Iowa’s passing offense crashed at the Outback Bowl. Quarterback C.J. Beathard was limited to 7 of 23 for 55 yards and three interceptions during a 30-3 defeat to Florida. His pass efficiency of 23.4 was the lowest of his career and the lowest of all quarterbacks in bowl games.
A lot went wrong with Iowa’s offense for that number to happen, yes, but the trend for Iowa’s passing offense slid down in other numbers: The Hawkeyes finished 12th in the Big Ten in total offense this season, 13th in passing offense and 10th in scoring.
The Hawkeyes finished 114th in the nation in completions per game (13.5) and 108th in yards per completion (11.1).
Lots of eyes will be on first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and his (and the staff’s thoughts, it’ll be a collective endeavor) ideas on making the passing game go.
The X-and-O part will be different, but how that will look on the field depends on the personnel. The players are a huge part of this equation.
When looking at the differences in the 2015 and 2016 passing games, head coach Kirk Ferentz pointed to personnel.
“You look at it just right now, I still think C.J. Beathard is a heckuva player,” Ferentz said in late November. “A year ago, he had an NFL center snapping to him (Austin Blythe). He had an NFL tight end who made a lot of big plays week in and week out (Henry Krieger-Coble). He had George (Kittle) as our second tight end. We had (Matt) VandeBerg (lost for most of 2016 with a broken foot) and Tevaun (Smith, who made the Colts roster). Now compared to what he’s working with, you wonder why the numbers aren’t the same?”
Wide receiver clearly was a position of need for Iowa’s 2017 class. Here’s what they came up with.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has never been shy about his admiration for some of the star players who’ve come from the Mid-American Conference.
In fact, in 2011 when asked about former wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, Ferentz said, “I’m not so sure there aren’t times we shouldn’t wait till December, try to raid the MAC commitments, get the all-stars. I’m serious. There are a lot of good players in that league.”
It’s an interesting concept. It might work, but then it might not.
Either way, you’ve seen Iowa pick off a player or two every recruiting season who has committed or has been recruited heavily by MAC schools. That’s Max Cooper.
Waukesha (Wis.) Catholic Memorial wide receiver Max Cooper decommitted from Central Michigan and accepted a scholarship offer from Iowa.
“After an exciting past few days, I have decided to decommit from CMU and accept a full-ride scholarship to play for coach Ferentz at Iowa,” Cooper posted on Twitter. “Thank you to all of the coaches from CMU who have been recruiting me in this process. But playing in the Big Ten has been a dream of mine and I cannot be more excited to say it has come true.”
Cooper, 6-0, 175, helped Waukesha Catholic Memorial to the Wisconsin Division 3 state championship. As a senior, he caught 50 passes for 1,024 and 17 touchdowns.
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: “Lettered in basketball (3), baseball (1), lacrosse (1), and track (4). Member of 400-meter relay team that won 2016 state title. State qualifier in long jump.”
Noteworthy offer: Central Michigan
Depth chart in 2016?: I’ll write exactly what I wrote for senior WR Matt VandeBerg. Oh, I didn’t write anything about senior Matt VandeBerg. At this point in 2013, VandeBerg was still a grayshirt and not officially a member of the 2013 class. Then VandeBerg arrived and actually played as a true freshman. He didn’t put up huge numbers (eight receptions, 58 yards), but he played as a true freshman. And that’s why I’m not counting Cooper out for 2017. Yes, he’s 175 pounds, but they’re not asking him to play left tackle. We’ll see.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Matt VandeBerg
It just feels right, doesn’t it? The link? VandeBerg was on track for back-to-back seasons of 60 receptions. The only other receiver in Iowa history to do that is Kevin Kasper (60 in 1999 and 82 in 2000). VandeBerg, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in September last season, has been productive. Cooper had a supremely productive career at Catholic Memorial. He holds school records for receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns in a season and career.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell (this is more the conversation I had with coach Bell on the prospect) — Me: This really feels like a “fit” guy. I’m sure his production checked a ton of boxes for you on whether or not he has the skills to contribute at Iowa.
