IOWA CITY, Iowa — Few Iowa running backs in recent years in Kirk Ferentz’s tenure — or any era — could match Akrum Wadley’s play-making ability the last two seasons.
Time after time, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior would slash and juke and sprint past defenders for both big runs and impressive intermediate gains. Wadley never shied from contact and became a complete threat as both a runner and pass receiver. He was Iowa’s best offensive weapon this year, and it wasn’t close.
After toying with the idea of turning pro this week, Wadley elected to stay at Iowa, announcing his decision Thursday. It was an understandable decision either way but Wadley made the right one, long term.
The Big Ten is a physical conference, but the pro game is three levels nastier than any realm of college football. Wadley needed to gain weight and become stronger to withstand the beating at that level. Few schools develop players in the weight room like Iowa. If Wadley commits to his training as badly as he wants to play pro football, he will gain 10-15 pounds and enough strength to become at least a third-round pick in 2018. A 200-pound Wadley compares favorably with Tavian Banks from 20 years ago.
But in order to make Wadley’s return worth his while, the Hawkeyes need to make changes to its offense. I’m not talking about its zone-blocking/power-running scheme. That’s the backbone of Iowa football under Ferentz, and it’s the right approach. The Hawkeyes develop offensive linemen better than any team in the country. Wadley and LeShun Daniels each rushed for more than 1,000 yards this year. It works, provided the right pieces are in place.
But the 30-3 beat down by Florida in the Outback Bowl was yet another instance of Iowa’s offense trying to fight a beatable opponent one-handed. The passing numbers sounded like a bad rushing day: 24 attempts for 55 yards. Only there were 7 completions and 3 interceptions. Receivers lacked separation and were smothered by Florida’s aggressive and talented secondary. Often the routes looked sloppy and at half-speed against superior defenders. It’s nothing new, just the latest reminder that Iowa’s passing game is broken.
In three of Iowa’s final four games, the Hawkeyes passed for 80 yards or less. If you take away Riley McCarron’s 77-yard catch-and-sprint touchdown against Nebraska, none of the four would have surpassed 80 yards. Iowa ranked 118th nationally in passing yards per game at 153.2. That’s the program’s lowest passing output since 1981. Iowa threw for only 1,991 yards this year, the program’s lowest since 1982. Its yards per attempt was 6.4, 104th in the nation.
There is some merit that Iowa’s passing numbers are worse because of departures and injuries. True, TE Henry Krieger-Coble, WR Tevaun Smith, RB Jordan Canzeri and WR Jacob Hillyer — who ranked second, third, fourth and sixth in 2015 catches, respectively — all graduated. Smith (Indianapolis) and Krieger-Coble (Denver) play in the NFL. Top 2015 target Matt VandeBerg suffered a broken foot after the fourth game in 2016 and was lost for the season. Tight end George Kittle, tied for fourth in catches, was injured at Purdue, missed two games and hobbled through the rest of the season. That’s six top targets out the door, so a drop-off would be expected. But the late part of this season was like going over a cliff, and much of the blame should be centered on the coaching staff.
In 2012, Ferentz replaced offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe (who left for the Miami Dolphins) with Greg Davis. Instead of running traditional dig, post and deeper routes throughout the field, Iowa shifted to shorter routes outside the hashmarks. Quarterback James Vandenberg’s yardage numbers fell from 3,022 to 2,249 and his touchdowns collapsed from 25 to 7. Iowa’s 10.09 yards-per-completion was the worst at the school since 1946. In yards-per-attempt, Iowa’s 5.8 was 116th in the country.
In order to fully implement Davis’ offense, wide receivers coach Erik Campbell was replaced by Davis protégé Bobby Kennedy. In 2013, Iowa used six scholarships on wide receivers, two more than on offensive and defensive linemen combined. In the years since, three wide receivers transferred, one shifted to running back (Derrick Mitchell) and another was junior-college receiver Damond Powell. The other was VandeBerg, who didn’t even get a scholarship until shortly before training camp.
Outside of Powell, those receivers would be juniors and seniors this year. The coaching staff failed to identify, recruit, develop and retain those wide receivers. Football programs expect attrition, but not like that. Long term, it’s a killer.
A system change virtually ruined James Vandenberg’s senior season. He was a legitimate pro prospect and eventually signed with the Minnesota Vikings as a camp arm. He quickly was cut. Had his senior year produced similar numbers to his junior season, he likely gets drafted and earns the benefit of the doubt from an NFL club. He had enough brains, arm strength and talent to stick around for a few years.
The erosion and injuries at receiver contributed to C.J. Beathard’s statistical drop-off from 2015 to 2016. He passed for nearly 900 fewer yards as a senior compared to his junior season. His contributions were unquantifiable in leadership and changing plays. But the scheme and imprecise routes — a direct indictment of coaching — was as much of a factor in the passing game’s issues as the injuries and attrition.
With five offensive linemen returning who started at least seven games, the Hawkeyes have the beef to vault Wadley into rarified numbers. But unless the passing offense changes, opponents will continue to bunch the line of scrimmage and Wadley will take a beating. A new quarterback, the same receivers — it doesn’t matter without a new passing design. And Iowa could use a new voice or two to go along with a new scheme.