IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s biggest question mark is at wide receiver. It was that way before Jerminic Smith left the team on Friday. It’s that way in the aftermath.
Smith’s departure isn’t a huge shock. He missed part of spring practice for academic issues.
He was inconsistent, but he started nine games last season, and his exit makes a young, inexperienced group even younger and even more inexperienced.
Iowa needs more from its wide receivers than it got in 2016, when the Hawkeyes averaged 153.2 passing yards per game and ranked 118th nationally.
So where does Iowa sit at wide receiver? Let’s break it down by looking at what the Hawkeyes need from each of their perimeter playmakers.
Matt VandeBerg is the Iowa passing game constant. He’s the only player who made the passing game work last season, and it’s why he stands to be the most important Hawkeyes receiver in 2017.
He’s a bonafide Big Ten playmaker, catching 19 passes for 284 yards and 3 touchdowns in 4 games last season. Iowa needs him healthy, which is a concern for a player with two injuries to his left foot in a six-month span. It’s hard to envision the passing game taking off without VandeBerg as the top receiving option.
Nick Easley is a walk-on receiver in his first year in the program, but he’s already working with the first-team offense and is a former junior college All-America selection.
Iowa needs Easley to be this year’s Riley McCarron — a slot receiver capable of making short and intermediate plays and excelling in space.
McCarron led the Hawkeyes with 42 receptions, 517 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns last season. Those numbers could just be the start for Easley, who caught 72 passes for 954 yards and 7 touchdowns at Iowa Western Community College in 2016.
He didn’t catch a pass a true freshman but was a starting wide receiver in spring practice. The coaching staff likes the potential of the 6-foot, 200-pound player. He’s a potential playmaker of the future, and Iowa needs him to show flashes of it this fall, most likely as a downfield threat who makes a few big plays.
Adrian Falconer, a junior, has yet to catch pass in the black and gold. That must change in 2017. Iowa needs one of its few upperclassmen to make an impact in the passing game. If he starts or becomes a key reserve, that will keep the Hawkeyes from having to lean heavily on the newcomers.
Ronald Nash, a senior, falls into the same category as Falconer. The only difference is he caught 2 passes last season.
Iowa needs its incoming freshmen to make an impact right away. Smith appears to be in the best position to do so.
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Smith enters college with a Big Ten-ready body. He showed an ability to make plays at Lake Cormorant (Miss.) High School, amassing 1,509 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior.
His size and length can help Iowa score inside the red zone and move the chains outside of it. If he quickly adjusts to college football, he could become the second option at wide receiver behind VandeBerg.
Iowa likely needs at least two incoming freshmen to play. Someone will need to step up alongside Smith. It could be the 6-foot, 175-pound Cooper, whom coach Kirk Ferentz kind of compared to VandeBerg on signing day.
Or it could be Henry Marchese. He’s known as a smooth route runner capable of making a big play. He set the Stevenson (Ill.) High School single-season program records for receptions (63), receiving yards (1,053) and touchdowns (17).
It also could be Ihmir Smith-Marsette to emerge from the group of freshmen. He is the type of receiver who can stretch a defense vertically. His best bet to make an impact this season is as a downfield passing option.
Running back Akrum Wadley, who was second on the team with 35 receptions, still will play a significant role in the passing game. The tight end position has depth, and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz wants to incorporate the position more into the passing game.
But there is only so much the Hawkeyes can do if the wide receivers don’t improve. Iowa needs at least two receivers to make significant progress for the offense to move forward. It’s a lot to ask, but it’s nearly the same spot Iowa was in when Smith was on the roster.