Four Downs -- The Wide Receivers (spring edition)

There isn't a lot of clarity here, but there are plenty of bodies

Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley celebrates his touchdown during the first half of their NCAA college f
Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley celebrates his touchdown during the first half of their NCAA college football game against Indiana at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, in Bloomington, Iowa. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)

QUICK LOOK BACK: Everyone who had "passing game for the Iowa Hawkeyes" in their job description last season has something to prove. Some more than others. Basically, Iowa had three players catch passes for it last season -- WR Kevonte Martin-Manley (team-high 52 receptions), WR Keenan Davis (47) and TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (45).

After those three, running backs Damon Bullock (18) and Mark Weisman (15) had more receptions than any other wide receiver. Jordan Cotton emerged and finished with 12 catches last season -- he had one career reception before '12 -- but the Hawkeyes wide receivers won't have a lot of experience to hang onto from the '12 season.

We're not going to rehash the Iowa passing game. You could never really tell what was going on. It didn't work. There were many reasons why. Everyone had a hand in it. It needs to improve.

-- Bobby Kennedy replaced Erik Campbell as WR coach in February. Kennedy served as WR coach under Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis for seven seasons at Texas. Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley were his two most noteworthy players.

Will we see a difference? There's a better chance here to see technical growth than there is at running back, which also has a new coach in Chris White. Running back is instinct and the constant creation of sound habits (or breaking of bad ones). Wide receivers can be molded a little bit more. Of course, you have to be able to run and catch. You can't coach raw skill (that's why you have a strength coach).

-- Only six WRs caught passes last season for the Hawkeyes.

-- Iowa receivers were held to two catches for 7 yards at Michigan last season. Through three quarters of that game, four players logged yards for the Hawkeyes — Weisman, Fiedorowicz, TE Henry Krieger-Coble and QB James Vandenberg.

FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Trust and experience are major issues with this group.

Drops were a huge problem. Someone from Iowa offered a stat that had Iowa receivers with as many as 30 drops last season. Drops are a subjective stat. You know some, but then there are others where a receiver gets a hand a pass that is out of his range. Still, by most any measure, Iowa struggled with drops last season.

In a 9-6 loss to Iowa State,  Iowa dropped eight passes. They killed momentum, continuity and, arguably, a shot to win the game. The drops started to recede toward the end of the season, but a lot of the passing game was going Fiedorowicz's way at that point, too.

Iowa has WRs who've played. Joining Martin-Manley and Cotton are senior Don Shumpert and sophomores Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer. They combined for 10 receptions last season. Iowa's returning receptions are very top heavy with Martin-Manley and Fiedorowicz accounting for 60 percent (97 of 161) of those numbers.

Iowa's top three returning WRs -- Martin-Manley, Cotton and Shumpert -- combined to catch 70 passes last season. That's 11th in the Big Ten in total receptions for a team's top three returning WRs. Minnesota is last with 55, followed by Iowa (70), Purdue (71) and Michigan (73). The top three were Indiana (162), Penn State (125) and Nebraska (124). The average was 92.4.

Iowa coaches are going to have to trust relatively inexperienced and/or brand-new players.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Keenan Davis left Iowa with 112 career receptions, that ties fellow Cedar Rapids Washington graduate Bill Happel for 10th on Iowa's career list. Davis' career probably didn't match the recruiting hoopla, but he's the only Iowa wide receiver to catch 50 passes in the last six seasons not named Marvin McNutt or Martin-Manley.

Davis probably won't go in the seven-round NFL draft, but he will get into a camp and it'll be interesting to see if he sticks. At 6-3, 215 pounds, he has legitimate NFL size.

According to his agent, Davis had a nice pro day Monday in Iowa City:

There will be a ton of new bodies in the mix for '13. Let's start with the redshirts.

Cameron Wilson (6-1, 195) -- Haven't heard much here. Last August, he ran with the other true freshmen at this position, somewhere in the No. 3s and developmental squad.

Greg Mabin (6-2, 190) -- Iowa's official site has him listed as a defensive back this spring.

Maurice Fleming (6-0, 185) -- He's listed as a WR on the roster Iowa has online, but who knows what to read into that. It also lists seniors from last season. In other words, it's not updated (other Big Ten websites have 2013 rosters listed). Last fall, Fleming moved to cornerback and there's no reason to believe corner won't be his home this fall. At least right now there's not.

Was there a struggle between Greg Davis and Erik Campbell on how the Iowa WR corps should be shaped? Kirk Ferentz said all that info will remain "private," but it's not exactly a leap to say something didn't work and something had to change.

