IOWA CITY, Iowa — Akrum Wadley’s best trait is avoidance. He built a reputation as a playmaking running back on his ability to dodge defenders.
It also comes in handy when a topic comes up Wadley prefers to avoid. And he was in no mood to discuss Penn State running back Saquon Barkley on Iowa’s media day in August.
“It’s not about him,” Wadley told Land of 10. “It’s not about Penn State. It’s about getting better and me knowing some things I have to focus on and my main goal is just to get better.”
Wadley evaded questions on Barkley for one reason. Thinking about arguably the best back in the country won’t help Wadley get as close as he can to that moniker.
Wadley is about maximizing his ability, production and letting everyone see the full extent of his talents in his senior year. If the Hawkeyes are to upset the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions on Saturday, Wadley must do just that.
No, this game isn’t about Barkley. But it is. Wadley must go through Penn State — and the player Wadley doesn’t want to discuss — to reach his goals.
Wadley was a big play waiting to happen in 2016. He rushed for 1,081 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He caught 36 passes for 315 yards and led the Hawkeyes with 1,396 yards and 13 touchdowns.
His third-team all-conference campaign was the definition of a breakout season.
Just don’t tell Wadley that.
He views his junior season in the way a hedge fund manager looks at a promising portfolio. It’s nice, but there is room for substantial growth.
Wadley showed his elusiveness, speed and ability to make plays in space. Yet, it came in small portions. He recorded only 168 carries. Iowa never fully unleashed his skills for the entire season as he split time with LeShun Daniels Jr.
He wasn’t the centerpiece. He is now.
Wadley is the hub of the offense. Everything runs through him, and the playbook plays to his game-altering skill set.
This is the opportunity Wadley wants, to show what he can do when getting 20-plus touches a week.
Wadley doesn’t come out and say it. For an outspoken player it’s kind of surprising, but he circles around the subject.
His goal is 1,300 rushing yards. He put on weight to prepare for his new role. He lights up whenever talking about the season.
Wadley must be directly asked about the possibilities of this season, the chance to showcase what he is capable of, and the opportunity for people to better understand his abilities before he addresses the subject.
“Definitely,” Wadley said. “At the end of the day that’s the goal.”
He’s out to be a star.
Akrum Wadley and Saquon Barkley
Wadley and Barkley don’t look anything alike.
It can sometimes be hard to find the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Wadley behind his offensive line, but he runs like the Big Ten’s version of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. He moves in ways other backs can’t and makes defenders look silly in the process.
Barkley is a freak of nature. He squats 525 pounds. He power cleans 405 pounds and runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash.
At 5-11, 225 pounds, Barkley is like a 21st century Jim Brown, combining speed, power and vision in a way no other back does. It shows. He broke out nationally last season, rushing for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten title and 11 victories.
“The way he plays football is unbelievable,” Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki said.
Wadley and Barkley are more similar than it may appear.
Each is capable of turning a routine carry into a highlight-worthy run. Take Barkley’s 79-yard Rose Bowl touchdown.
USC had Barkley stopped for no gain, but he bounced outside and wiggled away from four defenders boxing him to zigzag across the field for the score.
It’s the most impressive thing Gesicki ever watched Barkley do.
“He has such great instincts as a football player,” Gesicki said. “Any praise or positive things that people say about Saquon they are all earned. He deserves every last one of them. He is one of the best, if not the best, running backs in college football.”
Not to be outdone, Wadley bundles jaw-dropping plays together the way cable companies do channels. There is the 54-yard touchdown run at Minnesota last season. His 46-yard touchdown reception at Iowa State on Sept. 9 was his latest addition.
But the move center James Daniels remembers the most vividly came against Michigan last November. A corner chased Wadley in pursuit. To this day Daniels doesn’t know if Wadley saw the defender or not, but Wadley broke him off, leaving the defender wondering how he missed the tackle.
“I am in the game laughing,” Daniels said. “I am not sure how he was doing that. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”
Each is a leader, pulling his team with him.
Barkley is a natural. The way teammates tell it, Barkley arrived on campus that way.
“He is a guy [when] we go to the stadium to run stadium steps and he is grabbing a 20-pound weighted vest,” Gesicki said. “Well, if you see him grab a 20-pound weighted vest it’s all right. I guess I have to grab a 20-pound weighted vest.”
Wadley needed time to grow into his leadership role. Early in his career, every Wadley big play was seemingly matched by a headache for the coaching staff.
He matured in time and now saw it as his duty to take freshman wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette under his wing when the newcomer fumbled on his first career play.
“He does a really good job with our younger players,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “He’s a guy that can reach out and help some of those young guys, those freshmen that we’re going to be counting on this year and kind of show them, ‘Hey this is the way to do it. I’ve been through the good, the bad. I’ve seen it all here. I can help you learn from my mistakes and really advance a little bit faster.’”
Joining the national elite
Wadley ran wild on opposing defenses last season. Three times in his first seven games he topped 100 yards. Six times he averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry.
Then he ran into Penn State.
The Nittany Lions bottled Wadley up, limiting him to 28 rushing yards on 9 carries as Iowa lost 41-14.
Penn State’s first priority was stopping Wadley and Daniels Jr. The team was well aware of how Wadley impacts games.
“He is a slice and dice kind of guy,” Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “He can take it the distance, has that kind of speed.”
The Nittany Lions turned him into a non-factor by taking away his biggest strength.
“That is the kind of guy who will duck inside, jump cut outside and then get to the outside, and once he gets some space in a 1-on-1 situation, that is where he thrives,” Cabinda said.
“Being able to eliminate those 1-on-1 situations, having a ton of pursuit, having a ton of guys running to the ball and kind of suffocating is the best way to handle a back like that.”
Does Wadley have a counter?
Iowa needs the answer to be yes.
It’s going to be difficult for the Hawkeyes to outscore the Nittany Lions without the hub of their offense playing a key role. Fellow running back James Butler is out at least three weeks with a right elbow injury.
Expect Iowa to lean on Wadley like it did when upsetting No. 3 Michigan last season. He touched the ball 28 times for 167 total yards and a touchdown. Without him, kicker Keith Duncan doesn’t become a legend with his game-winning field goal.
The opening is there for Wadley to find better success than last season. Penn State allowed at least 150 rushing yards the last two weeks.
Wadley’s Michigan performance brought him local fame. It upped his “Q” score around Iowa City, but not across the country. It was a 14-13 game where no one moved the ball, except for Wadley. He accounted for 72.6 percent of Iowa’s offensive output.
Barkley, on the other hand, gained national recognition for his Rose Bowl run and All-American campaign.
“I mean this with all due respect to Akrum,” coach Kirk Ferentz said, “but we’re talking about Barkley being one of the guys that’s going to be I would imagine a top-5 pick. I don’t know all the seniors in the country, but my guess is he would have been pretty high [as a draft pick] last year. Akrum is a really good football player, too.”
To join Barkley in the discussion of the nation’s top ball carriers, Wadley might need another big day in prime time, on ABC, against a league power.
Wadley wants no part of the conversation. He declined discussing Barkley again this week. He is focusing on himself
It’s working. Kirk Ferentz said Wadley is playing the best football of his career. Everything Wadley wants from his final go-around is within reach.
But despite what Wadley says — or doesn’t say — it is about Barkley. Because to achieve his goals, Wadley might need to be the best running back in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.