CEDAR RAPIDS —
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IOWA CITY — There isn’t a former Iowa wide receiver in the NFL today who has caught a pass in that league.
It isn’t as if the Hawkeyes haven’t had high-quality receivers from time to time. Marvin McNutt, as no one around here needs to be reminded, was the opposite of chopped liver.
But for all the strengths the Iowa program have displayed on a fairly consistent basis in the Kirk Ferentz era, prototype NFL receivers haven’t been part of team portraits.
In 2012, then-new Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis plainly stated the program needed an upgrade in speed at receiver. In the season that followed, Hawkeye wideouts caught a total of just four touchdown passes.
“When you consider where we were two springs ago, particularly at receiver and on the defensive front, it’s significant progress,’’ Ferentz said.
Things were a lot better on the D-line last year, but not as much at receiver. Although, Tevaun Smith emerged with a showcase game against Michigan in which he had a sensational one-handed grab and then sprinted for a 55-yard touchdown in a late-season win.
Smith has upside and may make a great complement to senior-to-be Kevonte Martin-Manley, who has 92 catches over the last two seasons.
But the name on the lips of the 20,000 fans at Kinnick Stadium Saturday was someone who has yet to play a game that counted here. He was Derrick Willies, red-shirt freshman.
“He’ll be the spring game sensation,” Ferentz said after that event was completed.
Whether Willies will be a contributor of note in ‘14, who’s to say for sure? But Saturday, he was the poster boy for what big-boy football is supposed to look like at the wide receiver position.
He split and outraced Iowa second-team defensive backs Anthony Gair and Greg Mabin, easily reeling in a beauty of a 42-yard touchdown pass from C.J. Beathard for the day’s first score.
After that, Willies bounced off Gair after a catch, then got a great angle as he ran for many more yards before being brought down. Then, on the play Ferentz said he liked the most from Willies, he juggled and then collected a pass on a sideline route, and dragged a toe inbounds before falling out of play with a first-down.
“He’s got a good body (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), he’s got a good size,” said starting quarterback Jake Rudock. “He can run. He catches the ball, he can run when he’s in space.”
“He has great size and he’s great at catching the ball,” said Hawkeye free safety Jordan Lomax. “He goes up at the highest point. He’s a hard receiver to defend and he has tremendous speed. I think he’s going to be pretty great here.”
So, Willies became Mr. April. Let’s talk again six months from now. But still, if you saw this guy and the rest of Iowa’s arsenal Saturday, it sure felt like 2012 was totally in the rearview mirror.
C.J. Fiedorowicz is gone, but Iowa seems to have a roster-full of tight ends who can play. Ray Hamilton leveled Lomax and wasn’t denied by anyone else on the defense in turning a catch into a 54-yard touchdown. Hamilton has capable colleagues in Jake Duzey and George Kittle, who already own moments of note in regular-season contests.
The Hawkeyes’ running back depth is reminiscent of, well, not much in the recent past. Two years ago, Mark Weisman got the job during the season out of desperate default.
Weisman is still the starter, and a good one. But no one will wince when carries go to Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri, or LeShun Daniels, all of whom bring distinct strengths for specific situations.
Iowa doesn’t have to wear out Weisman by midseason given who’s behind him.
“We really do have more versatility,” Weisman said, “a lot more guys out there at every position.”
Most importantly of all, perhaps, that includes quarterback. Rudock is a solid No. 1, but there will be clamor for Beathard to be 1a. He looked good Saturday, comfortable.
None of this is to say Iowa’s offense is so well-stocked that it will glide through next season. But if you’ve upgraded at receiver, have running back-depth, and have two quarterbacks you feel good about?
Uh, this should be a competitive outfit to say the least.