Iowa Hawkeyes star Akrum Wadley savors captain's role, downplays matchup vs. Saquon Barkley

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Before the high-stepping penalty that cost him a touchdown. Before the “tweaked” ankle that kept him out of the second half.

Iowa's Akrum Wadley (25) laughs with members of the staff before taking on North Texas at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Iowa City.

There was a much quieter and more profound moment for Akrum Wadley at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

The senior tailback was among the four Iowa captains who strode hand-in-hand to midfield before the pregame coin toss.

“It was everything to me, man,” Wadley said Tuesday, recalling a moment that he never would have dreamed possible as a freshman.

“It was just a good feeling to know my teammates got my back and I’m able to lead them. … Even if, God forbid, things were to ever go wrong for me, I can say I was a captain at a point. Nobody can take that away from me. And that’s a big deal to me.”

Wadley is as talented an offensive player as the Hawkeyes have seen, the owner of 2,021 career rushing yards and 24 touchdowns (and nearly a 25th). But he clearly longs to be seen as a role model for younger players, as a guy who can be counted on off the field as well, to be everything a “captain” symbolizes.

Before Saturday’s 31-14 victory over North Texas, Wadley had that opportunity. And he was still savoring it Tuesday, even after all the drama that followed.

It started with the kind of electrifying play Iowa fans associate with Wadley, when he took a simple short pass from quarterback Nate Stanley and turned upfield. Running down his own sideline, Wadley kept accelerating away from the Mean Green defense, eventually pulling clear inside the 20-yard line. He allowed himself two high-steps, a familiar prance as he headed untouched into the end zone for an apparent 74-yard touchdown.

Wadley never saw the flag. He had been called for unsportsmanlike conduct. Coach Kirk Ferentz stopped his star tailback when he reached the sideline, admonishing him: “You’re too good of a player to have the refs take that back.”

“I was just shocked. I’ve been doing that for years,” Wadley said of his touchdown celebration. “I didn’t even know they could do that.”

Wadley was benched briefly, as the Hawkeyes eventually punched the ball in from 21 yards out after his punishment was calculated.

He doesn’t agree with the penalty, he said Tuesday, but he also doesn’t plan a repeat performance.

“I’m going to stop and I’m going to walk the ball to the ref and give it to him,” Wadley said of his next Hawkeye touchdown.

For a while Saturday, it appeared that Wadley’s next appearance was in doubt. He suffered an ankle injury when “one of them big guys fell on it” and didn’t play in the second half.

Wadley pronounced himself at full health Tuesday. He said he could have finished Saturday’s game but wasn’t confident that his ankle would allow him to make all the cuts he usually does.

“If I would have stayed in, that would have been not only selfish to the team but selfish to the other running backs that are healthy,” Wadley said.

Iowa running back James Butler leaps over a pile of players during the Hawkeyes' game against North Texas at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

His primary backup, senior James Butler, was injured in the third quarter, this one more severe than Wadley’s. Butler’s banged-up right elbow will keep him out at least three weeks, Ferentz said.

Freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin – seeing their first game action at tailback – came in to finish off a wearied North Texas defense. They combined for 152 yards and two Kelly-Martin touchdowns, averaging more than 5 yards per carry.

Those two will be called on to help keep Wadley fresh again this week, when the Hawkeyes (3-0) face a much bigger challenge in No. 4 Penn State (3-0). That Big Ten Conference opener kicks off at 6:30 p.m. and will be televised nationally on ABC.

“Our plan will be to use all three guys,” Ferentz said. “The good news is the other two guys did a good job Saturday. It was a good chance for them to get their feet wet and do some good things. Hopefully they'll continue to practice well. They've got to plan on playing. They're in there now.

“We're going to be better if we can use all three guys.”

Wadley won’t be a captain this time. But he still needs to be a leader for Iowa to have a chance at pulling off an upset similar to last season’s 14-13 prime-time stunner over No. 2 Michigan. Wadley was brilliant in that game, piling up 167 yards from scrimmage and scoring the Hawkeyes’ lone touchdown.

He denied that bigger stages lead to bigger performances from him, though.

“Every game brings out the best in me,” Wadley said.

There will be another tailback of note on the other side of the field Saturday. Penn State junior Saquon Barkley has already accumulated 548 yards from scrimmage this season and may be the nation’s best at his position. He ripped through Iowa for 211 yards and two touchdowns a year ago in a humbling 41-14 Nittany Lion victory.

Wadley wasn’t interested in a comparison of tailbacks.

“I don’t want to talk about Saquon. I don’t watch him. I watch NFL backs,” Wadley said when asked about his counterpart.

“He’s probably my age … and we’re going against him.”

The word “we’re” was the key to that response. Wadley has faith in his linemen, in the two rookies backing him up. He made it clear that he has no intention of putting pressure on himself to keep up with Barkley.

“Winning is first and then whatever happens happens,” Wadley said. “As long as I can produce and help the team, everything’s going to fall into place. So I’m not going to go out there and say, ‘Man, I’ve got to get more yards than this guy.’”

That sure sounds like a captain’s perspective. Wadley’s high-stepping days may be behind him, but he knows there are plenty of highlights still to come.