KB: That’s the word I was going to use, “productive.” Coach talks about it all of the time. Making the makeables, and that’s Max Cooper. He’ll get open and when you throw it to him, he’ll catch it. That’s how you create big plays. It’s nothing special. Consistent plays made over time create big plays, and that’s what Max Cooper is. Sure-handed. He’s going to run all of the routes you want him to run. You throw it to him, he’s going to catch it. He’s also tougher than you think he is, too. He’ll help out in the run game as far as blocking. Has some special teams value as well.
ESPN scouting report excerpt: This kid is just a good, smart football player. He understands the position. He’s a guy that you love to have on your roster because he’s productive, he makes others better and you respect him due to his attention to detail. If he were in a different state he may be more highly touted. Must develop physical strength for the next level.
My take: Cooper has terrific body control. A QB should be able to throw to either shoulder and Cooper has the skill to make something out of it. I don’t know if this is a little thing or a huge thing, but Cooper also tracks the ball incredibly well. I thought that was a defining characteristic in Desmond King’s skill set. This shows refinement on Cooper’s part. He doesn’t freak out. He watches the ball and goes and gets it. Smooth athlete. He uses his body well and showed a ton of “box out” on his Hudl video.
Iowa has a gaping need at wide receiver, even with senior Matt VandeBerg returning on a medical hardship waiver.
Iowa City West star Oliver Martin, rated a 4-star by Rivals.com, probably would’ve walked into Kinnick Stadium and played. He definitely would’ve walked into a mountain of expectations. But he went to Michigan and it feels like the fit for him.
Here are the wide receivers Iowa did sign — Max Cooper (6-0, 175 from Waukesha, Wis.), Henry Marchese (6-3, 190 from Vernon Hills, Ill.), Brandon Smith (6-3, 205 from Lake Cormorant, Miss.) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175 from Newark, N.J.). Trey Creamer (6-0, 175 from Cartersville, Ga.) also could end up at wide receiver. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said his position has yet to be determined.
One thing that stands out is 6-3, 6-3 and 6-2. During an internet broadcast on signing day, first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Iowa wanted outside receivers with more size.
And so let’s discuss Smith. He is more size.
Iowa assistant coach Kelvin Bell, recruiting coordinator and D-line assistant, took a break from recruiting in the south to visit his mom in Olive Branch, Miss. His mom went to work, so Bell decided to spend the day with some face time at local high schools. A coach and friend he graduated with told him there was a wide receiver at Lake Cormorant (Miss.) High School he needed to see. Bell made another stop. Another coach told him there was a wide receiver at Lake Cormorant he needed to see.
He drove the 25 miles from his mom’s front door and visited Lake Cormorant. “It’s out in the middle of nowhere,” Bell said. “It’s in the middle of a cotton field, actually.”
Smith’s only other Power 5 offer was Vanderbilt. He doesn’t do social media and didn’t do the camp circuit. Smith’s academics were sterling. Bell offered a scholarship on the spot.
“Size is not a question with Brandon,” Brian Ferentz said. “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.”
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: “Named a Dandy Dozen selection as one of top 12 players in the state as a senior.”
Noteworthy offer: Vanderbilt
Depth chart in 2016?: Probably. Don’t expect drastic changes in what Iowa does with its receivers, but it’s going to be different. It has to be different, right? Anyway, lack of bodies here means opportunity for young players. Any of the receivers Iowa signed this year could be in the lineup in 2017.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Mo Brown
Brown was 6-0, 215 pounds. He was a devastating blocker during his days as a Hawkeye (2001-2003). Brown finished his career with 84 catches, 1,515 yards and 15 TDs. His 18.0 yards a catch is No. 3 all-time behind Bill Schultz (22.3) and Robert Smith (20.8). During Iowa’s 2002 co-championship run, Brown averaged 20.1 yards on 48 catches. In ’02, Brown led Iowa in receptions (48), receiving yards (966), scoring receptions (11) and yards per catch (20.1).
Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell (this is more the conversation I had with coach Bell on the prospect) — Me: Brandon Smith is a guy you know a lot about. I think you were Iowa’s last recruit from Mississippi.
KB: Second to last.
Me: Who did I miss?
KB: Brad Banks.
Me: Brad Banks ... My bad.
Me: I saw a picture of Brandon on signing day and he was wearing a suit. I think the suit won’t be around much longer. He’s growing already. Is he going to stick at receiver?
KB: Yes, he’s a wideout. He’s a wideout through and through. The recruiting story on Brandon is unbelievable.
You talk about stumbling on a kid, I stumbled on this kid.
I was recruiting a linebacker in Alabama, Colin Anderson, who we had offered and then I drove home (Olive Branch, Miss.) to see my mom. This was a Thursday night, so Friday morning, she’s going to work and I’m like, “What am I going to do?”
She said go out and recruit and I said, OK.
I go to my high school just to show my face and a former player who I played with and he’s like, “You’ve got to go over to Lake Cormorant right now. There’s a wide receiver over there who nobody is on. I’m like, “What are his grades like?” That’s the first thing I’m thinking. Nobody is on him, what are his grades like? He’s 3.2 plus (GPA) and 22 on the ACT. I’m thinking, “What’s the deal?” He’s a 6-10 high jumper. This kid is big. He’s like, “You’ve got to go check him out.” We don’t recruit down here. I don’t want to waste time. I can find this in an area we recruit.
So, I go to another high school and talk to my high school coach. And he’s like, “Yeah, you probably need to go check him out.”
His high school is 25 miles from my front door. It’s out in the middle of nowhere. It’s in the middle of a cotton field, actually. I went and saw the kid and I was like, “Whoa.” And then I watched the tape from junior year, he had 78 catches as a junior and 80 as a senior.
He’s not a social media guy. He’s a lot like (sophomore QB) Nate Stanley. His recruitment picked up and you never would’ve known about it. He’d call me up and say, “Hey, Wisconsin called today.” Or “Hey, Arkansas called today.”
Me: I’m sure you love those calls.
KB: I always ask, what do you want to do? “I want to go to Iowa.” Fine, that’s what we’re going to do then.
I saw the kid and I offered him. You had to offer him.
Me: You can just do that?
KB: Oh yeah.
Me: It sounded like a no-brainer. In the mix next year?
KB: He will have the opportunity to be. That’s what you stress to the kid. That’s what you tell him. That makes it more appealing to travel. It’s an eight-hour drive any way you cut it, from Lake Cormorant to here. That’s what makes it so appealing. I’m not saying I’m going to go there and be the second coming of whoever, but it’s an opportunity to play Big Ten football.
Me: Do you have a compare for Brandon? An Iowa compare?
KB: I’m thinking Mo Brown. When I saw him, that’s who I thought of because of his arms. Mo had huge biceps. That’s what Brandon has. Mo was a 215-pound wide receiver. I think that’s what Brandon will be.
ESPN scouting report excerpt: 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. Serviceable and elusive enough to extend plays. Red zone upside might give him more big-play ability at the next level with time in the weight room. He is very competitive. Smith is a great looking kid and as mentioned while he doesn’t time well, he plays fast on a straight line. He needs work and polish as a route runner, but he can improve here with work ethic. Quality player who flashes power five conference ability.
My take: Let’s talk about the myth of separation. How often do you see a wide receiver completely blow past a defensive back, one-on-one with no play fake tugging at the DB’s eyes? Not often. Smith’s speed appears adequate, but what filled his 11-minute Hudl video was catches he made either going and getting the ball or catches he made because of the way he used his body.
Smith will take a hit to make a play. He’s a load to bring down. He’s strong enough to keep defensive backs off his body. Lots of catches where Smith used his body to box out and surround the ball. Smith ran a ton of routes, including short WR screens, which probably make it into Brian Ferentz’s playbook.
