IOWA CITY, Iowa — The snark is palpable anytime offensive innovation and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz find their way into the same sentence.
Iowa supporters drift between skeptical and cynical when unconventional offensive topics are discussed with their favorite football program. Should the Hawkeyes shift cornerback Desmond King to offense for a few plays? Sure, say the fans, but it won’t happen. Should running backs Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels work together in the same backfield at the same time? Again, the “I’ll believe it when I see it” crowd owns that social media commentary.
Many fans have a historical distrust to such proposals, mostly because they rarely happen. They see Michigan safety/whatever Jabrill Peppers playing everywhere and ask “Why can’t Dez do that?”
Central to Iowa’s program, Ryan Boyle moved to wide receiver in April and was the story of the the spring game. He has yet to make a contribution in a game. When Derrick Willies left the program in 2014 while Iowa’s offense was sputtering, somehow it was Ferentz’s fault. Same thing when 4-star running back Eno Benjamin decommitted last week.
But this time, the Wadley-Daniels experiment actually is going to happen. And it’s going to work. The notoriously loose-lipped Wadley confirmed he’ll play some plays in the slot with Daniels in the backfield. It’s a true revelation in Fortress Kinnick, which guards such secrets like nuclear codes.
“We have a few plays that have me and LeShun on the field at the same time,” Wadley said. “It’s been looking good out there.
“Me and LeShun, we’ve been talking about it this past week. We’re just really excited and we’re ready to see how it’s going to work out.”
Wadley’s plays in the slot are being introduced piecemeal, to which he added, “They’re not going to just drop the whole load on me.”
Quarterback C.J. Beathard praised Wadley’s playmaking ability without getting too specific.
“You can put him anywhere on the field and he has the ability to make plays with his feet,” Beathard said. “Clearly he’s an explosive player. Anytime you get him the ball in space, it’s good.”
As a reporter when you hear comments like the ones from Wadley, you immediately wonder how they’re going to resonate with Ferentz. The first joke floating around the media room was, “Say goodbye to Akrum.” After all, media banishment has occurred for lesser offenses.
But Ferentz has his own sarcasm meter and it tilted early in his Tuesday news conference when asked about Wadley’s shift.
“It’s really a wildcat, and we’ve got a triple option with a pass off of it,” Ferentz said. “All kinds of razzle dazzle stuff. So we’re just fooling around with different looks and what have you. Nothing major.”
All of this banter is fun but ultimately irrelevant if it doesn’t work Saturday night at Penn State. But it will work, even if it’s small doses. Heck, especially if it’s in small doses.
Wadley is a special talent at Iowa. No one in recent years at his position can accelerate through the hole with his quickness. I’ve compared him with Tavian Banks of the mid-1990s because of their on-field talent. But the current situation parallels Banks playing a complementary role to Sedrick Shaw’s starring attraction in 1995 and 1996. Both were superb, as is Iowa’s Wadley-Daniels combination. But Shaw and Banks unevenly alternated situations, which limited their impact.
Although it’s a little late in this season, Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis realized they need to maximize their best playmakers. Wadley has 636 rushing yards, ranking seventh in the Big Ten. He also has just 90 carries to average 7.1 yards per tote. That’s easily the Big Ten’s best among players with 90 carries. He also has eight rushing touchdowns.
Daniels often is overlooked but has 624 yards (10th in the Big Ten) and six rushing touchdowns of his own. He’s a power back but has speed. A pair of penalties also left about 140 yards on Daniels’ cutting-room floor. He averages 5.2 yards per carry, which is solid for a 225-pound tank. His physical prowess leaves a mark on defenses.
For some fans, it’s too little, too late. Iowa’s West Division hopes already are remote and why wasn’t this considered during Wisconsin week? Well, bye weeks are perfect for self-scouting and evaluation. It’s simple in theory for sportswriters to throw out ideas, but it’s more difficult for those blocking and executing to implement those schemes.
Still for others this doesn’t go far enough. To that, there’s no pleasing everybody, especially in sports. Some people struggle to enjoy the modest successes in any venture because they’re too focused on howling at the negatives. Such is life anyway.
Maybe this situation happens five times a game, but it will bring another element into Iowa’s offensive arsenal. When Wadley’s on the field, teams need to prepare for him, no matter where he lines up. That could cause confusion for defense and certainly commands attention. That could result in one more big play for Wadley or someone else. Wins and losses always show up in the margins at Iowa, so one play could tilt an otherwise even game in their favor.