The Iowa Hawkeyes held their spring practice as Valley Stadium in West Des Moines on Friday night. Brian Powers/The Register
WEST DES MOINES, Ia. — Devonte Young is a starter at wide receiver for Iowa this spring.
What exactly that entails after Friday’s public practice at Valley Stadium — well, he’ll find out with the rest of the Hawkeyes. Young and the other available receivers on the depth combined for zero catches at the FBS level last season.
The position group being entirely unproven creates an opportunity that any of Iowa’s inexperienced players could catch.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m on special teams or at wide receiver,” Young said after Friday evening’s traveling event. “I’m just trying to help the team.
“Last year, all of us were told that we needed to step up in our roles. That’s what I’m doing now.”
Young is a 6-foot sophomore-to-be who played limited snaps at receiver as a true freshman. He and Adrian Falconer, the Florida native listed behind him at split end, did not officially record offensive touches last season.
The top returner in Iowa’s receiving game is running back Akrum Wadley. Just one yard (and 13 catches) behind him is Jerminic Smith, who couldn’t quite emerge as a go-to target for quarterback C.J. Beathard after Matt VandeBerg — who is sidelined again — went down with a foot injury.
Smith couldn’t catch passes from quarterbacks Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers on Friday, either. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz announced Smith was being held out of spring practice because of academic issues.
“If a player is not on the field, they’re losing ground,” Ferentz said. “That’s unfortunate … we’ll see where he’s at when it comes to the end of the semester.”
Behind Smith on Iowa’s depth chart is Iowa Western Community College transfer Nick Easley. The Newton native has impressed since his commitment and transfer at semester, but all 72 of his catches last season occurred at the junior college level. Easley showed flashes of ability on Friday, and he even ended the full squad drills with an end-around run for a touchdown.
“He’s not there yet, obviously, but he’s done a really nice job,” Ferentz said of Easley.
Reserve receivers and tight ends got most of the passing looks from Stanley, Wiegers, Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook out of sheer necessity. Valley alum Dominique Dafney caught a couple tough passes against scout team opposition. Ronald Nash — the only receiver available on Friday to catch a pass last season — worked short routes. Walk-ons Yale Van Dyne and Connor Keane hustled for extra attempts.
Check out the quarterbacks during the Iowa Hawkeyes spring football practice at Valley Stadium in Des Moines.
It’s a tall task for new receivers coach Kelton Copeland.
“Especially with (VandeBerg) being out, it’s wide open right now for everybody to have a chance,” Ferentz said before spring practice began. “Just basically the goal is to demonstrate they can play and help us win football games, then we’ll figure out where they belong afterwards.”
Iowa’s defensive backs won most of Friday’s face-offs against the threadbare group, without the threat of pass interference flags looming. Returners in the secondary such as Michael Ojemudia, Manny Rugamba and Miles Taylor were fairly physical in a session with helmets, shoulder pads and shorts.
“Jerminic, Devonte, Falconer, Easley, they’re all pretty quick dudes,” Ojemudia said. “You’ve got to have good footwork when you’re playing with them.”
Watching limited snaps in a 90-minute exhibition won’t show the starting lineup used when the 2017 season starts on Sept. 2.
But it’s up to players such as Young and Falconer to lead the unit for now, even though they have yet to truly perform for the Hawkeyes.
“As a freshman, I was thinking too much about playing and trying to see where the defensive backs were and where our offense was,” Young said. “I was just iffy about it. I’m moving a lot faster and I’ve been able to recognize defenses because of meetings and film. There’s more work to do, too.”