IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa wide receivers struggled to get separation from Rutgers. Now, the Hawkeyes can’t separate themselves from this point.
With Matt VandeBerg injured it’s on the wideouts to open up the passing game.
“Matt will be missed,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said, “but it’s just an opportunity for someone to get in there and show what he can do.”
It is a little more than that. Beathard to VandeBerg was the lifeblood of the aerial attack. VandeBerg was Beathard’s security blanket and big-play receiver rolled into one.
VandeBerg was targeted 27 times. The other receivers were targeted 28 times. VandeBerg’s 284 receiving yards are 36.0 percent of Iowa’s passing yards.
The Hawkeyes leaned on their top receiver. VandeBerg, who broke his right foot on Monday, was one of the players Iowa could least afford to lose. The majority of the receiving room is young or inexperienced. The receivers struggled to get separation against man press coverage on Rutgers. It was the biggest reason the passing game stagnated last week.
“You aren’t always going to get great separation,” Beathard said, “but you do like to find certain matchups that you can get in certain games. We work on that all the time and practice one-on-one against our guys. All we can do is practice and get better and expect them to get better.”
Wide receiver is now a concern, but one Iowa will deal with by throwing the receivers in the deep end and seeing if they stay afloat.
“We’ll go in there and you’ve got to go in there with the mentality that he’s going to be in the right place at the right time,” Beathard said. “That he knows what he’s going to do and we know what he is going to do.”
Who exactly will replace VandeBerg? It’s not going to be one player, especially when it comes to his production. Let’s break down what the roles for the Iowa wide receivers could look like.
The senior may be the most reliable receiver now. He’s shown the ability to make plays. His 30-yard touchdown against North Dakota State comes to mind.
His exact role will likely depend on how the other receivers progress. McCarron is one of the only receivers left who can play all three wide receiver positions.
He could spend more time in the slot. He could stay on the perimeter. He could become a replacement for VandeBerg in the short passing game.
“Probably one of our bigger dilemmas right now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’d love to have him more involved in all of our special teams, but if he’s going to play more snaps offensively, we’ve got to make sure we’re smart about how much we can do. Don’t want to run him into the ground and make him ineffective.”
Smith is showing his potential in flashes. He made a 38-yard reception against Miami (Ohio). He made an impressive catch on a back-shoulder throw against Rutgers.
He hasn’t been consistent and now the Hawkeyes need him to do so. Normally a team can survive a sophomore going through ups and downs. Iowa no longer is in that spot. Smith can be a big-play passing game option. He may be Iowa’s best bet at filling that void left by VandeBerg.
“I have trust that Jerminic, in a one-on-one shot, is going to make his best effort to make a play,” Beathard said.
The stage is now set for Scheel. His athleticism and play-making potential have whipped the fan base into a frenzy for several years. Injuries, including in preseason camp this season, limited his ability to step on the field.
He appears to be in line for the biggest playing time increase. He has only 1 catch for 12 yards.
Expect Scheel to be the man filling in on three receiver sets. He could move around the field a little like McCarron can.
This is the chance Scheel waited for. He must make the most of it if there is to be minimal drop-off with VandeBerg out.
“Jay might play a couple positions,” Ferentz said. “He’s been doing that in practice, and that’s realistic to think.”
Nash is the third sophomore to make an appearance on the depth chart now that VandeBerg is out. Nash made his only reception of the year in the season opener. Ferentz spoke highly of Nash’s development this season on Tuesday. He is improving, but it’s not been at a quick enough rate for him to see significant snaps the last few weeks.
Fans may want to view Nash as a lottery ticket. It’s great if the numbers hit and the 6-foot-2, 210 pounder becomes a playmaker, but don’t count on it. He’s likely to be a role player, but one with potential to make an occasional big play.
“He’s gotten a lot of work since we got started,” Ferentz said, “just hasn’t had a lot of game activity, but I think we’ve seen his confidence grow. He’s a big guy with good skills. Hopefully it’s his time.”
It needs to be someone’s time. Tight end George Kittle is likely to play a bigger role in the passing game going forward. He’s second on the team with 10 receptions, 192 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. He is a legitimate passing game threat, like he showed on his 36-yard touchdown catch at Rutgers.
Ferentz is trying to play the hand the Hawkeyes were dealt as best he can. He said the situation at wideout is “hardly a crisis stage.”
No, it’s a problem. One Iowa believes its receivers can handle.
“I know pretty well what they can do,” Beathard said. “They have a lot of talent.”
Now, they need to show it.