IOWA CITY — They tried it last week and they were close.
On second-and-goal from Northern Iowa’s 7-yard line, quarterback James Vandenberg zipped a pass toward wide receiver Keenan Davis that looked high and outside. The high and outside was a Vandenberg’s intent, a “back shoulder” throw. Davis made a beautiful play on the ball, but a UNI defensive back slapped it out of his hands.
Vandenberg went to another back-shoulder toss on third-and-goal from the 6. He targeted Davis again, but this time left too much lead and failed to connect.
“We’re working on it,” Davis said. “It’s a ball that Vandy feels really comfortable throwing, so it’s something we’ve got to spend some more time on. I think it’s definitely a throw we can make and complete.”
You’ve heard the term “back shoulder” throw for a few years now. This is the throw that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made a living on. It creates space where there isn’t any and, when executed, it is impossible to defend.
It’s not something Iowa tried or really taught receivers until first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis arrived last spring.
“It’s something that definitely came over with coach Davis. It’s something they definitely did a lot at Texas,” Vandenberg said. “It’s something to keep the defense off balance. It’s hard to run by guys every time.”
But it’s not as easy as Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings make it look, especially with it being introduced to Iowa receivers just last spring.
“It’s definitely a tough ball for the receiver, you’ve got to flip your hips, but you have to make the catch,” Keenan Davis said.
Yes, it looked as though Vandenberg and Marvin McNutt went to that during McNutt’s record-breaking 2011 season, but that was more McNutt being 6-3 with long arms and a 215-pound frame. For a defensive back, McNutt was like trying to cover a parachute.
“Marv had a quality of getting on top of defenders that was second to none,” Vandenberg said, “so you could throw it over the top. . . . It’s not that our guys can’t do that, when they are guarded tightly or running shoulder-to-shoulder, there are still plays to make.”
Upon arrival, Greg Davis talked about Iowa’s lack of speed on the outside. The back shoulder can create separation where there isn’t any. An ancillary benefit is a chance at more pass interference penalties.
Iowa’s receivers smile about it. They know the back-shoulder throw is a chance for them to show athleticism. They talk about it as though one of them wants to be the first to put a back shoulder on video.
“It’s a great technique for us, [but] I don’t think it works for us yet,” sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “We’ve been working on it, it’s going to work sometime.
“I’m conscious that I haven’t had one yet. It’s a very good catch. You’ve got be an athlete, you’ve got to have very good hands. If I get one, I want to make the play.”
The tight ends are in on this, too. Junior C.J. Fiedorowicz said everything has to be perfect.
“It’s one of those routes where you’ve got to know it’s coming,” he said. “It’s got to be the perfect ball. If he [Vandenberg] throws it ahead of you, it’s probably going to bounce off the DB’s back. It’s almost got to be perfect timing, perfect placement. It’s got to be there every time.”
The receivers and Vandenberg are in this together. Ultimately, it’s Vandenberg who pulls the trigger on a back-shoulder attempt.
“The whole key is the receiver doesn’t determine if it’s going to be back shoulder or not,” Vandenberg said. “If he goes as hard as he can and he can’t get over the top, then you try throwing the back shoulder.”
Vandenberg needs to see the defensive back turn his back to the play, make eye contact with the receiver and then deliver a ball that he just started targeting in March.
“It’s one of those things that when you first start doing it, it’s just hideous,” Vandenberg said. “It’s a really weird angle of a throw. You’ve really got to trust where you’re throwing it, but we’ve gotten better and better. We stunk at it in the spring, but we got better during fall and by the end of camp, we got some confidence. It’s something we feel we have to be able to do in games.”
Keenan Davis called it a “paint ball,” with the target being the back of the receiver’s helmet. “It’s scratching the paint on the back of your helmet. Back-shoulder, paint ball, same thing,” he said.
And indeed the helmet is the target, an adjustment for everyone involved.
“You think of the balls down the sideline are usually going to be up and over, kind of drop it in the bucket,” Vandenberg said. “This one’s completely different. It’s like throwing a comeback. It’s a bullet and you just try to hit him in the head.”
Maybe over time, the paint ball will become a work of art for the Hawkeyes.