Iowa Hawkeyes look for 'octane' in return game — bring on Akrum Wadley and Matt VandeBerg

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa is turning to two of its most accomplished playmakers to provide a spark in the return game this fall.

And Akrum Wadley and Matt VandeBerg are eager to oblige, they told reporters Tuesday as the Hawkeyes gear up for their season opener against Wyoming at 11 a.m. Saturday (BTN).

“Just another way to create a big play,” Wadley, a senior tailback, said with his customary smile when asked about his additional role as kickoff returner.

“If the coaches have confidence in me that I can either make a play or fair catch, if that’s what the situation dictates, then I’ll be excited to do that and help the team,” said VandeBerg, a senior wide receiver.

Akrum Wadley celebrates one of his team-high 10 rushing touchdowns as a junior in 2016. He led the team with 1,081 yards on 168 carries that year.

Wadley and VandeBerg have both had durability questions during their Iowa career. VandeBerg is coming off a season abbreviated when he broke a bone in his left foot, appeared to recover over the winter, only to break the same bone. Wadley has long been told by coaches that he needs to keep his weight up in order to get more playing time, carrying a full load only as a junior.

But there’s no question that they are the players most familiar with the end zone on an Iowa team searching for more firepower. Wadley has scored 22 touchdowns and VandeBerg eight.

“We've got a lot of new players right now, so we need every little edge we can get,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of a team that is inexperienced at the skill positions and looking to replace an extraordinary kick returner in Desmond King. “I think we're all in agreement: We need to do as well as we possibly can on special teams — all phases. And I think if we have an opportunity to use a veteran player where it might give us a little bit more octane than it would otherwise, then we really need to look into that, and hopefully that'll complement some of the inexperience that we're working through.”

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VandeBerg returned punts at Brandon Valley High School in South Dakota, and was asked to again as an Iowa sophomore. That season, he gained 82 yards on 12 returns, with a long of 23. Then he injured his hamstring and missed the Big Ten Conference opener at Purdue. When he regained his health, he played wide receiver only for the rest of 2014.

The past two seasons, star cornerback King got the call in the return game, supplemented by wide receiver Riley McCarron. VandeBerg said he’s been watching film of both in order to get ready for his new/old role.

“It’s got a little juice to it,” he said of returning punts. “If somebody comes free, then, obviously, that’s your job — is to make him miss. And if the punt return does its job, then it’s an exciting play for everybody.”

VandeBerg will also start at wide receiver, where he has 106 career catches at Iowa. His younger cohorts at that position have combined for zero. So that figures to be his primary focus. But he’s a terrific athlete and can be an asset in the open field. He’s also unlikely to hurt Iowa with any gaffes in the return game.

“He's dependable fielding the ball, and then even before that making good decisions. Judgment is a big part of being a punt return guy, so it starts there,” Ferentz said. “He fields it well, and he's got some run ability afterward, too, so we're hoping that we can get something.”

Wadley is Iowa’s best offensive player, and throwing him into the mix of kickoff returners adds an element of excitement for fans and dread for opponents. He’s never been shy about his desire to carry the football more often, and kick return is only one way he sees that happening this fall.

“You’ve just got to trust in your blockers,” Wadley said of returning kicks, which he hasn’t done since his high school days in New Jersey. “You’ve just got to make a big play. Just don’t try to do anything crazy — nothing special — just do what you’re taught.”

Wadley is also excited about the new dynamics in the offense of first-year coordinator Brian Ferentz. Brian was promoted from offensive line coach after last season, when Wadley gained 1,396 yards from scrimmage to lead the team. Wadley has been working overtime to become a better receiver, he said Tuesday, anticipating more time spent split out wide.

“It’s a lot of movement. There’s a lot of different formations,” he said of Iowa’s offensive schemes this season. “We’re all over the field, you know? … Coach Brian always talks about getting his playmakers in space, getting his playmakers the ball. And that’s what we’re doing.”

The arrival of graduate transfer tailback James Butler should allow for Wadley to be featured in different ways this season. His goal is to get at least 1,400 yards from scrimmage, plus whatever he can accumulate on kick returns.

“That’s the minimum,” Wadley said of his yardage.

VandeBerg and Wadley will be doing far more than the minimum for Iowa this year, though. The Hawkeyes are going to lean on their senior playmakers in new ways, starting Saturday.

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