TAMPA, Fla. — The easy weather description of thunder and lightning fits Iowa’s running back tandem of LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley so perfectly it’s beyond cliche.
So how else would one describe the most potent running back tandem in Iowa football history? Tornado and hurricane? Avalanche and tidal wave? Maybe you should grit your teeth, shake your head and go with the original analogy.
Daniels, a 6-foot, 225-pound senior, is the perfect power back for a Kirk Ferentz offense. He’s physical and gets downhill quickly. He punishes tacklers but has nimble enough feet to often sidestep would-be tacklers.
Wadley (5-11, 185) has an opposite but equally vital skill set. He’s elusive, fast and possesses perhaps the best jump-cut in Iowa football history. Wadley, a junior, has a pair of 75-yard touchdown runs, plus burned Minnesota (54 yards) and Rutgers (26 yards) for long fourth-quarter touchdown runs in one-score victories.
“They both make our job look a lot easier,” Iowa fullback Brady Ross said. “Sometimes I think LeShun can just block for himself, and sometimes I think Akrum can be out there and just juke everybody out. These two guys in the backfield are making special plays.”
With only the Outback Bowl remaining, Daniels has 1,013 rushing yards and Wadley has 966. Daniels averages 5.1 yards per carry, Wadley 6.6. Both have 10 rushing touchdowns this year. Daniels ranks eighth in Big Ten rushing, while Wadley is 10th. Among the league’s top-10 rushers, Wadley’s yard-per-carry average is 0.5 yards higher than any other runner.
Iowa’s history includes tandems that fit a similar profile. The Hawkeyes’ 1990 Big Ten title team featured power back Nick Bell and the quicker Tony Stewart. Bell, who weighed more than 250 pounds, was a complete athlete. Counting Iowa’s Rose Bowl appearance that year, Bell combined for 1,073 yards, 14 touchdowns and 6.1 yards per carry. He won the Silver Football as the Big Ten’s best player.
Stewart finished with 865 rushing yards — when adding Rose Bowl statistics — at 5.4 yards per clip. Although Stewart was a change-of-pace player when compared with Bell, he still was a complete running back.
In 1984, both Owen Gill and Ronnie Harmon each finished with more than 900 yards rushing in a 12-game regular season. After the Hawkeyes’ Freedom Bowl appearance, Gill ran for 981 yards and four touchdowns. Harmon, who became an All-American the following year, ran for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns but suffered a broken leg in the ninth game against Wisconsin. Gill, a fullback, ran for 4.54 yards per carry, while Harmon averaged 4.8.
“That was a pretty good tandem right there,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who was the Hawkeyes offensive line coach that year. “It was kind of like (Eddie) Phillips and (Phil) Blatcher in ’81 when I got here.”
All of those tandems were effective, but none were as balanced as Daniels-Wadley. If Wadley can gain 34 yards against Florida in the Outback Bowl, the duo will become the first running back tandem in Iowa history to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. The last Big Ten squad to field a similar running back combo was Wisconsin’s John Clay and James White in 2010. Before Daniels passed the 1,000-yard barrier in the home finale, Iowa hadn’t produced a 1,000-rusher since 2011.
Iowa’s tandem showed its prowess last year when Wadley stepped in for an injured Jordan Canzeri to rush for 204 yards and tied a school record with four touchdowns against Northwestern. Three games later, Daniels ran for 195 yards and three scores against Minnesota.
“(LeShun is) extremely reliable, does a great job of getting north and south,” Ross said. “He’s a very physical guy who if a guy is unblocked, it doesn’t matter. He can kind of block for himself. He’s a big, strong, physical runner who takes care of the football. A bunch of positives with him.
“When Akrum’s in the game, you always know the play has a chance of breaking wide open. He does things that you just don’t see from most people. He makes cuts that you don’t think are possible.”
Five times this year, Daniels and Wadley each ran for at least 75 yards in the same game. Against Purdue and Nebraska, each rushed for more than 100 yards.
Both also are more versatile than their reputations. Daniels has five runs beyond 43 yards and had two more called back because of penalties. Wadley was named the Rose Bowl’s performer of the week after rushing for 115 hard-fought yards mostly between the tackles and catching five passes for 52 yards in a 14-13 win against Michigan.
Counting his receiving totals, Wadley has 1,260 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns this year. Daniels has 1,080 total yards.
“The best thing is they compliment each other,” Ferentz said. “They’re different, yet they can kind of play off each other a little bit, and there is certainly room for both.”
“Two entirely different backs but both are extremely effective, and we’re really lucky to have them,” Ross said.