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Iowa-turned-Patriots back LeShun Daniels Jr. is a name worth monitoring

The first Iowa rusher to cross 1,000 yards since 2011 stands among 19 undrafted rookies in Foxborough.

LeShun Daniels Sr. played guard at Ohio State, where he was teammates with future New England Patriots ranging from linebackers Andy Katzenmoyer and Mike Vrabel to cornerback Shawn Springs. And in 1996, his Buckeyes faced a Michigan team that had a redshirt freshman by the name of Tom Brady on the quarterback depth chart.

Time flies.

Now, over 20 years later, Daniels’ oldest son – a Hawkeye – finds himself in New England as well.

The Patriots announced the signing of LeShun Daniels Jr. as part of a 19-man class of undrafted free agents last Friday, after the downhill running back rushed for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns on 213 carries as a senior at Iowa.

Daniels Jr. worked behind a Hawkeyes offensive line that included his younger brother, James, as well as fellow Patriots rookie free agent Cole Croston. In the process, the 6-foot, 225-pound back forged ahead to become Iowa’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Marcus Coker in 2011.

Daniels Jr. appeared in 37 games during his days under Bill Belichick confidant Kirk Ferentz in Iowa City. He finished his four-year career ranked 16th in school history with 1,895 rushing yards and 27th with 116 points scored.

He had accounted for only 196 yards of offense and one touchdown through his first two years.

In 2015, however, the role of No. 29 expanded despite the high-ankle sprain he suffered early on in the campaign, and despite the foot and ankle injuries he battled the season prior.

The then-junior made five starts, and handled 145 carries for 646 yards and eight touchdowns.

By 2016, Daniels Jr. was voted a permanent team captain and went on to collect MVP and Hayden Fry awards on offense, with an All-Big Ten honorable mention among his additional accolades.

Even so, Daniels Jr. remained on the outside looking in during the pre-draft process. A rugged, powerful, one-cut-and-go runner out of I-formation, perhaps his skillset was seen as a narrow one in a diverse and deep 2017 crop. In a backfield tandem with the shiftier Akrum Wadley, Daniels Jr. had still broken free for five gains of over 40 yards and three of over 50 in 2016. He’d also amassed 150-plus yards in three of his final seven games.

But his low-gear, build-up style, his minimal change of direction and his limited pass-catching experience also figured to have factored into why he stayed home in February while four of his Iowa teammates attended the NFL Scouting Combine.

Daniels Jr. clocked a 4.57-second 40-yard dash, a 7.28 three-cone and a 4.45 short shuttle at the school’s pro day a month later. It was also there that he put up 21 reps of 225 pounds on the bench and leaped for a 36-inch vertical to pair with a 9-foot-6 broad jump.

As for how that blend of production and physical characteristics will translate, it’s unclear if they will. In Foxborough now, Daniels Jr. is looking up at Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White, Brandon Bolden and 2016 undrafted addition D.J. Foster. He’s looking up at long odds.

He’ll take them for what they are.

“All I need is a shot and I’m thankful the Patriots are giving me that opportunity,” Daniels Jr. tweeted on the night of April 29.

As a momentum player with some jump-cut, between-the-tackles and short-yardage ability, Daniels Jr. has familiar traits. He may not make you miss; he may drag you down. He may prove to be along similar lines as a Jonas Gray, a Stephen Houston, a George Winn or even a BenJarvus Green-Ellis when it comes to bigger undrafted backs of Patriots past. And in the best-case scenario, he may be an eventual candidate for the practice squad come September.

A lot will change between now and then. For the time being, he’s the seventh man in the committee. New England did not draft a running back two weeks ago, nor did the war room have much of a reason to.

But Daniels Jr. is worth keeping an eye on in the months to follow, for reasons other than the depth chart, for reasons other than his name.