -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema
Quick case for Ball: "Moneyball" is a touchdown-scoring machine and has been absolutely unstoppable for most of the season. Few backs in the country have been more effective than Ball since the middle of last season. He doesn't put the ball on the ground and consistently moves it forward and into the end zone. He didn't rest on his laurels in the offseason and got better physically.
Quick case against Ball: Wisconsin's track record of running the ball probably works against Ball with the other candidates. The Badgers always have a dominant back (or three) and terrific offensive lines. Wilson's presence also has opened things up for Ball in the run game.
Vitals: 5-11, 210, junior from Plano, Texas
2011 stats: 187 carries for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns, 105.7 ypg, 5.1 ypc, 14 receptions for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns
Supporting cast: Burkhead shares a backfield with another rushing threat in quarterback Taylor Martinez, who has 712 rush yards and nine touchdowns this season. While Martinez demands the attention of opposing defenses, he also takes away some carries and scoring opportunities for Burkhead. Nebraska's offensive line entered the season banged-up and extremely young, but the group has come together nicely. The Huskers' passing attack ranks 101st nationally, and Martinez and his receivers have had their ups and downs. After Burkhead and Martinez, no other Nebraska player has more than 25 carries.
The quote: "He might not be the flashiest guy in the world. I wouldn't trade him for anybody. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and how he plays the game." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
Quick case for Burkhead: He's one of the more reliable players in the country and an absolute joy to watch. He doesn't mess around with excessive moves and blends speed and power extremely well. Unlike Ball and Coker, he doesn't operate in an offense with a strong passing threat, and he's produced against some solid defenses.
Quick case against Burkhead: His numbers don't pop off the page like some of the other candidates'. Burkhead's most impressive performance (against MSU) was more of a workmanlike effort (35 carries, 3.7 ypc) than one that wows you. He doesn't have many long runs in Big Ten play (longest is 22 yards).
Vitals: 6-0, 230, sophomore from Beltsville, Md.
2011 stats: 211 carries for 1,101 yards and 12 touchdowns, 122.3 ypg, 5.2 ypc, 15 receptions for 94 yards
Supporting cast: Coker runs behind one of the better Big Ten offensive lines, led by NFL draft prospect Riley Reiff at left tackle. Iowa isn't quite as powerful up front as Wisconsin but boasts a better line than both Penn State and Nebraska. Quarterback James Vandenberg has had a very strong season passing the ball, and defenses must respect Iowa's aerial attack and receiving corps, led by star senior Marvin McNutt. Coker has been Iowa's bell cow, as no other Hawkeyes running back has logged more than 18 carries.
The quote: "Marcus is the type of back that makes your offensive line want to block for him. So we definitely love him, and we love blocking for him, and we don't want anyone else back there." -- Iowa center James Ferentz, to The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette
The case for Coker: He leads the Big Ten in rushing and has improved as the season has progressed. He boasts arguably the best combination of power and big-play potential among the candidates, recording six runs of 25 yards or more and three of 41 yards or more. While some of the other candidates are solid, reliable runners, Coker has the rare ability to simply dominate a game.
The case against Coker: He struggled with fumbles at the start of the year and hurt Iowa in its Week 2 loss to Iowa State. He benefits from Iowa's lack of depth at running back and gets more carries than other candidates. He averaged a pedestrian 4.3 yards per rush through Iowa's first five games. He feasted on mostly average defenses.
Vitals: 5-10, 209, sophomore from Norwalk, Conn.
2011 stats: 195 carries for 1,006 yards and 7 touchdowns, 111.8 ypg, 5.2 ypc, eight receptions for 31 yards
Things to know: Redd recorded five consecutive 100-yard games and led all FBS players with 703 rushing yards in October. He averaged 140.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry during the month. He's the first Penn State player to record five consecutive 100-yard games since former All-American Curtis Enis in 1997. ... He already has eclipsed 1,000 rush yards for the season, becoming the 12th Penn State player to do so. ... He already has 118 carries more than he had all of last season and has racked up 28 or more carries in four of Penn State's five Big Ten games. ... He has lost just 19 yards on 195 carries. ... Redd worked on his body during the offseason and added 10-15 pounds to help with an increased workload. He also changed his running style, becoming a more straight-ahead, downhill power back.
