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IOWA CITY — Just two weeks into the 2016 season and LeShun Daniels is on pace to smash all of LeShun Daniels’ career marks.
Iowa’s senior running back has 195 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-0, 225-pounder has scored on 43-yard runs in each of the Hawkeyes’ first two games. Daniels has keyed a running attack that leads the Big Ten with 6.31 yards per carry and eight rushing TDs while averaging just 32.5 carries per game (12th in the league).
“He feels better, is more confident, sees things, which ties into being decisive, too,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s hitting it hard.”
Why are you seeing the LeShun Daniels you always thought you’d see? Ferentz touched on everything with that short comment.
First, Daniels really does feel better.
Daniels had his most productive season as a Hawkeye in 2015, rushing for 646 yards and eight TDs. He suffered a high-ankle sprain in week 2 at Iowa State and that took a big bite out of his 2015. Daniels rushed for 21 yards or less in the next three games before he sat out for two weeks. He was healthy for the next three games, peaking with a brilliant night against Minnesota, rushing 26 times for 195 yards and three TDs.
Then, the next week against Purdue, Daniels reaggravated the ankle.
“I felt like against Minnesota I got close to 100 percent,” Daniels said. “Then, I did it again in the Purdue game and it pretty much wasn’t the same after that.”
Daniels is clearly a more confident runner. Where you’d see chopping feet at the line of scrimmage last season, you now see quick cuts and lowered shoulder pads.
Daniels has always had the kind of football body that screams “football body.” It was a matter of unlocking it. During Rose Bowl week in January, Daniels recounted a conversation with running backs coach Chris White.
“We both know that I’m much better at running downhill than obviously laterally, so he’s like, ‘If you can just stick your foot in the ground and obviously if there’s no space for you to run, make space, because you’re a strong guy, so you’re going to get 3, 4, 5 yards if you just put your foot in the ground and get your pads down and go make yards,’” Daniels said.
White must’ve hammered on this with Daniels throughout the winter. Daniels told the same story this week and simplified it even more.
“I’m not thinking too much about my reads and if there’s nothing there, I’ll put my shoulder down and good things will come out of it,” he said. “Good things will come out of that.”
Daniels’ decisiveness has translated into a “faster” running back. In other words, he’s running and not thinking. That’s a good thing, too.
“He looks faster than I’ve ever seen him,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “... He’s looked fast out there the last couple of weeks. He’s done a good job running the ball downhill, making guys miss and running tough.”
Beathard finished his thought with “We know he’s fast, it was just last year he was hindered by that ankle injury for a while.”
And that’s the thing. Daniels is fast. Legitimately fast.
Daniels and Akrum Wadley, Iowa’s top two running backs, are different football animals. Wadley (170 yards, three TDs) is a lightning-quick 190-pounder. Daniels is a 225-pounder with cannon balls for biceps and calves.
But a big part of why the No. 11 Hawkeyes (2-0), who play host to North Dakota State (2-0) this weekend, have the Big Ten’s most efficient rushing attack is Daniels’ underrated speed and quickness. Against the Cyclones last week, Daniels rushed three times outside of tight end George Kittle and gained 54 yards, including the 43-yard TD.
You don’t call those plays if you don’t think the running back can get to the hole relatively quickly.
“I teased him the other night,” Ferentz said. “I said, ‘You’re going to screw up your reputation of being a ‘possession back.’”
Daniels does hold Iowa’s pro agility record for running backs with a time of 4.06 seconds. The drill measures short-area quickness. Daniels’ time is considered “pro” level.
Daniels also used to own the 10-yard sprint record. Last year, Wadley edged him out with a time of 1.42 seconds, which is considered top-end NFL running back quickness. For perspective, Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson had a 1.40-second 10-yard dash at the 2008 NFL combine.
“Obviously, he let me know that he broke it,” Daniels said with a laugh. “He was cool about it. He wasn’t throwing it in my face or anything.”
Before the season started, White said this about Daniels and Wadley, “If we can ride a guy like we did Shonn Greene (the 2008 Doak Walker Award winner and Iowa’s single-season rushing and TD record holder), if he can stay healthy and we can wear teams out with someone like that, I’d love to see LeShun do that and give him that opportunity.
“At the same time, Akrum deserves his plays and has his role on this football team.”
So far, that’s been a bullseye.