Iowa football building receiving corps from ground zero

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A message to Iowa football fans clamoring for a complete overhaul of the passing game: Be careful what you wish for.

The Hawkeyes find themselves in just that position this spring, for better or worse. The team is searching for a new starting quarterback to replace the graduated C.J. Beathard. And coaches are making judgments about those signal-calling hopefuls — Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers — without any experienced wide receivers available.

The situation reminded Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz of his second season as the offensive line coach with the Baltimore Ravens, 20 years ago. Ferentz felt good about his starting unit, but when injuries hit, he was dismayed at the ineptitude of the backups.

Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland, instructing players at the team's open practice in West Des Moines on Friday, has his work cut out for him this spring. The Hawkeyes have only two scholarship wideouts available while also trying to choose a new starting quarterback.

“It was unbelievable, probably the worst in the history of the NFL for second-team lines,” Ferentz recalled Wednesday. “Our quarterback could barely get back and get set and somebody was in his face. That made it very difficult to evaluate our skill guys.”

Things aren't quite that bad for the Hawkeyes' receivers this spring, but there is a sense that the unit is starting from scratch, a situation that can have a ripple effect on the entire offense. There’s a new position coach in Kelton Copeland. Senior Matt VandeBerg is out with a foot injury. Junior Jerminic Smith, the only other wideout with starting experience, has been told to take the rest of the spring off to deal with an academic issue.

What in the name of Tim Dwight is going on?

“It's kind of hard because we're all learning,” Copeland acknowledged Wednesday while maintaining a positive outlook about a difficult situation.

MORE ON IOWA'S RECEIVERS: Inexperience reigns, but so does opportunity

Copeland, who replaced Bobby Kennedy in the offseason, has only two scholarship wide receivers at his disposal: Adrian Falconer and Devonte Young. Neither has caught a collegiate pass. Junior-college transfers Dominique Dafney, Nick Easley and Ronald Nash are next in a very thin line.

VandeBerg is around to offer advice, and Copeland praised him effusively for his leadership. But he is not expected back on the field until the summer after missing the last nine games last season with the broken foot.

As for Smith?

Copeland didn’t want to talk much about him, except to say he hopes the fleet flanker from Texas eventually gets his house in order.

“If you're not in that room right now, for whatever the reason may be, I'm not focused on that. My focus is on developing that room with the guys that are in that room right now,” Copeland said.

This spring, that literally started by going back to square one.

“The best way to (establish a depth chart) is starting with fundamental play, fundamental drills, stance and start. Things that guys probably learned back in first and second grade, but we still go back to that even now in Practice 10,” Copeland said.

Copeland said he reached out last weekend to all four incoming freshmen wide receivers, who will arrive in June. He said all will be given a chance to play right away if they prove themselves worthy.

“If you prepare, do the necessary things you need to do so when you get here you're prepared as well as you can be, then the opportunity might come sooner than later,” Copeland said he told them.

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Ken O’Keefe, Iowa’s new quarterbacks coach, acknowledged that Stanley and Wiegers will have to adjust to a new receiving group during the summer. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to wait around for the rest of April. They’re “neck and neck” in competition for the team’s most important starting job, and time is of the essence.

“They've got to learn how to run the routes,” O’Keefe said of Iowa’s rookie receivers. “So they better get their heads around pretty fast when they walk in the door. Because things will be happening a lot faster as far as the quarterback is concerned.”

Copeland promised he would to get his receivers up to speed, starting with Falconer and Young, in the final four practices and the April 21 spring game.

“No matter what you want to be and who you think you are, what you put on film, that's who you are. That's what the outside world sees,” Copeland said he told them Tuesday. “So if you haven't put on film who you want to be, it's time to change that. Either by effort, execution and production, that's the next step.

So, yes, they have moved forward. Is it where we need to be? Absolutely not. Are we getting closer step by step? Yes, we are."