By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – No one position makes or breaks a football recruiting class, but receiver is certainly a position of immense need for the Iowa football team.
You could say that every year about Iowa, but this year especially because of multiple factors, some of which were exposed during the 30-3 loss to Florida in the 2017 Outback Bowl.
Iowa's passing attack was woeful in the Outback Bowl and the receivers deserve a fair share of the blame for it.
Combine the need for receivers with Oliver Martin's sudden and improbable rise to mega-receiver recruit at nearby Iowa City West High School and you have a unique situation in which Iowa desperately needs to claim victory, at least with regard to public opinion.
The need to land Martin is magnified not only because of his hometown roots and four-star status, but also because of the position he plays.
Iowa doesn't draw the attention of four-star receiver recruits very often, and yet here is one living in its own backyard. It is important to land Martin from a public relations standpoint because it looks horrible when a local star chooses elsewhere, even more so if that elsewhere ends up being a Big Ten school.
There is no guarantee that Martin will be a star on the field at the next level. But it sure would look good on paper for Iowa to add a home-town receiver who has scholarship offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Oregon, Brigham Young and Florida among others.
So much of recruiting is basking in the moment. It is almost a sport by itself where verbal commitments equal victories that are celebrated and coverd like the first moon landing.
Iowa wants more receivers than just Martin to join the 2017 class, and one of them is New Jersey native Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who had been committed to Rutgers until announcing on Twitter on Monday that he was re-opening his recruiting. Smith-Marsette changed his mind about Rutgers just a day after returning from a recruiting visit to Iowa.
So now there is speculation he will pick Iowa, perhaps as soon as Tuesday.
Iowa still is pursuing multiple receivers barely a week before the national signing day, partly because of the drama that unfolded in November when Texas receivers Gavin Holmes and Beau Corrales both de-committed from Iowa's 2017 class, upset over Kirk Ferentz's no-visit policy for committed players. Holmes and Corrales have since committed to Baylor and North Carolina, respectively, while Iowa has added one additional receiver to the 2017 class with Wisconsin native Max Cooper commiting in mid-December.
Mississippi receiver Brandon Smith is also committed to Iowa's 2017 class.
There is no simple explanation for why Iowa has struggled to recruit and then develop quality receivers. Some attribute it to Iowa's reputation for being a run-first team under Ferentz.
Will that reputation change now that Ferentz has promoted his 33-year old son to offensive coordinator? Probably, not much.
But Brian Ferentz also brings a new, fresh perspective to the offense that ultimately could make Iowa more attractive to receivers. At this stage, though, there just hasn't been enough time for Brian Ferentz to make an impact.
"We need to go back and re-evaluate everything we've done and start there," Brian said when asked about the passing attack at his introductory press conference. "As we move toward 2017 and the future, it's important to look at the past. Since 1999, our program has been built on the mantra of tough, smart, and physical and that won't change, certainly not offensively.
"Our stated program goal is to win a Big Ten championship, and we understand that in order to compete at that level in this conference, we're going to need to have some flexibility and have the ability to change on a weekly basis and do what's best to win football games."
It is easy to see how Iowa has reached this critical stage at receiver.
Since 2010, Iowa has signed 19 receivers, but eight of them have either left the program with eligibility remaining or quit playing football, while two of them – tight end George Kittle and cornerback Greg Mabin – switched positions at Iowa.
That means more than half of Iowa's receiver recruits since 2010 haven't materialized at that position. That sobering statistic helps to explain why Iowa's passing attack struggled during much of Greg Davis' five-year run as offensive coordinator, which ended when he announced his retirement shortly after the Outback Bowl debacle.
Bobby Kennedy also has been relieved of his duties as Iowa receivers coach after four uneventful seasons, along with running backs coach Chris White.
Kittle and Mabin both were successful as Iowa football players, but neither contributed at receiver.
You could argue that Iowa's best receiver at the end of 2016 season was fifth-year senior Riley McCarron, who joined the program as a walk-on. That speaks well about McCarron, but not so well about Iowa's recruiting at receiver.
Iowa's best receiver right now is former gray-shirt recruit Matt VandeBerg. He recently was granted a medical hardship for a fifth season, which doesn't help Iowa's 2017 recruiting class, but should help the offense next season.
With the Feb. 1 national signing day barely a week from now, the next few days will be active on the recruiting trail with good and bad news breaking on an hourly basis. Iowa has 14 players committed to the 2017 class, with probably five or six spots still available.
