IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa running backs Akrum Wadley and Shonn Greene have many parallels but body type is not among of them.
The thick-muscled Greene, who won the Doak Walker Award in 2008, ran furiously and featured uncanny balance that belied his 230-pound frame. The sleeker Wadley has yet to reach 190 pounds but can lower his shoulder and boasts quick feet and explosive moves.
Both players hailed from New Jersey and incredibly both nearly played defensive back at Iowa. Greene was Iowa’s third-team running back in 2006 and shifted to safety for Alamo Bowl preparation against Texas. That lasted a few practices.
Before the 2015 season, Wadley shifted to defense during training camp. In Wadley’s words “it was a disaster, it was embarrassing.” He couldn’t wait to return to running back.
“I wasn’t up like Desmond King,” Wadley said. “I wasn’t backpedaling or moving like him, (Greg) Mabin. It just wasn’t right.”
In both cases, Iowa (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) lucked out that both moves failed. Greene rushed for a school-record 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2008. Wadley, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior, won’t match Greene’s numbers. But Wadley has approached Greene’s impact in smaller increments this season.
In last Saturday’s 14-13 upset of No. 3 Michigan, Wadley rushed for 115 yards and caught five passes for 52 yards. His 167 yards comprised 73 percent of Iowa’s offensive output. But more than just yards, it was the way in which Wadley performed that fueled the victory and ignited hopes of a strong regular-season finish. The Hawkeyes end their season at Illinois (3-7, 2-5) and against Nebraska (8-2, 5-2).
According to Pro Football Focus, Wadley rushed for 70 yards after contact against the Wolverines. He forced five missed tackles on the nation’s best statistical defense and received PFF’s third-highest grade for running backs last weekend.
“In games like this, there was nothing easy out there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If you’re the guy with the ball in your hand against that defense, they are going to try to kill you. He knew that coming in. I think he really rose to the occasion and did a great job for us.”
Wadley shares time with senior LeShun Daniels, and they’ve produced a powerful combination. Wadley leads Iowa with 779 rushing yards, ranking seventh among Big Ten backs. Daniels is 11th with 696 yards. Of the nine league runners with at least 700 yards, Wadley has the highest yards per carry at 6.4. According to PFF, Wadley averages 4.3 yards after contact per carry, the best of any Big Ten running back with more than 100 carries.
“He’s a great back, really elusive,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “He turns 3-yard runs into big plays, especially in tight spaces, which is crazy. Anytime you get the ball in his hands, he can make guys miss and turn little plays into big ones.”
Wadley’s road to Iowa’s prime-time performer wasn’t a straight shot. He arrived undersized at about 165 pounds and has struggled to put on weight. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Wadley was the fifth running back. He saw some action in the second half against Northwestern and gained 106 yards and a touchdown. He also fumbled. The next week in a 51-14 loss at Minnesota, Wadley rushed for a team-best 68 yards but fumbled again.
Entering the 2015 season, fumbling stuck to Wadley’s reputation like a figurative scarlet letter. He lost another fumble in the season opener and was sent to the bench almost permanently. Wadley didn’t play in three of Iowa’s next four games and was a distant third on the depth chart.
When ankle injuries took down both Daniels and Jordan Canzeri, Wadley was pressed into duty in the season’s seventh game at Northwestern. In a stunning performance, Wadley rushed for 204 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-10 beating of the No. 20 Wildcats. Iowa players and coaches believed in Wadley that day simply because they had no other alternative.
“I think fumbling the ball is a confidence thing,” Beathard said. “He didn’t have a lot of confidence carrying the ball. We didn’t really have a lot of confidence in him picking up protections earlier in his career. Over the past couple of years, he’s really put it on himself to learn the offense, learn the protections and it really doesn’t matter who’s in there on third down or during blitz-passing situations —LeShun, Derrick (Mitchell) or Akrum — we expect them all to pick up their protections, and they’ve done a good job with that.”
This year, Wadley has become a full-service running back. He ranks second on the team in catches with 28, including 17 the last three games. He has 11 total touchdowns and has scored in eight games. He ran for a 26-yard touchdown halfway through the fourth quarter to lift Iowa to a 14-7 win at Rutgers. Wadley burst 54 yards for a touchdown with 5:28 to play to beat Minnesota 14-7.
But his most impressive performance came against the Wolverines. He scored the Hawkeyes’ only touchdown with a fourth-down reception late in the first half. On Iowa’s final scoring drive, Wadley turned a screen pass into a 10-yard gain to put the Hawkeyes in field-goal range.
Afterward, Wadley stood in a back corner of the Kinnick Stadium media room. His face beamed and his grin widened when he recalled an embrace with Ferentz.
“He hugged me,” Wadley said. “It felt good. He gave me a big hug.”
“I’ll hug him more,” Ferentz said Tuesday, “if it makes him play good, I’m all for it. He thinks I’m mad at him all of the time because of his weight. But he’s a great young guy. A year ago, 13 months ago, we couldn’t trust him with the football, and now we more than trust him with it.
“I’m not ready to put him in the Ronnie Harmon category, but with any player you have, you try to accentuate what they do. And if a guy can do something you’re going to try to use that. That’s the main thing we’re on him about is his body weight so he can play more and have more durability out there. You worry about that.”
Ferentz was an Iowa assistant in the mid-1980s when Harmon was a first-team All-American. The coach rarely compares his current players with past stars, even in passing. For Wadley to go from a defensive tryout to a Harmon comparison shows he’s a made man in Ferentz’s book. For Iowa, that means he’s arrived.