Four Downs — The Wide Receivers (spring edition)

Spring practice will really matter as Iowa sorts it out here

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April 1, 2014 | 9:31 am

QUICK LOOK BACK: In comparison to 2012, Iowa was one year better in the passing game last season. Quarterback Jake Rudock brought a steadier pocket presence. The wide receivers benefited from having wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy serving as an extension of offensive coordinator Greg Davis (seriously, do not discount the fact that Davis and Kennedy worked seven years together at Texas). Late in the season, wide receivers made big, clutch plays (Tevaun Smith vs. Michigan and Don Shumpert vs. Purdue).

That said, there's still more work to do.

Kevonte Martin-Manley kept up his steady play. He'll start 2014 55 receptions short of Iowa's career record. He led Iowa with 40 receptions for 388 yards, the fewest yards for an Iowa leading receiver in Kirk Ferentz's 15 seasons. Tevaun Smith (24 catches, 310 yards) took a major step forward, going from a freshman lost into the mix to a emerging option. In his first season, junior college transfer Damond Powell (12 catches, 291 yards) had big games and made big plays (tunnel screen at Minnesota), but didn't catch a pass in Iowa's final four games. Jacob Hillyer caught 11 passes and two TDs.

Iowa's wide receivers better translated the post-snap decisions that needed to be made in reaction to coverage. That's a credit to the harmony between Davis and Kennedy. In '12, quarterback-wide receiver weren't on the same page. The passing game was closer to that this year.

There's more work to do, mainly yards after the catch, explosive plays and simply being more reliable.

FOURTH DOWN — CRITICAL QUESTIONS: What's up with individual output as far as yards go?

Iowa might not have a big-yardage receiver for awhile. Iowa's offense has picked up the pace. Davis took a few down-field shots last season and likely will try to take more in the future (at some point, it will have to show dimension). Rudock was 67th in yards per completion last season, by the way, with 11.68 yards.

The thought from Davis is to have a fresh pack of receivers at the ready. So, when Powell runs 40 yards to blow the top off a defense, he can be replaced with a fresh . . . Smith or Andre Harris or whomever else is on the same speed plane as Powell.

"There should be a lot of competition," Davis said. "We hope that spring practice sorts them out. The thing about wide receivers is if they're playing at the tempo you want them to, it's really hard for them to play more than about 50 snaps. Run and pass, if they're doing what you really want them to do, it's hard to push them because they run so far. Hopefully, we'll have some guys who can step in and we won't even care who's in the ballgame."

What's really up with yards?

Iowa needs more "yards after the catch." It was better last season, but it's not consistent. If Davis' vision is to be realized, the horizontal passing game is going to have to run itself vertical. The onus now is on big plays to come out of plays being made by players than out of design (except the play-action, where Iowa wants to pull defenders out of place and go to the space they left open).

“You want to be able to give the receivers a ball they can use after the catch,” Davis said. “You’re going to typically get the vertical game out of play-action and things like that, where you can draw the defense forward and then have a chance to go vertical.

“At the same time, you have to be able to make explosive plays with the drop-back game. A lot of times those come when you get people dispersed and you get the ball underneath in a catch-run situation.”

More Powell?

Without the benefit of knowing Powell's depth of knowledge with the offense, that's impossible to answer. Powell didn't arrive in Iowa City until just a few days before camp started last August. He had to fulfill academics at Snow College (Ephraim, Utah), so he was cut out of spring and summer workouts.

But it's just running fast and getting open? That's a part of it. You also have to know where you fit in the system, combo and overall offense. Also, can you block? That's a thing with Iowa receivers (not to mention that Powell showed up 180 pounds). So, without playbook insights, hard to say why not more Powell. The physical tools are there.

Why burn Matt VandeBerg's redshirt?

VandeBerg was supposed to be a grayshirt, but was put on full scholarship just before August camp. He is listed 6-1, 170, so he seemed to be the least ready at least physically of the six wide receivers Iowa brought in with its last recruiting class. Vandeberg showed good hands and ended up with eight catches for 58 yards.

Iowa had to play someone to put some spacing among those receivers.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: That transitions us nicely into additions.

Iowa put redshirts on four wide receivers -- Andre Harris (6-0, 170), Derrick Willies (6-4, 205), Derrick Mitchell Jr. (6-1, 190) and A.J. Jones (6-3, 190).

