By Pete Ruden
The highlights show up on Hawkeye hype videos all the time.
Akrum Wadley’s ankle-breaking jukes and game-breaking cuts were sights that will certainly be missed at Kinnick Stadium, as will his production on the field.
Iowa’s ground attack had been effective with Wadley at the forefront; the New Jersey native gained more than 1,000 yards rushing in each of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, while combining to score 19 touchdowns over the two.
He also had an effect on the passing game, catching 36 passes in 2016 and 26 in 2017, gaining more than 300 yards and 3 touchdowns in each of his final two seasons with the Black and Gold.
Sure, the Hawkeyes will miss having someone in the backfield they can count on each week, but they are going to be just fine after Wadley’s departure.
After all, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin showed they are ready to make an impact after their play last season.
Neither one got significant playing time, but they made the most of their opportunities. Young, the bruiser of the two, gained 193 yards on 45 carries, hitting pay dirt twice. Kelly-Martin, the shifty playmaker, showed big-play potential, racking up 194 yards on 20 carries, an average of 9.2 yards, and scoring 3 touchdowns.
Both stepped up against North Texas on Sept. 16, when Wadley and James Butler went down with injuries.
Young and Kelly-Martin carved up the Mean Green defense in the 31-14 win. Young led the team, gaining 78 yards on 19 carries, while Kelly-Martin finished with 74 yards and 2 touchdowns.
For a few quarters, Hawkeye fans were taken back to 2016 when Iowa had two 1,000-yard backs in Wadley and LeShun Daniels.
And just like Young and Kelly-Martin, the 2016 tandem included a power back and a speed back.
The potential is there. They have shown what they can do in extended action.
The new backfield has a chance to ease into things as well, as Iowa opens the season with MAC opponent Northern Illinois in the first of four-consecutive home games.
Following the opener, Iowa State’s improved defense will be the first real test. It will be big in determining how smooth the run game can flow early in the season, because Wisconsin comes to Kinnick just two weeks later.
The tune-up game that Northern Illinois serves as before Iowa State, and Northern Iowa before Wisconsin, will help the young group gain conference before the bigger matchups.
The momentum will be huge because when a football player sees they have the skills to play at the Division-1 level, they can relax and play to their strengths.
The duo’s skills are reminiscent of Reggie Bush and LenDale White in their USC Trojan days. Now, Young might not be as dominant as White, and Kelly-Martin may not be one of the best playmakers in college-football history like Bush, but they don’t have to be.
Nate Stanley is entering his second full season under center after a season in which he put his name with some of the best Iowa has had to offer in terms of touchdown passes, and he has reliable targets in future NFL tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockensen, as well as receivers Nick Easley, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Brandon Smith, who each have some experience after a season in the Black and Gold.
The air attack is set, which is a big difference from last year, when the Hawkeyes were expected to rely on the run because of the unproven passing game.
Now entering his second year as the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator, Brian Ferentz will also have a plan in how to use his skilled backs after experimenting with both of them last year.
Ferentz let Wadley run wild last season, and he was on the staff in 2016 when Daniels and Wadley both had big years.
The offense will be just fine.
It’s always nice to have a “thunder and lightning” combination. With the 1-2 punch of Young and Kelly-Martin in Iowa’s backfield, the running game will be just fine as well.