College Football

Four Downs: Iowa's 2017 running backs

Iowa's running back toolbox is going to be a variety pack in 2017

Akrum Wadley is Iowa's clear No. 1 running back in 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Akrum Wadley is Iowa's clear No. 1 running back in 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Taking a look at the 2017 Hawkeyes. Today it’s the running backs’ turn. How about these italics? Feels more important, doesn’t it?

Returning scholarship running backs — Akrum Wadley (5-11, 195, sr.), Toks Akinribade (6-0, 208, so.), Toren Young (5-11, 220, #fr.), Marcel Joly (5-11, 202, jr.)

Returning walk-on running backs — Sam Book (5-9, 215, #fr.)

Incoming freshmen running backs — Kyshaun Bryan (5-10, 210), Kelly Ivory-Martin (5-11, 195)

Key losses — LeShun Daniels, Derrick Mitchell

Returning scholarship fullbacks — Drake Kulick (6-1, 240, sr.), Brady Ross (6-1, 245, so.)

Returning walk-on fullbacks — Austin Kelly (5-11, 245, jr.), Gavin Dinsdale (6-1, 240, #fr.), Lane Akre (6-0, 240, so.)

Quick Look Back

The Iowa running game more than held up its end of the bargain last season.

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The Hawkeyes produced a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history. The 2,234 total rushing yards were 17th most in Iowa history. Iowa also piled up six 50-plus runs, tied for the Big Ten lead and Iowa’s most in the last seven seasons.

Senior LeShun Daniels went out with his best season, rushing for 1,058 yards and 10 TDs. Akrum Wadley was on the map after a tantalizing 2015, but he made himself a mainstay with 1,081 yards and 10 TDs.

 

Iowa timed its most productive month for November, rushing for 180.0 yards on 42.75 carries in four games. Remember November? The Hawkeyes went 3-1 trading an embarrassing loss at Penn State for a victory against then-No. 3 Michigan a week later. In other words, Iowa’s running game held things together during a reset that helped earn six Big Ten victories — with nine conference games now, that’s a totally acceptable B1G record (except maybe if you were expected to make a push to defend a division title, which Iowa totally was).

Iowa wasn’t great in short yardage last season. On third-and-1 to 3 yards to go, the Hawkeyes converted the first down in 21 of 40 attempts. The 21 conversions were OK (tied for seventh in the league), but Iowa gained just 50 yards and averaged 1.25 yards on 50 third-and-short rushes. When you’re talking third-and-1 to 3 yards, 1.25 yards doesn’t give you any room for error. (Let’s make “drive killers” a stat next season.)

In contrast, the Hawkeyes were third in the league in rush yards inside the opponent’s 20-yard line (red zone), averaging 3.36 yards in 78 attempts.

Average rush attempts per game continued to be a big number for Iowa under head coach Kirk Ferentz. In 2016, the Hawkeyes had seven games in which they rushed more than 40 times, finishing with a 5-2 record. Two losses with 40-plus rush attempts? Yes, Northwestern (41 rushes) and vs. Florida in the Outback (41 rushes). Since 2013, the Hawkeyes have a 26-5 record when they rush more than 40 times.

Numbers, numbers, numbers. Blah, blah, blah.

The last two seasons, Iowa’s running game as been a strength. That said, it’s going to have to be all of that and more in 2017.

4th Down — Critical Questions

How will offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz use Akrum Wadley?

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There’s probably no right answer here. Probably the hand was tipped last season. Was the Michigan game the perfect blend of Wadley usage? It sure felt like it.

Here’s a quick toss out of power I for 8 yards on the game’s second play (Iowa ran more toss to Wadley last year, getting him in space, than it had previously).

Same formation, same personnel, here’s Wadley being Wadley for a 22-yard gain.

And here’s the discovery moment. Wadley lined up in the backfield in a shotgun formation with 11 personnel. He was spun by defensive end Chris Wormley while getting into his route. Wadley just went with it, catching linebacker Mike McCray cheating to the outside. C.J. Beathard hit Wadley in stride for a 27-yard gain.

Michigan was overaggressive all night. Why wouldn’t it be? This was the same Iowa offense that scored just 14 points the week before at Penn State. On fourth-and-goal from the 3, the Wolverines ran a double A gap blitz. The right side of the D-line was allowed a free run at Beathard, who put a perfect ball to Wadley, who had leverage on McCray for an easy TD.

