INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
Independence nearly matc ... »
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No. 38 ... Hey, weren’t we just at wide receiver yesterday? Yes, we were, but this is another one and a sign that Iowa is in the midst of a makeover at the position. The 2014 recruiting class was the surest sign. Iowa signed five wide outs. To say that wide receiver coach Bobby Kennedy has high hopes for this group is pretty much dead-on correct.
“I’m really pleased that we decided to redshirt some of those guys because I think they’ve got the ability to really maybe change the ... not necessarily the face of our program, but our ability outside to make plays.
“But like I said, it’s a continuous process, and they need to continue to grow and develop, get stronger in the weight room. I’m excited to see what those young guys can do.”
So, if you’re junior Jacob Hillyer (6-4, 208), maybe that’s a little off-putting. The one thing that Hillyer (11 catches, 135 yards and two TDs in ‘13) showed last season is he’s in this for the long haul. He started the season with a steady amount of production, catching six passes and two TDs. Then, he went five games with just one catch. At the end of the year, he threw an extremely important block against Nebraska and caught two passes for 39 yards against LSU in the Outback Bowl.
The dirty work ... Yes, Hillyer had a sleep stretch during the season, but one block against Nebraska showed that he remained engaged even when he wasn’t getting the football thrown his way. In the fourth quarter, running back Jordan Canzeri broke outside for a 37-yard run. OT Brandon Scherff ended up leading the play after Canzeri made a severe cut to his left.
The run would’ve been a nice, little first-down trot, but Hillyer showed up. He made caught D-lineman Pat Smith looking at the ball and hit him with a blindside block that de-cleated him. The aftermath walled off two other Huskers, allowing Scherff to break into the open field and keep Canzeri clean down the sideline.
That’s the kind of play that coaches love. It shows deep engagement and commitment, especially when you’ve been on the periphery of the playbook for five weeks.
“There are no elevators to success,” Kennedy said. “You’ve got to take the stairs ... Jake Hillyer, I think a lot of times he’s underappreciated, Jacob is, and he did a lot of really good things down the stretch, made some tough catches, made some big plays. And so for me, we’re finally, I think, developing a core here, a core of guys with some young guys coming.
“So, I think that bodes well for our future.”
Back to opportunity ... If you want the ball, if you want to see the field, you’re going to have to impress Kennedy.
“I think it’s going to be a little tougher to play around here,” Kennedy said of his group this spring. “Recruiting has been talked about in this room before. I think with some of the guys that we’re on or some of the guys that we think or hope to have a chance to get, I think it’s going to be even tougher.”
Outlook ... Is it a successful year if Hillyer duplicates his numbers from last season, finishing eighth again on the team in receptions? He probably would tell you no. But really look at how the position has changed. Redshirt freshmen Derrick Willies, Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Andre Harris are playing. That’s three new mouths that need feeding. Junior Tevaun Smith showed last season he’s for real. Senior Kevonte Martin-Manley is going to get his. Don’t be surprised if you see more three tight end sets this season (offensive coordinator Greg Davis mentioned that this spring). Oh, and you know that if Iowa is able, it will run the ball 60 percent of the time.
The success isn’t just in the numbers. You can imagine the reception Hillyer’s block at Nebraska got in video review. That probably didn’t feel as good as the TD catch he had at Iowa State (on Fox sports 1 and everything), but it probably got a pretty good sense of satisfaction.
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