Big Ten: Matt VandeBerg

Spring breakout player: Iowa

May, 14, 2014
May 14
10:30
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With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

Next up, a bright spot at a position group suddenly flush with depth on the Iowa roster:

Spring breakout player: WR Derrick Willies

Midway through spring practice at Iowa last month, Willies announced his arrival with a big performance as the Hawkeyes caravanned to West Des Moines for a public scrimmage. Under-recruited out of Rock Island, Ill., the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman caught seven balls for 148 yards and a touchdown.

He did it largely against Iowa’s defensive reserves, though, so questions remained.

Was it indicative of his ability to help the Hawkeyes in 2014? Could he really challenge for meaningful playing time amid a talented corps of receivers that includes seniors Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell in addition to junior Tevaun Smith?

Yes and yes.

Willies followed with an impressive showing on April 26 in Iowa’s spring game at Kinnick Stadium. He grabbed five passes for 142 yards, including a 42-yarder touchdown from backup quarterback C.J. Beathard.

Despite two receptions that covered more than 80 yards, a short route near the sideline was what impressed coach Kirk Ferentz the most. On that play, Willies dragged a foot before falling out of bounds.

“He’s this year’s spring sensation,” the coach told reporters after the spring game, “so we’ll have to keep him in check. But he had a great catch on our sideline, and he’s doing good things.”

His emergence should help the Hawkeyes field a receiving corps as deep as any coached by Ferentz, entering his 16th season in Iowa City. With Jake Rudock back at quarterback, the passing game looks set up for success.

A former high school hurdler and state-champion sprinter, Willies sat quietly before spring practice among classmates Matt VandeBerg, Derrick Mitchell and Andre Harris. Each looked to announce his arrival.

Consider Willies arrived.

“He’s a talented player,” Martin-Manley said after the spring game. “He plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of heart.”

Iowa spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
10:00
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Iowa.

Three things we learned in the spring
Three questions for the fall
  • How will the secondary come together?: Cornerback Desmond King is a bona fide star after his breakout freshman season, but the Hawkeyes need to find a starter at free safety, where Jordan Lomax and Anthony Gair continue to compete. Opposite King, Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper are even, and John Lowdermilk is trying to maintain an edge on Nico Law at strong safety.
  • Who will take the lead at running back?: Iowa knows it can rely on senior Mark Weisman, but he’s fought injuries and likely can’t survive an entire season of pounding between the tackles. Junior Jordan Canzeri offers intriguing athleticism. The New Yorker rushed for 481 yards last season, including a 165-yard performance at Purdue.
  • Can the defensive line live up to its billing?: These guys are good, no doubt. Anchored by tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, both of whom started all 13 games a year ago, the Hawkeyes’ front four likely rates as the strength of the entire team. Juniors Drew Ott and Mike Hardy bring experience to the end spots. If this group improves like it did last season, look out.
One way too early prediction

Brandon Scherff will take home some hardware in December. He was denied a spot by the league’s media on the All-Big Ten first team as a junior. There will be no such worry in 2014. In fact, Scherff will vie for the Outland Trophy and earn a spot on All-America teams from his left tackle spot after opting to turn down a chance at the NFL this offseason.

Spring game preview: Iowa

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
10:30
AM ET
Spring football ends Saturday in the Big Ten. I'll give you a moment to compose yourself. Wipe those tears away. Football will be back soon enough.

Three teams wrap up their sessions and we're taking a look at each. Here's what to expect from Iowa at its annual spring scrimmage.

When: 3 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Admission: Free. Fans are invited to join Iowa and the Johnson County Crisis Center in bringing nonperishable food items for the ANF Food Bank Drive. Collection bins will be found at all the open entrances to the stadium. The west and south stands are open for seating, and fans can enter through Gates A, F and G. Free parking is available in all university lots around the stadium.

TV: Streaming at BTN2Go.com

Weather forecast: Mostly sunny, high of 73 degrees, winds at 15 mph

What to watch for: The Hawkeyes will pit the offense against the defense and use a modified scoring system that, in addition to standard scores, awards points for explosion plays (runs of 12 of more yards, passes of 16 or more yards), takeaways, three-and-outs, quarterback "sacks" and sudden changes (when the offense starts inside the 35-yard line and is held to a field goal or no points). Check out the points breakdown here.

[+] EnlargeVanderBerg
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerIowa coaches like the versatility of receiver Matt VandeBerg.
Iowa typically doesn't reveal much during its spring scrimmages, and most of the key spots are nailed down, such as at quarterback (Jake Rudock) and middle linebacker (Quinton Alston). The event provides fans a chance to check out the new linebackers, led by Alston but also featuring Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman.

The Hawkeyes look very solid up front but must fill holes at both free safety, where Jordan Lomax and Anthony Gair are competing, and at one cornerback spot, where Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper are listed as co-starters on the latest depth chart. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said this week that John Lowdermilk is trying to hold off Nico Law at strong safety.

The receivers have generated buzz this spring as Iowa continues to ramp up the tempo, seeking explosiveness on offense. Familiar names such as Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer are back, but fans can get a glimpse of redshirt freshman Derrick Willies, a 6-foot-4 perimeter threat, as well as sophomore Matt VandeBerg, who has received high marks from the coaches. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said VandeBerg can line up at more than one wideout spot.

Line play should be Iowa's strength this season -- as it is with the Hawkeyes' better teams under Kirk Ferentz -- so it will be interesting to see the top players work in the scrimmage. There's some competition at one defensive end spot between Mike Hardy and Nate Meier, and the left offensive guard position remains fluid.

Again, it's Iowa, so don't expect any major revelations Saturday. But the forecast looks great and fans should be geared up for a team that carries higher expectations into 2014.

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