Iowa's Kelton Copeland outlines recruiting approach, plus other wide receiver takeaways

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

There's a much different feeling in Iowa's wide receiver room leading up to Saturday's game against Wisconsin (2:30 pm on Fox Sports 1) than several weeks ago.

The unit was decimated by injury early in the season, including two games with only one healthy scholarship receiver: sophomore Arland Bruce IV. They've steadily gotten healthier as the year progressed and leading up to Saturday, position coach Kelton Copeland is encouraged about the trajectory for the rest of the season.

The Hawkeyes (5-4, 3-3) are technically not out of the Big Ten West division race after back-to-back wins. But they need to win out in order to keep their hopes alive, starting with the Badgers (5-4, 3-3) this weekend.

"We're pretty much close to full strength," Copeland told reporters via Zoom. "I'm really feeling good about the room, the offense and about the team moving forward."

More:Podcast: Can Iowa football finally end its recent offensive woes against Wisconsin?

Wednesday's Zoom press conference was Copeland's first opportunity to address the media this season, and the storylines that have surrounded his position group. Internally, they've dealt with more injuries than any other position, highlighted by sophomore Keagan Johnson. From the outside, there's been consistent criticism of Iowa's offense and speculation about how the lack of production from skill players and a strong season from transfer Charlie Jones will affect Iowa on the recruiting trail.

Copeland touched on these topics and more during his 20-plus-minute session. Here are three takeaways:

Coach Kelton Copeland provided an update on sophomore Keagan Johnson

Iowa sophomore wide receiver Keagan Johnson has played in only one game this year, he's been limited by a series of injuries dating back to January.

One of the bigger storylines on Iowa's team this year is the health of sophomore wide receiver Keagan Johnson. A series of injuries has kept him sidelined since last season's Citrus Bowl and he's only appeared in one game this season, Week 3 against Nevada. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has been the only consistent voice on Johnson, citing each week that he's working to return. On Wednesday, Copeland echoed those sentiments and offered an additional defense of Johnson's process.

"His process is his process. Everybody is different," Copeland said. "The biggest message that I have for people, being the media, fans and even people inside of our building is you can't judge one young man's situation next to another. His process is his process and we don't know what's going on inside of his body or what's actually happening. I do know this though, this young man wants to play football more than anybody else wants him to.

"Quite frankly, you can't hold that against the young man. I feel like there's certain people out there that are trying to hold it against this young man and hold him to the fire because they haven't seen him this season. I know for a fact that this young man is doing everything he can to get back on the field."

More:What Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said in his press conference before facing Wisconsin

Copeland added Johnson was on the field working Wednesday (in what capacity was not specified) and is on the right track. His exact timetable is still undetermined but Copeland didn't rule out a return this season, including for a potential bowl game should Iowa qualify.

"Hopefully, he will get back on the field this season," Copeland said. "If not, so be it; it's the way God chose it to be. And we'll look forward to what's going to happen in bowl prep and God willing we get to a bowl game we will see what happens in bowl prep but for now, I know he's working his butt off."

Outlining the challenges, philosophy in wide receiver recruiting

Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland described his recruiting approach as honest and straightforward from the beginning.

Iowa's wide receiver room took an unexpected hit following spring practice when senior Charlie Jones transferred to division rival Purdue. This season, Jones is the Big Ten leader in catches (83), yards (944) and second in touchdowns. Conversely, Iowa's wide receivers have combined for 54 catches for 610 yards and two touchdowns, albeit injuries have hurt production.

Copeland addressed the notion that Jones' season will hurt the Hawkeyes on the recruiting trail, in addition to other stigmas that he battles when recruiting prospects.

"It really is a challenge recruiting receivers here," Copeland said. "There's a mantra or this hidden message about Iowa receivers, that if you come here all you're going to do is block and we line up in (two tight end, two wide receiver) personnel or 22 personnel where we only put one receiver on the field. Anybody who's really paying attention that really knows football knows that's not the case. We've been a balanced offense for five years straight. We'll see how the numbers play out for my sixth year here, but since 2017 (Copeland's first season) all the way up through 2021, we've been a very balanced offensive attack, and I don't see that changing."

Currently, Iowa has one wide receiver committed: Marion three-star Alex Mota. It's unknown if fifth-year senior Nico Ragaini will exercise his sixth season of eligibility or graduate, but Iowa will need to bolster the room with more players before next season. Whether that comes through high school recruits or the transfer portal, Copeland stated that there's a specific type of player that's needed to produce in Iowa's program: players who buy in to team success over individual achievements.

Iowa wide receivers have combined for 54 catches for 610 yards and two touchdowns this season.

"You have to be a unique young man," Copeland said "If you're the type of guy that's driven by stats, touches, targets, highlights, personal awards, this isn't the place for you. It's not because quite frankly, you're probably not going to get the targets that you think you should get."

Copeland described his recruiting pitch as honest and straightforward and noted that he explains the dynamic of the wide receiver room "out of the gate". He acknowledges Iowa's rich tight end history and doesn't shy away from their large percentage of targets in the pass offense. That message is also emphasized to parents, who Copeland noted have been a bigger, more consistent hurdle in recruiting throughout his tenure than dealing with players.

More:Leistikow's 5 thoughts ahead of Iowa-Wisconsin: 'These guys have had our number'

It will continue to be an uphill climb recruiting-wise as Iowa enters the early signing period and offseason. Copeland hopes that his truthful approach will attract the right players for the program.

"If a young man doesn't understand (the aforementioned factors) coming in," Copeland said. "That you have to love the game of football and playing the game with your teammates first and foremost; if you can't check those two things off the list, then it's probably not going to work out so that has been my message to individual recruits."

Copeland offers praise for Jacob Bostick and Diante Vines

Iowa wide receiver Diante Vines is finally healthy after two, serious injuries.

One good story that's emerged on Iowa's offense recently is redshirt sophomore Diante Vines becoming a regular contributor at receiver. The Danbury, Connecticut native has faced a series of injuries, including a torn Achilles in 2020 and a broken wrist this August, that have kept him off the field. Now, Vines is healthy and is picking up where he left off in fall camp. What's impressed Copeland the most has been his resilience.

"This young man has faced adversity at every turn," Copeland said. "He just continued, and I give him the highest praise because there were times where my faith was starting to be challenged a little bit for him, wondering if this young man was gonna be able to push it through with all the stuff that was going on in his life from a personal standpoint, and this guy just kept showing up every day and he's still the same guy. He's still the same guy with a smile on his face."

Copeland is hopeful that Vines' full skillset will be displayed before the season ends and shares a similar expectation for true freshman Jacob Bostick. The former three-star recruit impressed coaches and his teammates during fall camp and likely would've seen a lot of playing time early, but hasn't appeared in a game yet to an injury suffered prior to the first game of the season. Copeland said that Bostick is back at full speed and is practicing in a backup role while he makes up for the significant amount of time lost. It's unknown if he'll play this season but Copeland sees him as a foundational piece for the future.

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"We still have three games scheduled and then who knows what happens after that," Copeland said. "But he's a young man that if he keeps working and improving, he has a chance to have a bright future here."