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Iowa Football 2017 Position Preview: Wide Receivers

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The 2017 Hawkeyes have a lot of questions to answer at the WR position. We review who is returning, who’s coming in and how the depth chart may shake out.

Iowa State v Iowa
Matt VandeBerg is the lone returning WR to catch a pass at Iowa. He’ll need to carry the load for a thin group in 2017.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Previously, on Iowa football position previews:

Running Backs

Offensive Line

Defensive Backs

As we continue our dive into Iowa Football’s position groups for the 2017 season, we turn our attention to a group with perhaps the most question marks of all: the wide receivers. Hawkeye fans look back at the 2016 season and can say many things, but that the offense had a solid passing game is not one of them. Put simply, the passing game was a mess, despite the rushing attack being so potent.

Iowa threw for less than 2000 yards in 2016 and that was with a 3rd round draft pick at QB. Making matter worse, 2 of the 3 leading receivers weren’t receivers at all - they were RB Akrum Wadley and TE George Kittle. Kittle is gone and so are the two leading receivers from the WR position group. Riley McCarron is on to the NFL and Jerminic Smith is no longer with the team. So what’s left? Let’s take a look

Scholarship Distribution

WR Scholarship Distribution

POS SR JR SO RS FR Incoming FR Total
POS SR JR SO RS FR Incoming FR Total
WR Matt Vandeberg Adrian Falconer Devonte Young Max Cooper; Henry Marchese; Brandon Smith; Ihmir Smith-Marsette 7

Of those listed above, only Matt VandeBerg has caught a pass at the division 1 level. You may recall, a broken foot kept him sidelined for the vast majority of last season. Despite that, he was still just shy of being the second leading receiver from the WR group. In just 4 games in 2016, VandeBerg caught 19 passes for 284 yards and 3 TDs.

The Hawkeyes will need him to be the leader of this group in 2017 to put any sort of balanced attack on the field. But VandeBerg has missed much of the offseason activities after re-aggravating his foot injury. He has started workouts again and claims to be healthy, but Hawkeye fans will be holding their breath throughout fall camp.

Beyond the Meerkat, it’s a group of relative unknowns. Junior Adrion Falconer and sophomore Devonte Young both look skilled, but neither have had an opportunity to show much. They should have plenty this season. They’ll be joined by a group of 4 incoming scholarship freshmen in Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Max Cooper and Henry Marchese. The group also added a walk-on in former Iowa Western WR Nick Easley.

Projected Starters

WR - Matt VandeBerg

SE - Devonte Young

So, first things first here. Iowa is somewhat unique in that its official depth charts list two receivers and a fullback (because that’s football). Additionally, they delineate between wide receiver and split end. Typically, Iowa’s receivers learn multiple spots, but the split end position is traditionally more of what you think of when you think of deep threats and the wide receiver position is more of the slot-type player.

We don’t know much about the majority of the guys on the roster here, but we know that when healthy, Matt VandeBerg is a damn fine receiver. He will start if healthy, and while he’s listed as the WR (think slot) here, we know Iowa likes to use him all over the place. He was a favorite of former QB CJ Beathard both in the short passing game and down field. I wouldn’t expect that to change much, regardless of who ends up starting at QB.

The other WR spot is where the question marks really start to appear. As noted, nobody on the roster has caught a pass at Iowa, so projecting who among them will earn a starting spot is really tough. I’ve been really high on incoming freshman Brandon Smith. He has the build you think of as a prototypical NFL WR and he has some speed. But he’s still a freshman and expecting him to start day one is setting yourself up for disappointment.

Iowa Western transfer (and walk-on) Nick Easley is a guy the staff has raved about since he got to campus. He seems like the type of kid that really thrives in a place like Iowa City and I would expect him to get plenty of run. But his skillset looks pretty similar to that of Matt VandeBerg. As I said, the Hawkeyes will move VandeBerg around some, so I do think we’ll see them on the field together, but I doubt we see him start, at least early in the year.

So really that just leaves us with the junior Adrian Falconer and the sophomore Devonte Young (following the above line of thinking that a freshman isn’t likely to start from the outset). We haven’t seen much of either of them, but Young was listed ahead of Falconer on the latest depth chart the Iowa staff released. Until there’s a reason to change it, I’ll assume that’s who will start.

Impact Player

Matt VandeBerg

Given the depth concerns in this group, this one is a no-brainer. VandeBerg is the only returning receiver to catch a pass and he’s shown an ability to be pretty dynamic. None of his measureables are going to jump off the page, but he’s a playmaker and he’s proven it a number of times for Iowa over the last two seasons.

It’s hard to envision a scenario in which VandeBerg doesn’t lead the team in both receptions and yards unless he goes down to injury. Given his history, that’s entirely possible. But with so many unknown quantities in the position group, he’s the only option at this time.

Sleeper

Brandon Smith

I guess you could argue with me on the definition of sleeper here. Smith isn’t exactly a nobody, he’s a guy a lot of people are expecting to get serious playing time as a freshman. And for good reason: He looks like an athletic freak.

