Failure to Launch: Iowa Football and the Wide Receiver Position

By RossWB on January 19, 2017 at 9:06 am
get the ball plz
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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There's a new day dawning when it comes to the Iowa offense -- and the wide receiver position in particular -- but I think it's important to look at where we're coming from before we see what's coming next for the Iowa offense. So let's take a look at the wide receivers that have come to Iowa during Greg Davis and Bobby Kennedy's tenure at Iowa. The results are not pretty. 

2011

NAME RANK RR OFFERS STATS
Marcus Grant *** 5.6 BC, UConn, Syracuse transferred
Jacob Hillyer *** 5.5 Colorado State, UTEP 29 rec, 467 yards, 3 TD

Despite being a fellow Texan, Hillyer was not a Greg Davis/Bobby Kennedy receiver -- he was recruited before they arrived in Iowa City and they inherited him. He did play his entire Iowa career under Davis/Kennedy, though, which is why we're including him here. Hillyer was a steady presence on the depth chart and he saw quite a few snaps, but he was never a major contributor in the passing game. He was a solid blocker, though, and earned playing time for that aspect of his game. Hillyer was listed at 6-4, 212 lbs and size was not a priority for receivers in the Greg Davis offense. He wanted smaller, faster receivers with better lateral quickness. It would have been interesting to see how Hillyer developed in a different offensive system; he may never have been a star, but he may have been more productive in an offense that utilized more downfield routes and the middle of the field. 

Marcus Grant, a receiver prospect out of Massachusetts, was the first of many receivers to transfer away from Iowa over the last five years. 

2012

NAME RANK RR OFFERS STATS
George Kittle *** 5.5 Air Force moved to TE
Greg Mabin *** 5.6 Jax State, Tulane moved to DB
Tevaun Smith *** 5.5 UConn, Temple 102 rec, 1500 yds, 7 TD
Cameron Wilson *** 5.7 BC, Cincinnati, Illinois, Kentucky, Pitt, Purdue, USF, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, West Virginia, Toledo, Kent State transferred

This was far and away the most productive group of receivers that Iowa brought in during the Davis/Kennedy Era -- it's just that only one of them actually saw the field as a receiver. Mabin transitioned to cornerback fairly quickly after arriving at Iowa and became a multi-year starter there. Kittle arrived at Iowa listed at 6-4, 200 lbs, but bulked up and became a regular (and reliable) presence at tight end. Tevaun Smith, aka the Canadian Missile, was the most productive receiver Iowa had during the Davis/Kennedy Era (though Matt VandeBerg would have usurped him in productivity this season had he stayed healthy and should do so next season). He was a rare success story at the wide receiver position at Iowa, a smaller, faster receiver who had excellent speed to stretch the field and good hands. He always felt under-utilized, though -- the fact that he never surpassed 600 yards in a season or three touchdowns was always irritating. 

Cameron Wilson was yet another receiver to transfer away; he had the best offer sheet of any receiver Iowa landed during the Davis/Kennedy Era and briefly raised excitement among Iowa fans after a strong spring game performance, but he vanished from Iowa City shortly after that. 

2013

NAME RANK RR OFFERS STATS
Andre Harris *** 5.5 Illinois transferred
Anjeus Jones ** 5.4 Colorado State, New Mexico State, Texas Tech transferred
Derrick Mitchell Jr. *** 5.5 Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Memphis, Miami (OH), Nebraska grad transfer
Jonathan Parker ** 5.3 Ball State, Miami (OH), Northern Illinois, Ohio, Tulsa 3 rec, 42 yards, 0 TD
Damond Powell *** 5.6 Ohio 31 rec, 608 yards, 5 TD
Matt VandeBerg ** 5.4 none 106 rec, 1302 yards, 8 TD
Derrick Willies *** 5.5 Eastern Illinois, Illinois State, Iowa State, Northern Illinois transferred

This was the second straight recruiting class where Iowa went heavy on wide receiver prospects as part of the Davis/Kennedy effort to remake Iowa's wide receivers in their image. The good news: most of these players actually stayed at wide receiver. The bad news: most of them didn't make a big impact.

In a move that's so Iowa it almost hurts, the standout contributor here is VandeBerg, a one-time grayshirt recruit and virtual afterthought in the recruiting process. He worked his way up the ranks at Iowa and became a starter in 2015, when he put together the single-best year for a receiver under Greg Davis at Iowa (65 receptions, 703 yards, 4 TD). Given that Iowa receivers rarely post 1000 yards (this offense is generally too balanced for that), those numbers are pretty damn good. "Meerkat" was on pace to match or even surpass those numbers this year as Beathard's one and only trusted receiver, but an untimely foot injury against Rutgers put the kibosh on that. He's still a clear success story for Iowa at the wide receiver position, though. 

Damond Powell was the other receiver of note from this class and he was probably a qualified success story. He had some good plays (I still vividly remember him blazing down the field and into the end zone on a catch-and-run screen pass against Minnesota in 2013) and his overall numbers aren't bad (by Iowa standards, at least), but he's another case of unfulfilled potential. Powell was arguably the fastest man Iowa has had at wide receiver since Tim Dwight and the fact that he only had 31 catches in two years is both baffling and frustrating, as well as an indictment of the previous offensive staff's ability to get the ball in the hands of a playmaker. There was a lot of chatter about Powell's inability to learn the offensive playbook during his time at Iowa, but it's still hard not to look at his numbers and his highlights and wonder why Iowa wasn't able to get more out of him. 

