IOWA CITY, Iowa — From 2008 through 2011, Iowa’s passing game produced spectacular statistics when placed alongside the program’s recent offensive track record.
In that four-year block, eight times a receiver caught at least 30 passes and averaged at least 14 yards per catch in a single season. Five times those receivers averaged at least 16 yards a catch, and 10 different wide receivers caught at least 30 passes in a season.
From 2009 through 2011, Marvin McNutt was a statistical machine. He totaled 170 catches for program records in receiving yards (2,861) and receiving touchdowns (28). His career average of 16.8 yards per catch is by far the best of Iowa receivers in the top 10 for catches. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos produced similar numbers (173 catches, 2,616 yards, 15.1 yards per catch, 17 touchdowns) from 2007 through 2010. They stretched the field to allow Iowa’s tight ends to find more openings and force defenders off the line of scrimmage and open up the running game.
It’s completely different the last six seasons. Ten receivers have caught at least 30 passes in a season but only once did one average at least 14 yards per reception. In 2015, Tevaun Smith — who missed action with a knee injury — caught 32 passes for 563 yards with 3 touchdowns at 17.6 yards per catch. Smith was the only receiver to to average more than 12.3 yards per catch in any of the six seasons.
Attrition was a major culprit at that position entering the 2017 season. From 2013-16, Iowa allocated 11 scholarships to freshman wide receivers, including six in the 2013 class. Only three remained on the team last fall and just one — fifth-year senior Matt VandeBerg — even caught a pass in a game. Seven of the receivers transferred and another (Jay Scheel) retired because of injuries.
Entering this offseason, only Adrian Falconer and Devonte Young remain from that group. Falconer didn’t see action last fall and Young played primarily special teams. VandeBerg exits the program after ranking 10th in career catches with 134.
“It’s like anything, things don’t just happen overnight,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s a position where, losing Jay Scheel, hurt us a couple years ago. Long story short, we’re still working on that and we’re going to lose Matt. That’s a big loss, obviously. Good football player, good leader.”
Iowa showed some potential for stretching the field this season, in part because of the change in passing philosophy. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who ran the show from 2012-17, retired. Former offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe returned as quarterbacks coach and worked with new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland to emphasize stretching the field.
Newcomers Nick Easley (junior-college transfer) and freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette joined VandeBerg as the team’s primary receivers this year with freshmen Brandon Smith and Max Cooper also seeing action. The Hawkeyes took plenty of shots down the field to wide receivers but struggled to connect, whether it was an overthrow by Nate Stanley, a dropped pass or the receivers not getting to their spots correctly. Tight end Noah Fant made up for some of those missed shots by catching 30 passes for 494 yards (16.47 yards per reception) and 11 touchdowns. Fant became the team’s most consistent deep pass catcher. But Iowa needs multiple receivers to fill that role in 2018 to entertain hopes of challenging Wisconsin in the Big Ten West Division.
With Henry Marchese and Cam Harrell joining the receiver ranks after redshirt seasons as well as incoming freshmen Tyrone Tracy, Samson Evans, Calvin Lockett and Nico Ragaini, Iowa will attack that position with numbers. The goal is to produce results.
“Counting on Nick stepping up and Ihmir should be a better player and Brandon will have to be a better player and we’ll keep working down the list,” Ferentz said. “But we’ve got to continue to get better at that position. And just gotta work it.”