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Charlie Jones is the Punishment for the Iowa Offense’s Sins

Ex-Hawkeye receiver Charlie Jones is having an All-American season at Purdue while Iowa’s passing offense is one of the worst in the country. That seems about right.

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NCAA Football: Nebraska at Purdue Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa football is about to be haunted by the ghost of wide receivers past. While the Hawkeye passing game had its most efficient outing in its recent victory against Northwestern, Iowa’s next contest will see them face a Purdue offense whose passing attack makes Iowa’s look like a relic of another century. Two of the key cogs in the Boilermaker passing attack are wide receivers who suited up for the Hawkeyes last season, and one of those players has emerged as one of the most dynamic wide receivers in college football.

Charlies Jones’ success at Purdue poses the ultimate “what if” question for the Iowa coaching staff. Despite shining as a return man between 2020-21, Jones was used only sparingly as a wide receiver, averaging one catch per game over 21 games and totaling 323 receiving yards. Since transferring to Purdue, however, Jones’ usage and production have exploded. Jones trails only ISU’s Xavier Hutchinson for the most receptions in the nation (72), has the fourth most receiving touchdowns in the country (9), and has the sixth most receiving yards (840). He has performed well against some of the best corners in college football, including Garrett Williams of Syracuse and Joey Porter Jr. of Penn State. Jones scored as many touchdowns in a single game against Syracuse (three) as he did in two full seasons at Iowa and has easily been more productive than the entirety of Iowa’s wide receiver room combined so far in 2022.

Charlie Jones vs. Iowa’s Wide Receivers

 Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving Touchdowns
 Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving Touchdowns
Charlie Jones 72 840 9
Iowa Wide Receivers 49 535 1

Iowa fans can be forgiven for feeling jealousy towards Purdue for spiriting Jones away from Iowa City, especially given how badly the Hawkeye receiving corps has missed him this season. Keagan Johnson, the player most analysts expected to be the breakout star of the passing game, has played only a half of football this season due to medical issues. Injuries have similarly impacted the rest of the receiving corps, with Nico Ragaini and Brody Brecht missing two games apiece and Diante Vines missing the first six contests. Arland Bruce IV, the only scholarship receiver who has been healthy enough to play in every game, has yet to make the kind of impact fans hoped for after his promising freshman year, due in part to the extent to which opposing defenses have focused on him when he is on the field. Charlie Jones could have certainly provided a huge boost to Iowa’s receiving corps were he still with the team, and he would have been particularly vital during the early season when the unit was decimated by injuries.

Jones’ versatility and explosiveness could have been an immediate upgrade to a passing game that has been sorely lacking both qualities this season. Jones can line up anywhere on the field and has the speed and route running abilities to create separation on the outside or do serious damage from the slot. Jones has used his excellent speed and body control to emerge as a deep threat downfield,

used his quickness and impressive footwork to punish defenses after the catch,

and has shown himself to be one of the best receivers in college football at making contested catches in traffic.

While all of these attributes would make Jones an asset to the 2022 Hawkeyes, the skill Iowa is missing most this season is Jones’ ability to get open quickly. Jones’ immaculate route running combined with his shiftiness in space have helped him to quickly shake defenders while playing for the Boilermakers, allowing Purdue’s quarterbacks to make quick reads and get him the ball before their protection breaks down. Iowa’s offensive line has consistently struggled to protect Spencer Petras in the passing game this season, an issue that has only been compounded by the inability of the Hawkeye receivers to get open fast enough for him to target them before the pass rush arrives. Were Charlie Jones still a Hawkeye, he might have emerged as precisely the kind of security blanket Iowa’s offense has so desperately needed this year; someone who can get open quickly, catch the ball in tight coverage, and make defenders miss to gain extra yardage.

Given that Jones could have been such an asset to the Hawkeye passing game, it’s worth asking how he ended up leaving Iowa to play for one of its divisional rivals. The answer, according to Jones, came down to a lack of opportunity:

“I was a receiver. I knew what I was capable of doing. You want the ball because you want to help the team in the way you know you can. When the opportunities came, I tried to take advantage of them whenever I could. But after that year, I tried to find a place where I was more of a receiver and not just a returner.”

Charlie Jones left Iowa for Purdue because the Hawkeyes were underutilizing him as a wide receiver, a mistake the Boilermakers clearly have not made. While wideouts obviously get more targets in Purdue’s pass-happy offense than Iowa’s more balanced pro attack that heavily leans on its tight ends, Iowa compounded this issue by using Jones less than other receivers on the team. Jones caught fewer passes last season (21) than both Ragaini (26) and Bruce (25) and had fewer than half the receptions of tight end Sam LaPorta (53). Unlike Tyrone Tracy Jr. who left Iowa for Purdue shortly after the conclusion of the 2021 season, Jones was with the Hawkeyes through spring camp, saw that he was not in line for a bump in targets, and chose to play for an offensive coaching staff that understood how best to utilize him.

When Iowa plays the Boilermakers this weekend, the Hawkeye coaching staff will be confronted with the human embodiment of their offensive failures, Exhibit A for the detractors who lament the program’s lack of offensive creativity and inability to identify and cultivate talented skill players. The Hawkeye coaches had Charlie Jones in the program from three years and failed to see in him the star potential it took Purdue’s coaches a handful of fall practices to recognize. Iowa has an exceptional reputation for developing talent and finding diamonds in the rough, but this has unfortunately not extended to the wide receiver position, where Iowa has failed to produce a single impactful NFL player during the Kirk Ferentz era. Before Ihmir Smith-Marsette caught five balls for the Minnesota Vikings last season, no Hawkeye wide receiver had recorded a single reception in the NFL since Tim Dwight (a Hayden Fry product) in 2007. As the Hawkeye coaches study Purdue’s game film and watch Charlie Jones pick apart Big Ten defenses while their own offense languishes as the 120th best passing attack in the nation, perhaps it will prompt some self-reflection about how the staff evaluates and nurtures their wide receiver talent—and whether they have the right personnel doing the evaluating to begin with. Charlie Jones is precisely the type of player Iowa’s dysfunctional offense could have used this season. If he plays a part in a Purdue victory this weekend, Iowa’s coaches will have no one to blame but themselves.