Months ago, we started our march toward a 2020 Iowa football season by previewing each position group for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Those previews, which can all be viewed here, were stopped when hope of a 2020 season faded. Now, we have revised schedule and hope of playing this year again. As such, we’re wrapping up our coverage by circling back on any remaining position groups which have not already been previewed.
Up this week is the wide receivers.
The Iowa Hawkeyes have always been built on a ball control offense predicated on running the ball effectively first and foremost with the passing game largely being based on play-action. Historically, throwing the ball has been purely to keep defenses honest and provide some semblance of balance. In the latter years of Kirk Ferentz’s career, we’ve seen some glimmers of hope that the philosophy might be adapting. Not outright changing, mind you, but adapting to the rest of college football.
In 2019, with a veteran quarterback in third year starter Nate Stanley, the Hawkeyes threw the ball 48% of the time with passes accounting for 62% of Iowa’s total offense. As we turn to 2020, Iowa will be breaking in a brand new quarterback, but they return virtually every receiving option from a season ago. Will the Hawkeyes look to throw more or less in the latest version of the Ferentz offense?
Iowa’s WR group sees but one departure from a season ago. While Oliver Martin was a big name on the recruiting trail as a 4-star product from right here in Iowa City, he played virtually no role in Iowa’s offense after transferring from Michigan. With no other departures but more talent coming in, Martin was expected to again play a very limited role in 2020.
Instead, he’s transferred for the second time in his college career and will be spending the year in Lincoln with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. While Iowa fans are no doubt sad to see the talented local product playing for another team, he’s not likely to be missed in the offense.
The Dynamic Duo
When the Hawkeyes step onto the field on October 24th, they’ll return a pair of receivers as good as any pair they’ve had in a decade. Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith accounted for 1,161 of Iowa’s 2,976 receiving yards, nearly 40%, and 10 of 16 receiving touchdowns in 2019. This despite Smith missing more than 40% of the season due to injury.
While the pair likely won’t top the production of Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt in 2010 (1,606 yards and 16 TDs) or Marvin McNutt and Kevonte Martin-Manley in 2011 (2,028 yards and 16 TDs), they are on track to be a fearsome matchup for opposing defenses and could certainly push to top DJK and McNutt’s output in Iowa’s great 2009 run (1,424 yards and 10 TDs). That’s due in part to the offensive scheme, but largely it’s due to the complimentary skillset the two bring.
Smith-Marsette is a burner who can beat virtually any corner lined up opposite him if he gets a clean release. What Smith lacks in pure speed he more than makes up for with his size and incredible leaping ability. That combination creates lots of opportunities
As we look at utilization in 2020, look for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to build on the success found late last season, including in Iowa’s Holiday Bowl win over USC, getting big plays out of ISM both through deep passes, but also leveraging his speed for screens and jet sweeps. Smith-Marsette is dynamic with the ball in his hands and Iowa’s offense is best when he’s getting opportunities to touch the ball in a variety of ways.
As for Smith, look for the offense to continue utilizing his length and ability to go get the ball in stress situations, particularly 3rd down and in the red zone. What will be interesting to watch is whether the staff builds on Smith’s route tree to utilize him more over the middle and on double moves as defenses scheme to take away his big time first down catches right at the sticks.
The Middle Men
While ISM and Smith get the big play recognition lined up in the outside, Iowa’s big time WR yardage share in 2019 can largely be attributed to the emergence of a pair of receivers who play primarily in the middle of the field. The Hawkeyes got 75% of their receiving production from WRs in 2019, the most since that 2011 season where McNutt went off for more than 1,300 yards, because Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy stepped into major roles previously held by Hawkeye tight ends.
Ragaini, a redshirt freshman who was Iowa’s primary slot receiver, actually led the Hawkeyes with 46 catches on the year. That’s not uncommon for an Iowa slot receiver who can act as a security blanket over the middle of the field.
What was uncommon about 2019 was Iowa working a fourth receiver heavily into the rotation as Tyrone Tracy emerged as a real weapon. The fellow RS freshman from Indianapolis came to Iowa City as a hybrid athlete who had played both RB and WR in high school. Strictly a receiver at Iowa, his RB abilities translated well to yards after catch as Tracy finished the year second in receiving yards at 589.
Tracy worked in as a slot receiver alongside Ragaini but also proved versatile enough to move outside and fill the void left by Brandon Smith when he went down with an injury. Tracy showed the ability to both stretch the field vertically but also work the middle. He could emerge as a future star in 2020.
The Talk of the Town
Iowa returns its top four receivers from a season ago. In every other season under Kirk Ferentz it would have been unfathomable that another player could somehow make an impact in the group. But the talk of the town coming out of Hawkeye Football’s media availability this week has been Buffalo transfer Charlie Jones.
A redshirt junior from Deerfield, IL, Jones joined the Hawkeyes a season ago but sat out due to transfer. He came from Buffalo where he handled return duties (don’t look for him to unseat Smith-Marsette there) and racked up 395 yards and 3 TDs as a redshirt freshman. Now, despite one of the most talented collections of returning receivers in the modern Iowa football era, Charlie Jones has reportedly been running with the first team offense leading up to opening day.
In Tuesday’s offensive player media availability, a number of guys, including Brandon Smith, talked up the talent of Jones and how good he has looked in practice.
The question now is how he fits into Iowa’s plans for 2020. He’s a slot type receiver in the mold of Ragaini. Could we see him take reps from the RS sophomore? Maybe. We could also see Iowa work more 4-receiver sets to take advantage of a deep talent pool they’ve rarely enjoyed. This will be one to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
The Next Generation
Beyond the five players already mentioned, it’s hard to see many reps available for anyone else. It’s genuinely difficult to utilize four receivers as much as Iowa did a season ago within the confines of Kirk Ferentz’s general philosophy. And that utilization a year ago was made possible in part by injuries to Brandon Smith. Now if you add in the potential of needing to feed Charlie Jones some reps and the likelihood Iowa tries to take advantage of a budding young tight end in Sam LaPorta and their star RB Tyler Goodson, who is a tremendous pass catcher in his own right, and you’re genuinely looking at table scraps in garbage time.
But there is young talent on the roster behind the starters who will be looking for anything they can get. Kansas City native Desmond Hutson appears to be the heir apparent to Brandon Smith and has a similar build. Then there’s a pair of Florida speedsters looking to step in when Smith-Marsette graduates. Calvin Lockett and Quavon Matthews both hail from the Tampa area and both can fly.
Max Cooper is another young-ish guy who has seen some playing time in the past, both as a punt returner and more of a blocking receiver. And Diante Vines is a freshman who is likely to redshirt but has a lot of potential in future years.
It should be an exciting year for Iowa receivers. While it’s not likely they’ll account for 75% of receiving yards again this season, with the talent in the position group it also wouldn’t be surprising. New QB Spencer Petras will have to learn on the fly, but he’s going to have a plethora of weapons to choose from.