IOWA CITY, Iowa — As he stood near the entryway of Iowa’s $55 million practice facility, running back Akrum Wadley said he was given an extra-credit assignment by coach Kirk Ferentz.
The task for Wadley was to watch film of former Iowa All-American running back Ronnie Harmon. Back in in the mid-1980s, Harmon was the ultimate combination back for some of Iowa’s best teams under coach Hayden Fry. Harmon is the only player in Iowa history with more than 2,000 career rushing yards and 2,000 receiving yards. He ranks in the top 10 of both categories and ended his career as the No. 2 rusher and No. 1 receiver.
“When I first got here, my jersey was 31, I think that was his jersey number,” Wadley said. “I’ve got to watch him.”
Ferentz was Iowa’s offensive line coach when Harmon shredded Big Ten defenses. A decade later in the NFL, in 1996, Harmon scored a touchdown for the Houston Oilers while Ferentz stood across the sideline as the Baltimore Ravens’ assistant head coach.
In his prime, Harmon outweighed Wadley by about 10 pounds and finished with nearly 9,000 all-purpose yards in the NFL. Ferentz has harped from the day Wadley (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) joined the program that he needs to gain weight to absorb the pounding and reach his potential. But there’s no denying that their impact at Iowa has similarities.
“The comparison there would be Akrum does some stuff with the ball in his hands that none of us can coach,” Ferentz said. “We’d love to, but you can’t coach or give that to a guy. Ronnie was the same way. I think they’re similar in the fact that Ronnie’s one of the tougher, more competitive guys I’ve ever been around anywhere at any place I’ve ever coached. I mean, he was a tough-minded guy.
“Akrum likes playing. That was a full day’s work he got in the other day [at Iowa State]. Probably more than he needed, but we needed him. That last touchdown he scored, that was a lot of individual effort, and Ronnie had some of those similarities too.”
Ferentz usually offers up a qualifier when comparing current players with all-time greats. He didn’t do that on Tuesday. Wadley’s resume already is stacked with moments beyond most individuals’ careers. And he just might be the most electric offensive player in Iowa football history.
A special competitor
Perhaps no receiver made a greater impact on the Iowa football program than Marvin McNutt. He’s the all-time leader in receiving yards (2,861) and receiving touchdowns (28). Nobody else is within 7 receiving scores of McNutt, and he produced some of the school’s greatest moments.
McNutt, who coaches the the Cedar Rapids Titans of the Indoor Football League, remains close to the Iowa program and frequently checks out practice. He compares Wadley’s on-field impact to that of Shonn Greene, who won the 2008 Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back.
“I would only put, there’s only a few people up there with Akrum — Akrum, you ain’t better than me, by the way,” McNutt said with a laugh. “No, I don’t think you have any more explosive players besides a guy like Shonn Greene that we’ve seen the likes of. The way he was able to break tackles, run down the field, look composed after each play and wanted the ball every time. I think we’re seeing a guy who is the leader of that team because you’re seeing that whole offense play with confidence.”
Last Saturday, Wadley produced one of the great plays in Iowa’s Cy-Hawk rivalry with Iowa State. With 1 minute, 9 seconds left in the game and the Hawkeyes trailing Iowa State by a touchdown, Wadley fielded a swing pass in the left flat from quarterback Nate Stanley at the Iowa State 45. Wadley raced past linebacker Joel Lanning and cut upfield. Wadley broke two tackles at the 20, juked a defender at the 10, ran him over at the 5 and dragged two defenders into the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.
It was one of many highlight-reel plays for Wadley in his Iowa career. It once again emphasizes what he can do is special. Wadley’s will to compete matches his rare elusiveness.
“I got a step on a backer, Nick [Easley] was blocking downfield and it was murder,” Wadley said after the game. “There wasn’t nobody up the field. I had a step on a linebacker, he dumped it out and that was that.”
His teammates have watched Wadley develop since his redshirt season in 2013. Linebacker Josey Jewell, who has competed against Wadley in practice all these years, said the running back’s explosive speed is “kind of crazy.”
“He can change direction better than pretty much anybody that I’ve seen or anybody I guess played against,” Jewell said. “If you think you’re going to corral him in a sideline, just kind of like the end of the Iowa State game, you never know he has that jump cut that he can come back really quickly.”
Offensive lineman Boone Myers, who has blocked for Wadley during his career, credited the runner’s improvement in his football awareness and maturity for his growth. This week, Wadley was named a team captain for the first time in his career. But it’s his skills as a runner that wow Myers.
“I’m like I don’t know how he does it,” Myers said. “I’d break my knee, I’d break an ankle, I’d hurt myself. He can go full speed and change directions and then he’s on the other side of the field. It’s crazy. He’s a tremendous player.”
The best so far and yet to come
Like Ferentz comparing Wadley with Harmon, fans and media consider Wadley among Iowa’s most explosive players. Some bring up 1990s running back Tavian Banks or All-American receiver and returner Tim Dwight. There’s also Harmon, Greene and McNutt, who was named the Big Ten’s top receiver in 2011.
Wadley ranks 15th in rushing at Iowa with 1,977 yards. In that group, Wadley joins Banks and Greene for the top yard-per-carry average at 5.9. Through two games this year, Wadley ranks second in the Big Ten and fourth nationally with 203 all-purpose yards per game.
The stats accumulation is nice, but Wadley is best known for his individual plays. In 2016, Wadley rushed for fourth-quarter touchdowns on runs of 26 yards at Rutgers and of 54 yards at Minnesota to win each game 14-7.
Wadley also showed speed and acceleration on a pair of 75-yard touchdown runs against Purdue and Nebraska. He was the best player on the field in a 14-13 upset of No. 3-ranked Michigan last year. He compiled 167 of Iowa’s 230 total yards (73 percent) and scored Iowa’s only touchdown on a fourth-down screen pass. On the second play from scrimmage in a 2015 game against Indiana, Wadley raced 65 yards untouched for a touchdown.
But the game that stands out the most for Wadley was his breakout performance as a sophomore in 2015. He struggled with fumbling and hovered somewhere between third and fourth string. With Iowa’s top two backs out with ankle injuries, the Hawkeyes turned to Wadley out of necessity. He didn’t disappoint.
Wadley scored 4 touchdowns and rushed for a career-best 204 yards in a 40-10 pounding of Northwestern. He proved to the coaches they can rely upon him, and he took his role seriously.
“That was like a turning point,” Wadley said. “That was my first and only 200-yard game … so far.”
In Wadley’s freshman year, Iowa’s defense competed against a handful of running backs who are NFL stars. They include David Johnson (Northern Iowa), Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Tevin Coleman (Indiana) and Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska). Jewell, a preseason All-American, saw them all, and Wadley is right there with them.
“I definitely think he’s in that class,” Jewell said. “Just how he moves around, it’s unbelievable.”
Iowa has 10 more games left in its regular season, and Wadley has a chance to become only the fourth Hawkeye to rush for more than 3,000 yards. Based on his workload the first two weeks, it’s possible he reaches that summit.
Winning games is the paramount for Wadley, more than putting up big numbers. But they’re not mutually exclusive, either.
“If we’re going to have a good team, I’ll say it now, Akrum has to play well for us,” Ferentz said. “He knows that, and he wants to. No different than Shonn Greene, though they’re totally different players.
“Yes, for us to have a good football team, a good season, our best guys have to go out there and play well. He’s certainly one of our best guys. If not, as dangerous a guy we have on our team right now. We’re counting on that for him.”