Iowa will be recruiting against first-year Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck for the foreseeable future. The race was tight this year, with Fleck not jumping in as Minnesota’s coach until the school fired Tracy Claeys and hired the former Western Michigan coach in January.
Iowa was in on New Jersey wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Smith-Marsette visited Iowa and then Minnesota. He picked the Gophers. It wasn’t over. Georgia athlete Trey Creamer had been a Minnesota commit. He visited Iowa. He eventually picked the Hawkeyes. Smith-Marsette reconsidered and also picked Iowa.
So, the final score this recruiting cycle was Iowa 2, Minnesota 1 (Fleck tore Kansas WR Harry Van Dyne from Iowa).
You know this is never going away. Fleck is a relentless recruiter. This will be fun for everyone, right?
“When I first arrived on campus at Iowa, I got a different feeling,” Smith-Marsette said on signing day. “They were great over there and it felt like they were brothers. I loved the feeling that I got there; it was like a welcome-home feeling. That is what ultimately separated Iowa from Rutgers and Minnesota.”
Smith-Marsette committed to Rutgers on Dec. 11 and then decommitted on Jan. 23. He then committed to Minnesota via Twitter on Jan. 29, only to pull back his decision and delete the tweets shortly thereafter.
He finally found what he was looking for.
“It feels so amazing to relieve the stress that comes with recruiting,” said Smith-Marsette. “Every place had something nice about it and going to each and every place gave me a different feeling. Ultimately though, Iowa gave me the best feeling and not just a different feeling. I believe in the Iowa system and that’s what it came down to.
“I feel so much happier now that it’s out of the way and I’m committed to the school that I was the most comfortable with.
Smith-Marsette earned a first team All-Group 1 nod this fall after posting 38 catches for 773 yards and 13 touchdowns alongside 43 tackles, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries on defense. He also notched three TDs on special teams — two on punt returns and one on a kickoff return for Weequahic, which went 12-0 in 2016.
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: “Helped prep team claim 2016 state championship with 12-0 record.”
Noteworthy offer: Minnesota
Depth chart in 2016?: Ball is in Smith-Marsette’s court. 6-2, 175 isn’t big for a Big Ten wide receiver. Iowa does want bigger wideouts, but Brian Ferentz probably isn’t talking only about height. Still, no one is going to say Iowa doesn’t need help at WR, and so that gives Smith-Marsette as good of a chance as anyone to carve into the rotation this fall.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Kahlil Hill
Hill had a super-underrated career as a Hawkeye. He’s top 10 in career receiving yards (1,892). He’s fifth all-time with 152 receptions. Right off the top of Smith-Marsette’s Hudl video are a couple of success kick returns for TDs. Hill also was one of the best return specialists of the Ferentz era. Smith-Marsette has a similar long stride.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell (this is more the conversation I had with coach Bell on the prospect) — Me: I saw that Brian (Ferentz, offensive coordinator) met with him twice. Obviously, a need guy, right?
KB: He brings position flexibility. If you look at his high school tape, he plays defensive back. He also plays wide receiver. Both are positions of needs, so you kind of kill two birds with one stone. He’ll get in where he fits in when he gets to campus. I can’t say if we’re going to start him at receiver or start him at DB, it’s going to be a situation when we end spring practice, we look at the depth chart, where is this kid going to best help Iowa? He gives us that flexibility. He very well could’ve been one of Phil’s guys, a defensive back or he very well could play offense.
Me: What makes him a player?
KB: He’s a tough kid. He’s from Newark, N.J., same high school as Akrum Wadley. He’s just a tough, tough-minded kid. He loves the game of football, loves to compete. He’s got some weight to put on, but you can’t tell because of the way he plays. He’s fearless and selfless out there.
