Mitchell seeks a bigger role in crowded Iowa backfield

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It was in the middle of a 45-yard run against North Texas last fall that a realization hit Iowa running back Derrick Mitchell Jr.

“I was a little nervous about whether I could add that muscle and take that pounding week after week,” Mitchell said Saturday at the Hawkeyes’ media day. “After I broke off that big gain, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can play ball. I can do this'.”

Derrick Mitchell Jr. (center) is the least-known of a powerful trio of Iowa tailbacks, but he's hoping to carve out more playing time alongside Akrum Wadley (left) and LeShun Daniels Jr.

Mitchell carried seven times for 52 yards in that 62-16 Week 4 victory. He added another 110 yards on the ground and 141 through the air while making his tailback debut for Iowa. And yet he enters summer camp in his junior season as an afterthought in most conversations about Iowa’s running back situation, which inevitably start with LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley.

Mitchell should be at the forefront of such discussions, said Iowa running backs coach Chris White. The converted wide receiver, who is up to 220 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, is good enough to be a starter, White insisted.

“He’s got phenomenal hands,” White said. “He’s just a smooth athlete. He does everything really effortlessly. He looks like he’s not really running fast, but he’s running by people. He looks like he’s not that quick, but he’s making guys miss.”

Mitchell sat out spring practices with a shoulder injury that wasn’t fully healed until mid-July, he said. He returned for summer sessions that began last week and immediately turned heads. White raved about how strong Mitchell looked in Saturday morning’s practice.

Mitchell said his goal is to make such performances routine, while acknowledging that his role in this year’s offense may be limited to third-down duties because Daniels (646 yards rushing last year) and Wadley (496) are so talented and established.

“I’m a little stronger. I’m more familiar with the playbook. I’m able to read the line keys better this year,” Mitchell said.

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And if he gets to show that all off only on third downs, that’s fine with him. He is the best receiver among the Hawkeye trio, and a sturdy pass-blocker if opponents try to blitz quarterback C.J. Beathard — meaning he can take on linebackers on their turf or on his own.

“Coming out of the backfield and being able to work against linebackers, that’s one of my biggest strengths,” Mitchell said. “And I had a blocking background. I’m used to that, even at receiver. When you get those 240-, 250-pound linebackers coming at you, you’ve got to man up. So it’s just testing me, as a man, and see where I’m at.”

Daniels caught only one pass last season. Wadley, who is listed at 191 pounds, hasn’t shown that he can tangle with blitzing linebackers yet. Mitchell thinks he is the perfect complement to those two.

Wadley, Mitchell’s roommate, agrees, even though he concedes that it’s not always easy having to split tailback duties among three players.

“He can catch balls with one hand. He does a lot of amazing things. He’s explosive, I’m explosive, we’re all three playmakers and we’re all going to eat,” Wadley said.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating when you want to get that extra rep. But we do our best helping each other out. We all know we’re good.”

A fourth option may quickly be gaining ground on the three. White said freshman Toks Akinribade has made a quick impression in just three practice sessions. White said it’s difficult to divide playing time among four running backs because it’s hard for any one of them to get into a rhythm. But he also thinks it's a position where a first-year player can make an impact.

“I’ve been trying to force-feed them in there a little bit, and they’ve responded pretty well,” White said of Akinribade and fellow freshman Toren Young. “Toks has another gear, too, as a taller guy (6-foot). I’m really looking forward to developing him.

“With running backs, they can play early, in my opinion. It’s not as mentally taxing as offensive line or quarterback.”