Down to its core, college football is a cyclical sport. At the end of every season, each team faces the task of trying to replace a productive player or, more often than not, multiple productive players, as guys move on to the NFL via early declaration or graduation, thus leaving a wide open spot for another player to fill. That’s one of the undeniable aspects that I, and so many others, love about the game of college football; the unknown, the optimism, and reminiscing of past players.
Coming off a more than impressive 12-2 season, the Iowa Hawkeyes have a lot of open spots to fill, on both sides of the ball — positions such as free safety, defensive end, receiver, center, and right guard all come to mind — but arguably biggest hole on this team lies at running back, a position previously held by last year’s breakout star, Jordan Canzeri.
Last season, Canzeri was able to rack up over 1,000 yards of total offense and 13 touchdowns on only 203 touches, as he was able to provide the Hawkeyes with some much-needed spark and game-altering plays, both on the ground and through the air down the stretch. Now, it’s next man up, and although many analysts and fans are looking at senior running back LeShun Daniels as the answer, my sights are set on the guy who the majority of people are currently calling the number two — redshirt junior, Akrum Wadley. Also, side note here, but “Akrum Wadley” has got to be one of the most dynamic sounding names in all of college football.
At first glance Wadley, a player that comes in at 5’11”, 191-pounds, may not look the part of a traditional Hawkeye workhorse running back, however in order for me to properly establish how Wadley fits in this offense, I must address the misconception which is the Hawkeyes’ ground game.
Often times when analysts discuss the Hawkeyes’ ground game the general takeaway is that it’s a grind-it-out, power-style approach and although there’s certainly a bit of truth to that, it ignores the fact that this offense is also, if not more so, designed for runners with burst, vision, and patience — runners like Canzeri and Wadley.
The truth about the Hawkeyes’ ground attack is that it’s not actually as predicated on power as many seem to think. In fact, the foundation of the Hawkeyes offense is actually zone-blocking, with the staple being outside zone-running.
In a zone-blocking system, offensive lineman have to be two things in order to be successful — mobile and technical. With that said, brute force and physicality is obviously a welcomed plus, however, it’s not as required as it would be in a man-blocking system, and that’s what throws off a lot of people when discussing the Hawkeyes’ offense.
Now, let’s get back to Wadley. Going into the 2016-2017 season, I think it’s fair to say that the arrow is pointing up with him. In addition to a likely bump in snaps he’ll receive with Canzeri no longer in the picture, Wadley has also been receiving glowing praise from members of the coaching staff this offseason and, according to reports, the once 167-pound change of pace back is now up to a much more muscular 190-pounds. Another aspect that’s being overlooked by many in regards to the open spot at running back is the Iowa coaching staff having gone with a ride-the-hot-hand type approach in the past; 2014 with Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Leshun Daniels, and Damon Bullock and in 2011 with Mika'il McCall, Marcus Coker, and De'Andre Johnson. If Wadley is able to showcase his game-breaking potential early on in the season, it could leave a very positive impression on the minds of a coaching staff in desperate search of playmaking talent.
Aside from simply opportunity, (get ready for some subjectivity here) I do think Wadley is currently the most talented and most dynamic back on the roster, as well as the one this offense needs the most. Last season, Canzeri’s ability to break off game-altering runs at any given moment — runs against Nebraska and Illinois come to mind — was one of the biggest reasons this offense, heck, this team was able to be successful and win close games. When you have a player that is able to pose a threat any time he touches the ball, you have to feed him and that was the gameplan with Canzeri last season. That’s why, in my opinion, giving LeShun Daniels, a guy who doesn’t quite have that game-breaking quality about him, the lion’s share of the carries would not only be a mistake but also has the potential to cost this team a game or two down the stretch.
Akrum Wadley with the ankle breaker. pic.twitter.com/oFr03mb1H9— Rob Donaldson (@DraftCharge) August 21, 2016
So, assuming everything goes right for Wadley and he’s able to secure a majority of the workload, what exactly is his upside in regards to production? Well, with a player like Wadley, there is a bit of projection at this point, however, the sample size he’s given us so far isn’t actually all that small. I feel pretty confident gauging his talent at this point in time based on personal film study. Prepare yourselves, because you may feel a tad bit of heat here, although I don’t think it’s a scorcher by any means: In my personal opinion, Wadley looks like he may be the most talented Hawkeye running back since Marcus Coker and if he’s given somewhere around 200 touches this upcoming season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him rack up close to 1,200 total yards.
Now, on to the part I enjoy the most — the explanation. With Wadley, you’re not only talking about a serious playmaking threat with the ability to take it to the house on any given play, but you’re also talking about a guy who, given his traits, could without question go down as one of the more talented running backs of the Kirk Ferentz era. Wadley’s mixture of burst, speed, footwork, lateral quickness, and nuance is something that the Hawkeyes haven’t had in their backfield in quite some time. You would have to go back nearly a decade just to find another Hawkeye running back with a similar skill set.
He set up this downfield block perfectly; patient (hesitated going inside) & then glided laterally -- 9 extra yards. pic.twitter.com/8UO9mLY8U2— Rob Donaldson (@DraftCharge) August 21, 2016
Last season Wadley flashed his potential as he was able to average 6.6 yards per touch. On top of that, you have to consider the fact that the Iowa coaching staff didn’t even start utilizing him as a receiver out of the backfield until the final two games. Despite not even amassing 90 total touches last season, Wadley was able to score eight touchdowns, meaning roughly every 11 times he touched the ball, Wadley was finding himself in the end zone. That’s truly some unreal level production, especially when you consider that he was mostly coming off the bench cold.
Wadley was underused as a receiver last yr. Only caught 6 passes all season & all of them came in the final 2 games. pic.twitter.com/ExBb3fA9CW— Rob Donaldson (@DraftCharge) August 21, 2016
At the end of the day, how Wadley’s season plays will truly come down to making the most of an opportunity, meaning a defined work ethic, a lack of issues with ball security, serviceable work in pass protection, zero problems off the field, and good health, which has been an issue with Iowa running backs over previous years. If all those boxes are checked, watch out. This season could be one to remember for Akrum Wadley.