Iowa Football: Who Needs to Step Up After Loss of Matt VandeBerg

Nov 14, 2015; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Matt VandeBerg (89) signals for a first down against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the first quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

A look at who needs to step up following the loss of Matt VandeBerg

Usually homecoming week is an extremely fun time. There’s a home football game and former players come back to Iowa City to watch. This year, the Iowa Hawkeyes are taking on a good opponent in Northwestern that should provide the crowd with a good game. For a senior, it’s even better. It’s their last homecoming and there’s no better time to get the season back on track.

For Matt VandeBerg, it could not have been any worse. The senior wide receiver broke his foot in practice on Monday and is now out indefinitely. Kirk Ferentz told media that there is a chance he could return for a bowl game, although even that is up in the air.

VandeBerg is one of the few players the Hawkeyes couldn’t afford to lose. Their wide receiver core has been very sub-par this year, and VandeBerg has been one of the lone bright spots in the passing game. He leads the team in receptions (19), receiving yards (284), and receiving touchdowns (3).

Since VandeBerg didn’t redshirt as a freshman, his Iowa football career might not be over. There is a chance that the NCAA will grant him another year of eligibility, although that would mean he wouldn’t be able to play in anymore games for the Hawkeyes this season. If Iowa made a bowl game, VandeBerg would have only played in about 30.8 percent of the Hawkeyes games this season, putting him right at the maximum 30 percent mark that the NCAA requires when granting a medical redshirt year.

While gaining another year or eligibility would be great for VandeBerg and the Hawkeyes, Iowa has problems they have to deal with this week. They’re taking on a very tough defense and replacing their leading receiver won’t be easy.

Therefore, here are three players that need to step up the rest of the year.

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Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

TE, George Kittle

The Iowa Hawkeyes have a long history of producing NFL-caliber tight ends, and George Kittle is no different. After being shut out in the season opener, which included dropping a potential touchdown, Kittle has quickly returned to form. He ranks second on the team in receptions (10), yards (192), and touchdowns (2).

Despite being on pace to catch six touchdowns for the second consecutive season, the Hawkeyes need him to become an even bigger threat in the red zone. He’s no longer backing up Henry Krieger-Coble, therefore his big body will be the first option in the red zone for C.J. Beathard with VandeBerg out.

Other than his dropped touchdown against Miami (OH), Kittle has been very effective in the red zone. He’s more than just a red zone target, though.

Last week against Rutgers, Kittle was able to get open twice and Beathard capitalized. Kittle led the team with 56 yards and scored the first touchdown of the game on a 36-yard touchdown reception. With the Hawkeyes’ receivers inability to create separation this season, it has forced Kittle into an even bigger role.

Last week is a perfect example of why Kittle is so much more than just a red zone target. Of course, with Beathard’s top target in that area out, Kittle will have to increase his production. Although, it’s evident that he can shake free from defenders and be a dump-off option for a hurried Beathard, resulting in big gains.

George Kittle leads the team with 19.2 yards per reception, and there’s a good chance he leads the team in receiving yards this season, a rare feat for a tight end. He and Beathard have had a connection since last season and it’s only gotten stronger over the past couple of weeks. Although, it’ll be a big change to become the top option on the team after not assuming that role during college before.

A common phrase is used when a key player goes down — next man up. If that’s the case for Iowa, then George Kittle is that man. VandeBerg racked up receptions and yards, leaving the big plays for Kittle, but now he needs to take on a role not many tight ends in the nation have — being a top option in the offense.

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Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

RB, Akrum Wadley

The injury to Matt VandeBerg will likely force Kirk Ferentz to go back to what he’s done his entire coaching career — run the ball. Sure, that means more carries for Akrum Wadley, although LeShun Daniels Jr will benefit the most in terms of carries. That being said, Wadley’s ability as a pass catcher will be even more important.

The Hawkeyes have struggled to find consistent contributions outside of Matt VandeBerg and George Kittle this season. However, a somewhat surprising contributor has been Akrum Wadley. He currently ranks second on the team in receptions (7) and receiving touchdowns (1), and also owns the third most receiving yards (92), as well.

The fact of the matter is that Jerminic Smith and Riley McCarron have been very ineffective outside of a couple of big plays. That could lead to an increased role for the 5-11 running back as a slot receiver. He’s quick, wouldn’t need to run complex routes and has good hands. I’d expect to see Wadley act as a slot receiver some against Northwestern, and even more so as the year goes on if Smith or McCarron don’t separate themselves from the rest of the receiver core.

Not to mention that Wadley flashed his undeniable speed against Iowa State when he burned the Cyclones secondary for an easy 25-yard touchdown. Of course, not every team will have as weak of a secondary as Iowa State has, although Wadley doesn’t need to act as a home run threat.

He’d have an eerily similar role to Danny Woodhead of the San Diego Chargers or Theo Riddick of the Detroit Lions. Both are smaller backs who rack up receptions from out of the backfield and as slot receivers, although mostly go for solid 8-to-10 yard gains.

When it comes down to it, the Hawkeyes need playmakers on offense. Their offense has gone stagnant over the past two weeks and Wadley is one of the few playmakers they have on offense.

He’ll still get his fair share of carries and won’t line up as a receiver every play. However, capitalizing on his pass-catching ability and putting he and Daniels in the game at the same time could help the Hawkeyes offense find rhythm in the coming weeks.

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Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

WR, Jerminic Smith

Someone in the wide receiver core has to step up. Outside of Matt VandeBerg, Iowa wide receivers have combined to record 15 receptions, 190 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that dwindle in comparison to his numbers through four games.

Whether it’s Jay Scheel, Riley McCarron or Jerminic Smith, the Hawkeyes can’t only rely on George Kittle and their run game. While neither Scheel nor Smith are slot receivers, the Hawkeyes will likely look towards Smith in this group to increase his production.

According to Marc Morehouse, Beathard has targeted Smith the most, and he’s also has played the most snaps out of the wide receiver core, outside of Matt VandeBerg. He has racked up just seven catches, 97 yards and a touchdown in 2016, but there’s no doubt he has talent, and always has a chance to make a big play.

Looking at how often C.J. Beathard targets him, there’s no doubt that there is an innate connection between the two, and Smith has already been the star in a game this season. In the season opener against Miami (OH), Smith caught three passes for 51 yards and a touchdown, not to mention also carrying the ball for 10 yards.

Smith is versatile and has extraordinary leaping ability to rise over defenders. He became non-existent over the next two games, however came up with two grabs for 26 yards against Rutgers a week ago. His big plays are telling of the type of explosive receiver he is, and also his ability to get open in a game where even VandeBerg had a hard time shaking his defender off.

Including Matt VandeBerg, Jerminic Smith is arguably the most explosive receiver on the team. As a freshman last season, he averaged 23.5 yards per reception on his six grabs. He knows how to make big plays and that’s what Iowa needs.

In reality, Smith needs to be a more consistent target, though. He’s reeled in just seven of 17 targets (41.2 percent). To say that he needs to become equivalent to VandeBerg is nuts, but he does have the chance to become the team’s top receiver the rest of the way if he’s more than just a home run target.

In the end, whether it’s Smith, Scheel or McCarron, someone needs to try to fill the void VandeBerg has left. Their game against Northwestern this week will be very telling of who C.J. Beathard will favor the rest of the season, however, based on the first third of the season, Jerminic Smith is the early breakout candidate from this wide receiver core.

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