Hawkeye fans should feel good about James Cleveland.
The Iowa freshman earned the right to push out his chest on Saturday with a strong performance in his college debut. He didn't. He came off the field thinking about the ones that got away.
"I was thinking how I can improve," Cleveland said. "I made a few plays, but I left a few out there that I could have made. I could have maybe had a bigger difference in the outcome of the game. I'm going to focus on correcting those plays and getting better next week."
It was refreshing to hear that from Cleveland. The Texan delivered a team-best three receptions for 61 yards, including an acrobatic 40-yard catch and an over-the-middle snag on a laser pass from Jake Christensen. Still, he was haunted by a dropped pass in the end zone.
I admit that the "Next Man In" mantra with the Hawkeyes is played. It too often assumes the guy being replaced won't be missed. For those fans that saw Iowa beat Northern Illinois, 16-3, on Saturday, suspended receiver Dominique Douglas is missed.
Cleveland showed the ability to soften that blow, however. And he would have factored into this offensive attack with or without Douglas.
In fact, Cleveland likely would have contributed as a true freshman in '06 had grades not slowed him up. He took a redshirt after joining the Hawkeye program in the spring of last year, enrolling at the school and leaving high school life behind a few months early.
So, to call Cleveland the next man in sells him short and diminishes Douglas' talents, which saw him lead the nation last season in receptions by a true freshman.
"I don't feel like it's my spot," Cleveland said of Douglas' vacancy. "I'm going to do everything that I can to be (the next man in) in the media's eyes or the coaches' eyes. But for me to say I'm the next man in, that's not my role. I play football and I went out there and performed."
Despite dropping a potential scoring pass, Cleveland contributed mightily to an inconsistent Iowa air attack on Saturday. The 40-yard bomb represented the key play in Iowa's second touchdown drive that traveled 95 yards in eight plays, finishing with a 5-yard touchdown toss from Christensen to Brandon Myers.
In the third quarter, Cleveland snared an 18-yard rocket pass from Christensen setting Iowa up at the Northern Illinois 18. Hawkeye kicker Austin Signor missed a 37-yard field goal attempt a few plays later.
"We're going to have to have that out of him with the loss of the two other guys (Douglas and Anthony Bowman)," junior receiver Andy Brodell said. "He showed great poise out there as a freshman starting in his first game. You can look to see bigger and better things from him, too. He's got the ability."
Cleveland is Iowa's most important weapon at receiver. He can line up in the slot or on the outside. He can outrun defensive backs or outmuscle them. He understands the importance of blocking in the Iowa system and does it well.
"I never had a question about James," said Iowa corner Charles Godfrey, who prepped with Cleveland in Baytown, Texas. "I knew coming out of high school that he was going to do business. It just took time to get on the field."
Cleveland showed nerves of steel despite debuting in front of a sellout at Chicago's historic Soldier Field.
"That's one thing about him. He's a gamer," Godfrey said. "He comes out and plays. He doesn't worry about anything. He was prepared."
Joining the Iowa program in January of 2006 while the rest of his high school graduating class still rode the yellow bus afforded Cleveland extra time to adapt to college life.
"It was a little different playing with grown men and seeing that maturity," Cleveland said. "It was inspiring to want to be that. It pushed me to be what I could be earlier."
Still, the wide receiver has hit bumps in Iowa City. Grades prevented him from playing last season, and he found himself in Internet social network photos last month that called his character into question.
"It's really everything that I already knew," Cleveland said. "It just reemphasized that you're under a microscope as a student-athlete, especially at a Big Ten program. You just need to be careful what you do and say."
The suspensions of Douglas and Bowman hit Cleveland hard. Two of his best friends on campus were charged with unauthorized use of a credit card. He has remained in frequent contact with the duo since their arrest.
"We established a strong brotherhood before anything ever happened," Cleveland said. "We're going to continue that whether they're here or not. Those are my brothers, and I look to them for advice just as they look to me for advice."
You have to be impressed with Cleveland's ability to overcome that distraction and perform well on Saturday.
"We did pretty well handling that," he said. "It was a tough loss. (Douglas) was our leading receiver last year. We looked to him for a lot. Dominique Douglas is one of the most consistent receivers I've ever played with."
And Cleveland is one of the most well-rounded receivers with whom Douglas has teamed. As Brodell said, Cleveland's best days are ahead of him.