IOWA CITY, Ia. — Seriously, though, who’s going to catch passes for the Iowa football team this season?
There certainly was no clarity forthcoming Saturday to the biggest question surrounding the Hawkeye offense.
Senior tight end George Kittle was in street clothes during the Kids Day scrimmage. Junior tight end Jon Wisnieski joined him, with the added adornment of a bulky brace covering a bruised knee that will keep him out of action for at least two more weeks. Sophomore wide receiver Jay Scheel also sat out, the victim of a hamstring injury.
Iowa played four quarterbacks in a scrimmage that featured a heavy diet of the rushing game. They connected 15 times with nine different wide receivers and tight ends. Only one of those resulted in a touchdown, a beautiful 39-yard connection from true freshman Nathan Stanley to a diving redshirt freshman Emmanuel Ogwo.
“We’ve got a lot of interesting competition going on,” coach Kirk Ferentz said of a wide receiver group that is anchored by senior Matt VandeBerg (65 catches a year ago) but is alarmingly short on college success beyond that. “We’ve seen some encouraging things, seen some things that have to be smoothed out a little bit, and that’s where this week will really be big for some of those guys.”
Tight end is an even deeper mystery. Kittle’s injury isn’t serious, but there already was a lack of experience behind him. Wisnieski’s setback is providing some opportunities for four freshmen and junior Peter Pekar, who ran with the starting unit Saturday but didn’t catch a pass.
“It’s wide open,” Ferentz said. “We’ll just keep pushing these guys and see what they do and maybe carve some roles out.”
Scheel, who constantly draws raves from coaches and teammates alike, is expected back Monday to begin a week of seven practice sessions in five days that will culminate with another scrimmage Friday evening (not open to the public).
“He’s a very quick receiver. That’s one thing that we kind of like in our receivers is to get in and out of their routes,” star cornerback Desmond King said of Scheel. “He has really big hands that can go up and get the ball at any moment, and that’s something we’ll be looking for out of him this year.”
Scheel said he’s being cautious with his hamstring, not wanting to create a long-term problem. He suffered a previous hamstring injury while playing quarterback at Union High School. But he’s not worried about his receiver corps.
The Iowa coach seems very pleased with the class of 2016.
“We’re starting to mold into a good group,” he said. “I don’t think you can put added pressure on yourself. You’ve just got to go out and just try to perform to the best of your ability.”
On Saturday, returning receivers Riley McCarron and Jerminic Smith joined VandeBerg on the top trio. McCarron caught two passes and Smith one before heading to the sideline — along with senior quarterback C.J. Beathard — to let the younger hopefuls get chances.
Of those, Ogwu’s lone catch was the highlight. Adrian Falconer had one grab for 25 yards while fellow sophomore Ronald Nash picked up 11 yards on his two short catches. Freshman Devonte Young got plenty of playing time and was impressive despite making only one catch for seven yards. Ferentz said Young, who was the third-string kickoff returner, has a good chance to play when Iowa opens its season Sept. 3.
Iowa’s quarterbacks spent much of the day targeting an array of tight ends, particularly in some seven-on-seven drills before the actual scrimmage began. In the scrimmage, true freshman T.J. Hockenson was the leading receiver with three catches for 30 yards. Noah Fant, also a true freshman, had two catches for nine yards. Redshirt freshman Nate Vejvoda added two catches for 17 yards.
Beathard has been impressed with those young tight ends and is confident that one or more will be ready to contribute.
More Kids Day coverage:
- Leistikow: Freshmen, optimism emerge at Hawkeye scrimmage
- C.J. Beathard laughs off latest injury 'scare'
“They’re getting more reps than they’d be getting otherwise,” Beathard said. “There’s a lot of talent, a lot of upside out of those guys.”
There’s still much that needs to shake out, though. VandeBerg is enjoying his front-row seat for the position battles.
“If you’re competing for a job, you’re willing to work a little harder and then the guy next to you has to work a little harder and now you’re both getting better,” he said. “And that in turn helps the team.”
Other Hawkeyes who sat out Saturday’s scrimmage included cornerback Greg Mabin, linebacker Ben Niemann and defensive lineman Brady Reiff. Cornerback Michael Ojemudia, linebacker Jack Hockaday and offensive lineman Sean Welsh were in uniform and participated in some drills, but not the actual scrimmage. None are considered to be significant injuries, Ferentz said.
The serious injuries belong to Wisnieski and junior defensive lineman Jake Hulett, who fractured a bone in his leg and will be out four to six weeks, Ferentz said.