Inside Iowa's least experienced position group: Wide receivers need to catch on fast

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When it comes to Iowa’s work-in-progress wide receiver corps, the preferred term from coaches is “concerned.”

Head coach Kirk Ferentz used it during his Saturday news conference.

Senior Matt VandeBerg (89) is the leader of an otherwise-unproven Hawkeye wide receiver group. Iowa is looking for someone to step up among Adrian Falconer (82) Nick Easley (84), Devonte Young (80) and four true freshmen.

“The question is how fast can we get where we've got to get? Can we do it before Sept. 2?” Ferentz said later of a wide receiver group that has been stripped down to one player, Matt VandeBerg, who has caught a pass for the Hawkeyes. “The good news is that that's a group that will continue to improve.”

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Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland, in his first year on Ferentz’s staff, echoed that thought.

“I’m not worried at all. Am I concerned? Yes. There’s a lot of work to be done. But we’ve made a lot of progress in a short amount of time,” Copeland said.

“I was told coming in when I was offered the job here that there was unique challenges here as far as building a room with the situation that the room was in.”

The room was in some disarray when Copeland arrived in time for spring practices, and that was after a season in which the wideouts didn’t exactly distinguish themselves. Leading receiver Riley McCarron (42 receptions) had graduated. Jay Scheel (five) ended his football career over health concerns. Ronald Nash (two) also gave up the sport. Junior Jerminic Smith (23) was suspended and then dismissed after academic issues. VandeBerg (19) reinjured the foot that cost him nine games last season, and was unable to practice in the spring.

Copeland reached out to four promising incoming freshmen that he’d never even met. He spoke to returners Adrian Falconer and Devonte Young, both seeking their first career catch. He got in the ear of junior-college transfer Nick Easley.

His message?

“No pressure intended, but the time is now,” Copeland said. “I wanted those guys to understand, those vets to know, that, hey, we’re bringing in these freshmen. I’m pushing them to beat you out. And your job is to not get beat out. Your job is to earn your spot.”

Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland answers questions during media day Saturday. The first-year Hawkeye assistant has three weeks to forge a group capable of making an impact this fall.

Whether pressure is intended or not, whether “worried” is an apt word to use, it’s clear that the Hawkeye wide receivers need to prove themselves, and quickly. Offensive coaches are quick to talk about how much depth and talent there is at tight end. Tailbacks Akrum Wadley and James Butler are both seniors who have shown they can catch the football. The not-always-subtle signal being sent is: The Hawkeye offense, under first-year coordinator Brian Ferentz, is preparing to move forward in the passing game with other options if the wideouts don’t do their part.

Copeland is confident that won’t be necessary. With VandeBerg, the only question is health. With the rest, it’s adjusting to a new level of play. Here’s what has been learned about Iowa’s wide receiver choices, with the Sept. 2 opener against Wyoming drawing inexorably closer:

Hawkeye wide receiver Matt VandeBerg (89) poses for a portrait Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, during Iowa football media day in Iowa City.

Matt VandeBerg

The fifth-year senior out of Brandon, S.D., is an obvious Option No. 1 for Iowa. He has been a full participant in practices, Copeland said, after breaking the same bone in his foot twice and vowing to alter the way he runs routes.

VandeBerg has 106 catches for 1,302 yards and eight touchdowns in his college career. He has all the physical gifts you look for in a wideout, plus the savvy to know how to exploit them. Barring injury, he could be the biggest asset to whoever is named the starting quarterback.

Copeland said VandeBerg is just as valuable to his unproven group of wide receivers.

“The biggest thing about Matt that I love is his leadership,” Copeland said. “Now being able to work with him in training camp, it’s been tremendous. He’s worth the price of admission, no doubt about it.”

Hawkeye wide receiver Nick Easley (84) poses for a portrait Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, during Iowa football media day in Iowa City.

Nick Easley

A Newton native, Easley joins Iowa after two spectacular seasons at Iowa Western Community College. He drew raves from Kirk Ferentz for his work ethic this spring and quickly ascended to the top of the depth chart.

