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IOWA CITY — Sometimes during interviews you can tell when the interviewee goes into fantastical mode and says kind of what you want to hear.
A semi-loaded question comes in and it’s off to the fantasy football races.
So, Iowa offensive coordinator/running backs coach Brian Ferentz, how do you plan to use running backs Akrum Wadley and James Butler? And, follow-up, can they work together on the field at the same time?
Here’s the honest part. Who knows?
“I don’t think there’s a blueprint or a plan,” Ferentz said. “You just want to get guys out on the field who have a chance to make a play with the ball in their hands.
“What you need to do is have enough language and flexibility to move guys around. Just because you’re a running back, it doesn’t mean you have to line up in a traditional running back spot. We have to be open to having guys play different spots, move them around a little bit and find different ways of getting them the ball in that manner.”
OK, asked and answered. Then, there was a question about each of the back’s receiving skills. This is the tease from Brian Ferentz.
“I think you could play anybody together,” he said. “I could see us playing with three running backs on the field. If three running backs are our best option to win a football game, we’re going to get them on the field somehow. Three guys in the backfield? Maybe no guys in the backfield. If we felt like having four receivers on the field is the best thing to do for us to win, then we need to find a way to do that. And so on and so on.”
The mind races.
Three running backs? No running backs? Four receivers? No mention of the dinosaur formation with dinosaurs on the field.
Brian Ferentz didn’t go that far. The three running backs thing was enough to process in one day.
“That’s the challenge on our end,” he said. “It’s not as big of a challenge for the players. They’re usually pretty good at adjusting, especially if they’re going to get the ball. They like that. We just need to make sure we’re open to putting them in those spots.”
The reality is how Wadley and Butler, the graduate transfer from Nevada, are used will be organic. Iowa will look like Iowa when they’re on the field, even when they’re on the field together. It showed up some in the open scrimmage on Aug. 12. Wadley lined up in the slot maybe a half dozen times.
And he didn’t even run the jet sweep. Iowa tried that with Wadley out of the slot last year and it was the jet sweep like 98 percent of the time. It didn’t fool anyone. It was a giant tell for the defense because it just didn’t look like Iowa.
And that’s the real trick here, using both backs to the max of their ability without dropping tells and while still pretty much looking like the Hawkeyes.
“Coach (Brian Ferentz) says every day that it doesn’t matter, he’s going to play the best guys,” said Wadley, who rushed for 1,081 yards last season and 17 TDs the last two seasons. “You see Toren (Young) running hard. You see the freshmen. You see Ivory Kelly-Martin out there running hard. He’s going to be good.”
“Best guy” in this instance probably means the hot hand, which is pretty much how Iowa tries to do it every year. If Wadley averages 5.0 yards on his first eight carries in a game, he’s probably going to be the guy in that particular game. If Butler does that, the ball probably isn’t coming out of Butler’s hands.
“Whatever the coaches have in the game plan, I’m not sure yet,” Butler said when asked if the senior duo could see time together on the field. “I’m trying to learn my role, as it is. I’m trying to learn the playbook as fast as I possibly can. That’s what I’m really focused on right now, not how many passes I can catch or rushes that I get. I’m trying to learn the ins and outs of the offense.”
Everybody says the right things, but you know the running backs are digging for “best guy.” They all understand this and they all know it’s nothing personal.
“We’re all competing,” Wadley said. “The best man is going to get the job. Coach Ferentz is going to play the guys who get the job done and who put us in position to win.
“We’re all competing for each other. If we make a good run, it’s love. If he (Butler) busts through the middle for a 50-yard touchdown, I’m right there to help him celebrate. We’re all right there to help him celebrate. Same with me.
“As far as competing goes, we’re competing at the end of the day. When we get off the field, we can, you know, buddy buddy. On the field, we’re still brothers, but we’re competing at the end of the day. That’s the man who’s going to get the job.”
