IOWA CITY, Iowa — The analogies run wild and sometimes go overboard when one tries to describe the issues related to Iowa’s passing attack at its spring game a month ago.
It was like when Capt. Woodrow Call takes a whiff of Gus McCrae’s leg in Lonesome Dove and immediately knows gangrene has set in. Or like watching a kid jump off a diving board into a pool without water. Or … well, you get the point. It wasn’t good.
The quarterbacks struggled and the receivers couldn’t get open. That’s a recipe for mediocrity in the college football world of today, where teams have to post a modest passing game just to contend.
There were reasons for the inefficiency. Iowa’s best wide receiver (Matt VandeBerg) was still nursing a broken foot. The second-best receiver (Jerminic Smith) was serving a team suspension for academic issues; he since has left the program. Neither of the only two scholarship receivers (Adrian Falconer and Devonte Young) competing in the spring game caught a pass last season. The best receiver in the game was a walk-on in Nick Easley.
Writing that paragraph after watching the performance last month could generate a scrunched-up facial expression resembling a popular Twitter meme. But that was rock bottom. It can’t get worse than that this coming fall — or ever, quite frankly.
In fact, there’s a chance Iowa could climb out of the receiver quicksand pit and find solid ground by midseason. It’s not automatic, and a few things must happen to make it a reality. But before you roll your eyes and let the cynicism take root, there is one thing to keep in mind before summer workouts start in a few weeks: Iowa needs only three healthy wide receivers to play effectively on offense.
If Iowa can toss three receivers on the field who can find ways to get open and run consistent routes, then the issue revolves around the quarterback. That’s another dilemma for another day.
At receiver, any success this fall depends on VandeBerg’s health. He’s one of the many underdogs this program develops into major contributors. He was slated to grayshirt back in 2013 and didn’t become a scholarship player until the eve of training camp that year. VandeBerg was one of six new wide receivers and became the only one to emerge as a consistent rotational player.
As a true junior in 2015, VandeBerg caught 65 passes for 703 yards and 4 scores. He developed into a primary playmaker — from short, quick screens to deep passes. In his first four games in 2016, VandeBerg grabbed 19 passes for 284 yards and 3 touchdowns. He then suffered a broken left foot, missed the rest of the season after a subsequent surgery, and picked up a medical redshirt. Then before spring practice, VandeBerg broke the same foot, requiring another surgery.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is confident VandeBerg can return to form.
“Every step has been really positive,” Ferentz said last month about VandeBerg’s recovery process.
If VandeBerg doesn’t get back on the field, then any optimism for that position this year is muted. Not only is VandeBerg a talented, tenacious competitor, but he’s the offense’s best leader. He does it vocally and by example. Everyone looks to him for guidance, but that only goes so far when he can’t perform on the field. If he returns to action, he not only makes impact plays but he help others around him execute the new offensive scheme.
With a VandeBerg return, Iowa would need just two receivers to become legitimate starters. Among the spring holdovers, Easley is the most likely to surface. At Iowa Western Community College last year, Easley led all junior-college players in catches (72), ranked fifth nationally in yards (954) and was 13th in yards per game (79.5). He was a first-team All-American.
Both Falconer, a junior, and Young, a sophomore, rotated in the lineup last season. Both have impressive physiques and skill sets but have yet to put it all together.
“That’s the challenge — to get them to get over the hump,” new wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said this spring. “And now’s the time.”
Iowa brings in four true freshmen, and at least two will see significant action this fall. Brandon Smith (6-foot-3 and 205 pounds) caught 80 passes for 1,509 yards and 19 touchdowns in Mississippi last year. Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175) is sleek, tall and fast, and comes from the same Newark, N.J., high school that produced current Iowa RB Akrum Wadley. Henry Marchese (6-3, 190) set school records at his Chicago-area high school for catches (63), receiving yards (1,053) and touchdowns (16). Max Cooper (6-0, 175) just broke his Milwaukee-area school’s 100-meter dash mark with a 10.86-second sprint at sectionals. Cooper caught 50 passes for 1,024 yards and 17 scores.
All of the newcomers played in highly competitive leagues in metro areas. With a new passing system at Iowa, they’re not that far behind the returning players. Each freshman has a shot to play right away, and they all seem to have the right attitude.
“First I need to earn a spot,” Smith said. “I can’t go up there and expect to play. Everything has to be earned. I just plan on working hard.”
“I’ve got to really work hard,” Cooper said. “I know Iowa is short on receivers, and we’ve got a lot of good receivers coming with me — Ihmir, Henry and Brandon. I think we can be one of the best receiving corps in the country over the next few years.”
Predicting some level of greatness is unrealistic this year. But for Iowa to reach a decent level, it needs one receiver to materialize in each pod with VandeBerg being the linchpin. If Iowa can reach at least three productive receivers — and say Smith and either Easley, Young or Cooper emerge — there’s no reason the grouping can’t become a net positive this year. Hopefully, unlike in Lonesome Dove, it doesn’t require an amputation.