How Iowa might use Akrum Wadley and James Butler in 2017 offense
Iowa counted on creatively using one of the most elusive running backs in college football in 2017.
Now, the Hawkeyes have two of them.
Nevada star James Butler announced Tuesday he is headed for the Hawkeyes as a graduate transfer, which shuffled summer offensive plans for both teams. The move was unveiled as an opportunity for the Bloomingdale, Ill., native to be closer to home and allow his mother to see him play out his senior season.
But make no mistake: Iowa intends to utilize Butler to complement redshirt senior Akrum Wadley and reinforce a strong run game with two NFL hopefuls under first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
“Ideally, we'd like to have two backs that can go in there and play well,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said during a March press conference for spring practice. “We had that situation last year, which was really good. You saw it in the game. It depends on what the opponents give you, who is doing what in a particular game.
“I'd like to have two guys that can go in and play well. We feel that way about Akrum.”
Iowa had talented reserves like sophomore Toks Akrinibade and redshirt freshman Toren Young getting ready to take on consistent backup roles this offseason.
None has the proven playmaking ability or college productivity of Butler. The former three-star recruit out of St. Francis High School in Wheaton, Ill., has rushed for better than 1,300 yards in back-to-back seasons and is leaving the Wolf Pack without the bulk of their 2015 and 2016 ground game.
Iowa was interested in Butler back in 2012 but never offered a scholarship, and he followed former Hawkeye assistant Lester Erb out to Nevada after finishing high school in 2014. Erb was a casualty in Nevada’s sweeping coaching staff changes in December and January.
Jay Norvell, a former Iowa defensive back, became head coach of the Wolf Pack and brought with him a pass-heavy Air Raid offense. According to the Register’s USA Today Network affiliate, the Reno Gazette-Journal, this is where Butler’s transfer talk began.
“I told him, ‘You have aspirations of going to the next level. There’s not a lot of Adrian Petersons,’” Nevada’s new offensive coordinator Matt Mumme told the RGJ. “There are not a lot of guys you just turn around and hand the ball off to every down. You need to separate yourself from everybody else and show how versatile you are out of the backfield and how you can catch in space.
“Everybody knows he’s a great running back and he’s going to get his yards.”
Instead of the Air Raid, Butler will now line up in a pro-style scheme that NFL scouts have salivated over in recent years. And even if he’s forced to split snaps with Wadley, 2016 statistics show he’ll still get the ball.
Iowa ran the ball on 61.8 percent of its offensive plays last season. Wadley topped 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground by taking just 33.4 percent of those carries. With an open quarterback battle and limited options at wide receiver, those touches – and the 35.8 percent of Nevada’s total offensive snaps that went to Butler last season – could be essential.
“I don't know if it's going to be what you saw last year,” Brian Ferentz said in April. “Boy, you'd like to get Akrum a lot of carries, and we talked about matchups. But Akrum's a guy that's good in space. So maybe you create some matchups where he's in space, and you have another guy in the backfield that can carry the ball.”
Those spring practice hints led to questions about putting the shifty Wadley into a slot receiver role and trusting Young or Akrinibade with carries and protecting whoever the starting quarterback might be in Week 1. Neither Kirk nor Brian Ferentz has definitively said who would take touches besides the electric No. 25.
“They've got a great opportunity,” Kirk Ferentz said in March. “They're both different types of backs. It's not like we have to have a guy like Toks or a guy like Toren. We'll let them both go. We liked what we saw last August and last fall with both of them.”
And the 19th-year head coach was vague when asked again about their prospects one month later.
“Yeah, I think clearly one and two right now would be Toren and Toks,” Kirk Ferentz said after the spring game at Kinnick Stadium. “They're kind of close, and they're different types of backs, and that's fine. Both have a lot of growth to go …
“The door is open at running back, receiver, and I would say in the secondary, too. We're not exactly deep back there. Those positions are really – we'll give the newcomers a chance to get in there and compete.”
With the addition of Butler, that no longer appears to be the case. Iowa’s deep offensive line got experience blocking for Wadley and between-the-tackles rusher LeShun Daniels last season.
Wadley and Daniels were one of three Power 5 duos to top 1,000 rushing yards each in 2016. Iowa will be the only Power 5 program to bring one of those duos back in 2017, with Butler replacing Daniels on the stat sheet.
“Over the last week, James Butler has expressed a desire to graduate and transfer to a school closer to home,” Norvell said in a Nevada release Tuesday night. “He has a strong desire to have his mother see him play in his last season of college football. We wish him all the best.”
Wadley and Butler have similarities at first glance, although the way they actually help the Hawkeyes may be different. Both will be listed as seniors on the fall depth chart. Both are considered small running backs – Wadley is 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Butler is 5-9, 210 – with generous program listings. They even have similar 2016 stats, showing off big-play ability and receiving skills.
But Butler’s moves often come on calls inside the line, while Wadley sprints and jukes on the perimeter. Pro Football Focus rated Butler tops among all returning running backs in college football by forcing 87 missed tackles in 2016, and he was a bowling ball in 2015, averaging 4.13 yards after contact per attempt when he ran between Nevada’s center and left guard.
Iowa is optimistic it can work with those skill sets.
“I don't know if there will be a true 1A (starter) or 1B (backup), but we anticipate those guys carrying the ball a whole bunch,” Brian Ferentz said in April. “And based on my experience, we're going to need them all. That's just the way it goes.
“It all sounds good right now. 1A, 1B, 1C. And pretty much by November, you've got one. Whoever survives the landing, you know?”
Below is rushing and receiving production from the 2016 season from running backs James Butler of Nevada and Akrum Wadley of Iowa.
James Butler, Nevada, 12 games, 260 rushes, 1,336 yards, 5.1 avg., 12 TDs, 37 catches, 381 yards, 10.3 avg., 2 TDs
Akrum Wadley, Iowa, 13 games, 168 rushes, 1,081 yards, 6.4 avg., 10 TDs, 36 catches, 315 yards, 8.8 avg., 3 TDs