Iowa Football 2014: Let the juggling act begin

Andrew Logue
Matt VandeBerg is expected to see expanded action this fall after he caught eight balls for 59 yards as a true freshman.

IOWA CITY, Ia.-- It's easy to see why Iowa's receivers catch so much flak.

Only one Hawkeye wideout, Marvin McNutt, has been selected in the NFL Draft since 2002.

McNutt is also the only one to end a season with more than 1,000 receiving yards since 2000 (finishing with 1,315 in 2011).

None has earned consensus all-America honors since Tim Dwight in 1997.

"That's the culture around here, run first," senior receiver Damond Powell said. "We're just trying to see what we can do as far as the passing game, switch it up."

What sort of tweaks can we expect in Saturday's season opener against Northern Iowa?

Well, offensive coordinator Greg Davis started tinkering with an up-tempo attack two years ago. But Iowa still ran the ball nearly 60 percent of the time in 2013 (557 out of 932 snaps).

As a result, the Hawkeyes tied for eighth in the Big Ten with 197.1 passing yards per game.

They were tied for 93rd nationally.

"People underestimate us," sophomore receiver Matt VandeBerg sakd. "They don't think that Iowa can be a throwing football team, and we want to prove that, when we want to throw it, we can."

You can't blame Davis for wanting to stay grounded.

The Hawkeyes feature four experienced running backs — Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock and LeShun Daniels — who combined to average 4.5 yards a carry.

"We didn't know if we had a Big Ten running back on our roster (a year ago)," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Right now, I think we have four guys we can put in the game and have confidence in.

"So the challenge for us is to really figure out what is the smartest way to use those guys."

While the brain trust figures out how to divide carries, will the receivers get lost in the shuffle?

Not if receivers coach Bobby Kennedy has any input.

"He cares about us on and off the field," Powell said. "With anybody who cares about you, you're going to give all that you can for him.

"We give coach Kennedy our all."

And Kennedy reciprocated by developing what may become Iowa's most complete receiving corps in more than a decade.

Kevonte Martin Manley is a go-to veteran with 122 career catches for 1,282 yards.

Jacob Hillyer, who stands 6-foot-4, 208 pounds, and Tevaun Smith, 6-2, 200 pounds, give the Hawkeyes size.

VandeBerg is emerging as a solid possession receiver. Powell proved he can stretch defenses.

And, perhaps most encouraging, freshman Derrick Willies has shown flashes of being the kind of game-changing playmaker Iowa fans dream of.

"The thing that's impressed me the most with these guys is their openness to my coaching, and the willingness to listen and learn," Kennedy said. "They like to work together. They get along, but there is healthy competition."

Of course, the real competition begins this week with the Aug. 30 opener against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

That's when we'll find out how much the Hawkeys miss tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (now a member of the Houston Texans), and whether Hillyer, Powell and Willies can dazzle consistently.

"It's a little different than last year," quarterback Jake Rudock said. "We had a lot of guys with a lot of experience.

"We've got some young guys this year, hopefully we'll be able to move them along."

Rudock completed 59 percent of his passes in 2013, with his average completion covering 11.7 yards.

If the offense is going to pad those totals, it's up to the receivers making more significant gains.

"It reminds me of my second year at Texas," said Kennedy, who was on the Longhorns staff from 2004 to 2010. "It was a very similar situation. Coming in, they had maybe been an under-valued group.

"In Year 2, they took another step."

Kennedy's tutelage helped Texas improve from 1,983 receiving yards in 2004 to 3,083 in 2005.

Of course, having Vince Young as the quarterback didn't hurt.

"What I'm looking for is progress every year," Kennedy said. "I think down the stretch we could see some improvement.

"Sometimes, it's baby steps, but I do see them as a positive group and a group moving in the right direction."

Andrew Logue covers Hawkeye football and sports media for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMLogue.