Leistikow: Next 8 months will dictate Akrum Wadley's future
How many yards Akrum Wadley can pile up for the Iowa football team next fall will largely be determined by what happens this winter, spring and summer.
Now that the dynamic running back has decided to return to the Hawkeyes for his fifth-year senior season, further steps must be taken by Wadley and those on Iowa’s coaching staff.
For Wadley, he needs to attack the offseason ahead as the most important eight months of his life.
The elephant in the Iowa weight room is that Wadley's inconsistent body weight has been a consistent source of frustration for coaches. They argue that if he could get to and maybe past his listed weight of 191 pounds, he would be less likely to fumble and more durable — and, thus, more productive.
Wadley should take a page from his departing backfield running mate and close friend, LeShun Daniels Jr., a 6-foot, 225-pound picture of fitness, weight control and discipline. If Wadley needs encouragement or advice, there’s no doubt Daniels will get back to him.
Those closest to Wadley, 21, know what his mother, Sharonda Phelps, was referring to when she told Hawkeye Nation’s Rob Howe that he needed to mature.
“He still needs that guidance,” she told the website.
Asked in early November how he spent his bye week, Wadley quipped, “Slept a lot. Partied a little.”
A college kid of age having fun? Nothing wrong with that in moderation, but Wadley just has to remember that the “unfinished business” he mentioned in his return statement and possibly his 2018 NFL Draft position depends on a laser focus.
A running back’s professional shelf life is so short as it is; these next eight offseason months are important in getting him ready for that.
Iowa’s coaches, meanwhile, have work to do themselves before the Sept. 2 opener against Wyoming.
The offense that wound up ranking 121st out of 128 FBS teams clearly needs change. What, if anything, is adjusted — coaching staff, philosophy, schemes — has to start with Kirk Ferentz.
Finding a solution to ignite the passing game will help keep opposing defenses on their heels and Wadley from taking a pounding.
Coaches also need to understand this: They’re welcoming back a player whose personality is almost as dynamic as his play-making ability. And they need to nurture, not suffocate, both aspects.
Wadley has moves that Hawkeye football followers haven’t seen from one of their running backs since Ronnie Harmon in the mid-1980s and perhaps Tavian Banks in the mid-1990s.
As long as Wadley does his part in the weight room and other off-the-field areas, the program shouldn’t stifle his personality — as was the perception on a much-wider scale with flamboyant, talented receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos from 2007 to 2010.
Wadley is one of the friendliest, most quotable members of the Hawkeye team.
His honesty is refreshing. It was disappointing that the team’s top scorer and budding 1,000-yard rusher wasn’t made available for media interviews for more than six weeks — from Illinois postgame until after the Outback Bowl — even though several other non-captain juniors (such as Nathan Bazata, Ike Boettger, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann) were.
Maybe it was an honest oversight, maybe part of it was to shield him from the NFL Draft talk. Doesn’t matter now. Going forward, this is a rare talent with an infectious smile that the program should highlight every chance it gets.
I can’t think of two better faces of the 2017 team than the two NFL-ready guys that chose to came back for their senior years: The exciting, flashy Wadley on offense; the tenacious, rugged Josey Jewell on defense.
It’d be good for the program’s image, good for recruiting … and, most importantly, good for Wadley.
So, what to expect in 2017?
Daniels told me in Tampa that Wadley “has the potential to be one of the best running backs to (play) here.”
I think he’s right.
But even though Wadley has a career 6.21 yards-per-carry average, expectations should be set below Shonn Greene’s school-record 1,850 yards in 2008. Greene also took on a school-record 307 carries in that Doak Walker Award-winning season, and it’s doubtful Wadley will assume that kind of workload with talented sophomore-to-be Toks Akinribade getting reps as his backup.
Wadley needs 1,237 yards — roughly 100 a game — to become just the fourth 3,000-yard rusher in Iowa history. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think he could top 1,500 rushing in 2017 and maybe add another 300 to 400 receiving.
Staying healthy is key; that’s never been a sure thing for a Hawkeye running back.
But Wadley has a chance now to limit his injury risk by getting his weight up and showing the coaches he’s maturing in all areas of his life.
And they, in turn, should reciprocate by turning him loose in every way they can.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.