Parker remains at Iowa, but has barely seen the field since a hideously ill-fated kick return against Tennessee in the Gator Bowl. He arrived at Iowa as a 5-10, 180 lb running back and while another running back in that same class with those same measurements has gone on to great success at running back (Akrum Wadley), Parker has floundered. The coaching staff tried to make a slot receiver out of him, but the results so far (or lack thereof) suggest that's been a failure. 

The other three receivers in this class transferred out, with the most notable departure being local boy Derrick Willies (from the Quad Cities) running into some issues with Kirk Ferentz and eventually transferring to Texas Tech. He hasn't enjoyed too much success there yet -- he redshirted in 2015 and caught 18 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns in 2016 -- but he remains a sensational athlete and would have been a very welcome presence in the Iowa passing attack the last two seasons. 

EDIT: As the comments reminded me, Derrick Mitchell Jr. was also a part of the 2013 class and arrived at Iowa as an ATH and potential wide receiver. But he transitioned to running back fairly quickly, if memory serves, where he had some success in 2015 before vanishing in 2016 due to injuries and the steady presences of Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels, Jr. And now he's heading elsewhere

2014

NAME RANK RR OFFERS STATS
Jay Scheel **** 5.8 Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska retired

After going heavy on wide receivers in their 2012 and 2013 classes, Iowa backed off in 2014. They actually didn't bring in any receivers on Signing Day in that class -- Jay Scheel arrived at Iowa as a QB/athlete. He transitioned to wide receiver fairly quickly, but injuries prevented him from ever making a significant impact on the field for Iowa. He announced his retirement earlier this week, sadly. 

2015

NAME RANK RR OFFERS STATS
Adrian Falconer ** 5.4 Cincinnati, FAU, Georgia Southern, Marshall, Memphis, South Alabama, Southern Miss, UAB, Western Kentucky n/a
Emmanuel Ogwo *** 5.5   focusing on track
Jerminic Smith *** 5.6 Iowa State, Minnesota, North Texas, SMU, TCU, Texas Tech 29 rec, 455 yards, 2 TD

Iowa again tried to reload the wide receiver position, with fairly lackluster results. These were supposed to be three guys fully in the Greg Davis mold -- shorter, quicker athletes who would mesh with what he wanted to do in the passing game. Ogwo and Smith were even from Texas! Two years into their Iowa careers, there hasn't been much to holler about. Smith made a strong first impression when he filled in for Tevaun Smith against Illinois as a true freshman in 2015, grabbing four passes for 118 yards. There hasn't been a whole lot to celebrate since then. He only caught two more passes for 23 yards in 2015 (to be fair, opportunities for playing time dried up as Tevaun got healthy) and he didn't emerge as a go-to weapon in 2016. His best game (five catches, 85 yards, 1 TD) came in Iowa's beatdown at the hands of Penn State. He has impressive physical gifts, but until he can harness them more consistently -- by not dropping so many passes and running clean routes -- he's going to struggle to make an impact in the passing game. Hopefully new coaches, a new passing scheme, and a new quarterback will help Smith break out in his final two years at Iowa. 

Ogwo arrived at Iowa as a burner, but he struggled to translate that blazing speed to the football speed. So it didn't come as too much of a surprise when it was announced before the 2016 season that he was leaving the football program to focus on running for the track program at Iowa. That's good news for the Iowa track program and we wish him well there, but it doesn't help Iowa's continued search for playmakers in the passing game. Falconer, on the other hand, has yet to catch a pass in this first two seasons in Iowa City (though he did redshirt in 2015). The fact that he was unable to carve out playing time in a depth chart that consisted of Riley McCarron, Jerminic Smith, and the perpetually-banged up Jay Scheel is a little alarming, though. He still has plenty of time to improve (and we very much hope he does), but his Iowa career is not off to an auspicious start. 

2016

NAME RANK RR OFFERS STATS
Devonte Young ** 5.4 Pitt, Rutgers n/a

And finally we come to last year's sole receiver recruit, Devonte Young, a speedster out of Maryland. He did not catch a pass in 2016, but he did have his redshirt pulled as he saw limited playing time at the end of the season as Iowa looked for a playmaker in the passing game. He earned some praise for his performances in practice during the season, but he wasn't able to translate that into performance during games. Like Smith and Falconer, we hope that new coaches and new passing schemes will help him emerge as a weapon in the passing game. Iowa absolutely needs someone to step up there. Young also found himself listed as an option at punt returner and kick returner at the end of the season, so he may also be the heir apparent to Desmond King in those roles in 2017. 

Not listed are Kevonte Martin-Manley because he was already at Iowa when Davis and Kennedy arrived and Riley McCarron because he was a walk-on (I'm unsure if he ended up earning a scholarship by the time his Iowa career ended; EDIT: He did), though he did become Iowa's most productive receiver this season (42 receptions, 517 yards, four touchdowns) after VandeBerg went down with his injury. KMM led Iowa in receiving in two of his three years at Iowa under Davis, but he also never had more than 571 yards receiving. His five touchdowns in 2013 remains a high for an Iowa receiver under Davis/Kennedy, though. Ultimately, KMM was a solid and reliable presence in the passing game for Iowa.

McCarron came a long way from his arrival at Iowa and he had some genuine highlights this season (most notably his game against Nebraska -- five catches, 108 yards, one secondary-shredding touchdown). But his limitations were also obvious and the fact he had two catches for 15 yards total against Michigan and Florida this year is a testament to that. McCarron is a good guy and a hard worker, but if he's your number one option at receiver, things have gone horribly awry. And based on what we saw this year, "horribly awry" sounds like as apt a description as any for the Iowa passing game. The blame for that falls at the feet of Davis and Kennedy and their struggles to develop receivers and create a coherent passing attack for Iowa. 

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