IOWA CITY, Iowa – From an individual standpoint, this season couldn’t have started much worse for Iowa running back Akrum Wadley.
The only thing that kept the season opener against Illinois State from being a major disappointment is that Iowa rolled to a 31-14 victory on Sept. 5 at Kinnick Stadium and Wadley didn’t get injured, at least his body didn’t get injured.
Wadley’s mind was a mess after the game. He was distraught after fumbling on his third carry of the game in mop-up duty.
It didn’t help that more than a dozen of his family and friends, including his mother, had driven from Wadley’s home in Newark, N.J. to watch him play in the season opener.
“After the first game of the season when I fumbled, walking home she cracked a lot of jokes on me and made me really mad,” Wadley said of his mother, Sharonda Phelps. “She tried to knock the ball out of my hands. I just always think about that.”
Wadley’s mother apparently still isn’t convinced that her son has solved his fumbling woes, even though Akrum rushed for 204 yards and scored four touchdowns during Iowa’s 40-10 victory at Northwestern on Oct. 17, and did so without fumbling.
“She’s trying to fly out here,” Wadley said. “She doesn’t think I’m capable of hanging on to the ball. She just wants to keep trying to tackle me. She has a lot of jokes.”
It’s easy to joke about fumbling in a football game because the consequences, albeit serious from a competitive standpoint, pale in comparison to life’s other consequences.
Wadley told a story on Tuesday about his older cousin who quit playing college football after returning home to New Jersey for what was supposed to be just a short visit with family and friends.
“He never went back,” Wadley said.
The lure of the streets and the temptations that come with it can be overpowering to some kids, even those who have a chance to better themselves through sports.
That’s why Wadley, a third-year sophomore, said he rarely goes home anymore.
“Every once in a while I try and go back, but they tell me no, just stay out there, we’re going to come out there,” Wadley said of his family.
That statement hit me hard as somebody who grew up in a neighborhood in Des Moines called Beaverdale where the biggest fear was your house being egged or it being chosen for ding-dong ditch. In Wadley’s neighborhood, fear is often accompanied by danger.
“It’s pretty much calm and safer out here,” Wadley said. “Where I live, it’s the city, and it’s real (easy) to get into something. But out here, you can pretty much relax.”
Except for when you’re carrying the football.
I don’t want to minimize Wadley’s problem with fumbling because it is serious from a football standpoint. You can say it’s only a game, but playing college football also has the potential to be a life-changing experience.
Wadley has four or five years to get the most out of football, but more importantly, the most out of college.
He should play a key role as Iowa tries to build on its 7-0 record and No. 10 ranking. Wadley is listed as the starter for Saturday’s game against Maryland.
“It just means we have to go harder and don’t let up because the moment we let up, it can be taken away from us real quick,” Wadley said of the hype and expectations.
But so can a football.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Wadley is so obsessed with not fumbling that he recently started carrying a football wrapped tightly in his arm almost everywhere he goes. His teammates take turns trying to knock the ball loose, sometimes when Wadley isn’t looking.
“It’s definitely mental for me,” Wadley said of fumbling. “It’s a little bit physical, too. I know I have to get stronger and get my weight up.
“But it’s definitely mental because, sometimes, I will get an inside zone play and I get too excited and I then I just have the ball out like that when I have to keep it tight.”
Wadley has sacrificed his beloved spin move in order to achieve better ball security. He didn’t say if it was his decision or if he was told to stop spinning by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. My guess would be the latter because Ferentz values few things more in football than ball security.
“The spin was one of my moves that I felt I was best at,” Wadley said. “But I had been getting hit off the spin and it just hasn’t been working for me right now. So I’m trying to just juke instead of spin.”
Wadley more than anything is trying to earn Ferentz’s trust. It’s obvious that Wadley has the talent to excel at this level. Now it’s just a matter of handling all the details that come with being a running back, details like hanging on to the football and blocking the right person.
“Thus far we have talked about Akrum protecting the football,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “I thought he did a good job when he had to block the other day (against Northwestern) and we’ve had a chance to practice since that time, too.”
Wadley was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Northwestern. The stage is his for now, but the situation at running back remains fluid.
Junior LeShun Daniels is now healthy from an ankle injury after barely playing since rushing for 123 yards as the starter against Illinois State in the season opener.
Senior Jordan Canzeri also is expected to return at some point this season from an ankle injury, which he sustained against Illinois on Oct. 10.
Combine them with sophomore Derrick Mitchell Jr., and there is plenty of competition at running back.
“I did start off the season kind of down, but I just wanted to work hard,” Wadley said. “I knew we had some great backs. LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri, they’re the leaders and they always picked me up every time I was down. They always told me I was going to get my shot and I got it.”
I would prefer to think that Wadley got his shot when he signed his letter of intent with Iowa. Football is just part of that shot.
So, yes, it’s important for Wadley to stop fumbling on the field.
But it’s more important that he not fumble away his opportunity to earn a college degree.
It’s more important that he stay the course. And if that means staying away from home, then so be it.