At various times during the Kirk Ferentz radio show, this group of receivers was referenced. Let the record show, I didn't start the hype machine. Callers to the show got the ball rolling.

On the number of WRs Iowa brought in with the '13 recruiting class, "Something we tried to address," Ferentz said in response on his radio show. "Talking to [recruiting coordinator/asst DL coach] Eric Johnson, I said if seems like we’re developing a farm club. Great for them to get acclimated. Good potential. Fun to watch them grow.”

Davis was asked the "have any young players stood out" question several times during Iowa's bowl prep.

"I thought Derrick Willies had a good December," Davis said. "He, Derrick Mitchell and Andre Harris I think have all stepped up and have given us great confidence going into spring. It's a group that will be able to step in and help and challenge in some places."

Incoming freshman Jay Scheel will come in as a wide receiver, making the move from quarterback at La Porte City Union High School. “I’m definitely excited to get there and do that,” he said. “I played a few games at wide receiver on varsity. I’m excited for it. I’m really excited to get to Iowa and start playing college football.”

Also, incoming freshmen Jalen Embry and Josh Jackson are coming in as cornerbacks, but have solid high school receiving resumes and might drift over to the offense. (Can you have enough corners? Iowa is pretty short personnel-wise at corner, too.)

Iowa will lose Jordan Cotton and Don Shumpert. Cotton's value was in the return game. He caught just two passes last season. Shumpert played his best football at the end of his career. If he would've been able to redshirt . . .

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: Is there a battle for No. 1? I don't think so. I think it's Martin-Manley. He's led the Hawkeyes in receptions the last two seasons, a combined 92 catches with seven TDs. Martin-Manley had 119 career receptions, averaging 10.2 yards per catch.

Martin-Manley is No. 1 because, going into his senior spring, he's the best Iowa has at getting open. He reads defenses well, finds holes in zones and is good in traffic. Yes, he's had drops and often fights the ball. He had a chance at redemption for a dropped TD pass at Nebraska and cashed that in with a later TD grab.

Is Smith the No. 2? Yes. The 6-2, 200-pounder was a weapon at times last season. The big numbers didn't show up, but that might just be how Davis wants Iowa's offense to work (the whole pace of play and running down field thing). Smith showed he can go get a ball and do something with it after the catch.

And No. 3? Powell and Hillyer are leading contenders. Powell is speed. As Kennedy said upon seeing Powell's recruiting video, "The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, the guy can really run.’ That’s a good thing. You’re not sitting there going, ‘How fast is he?’ If you’re fast, you’re fast. That’s been a nice development on the Iowa football front.”

Hillyer didn't have big numbers and was in and out of the lineup, but when he was called upon, he did things. He popped open the Iowa State game with a 26-yard TD catch and run. During a seven-week stretch, he caught just three passes, but threw a block that helped break a run that helped break Nebraska.

The rest of Iowa receiver is a pool of opportunity.

FIRST DOWN — SPRING AND BEYOND: The importance of spring practice varies by position. Iowa probably won't sort out No. 1 running back. Offensive and defensive linemen won't win or lose jobs.

The wide receiver ladder won't be written in pen, but it certainly won't hurt to put up good video.

-- It will be interesting to track Powell's growth. He's an exciting player, the kind of player you pay to see.

-- Willies is an interesting prospect. He's got great size and his speed is underrated. As a junior at Rock Island (Ill.) High School, Willies won the state title in the 300-meter hurdles (an injury kept him from repeating). He has been consistently mentioned during the "young guys during good things" question show.

-- Ferentz on Mitchell: “Not singling one guy out, but Derrick Mitchell made a good catch at our practice [ESPN announcer and Super Bowl-winning coach] Jon Gruden attended down there in Tampa [before the Outback Bowl]. I’m sure he was looking at the depth chart and figuring these coaches aren’t very smart. That kid looks like a good player [Gruden probably thought], wonder why he’s not playing?"

-- Ferentz quote that sums things up nicely for the redshirt freshmen receivers: "We’ll let those guys compete. The next question is they’ve shown some requisite ability, now they have to know everything to do with the offense, audibles and those kinds of things. They shouldn’t be at the level of Kevonte [senior wide receiver Martin-Manley] at this point, but how far can we push them in August to get them to compete and enter into the mix? That would be great for our football team.”

That would be good.

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