IOWA CITY, Iowa — To start the season the team broke up into position groups. A funny thing happened. Several strong players gravitated toward running back. There wasn’t anyone heading to quarterback.
It was odd. Riley McCarron noticed and went straight to Dubuque Wahlert head coach Mike Mahoney. The star running back would switch to signal caller.
“I can’t see how this is going to be bad,” Mahoney said. “It was his idea to become a quarterback his senior year. That is just kind of the kid he is. He just wants to win.”
There wasn’t really a quarterback. The Golden Eagles needed one. McCarron saw a problem and went about fixing it.
“I don’t know if he put a lot of thought into it,” Mahoney said. “He just went and did it.”
Fast forward five years. McCarron will likely look around the Iowa wide receivers room this week. There won’t really be a star, not after Matt VandeBerg broke his right foot on Monday.
Now, there is another problem that needs McCarron’s attention. Northwestern comes to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. The Hawkeyes are looking for someone to emerge.
• • •
McCarron was asked this past summer about getting back on the football field. Two sentences reveal all you need to know about McCarron.
“It’s been fun and competitive at the same time,” McCarron told Iowa reporters. “It’s fun for us to get competitive again.”
Competition is fun. It’s always been that way. Mahoney noticed it when McCarron attended youth football camps. It’s the first thing teammates and former coaches bring up when discussing McCarron.
They say he is intense. They say he is driven. They don’t say he enjoys winning. They say he hates defeat.
The feelings associated with the latter drive him more than the former. It’s what can transform a mild-mannered Midwesterner into a cold-blooded competitor once he puts on a black-and-gold uniform.
“He has a quiet demeanor about him off the court or off the field, but once he steps on the court or field he is intense and it’s business and he does not like to lose,” Wahlert athletic director Tom English said. “That is the thing I remember the most about him.”
It doesn’t matter what it is. McCarron responds to losing the way Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz does a turnover. Even locker room ping-pong matches.
“There are some words that go around that I probably shouldn’t repeat here,” Iowa fullback Brady Ross said.
A few more were probably said when Western Dubuque’s T.J. Lake started pouring in shots on Wahlert in a postseason basketball game. McCarron was a senior. He fashioned himself a defensive stopper, but Lake scored 38 points, hitting 5-of-7 3-pointers and draining 25-foot shots.
“It was driving Riley up a wall that that kid was doing that to him,” English said.
Because McCarron only does something to excel at it.
“He is not going to be satisfied with half-speed,” English said. “He doesn’t want pretty good.”
He usually never needs to settle for it. McCarron could pick a sport and star in it. He’s a natural at just about anything. He won state titles in the long jump and 100-meter dash. Those at Wahlert say he could be playing college baseball right now.
The physical tools were there when English watched McCarron in a third-grade basketball camp. So was the competitiveness.
“He had that unique trait of having the toughness and the physicality that most kids that are that quick and fast don’t have,” McCarron said.
He used it to his advantage on the football field. He rushed for 1,058 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior. Any concern about his throwing ability quickly disappeared as a senior. McCarron threw for 1,749 yards. He rushed for 866 more while scoring 22 total touchdowns.
“My image of him is that he had a couple of touchdowns where he hurdled people,” Mahoney said.
He seemed to have it all — except height. A 5-foot-9 kid wasn’t going to get scholarships from major programs. Iowa offered the chance to walk on. McCarron jumped at it. It would be a new challenge for the teenager who seemed to seek them out.
“You’ve got to set your goals high or you will never achieve them,” McCarron said in June.
• • •
Today, McCarron is a guy teammates turn to with questions about the playbook. Five years ago, he barely understood where to go.
“Didn’t really know the offense at all,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said.
Beathard should know. The two were on the scout team together.
It didn’t take McCarron long to pick up everything. All he needed was a few reps and a few hours studying.
“Any time you can grasp the offense fairly quickly it gives you a better opportunity to get in there,” Beathard said.
McCarron first made an impact on special teams. He returned punts in 2014 when not limited with injuries or illness. He received a scholarship and started one game last season, but he only caught 5 passes.
He would never overwhelm Big Ten defensive backs with his athleticism. It would need to be with his determination and intensity. He’d need to outwork others. He’d need to be precise with his route running. He’d need to lean on his hatred of failure.
“He tries to win every rep at receiver and that is what we need out of our receivers at all times,” cornerback Desmond King said. “We look for someone that will go out there and compete at any time.”
According to King, there are two ways for a shorter receiver to get open. First, it’s being quick or elusive. McCarron is certainly that. His first step out of a break can catch a defender off guard, like it did on his 30-yard touchdown reception against North Dakota State.
“He can run by you,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said. “He can make some good cuts on you. He can put both on you.”
The second is making a play on the football. King gives McCarron a check mark there before finishing his undersized receiver theory.
“He plays big and he loves to go up and get the ball at the highest point,” King said.
It comes together in a player that Ferentz calls an unsung hero, one he couldn’t help but put into the starting lineup to begin the season.
“Winning against good defensive guys,” Ferentz said. “We’ve seen that in practice, which is really impressive, and he couldn’t have done that a year ago at this time I don’t think.”
• • •
McCarron spent five years carving out a role. He became a special teams staple and a contributing wideout.
It was impressive, but the moment VandeBerg’s foot snapped at practice on Monday it was no longer enough.
Iowa lost its top playmaker. Nearly half of Iowa’s passing game targets went to VandeBerg. He accounted for 36.0 percent of Iowa’s receiving yards.
“Matt will be missed,” Beathard said, “but it’s just an opportunity for someone to get in there and show what he can do.”
It’s high school all over again. Just this time McCarron is already at the position of need.
“We have to figure stuff out,” McCarron said.
He spoke those six words following the North Dakota State loss. It still applies nearly two weeks later.
McCarron is the only senior wide receiver getting playing time. It’s him and a group of inexperienced players. He can play all three wide receiver positions. He could remain on the perimeter. He could move into the slot. His role could change. It might remain the same. His skill set allows him to play off of whatever other receiver is on the field with him.
There are plenty of unknowns, but one thing is certain. His 6 receptions won’t be enough going forward. Now, more than ever, Iowa needs McCarron to do what he’s done the last five years — find a way to thrive off his desire to avoid defeat.
“Brings that walk-on mentality to practice every day,” Ross said. “Just a great leader and just a personification of what Hawkeye football is all about.”