Can recruiting turn around Iowa’s wide receiver crisis?
Where Hawkeye fans see desperation, Brandon Smith sees opportunity.
By the end of Iowa’s ground-bound 2016 regular season, the Mississippi native was the only wide receiver recruit still committed, tasked with carrying hope for the future of a depleted and unproductive unit. Departures followed.
But the 6-foot-3, 200-pound prospect is confident he, new recruits and a handful of returners can turn around Iowa’s current receiving crisis.
“People were telling me they don’t like to throw the ball,” Smith said. “That Iowa isn’t a passing team.
“I just see it as, they didn’t have many people to throw it to. Once I get there, they’ll have somebody to throw it to.”
Iowa’s passing offense finished 118th in FBS and only two receivers who completed the season caught more than two passes in 2016-17.
Then offensive coordinator Greg Davis retired, receivers coach Bobby Kennedy was released, sophomore starter Jay Scheel left the team due to injury and junior reserve Jonathon Parker just announced his transfer.
The top receiving target last fall was a 5-9 former walk-on. Riley McCarron stepped up admirably when star Matt VandeBerg went down injured after four games, catching 42 passes for 517 yards and four scores, but it was his fifth and final season.
It’s no wonder the first few questions Brian Ferentz faced when he was presented as Iowa’s new offensive coordinator on Jan. 9 were about passing the football.
“I think what we need to do is go back and reevaluate everything we’ve done and start there,” Ferentz said at his introductory press conference. “When we evaluate that, whether it’s personnel, schemes, how we’re doing things, just like we do in any facet. We’ll do the same thing in the run game.”
Fans clamoring for a change of scheme will have to wait until the 2017 season starts to see results. But fresh faces can bring an immediate impact, and Iowa is trying to recruit the right ones.
“I’d say they have a tremendous opportunity,” Ferentz said. “I’d start there.”
Smith has embraced that challenge. Wisconsin native Max Cooper decided to do the same thing last month, flipping his commitment from Central Michigan to Iowa.
Legacy receiving recruit Henry Marchese joined the class on Tuesday, and Iowa’s staff would still like to add former Rutgers commit Ihmir Smith-Marsette and maybe — just maybe — Iowa City West star Oliver Martin.
“Late in the class here they’ve taken a couple guys that were more under-the-radar in Cooper and Marchese,” Scout.com Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu told the Register on Thursday. “Those guys will always be compared a little bit to Oliver Martin, so however that turns out will be something fans will be watching.”
Smith plans to make his official visit Iowa City this weekend with a slew of other long-time commits. He finished his senior season at Lake Cormorant High School with 80 catches for 1,509 yards and 19 touchdowns in 15 games.
“When I visited I really liked Iowa and I liked the coaching staff,” Smith said. “I feel like I have a good chance of being great there. And they’re serious about getting me on the field as soon as possible.”
And Smith stuck by the Hawkeyes, even as Texas receiver prospects Beau Corrales and Gavin Holmes decommitted acrimoniously in November. Holmes even discussed Iowa’s “fit” for him in the passing game. He and Corrales have since committed to Baylor and North Carolina.
“I really didn’t pay attention to what other people were doing,” Smith said. “I worry about me and what I have going and what I need to focus on.”
Iowa’s pre-spring depth chart was released following its Outback Bowl loss to Florida and featured just four receivers on it, including the now-departed Scheel. The remaining bodies: redshirt senior Matt VandeBerg, junior Jerminic Smith and sophomore Devonte Young.
Running back Akrum Wadley is the team’s top returning pass-catcher, but Jerminic Smith is technically the top returning receiver after catching 23 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 187-pound junior from Texas didn’t develop into the consistent downfield threat fans were hoping for last season, but he’s a strong blocker and easily Iowa’s most experienced weapon outside.
“Certainly offensively we didn’t execute to the standard we hoped to this year at all times,” Ferentz said.
“There was some good mixed in with the bad. I think it’s hard to win eight games with all bad. But as far as getting guys excited to play, I think you sell them on opportunity and what we intend to do moving forward.”
Former Sioux City East prep and Iowa Western transfer Ronald Nash was the only other wide receiver on the stat sheet in 2016 with two catches for 14 yards. Everyone else — Brandon Bishop, Dominique Dafney, Adrian Falconer and Connor Keane — are unknown commodities. Former Dowling Catholic standout Ryan Boyle spent 2016 at receiver, but indicated preseason he may consider a move back to quarterback.
That group plus the 2017 commits will have to calm fans’ nerves all offseason.
“I think what we have to strive for here, whether it’s 2017 or 1999, it’s always the same thing — we need to be balanced,” Ferentz said. “I think with balance, that probably takes care of some of those criticisms.”
IOWA’S RETURNING RECEIVERS
Returning wide receivers who recorded statistics in the 2016 season
Name GP Rec. Yards TD
Jerminic Smith 12 23 314 2
Matt VandeBerg 4 19 284 3
Ronald Nash 6 2 14 0