Cover story: The Evolution of Marvin McNutt
The game was effectively over. The Hawkeyes had just pushed the score to 42-0 over Florida International on Sept. 6, 2008.
But a laugher of a game provided at least one reason for die-hard fans to stay tuned. Iowa's third-string quarterback trotted on the field for some garbage-time experience.
He was a talented dual-threat quarterback who had been first team all-state as a senior at Hazelwood Central in St. Louis. He had passed for 3,308 yards and 31 touchdowns and run for 337 yards and eight scores in two years in high school. He was a three-star recruit, ranked by Scout.com as the 33rd-best quarterback in the 2007 class.
The intrigue didn't last long.
The third-stringer's first pass was incomplete. On his second attempt, he tossed a fade to the end zone for wide receiver DeMarco Paine but underthrew it.
But in his only appearance at quarterback, Marvin McNutt finished 1-for-3 with 10 yards and an interception. That performance didn't make much of an impression.
"I didn't even know he was in the game," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "So it couldn't have been too memorable."
McNutt's appearance at quarterback came in the second game of receiver coach Erik Campbell's first season at Iowa. And as the season went on, Campbell noted McNutt's 6-4, 215-pound frame and the athletic ability that made him a coveted basketball recruit in high school.
He also saw McNutt was buried on the quarterback depth chart behind Jake Christensen and Ricky Stanzi.
Ferentz said McNutt was recruited as "more of an athlete who we thought could play quarterback."
Campbell and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe decided a position switch was necessary for the talented athlete to get on the field. His size and leaping ability made wide receiver a natural fit, so the two coaches approached McNutt about changing.
McNutt insists now that he was receptive to switching, that he just wanted to help the team however he could.
Campbell remembers it differently.
"At first? No," he said. "He looked at me, and he probably thought I was crazy. He was a quarterback, and he had always been a quarterback."
But as Stanzi solidified his hold on the starting job, McNutt realized he would have to adapt.
"I knew Rick was doing a great job, and it was going to be hard for anyone to take his spot," McNutt said. "At the same time, I wanted to be out there playing. I didn't want to sit and wait."
'It's going to be a lot harder than I expected'
Campbell chuckles at the memory of McNutt's first day of practice as a wide receiver.
After spending his previous practices taking five-step drops and throwing the ball, running repeated 40-yard routes wasn't easy.
"After a few minutes of practice, he was asking me for air," Campbell said. "It was hard for him just to put two routes back to back."
James Vandenberg recalls McNutt approaching him midway through a seven-on-seven passing drill, gasping for breath and telling Vandenberg how lucky he was to be a quarterback.
McNutt admits to having some early doubts about the change.
"Conditioning was so hard," the receiver said. "I wasn't used to it. You start thinking, 'This is going to be a lot harder than I expected.' "
But while McNutt huffed and puffed his way through practices, teammates could see a special receiver in the making. Former Hawkeye receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said he remembers McNutt spending some practices catching every pass thrown to him with one hand. Johnson-Koulianos was floored by his raw gifts.
"If you just look at his measurables, it was unbelievable," Johnson-Koulianos said. "His height, his wingspan, his massive hands, and he jumps out of the room. Early on, he didn't understand the finer points of being a receiver. But you could see, holy shit, when this kid learns, he's going to be a great receiver."
McNutt learned those finer points with what Johnson-Koulianos called "shocking" speed. He improved his conditioning to an acceptable level and improved his 40-yard dash time from 4.72 to 4.50.
At the beginning of the 2009 season, McNutt was listed in the team's depth chart as Iowa's No. 1 receiver.
'The legend of Marvin McNutt was born'
McNutt's teammates and coaches say having the perspective of a quarterback helps him read defenses better than most receivers.
That came in handy on Oct. 24, 2009.
Iowa trailed Michigan State 13-9 with two seconds remaining in the game, and the Hawkeyes had the ball on Michigan State's 7. McNutt knew Michigan State cornerback Chris Rucker had been giving him a cushion all game and urged O'Keefe to call a slant for him.
McNutt said he thinks his experience as a quarterback gave his suggestion more credibility.
"It helped me communicate that to Coach O'Keefe," he said. "Because he knew I wasn't just going to say I was open every time."
O'Keefe called the slant, and McNutt's touchdown kept the Hawkeyes' undefeated season alive.
"[McNutt] suggested it," Johnson-Koulianos said. "He put the idea in coach's head. He had demonstrated that the red zone was Marvin Time. He executed, and that's when the legend of Marvin McNutt was born."
Poised to break records
McNutt dominated after the Michigan State game. He had a 92-yard touchdown catch the next week against Indiana. A 74-yard touchdown the week after that against Northwestern. Two second-half touchdowns in the next game against Ohio State. In 2010, he led the team with 861 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
In two and a half seasons as a full-time wide receiver, McNutt has become Iowa's best offensive weapon and arguably its best overall player. Campbell said the receiver's best attribute is his ability to adjust to a thrown ball. Vandenberg said it is comforting to know that if he gets the ball anywhere near McNutt, it's likely to be caught.
Cornerback Shaun Prater went so far as to suggest a new offensive strategy.
"From my point of view, I think they should just throw the ball up to him every single time," Prater joked. "Because it seems like he always comes up with the ball in his hands."
Halfway through this season, McNutt has 573 yards and five scores. If he maintains that pace, he would break the school's receiving-yard records for both a career and a season.
In short, he would finish his career as the best wide receiver in Hawkeye history.
"It's a proud moment that I could be part of Hawkeyes history," McNutt said. "If I get it, I'll definitely be excited. But there's still a lot of season left to be played. I'll be more excited if we get more wins."
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