Positional Awareness is our annual rundown of the Iowa depth chart, from the position where we are most confident in what Kirk Ferentz intends to do to, well, running back.
Previously on Positional Awareness:
|29||LeShun Daniels, Jr.||SR||6-0/225||Halfback|
|32||Derrick Mitchell, Jr.||JR||6-1/220||Halfback|
LeShun Daniels, Jr. (#29, Senior, 6'0, 225 lbs., Harding HS (Warren, OH))
On paper, LeShun Daniels is the type of back Kirk Ferentz loves: strong, fast, and contact-happy. He's a hammerback (new word alert) and probably one of the three most talented Ferentz has had, depending on whether Ladell Betts counts. This is Daniels' second straight year winning the offseason tailback battle, and neither involved much controversy.
And yet when Iowa needed a running back to lean on during the middle fo the Big Ten slate last year, it was usually the departing Jordan Canzeri, whom Iowa will likely miss this season more dearly than any of us are ready to admit. Daniels was second on the team in rushes, rushing yards and touchdowns behind Canzeri, and he only managed one Big Ten game over 100 yards.
But lord, what a game it was. Daniels incinerated Minnesota for 195 yards and three scores on just 26 rushes, including a 51-yard game sealer that exemplified Daniels' absurd physical gifts. Here. Just... here:
If Daniels stays healthy, he's poised for an All-Big Ten season, especially since there just aren't that many stellar RB candidates as competition this year. Saquon Barkley (PSU), absolutely; Corey Clement (Wisconsin), probably. Justin Jackson (Northwestern)? I mean I guess, but we're getting into territory where Daniels likely belongs as much as anyone. L.J. Scott (MSU) will forever be an enemy to the Hawkeyes for that goal-line lunge (I'm angry just typing about it) but that was part of a 22-rush, 73-yard performance; hardly the stuff of legends, that. Daniels can hold his own in this company, especially with four years of strength work in, and probably the best offensive line of his career. When you factor in the bevy of talent around Daniels at running back that'll keep him from getting overworked, he really can't ask for a better setup for a sendoff season than this.
And to that end, here we arrive at the least productive location in sportswriting: the intersection of hindsight and lament. Daniels should probably be a junior, eligibility-wise. In 2013, Daniels played as a true freshman and racked up all of 36 rushes, more than half of which came against Missouri State and Western Michigan (and none of which, y'know, mattered). Given how much of the last two seasons Daniels spent dinged up, it would be awfully nice to have two more years for him to show off that NFL-level athleticism instead of him heading into his "that one 8 Mile Eminem song" season. Yes, I warned you this would not be a productive discussion.
Truly, though: this is a tremendous opportunity for Daniels to go out in style, and with his baby brother blocking truck-sized holes open for him to do it. What a hell of a final campaign that would be, wouldn't it?
Akrum Wadley (#25, Junior (RS), 5'11, 191 lbs., Weequahic HS (Newark, NJ))
Akrum Wadley is second on the depth chart. Calling him a "backup," though, sort of misstates the point. Wadley's a totally different tailback than Daniels, the kind of guy who you just try to get one-on-one in space and let the magic happen. And when it's happening, my goodness; recall that Wadley wasn't even starting against Northwestern, and he ended up shredding them for 206 yards and four touchdowns in that highly satisfying beatdown in Evanston. He's got rare speed to the corner and an open-field wiggle that almost, almost makes you think you're watching Tavian Banks out there. We don't recommend the blonde dye job, though. The late '90s were a weird time in America.
You could argue—pretty convincingly—that Wadley's the better tailback of the two men on the depth chart: he rushed for 6.0 yards a pop and scored on one of every 12 carries, despite not being a prototypical goal-line back; by way of comparison, Daniels achieved 4.5 yards per carry and scored on one of every 18 rushes. But the work Daniels does (and Iowa's previous hammerbacks did) serves to open up the opportunities Wadley will get to break a big run. Fresh, fast legs against beaten-up defenders is a matchup Iowa loves, and it's predicated on Daniels being the first man in.
Still, this isn't a new formula for Kirk Ferentz. In the last 10 seasons, Iowa has had two tailbacks over 100 rushes with the exception of one year: 2008, when Shonn Greene was ripping off the greatest rushing season in Iowa Hawkeye history, and his backup Jewel Hampton still managed 91 carries. So no, being a backup tailback in Iowa City doesn't mean you're stapled to the bench, and given the rarity of a running back staying healthy for 48 quarters per season, it probably means multiple opportunities to shine, like Wadley even had as the presumptive third option last season. He'll be a big part of the plans this year en route to the inside track for a feature role in 2017.
NEXT MAN IN
Derrick Mitchell, Jr. (#32, Junior (RS), 6'1, 220 lbs., Vashon HS (St. Louis, MO))
Running back probably isn't the most important position for a football team's success—and yet nowhere is the unit talent level more considerably upgraded from the most recent doldrums to 2015 and 2016 than at tailback. Case in point: Derrick Mitchell Jr., who was Scout Team Melvin Gordon as a redshirt freshman and ripped off one of the finest runs of the season against (a thoroughly beaten and disinterested) Northwestern, isn't even cracking the depth chart. Look at some of the RBs over the last decade who have been third in carries in any given season... then back at Mitchell. Camera one, camera two. Camera one, camera two.
The clock is starting to tick for Mitchell, though; he's a junior now, and all he's had to show for his career is 25 rushes (admittedly, those netted him 162 yards and two scores) and 15 receptions, all coming last year. His background as a wideout gives him a level of versatility in the passing game that neither of the guys ahead of him can match, so Iowa could do way worse than having him as a third-down back—certainly his ceiling is higher than Damon Bullock, admirable as the young man was in his Hawkeye efforts. And recent history suggests he'll get some very meaningful carries this year, possibly by necessity. Can he capitalize on those opportunities, or is he going to be another "oh man, remember THAT guy?" player?
