Iowa football: Previewing the WR position

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Kevonte Martin-Manley hopes to lead the Hawkeyes passing game to new heights this season.

A couple of years ago, Iowa had two of the best wide receivers to ever wear black and gold for the Hawkeyes in Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. Then when they graduated, Iowa was left with a slot receiver as the number one option and a couple of drop happy athletes. Since then, Iowa has hit the recruiting trail hard and picked up a number of wide receiver options with both junior college and high school prospects. Now the receiver position isn’t exactly a strength; but it isn’t in dire need as it was two seasons ago.


Kevonte Martin-Manley (#11, Senior (RS), 6-feet, 205 pounds, Brother Rice HS (Pontiac, MI))

Martin-Manley is much better than his numbers indicate. His receiving statistics aren’t great at all, with 122 receptions, 1282 yards, and 10 touchdowns in 3 seasons. To compare, McNutt had 33 more yards and two more touchdowns in his senior than Martin-Manley has collected his whole career. Now McNutt was one hell of a player and a totally different type of wide receiver as Martin-Manley, but the biggest difference was quarterback play.

James Vandenberg had possibly the worst season ever as a Hawkeye quarterback Martin-Manley’s sophomore season. Martin-Manley had 52 receptions and 571 yards that year to go along with 3 touchdowns. Vandenberg really struggled that year and when your quarterback has a down year like that, the wide receiver numbers typically go down.

Last season Jake Rudock performed better than Vandenberg, especially in the touchdown department, but there were more options at wide out that season. Also, offensive coordinator Greg Davis incorporated more tight end into the passing games and consistently switched wide receivers in and out.  As a result, Martin-Manley’s numbers dropped down to 40 receptions for only 388 yards. His touchdowns did go up to five though.

Martin-Manley did impact the game in other ways as he brought two punt returns back for touchdowns and was second in the Big Ten in punt return average. He most likely will man that spot again this season and prove to be successful. He does fair catch a lot as he only returned 20 all year, so hopefully he will return more this season as he was very successful when he did.

As a receiver this season, Martin-Manley will continue to be Iowa’s number one option. With the emergence of other wide receivers, Martin-Manley will be able to play in the slot, a position he is most comfortable with. Iowa now has a quarterback poised for a pretty good statistical season and with it, Martin-Manley’s numbers should go up with it. Expect around 50 receptions for about 500 yards and 5 touchdowns. He won’t have an amazing year but with the number of wide receivers Iowa has suddenly obtained, Iowa doesn’t need him to have one. He will be Iowa’s dependable option, when they need a big catch, they will look for him.

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Tevaun Smith (#4, Junior, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, The Kent School (CT))

Smith had a very interesting sophomore year. He was quiet for the first five games only catching the ball 4 times. Then, in a 6 game stretch starting with Michigan State, he had 20 receptions for 265 yards and a touchdown. Then he disappeared for the last two games of the season not logging in any statistics.

As a wide receiver, Smith shows great promise. Last season was basically his first season with meaningful playing time and it showed at times. But in that 6 game stretch, he showed great hands, good speed, and used his size well. All that was highlighted in his touchdown against Michigan where he had a great one handed catch, broke an arm tackle, juked a defender, and out ran the rest of the team to the endzone.

As talked about with Martin-Manley, there are a lot of wide receivers so the available receptions are limited. Smith should have a better year than last year but it will be more noticeable on the football field than by looking at statistics. Smith should have around 30 receptions for 350 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

Jacob Hillyer (#17, Junior (RS), 6-foot-4, 208 pounds, Somerset (TX) HS)

Hillyer is right now listed as the starter but he is in the most precarious position as the starter as he has Damond Powell behind him. Hillyer had a quiet year as he only logged in 11 receptions for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns. He showed early in the season that he is a quality redzone target as he scored a great touchdown against Iowa State to secure the win.

He has great size at 6-foot-4 and looks like a great possession receiver. He will get plenty of looks in the multiple wide receiver formations but when Iowa only has 2 receivers on the field at a time; Iowa might go with Martin-Manley and Smith over him. Hillyer should have improved numbers but he still won’t have an amazing statistical season. Expect around 20 receptions for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Damond Powell (#22, Senior, 5’11, 180 pounds, Snow C.C. (UT))

If any wide receiver on this Hawkeye team is going to have a break out year, my money is on Powell. He isn’t starting right now, but based on how he played in the spring practices, he looked like a starter. He came to Iowa last year after leading the junior college ranks in yards per reception with 30 yards per catch. The coaches said to temper the expectations for Powell as he came to the team late and had to learn the whole playbook yet the fans awaited for him to explode on the scene.

Powell started off strong in the first four games averaging 51.5 yards per catch, albeit with only 4 receptions. One of those receptions was off a bubble screen against Minnesota where he took it 74 yards for a score. After that though, he was mostly treated as a decoy. As he didn’t know too much of the play book, he either ran screens or fly routes. Powell’s production fell off as a result of that and only averaged 10.6 yards per catch for the rest of the season.

The coaches said this summer that he knows the playbook now and is ready to go. He also has bulked up as the coaches said that he even though he was listed at 180 pounds, he was more around 160. He has blazing speed and it will show when he gets the ball in his hands. He isn’t listed like a starter but I expect that to change. He should lead the team in yards per reception and will have something like 30 receptions for around 500 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

Matt VandeBerg (#89, Sophomore, 6-foot-1, 175 lbs., Brandon Valley HS (Brandon, SD))

VandeBerg is the back-up slot receiver behind Martin-Manley. He avoided a redshirt last year and actually started 2 games as a true freshman. He didn’t have great stats as he only had 8 receptions for 59 yards, but he got those with limited playing time. When he was on the field he was very reliable. The coaches have lauded that he catches everything thrown at him in practice and is a very hard worker.

He is still really young but he is talented. He won’t get too much playing time as he is behind Martin-Manley, but he will see some action. Expect around 15 receptions for around 100 yards. He will be Iowa’s main slot receiver next year though.

Derrick Willies (#18, Freshman (RS), 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Rock Island (IL) HS)

Derrick Willies was the talk of the spring practices as he exploded onto the scene in the first open practice and then again in the spring game. Willies caught 7 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown at the West Des Moines Valley High School football stadium for the first open practice. Willies once again produced with 5 receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

He has great size at wide receiver at 6-foot-4 and showed deceptive speed in the spring practices. He is listed behind Smith but should get some quality playing time if he continues to play as well as he did this spring. Willies could have around 15 receptions this year and that would be a good number for a redshirt freshman. Look for him to be the main man in a couple of years once the starters all graduate.