|Derrick Mitchell Jr.
Previously on Assume the Position:
Graduation and eligibility rules finally made Kirk Ferentz do what three years of diminishing returns couldn't: Have someone other than Mark Weisman run the stretch play. God bless that kid, but this book needs its reader to blow off the dust and turn the page.
LeShun Daniels (#29, Junior, 6'0, 225 lbs., Harding HS (Warren, Ohio))
Seven years ago, in the first preseason with ATP, we didn't have much of an idea of who would get carries at the end of July. But by mid-August, the coaches had tipped their hand, and a would-be contest to the finish was over before it had begun. Of course, three months later, Shonn Greene had destroyed Frank Duong's world and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back.
So let's start here: LeShun Daniels isn't Shonn Greene. But it's been seven years since we last saw the halfback battle be decided so early and so decisively by the coaching staff. Kirk Ferentz kept the door open for "competition" in his official statement, but both offensive coordinator Greg Davis and running backs coach Chris White declared Daniels the winner. There's a role for Jordan Canzeri, and there will likely be carries for Akrum Wadley, but this is LeShun Daniels' backfield.
It's sort of amazing that Daniels is the guy at all, let alone so soon. In two seasons, Daniels failed to dislodge Mark Weisman, and managed just 51 carries for 191 yards. More than half of those carries came against UNI, Missouri State and Western Michigan; against Big Ten competition, Daniels has just 19 carries for 65 yards. He missed all of November last season due to injury and got just one attempt in Iowa's bowl game.
Daniels had a productive offseason, though. By all accounts, he dropped between five and ten pounds while adding strength and speed, and returns to camp less a poor man's Mark Weisman and more his own man. He's even said so himself:
"Sometimes you don't always have to go ram heads. You can make a nice cut, make a person miss and get some extra yardage. And there are times when you have to put your shoulder down and get tough yards. I'm more to the power side. But I definitely like to use my quickness and my speed when I have the opportunity."
Daniels is the only running back with a three-star recruiting grade or a Power 5 offer to get a carry since 2012, and there's not another one on the roster at the moment. If Iowa is going to break its string of two-star late-offers in the backfield, it's going to have to be with him. He's going to get his shot; it's more than we can say for most.
Always a Bridesmaid
Jordan Canzeri (#33, Senior (RS), 5'9, 190 lbs., Troy (N.Y.) HS)
The common consensus was that the January depth chart was made to keep C.J. Beathard in the boat, and rightfully so. Beathard had effectively threatened to quit the team if he wasn't a starter, and so Iowa made him a starter.
But there was one other significant change in the January depth chart: Jordan Canzeri was the new starting halfback. It made sense: Canzeri had run for 120 yards in the Taxslayer Bowl, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise horrible day. He was the only returning senior halfback with any experience, and he had been good when healthy. There may have been other reasons, though: Rumors were floating around at the time that a certain ACC team whose name rhymes with Georgia Trek was quietly trying to get Canzeri to take his own graduate transfer out of Iowa City and so, much like with Beathard, a show of good faith was required. It's why we got a January depth chart and not simply an announcement that we had a new starting quarterback. Other issues needed to be addressed.
The anointing of Beathard had its intended effect, clearing the depth chart of his primary competition. But Canzeri's opposition wasn't leaving because it's all juniors and sophomores, and now we find ourselves right back where we were the last two seasons: With the "big" back in the top spot and Canzeri relegated to third-down and injury duty. While Ferentz tried to make it sound close, his memo didn't get to his offensive coordinator or running backs coach, who declared the battle effectively over.
Part of that decision is Ferentzian; the search for the next Shonn Greene has been the story of Iowa halfback depth charts since Greene scoffed at fans chanting "one more year" after the 2009 Outback Bowl, just as they have searched in vain for the next Dallas Clark and Chad Greenway for more than a decade. Part of it is probably due to Canzeri's injury history, as well. And part of it has to be a calculated guess that there will be carries for both, because this is Iowa running back, and the Vegas odds of LeShun Daniels being eaten by a pygmy hippo are like 3:2. There will be a circumstance this season where Canzeri is needed.
There will also be a circumstance where Canzeri is the better back for the situation. His skill set is wholly different from Daniels. He's small, he's quick, and he has excellent vision in the interior line. Canzeri's best play has always been the inside zone (another reason why he's probably not getting the job in an offense predicated on the outside zone as its base running play), and teams with soft interiors are prime targets for the senior. The question remains whether the coaches will recognize when those opportunities arise and give him the rock. Otherwise, it's looking like a season of limited carries and blitz pickup for Canzeri.
While You Wait for the Others
Akrum Wadley (#25, Sophomore (RS), 5'11, 185 lbs., Weequahic HS (Newark, N.J.))
On pure metrics, it was not Weisman or Canzeri but Akrum Wadley who had the most impressive 2014 campaign, no small feat for a redshirt freshman who didn't even see the field until mid-October. Part of that is a function of where his carries occurred (against a Northwestern team that was beaten before it left the bus, primarily), but it was nevertheless a good sign for a player who came to Iowa light on recruiting buzz and offers but heavy on storyline: He attended a high school with no football program, got himself to a neighboring school just to play, then led them to the state playoffs while shattering rushing records along the way. Even with Iowa's renewed emphasis on recruiting the halfback position, Wadley should be in line for some carries in 2015 and an eventual starting spot.
Derrick Mitchell Jr. (#32, Sophomore (RS), 6'1, 212 lbs., Vashon HS (St. Louis, Mo.))
Mitchell was recruited as a wide receiver and spent his first two seasons in that group, but his work on Iowa's scout team in 2014, particularly as a stand-in for Melvin Gordon, turned enough heads to earn him a position change. He busted a few runs in the spring game, racking up 53 yards on more than seven yards per carry, but the odds of him navigating through this depth chart still look fairly slim. Barring a particularly heavy AIRBHG plague, he's probably primarily a special teams guy in 2015.
Marcel Joly (#26, Freshman (RS), 5'11, 185 lbs., Forestville Military Academy (Hyattsville, Md.))
Like Mitchell, Joly moved from another position to running back this spring after impressing on scout team last year. Unlike Mitchell, it wasn't the coaching staff's idea. Joly actually proposed it to the coaches, and Ferentz approved. Joly could be an intriguing special teams weapon, but it's unlikely we'll see much more this season.
C.J. Hilliard (#35, Freshman (RS), 5'10, 195 lbs., Xavier HS (Cincinnati, Ohio))
Hilliard was unable to talk his five-star linebacker brother into coming to Iowa this year -- if he had pulled that off, he should have forfeited his eligibility and become Iowa's recruiting coordinator -- and there's nobody left for him to track in 2015. Still, he's at least a year away from contributing significantly, if the chatter out of Media Day is any indication.
Macon Plewa (#42, Senior (RS), 6'2, 245 lbs., Franklin (Wis.) HS))
Adam Cox (#38, Senior (RS)*, 5'11, 235 lbs., Stillman Valley HS (China, Ill.))
Cox missed the entirety of 2014 with a preseason injury, and nagging injuries cut Plewa's season short. But Iowa (1) has both players back and fully healthy, according to coaches, and (2) fully intends to use its pair of fullbacks this season. That probably doesn't mean many carries; the two of them have combined for seven carries and 25 yards in five healthy, non-redshirt seasons. But they may get targeted on the occasional pass, and they'll be charged with showing Daniels and the younger backs where to go. The contributions of Plewa and Cox, both former walk-ons who have stuck with the program in a thankless position for far longer than most would have done so, could be outsized in a year with so many questions on the offensive line. They're up for the challenge.