Leistikow: Hawkeye receivers have hype. Now Iowa needs them to back it up.
Much has been written, and for good reason, about the potential uptick in the Iowa football production in Year Two with Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator.
The schemes designed to exploit mismatches are soaking in, and the quarterback tasked to identify them (Nate Stanley) is a year wiser.
But perhaps I should’ve taken more notice when, on our “Hawk Central” radio show last month, we asked Ferentz to identify his most underrated position group.
“Our receivers are better than people imagine, or expect,” he said then. “You look at that group a year ago and, really, the three starters we’ll put on the field this fall, only one of them was on campus last year. And he had never played a (Division I) game.”
Flash forward to this week’s radio show, when Kelton Copeland was our guest.
As Iowa’s wide receivers coach, he’s in … Year Two in the program.
The four guys on Iowa’s depth chart — top-liners Nick Easley and Brandon Smith, and backups Ihmir-Smith Marsette and Kyle Groeneweg? Different ages, but all in ... Year Two in the program.
The spring-game star, Max Cooper? Year Two in the … you get the point.
In a 20-minute interview that largely detailed the Hawkeye receivers, who certainly underwhelmed a year ago for the most part, Copleand sounded bullish about his group.
And maybe he should be. When Iowa took the field last September, the three receivers Ferentz mentioned — Easley, Smith-Marsette and Smith — were brand new, and Matt VandeBerg never quite returned to his 2015 form.
Add 12 months of training under Ferentz, Copeland and Chris Doyle to the equation and … there’s truly an exponential difference in experience, in maturity.
While we still need to see it to believe it (the first-team offense scored zero touchdowns on six possessions in the spring game), what we are hearing is that the wide-receiver potential is robust.
There is a lot of confidence in Easley, a high-producing, technically sound player whose 51 catches as a walk-on helped him became one of the surprise stories of the 2017 season.
“He’s such a perfectionist,” Copeland said on Wednesday night’s show. “He’s good at everything and not great at anything — not a knock on him, but he just works so hard to be good on his total game.”
The hype-meter remains high on Smith, the physically impressive, 6-foot-3, 219-pound product of Mississippi. When asked Tuesday who opened his eyes during spring practice, the normally reserved Stanley got talkative: Brandon Smith.
“Brandon really realized his strength,” the junior quarterback said. “He did a great job at the ‘X’ position and really made a lot of great plays. He became a lot more physical.”
Copeland was given a chance Wednesday to tamp down his expectations for Smith. He didn’t.
When asked how sure he was that Smith would deliver, Copeland responded: “I’m really confident. You know what, if I had to name one person that had the biggest improvement this past spring, it’s Brandon Smith, hands down.”
In fact, Smith led all receivers in explosive plays this spring — until Smith-Marsette caught him down the stretch.
There’s another good sign for this group, after Smith-Marsette was publicly needled by coaches more than once this spring that he was spending too much time on his cell phone.
“Put it like this,” Copeland said, “Every time I see him in the building, I don’t see his head down and his thumbs typing. So, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Smith-Marsette (6-1, 175) was, of course, the hero of Iowa's 44-41 overtime win at Iowa State last September, but he was inconsistent. We heard in the spring he has impressed in the return game, too; and Copeland doesn’t mind sharing this speedy sophomore with special-teams coach LeVar Woods.
“In my humble opinion, when it comes to returners, some guys have a gift,” Copeland said. “Some guys are good at it, and some guys are great at it. I’m not labeling Ihmir as a great returner yet, but he has something. He has something that gives you a spark.”
Fifth-year senior transfer/walk-on Groeneweg (5-10, 186) is Copeland’s “dark horse” to be a key contributor in 2018. Copeland suggested Cooper (6-0, 185) needed to improve physically, which (in my opinion) would make him a good candidate to save a year of eligibility under the NCAA’s new redshirt rule if he plays four games or less.
Copeland really seems to like his top four. They’re all in Year Two together.
But don’t discount the Year One guys. Tyrone Tracy Jr. (from Indianapolis) and Calvin Lockett (from Largo, Florida) arrived this week. Copeland spoke highly of both true freshmen, but a story about Tracy and his subsequent comments especially stood out.
Copeland told of attending one of Tracy’s football games last fall.
Tracy returned the opening kickoff, Copeland estimated, about 70 yards.
On his next touch, as a running back, Tracy rambled for about 50 yards.
His next touch, this time as a receiver? A 60-yard touchdown catch, Copeland said.
“He’s just electric with the ball in his hands,” Copeland said. “For a high school level kid, (he’s) probably one of the more complete players that I’ve seen in person.”
Are the Iowa wide receivers proven? Not yet.
Are they underrated? Perhaps.
Is there a lot to be hopeful about? Absolutely.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.