Kelton Copeland sets the bar for Hawkeyes receivers

Everyone knows passing game was bad in 2016, and it's too early to tell what it'll be in 2017

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IOWA CITY — Before you even finish the thought, Kelton Copeland knows what’s coming. He knows Iowa passing game 2017 needs to be much improved from last season.

Everyone has done the math on this. Iowa totaled 1,991 passing yards last season, its worst output since 1982 (1,873 yards). It was even more painful to watch, and former Iowa QB C.J. Beathard has been asked about it during every turn on his path to the NFL draft.

Copeland was hired in February as the new wide receivers coach. Let’s put this in terms of building a house: Copeland is pouring foundation this spring, as far as learning who can do what and who is simply who.

One thing is for sure after Copeland talked with media on Wednesday, he and his group are going into this with their eyes open. Copeland is setting a tone, and it’s one that you kind of need in major-college football.

“Pressure is probably the wrong word. I’m not a nervous person by any means,” Copeland said. “I don’t really acknowledge pressure or listen to the noise outside this building. The way I see it, I was hired to do a job. And the way I’m built, I’m going to do the job the best way I can.

“No matter what the circumstances are before I got here or what the circumstances are now that I’m here, it’s all about me being the best coach that I can be, and progressing these guys and developing these guys as a group and being the best group we can possibly be this year. That’s my approach. No more, no less.”

Nathan Ford / The Gazette

That statement sets a tone. No, we have no idea what’s going on with Iowa’s wide receivers in practice, but Copeland’s message is clear. This is point A and now it’s time to build that path to point B.

“There are a lot of questions with the position group as a whole,” Copeland said. “Right now there isn’t a lot of experience in that room, and anybody can look at the roster and tell that just by looking at it.

“So coming in, that was my first mindset and my biggest focus is developing that room with the youth, seeing who can do what, establishing a depth chart, and then moving on from there.”

In the context of this being Iowa’s final week of spring practice, point A is worth some discussion.

Iowa does only have two scholarship wide receivers working out this spring. Sophomore Devonte Young and junior Adrian Falconer are the last receivers standing. Senior Matt VandeBerg is out with a foot injury. Junior Jerminic Smith has been suspended from team activities because of academic shortfalls.

That is a red flag for everyone Iowa. Smith, who caught 29 passes in his first two seasons (23 last year), was expected to compete for No. 1 or No. 2 targets. Now? It’s limbo.

“I hope so,” Copeland said when asked if Smith will be back. “It’s up to him. The ball’s in his court, so we’ll see.”

On one hand, this is a tremendous opportunity for Young and Falconer.

“I’m just trying to make the team feel more comfortable with me,” Young said. “It’s really hard just to compete out here, but I love it. ... Practices are fun. Coach Brian Ferentz (first-year offensive coordinator) and coach Copeland bring a lot of energy to the field.”

When asked about Young and Falconer, coaches have given medium reviews.

Asked about the duo in Des Moines, Kirk Ferentz said, “They’re both doing better, they’re not ready for prime time yet. That’s kind of our team right now.” And Copeland, “That’s the challenge, to get over the hump, and now’s the time.”

Nathan Ford / The Gazette

The final math on incoming freshmen receivers probably isn’t finished at this point. But after practice in Des Moines, upon announcing safety Brandon Snyder’s torn ACL, Kirk Ferentz did say Iowa had six incoming defensive backs — Djimon Colbert, Matt Hankins, Camron Harrell, Geno Stone, Josh Turner and probably Trey Creamer. Creamer was listed as an athlete who could play either defensive back or wide receiver. He still could, but right now he appears headed to the defensive backs.

Iowa does have four incoming wide receivers — Max Cooper, Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Henry Marchese. And, yes, they’re already on Copeland’s radar.

Iowa football recruiting: Class of 2017 receivers and tight ends

“We’ve had many conversations,” Copeland said. “As a matter of fact, this weekend I’ve talked to every one of them coming in just to let them know, ‘Hey, you need to be preparing.’

“All right, now the opportunity is here. Is there a guarantee? I will never guarantee any young man coming in — whether I’m recruiting him or he’s assigned to incoming freshmen — that he’s going to play. But the opportunity for you to come in and play? Absolutely.”

Along with the incoming freshmen, there is a tier of walk-on wide receivers who’ll have a chance to earn something, including junior Nick Easley, sophomore Dominique Dafney, junior Ronald Nash, senior Connor Keane and freshman Yale Van Dyne. Easley has opened eyes.

“His attention to detail translated over into his play,” Copeland said. “If you were out in practice, whenever the last time you were out at practice, you would have seen that result in production. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter what you’ve done in the past, like I said, we’ve all got a clean slate here and it’s about producing, including myself. We have to produce.”

“We have to produce ...” That’s sewn into everything and anything that has to do with Iowa’s passing game this spring, this summer and most definitely next fall.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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