That position is a question mark for the Hawkeyes this spring. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. — At one of the Iowa football team’s most high-spotlight positions this spring, there’s a consistent theme emerging: Inconsistency.
The Hawkeyes are going to be younger at wide receiver, but position coach Bobby Kennedy also sees upside there as hungry, well-meaning candidates are fighting to replace lost starters Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer.
Topping the list of excitement, or at least curiosity, is Jay Scheel. The former quarterback was famously the talk of the Iowa football office with his dazzling playoff performance as a sophomore for Union High School. It was just last week quarterback C.J. Beathard said Scheel was flashing "one-handed catches that a lot of guys can’t make."
Scheel, now in his second spring, is as healthy as he’s been. And his practice prowess was validated Wednesday by Kennedy. He and offensive coordinator Greg Davis call them "wow" catches.
“Jay has a bright future. I've said that in the past,” Kennedy said Wednesday after the seventh of Iowa’s 15 permitted spring practices. “I think he's ready to kind of show what he has and how he can contribute. So I'm very excited about that.”
There’s almost always a but with young players like Scheel, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall.
“Now what he has to do is he has to develop and be a more consistent player,” Kennedy said. “He's actually learning two spots. So that's challenging.
“He needs to keep developing his stamina. Because to be a wide receiver at this level, you've got to be able to run all day.”
Scheel is a second-teamer on Iowa’s spring depth chart behind Jerminic Smith, who is in his first spring at Iowa but a sophomore eligibility-wise. He started two games as a true freshman, including a four-catch, 118-yard performance against Illinois. But he only had two other catches in Iowa’s other 13 games.
There’s that consistency issue again.
“He really wants to be good,” Kennedy said. “I think football's important to him. You see flashes out of him, some really good things. Because he's a young guy and hasn't figured it out yet, he takes a step back.”
The inconsistency brush applies to backups Jonathan Parker, Adrian Falconer, Andre Harris and others, too. But Kennedy does feel very good about his top returning receiver, senior Matt VandeBerg, and he considers senior and former walk-on Riley McCarron a starter as well.
But neither of those guys is a game-breaking burner (they combine to average 11.4 yards on 95 career catches, 87 by the reliable VandeBerg), which is why names like Scheel and Smith will be of high interest to watch in Friday’s 6 p.m. open practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines.
Kennedy also mentioned progress from walk-on Iowa Western transfer Ronald Nash — who “had a very good couple (of) days” of practice and is actually the biggest receiver on Iowa’s roster at a modest 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. And don’t forget about speed-burning freshman Emmanuel Ogwo, who redshirted in the fall.
But it’s not all about pass-catching with Iowa’s coaches. Smith and Hillyer proved to be excellent in downfield blocking.
“We still need to be more gritty on the perimeter with this group,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy rotates five, and on occasion six, receivers on game days. That’s it. So spots are limited. The scrutiny is elevated.
“We keep charts. Catches, drops, missed assignments, etc.,” Kennedy said. “(It) starts in spring football. That’s when guys start to redevelop their habits.
“If you're not going to be consistent in the spring, going into summer, then training camp, it's really hard to do it in the fall. Guys don't just emerge. They've got to do it over a long period of time.”