The true freshman filled in for Tevaun Smith in Iowa's lineup for 2 games. He finished the season with six catches and spoke at Rose Bowl media day. Chad Leistikow | Hawkcentral.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. — With the return of an all-Big Ten quarterback, five offensive linemen with starting experience and nearly two-thirds of a defense, including the Jim Thorpe Award winner, Iowa will likely be favored to repeat as the Big Ten West Division football champion in 2016.
Wide receiver, though, is an area of concern as the winter conditioning period begins.
The Hawkeyes only return three wideouts who caught a pass in 2015: Leading receiver Matt VandeBerg, Jerminic Smith and Riley McCarron. Only VandeBerg has played a regular role.
Smith and Adrian Falconer, both listed at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, played as true freshmen this past 12-2 season for Iowa. Falconer used a season of eligibility without having a single reception; his lone target came late in a blowout win at Northwestern.
“I don’t regret it,” receivers coach Bobby Kennedy said, “because we feel like he’s going to be that much further ahead in spring ball and next year. We need a couple of guys to step up.”
Yes, indeed, this is the spring where Iowa needs to get surprised — in a good way. Beyond VandeBerg, who broke out with 65 catches as a junior (third-most in a season in Iowa history), there’s plenty of room for a few able-handed bodies to emerge as options for quarterback C.J. Beathard.
The leading candidates to join VandeBerg:
Likely the leading candidate to be heir apparent to Tevaun Smith (no relation). Jerminic started two games when Tevaun had a knee injury, and in one of them had a highlight-reel day — four catches for 118 yards against Illinois, including two grabs of 40-plus. The second one, a third-and-13 heave from Beathard for 49 yards, was what Jerminic described as his best moment of the season.
Kennedy said the Garland, Texas, native "earned that right” to play based on what he showed upon arrival in August camp.
“My first year was awesome,” said Smith, who had two catches for 23 yards outside the Illinois game. “Coming from Texas to Iowa and to be able to play as a true freshman, in my book, that’s amazing.”
The 5-foot-9, 186-pound senior-to-be was VandeBerg’s backup as the primary slot receiver, so it’ll be interesting to see if Iowa wants to keep him in that role or start him and move VandeBerg to the outside. His highlight moment was a 25-yard, go-ahead touchdown catch at Iowa State with just over two minutes to go. The Dubuque Wahlert product also is a respected team leader, as evidenced by his assignment to room with Jerminic Smith on road trips.
“I’ve learned a lot from Riley McCarron,” Smith said. “He’s really shown me the way I can do things right.”
Iowa coaches wouldn’t have let the Leesburg, Fla., product burn a redshirt if they didn’t like him. Falconer made every road trip. And even though he didn’t record any statistics, he played in nine games.
“He’s gaining that day-in, day-out practice experience — being up with us, getting the reps,” Kennedy said. “His future is bright. He just now has to put it all together.”
Falconer was on Iowa’s kickoff-return team. His highlight was recovering an onside kick in a 31-15 win over Maryland.
“I came up during the summer, and the coaches liked my style of play,” Falconer said. “So they told me I was going to play on special teams for this season. … Next year, hopefully I get my first catch.”
Is this the year the four-star recruit lives up to the hype? Iowa needs the former Union High School star to get healthy, first. He made a brief appearance on the 2015 preseason depth chart on the No. 2 line but has struggled to overcome nagging injuries and has yet to see meaningful action.
This spring offers Andre Harris (6-0, 185) his biggest opening. The Kirkwood, Mo., native would be a redshirt junior next season but has yet to play a snap as a Hawkeye. Don’t forget Jonathan Parker, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound speedster who switched from running back to receiver last spring. Iowa could use a deep burner, and maybe a year of development has helped Iowa’s primary kick-return man of 2014. Emmanuel Ogwo, the only one of Iowa’s three true freshmen receivers to redshirt, also has go-deep potential as a former elite prep track star.
We won’t see incoming true freshmen Frank Darby and Devonte Young until the summer, but with Iowa’s dearth of proven receiver options they’ll certainly get every chance to make an immediate impact.
IOWA’S 2016 WIDE RECEIVER OPTIONS
Next season’s year of eligibility in parentheses (*–walk-on):
Returnees with receptions — Matt VandeBerg (6-1, 185, Sr.), 65 catches, 703 yards, 4 TDs; Jerminic Smith (6-1, 180, Soph.), 6 catches, 141 yards; Riley McCarron (5-9, 186, Sr.), 5 catches, 56 yards, 1 TD.
Returnees who have played but didn’t have a 2015 catch — Adrian Falconer (6-1, 180, Soph.); *Connor Keane (6-1, 195, Jr.); Jay Scheel (6-1, 195, Soph.); Jonathan Parker (5-8, 185, Jr.), 3 catches, 42 yards in 2014.
Returnees who have never played — Andre Harris (6-0, 185, Soph.); Emmanuel Ogwo (6-0, 170, Frosh.); *Brandon Bishop (5-9, 170, Soph.); *Ronald Nash (6-2, 210, Soph.).
Incoming true freshmen — Frank Darby (6-1, 180, Jersey City, N.J.); Devonte Young (6-0, 191, Waldorf, Md.).
Out of eligibility — Tevaun Smith (starter), Jacob Hillyer (starter), Andrew Stone (reserve).