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IOWA CITY — Akrum Wadley was born in 1995, about 18 months after "The Program" debuted in movie theaters.
The film features fictional football power Eastern State. In today’s world, the movie appears a bit antiquated. But a small scene in a dated movie resonated with Wadley 20-plus years later.
Running back Darnell Jefferson (played by Omar Epps) develops a fumbling problem at practice, and he’s instructed to carry a football everywhere on campus at all times. During class a teammate knocks it away, sending the ball tumbling down a stairway with every football player diving after it.
“That’s my movie,” said Wadley, an Iowa junior running back.
Wadley discovered that scene was relevant to his own fumbling issue. Back in 2014, Wadley rushed for 106 yards against Northwestern. But the day included a demerit with a fumble. The next week in a loss at Minnesota, Wadley rushed for a team-high 68 yards, but lost another fumble. He earned a double-sided label: ultra-talented fumbler.
Last season, Wadley put it on the ground again late in garbage time against Illinois State. Every slick move he made was countered with a pothole. So Wadley brought that scene from “The Program” to real life on Iowa’s campus. He tucked the football upward at the confluence of his arm and chest — high and tight — virtually everywhere he traveled. It was an ongoing reminder of what he needed to do to realize his potential.
“I wasn’t forced to do it; I wanted to do it,” Wadley said. “I needed to do it. There was a need.
“Sometimes I’d walk around class with it. It’s just something I had to do. I’d rather do that and have people look at me weird than fumble. When you fumble out there on the field, you feel like ...”
After his Illinois State fumble, Wadley didn’t play in three of Iowa’s next four games. He scored a touchdown in a blowout of North Texas, but didn’t get a carry in Iowa’s first two Big Ten games. Then his season — heck even career — changed dramatically in a showdown at Northwestern.
Late in the first quarter, starting running back Jordan Canzeri suffered an ankle injury. With original starting running back LeShun Daniels already out with his own sprained ankle, Wadley was Iowa’s next man in. He realized he was the only running back left with real experience, and so did the coaching staff.
“The last time he played before Northwestern, he put the ball on the ground and that hurt him,” running backs coach Chris White said. “He understands that these coaches weren’t screwing around, and you’re not going to play here if you’re putting the ball on the ground. You could tell how hurt he was. But he’s competitive, now. He’s one of the most competitive kids that I’ve ever coached. I think he just made up his mind and said, ‘If I ever get another chance, I’m going to take it and run with it.’”
“I was never frustrated with anybody else,” Wadley said. “It was really myself because I felt that I could help the team out. I could help the team out a lot, and (fumbling) was holding me back. It just was holding myself back.”
Wadley twice gained two yards on his first two carries. On the first play of the second quarter, Wadley followed with one of the most important plays of Iowa’s season. On second-and-8 from Northwestern’s 35-yard line, Wadley ran left, avoided the cornerback, bounced outside and streaked untouched up the sideline for a touchdown.
Two series later, Wadley carried three times and scored another touchdown to put Iowa ahead 16-0. He scored twice more in the second half to finish with 204 yards on 26 carries. He tied a school record with four touchdowns. Wadley restored the coaches’ faith with his performance and mostly because he didn’t fumble.
“I think that Northwestern game was a real pivotal point in his career, at least I hope it was,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And I can’t document this, but my suspicion, my feeling that day was that he knew we needed him, and I think he really paid attention to some of the things that maybe have kept him off the field. Ball security, it starts with that.”
“To me it was kind of a turning point,” offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “I think one for him, and I think one for us.”
“I knew if I let them down, I might not ever get another shot at running back again because of my past situations,” Wadley said. “There’s only one thing to do, and that’s ball out. ... It gave me a confidence boost.”
Wadley combined for 187 yards and two touchdowns in wins over Maryland and Indiana. Then an ankle injury sidelined him for the Minnesota game. With Daniels and Canzeri back, Wadley carried just four times against Purdue and did not play at Nebraska. He became a focal point as a receiver out of the backfield in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl. He combined for six catches for 94 yards and a score despite not catching a single pass before those games.
This year, Wadley figures into Iowa’s plans both as a runner and receiver from the backfield. He’ll share time with Daniels and Derrick Mitchell at running back. Unselfishness is the key for all three running backs who might not attain much individual acclaim because of their rotation.
Wadley is the smallest of the three but he’s built his body from 168 pounds to about 191. He’s known for his quickness, nimble feet and acceleration. That’s where he differs from the more powerful Daniels, who weighs about 225.
“We’re all three playmakers,” Wadley said. “We all gonna eat.”
Wadley finished with 496 yards and seven touchdowns at a 6.0 yard-per-carry clip last year. His ability suggests he perhaps can double his yardage total. But can he avoid a fumbling relapse? That could determine everything.
“He’s certainly talented, there’s no question about that,” White said. “He does things that I can’t coach and every day he’ll make a play and you’ll shake your head and say, ‘How did he do that?’ But more importantly, it’s the trust factor and we’re starting to gain that with him.”
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