He comes in at 6’3” and 205 pounds, and while his official 40 yard dash time of 4.77 isn’t stellar, he can move. He’s also the Mississippi state champion in the high jump with a 40 inch vertical and a championship jump of 6’6”. Add in that he apparently has incredibly large hands (HawkCantral reports he wears XXXL gloves) and you have a guy you can send downfield to go up and get the ball, especially in the redzone.

Look for Brandon Smith to contribute in his freshman season and potentially supplant whoever begins the year opposite Matt VandeBerg as a starter in this offense.

X-Factor

The Scheme

That may sounds strange, but let me explain. There are tons of concerns with this position group coming into the year. I’m not going to beat this dead horse any further. But KF doesn’t have a really long track record of relying on freshmen for big minutes. He may have to with this group, but I think we may see the wily veteran get crafty here.

Despite the issues outlined above at WR, Brian Ferentz has lots of options at both tight end and now at running back with the addition of Nevada transfer James Butler. Skeptics will say KF is still the head coach and BF will never be able to truly get creative, but if there were ever a time for it, this is the year.

If you squint, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Matt VandeBerg leads the team in targets, receptions and yardage, but a pair of TEs and RBs are next in line before you even get to another WR on the list. James Butler and Akrum Wadley are both really good pass catchers. They’ll get used out of the backfield as relief valves, as well as in the screen game. Hopefully we’ll see them flexed out from time to time.

We’ve already seen spring examples of Noah Fant streaking downfield like tight ends of Ken O-Keefe offenses past. I think we get back to that and perhaps see him and/or a number of the other TE options flexed out into the slot on occasion, allowing MVB to slide to the outside.

The options are there, now we’ll see if Iowa gets creative.

Analysis

If you want to de-code the coach speak of the Iowa depth chart and think about things in terms of where you’ll see guys on the field, let’s look at it this way:

Wide Receiver

Devonte Young

Adrian Falconer

Ihmir Smith-Marsette

Slot Receiver

Matt VandeBerg

Nick Easley

Wide Receiver

Brandon Smith

Max Cooper

Henry Marchese

Visually, that would be Young and Smith split out wide with VandeBerg in the slot in a three-receiver set. Below each of them is how I think things stack up from a depth standpoint.

A couple of quick, easy notes. First, with only three guys currently on the depth chart having been on the roster during a football season, it’s really tough to project here. But all indications are Nick Easly has impressed and we know enough about him to know he is more of a slot type receiver. It’s likely he gets plenty of playing time, even if he’s behind VandeBerg on the depth chart. It’s also possible he impresses enough to start alongside the Meerkat if the staff slides him outside as more of a deep threat. We’ve seen them do this in the past.

Second, you’ll notice one side is nothing but freshmen. Yikes. In a perfect world, Iowa wouldn’t rely on freshmen much at all. And obviously that’s what KF has always worked towards. But this year there will be freshmen playing significant minutes. As noted above, Brandon Smith is the top candidate to get early run based purely on his physical gifts. New WR coach Kelton Copeland recently said on the HawkCentral podcast that Smith is “everything you’re looking for athletically.” I agree.

The guys I have behind him are fellow freshmen Max Cooper and Henry Marchese. Marchese has a similar frame to Smith, standing at 6’3” but is a little slimmer at only 185 lbs coming into fall camp. Cooper is on the shorter side at only 6’ and 175 lbs, but Copeland described him as the sleeper of the bunch and given Marchese may have had his summer interests split between football and being drafted in the MLB draft, I’m saying Cooper may be slightly ahead early on.

On the other side, you’ve the “experienced” guys, and based solely on size, I’ve put Ihmir Smith-Marsette behind them rather than behind Smith. Smith-Marsette is coming in as an athlete and it’s possible he ends up on defense. The secondary has some depth issues and ISM is a quality CB prospect. However, the major deficiency at WR leads me to believe he will at least start there. Add in the fact that Kelton Copeland has talked about him as if he’s a member of his position group, and I think he’s a safe bet here.

ISM has a little smaller build at only 155 lbs in high school, but his 6’1” frame will allow him to fill out during his time at Iowa. He’s on the quicker side for this group of WRs and shows some elusiveness on film. I think his slight build probably limits his early playing time, but he is a guy you could see turn into someone like Matt VandeBerg over time.

At the end of the day, I expect WR to remain a position of concern well into the season. We know what to expect out of Matt VandeBerg, but can he stay healthy? Nick Easley seems to be impressing, but how does he fit into the rotation? Brandon Smith meanwhile looks like the real deal. He should separate himself from the other incoming freshmen early based on his sheer athleticism, but can he earn playing time by learning the playbook and committing to becoming a trusty blocker? And who will emerge among the two returning receivers not named Matt VandeBerg?

There are plenty of questions, and we’ll have to wait for the answers. The WR group will certainly be interesting to watch develop in 2017.