By Carter Melrose
In the realm of football, there has always been hidden chemistry. That between, or among, players isn’t always seen as much as felt. A quarterback feeling what moment a slot receiver is going to slap his foot in the ground and break inside, a cornerback covering aggressively because he can feel his safety help gently nudging him to make a play.
A place that has this shroud of mystery hovering over it may also be between the offensive linemen and their running back.
This is where the Iowa offensive line and its running back, Akrum Wadley, sprint into the picture. Wadley averages 82.6 yards per game. Wadley, after Week 2, was No. 20 in rushing in the NCAA. This was bound to, and did, take a dip after his first-half injury versus North Texas. Normally, Iowa struggles here early, taking a few weeks to get the wheels oiled.
For instance, from 2014 to 2016, Iowa starting running backs averaged just 57.6 yards per game during the first three games of the season. To contrast a skyscraper from a townhouse, Wadley has averaged 25 more yards than Mark Weisman did in 2014. Pointing to a uncommon year for the weathered back. Wadley accounts this early success to his returning hole-openers from 2016.
“This is the best line I’ve ever run with,” he said. “And it is basically the same one from last year.”
Wadley had three returning starters on the line in Boone Myers, Sean Welsh, and Ike Boettger (who is now out for the season with an Achilles injury), creating the narrative that Wadley’s chemistry with the backbone of the O-line has carried over from 2016 to 2017.
“All backs have different running styles — we had that last year with LeShun [Daniels] and Akrum — some are more side to side, and some are more power,” Welsh said.
An exciting part for Iowa fans — not only is Wadley having a great season, but the best thing about chemistry is that it builds upon itself over time. This could create high expectations for Wadley in the second half of the season.
“I think as a back, it’s always easier toward the end of the year,” graduate transfer and running back James Butler said. “When you get used to the line, guys get better together as the year goes on.”
And the numbers back this up.
Weisman, during the 2014 season, ran for an average of 58.2 yards per game in the first six games of the season. That number popped up to 75.5 during the final six-game stretch.
A similar occurrence happened for Daniels in 2016; he went from 73.2 yards per game to 95.7 the last six games of the season.
And this pattern continued with Wadley in 2016. He ran for only 69.3 yards per game but carved up defenses at a 91.7 clip later that season.
Even though the findings are backed up with examples from the past, there are two logical fallacies that hitch a ride with this statement on chemistry: freshness throughout the season and strength of schedule.
Here is an obvious statement: The more snaps one plays, the less fresh they are, and the more likely it is the player gets injured. So theoretically, Iowa running backs should be less healthy later in the season.
Another thread is this: Iowa’s schedule is normally favorable toward the beginning and challenging toward the end. Given that the last seven times Iowa has taken the field versus a ranked opponent, six have been during the final six games of the season. This is the old “Fake it till you make it” strategy. In that way, rushing yards should be harder to compile later in the season, seeing as they compete against better teams. Though this does not seem to be the case for Iowa football.
Considering all of that, Iowa should have been healthier and should better have had matchups earlier in the season. And, then, the Hawkeyes should have had a better running game during that time period, but again, they do not. This is where the gap in logic occurs, and this is where the hidden chemistry begins.
And Iowa seems to be one of the only Big Ten teams with this syndrome — the brilliant back-loaded rushing seasons. Take two of the top teams in the Big Ten currently, Ohio State and Michigan; the late-season emergence and chemistry don’t show up.
In the last two seasons for the Buckeyes, their starting running back averaged 112.5 rushing yards per game in the first six games, only 104.6 in the last six.
Same thing for the Wolverines: 66.0 the first six, 60.6 rushing yards per game during the last six.
Now, using all of this knowledge, we shall attempt to foresee the rest of Wadley’s 2017 season.
To start, combine Daniels’, Weisman’s, and Wadley’s first six-game yards per game numbers, you find the average for these running backs is 66.9. Wadley currently averages 82.6 yards per game. If Wadley continues to average these numbers, it’ll mean that if the chemistry clicks for the offensive line the last six games, he should start putting together godzilla-sized numbers.
To predict his final six games and season totals, we have to understand what type of production increase Iowa running backs normally receive the second half of the year. In the case of Weisman in 2014, he increased his production by 56.5 percent during the latter part of the season. For Daniels in 2016, it was 56.6 percent. And for Wadley in 2016, it was 56.9 percent. Noteworthy, these numbers are crowded together, begging to be called a trend. And they average to equate that, in the last few seasons, Iowa running backs in the second half of season run for 56.7 percent more rushing yards per game.
Putting this in terms of Wadley in 2017, and based on his rushing statistics currently, he should finish the season with 1,245 rushing yards and fall feet short of Iowa great Fred Russell’s electric 1,264 rushing-yard season in 2002 for No. 8 all-time at Iowa, placing Wadley’s name among the best to ever do it in Black and Gold.
Though, this is only a hypothesis. One that could come to fruition if this chemistry that is only felt can come through as it has in the past. Most people say history repeats itself; maybe it will for Wadley and this offensive line.