MOUNT VERNON - Cornell knew that any chance for success against unbeaten Lake Forest (Ill.) would begin and end with stopping the Foresters' star tailback, Joey Valdivia.
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No. 39 ... Iowa generally uses four receivers and, over the course of a season, rotates six. Three redshirt freshmen WRs begin their eligibility this fall. Iowa returns six upperclassmen who caught passes in 2013. Iowa has at least one incoming freshman wide receiver (Jay Scheel), maybe more if the five defensive backs who report find a better opportunity on offense. Wait, the whole point of this paragraph is that opportunity is extremely limited this fall at Iowa wide receiver.
There is plenty of opportunity, but there’s more competition at the position than maybe Iowa has had in Kirk Ferentz’s 15-plus seasons. You have senior Kevonte Martin-Manley, who’s led the Hawkeyes in receptions the last two seasons. You have junior Tevaun Smith, who had a few breakthrough moments in 2013. You have redshirt freshman Derrick Willies, who spent his spring opening eyes to his potential.
Matt VandeBerg, a 6-1, 175-pound sophomore, is one of the returning veterans. As a returning freshman last season, he caught eight passes for 59 yards. The 2014 class at one point had five commitments at wide receiver. Despite a build that probably wasn’t quite ready for Big Ten football, VandeBerg jumped in as a first-year player last season.
Oh yeah, that guy ... During spring practice, several Iowa defensive backs and offensive teammates mentioned VandeBerg’s progress. In the spring game, he caught two passes for 16 yards and consistently threatened the defense down the seam in the middle of the field. That right there will probably get your attention.
VandeBerg’s skill set has allowed him to learn two of the three Iowa receiver positions. In two RB, two TE sets this spring, VandeBerg often was the lone receiver.
“Matt is a guy who can play more than one spot,” Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “When you’re playing with tempo, and for the receivers to play in the run and the pass game, the way you want, you have to rotate some players in there.”
Opportunity will be fleeting ... At a few different points during his spring news conference, wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy sounded like a coach using the media to send a message to his players. It wasn’t negative, more like “here it is, go get it.”
“What we do is we find the first guy, then the second guy, then the third guy, then the fourth guy, the fifth, then the sixth,” Kennedy said. “We usually have a six‑man rotation, and so to keep them engaged, they know they’d better start producing and better start playing well in practice, and it starts in practice. We chart everything from routes on air to 7 on 7 to my individual drills, throwing, catching the football. It’s really easy sometimes to pull a kid aside and say, ‘Boy, you’ve had three drops today. You tell me that you’re ready and you’re trying to get in the mix, but you’re not practicing like it.’”
Will the rotation be six and only six? Maybe. This is Kennedy’s second year with the group. He has an idea of who can do what. Davis and Kennedy have talked about the importance of keeping fresh receivers in the game. So, yes, probably six.
Outlook ... Kennedy threw VandeBerg’s name in as a slot receiver candidate. “Matt VandeBerg, Derrick Mitchell, those guys, Riley McCarron, those guys are kind of a slot,” Kennedy said, “the guys that kind of do the dirty work, have to slip a linebacker, find space in zones, things like that.”
You’re going to see a bunch of wide receivers in this list. The theme always will be opportunity.
“A guy who’s not talked about a lot that we played as a freshman is Matt VandeBerg,” Kennedy said. “He’s a guy who has got to develop a little more strength, and sometimes that’s tough. Their metabolism is so high. Putting weight on sometimes is tough, but he’s got really good strength, he’s got really good quickness, getting in and out of cuts, can stretch the field. I see him as a guy who has an opportunity to play and make some impact.”
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