They both can catch the ball. Wadley’s 36 receptions last fall were the most for an Iowa running back since Ronnie Harmon caught 45 in 1985. Butler caught 37 passes for Nevada last season.
They probably won’t play wildcat quarterback.
That whole thing about Wadley running wildcat plays from the quarterback position? Yes, you saw that on a fall camp hype video sometime in mid-August.
Wadley wants to be on record. He was kidding.
“That’s something we kid around with, JB and me,” Wadley said. “You saw we were on a knee when we were talking about that. We start 9 on 7, 7 on 7 and team periods, we don’t talk about that. We’re focused. Time to go.”
THE DEPTH CHART
RB — 1a. Akrum Wadley, sr., 5-11, 195; 1b. James Butler, sr., 5-9, 210; 2. Toren Young, #fr., 5-11, 220; 3. Toks Akinribade, so., 6-0, 208; 4. Ivory Kelly-Martin, fr., 5-11, 195; 5. Marcel Joly, jr., 5-11, 202; 6. Kyshaun Bryan, fr., 5-10, 210
FB — 1a. Drake Kulick, sr., 6-1, 240; 1b. Brady Ross, so., 6-1, 245; 3. Austin Kelly, jr., 5-11, 245; Lane Akre, so., 6-0, 240
NEXT MEN IN
At some point, Iowa has to show its hand. Maybe the open scrimmage on Aug. 12 was a little view of how it might go at running back beyond Akrum Wadley and James Butler.
Redshirt freshman Toren Young carried the ball nine times. Toks Akinribade got two carries. True freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin carried seven times and Kyshaun Bryan had two carries. This order has pretty much been in place since spring practice, when Young carried 23 times in the spring game (96 yards) to just eight for Akinribade (22 yards).
Young is the prototypical Iowa back. He’s 220 pounds, makes one cut and packs a punch. Kelly-Martin impressed during the open scrimmage, but at 195, a redshirt is a possibility or maybe a probability.
Probably not a lot of carries to be had beyond Wadley, Butler and Young.
Iowa’s fullback position has become a duo the last few years. Drake Kulick and Brady Ross are in their second year together and should take a stride in their games.
— Butler gained more than 3,000 yards and scored 30 TDs in his three years at Nevada. Nevada’s running game isn’t the Hawkeyes’ scheme. Nevada ran a ton of read option, where the QB holds the ball in the running back’s belly, makes a read and then either keeps or hands off.
Iowa is prostyle. The Hawkeyes have shown some read option, but 99 percent of the time, the running back takes a straight handoff, whether the QB is under center or in shotgun.
Butler isn’t worried about this.
“It takes a little getting used to, taking the ball from the quarterback under center,” Butler said. “For a back, you have to be able to adapt. That’s my biggest deal. The guys have helped me learn the foot work, steps and cadences.”
— It’s fun to talk style with running backs, especially a running back like Wadley, whose style is a little bit of everything.
You’ve not seen Young log a college carry yet, so his style?
“I’m not super speed guy or a guy who’s going to make a lot of cuts,” Young said. “I just try to get vertical, run up field and get physical.”
He looks and thinks like the prototypical Iowa back.
— Speaking of style or lack thereof, fullback Drake Kulick is extremely eager to get back into this.
You remember how he went out last season. It was in the first quarter of the Nebraska game. Kulick led an inside zone and eventually the pile ended up on the back of his legs.
He suffered a broken left leg. That took him out of spring practice and slowed his summer workouts a little.
With his left foot pointing the wrong direction and the cameras pointing directly at his face without his helmet, Kulick, sort of paraphrasing here, said, “I didn’t break my leg for this [bleep]” and pumped his fists as he was carted up the tunnel and into X-rays.
“I didn’t even know that I did that,” Kulick said. “The message I was trying to get across to my teammates was they didn’t have to worry about me, I was going to be fine. I’m a whole lot less important than the mission of the day, which was go win the game. I just wanted them to go out there and finish the job that we started.”
His teammates listened. Iowa won, 40-10.
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