Iowa's wide receivers were in a tough spot last season. The Hawkeyes had a senior quarterback, high expectations and a group of young wideouts with more questions than answers.
But as Iowa's disappointing 2006 season wore on, the kids got better. Dominique Douglas wound up leading the nation in receptions by a freshman, with 49, and Andy Brodell turned in two dominating performances to close out the season.
Douglas and Brodell, who will be joined by sophomores Trey Stross and Anthony Bowman and redshirt freshman James Cleveland, head into the 2007 season with a year of Big Ten experience under their belts and confidence earned only through playing time.
They're still young, but Iowa's coaching staff feels much better about its receivers than it did a year ago.
"Last year we came out of the spring where it was really kind of underwhelming the way we performed at that position," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I think we have the nucleus. We're not there yet, but I think we have the nucleus of having a good receiver corps."
Douglas was Iowa's biggest offensive surprise a year ago. He became the first true freshman since 2003 to break into the starting lineup, and by the end of the season he had become invaluable.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Detroit native, who said he was too busy playing to feel much pressure last season, enters 2007 with a different role.
"This year is more exciting because I'm basically a leader and I've become more a leader on the field and off the field," Douglas said. "I'm just going to help all the other receivers do what they have to do to be better than I was last year."
Brodell's learning curve was longer than Douglas' and felt more like a roller coaster. Plagued by drops early in the season, Brodell spent the bulk of his time returning punts. But his efforts in the final two games, against Minnesota and Texas, were signs that the lanky speedster from Ankeny could be a force as a wideout.
Brodell caught seven passes in the season-ending loss to the Gophers, including a 50-yard TD reception. He expanded on that strong performance with the greatest afternoon by a wide receiver in Alamo Bowl history.
In the first quarter, Brodell caught a pass near the sideline, juked out Aaron Ross - the Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back - and sped 63 yards for a touchdown. Late in the third, Iowa needed a score to stop a run of 20 unanswered points by Texas. Brodell took a simple screen pass, lowered his shoulders and bulldozed his way 23 yards into the end zone.
Iowa lost the game, 26-24, but Brodell wound up with a game-record 159 yards and, undoubtedly, the attention of defensive coordinators across the Big Ten.
"I think it was a beginning of a new start, and I think it was the beginning of a new start for the whole team," Brodell said of the Alamo Bowl.
Stross, Bowman and Cleveland enter the season much like Douglas and Brodell did a year ago, as unproven youngsters with a chance to break through.
Last season, Stross caught just 13 passes. But he showed brief glimpses of his promise in a road game at Indiana. Thrust into action after Douglas went out with an injury, Stross made six catches for 67 yards.
Neither Bowman nor Cleveland have caught a collegiate pass, but both could be factors early in the return game or on passing downs.
"We're still young compared to a lot of Big Ten teams, but we bring a lot of experience back," Stross said. "We're going to have to play like upperclassmen."
One of the ancillary benefits of sophomore quarterback Jake Christensen's ascension to starter is that he is at the same development stage as the receiving corps. Iowa is hoping he and the wideouts can grow together and develop strong chemistry.
The same holds true for tight end Tony Moeaki, who should see many of the passes that used to go to former star Scott Chandler.
"I think that we just have a lot to prove as an offense, and yes we've got some guys that are just mixing into it this year, but I think we've got a good nucleus of guys that are going to get the job done this year," Brodell said.