Four Downs: Iowa's 2017 Wide receivers/tight ends

Passing shouldn't be as hard as it was for the Hawkeyes last season, not on this level

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Time to dig in on the 2017 Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes will be young and inexperienced in most of their skill positions on both offense and defense. So, this probably won’t be a “style points” team. That could work against maybe half of Iowa’s schedule (hi, Big Ten West). Iowa’s ability to create and contain explosive plays is what will win or lose a couple of games for it and stamp the season one way or another.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll cover and discuss each position group. I prefer to keep these realistic. I’m not going to lapse into empty promises. This team has obvious questions, the kinds that probably won’t be solved by an incoming freshmen. This team also has clear strengths, namely an offensive line with 88 career starts and probably the most elusive running back in Kirk Ferentz’s going on 19 seasons as Iowa’s head coach.

Let’s start with wide receivers and tight ends.

Returning scholarship wide receivers — Matt VandeBerg (6-1, 195, sr.), Adrian Falconer (6-1, 192, jr.), Devonte Young (6-0, 200, so.)

Returning walk-on wide receivers — Brandon Bishop (5-9, 180, so.), Connor Keane (6-1, 195, sr.), Ronald Nash (6-2, 210, jr.), Nick Easley (5-11, 203, jr.), Yale Van Dyne (6-3, 205, #fr.). Dominique Dafney (6-2, 225, so.)

Key losses — Riley McCarron, Jerminic Smith, Jonathan Parker, Andre Harris, Emmanuel Ogwo

Incoming freshmen wide receivers — Max Cooper (6-0, 175), Brandon Smith (6-3, 205), Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175), Henry Marchese (6-3, 190)

Key losses — Riley McCarron, Jerminic Smith, Jonathan Parker, Andre Harris, Emmanuel Ogwo

Returning scholarship tight ends — Jon Wisnieski (6-5, 250, sr.), Nate Vejvoda (6-5, 245, so.), Peter Pekar (6-4, 252, sr.), Shaun Beyer (6-5, 222, #fr.), Noah Fant (6-5, 232, so.), T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 243, #fr.), Drew Cook (6-5, 235, so.)

Returning walk-on tight ends — Nate Wieting (6-4, 225, so.)

Incoming tight ends — Jacob Coons (6-2, 220)

Key losses — George Kittle, Jameer Outsey

Quick Look Back

The grades started coming in for Iowa passing game 2016 last November.

The question to head coach Kirk Ferentz was, basically, how was 2015 Iowa so good and 2016 Iowa so mediocre? The answer began with what made 2015 work, that every oar in the water worked and the true power of the 2015 Hawkeyes, the winningest season in Iowa history, was the team.

Yes, the 2016 team had star power, but it also had erosion from 2015 that it never reversed. Nowhere was that more apparent than at wide receiver/tight end.

2015 C.J. Beathard was a star and a schedule poster player for 2016. 2016 Beathard looked discombobulated for much of the season and especially after wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and tight end George Kittle went down with foot injuries.

“I still think C.J. Beathard is a heckuva player,” Ferentz said in November. “A year ago, he had an NFL center snapping to him. He had an NFL tight end who made a lot of big plays week in and week out. He had George as our second tight end. We had VandeBerg and Tevaun (Smith).

“Now compared to what he’s working with, you wonder why the numbers aren’t the same? I don’t even know how they compare. I haven’t looked at them. I don’t care to right now. It’s common sense why we’re not the same team offensively. We’re pretty much doing the same things we were doing a year ago. We haven’t gotten that dumb in a year. So, sometimes you have to look at the little details and how things pull together.”

Injuries and inexperience crushed last season’s passing game. That translated to 24.9 points a game, Iowa’s lowest points per game since 19.3 points in 2012. The 1,991 passing yards was Iowa’s lowest output since 1982. Completions per game was 13.46 (No. 114 in the nation). Iowa’s 6.3 yards per pass was 108th. The 149.5 yards per game was 118th in the nation.

