IOWA CITY, Iowa – Select members of the Iowa football team have a long-standing tradition of meeting with the media on Tuesdays throughout the regular season.
They usually trickle in one by one and stay as long as questions keep being asked to them.
I noticed on Tuesday, though, that Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels both showed up together, much like close friends do. But that’s because they are close friends.
They both want the same thing, which is to be the starting running back for the 9-0 Hawkeyes, and will do everything within their power to get it, but not at the expense of their friendship.
Senior Jordan Canzeri also wants the starting role back and is healthy again and will play against Minnesota under the lights on Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium.
And don’t forget about sophomore Derrick Mitchell Jr., who has made significant improvement since switching from receiver before spring practice.
All four of the running backs are listed on this week’s depth chart. That could be a problem when you have that many players competing for the same spot. But the Iowa running backs won’t allow it to be, which says something about their maturity.
“All those guys, the whole running back group is so tight,” said senior fullback Adam Cox. “Everybody just hangs out together. That’s how this whole team is. And I think that’s really a critical part to our success, just how tight and close-knit this group is. It makes it a lot more fun.”
Cox is correct in saying that the chemistry at running back has been crucial to Iowa’s success this season.
Every team from a power five conference has talented running backs who work hard and sacrifice for the team. But they don’t always get along to the point of being friends off the field because they can’t separate the two.
The Iowa running backs, on the other hand, seem to have a genuine respect for each other. You often can tell when a kid is providing lip service in public instead of sharing his true feelings. But with the Iowa running backs, their praise for each other seems sincere. They truly seem to care for each other and hope for the best, even if it might come at their own expense.
“It makes it a lot easier when someone else is in there making a play because you know deep down that you’re actually rooting for them and you’re not just doing it on the outside just to look good because you actually sincerely want that person to do good,” said Daniels, who started the first two games this season before suffering a high ankle sprain against Iowa State.
Mitchell is the only one among the four who hasn’t started a game or been Iowa’s featured running back for a period of time.
Canzeri, Daniels and Wadley all have shown they can carry load, with each having rushed for over 100 yards in at least one game as a Hawkeye.
So it’s not easy sharing the spotlight when you’ve already proven yourself.
“It can get hard sometimes, but we definitely love each other,” said Wadley, who is a third-year sophomore from Newark, N.J. “But it is what it is. The best man gets the job.”
Saturday’s game against Minnesota will mark one of the few times this season that all four running backs have been healthy. It will improve Iowa’s depth, but somebody might see his workload decrease.
Daniels, who is a third-year junior from Warren, Ohio, would figure to have a role because he is the only true power runner in the group. His style is a change of pace from Canzeri and Wadley, both of whom rely more on speed and quickness.
Mitchell also has a unique role as Iowa’s third-down back.
The challenge will be to use the four running backs in the best way to help the team. That often means going with whoever has the hot hand.
Canzeri was on a roll when he injured his ankle in the first quarter against Northwestern on Oct. 17 in Evanston, Ill. The Troy, N.Y., native had rushed for a career-high 256 yards in the previous game against Illinois on Oct. 10, but hasn’t played in the last two games.
Wadley became the next man in against Northwestern, because in addition to Canzeri being injured, Daniels still wasn’t fully recovered from his ankle injury at that point. Wadley seized the moment by rushing for a career-high 204 yards and scoring four touchdowns during Iowa’s 40-10 victory.
Wadley has started the last two games and played extensively. But that could change with Canzeri healthy again because their running styles are so similar.
"We’re all different and capable of making big plays,’ said Wadley, who is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. "You’ve got LeShun, a power back who can really shake you up. And you’ve got me, I’m a little shiftier. And you have Jordan Canzeri, who has it all.
"You just have to pick your poison."
Iowa’s running back by committee has played a significant role in the resurgence. The Hawkeyes are currently ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 205 yards per game. That’s a major improvement from last season when Iowa only averaged 163.1 rushing yards per game.
Canzeri leads the team in rushing with 698 yards, followed by Wadley with 426 yards and Daniels with 364 yards. All four of the running backs also have scored at least two touchdowns this season, led by Canzeri with nine.
Combine their productivity with their unselfishness and team-comes-fist attitude and you have one of the major reasons for Iowa’s success.
“That’s a position where you can have jealousy creep in pretty quickly and pretty easily,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “But on one hand, it’s been kind of easy; everybody keeps asking how we’re going to rotate. It’s easy. The guys that are healthy play. So they’ve helped us out with their little tweaks, injuries that we’ve had.”
Canzeri and Daniels deserve special praise as the two veteran running backs for creating an atmosphere in which everybody sacrifices for the good of the team.
“They’re a good group of guys,” Ferentz said of his running backs. “They work hard. I think they’ve got mutual respect, and you start with the two older guys. They’ve been here the longest. They’ve really paid their dues and they’ve already done some good things this year.
“Hopefully, we can finish strong with both LeShun and Jordan. Hopefully, both of those guys get a chance to play the rest of the games the way they want to play, and then I think Derrick and Akrum have certainly done a nice job of complementing. If we have all four of them healthy, we’re a better football team. They understand that and we certainly believe that.”
Iowa’s opponents are starting to believe it, too.