October 09. 2008 11:41PM
Guts, not glory
By Marc Morehouse
(Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Pittsburgh defense crushes Iowa’s Wade Leppert (47) in the fourth quarter of the Hawkeyes’ 20-21 loss to the Panthers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Sept. 20.
IOWA CITY — The numbers are in. Jeremy Allen is the king of Iowa fullbacks.
He is if you’re looking for the flashy offensive numbers. During his two years at the position, Allen put up stats no other Iowa fullback has touched during coach Kirk Ferentz’s nine-plus seasons.
Allen made the fullback position a legitimate threat in 2001, rushing for 247 yards and four touchdowns and catching 20 passes for 264 yards and another four TDs. Iowa used Allen, who went to Iowa as a shot putter, in a lot of one-back sets, where he could block ably or jump out into the flat.
His numbers stand a head above Iowa’s fullbacks before and since 2001. But Ferentz isn’t just looking for numbers.
“(Allen) was a phenomenal athlete,” Ferentz said. “He wasn’t nearly as strong a blocker as the guys (Iowa has gone with since). There’s some give and take.”
The give has been Iowa hasn’t gotten numbers, rushing or receiving, from fullback.
During his four years as starter (2004-07), Tom Busch’s best season rushing the ball was 32 yards. His best season as a receiver was 2006, when he caught eight for 55 yards and three TDs.
This year, the position has been split between sophomore Brett Morse and freshman Wade Leppert. They’ve combined for six catches for 38 yards. They have no carries.
“In a perfect world, you’d like to use them a bit in the passing game, but in our offense, more times than not, they’re blocking,” Ferentz said. “That’s the way it is.”
They have no carries and they don’t expect any.
“Very, very rarely,” Morse said. “It’s kind of a trick play for us.”
If the give is lack of stats, the take is blocking.
Iowa’s offense tasks its fullbacks to lead running back Shonn Greene into the hole, take on linebackers, clear the way. Ferentz said he would happily take another Jeremy Allen, but Iowa’s fullbacks have done what they’ve been asked to do. If you want to attach a number to this, maybe it’s Greene’s 137.0 yards a game, second in the Big Ten.
“Not really,” Ferentz said when asked if he’d like more flexibility. “I’m comfortable. We’ve had some good offenses. Edgar (Cervantes) wasn’t real big in terms of touching the ball. We’re not a vintage West Coast team in that regard.”
Cervantes (2000-03) was the last fullback Iowa coaches even thought of as a weapon. In his two seasons as starter, he rushed 55 times for 262 yards and two TDs. In 2003, he caught 17 passes for 137 yards.
“I think … they all realized it’s a great opportunity for them and they could really add something to our football team,” Ferentz said.
With spread offenses sweeping the nation’s high schools, pure fullbacks are almost non-existent. Allen arrived, basically, from Big Ten shot put rings. He was a one-of-a-kind freak athlete. Cervantes, Busch and Morse arrived as linebackers.
Coaches told Morse fullback would be his ticket to the field. That made it was an easy sell.
“(Coaches) said, we’re bringing in some good linebackers, we think you’ll be able to help the team faster here,” said Morse, who, as quarterback for Hinsdale (Ill.) Central, holds the Illinois High School Association record with a 98-yard TD pass in a playoff game. “It’s a great opportunity and I kind of went with it.”
Morse was a lifelong quarterback before going to Iowa. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder has learned the art of the lead block from scratch.
“Everything I’ve done here has pretty much been different for me,” Morse said. “But it’s been a blast.”
According to Ferentz, Leppert is doing exactly what he wants to do.
Not long before last season started, Leppert, a 6-0, 235-pounder from Mundelein (Ill.) High School, was a total outsider. As a four-year starter at linebacker and fullback in high school, Leppert was a pure fullback. He wrote letters to Ferentz and the Iowa staff, basically begging for a shot.
“I asked (running backs coach) Lester (Erb), who is this guy and why is he bothering us?” Ferentz said. Then, in two December practices last fall, Leppert opened eyes.
“That’s when I asked, OK, who’s this Leppert guy again? Where did he come from?” Ferentz said. “(Fullback) is what he’s built for, it’s what he wanted to do.”
It’s not as if they go in thinking it’s going to be something it’s not. Iowa’s fullback has carried the ball three times in the last three seasons. This is no bait and switch. This is a thankless job and they always seem to find someone to do it.
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Iowa’s Tom Busch runs into the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter against Western Michigan at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, November 17, 2007. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)