Iowa clearly set out in recruiting to find receivers who could extend plays, make an initial defender miss and stretch a short out (you see where this is going) into a first down or a touch down. Ferentz joked that he wanted to recruit "guys who could score touchdowns." That did seem to be the aim.

Iowa signed five new receivers.

Andre Harris (6-0, 170) -- Harris is exactly what Iowa wanted for the Davis offense. " He’s one of those guys who can move around and make guys miss in space. When you’re putting him in the slot, you can isolate him against a linebacker and do some of those inside routes that our offense likes to do," said Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson, who recruited Harris out of St. Louis.

A.J. Jones(6-3, 190) -- But Iowa isn't abandoning the idea of the tall receiver who, presumably, can use his body and make something

happen one-on-one. "He’s really a raw kid from a wide receiver standpoint. We know there’s going to be a little bit of development there, but he’s got a great attitude and a great family," Johnson said.

Derrick Mitchell (6-1, 190) -- A legit 190-pounder, might have the lead to see early playing time. "Again, he’s another one of those guys we think a lot of his best football is in front of him," Johnson said. "He does multiple sports with football, track, baseball and basketball. He’s a four-sport kid. He hasn’t even seen the weightroom yet and he’s 190 pounds. "

Damond Powell (5-11, 180) -- Watch his junior college highlight reel and you have to believe some sort of WR screen (tunnel or bubble) is on its way back into the Iowa playbook.

Derrick Willies (6-4, 210) -- Willies is player with a body that tell you Iowa plans to keep the big receiver in the playbook. He also has track speed with gold in the 110-meter high hurdles in the Illinois prep state championships last spring. "He’s a big wide receiver who could play safety, too. He could play linebacker. . . . He’s a guy who could have a wide range of expected contribution over there at Iowa. He’s one who has the size and skill set," said midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt.

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: After Martin-Manley, is anyone or anything set in stone for the Iowa passing game? How could it be?

Iowa's offense going into 2013 won't scare anyone. The Hawkeyes ranked No. 118 in the nation last season in plays from scrimmage of 10-yards or more with 132. Oklahoma led the country with 262. That's not a direct indictment of the passing game, but of the entire offense.

Iowa was No. 118 in plays of 20-plus yards with 38. Texas A&M led the country with 100. Iowa ranked No. 101 in 30-plus plays, N0. 120 in 40-plus, No. 120 in 50-plus (one play of 50-plus) and then zeroes on in 60-, 70-, 80-, 90-plus. This is a "plays from scrimmage" stat that doesn't include kick returns, something that Cotton excelled at last season.

Cotton came alive last season and will have a chance to claim No. 2 WR, at least in pecking order. He's the fastest or one of the fastest players on the team. He showed toughness on kick return and kick coverage. He grew into more and more time at wide receiver, but he still only had 12 catches. He'll probably get first shot, but, even as a senior, he's not a salty veteran.

Smith is intriguing. He also fits into the "fastest or one of the fastest" category. He had more catches than Des Moines product and Michigan WR Amara Darboh as a true freshman, but we're only talking three to none. In August, Smith showed he could run the top off of defenses. Let's see where it goes from there.

In 2011, Iowa was 60th nationally in 10-plus plays with 177. In 2010, Iowa was 37th with 191.

The battle brewing here is for players.

FIRST DOWN — WHAT COULD HAPPEN: We're not going to go nuts here, mainly because everything that's expected from this group is welded to whomever wins the starting QB job.

How important is the QB decision? All three candidates are young, so if there's a clear-cut winner, that guy will have a chance to steer the offense for a couple of seasons. It could be a two-year decision.

-- Martin-Manley is capable if repeating 50 receptions. Is he capable of an Allen Robinson season, the Penn State WR who caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 TDs last year? If nothing else, Robinson (and Marvin McNutt in 2011) show that clear No. 1 WRs can roam free in the Big Ten.

-- Is the big leap for Cotton going from 12 receptions to 30 or 40? Yes, that's a big leap. He's made himself into a player, but will that translate into targets in 2013?

-- Can someone currently on the roster breakout? The whole "make or break" year notion might be a little heavy at this stage, but the shift in coordinators, philosophy and recruiting kind of says "make or break" is in play.-- Who'll be the "rookie of the year" at Iowa WR? Powell? Smith? Mitchell? Maybe a better question is how many rookies of the year will Iowa need?  

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