Iowa City – The easiest way to sum up the Hawkeye receivers from a year ago… Too many dropped passes, and not enough separation. A revitalization of the receiving core has to happen for Iowa to stand any chance of progressing this season. The running game is there, but without at least a semblance of a threat at wide receiver, opposing defenses will stack the box every down, and the Hawkeye offense will struggle to produce. It doesn’t matter how good the running game is. If the offense is completely one dimensional they will struggle against the better half of their Big Ten opponents.
Here’s the good news, Matt Vandeberg is back for another year. He was Iowa’s leading receiver in 2015, accounted for just over 700 yards. Then, last fall, he was sidelined with a broken foot, leaving the Hawkeyes scrambling to find reliable options.Vandeberg’s presence was clearly missed. In his four games, VandeBerg racked up 19 receptions. He caught the ball half as often as leading receiver Riley McCarron, in nine fewer games.
On the road to recovery, VandeBerg suffered some setbacks that kept him from spring practice, but he appears ready to take on the challenge in 2017. He was on pace to obliterate his 2015 statistics last year prior to being injured.
Overall, Iowa totaled 175 catches in 2016, the second worst production of any team in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes only edged out Rutgers by 16 receptions. Purdue, with senior and fifth round draft pick DeAngelo Yancey, led the conference. Last year was the first time the Hawkeyes were under 200 receptions since the 2008 season, when the total was 187 catches. Iowa didn’t come close to matching the amount accumulated by top Big Ten contenders. The four teams that finished ahead of the Hawks, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan, averaged 53 more completions on the year, and over 500 more rushing yards.
The Hawkeyes offense can’t hang with the teams leading the conference if they don’t get more production out of their wide receivers. It’s really that simple. This year the receivers are crucial if Iowa wants to remain competitive.
Beyond VandeBerg, progression and development is essential from the inexperienced group of receivers.The depth chart lists Nick Easley, a transfer from Iowa Western Community College, as the starter opposite of VandeBerg. Easley stands 5’11” and hasn’t played a down in Kinnick outside of the spring game. Easley’s primary attribute is his stellar route running abilities. That might be the most valuable attribute anyone can bring with a new starting quarterback. When the passer knows exactly where the receiver will be it gives the offense a significant advantage.
Another addition is graduate transfer Matt Quarells from New Mexico. His stats as a Lobo aren’t stellar, but it’s worth noting that he played in a triple option offense. Quarells addition basically replaced Jerminic Smith who departed the program earlier this year after having academic problems. Quarells has speed that Iowa desperately needs, and if he can get an early grasp on the playbook he could easily put himself in position to earn playing time.
Devonte Young or Adrian Falconer are another couple of young wide receivers who are expected to contribute this year. Neither of them accounted for a single catch last season, but both were able to get on the field. Young recorded his first statistics as a Hawkeye during the annual spring game. He caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Stanley. He also had a big day at Kids Day over the past weekend catching 2 TD passes including one bomb from Nathan Stanley.
Due to the fact that the receiving corp is so inexperienced there are some true freshman who will likely end up having a chance to play this season. Max Cooper, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Brandon Smith are three guys who have stood out so far in camp. Any help they can give would be a bonus for the offense.
It is impossible to predict what kind of performance to expect from this group of receivers. Vandeberg’s ability to remain healthy will be key. It appears they have some young talent on the depth chart behind him, but they will need some time and real game experience in order to play well at this level.
Thankfully the tights ends and running backs will be there to take some of the pressure off. At some point it will be up to the receivers to return the favor.