IOWA CITY, Iowa - Upon arriving at Iowa after 13 years coaching at Texas, offensive coordinator Greg Davis realized quickly the cavernous gap between the speed of receivers at the Big Ten school compared to its Big 12 counterpart. Upgrading the Hawkeyes quickness served as his first order of business.
Davis' comment regarding a lack of speed rang loud because it's not the type of criticism normally emanating from the Iowa Football Complex. Head Coach Kirk Ferentz has built a fortress of solitude when it comes to internal critiques even when shortcomings are obvious to casual fans.
The Hawkeyes have addressed Davis' concerns during recruiting the last few cycles. We should begin seeing if the issue has been resolved this season as more of those players start hitting the field.
Rock Island Receiver Derrick Willies grabbed most of the April headlines with an impressive spring game performance. The redshirt freshman showed a well-rounded skill set of size and speed. Classmates Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Andre Harris also honed their talents while sitting out last season.
The new guys are expected to push veterans Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith, Jacob Hillyer, Riley McCarron and Damond Powell. True sophomore Matt Vandeberg might possess the best hands of the group and surprised many folks by advancing past others in the '13 recruiting class to play right away.
Ferentz brought in Bobby Kennedy to coach the position last season after he spent seven years with Davis at Texas. The head Hawkeye has dedicated scholarships and other resources to upgrading his wideouts. It's time for a rise in production.
Let's take a closer look at Iowa's wide receiver position heading into 2014:
Contenders: Tevaun Smith (6-2, 200), true junior; Kevonte Martin-Manley (6-0, 205), redshirt senior; Jacob Hillyer (6-4, 208), redshirt junior; Derrick Willies (6-4, 210), redshirt freshman; Damond Powell (5-11, 180), redshirt senior; Riley McCarron (5-9, 185), redshirt sophomore; Andre Harris (6-0, 180), redshirt freshman; Derrick Mitchell Jr. (6-1, 205), redshirt freshman; Matt Vandeberg (6-1, 175), true sophomore; Jay Scheel (6-1, 170), true freshman.
The Favorites: Martin-Manley and Smith lined up as the starters in January's Outback Bowl and they have the inside track on holding down those spots to start '14.
Breakdown: Martin-Manley enters his senior season looking to put everything together. Cleaning up his dropped passes would go a long way in him realizing his full potential.
The Michigan product has caught 92 passes for 959 yards and seven touchdowns combined the last two seasons. He emerged in '13 as a punt return threat, averaging 15.7 yards per attempt to rank second in the conference and eighth nationally. Much of that damage came with against Western Michigan when he brought two balls back for scores.
Smith opened eyes during the Kinnick Stadium finale last year against Michigan. The Canadian revived a sullen crowd with a key 55-yard touchdown catch to ignite the Hawkeyes' second-half comeback in a 24-21 win. He finished the day with five grabs for 97 yards.
While Martin-Manley owns the experience, Smith offers the complete package. Smith emerging as the team's top receiving threat in '13 should not surprise anyone.
Hillyer blossomed into his role as a red zone weapon last fall. At 6-4, 208 pounds, the tall Texan provided a big target and a reliable third-down option for quarterback Jake Rudock.
Powell's reputation proceeded him last summer when he arrived from junior college as a speed threat the team lacked. He furthered his legend with a big play on Kids Day in August. When he took a short pass and raced 74 yards for a touchdown in the Big Ten opener at Minnesota, the intrigue grew.
Team's caught on to what Iowa was doing with Powell, however, and took away those catch-and-run options. He failed to record a reception in the last four games, proving he would need to become a more well-rounded receiver to fully utilize his speed in the Iowa offense.
Vandeberg transformed from an expected gray-shirt coming to campus last summer to a reliable wideout when his red shirt came off in Week 2 against Missouri State. He started the last two regular season games against Michigan and Nebraska. Rudock looked to the South Dakota pass catcher to make key plays in the spring game.
Willies went wild in the spring game, catching just about everything thrown his way and finding running room after getting the ball. Exciting April performances haven't always translated into September success, but this young man has an exciting skill set if he continues to develop and add strength.
McCarron, a walk-on from Dubuque Wahlert, enjoyed a solid summer last year and it translated into playing time during the season. He's cut in the same mold as Vandeberg, a guy who can make plays underneath the defense and in traffic.
Mitchell and Harris come to Iowa from St. Louis and both are excellent athletes who still are developing as receivers. It's tough to say when it will all comes together for them but they're in the mix for playing time now that their redshirt season is behind them.
Similar to Mitchell and Harris, Scheel likely will need time to develop at wideout. With a deep depth chart ahead of him, a redshirt campaign might do him well for the future.
If nothing else, the competition at receiver has grown during Davis' first two seasons in Iowa City. Out of the large group, one would hope a solid set of options has emerged.
Like the situation at running back, Davis and Kennedy can use August and the non-conference season to see what they have here and define roles. With a second-year starter at quarterback and experience at receiver, a significant rise in production should be expected.
RWI (Rob Worry Index): Moderate (other choices are Extreme, Significant, Faint and Absent).