Was it the personnel? Was it the system? We’re going to find out. Since Iowa walked off the field at the Outback Bowl (when the Hawkeyes completed seven passes for 55 yards and three interceptions), a new offensive coordinator has been installed. There’s also a new WR coach and Iowa now has its first dedicated QB coach since Chuck Long left the staff in 1999.

Changes have happened. The question is how will they translate? The last time Iowa changed offensive coordinators was 2012. The Hawkeyes threw seven TD passes that season. This isn’t going to be a neat, smooth transition. This probably will be more like a semi-trailer truck making a 45-point turn.

4th Down — Critical Questions

Going into 2016, the question for the WR/TE core was where will the explosive plays come from? In hindsight, the question should’ve simply been “who?”

The early part of 2017 for this group will be all about establishing modest goals and reaching those. VandeBerg’s goals will look a lot different from incoming freshman Brandon Smith’s. Sophomore Devonte Young will have different expectations than walk-on junior Nick Easely. (These four might have the inside track to being Iowa’s top four.)

The best measure of tracking this will be the first third-and-long against Wyoming. OK, maybe not the first. Everyone will have some nerves on that one, so we’ll skip to the second and third. If Iowa can move the chains through the air, it will be miles ahead of where it was last season.

When it came to throwing for first downs last year, Iowa was Rutgers. You remember how bad Rutgers was last season. Well, the Hawkeyes threw for 84 first downs in 2016, 13th in the Big Ten. Rutgers was last with 81. Nationally, Iowa ranked 120th and Rutgers 121st.

A lot of Iowa fans ache for the long passing play. Never mind the percentages of long passing plays (they’re low, historically, now and forever), there is a certain percentage of Iowa fans who just want to feel something. Nothing energizes an offense more than a 40-plus passing play.

Is that a realistic objective for the talent Iowa has on hand? (Iowa’s number of 20-plus passing plays dropped from 42 in 2015 to 28 last season, its lowest since 26 in 2012.) Get excited about the third-and-6 completion. During the 12-2 run in 2015, Iowa passed for 123 first downs, not a dazzling number but enough to help average just more than 30 points a game.

Nathan Ford / The Gazette

In 2015, Beathard passed for 42 first downs (sixth in the Big Ten). Last year, Beathard converted just 21 first downs through the air (12th in the league, behind Wisconsin’s backup Bart Houston and just ahead of Maryland’s Perry Hills).

Iowa will need to move chains to win games. The passing game couldn’t be counted on for this in 2016. It needs to be there, at least some, in 2017.

3rd Down — Additions/Subtractions

The final verdict on wide receiver Jerminic Smith is he didn’t go to class, was suspended during spring drills and is now an ex-Hawkeye.

 

On the field, Smith was developing. He caught six passes his freshman year (remember the four for 118 yards against Illinois in 2015?), caught 23 last season and seemed to be headed for more targets and numbers in 2017. Smith could’ve competed with VandeBerg for No. 1 targets. Head coach Kirk Ferentz describes Iowa as “developmental.” Smith was a player clearly climbing the ladder and then he wasn’t and now this, on paper and right now in mid May, hurts Iowa.

“We have mutually agreed that at this point it is in everyone’s best interest that Jerminic starts a new chapter in his collegiate career. We wish him success moving forward,” Ferentz said in a statement.

More pain from development that never happened at wide receiver — Jonathan Parker, Andre Harris, Emmanuel Ogwo. Maybe they were miscast, maybe they were reaches on the recruiting front.

These are a lot of misses. They probably had a lot to do with former wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy’s departure.

Of course, there were graduations.

If there hasn’t been a Riley McCarron appreciation thread on your messageboard, start one. McCarron went into the 2016 season with eight — eight!!!! — career receptions. When VandeBerg suffered his foot injury, McCarron caught eight passes the next week against Northwestern. He led Iowa with 42 receptions for 517 yards and four TDs. He got his chance and ran with it, all the way to a free-agent deal with the Houston Texans.

Let’s just throw out the first “why didn’t he do that at Iowa?” for former Hawkeyes tight end George Kittle. Kittle was drafted in the fifth round by the San Francisco 49ers. You’ll see him do things on Sundays and you will wonder “why didn’t he do that at Iowa?”

