Iowa's true freshmen WRs face steep learning curve

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa's true freshmen must successfully complete a complicated crash course in the next month in order to see 2015 playing time.

That said, the coaching staff would rather they not play right away. Kirk Ferentz reiterated Saturday a common talking point for a program characterized as "developmental."

"In a perfect world, you'd redshirt everybody," Ferentz said at his 17th media day as Iowa's head coach, "but the world is not perfect, so we're just going to try to get ready to go."

But saying "we want to win now," Ferentz is open to playing rookies. Those that line up furthest from the ball — wide receivers, linebackers and defensive backs — usually have the best chance to break through.

Receivers coach Bobby Kennedy pointed out it's rare in the Iowa system for freshmen to get up to speed in time. But that's the August challenge for newcomers Adrian Falconer, Emmanuel Ogwo and Jerminic Smith.

"It's kind of like Etch A Sketch. You're in camp, and we put in so much information that sometimes their mind locks up their athletic ability," Kennedy said. "And so then second week, third week of camp, you see some guys emerge."

That's what happened in 2013 with Matt VandeBerg (6-foot-1, 185 pounds), now a true junior and first-year starting wideout. He stepped in for injured Kevonte Martin-Manley in a game against Michigan State and caught four passes for 36 yards.

"He kind of started to get comfortable, kind of understanding the system," Kennedy said. "Then he started making plays out here."

Senior Tevaun Smith (6-2, 205), Iowa's other starting receiver, broke through as a true freshman, too — but didn't see his first action until Game 4 of 2012. He wound up with three catches for 31 yards in that 4-8 season.

Playing true freshmen right away isn't all about learning a complex system. It has a lot to do with the need for depth — and recruiting strength.

Iowa's bowl-game opponent last year, Tennessee, led the country by playing 23 true freshmen — no doubt linked to the Volunteers' Class of 2014 ranking fifth nationally, according to; Iowa's was 59th.

Two seniors and a junior comprise Iowa's clear top three at receiver in 2015: Smith, VandeBerg and Jacob Hillyer (6-4, 212). They've put in their time. They'll have more position flexibility than last year, with an eye on getting play-making Smith more touches as a slot receiver.

Competition in fall camp remains wide open to fill out a rotation of six or seven receivers that Kennedy prefers. There is no shortage of candidates.

— Program guys: Senior Andrew Stone (5-11, 175) and junior Riley McCarron (5-9, 186) offer experience, but if they haven't broken through yet, is it already too late?

— Breakthrough guys: Redshirt freshman Jay Scheel (6-1, 195) is No. 2 on the depth chart, behind VandeBerg. He and sophomore Andre Harris (6-0, 185) need to develop consistency. Both possess explosive-play talent.

— Converted guys: Speedy sophomore Jonathan Parker (5-8, 185) was exciting at running back last year; sophomore Joshua Jackson (6-1, 185) looks the part but was a defensive back until spring.

— And the freshmen: Ogwo (6-0, 170) has gotten the most camp buzz with his blinding track speed. Fellow Texan Smith (6-1, 180) had big high school numbers and was a Rivals three-star recruit. But during the Big Ten Network's stop in Iowa City on Tuesday, BTN's Tom Dienhart said Ferentz told him that Falconer (6-1, 180) was "the furthest along" among the new receivers.

"It'll be interesting in the next couple of weeks how these guys respond," Kennedy said. "Is the stage too big? Does their mind lock up their athletic ability? Or are they able to break through that wall?"