Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.
Today: Wide Receiver
|11||Kevonte Martin-Manley||SR(RS)||6-0/205||Slot Receiver|
|20||Andrew Stone||SR||5-11/175||Wide Receiver|
|7||Drew Zaun||SR(RS)||6-0/185||Wide Receiver|
|22||Damond Powell||SR||5-11/180||Wide Receiver|
|4||Tevaun Smith||JR||6-2/200||Wide Receiver|
|17||Jacob Hillyer||JR(RS)||6-4/210||Wide Receiver|
|83||Riley McCarron||SO(RS)||5-9/185||Wide Receiver|
|89||Matt VandeBerg||SO||6-1/175||Slot Receiver|
|18||Derrick Willies||FR(RS)||6-4/210||Wide Receiver|
|84||Andre Harris||FR(RS)||6-0/180||Slot Receiver|
|85||Derrick Mitchell Jr.||FR(RS)||6-1/205||Wide Receiver|
|86||Jay Scheel||FR||6-1/180||Wide Receiver|
In 2010, Iowa started Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt at wide receiver, and Ken O'Keefe's passing offense ran as well as it had in nearly a decade. By 2012, DJK and McNutt had run out of eligibility and O'Keefe had become the wide receivers coach for the Miami Dolphins. They left a smoldering crater behind, and the late hire of Greg Davis as O'Keefe's replacement only exacerbated the problem. Iowa finished with just 187 yards per game in passing offense and seven total passing touchdowns; just 57 percent of pass attempts were completed, and the Hawkeyes got less than six yards per attempt. It was a disaster.
Iowa responded by firing its longtime wide receiver coach, replacing him with Davis' former assistant at Texas, and recruiting a boatload of guys high on speed and athleticism but low on refinement. It didn't lead to much improvement in 2013 -- the completion percentage actually decreased, while yards per game increased by just 10 -- but yards per attempt jumped by over a yard and touchdowns nearly tripled. More importantly, Iowa was able to find minimal improvement while leaving those new recruits in the incubator; just one true freshman played at receiver in 2013, giving the Hawkeyes something in 2014 that they haven't had in years: Depth at receiver. And that depth, plus Bobby Kennedy's knowledge of what Davis wants, should lead to a somewhat-shocking renaissance just two years after the phrase "Iowa wide receiver" had been rendered a contradiction in terms.
Kevonte Martin-Manley (#11, Senior (RS), 6'0, 205 lbs., Brother Rice HS (Pontiac, Mich.))
If it feels like Kevonte Martin-Manley has been here forever, it's because he has. KMM has caught at least 30 passes in each of the last three seasons; should he match that feat in 2014, Martin-Manley would become the first Iowa receiver to record 30 receptions in each of four years since DJK, which doesn't seem that long ago, in retrospect. But DJK was the first receiver in school history to do that. Kevin Kasper, who set the school record for receptions early in the Ferentz tenure, didn't go 30x4. Tim Dwight didn't catch 30 passes in four seasons (he played halfback as a freshman). Quinn Early and Danan Hughes didn't do it for the Hayden Fry teams in the 1980s and early 1990s. It's a unique accomplishment that says as much about the player as it does about the game he was playing.
The game was different before that, to be sure -- both Forest Evashevski's last team in 1959 and Bob Comming's horrendous 1975 offense featured leading pass-catchers with eight receptions -- but you can't really say that it has markedly changed since the time of Fry. If anything, Iowa is more averse to airing it out now than it was then. But Martin-Manley has managed to do some things that other Iowa receivers have failed to comprehend. He has found a niche in this offense that remains valuable despite the changes in philosophy, a relatively sure-handed slot receiver who can take a hit over the middle if necessary. He has remained mostly healthy and clear of any off-the-field issues, and he has shown improvement and leadership over time. Those things get you playing time at Iowa, especially when you have more than a pinch of athletic ability to offer with them, and while KMM is never going to win a sprint at a track meet, he's shifty and quick and runs excellent patterns. He is workmanlike. He is a workman.
Marvin McNutt was a workman through his first two seasons at receiver, shadowing Johnson-Koulianos, playing the tall, rangy deep threat to his possession game. McNutt's numbers through his first two seasons as a receiver mirror Martin-Manley's last two years. As a senior, McNutt became arguably the best receiver in the conference. While there's little argument that Martin-Manley does not have the same physical gifts that McNutt held, it does show there is some room for improvement. And if KMM can improve incrementally, he has a coach that wants to use him. It's not likely, but 2014 could be a breakout for him, an unlikely outcome after 2012's debacle.
