IOWA CITY, Iowa — Good news arrived for Iowa on Tuesday. Running back James Butler is back at practice, but his elbow injury will keep him out of the Northwestern game this week.
Better news followed. The Hawkeyes plan to limit the number of touches of star running back Akrum Wadley. Overuse is a concern for Wadley, and with Butler out, Iowa leaned on him more than it wanted.
The best news came later when the conversation turned to young running backs Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. The Hawkeyes must embrace using them to help ease Wadley’s burden. Now, it sounds like they’re ready to do so.
“If our younger guys don’t keep coming on and keep improving and show some benefit from the play they’ve had in the first half of the season, we’re not going to be a real good football team,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “For us it’s all about everybody pushing forward right now, and to your point, hopefully both those guys will be a little bit more better ready now to go out and compete.”
Keeping Wadley fresh isn’t a new topic. The coaching staff first brought up maximizing his touches and avoiding wearing him down during the offseason. After all, Wadley is 5-foot-11, 195 pounds.
He is the running-back version of a Tesla. His moves are great, he’s efficient and has amazing top-end speed. Four of his six 100-yard games required 15 handoffs or fewer last season.
But you don’t use a sports car to pull a trailer. It’s not designed to do so and will break down hauling a boat to the lake.
It’s the same way with Wadley and his touches. He isn’t a volume back. Get too many, and he is more likely to wear down during a season and become less effective.
That’s the last thing Iowa needs from the centerpiece of its offense. The problem is, Iowa is trending in that direction.
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Ideally, the Hawkeyes want to keep him between 18-25 touches. He’s reached the upper limit of it twice and exceeded it once. Pushing it to the max in three of the first six games isn’t ideal, but not horrible.
It becomes a red flag when combined with the lack of touches for other running backs. Wadley is a one-man show in the backfield since Butler suffered his elbow injury.
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Illinois was a step in the right direction. Something in the neighborhood of 70 percent of running-back carries appears to be the number Iowa seeks. It was 70.5 percent and 73.7 percent in the first two games. Wadley sat out a large part of the third game as an injury precaution against North Texas.
Butler is the reason the early-season numbers were lower. The Hawkeyes trust the former 1,000-yard rusher in a way they have yet to show with Young or Kelly-Martin.
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Let the kids play
Iowa knows it’s relying on Wadley a little too much.
“You can’t have Akrum out there for 60 plays a game,” said offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz last week. “That’s probably not helping him get anything done.”
The solution is simple. The Hawkeyes need to give Young and Kelly-Martin the ball. They did so in the North Texas win. The underclassmen combined for 30 carries.
They didn’t the last three games. They combined for 11 carries — or nearly as many as Butler averaged in either of the first two games.
Kelly-Martin’s first-quarter fumble made it hard for the Hawkeyes to turn back to him in the Illinois game, but that’s no reason to ignore Young.
Kirk Ferentz knows Iowa must monitor how many times Wadley touches the football and views it like a pitch count in baseball. He also understands some situations, like a close overtime game at Iowa State, will take precedence over capping him at 25 touches.
Still, the Hawkeyes need to ensure Young and Ivory-Martin see the field. Their play during bye-week practice likely increases Iowa’s likelihood in turning to them.
“They both looked better than they did a week ago,” Kirk Ferentz said. “The good thing about young players, and we’ve got a lot of young players playing right now, if they practice well, if their mind is in the right place, they can improve a little bit more dramatically than a fifth-year guy or fourth-year guy that’s played a lot. That’s something we’re banking on.”
Making do until James Butler comes back
The Hawkeyes believe in Butler. The problem is his return is up in the air. Iowa wants him to get back into football shape and adjust to playing with a brace on.
In the meantime, Iowa can’t be afraid to use Young and Kelly-Martin. They’ve flashed promise. It’s time to see what they can do in a true complementary role.
“I always tell [Young] you never know when you are going to go in,” Wadley said. “He always tells me he is ready. He is ready and Ivory, we know Ivory is ready too.”
The time to unleash them is now. It’s the best thing for Wadley, which makes it the best thing for the offense.