IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Last summer, even the biggest Iowa fans barely knew who Mark Weisman was.
The walk-on fullback, who grew up in Buffalo Grove and graduated from Stevenson in 2010, is now one of the most important parts of Iowa's offense, and his health will be crucial for the Hawkeyes in 2013. Weisman unexpectedly emerged as one of the top running backs in the Big Ten a year ago before nagging injuries limited his effectiveness.
Iowa was at its best last season when Weisman was on the field, and the Hawkeyes are counting on him being available all season.
They're also hoping that all the extra bodies at running back with Weisman will help. They include Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri -- who's back after missing 2012 with an ACL tear -- and youngsters Barkley Hill and Michael Malloy.
"As far as I know his health is great. He was fine in the spring," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday of Weisman. "One thing we can do to help him and Bullock and help everybody is just to have a little bit more depth where those guys don't have to shoulder the whole load."
Iowa has had bad luck with running backs in recent years. With Weisman, the Hawkeyes finally got lucky.
The Chicago-area native -- who proudly sported a Blackhawks shirt on Tuesday, a day after the team won the Stanley Cup -- transferred to Iowa after never playing a down at Air Force. He redshirted in 2011 and hardly figured in Iowa's plans as a sophomore in 2012. But as back after back became unavailable for various reasons, Weisman was forced into action.
It was quickly apparent that he was just what he Hawkeyes sputtering offense needed.
Weisman scored three touchdowns in his first real action at running back, helping Iowa survive against Northern Iowa. He got his first start at tailback against Central Michigan and was nearly unstoppable, rushing for 217 yards and three more TDs.
Weisman followed up with 293 yards in his first two Big Ten games, but he injured his right ankle in a win at Michigan State in October. He wasn't able to carry the offense much after that, missing close losses to Indiana and Purdue, and failing to gain 100 yards in a game the rest of the season.
Weisman's injury issues were just one of a litany of problems that caused Iowa to finish with six straight losses and a 4-8 record.
"When Mark had to go, he was basically the only guy we had back there. Hopefully we'll have a little bit more balance this year," Ferentz said.
Weisman, who said Tuesday that he's "feeling great," hasn't changed much about his workout routines to accommodate his switch from fullback to full-time tailback.
The 6-foot, 236-pound Weisman is working more with the skill position players while incorporating extra drills for cutting and flexibility. But for the most part, Weisman is preparing for 2013 just like he did when few outside of the Iowa football complex knew who he was.
"I don't think it impacts it at all. You're just trying to get stronger, faster, more durable and just more flexible," Weisman said. "You're just trying to work as hard as you can and just get better as fast as possible."
Of course, added depth means more competition for carries.
Weisman and Bullock are expected to start the season as the featured ball carriers. But Canzeri looked very strong in spring ball, and certainly the Hawkeyes know as well as anyone that things can change very quickly at running back.
Weisman insists that he won't change the approach that helped him blossom from backup to star last season.
"You've just got to have that walk-on mentality no matter what out there," Weisman said. "Just working like someone's trying to outwork you because everyone is trying to outwork you."