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OK, it wasn’t easy. There was zero margin for error, but the design and the play call and the Wadley made it work. The drive allowed Iowa to pull within 10-8 and gave it life.

Two more. Wadley kind of single-handedly set up the field goal in the third quarter that gave Iowa an 11-10 lead. On back-to-back plays, Wadley hit 12-yard gains. The first one was from 21 personnel, with fullback Drake Kulick and TE Peter Pekar landing key blocks (Pekar sealed DE Taco Charlton, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, and Kulick got CB Jourdan Lewis). (The move Wadley put on CB Channing Stribling was the finisher.)

Iowa then got right back up and ran what looked to me like an inside zone. Another 12 yards.

By the time this was over, Wadley had made a name for himself outside of Iowa City. Oh, and Keith Duncan got some mention, too (he did kick the 33-yarder to win it).

Wadley had 167 yards from scrimmage against the Wolverines (23 rushes for 115 yards and five catches for 52 yards). And Iowa’s offense didn’t necessarily shed its skin to set free Wadley. And that’s the answer for how Iowa will use Wadley.

He’ll play running back. The offensive line will block. Wadley will do business between the tackles and with quick-hitting outside zones. He’ll catch short passes and turn them into chain-moving gains (getting Wadley underneath matched up against linebackers is good for Iowa). Just like last year, and, in a best-case scenario, just like he did against Michigan.

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What can Iowa attack? Where and in what situations can Wadley do the most damage? This is where opposing defenses will need to be wary of alignment, some of the simple things that Iowa and former offensive coordinator Greg Davis attacked so well vs. Michigan.

The new element for Wadley last season was his use in the passing game. In his first 25 games at Iowa, Wadley caught one pass for minus-1 yard. He caught three passes in each of the final two games of 2015 and has caught a pass in every game since.

Wadley stopped fumbling (he did fumble last season, but as Kirk Ferentz said, “We’re so far past that ...”) and gained some weight and deposited the right amount in the trust bank. Wadley earned targets in the passing game, but Iowa also realized it needed him.

Wadley should be the centerpiece in the Hawkeyes’ offense this season. And Iowa can do that and still be the Iowa that Kirk Ferentz wants it to be.

3rd Down — Additions/Subtractions

Iowa will lose the “hammer” running back out of its toolbox. Daniels mostly got the job done in short yardage. On third-and-1 to 3 yards, Daniels converted 12 of 23 carries for first downs. That was sixth in the Big Ten (Minnesota’s Rodney Smith and Ohio State’s Mike Weber led the league with 18 conversions).

And do take note that the New England Patriots signed Daniels to a free-agent deal. The Patriots lost LeGarrette Blount, a 250-pound RB who rushed for nearly 1,200 yards last season. Daniels has a chance to compete for that role.

On the Iowa end of that, Iowa lost its hammer running back. We’ll get into that more.

Iowa also lost Derrick Mitchell. The senior graduated from Iowa and announced this week he’ll finish his college career at Texas Tech. Mitchell was always an intriguing player. It looked as if 2016 was going to be his year to carve out a bundle of touches for himself. He pretty much won the third-down role in 2015 and started there last year, but injuries and the rise of Wadley deflated thing for him. He finished 2016 with two carries for 12 yards and six catches for 24 yards. He didn’t log any stats in the final six games.

Here’s how Texas Tech’s offense could go this fall: Former Iowa QB Nic Shimonek faking a handoff to Mitchell and then hitting former Iowa receiver Derrick Willies on a play-action (I’m not sure Tech bothers with play-action, but you get my point).

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2nd Down — Battles Brewing

OK, now we talk about hammer running back. And hey, it might not break that way.

 

Right now, this looks like a battle between sophomore Toks Akinribade and redshirt freshman Toren Young. At 6-0, 208, is Akinribade a “hammer” running back? Maybe, maybe not. At 5-11, 220, Young is built like a hammer back, he ran like a hammer back in the spring game. He makes one cut and packs a punch.

But ... he hasn’t logged a carry and maybe Brian Ferentz isn’t looking for exactly that.

“Is there going to be a 1B?” Brian Ferentz, who, oh yeah, also is the running backs coach, said this spring. “I don’t know if it’s going to be what you saw last year. Boy, you’d like to get Akrum a lot of carries, and we talked about matchups. But Akrum’s a guy that’s good in space, so maybe you create some matchups where he’s in space, and you have another guy in the backfield that can carry the ball. So, I don’t know if it will be true 1A, 1B, but we anticipate those guys (Akinribade and Young) carrying the ball a whole bunch. And based on my experience, we’re going to need them all. That’s just been the way it goes.”