Supporting cast: Redd has the weakest supporting cast of the candidates, underscoring how impressive his performance has been this season. Penn State has rotated two quarterbacks all season and had very limited success in the passing game, so the offense relies heavily on Redd to produce. The offensive line is performing better in recent weeks but hasn't been as strong as Wisconsin's and Iowa's, and even Nebraska's. Redd has gotten a bit of help from fellow backs Beachum and Curtis Dukes, but Dukes is second on Penn State's carries list with only 35.
The quote: "He can hurt you with his speed and his elusiveness outside, and he can run between the tackles. He's a pretty complete back." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
The case for Redd: He has been an absolute workhorse for a struggling Penn State offense and transformed himself into a complete back in just his sophomore season. Redd had the most impressive month of any candidate (October), and he did it all against Big Ten competition. He has the weakest supporting cast and, along with Coker, he's clearly his team's main ball-carrier.
The case against Redd: The main knock on Redd is he doesn't score enough touchdowns. He has 14 fewer rush touchdowns than Ball, six fewer than Burkhead and five fewer than Coker. Redd also has had some fumbling issues that have ended promising Penn State drives.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
For better or for worse, Bret Bielema became a college football coach last season. He faced his first real bout with adversity and criticism, guided Wisconsin back to a bowl game and finished on a sour note against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
|David Stluka/Getty Images|
|Things didn't go as planned for Bret Bielema and the Badgers in 2008.|
After a charmed 17-1 start at Wisconsin, Bielema has gone just 11-10 since and comes off a very disappointing campaign last fall. He has earned his own fire-me Web site, a rite of passage for coaches these days, and needs to show progress in Year 4. The 39-year-old made several key offseason changes in hopes of getting Wisconsin back on track.
I caught up with Bielema while the coach was driving back from a brief vacation in Wisconsin Dells. Here are his thoughts on 2008, his outlook for spring ball and the 2009 season.
Is this an exciting time for you, especially after the way things ended last fall?
Bret Bielema: It is. You keep saying to yourself all the time during the fall that you always have next week, you get another game to go out and prove, another opportunity. But when you end the bowl game in a way that doesn't sit well with you, as coaches you can't wait to get back out in spring ball. I really have enjoyed the players. I sat down with all of them, 98 guys went through my office. There have been some changes in the weight room and the strength and conditioning department, and those guys are all very eager to see the rewards.
Ever since I've been here, we've always had spring ball before and after spring break. But as I've witnessed as a coach, you get your biggest gains during the summer. So we tried to create two summers. When we got back from winter break, we gave our guys a seven-week window, just like we do during the summer. We started off with very little running. We emphasized more on strength and speed and size. And that period took us up all the way until last Friday.
And did you make those changes because the strength and speed last year wasn't up to your standards?
BB: More than anything, after the season we took a look at where we were. All the guys in my staff room have worked in all different parts of the country, and they all had a preconceived notion about Wisconsin before they came here and started working. I said, 'What is it? What made Wisconsin tick?' And they always said, 'Physical, tough, a mental toughness, do things right, do things harder than the other guy.' We just want to get back to those core basics of Wisconsin football.
Did you guys get away from some of those fundamental values last year, and can you pinpoint why?
BB: It wasn't so much getting away from the fundamentals. The things that were getting us, any time we had a penalty before the snap, offense or defense, it wouldn't put ourselves in a positive light. We've always prided ourselves at Wisconsin on doing things right consistently, and a lot of that gets down to self discipline and mental toughness. That's really what we tried to emphasize during these winter conditioning months.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 20 Duke 7 1 Florida State 45 Final 2 Ohio State 24 10 Michigan State 34 Final 5 Missouri 42 3 Auburn 59 Final 17 Oklahoma 33 6 Oklahoma State 24 Final 7 Stanford 38 11 Arizona State 14 Final 25 Texas 10 9 Baylor 30 Final 16 UCF 17 Southern Methodist 13 Final Utah State 17 23 Fresno State 24