IOWA CITY — James Vandenberg has faced down something far more daunting than a new playbook.
The Iowa quarterback and pre-physical therapy major who’s harboring medical school hopes took organic chemistry II last fall. One of the stated goals of that class is to help students understand the physical and chemical properties of aromatic compounds, carbonyl compounds, carboxylic acid derivatives, amines, and selected di-and polyfunctional organic compounds.
It probably sounds harder than it is (no, it doesn’t and can’t possibly).
This spring, Vandenberg put offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ new offense through the spectroscopy (organic chemistry term) and believes he can translate it.
“He really has worked hard at it, that’s including spring break,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I know he knocked on Greg’s door during that time. I don’t know if he was here the entire week, but I know he was in and out of the building a couple of times. He’s going into his senior year. He wants to be good. He’s always been built that way.
“It’s a new challenge for him and he’s one of those guys who really relishes challenges, whether it’s academically or football. That’s part of the reason why he’s a good quarterback. You hope quarterbacks are built that way.”
Vandenberg is just one of three fifth-year seniors in this offense, which is undergoing a considerable overhaul, in the passing game, surely, and in tempo and approach, potentially. Spring had the Hawkeyes in a hurry-up, no-huddle mode at times. Running backs activated in the passing game. Tight ends lined up in the slot. There was more single running back than we’re used to with Iowa.
Who knows what the final product will look like on Sept. 1 against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field, but Vandenberg isn’t flinching. He feels the Hawkeyes’ offense is on schedule, considering the freshly minted playbook and inexperience.
“I don’t think I’m nervous, I think I understand the personnel we have,” Vandenberg said. “We have a lot of guys who really want to do well, but they’re just young. Mistakes are going to come with those guys. It’s something where I might get on them a little bit, but I totally understand what they’re going through. Their heads are spinning a little bit.”
Two players who could make this a lot easier are junior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and sophomore wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. If Iowa’s offense is going to go, they could have a big say and they’re relatively new performers.
Fiedorowicz saw mostly special teams two years ago as a true freshman and caught 16 passes last season. Now, he’s been touted as a major contributor by Ferentz and Davis, nonetheless. Martin-Manley caught 30 passes as a redshirt freshman last season.
So far, they like what they’ve seen.
“I have a little more freedom now,” Martin-Manley said. “I get to read defenses a little bit. That’s the biggest change. It allows us to open up a little bit and hopefully catch more balls this season.”
Dig a little deeper with Iowa’s skill positions and they get younger. No. 3 receiver, which will come with a higher profile apparently, will be young and inexperienced. Senior wide receiver Keenan Davis, who caught 50 passes last season, will have his first and only shot at the No. 1. He also missed some spring with an undisclosed injury. Tight end will be new after Fiedorowicz and senior Zach Derby.
You know about running back. That’ll either be a true sophomore (Damon Bullock), redshirt sophomore (De’Andre Johnson) or incoming freshmen (Greg Garmon, Barkley Hill).
Pair that relative inexperience with three new starters on the O-line, and yes, Iowa is fresh-faced on offense.
“They were young in our old offense. Now, they’re really young in our new offense,” Vandenberg said. “That’s something that comes with being a younger team and having younger skill guys, but for the most part, they’ve been extremely upbeat and positive. They’ve corrected most of their mistakes and that’s the best you can ask for.”
Vandenberg picked up on this early. That’s why his spring break was spent partying with Greg Davis in the Iowa football complex.
Someone will need to have all the answers and it better be the fifth-year senior QB.
“I feel like it was a lot easier transition for me than I could’ve imagined,” Vandenberg said. “Now, it’s getting to where I can get myself out of a bad situation and into a good play. A lot of it is having seen so many looks that you know what’s good and what’s bad.”
Your quarterback has tackled organic chemistry II. No one blitzes in a lecture hall, but grey matter is never a bad foundation.
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