Leistikow: A window into the Xs, Zs and Fs of Iowa football's wide-receiver position

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

To say that Iowa’s wide-receivers room has been transformed under Kelton Copeland’s direction is easy. To articulate how it was transformed, well, that is a more layered conversation. And it's one worth having.

The conversation must begin with numbers. In Copeland’s first spring on the Hawkeye staff, in 2017, his room only had two healthy scholarship receivers — neither of whom ever caught a college pass. In this just-completed course of spring ball, Copeland presided over a bustling and hungry room of 16 wide receivers — all trying to make the most of precious practice reps.

That growth has been essential.

“We’ve bolstered our numbers,” Copeland said during an extended interview this week with the Des Moines Register, most of which aired on Wednesday’s Hawk Central radio show on KXnO (1460 AM). “We’ve got some really good young men contributing to our offense.”

The more bodies that can be rotated, the more competitive and productive the practices.

The more competitive and productive practices become, the more versatile the offense.

The more versatile the offense becomes, the more opportunities that receivers have to flourish.

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Kelton Copeland just completed his fifth spring on the Iowa staff. He arrived in February 2017 from Northern Illinois and replaced Bobby Kennedy.

And the more opportunities receivers have to flourish, the more attractive Iowa becomes to wide-receiver prospects like newly arrived freshmen Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV.

That is an abbreviated summation of how the Iowa receivers room has cycled up from 2017 to 2021, and Copeland deserves a huge amount of credit for that advancement. Give credit, too, to 23rd-year head coach Kirk Ferentz for identifying Copeland, previously a running-backs coach at Northern Illinois, and bringing him aboard.

Listening to Copeland detail how he develops his receivers, it was easy to understand why Iowa’s talent pool at that position has continued to grow. He's a positive influence. He believes in them. Even if it doesn't work out for everyone, he helps them find their best path to the field.

More:Leistikow: Hawkeyes leave spring with star power in place. Now, about injuries and QB play ...

To help understand his process a little better, we can use the same premise he does in his wide-receivers room: That Iowa is in its highly used “11” personnel — meaning one running back (say, Tyler Goodson), one tight end (say, Sam LaPorta) … plus three wide receivers.

That's three starting (and potentially starring) receiver roles. At Iowa, those three receivers are designated as “X”, “Z” and “F”. Understanding more about those positions helps frame how Copeland builds up his room.

Iowa has used wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. creatively in the past, and that role figures to be expanded to a new level this season.

The “X”

He plays on the outside of the formation and almost never goes in motion. He is typically fixed as one of the required seven players on the line of scrimmage.

In an "X," Copeland looks for “a longer, linear, bigger-framed athlete. A guy that can demand double coverage and a guy that can go out there and block safeties.”

Brandon Smith was exclusively an “X” for Iowa over the past three seasons, but he is off to the NFL (undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys). Among Iowa’s 2021 “X” factors (see what I did there?) are Tyrone Tracy Jr. (more on him later), Desmond Hutson, Keagan Johnson, Jackson Ritter and Isaiah Wagner. Copeland also expects incoming Ankeny receiver Brody Brecht, with his size, has "X" potential.

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The “Z”

He goes in motion a lot more often, but also must maintain a lot of the same attributes as the “X” — in that he often lines up outside, needs to beat press coverage and is tasked with run-blocking. The “Z” requires the highest football IQ in the room, because of how much formational flexibility and understanding of the offense is required.

This was the primary position for speedy Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who on May 1 became the first Iowa receiver chosen in the NFL Draft since 2012 (fifth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings).

“Ihmir, in my mind, was the perfect example of what we’re looking for in a 'Z',” Copeland said.

Iowa receiver and punt returner Charlie Jones returns this season for the Hawkeyes.

Seniors Charlie Jones and Max Cooper are the leading “Z” guys for Iowa, but Nico Ragaini can flex out here, too. Copeland thinks too many people are sleeping on Cooper, who has had an injury-riddled Iowa career but was healthy this spring.

More:2021 NFL Draft: Minnesota Vikings select Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the fifth round

Another “Z” option down the road is Quavon Matthews, who Copeland said “kind of lit it up” in one of Iowa’s Saturday scrimmages. Diante Vines was injured for much of the spring but is also learning the “Z” Walk-ons Alec Kritta and Jack Johnson (formerly of West Des Moines Valley) are competing here, too.

““I’m just telling you, people are going to know Jack Johnson’s name,” Copeland said. “I don’t know in what capacity, but this young man brings a lot to the table.”

The “F”

This is what we often call the “slot” receiver. He lines up closest to the quarterback, a step behind the line of scrimmage. He goes in motion a lot. He's a frequent third-down passing target who is asked to make tough catches. He’s got to be quick and tough at the same time.

“He’s basically an extended tight end in the run game,” Copeland said. “Or the pass game, for that matter. The guy has to have some moxie about him.”

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Ragaini, a pristine route-runner entering his fourth year in the program, is the Hawkeyes’ leader at the “F,” a position that has much in common with the “Z.”

Arland Bruce IV is an appealing option here, too. Copeland said Bruce's positional versatility upon arrival reminds him of Tracy.

“After one semester and one spring camp,” Copeland said of Bruce, “he’s right on track.”

The Tyrone Tracy factor

OK, got your Xs, Zs and Fs straight?

Let’s finish the conversation around the importance of Tracy to the 2021 Hawkeyes and how the wide-receivers room can continue to morph.

Tracy is fast and quick. He’s only 5-foot-11 but is a muscular 203 pounds. He became a player without a position home last year, as Iowa relied heavily on two-tight end sets. With Smith unable to budge from the "X" and Smith-Marsette being Iowa’s ideal “Z” … there wasn’t as much flexibility in getting Tracy on the field. That left Tracy frustrated, but he's waited his turn.

Now, Tracy is the centerpiece receiver. While he is the listed No. 1 at the “X,” that is ideally not where he remains every week.

True freshman Keagan Johnson's development will be a wild-card factor in how Iowa's wide-receiver position unfolds this fall.

“In my opinion, Tyrone’s too good lock into one position,” Copeland said. “There are going to be times we want to move him around.”

In fact, Tracy was deemed so valuable that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz OK’d four-receiver sets into his offense. The fourth receiver spot is known as the “Y” (which is usually the tight end). Tracy started out by learning the “Z” but has since mastered all four spots. Iowa can (and wants to) use Tracy anywhere and everywhere.

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That’s why the development of Hutson (6-3, 210) and/or Johnson (6-1, 190) at the “X” is such a priority entering August camp. If one of them can be a starter-level "X," that frees up Tracy to be lined up against what Iowa might identify as a weak spot in an opponent’s defense.

“That’s the chess match,” Copeland said.

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That’s a big reason why Copeland picked “X” as the starting point for Johnson. While the motion-filled variety of “Z” could be Johnson’s future, Copeland didn’t want the talented four-star freshman to be overwhelmed as an early-enrollee this spring.

"I wanted to lock him in and give him the best opportunity to learn the system without a bunch of moving parts,” Copeland said. “The X position, in my opinion, gives him the best opportunity to advance."

Every coaching decision has its purpose, always with development in mind. And that is one example of how Iowa under Copeland has broadened its possibilities at wide receiver.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.