Leistikow: Smiling LeShun Daniels an easy Hawkeye to pull for

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — LeShun Daniels Jr. might be the easiest Hawkeye to root for in 2016.

Not only does the running back from Warren, Ohio, have immense talent and potential, he does everything right — in the weight room, at the dinner table, in the locker room.

He donates his time for important children’s causes like Camp Courageous and the Dance Marathon. He visits ailing kids in hospitals. He donates blood.

And then there’s this to like about him.

“He’s always smiling,” senior cornerback Greg Mabin says. “I don’t know why. I’ve never met anyone as happy as him.”

Senior quarterback C.J. Beathard adds, “Even when someone makes fun of him, he’s still laughing. I’ve never seen him really pissed off.”

You couldn't fault Daniels if he felt bitter or even angry by now.

Iowa running back LeShun Daniels Jr. entertains a Carver-Hawkeye Arena basketball crowd on Feb. 3 with teammates and dance-team members.

As personal accomplishment goes in his first three football seasons at Iowa, he’s arguably batting .000. A hard worker down to his last collegiate chance.

“I’ve just got to take it one step at a time and take in every moment,” Daniels says, “because obviously it’s going fast.”

Iowa coaches have always seen big things from Daniels, so much so they played him as a true freshman in 2013. Daniels earned a little seasoning — 36 carries, though the majority came against FCS Missouri State and in a 59-3 win over Western Michigan.

He scored Iowa’s first touchdown of 2014, but ankle and foot injuries limited his season to 15 carries for 49 yards.

Healthy again in Year 3, he was supposed to be Iowa’s main man. A seemingly harmless 1-yard run into a Week 2 pile against Iowa State caused a high-ankle sprain and began another injury cycle.

“It was just a regular tackle and some guy must’ve landed or grabbed me wrong. And it just kind of gave out on me, really,” Daniels says. “From that point on, it just didn’t really get totally right until (six games later) after the bye week.”

The 6-foot, 225-pound backfield bowling ball with speed showed in 3½ games what he could do — 70 carries, 364 yards, eight touchdowns — until another ankle-injury setback against Purdue.

Of all the luck. He was a shell of himself in Iowa’s most important games. Iowa especially could’ve used a healthier Daniels after Jordan Canzeri got hurt early in the Big Ten Conference title game. Daniels was limited to 17 yards on eight carries in the 16-13 loss to Michigan State.

“I feel bad for him,” running backs coach Chris White says. “Every time he started to really get going, he had a setback.”

Still — shocker — Daniels looks back on 2015 with a smile.

“I thought last year was really fun,” he says. “It was definitely a step up to be able to play a little more and contribute a lot more to the team, to our success.”

Hawkeyes want a running back trio, not quartet

Daniels controls what he eats (overcoming a past weakness for fast food) and is hitting his Chris Doyle-targeted weight of 223 pounds.

He owns Iowa’s all-time bench press record for running backs — 410 pounds, set this offseason. He also owns the team pro-agility drill record — 4.01 seconds in a 20-yard, change-of-direction test.

In other words, he's the complete package.

In April, White said he sees Daniels as wearing opponents down like Shonn Greene once did for Iowa. All Greene did in 2008 was set an Iowa rushing record and win the Doak Walker Award.

Crazy comparison? We won’t know until we see Daniels play 12 healthy games in a row.

“No one trains harder than LeShun. No one takes better care of his body than LeShun, I can tell you that right now,” White says. “I just hope he has a healthy season. And we’ll see how good he is.”

Daniels was selected by teammates to Iowa’s Leadership Group for the second straight year, an indicator that he sets an excellent example.

But it’s time he led them on the field, too.

And frankly, he kind of deserves it.

“I want to do everything I possibly can,” Daniels says, “to make this the best year possible.”

Whatever happens, he's got an impressive outlook about it.

“I’m a happy guy,” Daniels says — smiling, of course. “I don’t really have much to complain about.”

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.