IOWA CITY, Iowa – Somewhat lost in our obsession with C.J. Beathard’s takeover at quarterback for the Iowa football team is the development at running back.
Just when it looked as if a healthy Jordan Canzeri finally would be Iowa’s featured running back as a fifth-year senior, LeShun Daniels has performed his own takeover.
The first real hint of a Daniels takeover came with the release of the most recent depth chart, which listed Daniels as the starter ahead of Canzeri.
It was different in the spring when Canzeri’s name was listed first on the depth chart followed by the word, or, and then Daniels’ name. The word, or, is used when picking a starter is too close to call.
Another hint came this past Saturday at Iowa’s annual media day event when offensive coordinator Greg Davis was asked if he expected to use a running back by committee this season.
“Usually, that kind of handles itself,” Davis said. “We would like to have a running back, somebody who can spell him and then we’d like to have a third-down back. That’s what we’re shooting for.
“You’ve got the one guy that’s going to get the 25 carries. You’ve got another guy that’s going to get 10 to 12. But that has to happen. And we think it will. We’re going into camp thinking LeShun has the size and the speed and the lateral movement to be that guy.”
Canzeri still shouldn’t languish on the sideline because he’s too talented to waste. There has to be a way with Daniels as the featured back to assure that Canzeri gets about 10 touches per game, either as the backup running back or the third-down back. Canzeri has the kind of wiggle and explosiveness that Iowa needs on offense in order to make big plays, whereas the 6-foot, 225-pound Daniels is more of a bruiser with deceptive speed who methodically moves the chains.
It’s easy to see why the Iowa coaches are hopeful that Daniels takes this opportunity and runs with it. Daniels seems cut from the same physical mold as former Iowa all-America running back Shonn Greene. But Daniels still is mostly unproven at this level.
Injuries limited him to spot duty in five games last season. He only had 15 carries for 49 yards. But even when healthy, Daniels didn’t play much last season. He saw no action against Iowa State, Pittsburgh or Indiana, and he only had one rushing attempt against Purdue, one against Maryland and one against Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said at Big Ten Media Day on July 30 in Chicago that the coaches might have given up too soon on Daniels last season.
The coaches also seemed reluctant to use Daniels as a true freshman in 2013. He didn’t play in four of the first six games or in two of the last three games that season. He showed flashes when he did play, rushing 36 times for 142 yards.
Daniels, who is the older brother of Iowa freshman center James Daniels, didn’t participate in media day last Saturday because of what was described as a minor injury that he sustained in practice. Whether LeShun Daniels is durable enough to sustain a season’s worth of pounding remains to be seen because he hasn’t done it yet in college.
Daniels wasn’t asked to carry the load in his first two seasons, but he still suffered an injury that caused him to miss five consecutive Big Ten games last season. So as far as being durable, the jury is still out on Daniels.
He’s sort of like the team for which he plays in that both are uncertainties at this point.
Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz was named Iowa’s new running game coordinator during the offseason. It sounds like a big deal, but the Iowa coaches keep trying to downplay it publicly. Brian Ferentz called it more of a clerical thing in the spring.
Whatever the case, the fact that Daniels was promoted during the offseason shows how much the coaches believe in him.
It’s encouraging that Daniels has moved ahead of Canzeri because we know what Canzeri can do when healthy, and he’s no pushover.
The emergence of sophomore Derrick Mitchell, who switched from receiver, is another positive development at running back. And don’t forget about Akrum Wadley, another sophomore who should be in the mix for playing time.
Wadley and Canzeri are the only running backs on the team to rush for 100 yards in a game. Wadley has done it once, rushing for 106 yards against Northwestern last season, while Canzeri has done it twice. He rushed for 165 yards against Purdue in 2013 and for 120 yards against Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl this past January.
Canzeri had momentum after a strong performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and yet, he still fell behind Daniels during spring practice. To me, that speaks volumes.
The Iowa coaches must have seen enough of Daniels in spring practice to believe that the Warren, Ohio native is the best fit for Iowa’s power rushing attack in which pounding between the tackles is emphasized.
This season will be the first time since 2011 that somebody besides Mark Weisman will be Iowa’s featured running back. Weisman came to Iowa as a walk-on fullback, but switched to running back and was a three-year starter.
Weisman was effective at gaining the tough yards between the tackles. But at 240 pounds, he wasn’t a big-play threat and that caused the offense to sputter at times.
Davis believes Iowa now has four big-play threats at running back.
"Three of those guys have been out there and done some things," Davis said of Daniels, Canzeri and Wadley. "Derrick Mitchell hasn’t. But based on what we saw in spring and early camp, we’re excited.
"And then what we would like is for somebody to be the guy, somebody to spell him, and then one thing we have to define in camp is the third-down back."
Beathard’s performance will certainly go a long way in determining Iowa’s success this season. But it’s hard to picture the Hawkeyes being a serious contender without a productive rushing attack.
Iowa has new a starter at both tackle positions, and one of them – sophomore left tackle Boone Myers – has the daunting task of protecting Beathard’s blindside in the pocket. One way to help protect Beathard’s blindside would be to keep the defense on its heels by running the ball effectively.
“We’ve got to have that,” Davis said of a productive rushing attack. “That has to be a big part of what we do. We want to do that. We have two young tackles that are going to be playing. So to think that we’re going to go into a game and throw it 50 times with two tackles that are starting their first ball game; that probably isn’t real smart, either.
“So being able to run the ball allows those tackles to kind of grow as the season progresses. We’re real pleased with those guys. But they will be rotting out there for the first time when we kickoff.”
If Daniels had attended media day, he likely would’ve said that he appreciates being the starter, but that it’s only the preseason and he still has to prove himself.
Canzeri said all the right things at media day. And that’s huge for the sake of the team. Of course, he wants to be the featured back as a fifth-year senior, who has struggled with injuries. But Canzeri trusts the Iowa coaches to make the right decision and he seems to respect Daniels.
“We all can get the job done, but we don’t have any pride issues,” Canzeri said. “And it’s not even just me and LeShun. With Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell, if they get in the game, and they will, they’re going to do a great job as well.
“Just the fact that we have this much depth at running back is something to really be excited for this year.”
That positive outlook came from a fifth-year senior who isn’t starting anymore. So maybe that’s why it’s been so easy to overlook the shakeup at running back because there is no controversy.