How does Iowa football's offense break out? Hawkeye wide receivers could hold the key
This spring, Iowa's football team is focused on leaving less on the field than they did last year. The Hawkeyes won 10 games for the tenth time in school history but two disappointing losses — Michigan in the Big Ten championship game and Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl — left the team wanting more.
"It definitely drives us for sure," sophomore wide receiver Arland Bruce IV said. "I was talking with (defensive line coach) Kelvin Bell and he said 'Do you think us getting to the Big Ten championship game is all we can do?'
"No, we want to get a step further."
For Iowa's receivers this offseason, they have taken that as a personal challenge.
"We left a lot of stuff on the field last year and I think we're just looking to improve," Bruce said. "That's the goal for each year. We all talk about the goals we have for spring, fall and each game. I think it's just improving, what numbers can we improve on and what (mistakes) can we get rid of."
Last week, Hawkeye receivers coach Kelton Copeland said the receivers — which last season relied on true freshmen Keagan Johnson and Bruce to spark the offense — are progressing as expected. With an ongoing quarterback competition at the center of the offense this spring, Copeland's messaging has been very clear: control what you can control in order to make the quarterback's job easier.
And that pushes the entire offense forward.
"Any time where we can put ourselves in a situation to be open and catch the ball, that's a positive thing for the quarterback," Copeland said. "What we eliminate in our room is any chatter about 'shoulda, woulda, coulda.' My job is to get open and catch the ball. The last thing we need to be thinking is the 'quarterback should've did that.' It's about how can I make his job easier."
Iowa lost three receivers to the transfer portal last season and are left with six scholarship receivers this spring. Several are proven commodities, including Bruce, Johnson and seniors Charlie Jones and Nico Ragaini.
That core group of receivers returning with Iowa's top two quarterback options in senior Spencer Petras and junior Alex Padilla has helped timing improve early on in spring.
"Offense and the pass game is really about timing," Bruce said. "Just working with Spencer and Alex over the past year and them knowing me, Keagan, some of the younger guys' tendencies really helps."
Bruce was a pleasant surprise last season as a true freshman, finishing fourth on the team in receptions (25) and added four total touchdowns (three rushing). He along with Johnson, who averaged 19.6 yards per catch on 18 receptions, feel much more comfortable with the offense this spring.
They flashed potential last season but the duo is focusing on refining their game this spring.
"Route running for Arland, for example," Copeland said. "Him with the ball in his hands is very dynamic but now being a detailed route runner, being a detailed receiver is the next step for Arland.
"Along the same lines, Keagan is a very explosive athlete but honing in. There's a time to be explosive and fast but there's a time to be a little more detailed: a little sharper at the top of your route, maybe a little more keen to where I'm putting my eyes on a particular route. All of those things apply to a guy getting a little bit better at his craft."
One of the biggest additions for the receiver room was Jones returning for his extra year of eligibility. A dynamic returner on special teams, he hopes to garner more attention from NFL scouts this fall.
A wildcard in the receiver room is redshirt freshman Brody Brecht, who is splitting time between baseball and football. Brecht practices with the team on non-baseball gamedays and attends practices but doesn't participate on gamedays. Bruce and Copeland commended Brecht on his work ethic and Copeland said that Brecht (listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds) will be squarely in the mix for the 'X' position when baseball concludes and he's a full football participant.
"There's no question in my mind," Copeland said. "Brody's at every meeting and he's at every practice that he can be at. I don't see any (way) where he doesn't at least put himself in a position to earn an opportunity to compete for that job come fall."
Brecht is the fifth of Iowa's scholarship receivers and sophomore Diante Vines is the sixth. Neither caught a pass last season. There's also two walk-ons in the mix for playing time. Junior Jackson Ritter started against Iowa State last season and caught one pass for nine yards but didn't play as much down the stretch of the season. He was listed as the No. 2 WR behind Johnson on Iowa's initial spring practice depth chart.
Low scholarship numbers aren't a concern for Copeland. In fact, he sees it as an opportunity for every receiver in the room — walk-ons included.
His plan is to give each receiver every opportunity to impress him entering the summer period. With opportunity aplenty, the receiver competition should bring the best out of them and as a result will help the offense improve and help leave less on the field this season.
"Now's the time to saturate those guys with as many reps as possible," Copeland said. "Especially for the inexperienced guys so they can catch up and it's fair to compare a young man who maybe didn't play at all in the fall to a guy that who played the majority of the time or in a limited role. It's a race, it's a competition. We're all close in our room but at the end of the day it's a race and a competition to see who is going to be the best product to be put on the field."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.