ESPN scouting report excerpt: Smith-Marsette has excellent length in his arms and ideal height for the outside. Has a lean frame that will need weight though his frame shows the ability to add the needed size. Shows good speed and ability to accelerate quickly. Smith-Marsette is a talented playmaker with length and speed, two very valuable physical traits. Plays multiple positions and can project to either side of the ball including as a returner. Will need to spend time developing his positional skills though his athletic traits give him strong upside.
My take: At the two-minute mark of his Hudl video, Smith-Marsette makes an incredible over-the-shoulder catch for a TD. He actually loses footing while trying to stay in bounds and begins falling on his back. He never takes his eyes off the ball and catches it while falling to his back for a TD. He’s got a couple of gears and knows when to hit the gas in tight situations. Smith-Marsette has some fun out there, enjoying the celebrations. You know what? Nothing wrong with that.
I think he has to play receiver at Iowa. Iowa needs receivers and needs them now. We’ve been over this a few times.
Iowa has opportunity at wide receiver. Henry Marchese is jumping in.
The 6-3, 190-pound wide receiver from Stevenson High School (Lincolnshire, Ill.) is rated a 2-star prospect by Rivals.com. He caught 63 passes for 1,053 yards and 16 touchdowns last season as a senior at Stevenson.
“I’m excited to announce that I will be continuing my academic and athletic career at the University of Iowa! Go Hawks,” Marchese wrote on Twitter after his commitment.
Marchese held scholarship offers from Army, Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio).
“Iowa has everything to offer,” Marchese told HawkeyeReport.com. “A good education, amazing atmosphere and great football. It’s cool being able to follow in my dad’s footsteps.”
Henry’s father, John, was a walk-on fullback for the Hawkeyes in the mid-1980s. He played on the 1986 Rose Bowl team.
Henry has a twin brother, Michael, a 6-3, 190-pound safety who has a preferred walk-on opportunity at Iowa and a scholarship offer from Army. Another brother, Joe, is a walk-on offensive lineman at Maryland.
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: “Holds school single-season records for receptions (63), yards (1,053), and touchdowns (16). Also recorded 303 yards on kickoff and punt returns.”
Noteworthy offer: Bowling Green
Depth chart in 2016?: Really on the fence here. I think redshirt, but you’ve picked up on the theme that Iowa needs help at WR. Marchese (pronounced Mar-CASE) was extremely productive his senior year at Stevenson. I lean redshirt, but I’m not shutting the door.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Jacob Hillyer
This is more of a body-type compare. Hillyer didn’t reach big receptions totals at Iowa. I have no idea what Marchese will be capable of, but Hillyer was 6-4, 212 as a senior. Marchese could reach that size and play a similar role. Remember, Brian Ferentz said Iowa wanted better size with wide receivers on the outside.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell (this is more the conversation I had with coach Bell on the prospect) — Me: Is it Henry Marcheese or ...
Me: Thank you, that was driving me crazy.
KB: Coach Ferentz was here when his dad was a walk-on running back, so he always calls him cheesy. We’ve kind of nicknamed him “Cheesy,” but his name is Mar-CASE.
Me: I don’t know why there were light offers on this kid. He’s fully 6-3, long-limbed, looks like he could be about anything for you guys. Wide receiver, probably?
KB: Wide receiver is a position of need.
He’s an Iowa kid. What I mean by that is he came to probably four or five home games this year. I’ve got diaries of notes on Twitter that he’s written me about how badly he wants to be a Hawkeye. And just like Levi Duwa (Mid-Prairie defensive lineman), those kids, when they put the black and gold on and come out of the tunnel, they will play above and beyond any kind of star ranking. That’s the kind of intrinsic motivation you’re looking for. I think we stole one right there.
He had some schools come in on him late, but he wanted to be at Iowa. That’s perfect fit. We want kids who want to be here.
Me: Is there position flexibility here?
KB: I think we want him to play receiver. Could he play something else? Sure, but we’re going to give him every opportunity to play wideout.
ESPN scouting report excerpt: There wasn’t one. So, this probably makes Marchese the signee with the biggest chip on his shoulder.
