Iowa football offense: Unproven wideouts get ample opportunity at Kids Day, Young shines

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Devonte Young needed to touch the football only twice Saturday to become the star of Iowa’s annual Kids Day open practice at Kinnick Stadium.

The first was a fingertip grab that the sophomore wide receiver — all alone down the left sideline — hauled in for a 53-yard touchdown from Nathan Stanley.

The next was a play in the left corner of the end zone, in which Young created just enough separation from cornerback Manny Rugamba to snare a 22-yard touchdown catch, this pass perfectly placed by Stanley.

Two catches, two touchdowns, two big roars from the sun-soaked crowd.

Too soon to declare Young the answer to Iowa’s wide receiver quandary?

Well, sure. The Maryland native has yet to catch a pass in an actual game, of course. But the same goes for most of his Hawkeye peers.

“His play kind of spoke for itself today,” senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg noted afterward of Young, who produced two of the three receiving touchdowns from Stanley. “He’s a guy that’s trying to come out and get better each day.”

VandeBerg sat most of the afternoon, as Hawkeye coaches treat him cautiously on his path back from a pair of foot injuries.

“Just trying to see what other guys can do and how they respond in different live situations,” VandeBerg explained, although it was evident he wanted to see more action.

Junior-college transfer Nick Easley didn’t participate in the practice, out with a minor injury that coach Kirk Ferentz said is only a short-term issue.

The rest of the wide receivers caught 12 passes of the 46 attempts made during the 11-on-11 portion of Saturday’s 2 ½-hour practice. Tight ends and running backs gathered another dozen receptions.

Young and junior Adrian Falconer were the starting unit at wideout. Falconer had two catches for 15 yards.

It was a trio of true freshmen who played on the bulk of the 110 snaps. Brandon Smith, at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, used that big frame to be a possession receiver, catching a team-high four passes for 22 yards. Max Cooper had a single catch for a 4-yard touchdown.

Speedster Ihmir Smith-Marsette saw the most usage. He, too, caught a single pass, for five yards. But new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz also used Smith-Marsette on two end-around plays.

The first came on the offense’s first play inside the red zone. Tailback James Butler took a handoff running to his right, pitched it to Smith-Marsette and he cut to the middle of the field for a four-yard gain.

Iowa freshman wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette catches a pass from Tyler Wiegers during drills Saturday as part of the Hawkeyes' Kids Day practice. Smith-Marsette saw plenty of action with the first-stringers later in the afternoon.

The second time, Smith-Marsette was swarmed for an eight-yard loss, fumbled the football and was promptly beckoned to the sideline.

Still, it was clear the Hawkeyes are looking for ways to get Smith-Marsette into space. He also was the backup kickoff returner, behind Akrum Wadley.

“We’re certainly not game-ready by any stretch,” Kirk Ferentz said afterward of his wide receivers. “(The returning players) look more like Big Ten football players, and then the young guys have given us an infusion. Can they keep the pace? … I think it’s realistic to think a couple of those guys are going to press for some playing time.”

Smith-Marsette for sure.

And then there’s the new entry in the field — Matt Quarells. The graduate transfer from New Mexico was finally cleared to practice Friday and participated only in noncontact drills Saturday. He’ll put the pads on Monday, Ferentz said.

“Our good luck is his bad luck. (New Mexico) went to an option attack. He made the decision he wanted to get somewhere he could maybe catch a couple of balls, and we’re really pleased about that,” Ferentz said.

“You don’t learn until you start doing things. At least now we can start accelerating that. If he can help us in September, great. If it’s October, great.”

Iowa will take all the help it can get in the receiving game, including from a deep group of tight ends. Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson got most of the first-team reps with that group Saturday. Fant caught three passes for 25 yards, Hockenson two for 32. Shaun Beyer, running with the reserves, added two more receptions for 52 yards.

There’s a feeling of newness to Iowa’s passing game, VandeBerg said. Not just because so many of the receiving options are unproven, and because a starting quarterback has yet to be named. But there’s a new offensive coordinator, new quarterbacks coach (Ken O’Keefe) and new wide receivers coach (Kelton Copeland).

“We’re all on the same page. We’re all learning the offense, learning the protections, learning the sights, learning the conversions,” VandeBerg said of the wideouts, denying that he’s the de facto leader of that unit.

“I’m just another guy out here running routes.”

Well, he wasn’t on Saturday. But he will be soon. Now it’s a matter of figuring out who will be joining him when the games start. The Kids Day practice provided a little glimpse of what’s to come.