IOWA CITY, Iowa – On the first day of training camp a few weeks ago, Kelton Copeland gathered up Iowa’s receivers and told them they’d be questioned by outsiders. The position coach let them know their lack of experience would be a key talking point.
As the words left his mouth, the players began smiling in a we’ll-show-them kind of way. It’s the reaction he hoped to receive.
“We are ready for the challenge,” Copeland said. “There’s no need to beat our chest and say this who we are. We just need to put our head down, go to work every single day and produce.”
Copeland inherited the least experienced group on the team when he took the job this winter. Senior Matt VanderBerg, who missed most of last season and the spring with a broken foot, was the only receiver on the roster to catch a Division I college pass (graduate transfer Matt Quarells could change that if his paper work goes through).
Iowa lost last year’s leading receiver Riley McCarron to graduation. Second-leading receiver Jerminic Smith transferred out in the spring after being suspended for academic issues. Even with those two, the passing game was a mess last year despite NFL draft pick C.J. Beathard playing quarterback.
The combination of offensive coordinator Greg Davis and receiver coach Bobby Kennedy produced a passing offense that ranked 118th (153.2 YPG) out of 128 FBS programs. They couldn’t take advantage of running backs Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels becoming the first teammates in school history to each rush for more than 1,000 yards, which should have loosed things up.
Fair or not, Iowa is known as a school that doesn’t throw the ball enough. That stereotype, along with other components, make it difficult to attract big-name prospects at the position. Development is key.
It makes sense that Copeland is focusing on it during this camp and beyond. The main goal is efficiency, from footwork to hand placement to recognition.
“We need to be efficient. Those quarterbacks are depending on us to be exactly where we need to be when we need to be there,” he said. “We’re focused on it every day. These kids have done a tremendous job of being accountable. If I ask them to come in early, we need to get this done, they’re there. If we need to stay late, they’re there. They have a great attitude.”
Copeland said VandeBerg (106 catches, 1,302 yards, 8 touchdowns, 41 games) is helping tutor the young guys. The group includes juniors Nick Easley and Adrian Falconer, sophomore Devonte Young, and true freshmen Max Cooper, Henry Marchese, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
Easley, a walk-on from Iowa Western Community College, created a buzz this spring following an impressive showing in offseason conditioning. Copeland said the Newton (IA) High product has continued to produce and begun leading.
Copeland sees progress in Falconer and Young, who have been on the field but haven’t caught a pass. It’s a roller coaster ride for the true freshmen. There are good days and bad as they’re absorbing the playbook.
“There’s no doubt we’ll need at least one or two of them to contribute. Common sense says that if you look at our depth chart somebody in that group is going to have to play,” said Copeland, who began preparing them before they arrived on campus.
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The newcomers are receiving a crash course in the college game. Copeland is pushing them through as many reps as he can every day.
“Accelerated math is what we’re doing. We’re at Algebra 2 stage right now,” he said.
Copeland said their eyes were wide the first day in pads as they worked on blocking. It’s importance hasn’t changed since he and new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz took over.
“They knew when they signed up they were going to block. It’s fun to catch passes but here at Iowa as a receiver you’re going to block and you’re going to be physical,” he said.
Copeland and his crew still are working their way through the early stages of rebuilding the position. While it’s been maligned through the years, it’s not been a wasteland.
The three players with the most career receptions in program history all came through here during that time. Kevonte Martin-Manley (’11-14), Darrell Johnson-Koulianos (’07-’10) and Marvin McNutt (’08-11) have been the only guys to catch at least 170 passes.
While Copeland would like more experience, he can mold a young group into what he wants in hopes of returning the position to the production it saw during the times of Martin-Manley, Johnson-Koulianos and McNutt.
Copeland, 37, coached receivers and special teams last season at Northern Illinois, after spending three campaigns tutoring the running backs there. He came to DeKalb following stints coaching receivers at South Dakota and Coffeyville (KS) Community College.
“Every situation is unique. This is just a new challenge. I’ve never experienced this big of a challenge but I’m excited about it,” he said.
Copeland believes a key to teaching is learning how to best get through to each of his players. He wants to give them as much as they can handle but not too much. There’s a delicate balance.
“My job as a coach is to find out the mental capacity and how each kid learns. If someone is working to grasp one thing, I don’t want to push them onto something else until they’ve figured it out first. It’s my job to always monitor that,” he said.
Copeland said he doesn’t use the doubt surrounding his position as motivation. He proceeds with an inner drive for he and the receivers to be the best that they can be.
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“We’re inexperienced so we have to go out and we have to produce as a position. That in itself is enough motivation and that’s the biggest challenge. All the outside noise and what people are saying we’re really not concerned with. If we do what we’re suppose to do and produce, at the end of the day, people will know us and respect us,” he said.
It remains to be seen if improved production will translate into picking up higher profile recruits. It doesn’t seem to be a big concern for Copeland.
“Not every kid can come here and be successful. And that’s OK. We don’t want every kid. We want the ones that want to be here and the ones that believe in how we do things,” he said.
“There are plenty of receivers that would love to play in this type of system. Some guys don’t want to play in this type of system and that’s fine. The good thing is there’s more than one option for recruits and there’s more than one option for schools. There’s plenty to go around and we’ll find the right ones.”
Copeland believes Iowa’s pro-style system should attract prospects working to be NFL players. The name itself denotes it prepares you for the next level.
“A lot of these recruits want to go to these flashy systems, which is fine. I’ve coached in those, too. But if your true aspiration is to play on Sundays, then you might want to look hard at a place that’s going to get you ready to play on Sundays. That would be my two cents about that,” he said.
While developing NFL talent can help open more doors in recruiting and Copeland would like to make it happen, it’s not his main focus. He desires to make his guys the best they can be here and prepare them for life after football.
“No matter what, whether you go to the NFL or you don’t, every day somebody has to hang up their cleats. After that, you have to be a productive human being somewhere in life. My No. 1 job as a coach is to teach them how to be a productive human. Be a great man and handle your business,” he said.
Chances are if players follow the plan Copeland sets out for them, they’ll increase their chances of continuing their football careers after Iowa. It’s a format that works at other positions in this program, which is why he wanted to join it.
“I found out quick that not only was this a place where I could be but where I wanted to be. I wanted to work in this type system and work with these type of coaches. They’re great men on the field but also off the field and that’s what I was looking for,” he said.