Iowa needs receivers, passing game to get back on track this season
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The Iowa wide receiver group is very close to "ballin.' " You know, "ballin.' "
"By 'ball,' as a wide receiver, I mean make plays," senior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said with a laugh when asked to define "ball." "Obviously, you have to catch the ball. You also have to make key blocks for the running backs. Once you do that, you have a complete game and I consider that to be ballin.'"
Ballin' would be a major step up from fallin' or stallin' or however you want to describe where the arc of Iowa's passing game began in 2012 when offensive coordinator Greg Davis took over for Ken O'Keefe.
In one year, quarterback James Vandenberg went from having the fourth-best season ever for an Iowa QB (3,022 yards, 25 TDs) to throwing just seven TD passes, the fewest by an Iowa team since six in 1999.
"We went through a huge transition, I can say that now, but it was a huge transition," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We changed our system nomenclature right on through. That was a challenge, and there was no easy way to get around that I don't think. And then we just weren't very experienced at some of the key positions. I still think it was a tough hand for James to be dealt, but that's the way it goes sometimes."
OK, that's spilled milk. Ferentz said he believes the passing game is in better position now. Here's why:
• Iowa fired wide receivers coach Erik Campbell after the 2012 season and hired Bobby Kennedy, who spent seven seasons working for Davis (2004-2010) at Texas. Suddenly, concepts were being translated. When Kennedy, who came to Iowa after a two-year stay at Colorado, arrived in Iowa City last year, he said he was friends with Campbell and called him a good coach.
"When I went into the University of Colorado, I'd never been in the west coast offense," he said. "I had a lot to learn, and it took me a little while. I think in this situation that there's some things that I see technique-wise or just understanding of the overall scheme that when I was able to come in and watch tape and watch tape of the guys, say, this is how I want this done rather than this way, and then explain it why.
"The reason why I'm able to do that, come in and have those opinions, I was in this offense for seven years, so I have a little better understanding maybe of what's going on, where it's like I said, when I went to the west coast offense and it was, wow, you know, I didn't realize how much I didn't know until I got there."
O'Keefe's and Davis' passing concepts have NFL characteristics. The big change is receivers are now asked to "read on the run" and make breaks with no set depth but to where they see holes in coverage.
The quarterback and the receiver have to see the same thing, and, yes, sorry for the 2012 flashback.
• Ferentz acknowledged this spring that the Iowa staff borrowed scholarships from the offensive line and poured them into wide receiver.
In 2013, Iowa signed five receivers. Sophomore Matt VandeBerg played (eight catches for 59 yards). A.J. Jones transferred after spring practice. Redshirt freshmen Derrick Willies, Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Andre Harris are in.
Kennedy has since turned down the hyperbole, but in the spring he said, "I'm really pleased that we decided to redshirt some of those guys, because I think they've got the ability to really maybe change not necessarily the face of our program but our ability outside to make plays."
The redshirts will try to elevate the base that's there. The wide receiver production from 2012 to 2013 is similar. The 2012 group caught 121 passes for 1,389 yards and four TDs. Last season, Iowa's receivers caught 115 passes for 1,434 yards and 10 TDs. In '12, just three wideouts (Martin-Manley, Keenan Davis and Jordan Cotton) broke into double digits for receptions. Last year, that number was five, with junior Tevaun Smith (24 receptions, 310 yards and a TD) and senior Damond Powell (12 receptions, 291 yards and two TDs) giving Iowa some explosion.
Martin-Manley has been Iowa's leading receiver in each of the last two years. He doesn't expect No. 1 targets among receivers. He knows he's going to have to earn that on a weekly basis.
"That's the great thing about this, that helps us all get better," Martin-Manley said. "Having more talent, having guys who can really ball. When everybody's good, it brings up the competition. The better the competition, the better you are."
Kennedy said in the spring that playing time for Iowa wide receivers wasn't going to come easily. That played out in August camp.
"There's more and more competition every year," Smith said. "The older you get, there's somebody else right behind you trying to take your spot. It's definitely motivation. It's good to be pushed, you don't want to feel like you've made it."
Now, that has to translate to a game. That's the next step, and Ferentz is happy to remind everyone.
"We're in a little better position right now, but the world can change fast, so it's just a matter of us right now, we've got to keep our foot on the gas," he said. "I'll go back to the point I made earlier, a guy like Tevaun Smith got better last year, but if he doesn't keep getting better, we can take that passing game and throw it in the garbage can."
And that is not the target.
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