VandeBerg injury puts a dent in receiver corps, but Ferentz's job is to keep calm, carry on
Iowa RB James Daniels
Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Jerminic Smith (9) looks on a pass as Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Jomal Wiltz (17) defends during the third quarter of their Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk Series football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
IOWA CITY — If you’ve spent 15 minutes on the internet in the last few years, you’ve seen the meme/cartoon where the dog sits in the coffee shop that’s filled with flames and smoke and a thought bubble that says "This is fine."
In the cartoon, the dog is wearing a little hat. No hat for Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday.
Give yourselves a moment to freak out about Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg’s foot injury. HawkeyeReport.com broke the story Monday night and the UI confirmed Tuesday that the senior suffered the injury and will miss a “significant amount of time,” Ferentz said in his Tuesday news conference.
VandeBerg, Iowa’s leading receiver last season and through four games this season, suffered the injury on the backside of a play during Monday’s practice. It was an non-contact injury. Ferentz offered no timeline for a return. He did mention the possibility of petitioning for a medical hardship waiver, but the situation is so new that nothing has been decided on that front as of yet.
“Matt works hard all the time,” Ferentz said. “He’s one of those guys you have to pull back, and he’s actually been fighting some injuries over the last couple weeks. He’s got a great attitude, been working hard, and this one is totally unrelated, but there are no guarantees.”
Freak out. It’s cool. VandeBerg had 65 receptions last season. His 19 through Iowa’s first four games were tied for third in the Big Ten. VandeBerg led the Hawkeyes in targets by a wide margin with 27. Sophomore wide receiver Jerminic Smith is next with 17 targets. Tight end George Kittle has 14.
Iowa’s top wide receiver target for the foreseeable future is Smith, whose resume this season includes a gorgeous back-shoulder grab for 24 yards and first down at Rutgers last week and a crippling drop to start a two-minute drill at the end of the first half against North Dakota State.
“I’ve got trust that Jerminic,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said, “if I give him a one-on-one shot, he’s going to go up and make his best effort to make a play and he did that (against Rutgers) and made that catch.”
The little known stage of grief for when your football team suffers a key injury — after denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — is the turning over of rocks for players who you might think will help.
Sophomore walk-on Ronald Nash, whose stats this year include nine snaps, one target and one catch, that’s you.
“He’s a big guy with good skills,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully, it’s his time.”
And true freshman Devonte Young (five snaps, no targets, but did make the travel squad last week)?
“He’s a pretty physically mature guy,” Ferentz said. “He’s just done a good job, and now he’ll have an opportunity to play a little bit more, hopefully.”
Sophomore Adrian Falconer? He has an undisclosed injury, hasn’t been practicing and hasn’t taken a snap this year. Junior Jonathan Parker? Good news here. He’s back from the foot injury he suffered late in the summer and could be ready this week. Derrick Mitchell? Good news here, too. He missed the last two games with a leg injury, but has returned to practice and should play this week. He’s still a running back, though. Freshman Ryan Boyle? He’s had five snaps at wide receiver after switching from QB late during spring practice.
Any more true freshmen possible entering the mix? Ferentz said that isn’t in the plans. For what it’s worth, the coaching staff isn’t taking suggestions. There’s been no discussion on giving senior cornerback and punt/kick returner Desmond King a shot at receiver. Beathard knows his role as a player and he’s not floating any ideas out there as far as bodies to try.
“If they come up to me and ask about certain situations, I’ll give them my opinion,” Beathard said. “The coaches are going to put us in position to win. I trust their opinions and everything that they do.”
The bulk of the WR snaps are going to go to Smith (160 snaps), senior Riley McCarron (151 snaps) and sophomore Jay Scheel (66 snaps). No one else on the roster is in that range as far as participation. Trying to guess who it might be simply is turning over rocks, looking for that lost Easter egg.
Smith will play the “X” receiver, the outside position. McCarron has been locked into the “B” spot, which lines up outside of the slot receiver, which was McCarron. On Monday, Iowa’s depth chart listed three wide receiver spots. On Tuesday, that was edited to two. Nash was listed as VandeBerg’s backup.
Ferentz said Scheel and McCarron have some position flexibility and Smith is fixed as the X. Personnel groups also will be a factor. In last week’s win at Rutgers, 31 of Iowa’s 61 plays included just two wideouts.
“We’re going to have a young guy step in there and we’re going to have confidence in him, whoever it’s going to be, to do the job,” offensive tackle Cole Croston said. “It’s going to be a young guy. We’ve had that on the offensive line, we’ve had that all over the place.”
That’s a really good thought to start the pivot here. Freak-out time is over for the people who put on helmets and plan the playbook. The Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) faced this very same Northwestern (1-3, 0-1) team last year in Evanston, Ill., with a true freshman offensive lineman (now he’s starting center James Daniels) making his first career start and a guard (Sean Welsh) sliding out to offensive tackle. The Hawkeyes rushed for 294 yards and five TDs.
The Hawkeyes have been here and done this. Ferentz has sat in this very flaming coffee shop.
“This is hardly a crisis stage,” Ferentz said. “We’re all really sorry that Matt got hurt — don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing that, but hey, we’re going to play. We’ve got to play.”