Asked about the potential moving around, Wadley said no comment. Loose lips sink schemes.

Wadley and a hammer back on the field at the same time, on a third-and-short, what personnel do you put out there if you’re a defensive coordinator?

If you put nickel out there, does quarterback Nathan Stanley (probably) hand off to Young against a defense that’s light in numbers on the line of scrimmage? Or does a defense go base and risk Wadley in the slot against a safety or linebacker?

 

However this ends up breaking down, Akinribade and Young are in for between 150 to 200 carries. Skill sets might determine this and that’s why they have fall practice.

There are two incoming freshman running backs — Kyshaun Bryan and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Will one of the two play? Staggering classes matters, and that’s probably why Akinribade (16 carries, 33 yards) played last season while Young redshirted.

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If one of these two comes in and throws down in August, things probably shuffle a little and maybe Bryan and Kelly-Martin could change the order. This won’t wash up on Wadley’s shore. He’s the No. 1.

How the running backs are used will tie into what the QB sees. There is a lot of circuitry that still needs building/establishing, but this running back group sets up to be a positive.

1st Down — In Summary

Five finishing thoughts on what needs to happen for the best-case scenario.

1. Wadley is on record. He wants 1,400 rushing yards. Marcus Coker was close to that in 2011 with 1,384 yards, but Iowa hasn’t had a 1,400-yard back since Shonn Greene set the season record with 1,850 in 2008.

If Wadley stays as engaged in the passing game as he was last season, a better measure for his effectiveness might be yards from scrimmage. Wadley averaged 107.4 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) last season, fifth in the Big Ten and the highest total for a Hawkeye since Coker averaged 128 in 2011.

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley led the B1G with 135.6 yards from scrimmage per game (1,496 rushing, 402 receiving). If Wadley is in that territory, he’s probably setting records (by the way, Greene finished with 142.3 yards from scrimmage per game in 2008, adding 307 receiving yards).

2. Finding the maximum number of touches for Wadley likely will be an ongoing experiment. Of course, it will be more important to maximize his touches, but this will be a factor for the player who should be Iowa’s most dangerous offensive weapon.

In 352 offensive snaps last season, Wadley was on the field for 171 rush and 129 pass plays (he also was asked to pass block 39 times). Of the top seven players in the B1G in yards from scrimmage last season, Wadley saw the second fewest touches (Wadley had 204, Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel had 171).

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You can make the argument that Wadley’s touches were handled fantastically last season, at 12.92 rushes and 2.76 receptions a game. Remember, he suffered a knee injury early in the year that needed surgery in the offseason. There’s a balance with Wadley’s size (that constant struggle that works perfectly as a mechanism to keep Wadley on task) and touches, and the numbers might not look much different from they did last season.

3. Last season, Iowa found itself replacing the talented fullback duo of Macon Plewa and Adam Cox with Drake Kulick and Brady Ross. Kulick and Ross return and that’s a good thing for an offense that likes power football.

How much did Iowa use Kulick and Ross last season? Pro Football Focus had them down for 128 and 159 snaps, respectively. Iowa ran 812 plays, so around 35 percent.

That’s a significant amount of snaps, not to mention the physical pace Kulick and Ross assume every day in practice.

This is a new(ish) offense, so maybe they see some more targets in the passing game, but there won’t be more carries for Kulick and Ross. They know their jobs and they’re just fine with that.

Basically, keep doing what you’re doing.

4. Let’s draw outside of the lines a little bit with Iowa’s offense. Do you see the read option coming on line under Brian Ferentz? Even as a look?

Stanley and Tyler Wiegers made their Rivals’ stars as prostyle QBs. It’s not likely, but, as a look, don’t rule it out.

5. This is an interesting group. Iowa has just about every kind of running back (Bryan is listed at 210 pounds and that’s intriguing) shape and size.

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There is a lack of experience at the hammer back spot. Young is new and no one else quite fits that category (at least not yet). But variety is good, too, and having the right tool for each situation might matter more than having the hammer back.

With his background under Bill O’Brien and the New England Patriots, Brian Ferentz probably really digs the challenge of using his personnel in the best possible way.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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