Leistikow: Despite James Butler transfer, Akrum Wadley remains centerpiece of Iowa offense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — When Iowa’s football team ran the regular-season table in 2015, it did so without a bell-cow running back.
The leading rusher and elder statesman in that by-committee approach, Jordan Canzeri, even coined a witty moniker during that road to 12-0.
“You remember the Four Deadly Horsemen?” the new veteran in Iowa’s backfield, fifth-year senior Akrum Wadley, said this week.
Most Hawkeye fans do.
Canzeri (a stirring 256-yard performance vs. Illinois that year), Wadley (204 and four touchdowns vs. Northwestern), LeShun Daniels Jr. (195 vs. Minnesota) and Derrick Mitchell Jr. (a trusty third-down back) teamed up to keep Iowa’s offense consistent and fresh through injuries.
The “Four Deadly Horsemen” concept was rekindled in Wadley’s mind upon hearing the recent news that that preseason all-Mountain West Conference running back James Butler would graduate-transfer from Nevada to Iowa for his senior season.
“The more the merrier,” the affable Wadley said. “If it’s good for the team, it’s good for me. We all talk about it. We can’t wait.”
Butler hasn’t arrived in Iowa City yet, but he will soon. He was a 1,300-yard rusher in each of the past two seasons and was the Wolf Pack’s 2016 team MVP.
Add him to a mix of young up-and-comers Toren Young (a spring-game star) and Toks Akinribade (who got 16 carries as a true freshman), and there are plenty of capable ball carriers for the Hawkeyes to deploy behind an experienced, award-winning offensive line.
But how will new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz use them all?
More specifically, how should he use them?
As long as he stays healthy, Wadley still should be at the heart of any rotation.
Concerns about his often-mentioned-by-Kirk-Ferentz weight struggles aren’t totally put to bed, but they’re waning. Wadley reports he’s up to “191, 192” pounds — just shy of Iowa’s desired weight of 195 for his 5-foot-11 frame.
“You won’t imagine how many times I step on the scale a day,” Wadley said. “After every meal. I’ve got a scale right in my room.
“I feel like I got it, as long as I keep drinking (protein) shakes.”
Cue up Iowa’s Nov. 12 upset of Michigan, as I did this week on DVR, and you’ll be reminded of the unique talent Wadley possesses.
His vision, ability to create a hole with one or two jukes and speed are special, something that Iowa arguably hasn’t had in one package since in the 1980s with Ronnie Harmon.
In the aforementioned Michigan game, Wadley proved he could be a workhorse: a career-high 28 touches (23 carries, five receptions) for 167 of Iowa’s 230 yards from scrimmage.
Hawkeye coaches correctly theorize that Wadley can shoulder more weekly punishment with added muscle. With his weight more in the 185-190 range last year, Wadley still racked up 1,396 yards from scrimmage with a team-best 13 touchdowns.
Those totals came on 204 touches. Imagine what he could do with 250 or 300.
“If we would like to get the ball to Akrum more often, then you know what?” Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle said during this week’s Hawk Central radio show. “The stronger he is, the more durable he is, the better chance he has of continuing to carry that load.”
Coaches also believe multiple backs can maximize productivity.
A year ago, Wadley and Daniels became the first Iowa tandem to each rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
That’s why it’s undoubtedly a good thing that Butler, who brings an reputation of elusiveness along with his sturdy 5-9, 210-pound frame, is poised to become one of the 2017 “Horsemen.”
“A year ago, I think the best thing in the world for LeShun Daniels was Akrum Wadley,” Doyle said, “and the best thing for Akrum Wadley was LeShun Daniels.”
Young (5-11, 220) looks like the closest power-back resemblance to Daniels. And coaches remain high on Akinribade (6-0, 208). That doesn't begin to count incoming freshmen Kyshaun Bryan (5-10, 210) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-11, 195).
As Wadley put it, there’s trust among the growing stable of backs that Brian Ferentz and the revamped offensive staff will “find a way to get us the opportunity."
Given Iowa’s uncertainty at quarterback, a common thought process has become: Why couldn’t the Hawkeyes run the ball on nearly every down? Fans know that run blocking the past two years from Iowa’s O-line has been terrific; pass blocking hasn’t.
That’s a good idea, except we saw what happened in the recent Outback Bowl.
Florida wasn’t worried about Iowa’s receiver-starved passing game, and it showed in a stifling, 30-3 rout.
The key for Iowa is to develop the threat of a passing game — much like how reigning similarly built rival Wisconsin operates. It averaged 47 runs and 23 passes a game last season on its way to the Big Ten West title.
If Brian Ferentz can find that aura with either Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers at the helm, this offense could be fun.
Especially with Wadley as the backfield centerpiece.
“Whatever is thrown at me,” Wadley said, “I can take.”
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.