Hawkeyes columnkst Chad Leistikow lays down his predictions for how he thinks teams will fare in the Big Ten Conference this season.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Young Iowa wide receiver Jerminic Smith moved in with veteran quarterback C.J. Beathard during the offseason.
The second-year sophomore angling for a few extra balls from the fifth-year senior? Not the case, he jokes.
“He pulled me underneath his wing,” Smith, 19, says with a smile. “… I’m not going to knock that.”
It’s true, though, that there is a lot of competition to get the quarterback’s attention.
A fierce battle is happening in Hawkeye practices to be among the handful of guys who get targeted by Beathard’s 350 or so pass attempts this season.
For receivers coach Bobby Kennedy, it’s like his first season at Iowa all over again.
In 2013, Kennedy had to replace top split end Keenan Davis (this year, he's replacing Tevaun Smith).
In 2013, Kennedy had 11-yards-a-catch possession guy Kevonte Martin-Manley coming back (this year, that's Matt VandeBerg).
And in 2013, the top candidates to step into a starring role included senior veteran Don Shumpert (this year’s Riley McCarron) and young sophomores Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer (this year’s Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel).
“For me, it’s exciting,” Kennedy says. “It’s nice to have those older guys that you can lean on all the time, but it’s also neat to see these younger guys getting excited and wanting to step up and enter that group and enter the rotation.”
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- Safety, walk-on Brandon Snyder stays true to promise
- Iowa's fullbacks ready to rumble
- Meet the Iowa Eight, including a Hawkeye commit
Receiver Roulette will be the most interesting game inside the scrimmage that fans can watch during Saturday’s Kids Day open practice at Kinnick Stadium. Kennedy wants to settle on a top six, with at least four getting regular playing time.
Every cut, every downfield block, every grab counts.
“Everybody’s champing at the bit to play,” position newcomer Ryan Boyle says. “Coach Kennedy talks about it: Every single rep, every single route that we run is being evaluated. It’s a heated battle.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Davis stresses that where guys are listed on the depth chart is not as important as getting the best three on the field at the same time. (He runs a lot of three-wide sets.)
With that in mind, here’s a viewer’s guide to the double-digit candidates (with jersey numbers, for your convenience) and what we know so far, and what we’d like to learn:
Matt VandeBerg (No. 89)
Mr. Dependable, with 65 catches a year ago — 59 more than the nearest returning wideout. The senior can play all three receiver positions, but ideally he stays in the slot role because of his penchant for tough first-down catches. He does have sneaky speed.
Riley McCarron (No. 83)
Coaches have high trust in the fifth-year senior, but now it’s time for production — the 5-foot-9, 186-pound hero of the Iowa State win only had one catch for five yards in Iowa’s final 10 games last year.
Jay Scheel (No. 3)
He’s gotten by far the most hype of this group, with his ability to make “wow” catches in practice. Healthy after knee troubles, the redshirt sophomore is Iowa’s most promising bet to break through in 2016.
Jerminic Smith (No. 9)
He showed his potential against Illinois (four catches, 118 yards) as a true freshman, but also struggled with dropped passes. Smith (6-1, 187) and Scheel (6-1, 195) are making each other better while battling for the starting split-end role.
Adrian Falconer (No. 82)
Lost in the Scheel hype, here’s another sophomore with high upside and nice size (6-1, 190). Coaches got him special-teams experience as a true freshman. Consistency separates him from cracking the top 4-5 options.
Ryan Boyle (No. 11)
The converted quarterback is definitely in the mix for kick-coverage special teams, but how fast can he catch up? He is a student of the offense. Kennedy has Boyle working out of the slot position — backing up VandeBerg with Jonathan Parker (foot surgery) out of the August picture.
Emmanuel Ogwo (No. 6)
We’ve heard about his blazing track speed. Now comes his first chance on the field. With Parker out, is there an opportunity for Ogwo to be that downfield burner (like Damond Powell was in 2013)?
Devonte Young (No. 80)
The true freshman “has flashed” in the early stages of camp, Kennedy says, and certainly is a candidate for immediate playing time. At 6-0, 195, he's physically ready.
Shaun Beyer (No. 42)
Iowa needs size and athleticism at receiver, and the true freshman (6-5, 210) has both. Thought to be either a tight end or defensive end, he’s getting experimental looks out wide. Smart move.
The known options in camp are Connor Keane (who caught a TD pass in the spring game) and Ronald Nash (who has nice size at 6-2, 210). Kennedy wants to see them separate from defenders.
The Iowa wide receiver is generating a lot of buzz before even playing in a game.
That's a lot to process. And what I’ve outlined is just the wide receivers. The race to be George Kittle’s backup tight end will also be heated, between Peter Pekar, Jon Wisnieski, Nate Vejvoda, Noah Fant and maybe some others.
With full pads and full contact (except on the quarterbacks), Saturday could provide an authentic landscape for these guys to prove themselves as a worthy Beathard pass option in 2016.
“It’s easy to run around when you don’t have any pads on,” said VandeBerg, in his fourth fall camp. “As we continue to progress through camp, we’ll see who has been doing the right stuff and who hasn’t.”
As of Friday, I’d predict Beathard’s top wide-receiving targets this fall will be (in order) VandeBerg, Scheel and Smith, with McCarron as the fourth option and Boyle breaking in at No. 5.
But by Saturday, that opinion could change. That’s how wide open this remains.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
KIDS DAY: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
What: Annual “Kids Day” open Iowa football practice at Kinnick Stadium.
When: Saturday; activities start at 9 a.m.; stadium gates open at 11; practice (usually about 2 hours) begins at Noon.
Parking: Free on hard surface lots.
Concessions: Available, and half price.
Activities: Starting at 9 a.m. in the Krause Family Plaza, kids can enjoy inflatable games, face painting, temporary tattoos and a chance to meet Herky the Hawk. (Herky will take photos with kids between 10:30 and 11.)
Donations: A clothing drive by Stuff, Etc. (a consignment store in Iowa City) will be held, with all proceeds from donations benefitting the UI Children’s Hospital. Fans are encouraged to bring any gently used clothing (adult and youth sizes accepted), household items and toys. Donations can be dropped off between 8:30 and Noon outside of Gates A or D.
Autographs: Team members will sign autographs at approximately 11:30 a.m., along the front of the west and south stands. Free schedule posters, cards, magnets, key tags, and rosters will be available inside all open gates. The UI asks that fans refrain from bringing additional items to be autographed.
Coverage: HawkCentral.com’s Mark Emmert (@MarkEmmert) and Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) will provide news and analysis online and in Sunday’s Register.