Tevaun Smith (#4, Junior, 6'2, 200 lbs., Kent School (Conn.)/Toronto, Canada)
Jacob Hillyer (#17, Junior (RS), 6'4, 210 lbs., Somerset (Tex.) HS)
Until last year, Iowa's receivers were coached by Soup Campbell, a former receivers coach under Lloyd Carr at Michigan. Both in Ann Arbor and Iowa City, Campbell preferred big, physical receivers who might not have the best downfield speed but could post up any defensive back that got in the way of a first down completion. Campbell used leverage to make up for ability, and it worked phenomenally until it didn't.
Soup is now gone, but Smith and Hillyer are the remnants of his style, precisely the sort of outside bruisers that Campbell preferred. Smith finished a somewhat-surprising third on the squad in receptions last season, hauling in 24 passes for 310 yards and a crucial catch in overtime against Northwestern. He caught six against Michigan State and five against Michigan. While his production faded down the stretch -- he was shut out in Iowa's last two games -- it was enough to lock him in as the de facto starter outside for 2014.
Hilyer is even bigger and more physically imposing than Smith, and Iowa utilized him early in the year. Hillyer caught touchdown passes against Iowa State and Western Michigan, and while he was not yet an integral part of the offense, he was quickly becoming one of Iowa's few actual threats in third-and-long situations. After a solid September, though, Hillyer almost went oh-for-October (he caught one pass for six yards against Northwestern), and finished the season with just eleven receptions and the aforementioned pair of touchdown catches. Two long-ish receptions against LSU thrust him back into a modest spotlight, and he starts the 2014 campaign as a listed starter, but this is going to have to be the year for him to consistently become what he has shown he can occasionally be.
The Downed Rocket
Damond Powell (#22, Senior, 5'11, 180 lbs., Snow College (Utah)/Toledo, Ohio)
Powell was supposed to be precisely what Iowa lacked in 2012: A small, blazing-fast receiver who could catch Greg Davis' myraid of bubble screens and horizontal passes and turn them into big positive yardage. After all, he had led the country as a junior college player with an absurd 41 yards per reception at Snow College. Even half of that at Iowa would revolutionize the offense.
Of course, Powell had to finish some things at Snow before he could come to Iowa City, meaning he was not with the team when camp opened in 2013 and didn't have the requisite time to learn the offense. And if we had learned anything from the disaster of 2012, it was that this offense could not be learned in a day. Powell never really caught up, and Iowa opted for a tactical deployment when the opportunity arose. It arose against Minnesota.
The 74-yard touchdown reception against the Gophers -- his third catch over 40 yards in the season's first month -- put the rest of the league on notice, and Powell's returns quickly faded. He only recorded one reception of more than 13 yards the rest of the way, and was shut out in the last four games of the season as Iowa utilized other options. Iowa probably needed creativity that it could not manage from a guy still learning the ropes and didn't want to take a chance on anything more than a screen or a decoy. But the man was one hell of a decoy.
Powell suffered a sports hernia this summer and is likely to miss all of August camp and at least a couple of games in September, but neither Powell nor his coach is talking about a redshirt yet; at Big Ten Media Days, Ferentz expected a return for the Big Ten opener as a worst-case scenario. That particular injury has a knack for ruining seasons, though. If he can get healthy, Powell will likely find a home in this offense. After a year in the program, that home might be a bit more comfortable.
A New Hope
Derrick Willies (#18, Freshman (RS), 6'4, 210 lbs., Rock Island (Ill.) HS)
Every year, someone breaks through in the spring game or does something to generate some hype during August camp. Last year, Cameron Wilson caught 10 passes for 131 yards in the spring game and had some buzz before leaving the program in July, for instance.
In seven years of writing this series, I don't remember anyone getting more hype than Derrick Willies this year.
