IOWA CITY, Iowa – Look closely at the best teams in the history of the Iowa football program and you’ll notice a pattern at running back.
Not all of them, but many of Iowa’s best teams have featured a dynamic one-two punch at running back.
From Bob Jeter and Willie Fleming in 1958 to Nick Bell and Tony Stewart in 1990 to Sedrick Shaw and Tavian Banks in 1996 to Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher in 2009, the list of dynamic duos is long and noteworthy.
And there could be another dynamic duo on the verge of joining the list.
We’ve already seen them in plenty of action as LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley rushed for 646 and 496 yards, respectively, last season. They also combined for 15 touchdowns last season, including eight by Daniels, despite sharing the running back position with departed senior Jordan Canzeri, who led Iowa in rushing last season with 984 yards.
You could say that Iowa had a three-headed monster at running back last season because all three made significant contributions.
The problem is that rarely were all three of them healthy at the same time last season or the season before.
Daniels has been slowed by leg injuries in each of the past two seasons. But when healthy the 6-foot, 225-pound senior from Warren, Ohio sort of resembles former Hawkeye star Shonn Greene as somebody who is capable of shredding defenses with power and some finesse.
Wadley, on the other hand, is way more finesse, but with a little added power now that he weighs 190 pounds.
The New Jersey native has shown a knack for rising to the occasion when his number is called. And so far, Wadley’s number mostly has been called when either Daniels or Canzeri have been injured.
Wadley rushed for 204 yards and scored four touchdowns after replacing an injured Canzeri late in the first quarter of Iowa’s 40-10 beat-down at Northwestern last season.
Daniels also was unavailable for that game because of an injury.
Third-team running back Derrick Mitchell Jr., helped to fill his void with 79 rushing yards against the Wildcats.
It was next-men-in at its finest against Northwestern last season.
But it would be nice if Daniels and Wadley could just stay healthy for an entire season and share the workload. They have one last chance to make it happen, not to mention a pretty stout offensive line to run behind.
“We really feel good about both players,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago. “I think Akrum took a real big step during the season last year, still room or important, but he really loves football and he’s a tough-minded guy. So I think his best football is ahead of him.
“I’m an optimist I think as you know, but I feel the same about LeShun. LeShun is just a tremendous young guy, so conscientious. So we’ll be a better team if both guys can really play a major role for us. Last year we got in a situation where it was this guy and then that guy because of injuries and that type of thing. My hopes are that both guys can stay healthy all season long and really feed off each other.”
Bell and Stewart both stayed healthy for the most part 26 years ago and the results were overwhelmingly positive as Iowa won the 1990 Big Ten title, its third under Hayden Fry.
Jeter and Fleming made one big play after another throughout the 1958 season, which ended with Iowa claiming its only share of a national title.
Shaw and Banks also wreaked havoc on defenses, the 1995 Sun Bowl a shining example. Shaw rushed for 135 yards on 21 carries, while Banks contributed 122 rushing yards on 13 attempts during Iowa’s surprising 38-18 victory over favored Washington.
There are numerous factors that play a part in establishing a dynamic duo at running back, not the least of which are ball security and chemistry.
Wadley struggled with fumbling early in his career, but he now seems to have corrected that problem for the most part.
As for chemistry, that’s another way of describing a willingness to share the spotlight and to check your ego at the door.
Iowa might not have a 1,000-yard rusher this season if Daniels and Wadley both stay healthy and productive. Or maybe Iowa will have two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time ever.
The team’s needs will determine that over individual pursuits.
You get a sense after speaking with either Daniels or Wadley that they have a genuine respect for each other and that each wants the other to be successful.
“We’re always going to be friends,” Daniels said earlier this summer. “We like and respect each other. But we’re also competitors. We want to play as much as possible. But you also like seeing your friends do well.
“It ultimately comes down to whatever is best for the team.”
His teammates describe Daniels as one of the nicest and most positive players on the team. Some running backs with seniority wouldn’t like having to share the stage with a junior.
But with Daniels, it always has been about the team and about trusting the Iowa coaches.
There are advantages to having a sidekick, too, like taking less of a beating during the course of a 12-game regular season.
It’s easy to picture an Iowa offense with Daniels getting 15 to 20 carries per game, Wadley getting 10 to 15 carries per game and quarterback C.J. Beathard throwing approximately 20 times per game.
Mix in Derrick Mitchell Jr., and maybe even a newcomer and you have options.
“You can never have enough guys to run the football,” Ferentz said.
Health is often the determining factor.
Should Iowa catch a break in that regard, we could be on the verge of witnesses the next dynamic duo at running back.