IOWA CITY — Hawkeye running back Mark Weisman donned the clothes of sports royalty on Tuesday.
The Chicago-area native wore a Blackhawks T-shirt — presumably in honor of the newly minted Stanley Cup winners — and Michael Jordan’s “23” gym shorts.
But the 6-foot, 236-pound junior — a lone positive last year in Iowa’s slumbering offense — used in interviews that one sentence universally accepted as the key to breaking a team’s prolonged slump.
“We’ve just got to be more consistent,” he said inside Iowa’s indoor practice facility. “That was the big thing — more consistency. Every game, we’d show signs of playing great and then we’d show signs of three-and-out, three-and-out. We can’t be doing that. You’ve got to get those first downs no matter what.”
With a 4-8 season that included a six-game losing streak to end the year, the Hawkeyes certainly struggled to get first downs under new offensive coordinator Greg Davis. They finished 108th nationally in that category, 111th in scoring offense and 114th in total offense. The visual anecdotes — short hitch passes on third-and-long, a running game stuck almost exclusively between the tackles — told the story almost as well as the stats.
And Iowa foundered this way with a fifth-year senior and two-year starter at quarterback in James Vandenberg, who took every snap.
“Last year was disappointing; there’s no other way to go about that,” senior right tackle Brett Van Sloten said. “We don’t like that. We never reached our maximum potential or played our best.”
In 2013, three signal-callers who’ve never thrown a pass at the FBS level — junior-college redshirt Cody Sokol, sophomore Jake Rudock and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard — will battle to decide who gets to run Iowa’s offense in a stingy season-opener against Northern Illinois. The Hawkeyes’ attack doesn’t have much room to get worse — there are only 124 teams in FBS — but how much better will it be?
Coach Kirk Ferentz expects it will improve. Iowa will indeed be healthier at running back, where the Hawkeyes lost so many last year to injury and disciplinary issues that Weisman, buried on the depth chart, got his chance to shine, rushing for 815 yards. Effective as he was, he still missed three games with an ankle injury. Along with Weisman, Damon Bullock, Barkley Hill, Sioux City Heelan grad Michael Malloy and three incoming freshmen should be available.
“Injuries are tough,” Weisman said. “You can’t avoid them sometimes. You have to work to get more durable.”
Said Ferentz: “Hopefully we’ll have a little more balance this year.”
Iowa also returns two offensive linemen — guard Brandon Scherff and tackle Andrew Donnal — who both got injured in Iowa’s 38-14 loss to Penn State and missed the final five games of the season.
“That was kind of a devastating blow,” Van Sloten said.
Said Ferentz: “We had some injuries here and there — what are you going to do? And we were inexperienced going into the season — what are you going to do? But there were a lot of things on film if you look at, that we were capable of doing better. And that’s what we have to focus on. If we do that, we won’t have to worry about what the experts say.”
The experts might say Iowa’s in need of more big plays. The biggest last year with a 51-yard catch from junior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. Nebraska, by comparison, had 11 plays of 50-plus yards in 2012.
Ferentz said “time will tell” as to which players emerge as more explosive options. But he and several players all pointed to sophomore wide receiver Tevaun Smith as a player who “flashed” in spring workouts and has the potential for more in 2013. Smith played sparingly in 2012, catching three passes for 31 yards. Sophomore Jacob Hillyer, who caught 2,897 yards worth of passes during high school in San Antonio, is another.
“That whole position — we need someone to emerge,” Ferentz said.
Good play at quarterback won’t hurt. Vandenberg regressed as a senior in Davis’ system. Iowa was supposed to play faster and attack more with Davis, who previously coordinated at Texas. At least for one year, the Hawkeyes did less. After Iowa bottomed out with 200 total yards in a freezing loss to Nebraska, Ferentz didn’t hesitate to bring Davis back for another season.
Weisman has no problem with that. He said the Iowa offensive coaches have “great plans.”
And he expects the quarterback derby to work out, too. Would it be better if Iowa settled quickly in fall camp on a signal-caller, Weisman is asked, so the offense can develop consistency for the season?
“All three guys are good quarterbacks,” Weisman said. “It’s going to be a battle. We’re just going to do what the coaches tell us.”