Matt VandeBerg: The Most Underrated Wide Receiver in Big Ten?

Sep 17, 2016; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Matt VandeBerg (89) and wide receiver Riley McCarron (83) celebrate after a touchdown during the second quarter against the North Dakota State Bison at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 17, 2016; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Matt VandeBerg (89) and wide receiver Riley McCarron (83) celebrate after a touchdown during the second quarter against the North Dakota State Bison at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports /

A look at Matt VandeBerg’s strong start to the 2016 season

After catching 22 passes in his first two seasons with the Iowa Hawkeyes, wide receiver Matt VandeBerg jumped onto the scene as a junior in 2015. He led the team in receptions (65) and yards (703), while also adding four touchdowns.

The Hawkeyes relied heavily on VandeBerg in 2015. Only Henry Krieger-Coble and Tevaun Smith caught more than 30 passes on the season, and both graduated. Despite VandeBerg’s heavy usage in the offense, and finishing fifth in receptions and 14th in receiving yards in the Big Ten last season, Big Ten Network only ranked him as the eighth best wide receiver coming into the year.

It’s safe to say that VandeBerg has exceeded the early season expectations in 2016. He once again leads the team in receptions (15), receiving yards (267) and touchdowns (3). In fact, no other receiver on the Hawkeyes has double-digit receptions through the first three games and George Kittle is the only other Hawkeye with more than 100 receiving yards.

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VandeBerg has emerged as one of the team’s most reliable offensive weapons every week. With neither Riley McCarron nor Jerminic Smith stepping up, C.J. Beathard has relied on VandeBerg even more in 2016, even with Kittle emerging as a reliable target over the past two weeks.

It’s led to VandeBerg being the only player in the Big Ten to rank in the top-five in receptions (fifth), receiving yards (second) and touchdown catches (fourth). VandeBerg is on pace to record 60 receptions, 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns, truly outstanding numbers.

While their toughest opponents are still yet to come and it’s only been three games, it’s impressive, nonetheless. Especially when considering that would have put him third in receiving yards and first in touchdowns in the Big ten in 2015.

Other than the gaudy numbers, he has proven to be an integral part to Iowa’s offensive game plan. Not to mention his versatility has shined through the first three weeks, which is what makes him such a threat in the passing game.

VandeBerg averages an impressive 17.8 yards per reception, yet all three of his touchdown grabs have come inside of 15 yards. Coming off the first multi-touchdown game of his career, there’s no better time to realize the strides he’s taken in the red zone already this year.

He only caught four touchdown passes last season, however already has three to his name in 2016. VandeBerg hasn’t just caught touchdown passes, he’s done it in jaw-dropping ways. His acrobatic 12-yard touchdown catch against Iowa State was arguably the play of the game, and he showed great hands and aggressiveness when he reeled in his second touchdown of the game against North Dakota State.

The thing about great receivers is that quarterbacks just give them a chance in the end zone and trust that they’ll come down with it. VandeBerg has done just that this season.

Against Iowa State, Beathard threw a dime to him in the corner of the end zone, however it wouldn’t have been a touchdown if VandeBerg wasn’t able to evade the defensive back and reel it in. Also, in the second half against North Dakota State, VandeBerg dove in front of a wide open George Kittle to steal a touchdown from him. Despite being delivered a big blow right after catching the pass, VandeBerg held on and the Hawkeyes took a 21-14 lead.

It’s evident that VandeBerg hasn’t only been the most productive receiver for the Hawkeyes, but also is the known target in big situations. His 9.8 yards per reception on four catches against North Dakota State highlights his short route running, while averaging 24.8 yards per reception against Miami (OH) is evidence of his explosiveness down field.

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VandeBerg is a very versatile receiver and Kirk Ferentz has tapped into that even more in 2016. His ability to run many routes is a big plus for the Hawkeyes’ offense and makes him even harder to defend.

Although, spreading the field and running end arounds with VandeBerg might not be a bad idea. He flashed his speed with a 25 yard run against Iowa State on his lone run of the season. It’s not to say that Iowa should do 10 end arounds per game, however, the Bison proved that LeShun Daniels Jr and Akrum Wadley could be stopped if the offensive line is having a bad day. It’s a different look for a team who pounds the ball up the middle most of the game, and could catch the defense off guard.

When it comes down to it, all the stats and highlight catches don’t represent VandeBerg’s complete role with the team. In a run-heavy offense, receivers tend to be overlooked at times, however it seems crazy for everyone outside of Iowa City to not know his importance to the Hawkeyes’ offense.

The ground game helps set up the pass game, and C.J. Beathard is extremely accurate, but VandeBerg is a special talent who makes this offense go at times. A drop here and there from him can get frustrating, but they’re rare and it’s easy to overlook with the production he gives.

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He might not be an All-American at the end of the season but he’s been the most productive receiver in the Big Ten up to this point, and that’s extremely impressive on a historically run-heavy offense.