Light on WR depth, Iowa leans on lithe VandeBerg

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – That Greg Davis said this week that there was "quite a bit" of separation between Iowa's top three wide receivers and everyone else could be interpreted two ways.

Either Tevaun Smith, Matt VandeBerg and Jacob Hillyer have elevated their games significantly this spring, or there should be panic in Hawkeye nation about receiving depth.

"Those three guys are guys that we feel really comfortable (with) on the field," said Davis, the Hawkeyes' fourth-year offensive coordinator. "And whatever the call is, we don't worry about it."

Smith figures to be the centerpiece of the 2015 passing attack, which will be directed by new starting quarterback C.J. Beathard. Davis expects defenses to pay attention to the Hawkeyes' only returning wideout with more than 23 career receptions.

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To counter that, he's been experimenting this spring with lining up Smith in the slot — rather than out wide — in an effort to draw more advantageous matchups with linebackers or safeties.

"When he's an outside receiver, it's easier to roll coverage to him," Davis said. "It's harder to do that to a slot receiver."

The end result here is that Smith (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), Hillyer (6-4, 212) and VandeBerg (6-1, 185) understand the playbook from any spot and could line up anywhere. It's in that way Iowa can use this trio to fake some depth — with multiple looks in formations.

Each guy offers a different skill set.

"Tevaun's a guy (that's) a play-maker, Hillyer's a big body out there, and I'm kind of the shorter, skinnier guy," said VandeBerg, who for the first time steps into a starting role — vacated by school all-time receptions leader Kevonte Martin-Manley.

VandeBerg is an interesting option. Iowa's coaches have liked the Brandon, S.D., native from the start. VandeBerg caught eight balls for 59 yards as a true freshman despite arriving on campus weighing about 160 pounds.

"It's amazing how little I was when I first showed up," he said, noting that he's gained 20 to 25 pounds. "I'm still in that process (of bulking up), don't get me wrong. But as far as what I've been able to do, I've gotten a lot stronger."

VandeBerg has shown excellent hands, which is why he's also been a part-time punt returner for the Hawkeyes. And don't forget, he's scored Iowa's most recent touchdown — a pretty 18-yard score from Beathard in the back of the end zone in the final minute of the 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Tennessee.

"It's nice to get my feet wet, to know what the end zone feels like," he said. "Obviously, I wish it had come under different circumstances."

Though Davis is working to find depth in the receiving corps, he did say that Andre Harris (6-0, 185) "has come a long way" this spring. You can bet Harris and others, like converted running back Jonathan Parker, will be given chances to step forward in Saturday's 1 p.m. spring scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium.

"That's what spring is for," Davis said, "and that's what fall camp is for."