During his official visit to Iowa earlier this month, former four-star wideout Kaleb Brown dined with a player from the opposite side of what many describe as the fiercest rivalry in college football.
To one side of the table sat Brown, a recent entrant into the transfer portal following his freshman season at Ohio State. To the other side sat Cade McNamara, a quarterback who, in 2021, led Michigan to its first Big Ten Championship in 17 years after guiding the Wolverines to an upset over the Buckeyes on a snow-swept field in Ann Arbor.
At the moment the disbelieving crowd was spilling over the railings to flood the Michigan Stadium turf, Brown was three weeks shy of signing his national letter of intent to play for Ohio State, the blue blood that doubles as an assembly line for NFL-caliber receivers under the tutelage of Brian Hartline. Counting Brown, four of the top 26 wide receivers in the 2022 recruiting cycle joined the Buckeyes with a shared goal, among others, of toppling the Wolverines
But 17 months and 24 snaps later, Brown was on the campus of another Big Ten rival being wooed by a former foe. The pitchman, McNamara, had lost his job to backup J.J. McCarthy, then joined the Hawkeyes after a brief stint in the transfer portal last November. Now he wanted Brown to be his No. 1 target in Iowa City.
“It’s just a special thing for us to come together,” Brown said in an interview with FOX Sports. “It’s kind of crazy. It’s real coincidental. It was just something that we laughed about at dinner when we went out, and it’s just a cool thing. I think we’ll be a good duo together, you know what I mean?”
Brown (5-foot-10, 197 pounds) committed a few days later in a move both sides hope will be remembered as one of the more impactful transfers of this year’s portal party. Only four times since 247Sports began tracking recruiting data in 1999 — the same year head coach Kirk Ferentz took over at Iowa — have the Hawkeyes signed a four-star receiver out of high school. And while Brown arrives in Iowa City via the transfer portal, his ranking as the No. 79 overall prospect and No. 13 receiver in the ’22 recruiting class makes him the most decorated wideout in program history ahead of Keenan Davis in 2009 (No. 117 overall; No. 15 WR), Trey Stross in 2005 (No. 147 overall; No. 14 WR) and both Arland Bruce IV (No. 324 overall; No. 21 ATH) and Keagan Johnson (No. 354 overall; No. 23 ATH) in 2021.
Adding Brown has furthered Iowa’s attempt at an offensive overhaul that Ferentz believes can — and should — distance the program from last year’s ineptitude on that side of the ball. Under the direction of coordinator Brian Ferentz, whose precarious position as the head coach’s son continues to invite scrutiny, the Hawkeyes ranked 130th out of 131 FBS teams in total offense at 251.6 yards per game. Quarterback Spencer Petras threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (five), and wideout Nico Ragaini was the only player at his position to eclipse 19 receptions and 187 yards. Such impotence prompted athletic director Gary Barta to rework Brian Ferentz’s contract to include “designated performance objectives” for 2023, headlined by mandates to average 25 points per game and notch at least seven wins.
He’ll have some new pieces to work with. McNamara was joined by former Michigan tight end Erick All (38 catches for 437 yards in 2021) as early and noteworthy additions through the transfer portal. The Hawkeyes’ high school class includes noted speedster Alex Mota, a three-star wideout with additional scholarship offers from Kansas State, Nebraska and Wisconsin, among others, who could pair nicely with Brown. Iowa also returns both of its leading rushers from 2022 in tailbacks Kaleb Johnson (779 yards, six TDs) and Leshon Williams (413 yards, two TDs).
“You can only do so much with the certain players that they had last year,” Brown said. “Now that the talent has come in and things are changing, I feel like we can open up the playbook a bit more and give the coaches some things to think about, you know what I mean? And I think that’s what it’s about. It’s a lot that we can bring to the table. Just seeing Cade’s highlights back at Michigan and just what I can bring to the table, just taking the top off the defense and manipulating them for sure.”
In both athleticism and versatility, Brown should provide the Hawkeyes with the kind of explosiveness their wide receivers have lacked for long stretches of Ferentz’s tenure — a 24-year run in which none of Iowa’s four draft picks at that position were selected in the first four rounds. Brown’s time of 10.84 seconds in the 100-meter dash as a freshman at St. Rita High School in Chicago would have placed 17th at the Big Ten Track and Field Championships that same year. As a sophomore in 2020, his indoor time of 7.01 seconds in the 60-meter dash would have tied for 21st at the Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships.
A high school career spent mostly at running back steepened Brown’s learning curve in college, where he became one of 13 four- or five-star receivers to join the Buckeyes in the first five years since Hartline took over the position group in 2018. Brown caught one pass for five yards in very limited playing time while the entire ’22 crop of receivers — Brown, Caleb Burton (No. 70 overall; No. 10 WR), Kyion Grayes (No. 88 overall; No. 14 WR) and Kojo Antwi (No. 151 overall; No. 26 WR) — combined to log fewer than 70 snaps from scrimmage behind established veterans Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming and Xavier Johnson, all of whom are returning this fall.
Four more blue-chip receivers signed with Ohio State in the ’23 recruiting cycle: Brandon Inniss (No. 35 overall; No. 5 WR), Noah Rogers (No. 52 overall; No. 8 WR), Carnell Tate (No. 59 overall; No. 9 WR) and Bryson Rodgers (No. 355 overall; No. 49 WR). With three of those players enrolling early, head coach Ryan Day described the upcoming months as “a very, very big spring” for rising sophomores like Brown when asked about the second-year wideouts in a news conference in early March. Eight weeks later, Brown and Burton would both enter the transfer portal, with the former committing to Iowa and the latter to Auburn.
“I’m just really eager to display my talents and show what I’m capable of, you know what I mean?” Brown said. “That was definitely a huge thing for me. I’m always willing to compete, even at Ohio State. But it was just kind of a coin flip as to whether, you know, how much time I would get on the field.
“I feel like I’ve been developed and learned a whole lot because I wasn’t a receiver at all (when I got to Ohio State). Just going from running back to receiver, you know what I mean, it was a lot of different things — football things — that I had to learn. Whether it was coverages, whether it was leverages, all of that. I had an idea just playing 7-on-7, but they really molded me and shaped me into a better receiver. That first year was definitely needed, 100% needed for sure. And I think I can translate that and bring that over to Iowa.”
Though Brown is open to playing any role the Hawkeyes’ coaching staff envisions, he’s particularly excited about the possibility of developing into a deep threat for McNamara, whose downfield production as Michigan’s starter dwarfed what Petras contributed behind a leaky offensive line and with a banged-up receiving corps last year.
Fewer than 9% of Petras’ passes traveled at least 20 yards downfield in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus, and he completed just nine of those 24 attempts for 281 yards, one touchdown and an NFL passer rating of 96. McNamara, meanwhile, launched 14.5% of his throws at least 20 yards downfield the year prior, in 2021, and completed 19 of 48 attempts for 715 yards, five touchdowns and an NFL passer rating of 121.9 — his highest mark from any of PFF’s four distance ranges. That McNamara still endured criticism for being too conservative that season sheds some light on just how archaic the Iowa offense was in 2022.
“Quarterback stability,” Brown said. “Definitely Cade, he checked the box for me, basically. You know what I mean? And just the way that I’ll be used in the offense, pretty much. That was all my boxes that needed to be checked.”
Ferentz and his staff are hoping McNamara and Brown can upend the program’s pattern of underachieving and underappreciated wideouts, especially after they watched punt returner Charlie Jones transfer to Purdue and catch 110 passes for 1,361 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2022. All Jones wanted was a larger role within the offense — something the Hawkeyes never offered — and the Boilermakers helped develop him into a fourth-round pick.
When Johnson (Kansas State) and Bruce (Oklahoma State) entered the transfer portal in early December, shortly after the regular season concluded, Ferentz bid farewell to exactly half of the four-star wideouts he’s signed since taking over the Hawkeyes. The other four-star receivers to commit to Iowa out of high school — Davis and Stross — combined to catch 143 passes for 1,884 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight collegiate seasons. Neither player was drafted.
“Definitely an area that we’ll look at (in the transfer portal) if we can help ourselves on the perimeter,” Ferentz said after his team’s final spring practice.
He landed Brown two weeks later.
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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