IOWA CITY — This is a good time to be an Iowa wide receiver. It looks as though your work order will be filled top to bottom, game in and game out.
Quarterback James Vanderberg’s 404 attempts last season were second most in Iowa history. Iowa goes into 2012 with a running back situation that ranges from inexperienced to incoming freshmen. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis promise Iowa will do what Iowa’s players do best.
With a returning starter at QB and solid experience at receiver and tight end, that fits with a continued focus on the air. But, as with everything Iowa at this point of the year with two new coordinators, we’ll see.
If you’re an Iowa receiver, rest assured that you are in the playbook and the game plan. It just sets up that way.
This is terrific for sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley.
Martin-Manley caught 30 passes for 323 yards and three TDs last season, mostly out of the slot receiver position. As a redshirt freshman last season, he was Iowa’s No. 3 receiver. It was the best performance for a freshman receiver at Iowa since 2007, when Derrell Johnson-Kouliano caught 38 passes and James Cleveland had 36.
His 2011 production earned a few mentions from coaches this spring.
“Kevonte Martin‑Manley, who last year got his feet wet as a redshirt freshman, playing the first time,” wide receivers coach Erik Campbell said when asked if any receiver raised his profile during the spring. “Now you can see that experience pay off. You can see him looking like a veteran receiver, doing things that a guy with that kind of experience has shown.”
Davis likes Martin-Manley right where he is, playing slot receiver.
“Kevonte will end up playing in the slot most of the time for us,” Davis said. “The slot receiver is an extremely important position. It’s a position with a lot of flexibility, has to do various things according to the coverage you see.
“So, I kind of see him settling in there when we’re in one back. When we’re in two backs, obviously, he would be one of the wide receivers.”
See, good deal for Martin-Manley. Oh, there’s more.
“It’ll be a lot more three-receiver looks and a little bit more spread out, so it’s a lot of fun for us as receivers,” Martin-Manley said when asked about his thoughts on what Iowa’s offense learned about Davis’ plans this spring.
Is Iowa going to lean pass-oriented next fall?
“Coach Davis told us he’d go by game plan,” Martin-Manley said. “Whoever we play, whoever is healthy, that’s how he said he’s going to play. We’ll see.”
The slot receiver notion isn’t a change for Martin-Manley, but the mental part of the game apparently is.
“I have a little bit more freedom now. I get to read the defenses more. That’s the biggest change,” Martin-Manley said. “It is a lot of freedom. It is. It allows us to open up a little bit and hopefully catch more balls this season.”
It would likely work out this way no matter what football team we’re talking about, but Iowa’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3 receivers were uniformly stratified during Ken O’Keefe’s 13 seasons as coordinator. A clear-cut No. 1 got the majority of the targets. It might not work that way next season.
Senior Keenan Davis is a potential No. 1. He had a break-out junior season with 50 catches for 713 yards and four TDs, a receptions total that would’ve led everyone not named Marvin McNutt in Iowa’s last five seasons.
Campbell’s comments this spring made it sound as though No. 1 touches are up in the air. He wants sharp receivers who value every target, every rep.
“I think there’s always competition,” Campbell said. “Also there’s competition to stay on the field, because there are young guys behind them who are going to push them and try to take that spot.
“You never can relax here because there’s always competition, even with having great tight ends. Everybody is competing to get the ball. The better you play, the more opportunities you going to have it versus giving it to another position or another player.”
That doesn’t extend exclusively to Martin-Manley. That’s everyone. Davis talked about junior Jordan Cotton this spring, a name that hasn’t been heard from much (one career reception).
“Cotton has done some things through eight days that are encouraging,” Davis said. “We’ve just got consistency is the term I keep using with him. You know, we’ll just say consistency is the term I keep using with him.
“But he flashes some things that you really like. It’s been a little bit unfair to him because we’ve moved him around and hopefully when we get back to all of this, we’ll be in position to get all the nuances of that position out.”
(Hmm, nuance. That would take more than the 15 allotted spring practices.)
So, no assumptions, not even for a receiver with Martin-Manley’s resume, which is still forming. The 6-0, 205-pounder averaged 3.4 receptions through five games last season. Then, the passing game swung strongly to senior Marvin McNutt. Martin-Manley averaged 1.6 receptions over the final eight games.
After Iowa’s spring scrimmage, Martin-Manley preached patience, with the passing game, with the changing offense.
“That’s something that comes with the territory,” he said. “That’s why you do spring ball, that’s why you do camp. You learn and you move on.”
And we’ll see.