IOWA CITY — When Jacob Hillyer and Tevaun Smith are out on the field in their Hawkeyes uniforms, with very college football wide receiver-looking bodies, it’s hard to remember they’re fresh-faced 21- and 20-year-olds from Texas and Toronto.
So yes, the first time these two have been counted on in games has been a bit of a ride. They both had early drops against Iowa State two weeks ago that unplugged drives. Funny thing, though. They weren’t banished to the pits of eighth-string special teams.
They were counted on and they came through later in the game. Smith, a 6-2, 200-pound sophomore, caught a 25-yard pass between two ISU defenders to set up a touchdown. In the second half, Hillyer, a 6-4, 205-pound sophomore, caught a short curl route and turned it into a 26-yard TD.
“When I dropped it, I had teammates tell me, ‘It’s OK, we got it next time, don’t worry, the game’s not over,’” Hillyer said. “My teammates helped me get my confidence level back up to where it needed to be to make big plays when we needed them.”
The two are inching ahead in their progress. This is exactly what Iowa’s passing game needs as the Hawkeyes (3-1) begin Big Ten play Saturday at Minnesota (4-0).
“I think it’s a big confidence thing,” quarterback Jake Rudock said. “They’re both feeling more comfortable and understanding that, ‘OK, I’m going to make mistakes, we’re all going to make mistakes. We’re going to drop balls, I’m going to miss passes that everyone thinks I should make.’
“That’s just the name of the game. Having that confidence and understanding that ‘Hey, I can make this play, I can do something with the ball after it hits my hands’ definitely helps overall.”
Last week against Western Michigan, Hillyer caught one pass for a 21-yard TD that looked very similar to his “run after the catch” at Iowa State. Smith earned the start and caught his one targeted pass for a 6-yard gain. Keep in mind, that Iowa won 59-3 and threw just 18 times.
“The coaches are really hard on us, especially the receivers because we’re really young, we all need to make an impact in the game and that starts on Tuesday during practice,” Smith said. “It’s paying off, we’re winning games and whenever they throw the ball to us, we’re doing something with it.”
The drops at Iowa State could’ve crushed them. Hillyer’s came on Iowa’s first drive. The Hawkeyes would’ve had a first down near midfield. Smith’s would been a nice, leaping catch and would’ve been a first down inside ISU’s 30.
You hated those drops. You hate all drops. Imagine how they feel about drops.
“No one hates them more than we do,” said Smith, who has three catches for 34 yards. “Everybody hates you when you drop the ball. When you catch the ball, everyone loves you. That’s just how the game goes. Not everybody can catch every single ball thrown to you, but that’s what we try to do.”
The more experience on this stage, the smoother Hillyer expects to be. Hillyer and Smith combined for a grand total of four catches for 46 yards in all of 2012.
“There is a lot of stress on us to make big plays down the field, because we need that as an offense to open it up and help the running game,” said Hillyer, who has five catches for 66 yards and two TDs. “I feel like as we grow those mistakes will go away. We’ll be used to being on such a big stage. Right now, we have a lot of young receivers. As we grow, we’ll understand that and we’ll play better dealing with the big stage like that.”
Iowa has had eight wide receivers catch passes this season. Junior Kevonte Martin-Manley leads the group with 20 receptions. Beyond Martin-Manley and seniors Jordan Cotton and Don Shumpert, you’re talking about a junior-college transfer in Damond Powell who’s been in Iowa City for just more than two months, two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman.
You also can see the page turning at tight end. Senior C.J. Fiedorowicz remains the top target with seven catches for 64 yards and a TD, but junior Ray Hamilton is starting to build his resume (five catches, 73 yards) and redshirt freshman George Kittle (one catch, 47 yards) has started and continues to see a lot of playing time.
“We knew coming into the season we were going to have to get a lot of people involved to have a chance,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I hope that continues.”
It will continue. It also will include drops and TD receptions. This is Minnesota and Michigan State coming up. Fresh faces from Texas and Toronto are still on the learning curve.
“Right now, we’re on a little roll,” Hillyer said. “Everybody’s playing their part, everybody knows their role.”
Audio from Jacob Hillyer (top) and Tevaun Smith (second) below.