My take: Marchese is a decent route runner. He doesn’t round things off and makes sharp cuts that help get him open. He’s not a blazer, but detailed route running created separation for him. He knows what to do with the ball after he catches it. He made cuts against the grain and attacked space (took what the defense gave him). The only thing keep me from thinking Marchese will play next year is the low offers. Illinois came after him late, though, so maybe Bell is right. Maybe Marchese is a sleeper.
In a HawkeyeReport.com interview, Solon head coach Kevin Miller said Coons weighed 225. Coons already is inching toward the TE body. You don’t see Iowa TEs get much above 250.
“Because of his versatility, I think they (colleges) see him as a tight end, but he could play defense at defensive end or linebacker because he moves so well,” Miller told HR. “He is an athletic basketball type of player who is a big-framed kid. He is long and athletic with the versatility to play a number of positions. He brings a number of physical skills and abilities to the table. He is a very physical player who likes contact. I think another thing he brings is that toughness to the program.”
Maybe you check another box with the toughness. You can’t just waltz into the Iowa program and be a TE with questionable blocking skills. You could argue that’s why redshirt freshman walk-on Nate Wieting played nearly as many snaps last season (118) as true freshman Noah Fant (129). Wieting weighed 245; Fant weighed 220. When it was a running down or formation, Wieting was on the field. For passing downs, it was Fant.
Coons might be able to offer the full three downs.
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: “Three-year football letterman as tight end, wide receiver, defensive end and linebacker.”
Noteworthy offer: Iowa State
Depth chart in 2016?: Probably not. Iowa has six tight ends on the roster going into spring. It probably could use another pass catcher at the position, but Fant and redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson likely will get first cracks at that.
Coons’ numbers took a hit his senior season because of a high-ankle sprain that lingered. Still, he had 29 receptions for 485 yards and five touchdowns. Check what Miller said about Coons’ basketball ability. Myers was a terrific basketball player coming out of Prairie City-Monroe. As far as starting points go, Coons tracks Myers. Of course, Myers became a premier pass catcher and still is in the NFL. Coons will work on that.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell (this is more the conversation I had with coach Bell on the prospect) — Me: Jacob Coons, he was another guy who committed and that was that.
KB: We offered Jacob before the 2015 season. It was that summer. He came out here and really had a standout camp.
Again, I go back to camp. Obviously, the kids from farther away, we couldn’t get to camp. Trey (Creamer) we saw in a camp. Camp is a huge evaluation piece for us. The kids who aren’t willing to come to our camp, I’m sorry, we have to move on. There are kids willing to come to Iowa City. It’s not like Iowa is an Indiana, and I recruit Indiana.
In Indiana, you’re driving west to go to Chicago or you’re driving east to go to Ohio or out there. You come to Iowa, you’re coming here for a reason. So, the kids who come here to go to camp, that goes a long way in our book. Jacob came to camp. He competed. We said, “Hey, this kid is going to be one of better players in his class, in 2017, let’s get in on this right now.”
Me: Tight end? Does that stick?
KB: Tight end, but also plays some defensive end. Position flexibility in this class. I think we’ll start him at tight end and see where it goes. But we’re always looking for good D-linemen.
ESPN scouting report excerpt: Coons is a TE with some upside, but needs to continue to physically develop and could need some time to adjust to a step up in competition and as result of those things he is likely a prospect that will need at least a red-shirt, but with some development can help add contribute and at least add good depth to an FBS TE unit.
My take: Lots of tight end prospects come out of spread offenses and just aren’t ready for the blocking rigors that Iowa TE demands. C.J. Fiedorowicz readily admitted this when he came out of high school (he had never played with his hand on the ground). Solon’s offense had Coons stand up in the slot quite a bit, but he also went in-line and seemed to really enjoy blocking. Granted it’s a Hudl highlight video, but he also seemed to have a knack for where to put his head while blocking. Big target with sure hands, Coons also seemed to have a feel on where to be in routes.
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