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IOWA CITY — There were those couple of days during camp in 2015 when Akrum Wadley gave cornerback a shot. He figured out he really wanted to be a running back. He figured it out quickly.
"It was a disaster," Wadley said. "They still talk about it to this day. I couldn’t back pedal, but I definitely learned a lesson."
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said the cornerback experiment with Wadley was born out of "marital issues," meaning there was some sort of friction.
"We kind of were going through some things," Ferentz said. "He ended up back at running back, and that’s when he started this climb."
Fellow running back LeShun Daniels fought health issues all last season, namely a high-ankle sprain that lingered for 10 games. There was no need for a stop at cornerback for a lesson, but Daniels learned he had to be the hammer more than the nail while running the ball.
These lessons have coalesced into one of the more productive and explosive running back duos in the Big Ten.
Daniels and Wadley are Nos. 9 and 10 in the Big Ten with 85.0 and 83.7 rushing yards per game, respectively. Wadley is fifth in the league with 7.4 yards per carry on 79 carries. Among the top 10, Wadley’s number of carries is second only to Ohio State’s Mike Weber (6.5 yards on 94 carries), so this is a sustained thing. Wadley also is tied for the league lead with eight rushing TDs.
“He goes out there and he makes plays,” Daniels said. “It’s simple. That’s something we’ve always known he can do. It’s something he’s shown before. This year, he’s doing it so consistently. That’s been a big plus for our offense.”
More numbers: Wadley leads the Big Ten in runs of 10-plus yards with 18 (Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is No. 2 with 16). Daniels is tied for the B1G lead with three runs of 40-plus yards (his 13 runs of 10-plus is No. 10 in the league).
Wadley leads the Hawkeyes with 592 yards. Daniels has 589. A scoring error, spotted by a Des Moines Register reporter, awarded a 6-yard carry to Daniels at Purdue last weekend that should’ve gone to Wadley. That change vaulted Wadley into the rushing lead. That’s how evenly split this attack has been.
“I think we’re getting a little more confidence running the ball,” offensive tackle Ike Boettger said. “That’s definitely what we want our identity to be. I think the backs are getting more confident with us. We’re blocking who we say we’re going to block.”
Iowa’s offensive line has been jumbled by injuries. The passing game lost leading receiver Matt VandeBerg going into week 5 and still is working to find itself (and might be without star tight end George Kittle this week).
Daniels and Wadley have driven this thing.
“We’re fine just keeping this thing low keyed right now, but I think both of them are really having good years and they’re both playing well,” Ferentz said. “LeShun is a senior. You really hope for that and expect that from your oldest players. The big thing is he’s been healthy. He’s staying healthy and really doing a good job, but he’s improved, too. He really works at it.
“And I’d say the same thing about Akrum. He’s really grown a lot in this past 15, 14 months, and I think he’s really made some nice strides. You know, it’s still out there for him. He can still get better. So can LeShun, so that’s good, but they both work at it really hard, and they both like football.”
Iowa’s play calling isn’t shaped around their varying skills. Wadley is just less than 190 pounds and is the quicker of the two with the ability to make tacklers miss. Daniels is 225 pounds and is much faster than people give him credit for. Still, they need to run between the tackles and take advantages of opportunities on the outside.
When quarterback C.J. Beathard is at the line of scrimmage, he’s scanning the defense for a numbers advantage. He can’t think about who the running back is (and he says he often doesn’t know if Daniels or Wadley is in the game) and what he can or can’t do. He has to be able to call the play that he sees and he thinks will be to Iowa’s advantage.
“There are some things that LeShun does better than Akrum and there are some things that Akrum does better than LeShun,” Beathard said. “I expect both of the backs to do what they’re asked to do no matter who’s in there. I don’t care if the backup quarterback is the running back. If we ask him to run the ball, he’s going to run the ball where I tell him to run the ball. That’s just how it is and those guys have done a good job responding to that.”
This is where Ferentz cringes a little bit. Wadley doesn’t have a “between the tackles” build. After the Purdue game, Ferentz mentioned the weight thing with Wadley. Remember, that was part of what gave coaches pause during the early stages of Wadley’s career. He couldn’t maintain his weight. Apparently, he’s still working on that.
“When he gets over 1-9, I’m going to give him a hug and smile and say really nice things about him,” Ferentz said. “When he gets over 190, I’ll be signing his praises. He’s not there yet, but he’s doing a good job, playing well.”
Wadley copped to that.
“My weight is inconsistent right now,” he said. “I’ll get back on track.”
Wadley wears No. 25. Daniels is 29. You won’t mix them up when you’re watching the Hawkeyes, but what they’ve brought this season looks almost exactly the same.
“We know we can do whatever we’re asked to do,” Daniels said. “If Akrum has to go in there and get the tough yards, I know he’s going to go do that. If a big-play opportunity arises for myself, I can take advantage of that.
“We obviously do different things well, but I think we can do our jobs equally well.”