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IOWA CITY — We’re going to talk "watch lists," but only for a second because we all know that college football awards can’t be won in July.
Wednesday, the Tallahassee Quarterback Club announced the 2016 Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list. The award recognizes the nation’s top receiver. It was pretty long and included wide receivers from just about everywhere, including two from Indiana (Simmie Cobbs and Ricky Jones) and two from Nebraska (Brandon Reilly and Jordan Westerkamp).
Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg caught as many and more passes as those four receivers (his 65 receptions tied Westerkamp). He didn’t make the list.
VandeBerg just laughed.
“I didn’t even know, I wasn’t aware,” the senior said. “To be honest, I didn’t know it was out there. I’ve seen a bunch of our guys get recognized. I’m not overly concerned. All I can do is control what I do on the field, and if they don’t see that right now, that’s fine.”
No, this isn’t a screed about VandeBerg being forgotten. (Although, 65 catches and 4.6 receptions a game is the most for Iowa since Marvin McNutt caught 82 and averaged 6.3 a game in 2011.)
It’s kind of the theme for the Iowa wide receiver group. After VandeBerg, there is a lot of inexperience and a lot of opportunity for younger players to make a dramatic jump in profile. Right now, here in July, on paper, Iowa wide receiver is under the radar and, apparently, not list worthy.
— Phil Steele’s 2016 college football preview (the king of the summer publications) doesn’t list Iowa’s wide receivers in the top 50. Among Big Ten schools, Steele has Penn State (No. 10), Michigan (14), Nebraska (17), Indiana (24), Ohio State (28) and Michigan State (50) in his top 50.
— After VandeBerg’s 65 receptions, the next returning wide receiver with the most receptions is sophomore Jerminic Smith with six.
— Smith and senior Riley McCarron are listed as starters, along with VandeBerg, as the summer makes the turn into fall camp. Smith and McCarron combined to catch 11 passes in 2015.
So, at least on paper, Batman is looking for Robin and a Batmobile and maybe a utility belt.
“I don’t really even think about that kind of stuff, honestly,” said McCarron, who caught five passes including a TD for the winning points at Iowa State. “Anything that motivates you, more power to you. Whatever drives you. I don’t necessarily think about that stuff, but it’s out there, I know it is.”
OK, there’s this: VandeBerg caught 65 passes last season and didn’t make the Biletnikoff Award list. Junior Sean Welsh didn’t play a snap at center last season and he made the Rimington Trophy list for the nation’s top center.
Yes, you’re exactly right. The list thing in the middle of the summer, it’s a novelty.
“I don’t think we’ve paid too much attention to it,” VandeBerg said. “We had two really good seniors who graduated in Jake (Hillyer) and Tevaun (Smith). It’s more or less the experience the younger guys gained a year ago, especially with Jerminic, that will help them come through.”
Iowa is relying on young talent to bloom, and Jerminic Smith is at the head of that line.
Smith had two significant snapshot moments last season, one good and one teaching opportunity. The 6-1, 180-pounder became the first true freshman during head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 17 seasons to record more than 100 receiving yards in a game, when he lit up Illinois for 118 yards on four receptions.
A few weeks later at Indiana, Smith broke open for what likely would’ve been a long touchdown, but he wasn’t looking for the ball and C.J. Beathard’s pass hit him in the back and fell incomplete.
Not entirely Smith’s fault as it turns out.
“I’m actually not going to put that on Jerminic,” VandeBerg said. “We’re always taught to run for 20 (yards) before we look for the ball. He was trying to get to 20 yards and the ball came out a little quicker. Obviously with a little more experience, he’s going to be able to know, ‘Now is when I’m going to get the ball.’ Experience will help out big time with him and I don’t think that will happen again this year.”
VandeBerg is quick to remind that this is the talking season, but Iowa is running some 7-on-7 drills as part of summer conditioning. So, some Hawkeyes have seen their wide receivers and have played with and against them this summer. Fall camp (which begins Aug. 6) will be a more harsh proving ground, but they’ve liked what they’ve seen.
“Jerminic Smith is really stepping up,” senior tight end George Kittle said. “So is Emmanuel (Ogwo, a redshirt freshman). That’s the first time I’ve really seen him play at the level he’s playing at. (Sophomore) Jay Scheel looks really good, too. The guys are stepping up and it’s good they’re stepping up this early, because it’s going to get tougher when camp starts up.”
Junior strong safety Miles Taylor works with receivers every day.
“I think everyone has taken a step forward,” Taylor said. “Everyone is trying to contribute this year. Everybody is trying to become the best player they can be. Everyone is doing their work in 7-on-7. Guys are really just trying to get better.”
OK, the lists served their purpose. We killed some time in July.
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