Examining why Iowa football's hyped-up wide receivers are off to a sluggish start
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Through two games, the production from Iowa wide receivers, or lack thereof, has become an area of interest. The Hawkeyes are 2-0 and ranked in the top 10 nationally, but to this point, the leading receiver is senior Charlie Jones with three receptions for 38 yards and one touchdown.
Not exactly eye-popping numbers.
Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland is aware and admits that things haven't gone according to plan thus far.
"Everything has not worked out exactly the way we wanted it to," Copeland told reporters Wednesday. "The coverages we planned for and the looks we think we're going to get leading up to each opponent, these defenses have done a pretty good job of showing us things and then change it up on us.
"That's part of being a college coach and player, is being able to monitor and adjust and do things on the fly."
Part of the lack of production is due to inexperience. Most of the receivers are still new to Iowa football. Outside of veterans Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Nico Ragaini, the other four receivers in the rotation — Jones, sophomore Jackson Ritter and true freshmen Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson — are playing major snaps for the first time.
Considering the quality of Iowa's first two opponents, the steep learning curve shouldn't come as a surprise. Copeland complimented Tracy on taking on a leadership role to the younger players. But even so, there have still been moments of frustration.
Tracy showed visible signs of it in the Indiana game due to lack of involvement. Iowa State was another quiet day for him statistically, with two receptions for 12 yards. Outside of targets, the number of plays each receiver has been on the field has also fluctuated.
Seeing different defensive looks than expected comes with adjusting personnel on the fly. There have been instances where players expect a certain number of snaps based on the game plan, but may not see that many in the actual game.
"That may come with some frustration, too," Copeland said. "A young man thinks. 'I'm starting in this. I got this many plays.' And then guess what? The game plan changes and those X amount of snaps goes from 10 to three all of a sudden and there's nothing anyone can do about it. But that's just a part of college football."
Copeland understands the receivers' eagerness for more opportunities. His current message to them: It's not a matter of if those opportunities come, but when — and what happens when they do.
"That's what you love about Tyrone, is he's a competitor," Copeland said. "He wants to contribute to help the team win, has nothing to do with selfishness or highlights. There are times where, 'Hey I might be open or feel like I'm open and I'm not getting the ball for whatever reason.'
"In our room I tell them that it's not our job to throw the ball; it's our job to catch it. No matter how many times we're open, it only matters when you have an opportunity to catch it so we have to make sure we're ready for that opportunity."
The next (and big picture) question then becomes: How do Iowa receivers get more involved? That answer, in part, boils down to the style of the game. For instance, the offense's strategy in the first two games was more risk-adverse with big leads.
The other part to that answer simply boils down to improvement.
"Block harder and finish plays with a certain demeanor," Copeland said. "Attack the ball in the air, better detailed work, be more crisp at the top of our routes all of those things. But it's not going to happen in one day. It's not going to happen in one week or one month."
While the numbers haven't shown on the field yet, Copeland is encouraged by the current top six receivers. Tracy and Ragaini are known commodities and Jones has emerged as a reliable target. Bruce and Johnson being on the field at all is a testament to their accelerated development, and the same can be said for Ritter, a walk-on.
Most of all, Copeland sees a better connection in practice with quarterback Spencer Petras, whom Copeland works with every day along with quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe.
"(Spencer) has taken it to another level, not in a negative way, of demanding things," Copeland said. "Being vocal about that. Our guys — the receivers — they're responding to that."
Copeland said the receiver room is a work in progress and their next opportunity is this Saturday against Kent Sate, a team with seven interceptions this season.
The receivers may break out this Saturday, or they may not. But that doesn't concern Copeland. He knows it's a matter of when it happens, not if. Right now, it's about driving home the clichéd-yet-relevant message of trusting the process.
"There's a certain way to do things at this level," Copeland said. "You're not just going to roll the ball out there and say, 'Hey, I'm open. Throw me the ball.' It's a process and being a young, inexperienced room, it's that step-by-step process. Understanding how to prep, how to watch film, how to practice.
"It's going to come together, no doubt in my mind. Week-by-week in practice, you're seeing a little bit better job by Spencer, a little bit better job by receivers of making things mesh. Here, before you know it, might be this week, might be next week, you'll see these guys playing at high level together."
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org