Iowa football seniors embracing leadership role with incoming freshmen

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LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley warm up before the 2017 Outback Bowl. Photo by Tyler Devine/Allhawkeyes.com

By Tyler Devine

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz prohibits his true freshmen from speaking to the media.

So it'll likely be a while before reporters can interview any of the 21 incoming freshmen on the Iowa football team.

Most of them have been in Iowa City since early-to-mid June and already have made an impression with their new teammates.

"Collectively I think they’re a good group,"  senior strong safety Miles Taylor said of the freshmen on Tuesday. "I think they’re all great players that came from great high schools, great areas, great competition. So they’ll be a great addition to our team. They have been so far. They’re great people and I think they’ll do well this season.

"As a group they’re doing well. Everybody is taking a step forward. They’re all learning the defenses and how to go about things the Iowa way.”

Freshmen rely on the older players to provide leadership and guidance, and to help put things in perspective.

Senior linebacker Bo Bower, who grew up rooting for Iowa as a West Branch native, is now in a position to help his new teammates gain the same appreciation he has for being a Hawkeye. Bower wants to make sure the incoming freshmen understand and appreciate what it means to be an Iowa football player, and the responsibility that comes with it.

"The biggest thing when guys come in is adapting," Bower said. "So you kind of talk to them about stuff that you need to do and it’s just different from high school, you’re playing for the Hawkeyes. They come in and they have school so you have to balance those two things and that’s kind of the hardest thing they have to do so you lead them and teach them the rights and wrongs and what that is. It’s going well.”

Iowa's incoming recruiting class is highlighted by five-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa from Edwardsville, Ill., and is heavy on defensive backs, with six likely to play in the secondary. Epenesa is the son of a former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa, and like Bower, he grew up cheering for Iowa. 

The Iowa coaches were able to sell the opportunity for playing time in the secondary, with All-America cornerback Desmond King, three-year starting cornerback Greg Mabin and strong safety Anthony Gair all having graduated.

Iowa's six incoming defensive backs come from six different states and are ranked three stars or higher by at least one recruiting service.

Georgia native Trey Creamer is listed as an athlete, so there is a chance he could play receiver at Iowa.

The other five freshmen defensive backs are Geno Stone from New Castle, Pa., Josh Turner from Delray Beach, Fla, Matt Hankins from Flower Mound, Texas, Camron Harrell from Bradley, Ill., and Djimon Colbert from Shawnee Mission, Kan.

Junior defensive back Josh Jackson likes what he has seen from the freshmen so far in terms of their attitude and work ethic.

However, Jackson said it's hard to make a true assesment before practice starts.

"I’ve worked out with a bunch of the guys and I think they’re really focused, hard-working and they’re ready to come in and contribute wherever possible that they can," said Jackson, who started at cornerback against Florida in thre 2017 Outback Bowl. "We’ve all just been working out and preparing for the season. Camp will really be the deciding factor where we can really tell and get in pads and show off what they got."

Receiver is another position where a freshman, or two, or three could make an immediate impact. Iowa's incoming freshmen class has four receivers, including 6-foot-3, 205-pound Mississippi native Brandon Smith, while Iowa's spring roster only had three receivers on scholarship.

How much the freshmen contribute will depend on lots of factors, on and off the field. 

Senior running back Akrum Wadley said it took him longer to adjust to the college game than other newcomers.

Wadley struggled to find playing time early in his career due to ball security issues, but he worked hard to correct the problem and relied on the leadership of his older teammates, including former running backs LeShun Daniels and Mark Weisman, to stay focused and driven.

The work has paid dividends as Wadley teamed up with Daniels to become the first running back tandem in Iowa history to each rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. Wadley now is considered one of the top running backs in the Big Ten.

“I remember Mark Weisman not making one mental mistake on the field," Wadley said. "He was like a machine. He never made a mental mistake. He never messed up a play. And I compare him to being like LeShun Daniels. I love LeShun and them two are like neck and neck. Me and  (former Hawkeye) Jonathan Parker, you remember him at running back. We would get yelled at. I can’t say the words, you know, but we made mental errors and we had to learn. And it took us longer to learn than LeShun.

"You ask LeShun Daniels something he spits it right out. We struggled. Me and J.P., we struggled. But that’s how it was. We looked up to them and (Jordan) Canzeri. Canzeri’s another great guy who never made mental mistakes. Mark Weisman, LeShun (are the) same guy like they both have their head on straight.”

Wadley now tries to pass down the wisdom that he gained from Weisman and Daniels to the incoming freshmen, which include two running backs: Kyshaun Bryan from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Ivory Kelly-Martin from Plainfield, Ill.

"They’re all grinding and they come to me, they ask me a few questions," Wadley said. "Some ask me for some gear because they start off with not that much gear. They’re all doing good.”

Incoming freshman receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette likely will turn to Wadley for leadership and guidance, considering they both graduated from Weequahic High School in Newark, N.J. 

“That’s my man," Wadley said. "That’s my guy. He’s working hard, he’s grinding just like all the other freshmen. They’re some kind of new and we got to set the right example for them so when they get in our position a few years later they can do the same thing."