By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Five years is a life time for a college student-athlete.
And with life comes change, sometimes lots of change as Iowa receiver Matt VandeBerg could attest to as a fifth-year senior.
When VandeBerg first arrived on campus in 2013 as a skinny, under-valued freshman from South Dakota, neither Jake Rudock nor C.J. Beathard had played in a game for the Hawkeyes; former Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis was entering his second season in that job; Jim Harbaugh still was two years from returning to his alma mater as head coach; Conor McGregor still hadn’t introduced himself to mainstream society; former Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell was entering his first season as the Purdue head coach; Iowa's four freshmen receivers were just starting high school and Rick Heller had yet to coach the Iowa baseball team in a game.
VandeBerg also wasn’t married at the time.
“I was actually thinking about that, since January I think we’ve added nine receivers to the room,” VandeBerg said. “So that‘s a brand new room.”
The fall of 2013 for VandenBerg was the beginning of a journey whose conclusion still is uncertain.
He finally is healthy after suffering the same foot injury twice in less than a year, and his team is counting on him to make plays and to be a leader, beginning with Saturday’s season opener against Wyoming at Kinnick Stadium.
Take away VandeBerg’s 106 career receptions and the other receivers on the team have combined for 13 catches. And they were all made by graduate transfer Matt Quarrels during his two seasons at New Mexico.
Sophomore Devonte Young is part of Iowa’s new group of receivers, and he sort of symbolizes the group in that he played sparingly as a true freshman last season and had no catches.
“This year, since I’m a year older, I’m just trying to get better and develop on the field,” said Young.
The time is now for Young and his cohorts at receiver to step up and show that VandeBerg has a supporting cast that new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and new receivers coach Kelton Copeland can rely on to make plays. Football is the ultimate team sport, and it’s hard to see this Iowa team reaching its potential without the receivers contributing.
Nate Stanley will need all the help he can get as he takes over as Iowa’s new starting quarterback with hardly any game experience. Stanley has to count on his receivers to make some plays, because despite how much talent there is at running back with Akrum Wadley and graduate transfer James Butler, Iowa can’t win being one-dimensional.
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Much has been said and written about the four true freshmen receivers on the team, and it now looks as if three of them will play this season, including Mississippi native Brandon Smith, who is listed as VandeBerg’s backup at split end.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Max Cooper also are in position to play on Saturday, according to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
The fourth freshman receiver is Henry Marchese, who might be a redshirt candidate.
“Just pushing forward; every day is a grind,” VandeBerg said when asked about the four freshmen receivers on Tuesday. “Three weeks of camp, obviously, that’s different than anything you do in high school when you come here and participate.
“But just pushing forward, and that’s really the only thing we can ask is as long as there here to get better each day, then we’re moving forward.”
The fact that Quarells has climbed up the depth chart so quickly either says something good about him or not-so-good about the other receivers.
Time will tell.
Junior-college transfer Nick Easley also made the depth chart shortly after joining the team in the spring and the Newton native is now listed as a starter.
Iowa has struggled to stretch the field with its passing attack, but it might have the makings for a solution to that problem with the speedy Smith-Marsette.
The New Jersey native is the fastest receiver on the team, according to Young, who is pretty fast himself.
Smith-Marsette looked unusually fast for an Iowa receiver at the Kids Day practice on Aug. 12 at Kinnick Stadium. He often blew past his defender and could be in the mix just based on his speed alone.
We know that VandeBerg will be in the mix because he’s been in the mix since joining the program. An injury is all that has stopped him.
VandeBerg also will return punts, which is sort of surprise because of the injury.
But you can’t go through life scared. Sometimes, you have to throw caution to wind and take your chances.
VandeBerg didn’t plan on being in this position a year ago. He was four games into his senior season when he suffered a broken foot in practice. He then suffered the same injury again in February.
VandeBerg was granted a medical hardship and is thrilled to be a Hawkeye for another season because he loves the college experience.
That is one thing that hasn’t changed since he arrived on campus.