IOWA CITY, Iowa — Akrum Wadley winced for a second when thinking about his most embarrassing moment on the football field.
It wasn’t a fumble in a game or anything super important. In fact, it took place in practice at Kinnick Stadium. But the Iowa senior running back still thinks of that humiliating play. He even called it “my turning point.”
“The play was a drag,” Wadley said. “I was supposed to run across the field, drag across the field. I went the opposite way. If I would have caught the ball, I probably would have scored, about a 50-yard run. But it was a nobody. I went the wrong way. And the QB in a real game would have got his head taken off. Since it was practice, I was embarrassed. I was trying to make a name for myself. I always felt like I could play coming right in.
“[Former running backs coach Chris] White, he let me have it. It was a route. That was embarrassing. … It’s just like yesterday.”
Wadley’s illustration describes how far he’s traveled from unreliable backup to the Big Ten’s most explosive runner. Last season he rushed for 1,081 yards at 6.4 yards per carry — the most by nearly a yard of any Big Ten running back more than 1,000 yards. He rushed for 10 scores, to go with 36 receptions for 315 yards and 3 more scores. But equaling or exceeding those statistics is not what drives Wadley this year. It’s continuous improvement in all phases this offseason.
Tuesday, Wadley recalled with ease how former teammates Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels perfected the mental part of Iowa football, even calling Weisman “a machine” with how he avoided mistakes. The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Wadley wants to reach that level, and he’s gunning for it every day.
“Me and Jonathan Parker — you remember him? We would get yelled at,” Wadley said, referring to the receiver who transferred following last season. “I can’t say the word right now, but we made mental errors and we had to learn and it took us longer than it took LeShun. You ask LeShun Daniels something and he’d spit it right out.”
There’s a humility now with Wadley that comes through growth and development. He understands he’s the veteran. The younger players now come to him for advice — and for extra gear. He must lead an inexperienced group by example as much as by performance. That’s why he harkens back to the mistakes he made in his younger days.
After a lifting session Tuesday, Wadley met with Weisman, who works with Iowa’s football strength and conditioning staff. Wadley’s goal is to perfect his approach in the same manner as Weisman and Daniels. If he can, Wadley has a chance to chase Shonn Greene, Tavian Banks, Sedrick Shaw and Ronnie Harmon as one of the best runners in Iowa history.
Iowa RB Akrum Wadley is the most elusive returning back from a season ago.
Can he even increase his elusive rating in 2017? pic.twitter.com/qJQ0wEOjV8
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) July 10, 2017
Entering his senior season, Wadley ranks 18th in career rushing (1,763 yards) and owns the best career average yards per carry (6.2) among Iowa running backs with at least 1,000 rushing yards. With 22 career touchdowns, Wadley ranks 20th in career scoring (132), and he has caught a pass in 15 consecutive games.
In what most people consider his best game, Wadley produced 73 percent of Iowa’s offensive yards in a 14-13 win against No. 3 Michigan last November. Wadley ran for 115 yards and caught 5 passes for 52 yards. On fourth-and-goal late in the second quarter, Wadley hauled in a screen pass and scored a 3-yard touchdown. He picked up 41 of Iowa’s 57 yards on the Hawkeyes’ two second-half scoring drives, including the finale that led to the game-winning field goal.
Pro Football Focus rated Wadley as the best elusive running back returning this fall. It’s a ranking his teammates know all too well.
“He’s got moves,” Iowa tackle Boone Myers said. “He’s just a little jitterbug out there. You don’t know where he’s going to go. As soon as he breaks down, he breaks guys’ ankles. I don’t know how he does it. I wish I could move like that, half as well as he did. He’s just got moves, and he can see the field well. It’s crazy.”
Wadley’s production matches his skills. At Northwestern in 2015, he stepped in for an injured Canzeri late in the first quarter and rushed for 204 yards and tied a school record with 4 rushing touchdowns in a 40-10 win. He boasts 4 career touchdowns of at least 50 yards — all but one of them took place in 2016. His fourth-quarter touchdown runs at Minnesota (54 yards) and at Rutgers (26) won a pair of 14-7 games. Wadley raced through both Purdue and Nebraska for 75-yard touchdown runs. At Indiana in 2015, Wadley ran 65 yards untouched on the second play from scrimmage.
Which play was the best? That depends on which one comes to mind first.
“Oh man, I don’t know,” Myers said. “The one against Michigan was pretty good; it kind of put the cherry on top there. I’ve got too many favorites. That’s a hard question. Nebraska was a good one. The touchdown catch against Iowa State. There’s a lot of them. I can’t really name one the best one. He comes in big in big games. It’s going to be fun blocking for him.”
Even Wadley was a loss for describing his favorite moment.
“There’s a few games I look back on, like the Michigan game,” he said. “And even two years ago the Northwestern game. Not even specific runs, but I did like the run against Purdue, the 75-yarder. That was a good one. And the Minnesota game, when they had us all bottled up, that was a strong game. That’s how we finished, that last run, that’s another run I look back on.”
Iowa needs another strong year from Wadley if it wants to compete in the Big Ten West. It also could vault Wadley among the program’s all-time great runners. It’s a reciprocal relationship that’s mutually beneficial.
As he approaches his final year at Iowa, it’s fitting that Wadley’s worst play in practice years ago turned him into the best player on the field in nearly every game last year. The underdog mentality helps him focus and keeps him hungry.
“Every day I’ve got something to prove,” he said. “Every day you’ve got to give it your all. There’s a lot of people out here that may think I’m a good running back. Some may think I’m great. Some may think I’m too small. My focus is not on getting caught up in the hype or getting caught up in the doubters, just doing my best and doing my best and having fun.”