IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Big Ten’s most explosive running back watched Iowa’s spring game from the sidelines, stepping onto the FieldTurf only to catch a punt.
Hawkeyes coaches withheld Akrum Wadley from contact this spring after he had knee surgery in January. There was no benefit for Wadley to absorb hits in Iowa’s physical practices, but the runner still was on edge Friday night wanting to compete.
“It’s always good to entertain the idea of it,” Wadley said.
Wadley, a senior, suffered a partially torn meniscus in his left knee early last September. Fluid built up in his knee the week of the North Dakota State game, and Wadley carried only four times in that 23-21 loss. He recovered, worked through the injury and sizzled for the rest of the season.
No Big Ten player who reached the 1,000-yard threshold averaged as many yards per carry (6.4) as Wadley. He scored on a 26-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter to clinch a 14-7 win at Rutgers. Three weeks later, Wadley burst through the line for a 54-yard run with 5:28 left to stop rival Minnesota, 14-7. He notched 75-yard touchdown runs against Purdue and Nebraska.
And he saved his best effort for unbeaten Michigan.
Wadley produced 73 percent of Iowa’s offensive yards in a 14-13 upset of the No. 3 Wolverines. He rushed for 115 yards and caught 5 passes for 52 yards. Wadley hauled in a screen pass on fourth-and-goal for a 3-yard touchdown. He churned 41 of Iowa’s 57 yards on its two second-half field-goal drives. Wadley tipped the field as the game’s best offensive player.
Those performances forced Wadley to consider his future in January. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper listed Wadley as the sixth-best running back prospect, and he flirted with turning pro. Instead he opted to return to Iowa for his final season.
“I sat down and talked and talked with my family, my mother and my father. They encouraged me to get a degree and finish school,” Wadley said. “My mother (Sharonda Phelps) definitely put a lot of pressure on me to come back and put together two seasons back-to-back. Me and LeShun (Daniels) got off, two 1,000-yard rushers, that’s one season. She encouraged me to do it one more time.
“My mother, I always go with her decisions. She’s never been wrong, even with the girlfriends I choose. I always roll with her decisions.”
Wadley wants to prove he can take his game to another level. He rushed for a team-best 1,081 yards on 168 attempts, and ran for 10 touchdowns. He caught 36 passes for 315 yards and 3 more scores.
This year, Wadley’s goal is to rush for 1,400 yards, which he called “a step up from 1,000.” To reach that mark, he needed to add weight. Coach Kirk Ferentz constantly has needled Wadley about putting on pounds to absorb the pounding that comes with more carries. That’s true of the Big Ten, and definitely the case if he wants to reach the NFL.
Wadley surpassed 190 pounds this offseason, a weight goal Ferentz harped on repeatedly last year. It’s a sign of something more than just weight for Wadley; it’s about maturity.
“The biggest box is that weight box, which I keep dwelling on, but that’s really — (it) can still get better,” Ferentz said. “But he’s liking college now, so that’s good. That’s a really big step for us. But what it tells me is he’s paying attention to it, and I think before — he’s not a defiant guy by any means, but he’s a little flighty every now and then with that stuff.”
Last year Ferentz said he’d hug Wadley if he reached 190. Has he done that yet?
“That’s a negative,” Wadley said with a laugh. “But he did say, he kind of like congratulated me. Just keep at it, the more pounds, the more carries. That’s definitely encouraging. That motivates me to keep eating.”
That any person needs motivation to eat is lost on the 61-year-old Ferentz.
“You get to be my age, right, it’s funny to meet people that don’t like to eat,” Ferentz said. “That’s just kind of weird. But he’s been really consistent with that, so to me, he gets it. He understands. It’s important to him.”
A new offense created by offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz could include wrinkles designed for Wadley’s skill set. Brian Ferentz said last week that he might incorporate matchups that put Wadley and another running back on the field at the same time. Former offensive coordinator Greg Davis designed plays last November that put Wadley in the slot to run jet sweeps while Daniels remained in the backfield.
If last year’s plays were supposed to be a secret, Wadley didn’t adhere to those policies. He told everyone about the personnel groupings in a news conference before Iowa was trounced at Penn State. When he was asked Friday about Brian Ferentz’s plans, Wadley recoiled.
“I can’t answer that question,” he said with a smile. “You remember the Penn State game? I’m trying to learn from my mistakes.”
A heavier, more mature Wadley is just what Iowa needs this fall. More importantly, it’s what the team needs every day in workouts.