THE HUMAN BATTERING RAMS
Drake Kulick (#45, Junior (RS), 6'1, 236 lbs., Muscatine, Muscatine, IA)
The old guard at fullback, Adam Cox and Macon Plewa (a.k.a. the Plewiathan), have graduated, and Iowa welcomes in a new crop of blockers. Drake Kulick leads the way for the privilege to, uh, lead the way for Iowa's tailbacks. He cut his teeth on special teams last year as he transitioned from linebacker, and the coaches have a substantial amount of faith in his abilities.
How much we'll see a fullback on the field is also a heck of a question, given the team's comfort in putting three wideouts on the field with TE George Kittle—god, C.J. Beathard's going to feast this year, isn't he?—but when it's time to get situational in short-yardage situations, Ferentz's offensive sets generally don't get too cute to have an extra blocker in there.
Brady Ross (#36, Freshman (RS), 6'1, 240 lbs., Humboldt (IA) HS)
We're rather delighted to see Ross on the depth chart, given that he's a walk-on redshirt freshman who came in as a linebacker before moving to the offensive side of the ball to run into people as hard as he can. It's especially fun because he
might be definitely is a 35-year-old undercover cop who joined the team to investigate a massive crime ring involving athletic tape trafficking or something (you can never trust those trainers) and now he's in way over his head but it's too late to get out of it now without letting his beloved teammates down. I mean look at the guy.
He's *absolutely* police. So here's what I'm thinking on—[EDITOR'S NOTE: we had to delete about 800 words of what can only be described as half "action movie synopsis", half "full-on hallucination" because this has already gone on far too long. We're also asking Adam to lay off the Fast & Furious movies just a bit from now on.]
WHILE YOU WAIT FOR THE OTHERS
Toks Akinribade (#22, Freshman, 6'0, 205 lbs., Brownsburg (IN) HS)
How important is depth at running back for the Iowa program? Kirk Ferentz has the trio of upperclassmen in hand and healthy, and he's still all but assuring us that true freshman Toks Akinribade will play. Fans saw plenty of him at the recent open scrimmage, and Akinribade looked the part—he's got balance, patience, and speeeeeeed. 17 rushes for 72 yards and a score while spending a bit of time with the first unit on offense? Yeah, this kid's going to play.
(Remember that part where we lamented LeShun Daniels being a senior instead of a redshirt junior? Yeah, uh, that's probably playing itself out all over again. La plus ça change, etc. etc.)
Toren Young (#28, Freshman, 5'11, 220 lbs., Monona Grove HS (Madison, WI))
Oh right—Iowa had another tailback in the 2016 class, and he also looks like he's ready to roll as a true freshman. Toren Young didn't make many headlines as a recruit, given his commitment approximately one day after receiving his offer from Iowa... and 53 weeks before Signing Day. He had been in contact with the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska, but no offers came—really, what would be the point of even wasting the postage on a guy who made approximately a dozen unofficial visits to Iowa City? He's been eager to be a Hawkeye for quite a while now. We should be eager for his career too.
If the hammerback is still in Iowa's plans for, let's say, 2019 or so, that's probably Young's role to slide into. He's going to have loads of competition for rushes by then—super recruit Eno Benjamin is a solid 2017 commit and quite possibly the most decorated RB recruit Kirk Ferentz has ever landed—but Young is that contact-happy bruiser that usually plays a substantial role in the Iowa offense.
Marcel Joly (#26, Sophomore (RS), 5'11, 195 lbs., Forestville Military Academy (Hyattsville, MD))
It's hard to figure what Marcel Joly's future is with the Hawkeyes; the guy's athletic and big enough to get tackled in the Big Ten without exploding into a million parts, but he's absolutely buried on the depth chart.
Joly's a convert from defensive back and he might have some potential at wideout too. Maybe he's got some skills to flash on special teams too. If he turns out to be a major factor at running back this season though, that... would be a surprise.
Sam Cook (#21, Freshman, 5'9, 228 lbs., Fort Dodge (IA) HS)
Cook won't play unless Iowa's up 70 points or something has gone horrifically wrong on the season, and that's a bit of a bummer because the guy looks like an instant crowd favorite: a 5'9" redhead who would do nothing but spam the truck stick (NOTE: for those of you over 40, this means "try to run tacklers over" in video game vernacular), given the opportunity. The R&B world also owes him a mountain of credit for his vocal work on songs like "You Send Me" and "Twistin' The Night Away," truly an icon of the late '50s and early '60s. Oh, like we weren't making that joke.
Steve Manders (#30, Junior (RS), 6'1, 235 lbs., Fork Union Military Academy (Crofton, MD))
Austin Kelly (#41, Sophomore (RS), 5'11, 245 lbs., Stagg HS (Hickory Hills, IL))
Lane Akre (#47, Freshman (RS), 6'0, 235 lbs., Geneseo (IL) HS)
In case the earlier revelation about Iowa's undercover policeman fullback [EDITOR'S NOTE: He is not police. Stop saying that.] NO. IT'S TRUE. [EDITOR'S NOTE: I will fight you with my fists.] had you worried, fret not: the Hawkeyes have a veritable stable of raging bionic human-pickup cyborg men. We'll probably see some of these guys down the line, and we're especially holding out hope for Steve Manders to get some playing time, if for no other reason that to see him decleat some poor linebacker in the gap, then stand over him and say...
"...mind your Manders."