IOWA CITY, Iowa – The story of Ramon Ochoa really came out of nowhere in the fall of 2003, even though he didn’t.
Ochoa already had been a member of the Iowa football program for four years, redshirting as a true freshman in 1999 under then first-year head coach Kirk Ferentz.
But Ochoa only had five career receptions heading into his senior season in 2003 and little was expected from him.
Iowa already had two established receivers in senior Maurice Brown and sophomore Ed Hinkel. It was thought that Ochoa would be a complementary piece at receiver, somebody who could provide depth and maturity as a fifth-year senior.
Ochoa provided both of those things plus a whole lot more in what became a breakthrough season for him in 2003.
His emergence didn’t happen under the greatest of circumstances, considering it came in the wake of Brown and Hinkel both being injured.
Iowa desperately needed somebody to step up at receiver and the under-sized Ochoa met the huge challenge. He went from catching five passes combined in his first three seasons as a Hawkeye to catching 34 as a senior for 477 and six touchdowns.
He also excelled as a punt returner and never was the more evident than during a 30-27 homecoming victory over Michigan in which Ochoa racked up 133 return yards. He also scored Iowa’s final touchdown in that game on a 31-yard pass from quarterback Nathan Chandler.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Ochoa embodied Iowa’s next-man-in philosophy in 2003. He seized the opportunity when it presented itself.
The same thing needs to happen now as Iowa faces another injury dilemma at receiver heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium.
Senior Matt VandeBerg is out indefinitely after breaking his foot in practice on Monday. He leads Iowa with 19 receptions, while the other receivers on the team have combined for just 15 catches in four games.
Sophomore Jerminic Smith and fifth-year senior Riley McCarron are listed as the starters for the Northwestern game, ahead of sophomores Jay Scheel and Ronald Nash.
Other options at receiver include junior Jonathan Parker, who is now healthy after being out with a foot injury, true freshman Devonte Young, redshirt freshman Ryan Boyle and junior walk-on Connor Keane among others.
It is reasonable to think that at least two of the receivers have to become reliable options for quarterback C.J. Beathard in order for the offense to reach its potential.
Opponents will load the box to stop the run if Iowa struggles to sustain a passing attack.
“We’ve done a good job of having the next-man-in philosophy,” Beathard said. “Matt will be missed. But it’s just an opportunity for another person to get in there and show what he can do and play well for us."
Iowa’s next-man-in philosophy shined brightest against Northwestern last season. The Hawkeyes shredded the Wildcats for 294 rushing yards and cruised to a 40-10 victory in Evanston, Ill., despite being depleted on the offensive line and at running back after Jordan Canzeri was injured early in the game and didn’t return.
“That was probably the highlight of the year that way because that’s when things were really kind of hitting it pretty good,” Ferentz said. “But that’s one thing I’ll always remember about last year’s football team is typically when you have a really good season, things go pretty cleanly on the injury front, and last year that was hardly the case. Jordan Canzeri getting injured during the game was kind of a showcase example of that.
“But good teams find a way to win. They find a way to be successful. They find a way to adjust, and it involves other people picking up the rope a little bit when something happens. We’re confident that will happen. Ironically Jay Scheel was doing really well, then he got injured. Fortunately, now he’s coming back. It would be wonderful to have everybody at full speed, but it just doesn’t seem to work out that way.”
One person’s misfortune is another person’s opportunity. That is basically what VandeBerg’s injury comes down to at this point.
Iowa needs somebody to lift his level of performance beyond what has been reached so far. They need two or three receivers to contribute more than what originally was expected from them.
In other words, they need somebody to step up just like Ochoa did 13 years ago.
Iowa would go on to finish 10-3 in 2003, thanks partly to Ochoa starring as the next man in.
Something tells me that Ochoa’s name probably came up a few times this week while Ferentz was addressing his team.