Hawkeye tailbacks of the future have a familiar look

Mark Emmert

WEST DES MOINES, Ia. — The two 1,000-yard rushers from a year ago weren’t in the backfield when the Iowa football team went through 11-on-11 drills at an open practice Friday at Valley Stadium.

LeShun Daniels Jr. has graduated. Akrum Wadley was in uniform but is being withheld from contact this spring to protect his knee.

But the Hawkeye fans who filled the stands got to see a reasonable facsimile of last season’s tailback tandem, a flash forward that might feel more like a flashback in a year or two. Redshirt freshman Toren Young provided Daniels-like muscle; sophomore Toks Akinribade added a dash of Wadley-esque speed.

Iowa redshirt freshman running back Toren Young plows past defenders Friday during an open practice at Valley Stadium.

“I’m more of a physical runner, downhill runner,” said Young, who lined up with the first unit behind quarterback Tyler Wiegers on Friday. “(Akinribade is) more finesse, he’s a slasher, he makes his cuts. I’m kind of, first vertical cut I want to get upfield, get square and get my pads down.”

Akinribade, at 6-foot, 208 pounds, played a little as a freshman last fall, carrying 16 times for 33 yards. He was listed on Iowa’s initial depth chart this spring as the backup to Wadley.

Young, a 5-11, 220-pound bruiser, redshirted last fall and learned some valuable lessons on the scout team. Namely, keep your pads down or pay a steep price.

“Early on when I came in, I had high pad level and so being a physical back and priding yourself on being physical, you can’t run high,” Young said.

“Being on scout team, I took a couple of hits. Josey (Jewell), Bo (Bower), Desmond (King), Miles Taylor, all those guys. I really liked being on scout team because it taught me, you’ve got to get those pads down.”

In Friday’s practice, it looked as if Young had learned from those painful mistakes, delivering a series of punishing runs against the starting defensive unit. He and Akinribade will likely spend the entire offseason battling for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, but it’s clear that Young provides the starker contrast to Wadley if comes to a short-yardage situation.

Akinribade, who spent the bulk of his time with the second offensive unit behind quarterback Nathan Stanley, said he enjoys measuring himself against Young.

“There’s always going to be competition either way, and I feel like it’s really helping us because we’re pushing it, we’re trying to get better and we’re trying to help each other out,” Akinribade said.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said he’s been impressed with both of his second-year tailbacks, although there’s no question who will get the bulk of the action once fall rolls around. Wadley is easily the most dynamic athlete on the Hawkeye offense, and was even seen fielding punts early in Friday’s practice. Iowa will look to find ways to get the ball in Wadley’s hands.

But it’s also reassuring to know there are two hungry backups who can step in when Wadley needs some rest.

“We’d rather have Akrum out there, I’ll be clear on that one. We’ll be a better football team when he’s out there,” Ferentz said. “But it gives younger players more work and more repetition, and there’s something to be said for that that, too.”

Akinribade said he’s been learning from Wadley.

“I feel like I can be quick and I can be power at times and finish the run at the end of the play,” the Indiana native said. “He’s really taught me how to get through the holes, learning where defenders are going to come, the blocking schemes.”

Young, meanwhile, was pushed toward Daniels the moment he arrived in Iowa City from his Madison, Wis., home.

“That’s one of the things the coaches said to me when I first got here is, if you want to look up to anybody, you want to look up to LeShun Daniels,” Young said.

“I just want to show that I’m a hard runner. I’m physical. I’m tough. I can make plays. I might not be the fastest, not the most flashy guy. But I’m just a football player.”

That should sound familiar — and comforting — to Hawkeye fans.