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September 27, 2013Kevonte Martin-Manley has had a solid season as Iowa's top receiver thus far, and great one if you include his performance in the return game last week against Western Michigan.
But the Hawkeyes sorely need to find other options in the passing game. Thus far, Martin-Manley has been the only reliable one.
Let's take a look at the reception leaders in the Big Ten:
As you can see here, Martin-Manley is on pace to finish with good numbers: 60 receptions for 507 yards and three touchdowns. The 60 catches would tie Kevin Kasper's 1999 season for the fourth-most in a single season under Kirk Ferentz.
He'll almost certainly end up with more than three scores. We can also expect him to eclipse the 507-yard mark as the team's top receiver. Sure, he'll likely improve upon his 8.5 yards-per-catch average so far, but can we really expect that improvement to come by a large margin?
Martin-Manley has recorded catches of 20-plus yards in only seven of his 27 career games. His career average was 10.9 yards per reception coming into this season, the 11th-best average among qualifying receivers in the Ferentz era. (Maurice Brown's 18.0-yard average is the best). For more perspective, recent standouts Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos averaged 16.8 and 15.1 for their careers, respectively, and Martin-Manley is much more similar to Johnson-Koulianos, not only in terms of hyphen-usage but also in terms of playing styles and strengths.
Martin-Manley's value has never been as a deep threat. That's not a knock on him. He plays to his strengths - and Iowa uses him to his strengths - as a precise route-runner and excellent possession receiver.
Any team needs a dependable second option to emerge in the passing game. The fact that Iowa's No. 1 threat is not a factor downfield heightens that need for this particular team.
As we can see from the table above, there's a big drop-off for Iowa compared to other teams around the Big Ten. Numerous players from different teams - many from the same teams - have caught more passes than Iowa's second leader in receptions, C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Fiedorowicz's season has been a disappointing one thus far. He's on pace for only 21 catches after hauling in 45 last year for 433 yards.
But more on him later, because he's not the only Iowa player besides Martin-Manley with a pair of hands and a scholarship.
The average leader for the other 11 Big Ten schools this season has 17.7 catches - which means Martin-Manley is better than average. But the average second-leading receiver for the other schools has 13.3, nearly twice as many as Fiedorowicz
The only Big Ten school with a lower total for receptions by its second-leading receiver is Minnesota with six, but it should be noted that the Gophers have only attempted 61 passes compared to Iowa's 106.
Indiana's leading receiver has 19 receptions, and then they have FIVE more players with more receptions (14, 14, 14, 8, 8) than Iowa's second-leading receiver (7).
Michigan's receivers have posted comparable numbers to Iowa. Jeremy Gallon has 22 catches, while Devin Funchess has eight receptions. The Wolverines' receiving corps has been hamstrung by a preseason injury to Iowa native Amara Darboh, an excuse not valid for Iowa.
The common denominator is a passing game that doesn't operate at peak efficiency. Iowa's collective passer rating of 134.4 ranks 68th in the FBS, while Michigan's 130.2 rating is 74th.
As you can see here, Iowa's current projected reception distribution between Martin-Manley and Fiedorowicz (including a bowl game = 65 and 23 receptions, respectively) would be way off from where a Ferentz receiving duo normally is. I'm not suggesting that we will see an exact 60:21 or 65:23 distribution at the end of the year, but it's troubling.
The closest Iowa has been to such a distribution under Ferentz was 1999, his first season. The Hawkeyes likely won't finish 1-10 like they did that year, especially considering they're already 3-1. However, it's not a good precedent.
The biggest problem to me is this: If Iowa had another receiver capable enough to be a consistent threat, don't you think he would have demonstrated that playing the likes of Iowa State, Missouri State and Western Michigan?
Sure, we saw flashes. Damond Powell has an absurd 44.0 yards-per-catch average on only three receptions. Jacob Hillyer's big frame is starting to look like it could be a huge asset, particularly in the red zone. And Ray Hamilton is starting to find his niche in the offense, which should also make things easier for Fiedorowicz.
But with eight Big Ten games on tap, these guys won't be getting so many lower-pressure opportunities like a Western Michigan game in which they enjoyed a 38-3 halftime lead.
The emergence of more weapons in the passing game is also important in terms of the running game. It's easy for Mark Weisman to run wild against a below-average Iowa State team despite no threat of a deep ball, but it's not that easy to do so against the likes of Michigan State.
If the Hawkeyes are going to continue their steady progress thus far, they simply must find a reliable target other than Martin-Manley. Saturday's contest against Minnesota could be a good opportunity for other options to emerge, as the Gophers allow 270.0 passing yards per game.