The answer will be that Kittle spent a ton of his senior season with a mid-foot sprain. Part of the reason Iowa’s passing game shriveled in 2016 was because of Kittle’s injury. If he stays fully healthy, he’ll do things in SF.

Watch Noah Fant discuss Iowa's tight end depth

 

 

2nd Down — Battles Brewing

Just because at this date we don’t know any better, let’s just assume VandeBerg’s left foot is good to go. Yes, that is the foot he broke in late September last season that cost him nine games. It also popped up again in March and kept VandeBerg out for spring ball.

At the end of nearly every news conference he held this spring, Ferentz swept all of the injury updates under this rug, “We expect everyone who’s not out there to be ready in June.” That covered VandeBerg. It didn’t cover free safety Brandon Snyder and OL Dalton Ferguson, both of whom suffered torn ACLs during spring, but this is the WR/TE post.

Asked specifically about VandeBerg, Ferentz said ...

Q. Matt was putting weight on it too early?

COACH FERENTZ: No. He really had a chance to play in the bowl game. That thing was well healed when he got back in January. It’s just one of those things that happens occasionally. Not much what we can do about it.

Q. No concern about the injury throughout the season?

COACH FERENTZ: Nothing I’m aware of. You’re always concerned any time a guy reinjures himself in any particular case. There’s nothing they’re going to do out of the ordinary or anything like that. His rehab was actually on the conservative side. Wasn’t really tied into that. We’ll let it play out.

Let’s assume a healthy VandeBerg will be the No. 1 receiver. Last season in four games, he caught 19 of 27 targets. In 2015, he caught 65 of 93 targets (he also had, according to Pro Football Focus, 332 yards after the catch).

VandeBerg has worn the No. 1 target T-shirt the last two years. If healthy, that shouldn’t change.

 

It’ll probably be VandeBerg and Easley in the slot. If Iowa gets to a third wide receiver, maybe Easley finds time there.

Easley has impressed coaches since he walked in the door from Iowa Western, where he caught 72 passes for 954 receiving yards and seven touchdowns,

“He’s just jumped in there and did a great job, and he’s practiced well,” Ferentz said. “He’s still not quite there yet, but I really can envision him being a guy that’ll help us next year.”

On the outside, coming out of spring Young and Falconer were listed No. 1 and No. 2. But right now, the only play you can remember either of these two for is Falconer’s drop on a PAT pass vs. Michigan.

That’s just the reality. Right now. Ball’s in their court.

When WR coach Kelton Copeland met with Young and Falconer this spring, his basic message was “The time is now.”

“What you put on film, that’s who you are,” Copeland said. “No matter what you want to be and who you think you are, what you put on film, that’s who you are. That’s what the outside world sees. Whether it’s your opponent or fans, that’s who you are. So if you haven’t put on film who you want to be, it’s time to change that. Either by effort, execution and production that’s the next step.

“So, yes, they have moved forward. Is it where we need to be? Absolutely not. Are we getting closer step by step? Yes, we are.”

Tight end is a totally different deal. You’ve done the math. Iowa will have eight scholarship tight ends when camp opens. That’s probably the max.

From the outside, eye test and production, let’s break this group into two categories — inline blocker types and potential seam route dudes.

Senior Peter Pekar is the king of the blocker types, with Nate Wieting also earning mention here. Pekar played 369 snaps last season, 289 of which were running plays. Wieting played 118 snaps; 102 of those were running plays. Senior Jon Wisnieski didn’t play last season while recovering from a knee injury. At 6-5, 250, he’s a potential blocker type.

 

Noah Fant and Shaun Beyer are potential seam route dudes. Fant played 129 snaps last season, with 85 of those coming on pass plays. Beyer is more of a projection, but he showed wheels and attacked open spaces in the spring game.

Sophomore Nate Vejvoda and redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson don’t fit as neatly into these two simple categories. We just haven’t seen enough of either to really know. Vejvoda played 13 snaps as a redshirt. Hockenson has great size (6-5, 243) and led everyone with four receptions in the spring game.