Willies, a three-star recruit out of Rock Island, redshirted last season, despite coming out of high school at 6'4 and 210 pounds. He broke into the spring depth chart, then caught 12 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns in two spring appearances. Even Kirk Ferentz referred to him as "the spring game sensation." And while Ferentz said the staff would need to corral him, he has done little to stop the hype train this August. Willies was the topic of conversation when reporters met with almost every Iowa receiver earlier this month, and the feature stories appeared everywhere. He has the frame and the speed to contribute immediately, but his knowledge of the offense looks to be on par with far more experienced players.
Of course, even with all of that, he's still listed as a backup behind a senior and two juniors, and he's not markedly different from Smith and Hillyer to the point where his uniqueness would get him onto the field. Iowa's going to use Willies this year, but he's not going to immediately become the team's best wideout.
While You Wait for the Others
Matt VandeBerg (#89, Sophomore, 6'1, 175 lbs., Brandon Valley (S.D.) HS)
Of the five freshman receivers who joined the program last year, the most unlikely candidate to play immediately might have been VandeBerg. The two-star recruit out of South Dakota had initially been offered a grayshirt by the Hawkeyes, one of those Reese Morgan shots-in-the-dark that pan out at an absurdly high rate. Attrition gave him a full scholarship, and a solid pair of hands and surprising quickness got him eleven appearances, two starts, and eight catches as a true freshman. He doesn't have the speed that Iowa now demands on the outside, but he's a capable backup to Martin-Manley and potential significant contributor in 2015 and 2016.
Andre Harris (#84, Freshman (RS), 6'0, 180 lbs., Kirkwood (Mo.) HS)
Harris might have needed a redshirt more than any other player in the program last year. He was listed as a mere 157 pounds in high school, but added an inch of height and 23 pounds in one year with Chris Doyle and company. He has the sort of speed that could make him somewhat intriguing, but he's currently listed with VandeBerg at slot receiver and might not get a serious look until next year.
Derrick Mitchell Jr. (#85, Freshman (RS), 6'1, 205 lbs., Vashon HS (St. Louis, Mo.))
Mitchell, who did it all for Vashon High in St. Louis -- he recorded 1,603 total yards as a junior, including 808 passing yards, and 39 tackles on defense -- was the highest-rated freshman receiver recruit in Iowa's 2013 haul and probably could have contributed last year under different circumstances. As it was, much like Harris, he instead added 25 pounds and looks ready to play. Like Harris, he is a third-stringer on the current depth chart. Unlike Harris, he has Powell ahead of him and could make his mark in September.
Riley McCarron (#83, Sophomore (RS), 5'9, 185 lbs., Wahlert HS (Dubuque, Iowa))
McCarron, a former walk-on out of Dubuque, broke into the rotation as a last-option wideout and backup punt returner in 2013, catching three passes for 11 yards. His special teams role might have been different had Martin-Manley not put Nile Kinnick's single-game punt return record into question and mandated a backup make an appearance on special teams. Regardless, he ran with the second-team offense at Saturday's scrimmage ahead of scholarship guys like Mitchell, so it's certainly not out of the question that his role expands slightly this season.
Andrew Stone (#22, Senior (RS), 5'11, 175 lbs., Iowa Western C.C./Cedar Falls, Iowa)
Stone set the all-time reception record at Iowa Western Community College, hauling in 110 passes over two seasons before walking on at Iowa. He played for one of the most successful JUCO programs in the nation and received no more than tepid interest from the likes of Minnesota and Memphis, and he didn't see the field during Iowa's 2013 campaign. Still, he had a good day Saturday with the second-team offense and got a shoutout from Morehouse. If a walk-on is going to contribute this year, it's probably McCarron. But if TWO walk-ons contribute this year, I'm going to hit myself in the head with a tackhammer.
Jay Scheel (#86, Freshman, 6'1, 180 lbs., Union HS (La Porte City, Iowa))
Scheel's highlight tape reportedly took on mythical status among Iowa's coaching staff, to the point where the Hawkeyes were offering him a scholarship at the same time as high-four-star lineman Ross Pierschbacher. Scheel initially said he wanted to play quarterback, but the shift to receiver came early and, apparently, with his blessing. He didn't participate Saturday due to an unspecified injury, and missing time in August camp puts an immense strain on incoming receivers regardless of highlight-generating ability. It's a likely redshirt given all the depth, but Iowa let the last in-state four-star receiver (Keenan Davis) play as a freshman despite having two of the program's all-time best receivers at its disposal. Never say never.