IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s struggling passing game has roots that stretch to 2012 with offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ first season with the Hawkeyes.
That season was an unequivocal disaster for Iowa’s pass offense. Quarterback James Vandenberg’s passing totals fell from 25 touchdowns and 3,052 yards in 2011 to 7 and 2,249 yards, respectively. Even worse, Iowa’s yards-per-completion fizzled to 10.1, the program’s worst number since 1946.
Davis, the offensive coordinator at Texas from 1998-2010, relied on short passes outside the hashmarks and required quick-twitch wide receivers who can scoot up the field. Iowa wide receivers coach Erik Campbell left the program after 2012, and Davis’ Texas protege, Bobby Kennedy, joined the staff to teach Davis’ style of play.
Iowa needed a talent infusion at wide receiver so it allocated recruiting resources to the position. The team inked five wide receivers on signing day and added a sixth when Matt VandeBerg was elevated from grayshirt prospect to full scholarship candidate before the 2013 training camp.
“It’s an area we needed to fortify a little bit and improve upon,” coach Kirk Ferentz said at his 2013 signing day news conference. “So it was something we were intent on.”
Two-thirds the way through that group’s fourth season, Iowa’s Hail Mary recruiting attempt to jump-start the passing game has fallen incomplete. Three of the receivers — Derrick Willies (Texas Tech), Andre Harris (Eastern Illinois) and A.J. Jones (Stephen F. Austin) — transferred within three years on campus. Junior-college receiver Damond Powell had ups and down with a few injuries but finished his two-year career with 31 catches for 608 yards and five scores.
The only two signees remaining on the team are VandeBerg and Derrick Mitchell, who moved to running back in 2015. Before breaking his foot in September, VandeBerg posted the best statistics of any receiver in the Davis era with 108 catches, 1,282 yards and 8 scores. Mitchell has played sparingly as the team’s third-down running back and has 21 career catches for 165 yards.
|Scholarship WRs in class of 2013||Catches/yards/TDs at Iowa||Status|
|Derrick Mitchell||21-165-0||Running back at Iowa|
|*Damon Powell||31-608-5||Out of eligibility|
|**Matt VandeBerg||108-1,282-8||Receiver at Iowa|
To recap, after a disastrous 2012 passing season, the Hawkeyes inked five wide receivers on signing day. Of the four freshmen, only one is on the team and he’s a running back. VandeBerg, the initial afterthought, has become the group’s success story.
Fast forward to 2016. Iowa’s pass offense ranks 106th nationally at 180.3 yards per game. In Big Ten-only games, that number falls to 163.2. In 2012, the Hawkeyes averaged 187.4 yards per game.
“We’ve got to push forward,” Ferentz said this week. “We have good, young players that are getting better, they’re learning, they’re improving and now we’ve got to get them to take the next step.”
Iowa’s 2013 scholarship push at wide receiver affected other positions. Only four true linemen were signed that day, and just two (guard Sean Welsh, defensive tackle Nathan Bazata) remain on the roster. Ike Boettger later moved from tight end to offensive line. The class itself produced mixed results. Of the 20 players signed that February, nine have transferred and one left the program for academics.
In Iowa’s three most-recent recruiting classes, Iowa has offered five scholarships to receivers. Sophomores Jerminic Smith (20 catches, 327 yards, 1 touchdown in his career) and Jay Scheel (5 catches, 56 yards, no scores — all this season) are considered starters. Sophomore Adrian Falconer and true freshman Devonte Young have played but have not posted statistics. Emmanuel Ogwo left the team in August to run track.
Two other scholarship players shifted to wide receiver after arriving at other positions. Jonathan Parker, a running back in the class of 2013, has 3 career catches for 42 yards. He was injured during the summer and has played in one game at receiver without statistics this year. Ryan Boyle, a quarterback in the 2015 class, moved in the spring but has not played.
Iowa’s leading receiver this year is Riley McCarron, a former walk-on who received a scholarship before the 2015 season. McCarron has 30 catches for 336 yards and 3 touchdowns this year (41-429-4 for his career). Ronald Nash, another walk-on, has 2 catches for 14 yards.
Of the nine original signing-day wide receiver recruits (not counting VandeBerg and Powell) since 2013, only three have receptions this season. That speaks to misses in recruiting, retention (Willies has 9 catches for 168 yards and 2 TDs at Texas Tech this season) and development at the position.
Instead of addressing those misses, Davis pointed to previous players who developed, along with McCarron and VandeBerg. Tevaun Smith, who played from 2012-15, hauled in 102 passes for 1,500 yards and 7 touchdowns. Jacob Hillyer, who also played from 2012-15, caught 39 passes for 467 yards and 3 scores. Smith and Hillyer were signed before Davis arrived. McCarron agreed to walk on before the 2012 season.
“We’ve had some other guys that have not (developed), at every position,” Davis said. “At every position. Some guys come in and the toll of working and the steady stream of lifting and school and all those kind of things, some guys find more than they’re ready for. And some guys develop at a different pace.”
Tevaun Smith, a Toronto native, was thrust into action as a true freshman and had three catches in 2012. In 2013, with Iowa trailing Michigan 21-7, Smith caught a slant over the middle with his right hand and weaved through the Wolverines’ defense 55 yards for a score. It was the coldest game in Kinnick Stadium history and Iowa rallied to win 24-21. Ferentz points to both Smith and that play as a reason for optimism with his current crew.
“It wasn’t like he was lighting it up prior to that,” Ferentz said. “Young Tevaun Smith, second-year player, stuck his right hand up, snatched that ball and put it in the end zone. All of a sudden we’re back in a pretty good ballgame. But those kind of spark plays can really help you.
“We’re a team that has to get better. We need somebody to step up here and there. The only thing we can do is keep practicing, keep working and concentrating. And our guys are doing that; they’re working hard. They’re capable. We have to get one of those breakthrough moments; that would help us right now. If it comes next Saturday, that would be great. I’d rather not wait for week 11, if we can do that.”
Iowa needs those players to progress quickly to avoid slipping back into 2012 territory. The passing game stands at 11.72 yards-per-completion, a number that surely will fall with two of the Big Ten’s five best pass defenses on the horizon in Michigan and Penn State. If the players fail to develop over their final four games, Ferentz needs to re-evaluate the entire system — and who’s running it.