“I was just worried about making sure the coaches knew that I was going to do whatever I could to contribute to this team. So I just came in and worked,” Easley said.

“We’re not really worried about all the outside noise, just more so doing whatever we can to help the team.”

Easley stands just 5-foot-11, but Copeland advised against pigeonholing him as a slot receiver.

“I don’t see a limit to his game,” Copeland said. “He executed. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for production. Potential is one thing. There’s a lot of guys that have potential. But when you put them in a chance to either sink or swim, he’s absolutely swam.”

Hawkeye wide receiver Devonte Young (80) poses for a portrait Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, during Iowa football media day in Iowa City.

Devonte Young

The Maryland native got into 12 games last year as a true freshman, but recorded no statistics. He is highly regarded for his speed, and is in the mix to possibly return kicks this season. He also was getting first-team reps during a brief media access at Iowa practice Monday.

Hawkeye wide receiver Adrian Falconer (82) poses for a portrait Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, during Iowa football media day in Iowa City.

Adrian Falconer

The junior has one simple goal: “To get my first catch this season, and many more.”

Falconer came so close last fall, in a humbling moment caught on national TV. The Hawkeyes were looking for a two-point conversion to tie Michigan just before halftime, when quarterback C.J. Beathard threw a dart to an open Falconer, only to see it bounce off his shoulder and onto the turf.

“I’m still not over it,” Falconer said Saturday. “There’s a chip on my shoulder from that. … I can’t really watch it.”

The good news for Falconer is that he has impressed Copeland.

“If I had to pinpoint a guy that you’d give an award to for most improved for the first six days of camp, it would definitely be Adrian Falconer,” Copeland said. “He has shown some things, not only on the field but in the meeting room. The way he’s carrying himself off the field. His energy, his positive mindset right now is just something to be noted. …

“We talked to him in the offseason, ‘Hey, you’re not a young guy anymore. Even though you may not have the game experience so to speak, you’re one of the older guys in the room. When these young guys come in, you’re one of the older guys, they’re going to look at you as a vet.’ He’s kind of taken that role and he’s run with it right now.”

Falconer was an outside receiver in Leesburg High School in Florida, and projects as one in college as well. He said his primary goals have been to become quicker at getting off the ball, and to run better routes. He’s seen progress in both areas.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette

The freshman from New Jersey is Iowa’s best vertical threat so far, Copeland said.

“You see our DBs out there, about Day 2, they recognize him and they don’t sit on him quite as much when he’s in there,” Copeland said.

Smith-Marsette was also a hurdler in high school, sharing an alma mater with Wadley. At 6-2, 175 pounds, he could give the Hawkeyes a needed deep target.

Brandon Smith

Or else that could be Brandon Smith, another true freshman out of Mississippi with an impeccable athletic pedigree.

“Brandon Smith is another guy who has shown he can stretch the field with his big presence. But also he has speed,” Copeland said.

Smith stands 6-3, 205 pounds and looks like a potential star.

Max Cooper

A third rookie with a strong track background, the Wisconsin native has also made a strong initial impression on Copeland.

“He’s shown some good route-running ability and he’s been able to stretch the field and expose some things in the middle of the field for us,” Copeland said.

Henry Marchese

The Illinois product has been throwing his body around in the early going. At 6-3, 190 pounds, he’s shown the ability to block

“He does everything you ask of him. Hard-working kid,” Copeland said. “He attempts to be physical in the run game. And with this size and presence, once he learns the position a little better, he’s going to be a real good one.”

Copeland has three weeks to narrow down some roles for his guys.

“We have a lack of experience. It’s definitely not talent, I can tell you that, and the willingness to work,” Copeland said. “That’s the biggest thing you’re looking for as a coach, honestly, is are they willing to work? Are they willing to put in the extra time it takes to be successful at this level?”

The trouble is, there isn’t much extra time left for this season.