How will this group be deployed? Does it feel like this is one of the bigger questions/opportunities for this offense? It should.

A tight end-centric offense? Hmm, has that been done before? Does Iowa have any coach on staff who’s had a hand in something like that?

Yep. The 2011 New England Patriots where kind of this with Brian Ferentz as their TE coach. Check this link from the SB Nation blog Pats Pulpit. (All of those variations out of one formation. Yes, this might be an overreach and I’m not saying this is what Brian Ferentz’s offense will be, but it’s sure setting up like that, isn’t it?)

1st Down — In Summary

Five finishing thoughts on what needs to happen for the best-case scenario.

1. The Brandon Smith hype train is full speed ahead. At 6-3, 205, Smith is built for this now. We’ll find out about speed and quickness.

This quote from Brian Ferentz gets my attention: “Size is not a question with Brandon. And you look at his ability to run and catch the football, but, more importantly, the ability to compete. When you watch him, he uses his size. A lot of guys are big, but they don’t play with that size. This was never a question with him.”

On the other hand, here’s the ESPN scouting report: “Not sure he’s capable of making as many big plays at the next level as he does here. Very good when contested and competes for the ball one-on-one. Does not appear to have an explosive second gear and sudden change-of-direction to be a dynamic weapon after the catch.”

Recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell compared Smith to former Iowa wideout Mo Brown. In 2002, Brown caught 48 passes for 966 yards, 11 TDs and averaged 20.1 yards per catch.

Smith will have opportunity. Here’s a quick list of freshmen receivers at Iowa who made big contributions during their first years: Dominique Douglas caught 49 passes in 2006; in 2007, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos caught 38 passes and James Cleveland had 36; Calvin Davis caught 23 passes as a freshman in 2003; Ed Hinkel caught 22 in 2002; in 2011, Kevonte Martin-Manley caught 30 passes.

So, freshmen wide receivers have done big things in their first seasons at Iowa. It can be done.

2. VandeBerg’s left foot is good to go.

This goes without saying, but think about the levelheadedness that VandeBerg brings to this group, which will be young and under the microscope on Day 1.

VandeBerg came to Iowa City with a grayshirt promise. Everything else has been up to him. This group will need to tap into that humility and toughness. Humility? Last season’s lack of production dug a hole. It’s going to take some plays made and numbers put up to gain respect.

3. I totally and completely get it when tight ends coach LeVar Woods says he wants his group to be full-service. That idea embedded years ago. It’s embodied in this quote from former Iowa TE Scott Chandler, who made the move from WR to TE at Iowa and then played nine seasons in the NFL: “You do go from the guy with all the wrist bands on and that stuff to having dirt on your shirt at the end of the game. You just change your mentality. I feel like it took me awhile, but I feel like I changed it.”

Fant and Beyer can run. We’ll see on the blocking, but can Iowa afford to keep speed and potential matchup headaches on the sidelines because their blocking lags? No, it can’t.

4. RB Akrum Wadley is going to be part of the passing game. His 36 receptions last season were the most for a running back in the Kirk Ferentz era. Of course, Wadley will be a huge part of the running backs “Four Downs,” but his receiving numbers out of the backfield deserve mention. In the end, it doesn’t matter who catches the pass on third-and-6 as long as someone catches that pass and moves the chains.

5. I’ve mentioned moving the chains a lot. It’s important. It clearly held back the 2016 Hawkeyes. Iowa converted just seven first downs when throwing on third down with 4 to 6 yards to go. That was tied for 116th in the nation. In fairness, Iowa threw just 24 times in this situation, but still, third-and-short passes shouldn’t be this hard.

In 2015, the Hawkeyes converted 15 first downs through the air on third-and-4 to 6 (on 36 pass attempts). That was tied for 42nd nationally. For comparison purposes, Clemson led the nation with 31 third-and-4/6 passing conversions, while Michigan led the Big Ten with 22.

This was where games leaked away for the Hawkeyes in 2016. Passing shouldn’t be this hard. Not on this level.

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

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