Iowa’s starting running back could take the league by storm
Saquon Barkley, Justin Jackson and Corey Clement are just a couple of running backs in the Big Ten this season that have garnered national attention. Even with Ezekiel Elliot leaving for the NFL, the Big Ten, to no surprise, is still stacked with talent and potential at the running back position. Despite football becoming more of a passing game, the Big Ten isn’t afraid to stay with its old-school identity of grind it out, hard-nosed football.
The Hawkeyes were no different last season as they averaged 40.6 rushing attempts per game to their 26.4 passes. Kirk Ferentz has never been one to air it out, although that could change a little this season.
C.J. Beathard is coming off a magnificent first season as the full-time starting quarterback. He completed 61.6 percent of his passes on his way to throwing for 2,809 yards, 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He now enters 2016 as a senior and should be in store for an even bigger season. Although, to expect Iowa to become an air raid offense is crazy, even with the expectations Beathard is coming in with.
Ferentz will always have a run-heavy offense, despite losing running back Jordan Canzeri to graduation. Although, this will give LeShun Daniels Jr the full green light to take the Big Ten by storm, barring he stays healthy.
Health has been Daniels biggest enemy over his career. Despite being listed as the team’s starting running back at the start of last season, Daniels only had 20-plus carries in three games and double-digit carries in five. He also missed their game against Northwestern and was never able to string together more than a couple of healthy weeks in a row.
That’s why Canzeri topped his 145 carries last season. Still, last season was the first time he surpassed 50 carries in an entire season as he saw just 51 carries over his first two seasons. Although, a 200 carry season is what Iowa is hoping for if Daniels is able to stay on the field for all 12 games. When considering he saw 26 carries in week one against Illinois State, 200 seems like a low-ball estimate of his potential workload.
At six-feet and 230 pounds, Daniels has great size for a very quick running back. He finds his hole and busts through it and is extremely agile for a running back his size. There is no doubt that his quickness and speed gives him big play potential.
His running style is extremely similar to former Hawkeye great Shonn Greene, and adding a running back of that caliber would do wonders for Iowa and bring their program to the next level. Of course, finishing sixth in Heisman voting and being a consensus All-American is a mere dream for Daniels, but the same style of running and hopefulness of him breaking a big run at any time is there.
His 51-yard touchdown against Minnesota last season showcases that ability best. Daniels found an opening and was off to the races. That kind of vision and speed is why he scored eight touchdowns in an injury-plagued season.
When looking at Daniels’ games in which he received at least 20 carries, he showed that big play ability and consistency that is needed to be a top running back in the Big Ten. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry, which is nearly a yard better than his season average. Not to mention it would have ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season.
Although, even more could be expected from him if he stayed healthy all season. Sure, a minor injury will happen here or there but an injury that keeps him off the field has been his downfall. It’s hard to gain any rhythm and flow in the game and with the offensive line. Besides, Daniels scored six of his eight touchdowns in games he saw at least 10 carries in, showing that consistency throughout the game helped him get into a rhythm.
If Daniels were to stay healthy and see 200 carries it would lead to a 1,000 yard season, likely putting him in the top-five in the Big Ten. That would be Iowa’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Marcus Coker in 2011. For a team that makes running the ball a priority, this type of production from one back, rather than a committee, would be huge. Although, like I keep mentioning, Daniels needs to stay healthy to do so. He has all the tools to have a special season, but he can’t make a difference on the sideline.
Although, health is not the only concern. The Hawkeyes have a somewhat questionable offensive line heading into the season. While it does return a couple of starters, there’s no certainty that it will be as dominating as last season. Even though running backs get all the fame, it’s the guys in the trenches that do a lot of the heavy lifting.
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While Iowa’s offensive line shouldn’t be a concern this season, the lack of the same dominating line that helped Iowa go 12-0 is a slight disadvantage for their running game. Besides, they’ll have a couple of cake walk games to test out different combinations prior to the start of Big Ten play.
Besides Iowa implementing a new offensive line, Daniels has to become a bigger part of the passing game. With Jonathan Parker expected to miss some regular season time and Matt VandeBerg as the only receiver with at least 25 receptions last season (65 receptions), Beathard will need someone to throw to.
Surprisingly, Daniels has caught just two passes in his career. Canzeri tied for fourth on the team last season with 20 catches and that small production will be expected from Daniels.
With seven players recording at least 10 receptions last season, and VandeBerg being the only one with more than 25, it’s no secret that Beathard likes to spread the ball around. The Hawkeyes didn’t have great depth at the receiver position, which is why tight ends Henry Krieger-Coble and George Kittle, and running back Jordan Canzeri, made up three of the top-five leading receivers for Iowa last season. The Hawkeyes will arguably have thinner depth at the receiver position this season, meaning other players will be relied on, as well.
Everyone knows about the potential Daniels holds as a runner, however being a factor in the passing game is what separates good and great running backs.
He has all the tools to take his game to the next level and put himself in the likes of Justin Jackson, Saquon Barkley and Corey Clement. Seeing 26 carries in week one last season against Illinois State highlights Iowa’s willingness to give Daniels the workload to make him one of the top backs in the Big Ten.
With a big season potentially leading to being drafted, LeShun Daniels Jr has every opportunity in a run-heavy offense to make it work. Although, Akrum Wadley, who scored four touchdowns against Northwestern last season, could end up being the real story this season.