Why Iowa WR Matt VandeBerg says he’s ‘feeling good’ — and feeling a little old

IOWA CITY, Iowa — For an old dude, Pops wasn’t shy about busting a move. Or six. The cuts were crisp. The knees were high. The toes tippy-ed up the boundary, just like old times. It was like Matt VandeBerg never left.

“Foot’s feeling good,” the Iowa Hawkeyes’ senior wide receiver explained after Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium, his first run-through in pads before an audience in 11 months. “We just wanted to see how other guys responded, and things like that.”

Like the rest of us, No. 89 spent most of Saturday’s sun-kissed afternoon along Melrose Avenue watching the pups in the meeting room — your Devonte Youngs, your Max Coopers — scamper downfield for the adoring crowd.

The senior from South Dakota, working his way back from a left foot broken twice since last September, participated in position drills during the Hawkeyes’ only open practice of the month but was held out of full-contact scrimmaging later in the day. Baby steps.

“I mean, a year’s hiatus is more than what I wanted,” chuckled VandeBerg, the Hawkeyes’ leader in receptions (65) and receiving yards (703) in 2015 but whose 2016 was cut off after just four contests. “But shoot, just being able to be a part of the team is fun. Putting on the jersey, putting on practice pants, anything like that is exciting for me.”

The kid’s walking around with that candy-store grin again. Only he isn’t a kid anymore. VandeBerg turned 23 on Aug. 1. Of the dozen wideouts listed on Iowa’s preseason roster, he’s the only scholarship senior, and seven of the 12 are either freshmen and sophomores.

“They call me ‘Pops,’ ” VandeBerg said.

The scribes chuckled.

The kid’s grin vanished.

“That’s not funny,” VandeBerg countered, his voice taking surprisingly serious tone.

“Don’t laugh at that. You’re encouraging them.”

The scribes blanched.

The kid’s eyes gleamed.

VandeBerg grinned. Gotcha.

“He’s good,” Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley noted. ”Man, he’s good. He’s going to be good. He’s a great leader.

“You know sometimes he can be a coach. He’s big on the little things, you know? Sometimes, he corrects me when I’m out there. It’s like, he shows me how to do the different things. Vandy is a good guy on the field and off the field.”

Where they really, really, really need him, though, is on, given the general lack of proven alternatives in the position group.

“I don’t know if it necessarily puts me above anyone else,” VandeBerg said. “I mean, I’m just another guy out there running routes.”

Not this fall.

Academics scratched Jerminic Smith from the wideout party in May. Injuries did Jay Scheel in over the winter. With Wadley and transfer James Butler at the top of the tailback pile, the Hawkeyes have the goods to run on anybody. But they can’t run on 3 rd-and-17 with a straight face.

And while Saturday was notable for Stanley’s touch on a pair of long scoring rainbows to Young, false starts and passes tipped by defenders at the line of scrimmage were uncomfortably recurring themes.

“Obviously, with a group full of young guys, we just wanted to see how they would do in this situation,” VandeBerg said. “And I think we got better today.”

No. 89 has been getting better, too — a rep at a time, a day at a time. Conservatively. Guardedly. A serious foot injury can be chalked up to bad luck. A pair of serious injuries involving the same foot in less than seven months is cause for self-examination.

“I suppose I had to look a little bit at how I was running my routes,” VandeBerg reflected. “If it was something that was I doing to make a fluke happen twice.”

He looked. He tweaked. He broke it down, then built it back up again.

“I was told it was a fluke,” VandeBerg continued. “But as far as things that I could do, maybe if I picked up my knees more. Maybe if I stretch out a little bit more at night, try to do a little bit more hip-loosening stuff, maybe that stuff wouldn’t happen.”

The hips are looser. The quick turns are back. More importantly, the confidence is, too.

For No. 89, not thinking about that blankety-blank left foot — Will it hold up? Will it hurt? —  was the first step. Literally.

“That was a long time ago,” VandeBerg said. “The first drills I did, I thought about it a little too much and didn’t make the cut that I wanted to. And then [I] got furious, set it aside, and then I didn’t do it again. So ever since that point, I don’t think about it. It just do whatever my job requires me to do.”

Lead. Mentor. Stretch the defense. Break ankles. Same as it ever was.

“He’s come in, jumping up, you know, climbing the ladder on people,” Wadley said. “And he’s continued that momentum.”

Easy, Pops.

“ ‘ Pops,’ ” VandeBerg sighed ruefully. The kid smiled again. “I don’t know. I can’t let that stick.”

The post Why Iowa WR Matt VandeBerg says he’s ‘feeling good’ — and feeling a little old appeared first on Land of 10.

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