Iowa suffered a blow on Tuesday when Alabama four-star linebacker Thomas Johnston committed to Alabama-Birmingham where he will play with his brother close to home. His pick came as a surprise because it was widely thought that Johnston had trimmed his list to Iowa, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
It always hurts losing a four-star recruit from a perception standpoint, but Johnston plays a position where Iowa often performs well.
So it doesn't have quite the sting as losing a four-star receiver would from a public relations standpoint. Especially one who lives just down the street.
The upside to all of this is Iowa's opportunity to sell playing time and opportunity to receivers after combining to win 20 games over the past two seasons. Iowa has its share of flaws and concerns, but a team doesn't win 20 games over two seasons by accident.
Coming and going
The Iowa football team has been rocked hard by attrition at receiver as more than half of the receiver recruits since 2010 have either left the program prematurely or switched positions at Iowa.
Players in bold either switched positions at Iowa or left the team with eligiblity remaining.
Devonte Young, 6-0, 190, Waldord, Md., two-star – One of 10 true freshmen to play this past season, but had no catches.
Jerminic Smith, 6-1, 175, Garland, Texas, three-star – Started nine game this past season and finished with 23 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns…one of four true freshmen to play for Iowa in 2015.
Adrian Falconer, 6-1, 185, Leesburg, Fla., three-star – played sparingly this past season but had no catches.
Emmanuel Ogwo, 6-0, 175, Mesquite, Texas, three-star – quit playing football after being redshirted as a true freshman in 2015 and now is a sprinter for the Iowa track team.
Jay Scheel, 6-1, 170, Mount Auburn, Iowa, four-star – Recruited as an athlete who then switched to receiver at Iowa…caught five passes 56 yards this past season before announcing earlier this month that he would quit playing football because of injuries.
Anjeus Jones, 6-3, 195, Dallas, Texas, two-star – Transferred from Iowa without having appeared in a game.
Damond Powell, 5-11, 175, Toledo, Ohio, three-star – played two seasons for Iowa after transferring from Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah…saw action in 26 games over two seasons…finished his senior season with 19 receptions for 317 touchdowns and three touchdowns in 2014…had 12 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns as a junior in 2013.
Matt VandeBerg, 6-1, 168, Brandon, S.D., two-star – Came to Iowa as a gray-shirt recruit and will leave as multi-year starter…has racked up 1,302 career receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 106 catches…missed the final nine games this past season because of a broken bone in his foot, but has since been granted a medical hardship and will return next season.
Andre Harris, 5-11, 157, Kirkwood, Mo., three-star – Never cracked the rotation before transferring out of the program before the start of the 2016 season.
Derrick Mitchell Jr., 6-0, 185, St. Louis, Mo., three-star – Switched from receiver to running back after coming to Iowa and played as a third-down back for much of the 2015 season…played sparingly this past season and now will graduate in May and then transfer to another school as a graduate student… finished Iowa career with 27 rushing attempts for 174 yards and three touchdowns and 21 receptions for 165 yards.
Derrick Willies, 6-3, 190, Rock Island, Ill., three-star – played sparingly at Iowa before announcing on Instagram midway through the 2014 season that he was leaving the program…currently attends Texas Tech where he is a reserve receiver.
George Kittle, 6-4, 200, Norman, Okla., three-star – switched to tight end after coming to Iowa and became a multi-year starter and key contributor.
Tevaun Smith, 6-2, 186, Toronto, Ontario, three-star – A key deep threat who finished second on the team as a senior in 2015 with 563 receiving yards on 32 receptions…had an 85-yard touchdown catch against Michigan State in the 2015 Big Ten Championship game.
Greg Mabin, 6-2, 190, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., three-star – switched from receiver to cornerback early in his Hawkeye career and became a three-year starter opposite of Desmond King.
Cameron Wilson, 6-2, 190, Dublin, Ohio, three-star – Caught 10 passes in a public scrimmage in 2013, but then left the team prior to the 2013 season.
Jacob Hillyer, 6-4, 190, Somerset, Texas, three-star – saw action in 52 games as a Hawkeye…played in all 14 games with eight starts as a senior in 2015…had 16 catches for 212 yards as a senior…saw action in all 14 games as a junior with four starts in 2014…excelled as a blocker.
Marcus Grant, 6-2, 190, Groton, Mass., three-star – transferred from Iowa to Boston College early in his career.
Kevonte Martin-Manley, 6-1, 190, Pontiac, Mich., two-star – Came to Iowa lightly recruited, but then left as the all-time leader in receptions with 174 catches.
Don Shumpert, 6-2, 185, St. Louis, Mo., three-star – came to Iowa as an athlete before switching to receiver where he lettered three times as a Hawkeye…his career totals include 21 catches for 211 yards.