Iowa turns loose talented tandem of running backs
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. are running their way into Hawkeye lore.
By the time this football season ends, they could be the most prolific tailback duo in Iowa history.
Wadley, a junior, has rushed for 592 yards through seven games, averaging a Big Ten Conference-best 7.4 per carry. Daniels, a senior, has gained 589 yards on the ground.
If they continue that pace through the regular season, Wadley will have 1,015 yards and Daniels 1,009. The Hawkeyes have never had two 1,000-yard rushers in a single season and haven’t had anyone top that mark since Marcus Coker did so five years ago.
The conventional wisdom is that Daniels is more of a between-the-tackles bruiser and that Wadley is the change-of-pace threat to score from any spot on the field. There’s some truth there, for sure, as evidenced by Wadley’s 75-yard touchdown burst in Saturday’s 49-35 victory at Purdue. Daniels scored twice from the ho-hum distances of one and four yards.
That perception doesn’t tell the complete story, however.
“We know that both of us can do whatever is called upon us. If Akrum has to go in there and get the tough yards, I know that he’s going to go in there and do that. And if a big play opportunity arises for myself, I know that I can also take advantage of that,” Daniels said Tuesday as the Hawkeyes prepare for their stiffest test yet, against No. 10 Wisconsin on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN).
“If we both go under 50 yards and no scores, but we get the victory, I think that’s all that really matters.”
The Hawkeyes (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) rushed for 365 yards at Purdue. Wadley picked up 176 and Daniels 150, which included a career-long 67-yarder. Not bad for a plodder.
Wadley and Daniels form one of just seven duos in the nation who have each eclipsed 500 rushing yards this season. Iowa has seen two running backs surpass the 700-yard mark in a single season only four times in program history.
It’s heady territory for the pair of friends, but the task doesn’t get easier this week. Wisconsin (4-2, 1-2) has the second-ranked rush defense in the Big Ten, allowing only 106 yards per game. Still ahead for Iowa is a matchup with the league’s top unit, Michigan. Other games are against Nebraska (sixth in the Big Ten), Penn State (12th) and Illinois (11th).
Meaning, if Wadley and Daniels go where no Hawkeye running back tandem has gone before, they will have earned it.
They claim there’s no competition between them — for yards or touchdowns or playing time. The time-share has kept Wadley and Daniels fresh-legged and relatively healthy this season. Daniels, who usually starts, has 109 carries and six touchdowns; Wadley has 80 and eight. Those 189 rushing attempts have yielded only 22 negative yards, 1,203 positive.
“LeShun’s been helping me since we arrived here together,” said Wadley, who used a redshirt season. “He reminds me of (former Hawkeye running back) Mark Weisman. He does everything right, just like Mark.
“Sometimes he starts the game off, I come in after him. I ask him what the defense, what he’s seeing out there. … I just tell him what I see out there, tell him holes he missed, some runs he could have stayed with.”
Wadley and Daniels have been playing so well that their offensive teammates say they don’t even pay attention to which one is in the huddle.
“I honestly don’t even know who’s in the game ever,” offensive tackle Ike Boettger said, noting the two do carry different personalities.
“Akrum’s not really a loudmouth. I’d say he’s more exuberant, more energy. LeShun’s just more workhorse. He’s like his brother, James.”
James Daniels is the team’s sophomore starting center. In other words, the opposite of glamorous.
Indeed, so interchangeable have Wadley and Daniels been that even official scorers are confused. On Saturday, a 6-yard gain by Wadley was originally credited to Daniels in the statistics, a mistake not corrected until Monday.
Wadley was almost relegated to obscurity. Two summers ago, Hawkeye coaches even briefly tried him at cornerback, seeking some way to get through to an athlete whose performance was not matching his talent.
“We were having some marital issues at that point, I guess. We kind of were going through some things,” coach Kirk Ferentz recalled Tuesday.
“But he ended up back at running back, and that's when he started this climb.”
Wadley winced when reminded of his abortive stint on defense.
“It was a disaster. They still talk about it up to this day, talk about how I couldn’t backpedal,” Wadley said.
No one’s worried about his backpedal now. Wadley’s throttle is wide-open. He has battled through a minor knee injury to become the Hawkeyes’ most dangerous offensive player.
“My biggest improvement I made is pressing the hole, not making cuts too soon and keeping the ball high and tight,” Wadley said. “Coach (Chris) White always talks about that. Every time I’m in the backfield, I’m lining up, I just hear his voice saying ‘high and tight.’”
The voice he hears when he gets to the sideline is Daniels offering reassurance. Like a big brother.
“He goes out there and makes plays. It’s simple,” Daniels said of Wadley. “That’s something that we’ve always known that he could do. He’s shown it before. I think just this year he’s doing it so consistently and it’s really been a big plus for us as an offense.”
IOWA’S TOP RUSHING TANDEMS
Owen Gill, 129 carries, 798 yards (6.2 ypc), 10 touchdowns
Eddie Phillips, 162-778 (4.8), 8
Owen Gill, 199-920 (4.6), 4
Ronnie Harmon, 190-907 (4.8), 11
Nick Bell, 166-1,009 (6.1), 12
Tony Stewart, 157-844 (5.4), 3
Fred Russell, 220-1,264 (5.7), 9
Jermelle Lewis, 123-709 (5.8), 8
2016 (if current pace maintained through 12 games)
Akrum Wadley, 137-1,015 (7.4), 14
LeShun Daniels Jr., 187-1,009 (5.4), 10
— Source: University of Iowa