There was a time when there was enough optimism for the 2017 Iowa football season to fill a 10,000-word article. Four starters return to an offensive line that won an award last year. All three starting linebackers return to a unit that recorded almost 300 total tackles in 2016. Akrum Wadley is a legitimate candidate for Big Ten offensive player of the year, while Josey Jewell is a legitimate candidate for the defensive counterpart of that award.
Arguably the biggest question mark going in to this year (besides who’s going to punt) was going to be who can catch the ball for a first-year starting quarterback, whether that be Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers.
The departure of Jerminic Smith from the Iowa football program Friday not only raises this question to a higher degree, it creates a sense of emergency and panic for Brian Ferentz, who is about to command his first-ever offense with approximately one receiver (and tight end) who has seen any sort of meaningful playing time.
Next year it’s going to be the Matt VandeBerg show, and that’s about all we know. And just because VandeBerg is returning, that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the type of playmaker he was in 2015, or for part of 2016. He and C.J. Beathard had an uncanny knack for finding each other on the field, say nothing for the serious injury he keeps falling victim to.
So who else is there besides VandeBerg next year? Let’s find out!
The Unusual Suspects
Here are the receivers besides VandeBerg on Iowa’s roster as of now:
- Brandon Bishop: Junior. No stats accumulated.
- Ronald Nash: Junior. Two catches for 14 yards in 2016.
- Ryan Boyle: Sophomore. No stats accumulated (moved over from QB in spring).
- Dominique Dafney: Sophomore. No stats accumulated.
- Devonte Young: Sophomore. Saw game-action as a true freshman, but no stats accumulated.
- Adrian Falconer: Junior. No stats accumulated.
- Nick Easley: Junior. JUCO walk-on, but coaches love him this spring!
And that’s it! For those keeping score, Iowa’s receivers not named Matt VandeBerg have approximately 2 combined catches for 14 yards.
Iowa did get a handful of receivers this recruiting cycle. Could any of them contribute immediately?
Probably not. Iowa doesn’t typically have true freshman stand out, let alone see meaningful playing time, especially at the receiver position. However, these really truly are desperate times. Kirk Ferentz even said he expects more freshmen to play this year than normal, buuuuut talk is kinda cheap, as we’ve learned in the past.
“I think it was likely (that some rookies would play right away) anyway — that’s how we looked at it back in the middle of the spring,” Ferentz said. “Probably, where it is different is, we’ll have a very open mind about those guys contributing. But I can say the same about our corners. It’s pretty much our perimeter players right now. If a freshman can come in and help us, we’re going to let it go.”
The New Guys
So you’ve probably heard a lot about incoming freshman Brandon Smith. He was an unheralded recruit that eventually gained more traction as a senior, but stuck with Iowa because Kelvin Bell was on him before anyone else. The Lake Cormorant, MS, native is being pegged as the best option to contribute early given his size and talent.
Scott Dochterman even went all the way down to Mississippi to speak to Smith. My biggest takeaway from that article?
Smith won the Mississippi Class 5A high jump competition last weekend with a leap of 6-6. He tied for the title as a junior at 6-8 but lost the crown because he had a scratch. His vertical jump of 39 inches would have placed fourth among wide receivers at the NFL combine in March.
Yeah, so you could say Smith has intangibles.
After Smith, it’s Henry Marchese out of the Chicago suburbs, and Max Cooper from Waukesha, WI. Iowa also won a recruiting battle for Ihmir Smith-Marsette, but the Newark native is projected as a defensive back right now. I don’t see Iowa playing more than one true freshman at receiver this year unless it’s an absolute emergency (and that isn’t totally super unlikely!) and I think Smith is that guy.
Sooooooo who’s currently on the roster that could make an impact while playing out of position? The first and most obvious answer is Akrum Wadley, who is Iowa’s leading returning receiver. He caught 36 passes for 315 yards last year, so him lining up in the slot with any sort of regularity isn’t unconscionable, but if I know the Iowa coaches like I think I know the Iowa coaches, they don’t see Wadley as the answer.
Brian Ferentz and new offensive line coach Tim Polasek have probably already started building run packages for Wadley, and while it’s not too late to throw those in the fire, I don’t see the Ferentz’s (Ferentz’? Ferentzes? Ferentzi?) putting their undisputed best playmaker out of position too often. Wadley will get his catches next year, but first and foremost, he’s a running back.
So could another running back make some noise at receiver? Toks Akinribade is listed at 6-0. He, like every other running back on the roster, has zero career catches, but I could see him moving from Wadley’s de-facto backup to the slot position.
Annnnnnd you could probably say the same thing about Toren Young and Marcel Joly, who are the other runningbacks predicted to get some carries this year. At 5-11, they stand just slightly shorter than Akinribade.
I’m still not sold on finding an answer to Iowa’s receiving quandary in the backfield. My favorite solution to Iowa’s pass-catching problem is something I think we’ll actually see quite a bit next year: splitting a tight end out wide, early and often.
Here’s Brian Ferentz speaking at a presser back in April:
Whoever your best players are, you should probably play with them, right? I don't know much, but I remember being a player. We went over to Northwestern maybe in '01, and all week we just practiced a base defense. At that time, they were pretty unique because they were spread -- they would spread that floor open. They were out there, and they were chucking it around. We went over the base defense, and all week, Norm Parker is saying, hey, we're going to be fine. We're going to keep our best players on the field.
That was always a thing in the NFL. Why would you take off one of your best 11 to put on a lesser guy just to match personnel. So, offensively, it's the same thing. Let's keep our best players on the field. If that means we're going to have multiple tight ends or multiple tight ends and a fullback in the game or multiple half backs or whatever it is, let's make sure we're doing that.
Because at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is did we give the players the best chance they had to win the football game? Certainly having the best players on the field would be a good start. Absolutely. That means on third down, if it's 3rd and nine, and we have to have two tight ends out there, then we'll have two tight ends out there and make it work.
And there’s a glimpse of your 2017 Iowa football offense. Matt VandeBerg WR1. Some guy at WR2, and probably, most likely, maybe, Peter Pekar or Noah Fant at WR3. I recall Jake Duzey lining up in the slot with regularity in 2014 (and Henry Krieger-Coble semi-regularly in 2015) and I think we’re going to see that somewhat often this year.
Fant, at 6-5 and 232 lbs would be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. He caught 9 passes for 70 yards a year ago, and was fated to become an important part of this offense one way or another with the departure of George Kittle. Peter Pekar could be another option here, but at an inch shorter and 20 lbs heavier than Fant, I think he’s a more stereotypical Iowa tight end.
Other tight ends on the roster include Jon Wisnieski and Nate Vejvoda, but they are unproved commodities at this point.
Outside of convincing Jay Scheel to rejoin the football team, those are pretty much all of Iowa’s options. By all accounts Iowa had a dismal season through the air last year. At one point we thought it would be tough to not improve over last year’s 1,991 yards and 17 scores through the air. Now, at least matching that sort of production (or lack thereof) is the goal.