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SAN DIEGO — The last few Decembers have certainly spiked with the 'NFL or Hawkeye' stories around the Iowa football program.
In 2017, Josh Jackson and James Daniels jumped to the NFL. Last season, four Hawkeyes entered early and all were gone by the fourth round. This year, defensive end A.J. Epenesa, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Geno Stone will have conversations soon that ultimately will lead to the decision on whether or not to leave and enter April's NFL draft.
All three have described the process this week as 'ongoing.'
These are the kinds of news items that might make you cringe a little. You love the Hawkeyes, but you're not going to argue if one or two of these guys has a chance to make life-changing money in a little more than four months.
You might even work up a fond farewell for your social media.
Yes, these stories probably aren't your favorite.
How about a story about one particular group of players who proved and proved and proved themselves time and time again in 2019?
'With the way everyone is playing right now, at a high level, it's definitely competitive,' wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said after the No. 16 Hawkeyes' practice Tuesday at Mesa College. 'Whenever you get your number called, you've got to take advantage of it. You can't want to take advantage, you have to take advantage.'
The fact that Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith, Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy will be back next year isn't the best thing about Iowa's wide receivers in 2019. Their 2019 production is.
Smith-Marsette, a junior, led the Hawkeyes with 676 receiving yards. Ragaini, a redshirt freshman, led the No. 16 Hawkeyes (9-3) in receptions with 44. Smith, also a junior, might've led the Hawkeyes in everything receiving, but he missed five games with an ankle injury and finished with 33 catches for 407 yards and four TDs.
By the way, Smith has been practicing this week and should be ready for Friday's Holiday Bowl against No. 22 USC (8-4).
Redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy might've been the eye opener of the season. Tracy did lead the Hawkeyes with eight drops, but he also led them with 247 yards after the catch.
Quarterback Nate Stanley is a senior, so an experienced wide receiver group will be a great thing for 2020 QB1, whomever that ends up being.
'It's always good to have so many talented receivers in the room,' Ragaini said. 'It keeps you competitive and everyone wants to be the best. We all want each other to do well, we all want to be the best one. There are certain things that some of us are better at than others and I think we all know that about each other, so we all kind of have our spots in the offense right now.'
This was an unsure group just two short years ago. In 2016, Iowa's receiving corps broke apart midseason, with transfers and injuries eating a hole in the roster. Smith-Marsette and Smith were fresh out of high school and learning the job on the fly.
The talk isn't about baby steps and learning the offense anymore. The talk from the wide receivers is about coming through and living up to the expectations that will only grow for the veteran group in 2020.
'When we get our number called, we're expected to make that play, we're expected to come through in big situations,' Smith-Marsette said. 'That's what we hold ourselves to.'
Suddenly, Iowa has all the kinds of wide receivers it needs to win.
Smith is the giant at 6-3, 220. A high school high jumper, Smith has the strength, speed and leaping ability to be a matchup nightmare.
'Speed kills,' Ragaini said. 'You see him running and he's just running by everyone.'
Ragaini is the slot receiver who'll sacrifice his body to catch anything in traffic. Tracy is a glider who almost ended up at running back for the Hawkeyes. He has that elusiveness and power.
If you're looking for potential best position group for the Hawkeyes' offense in 2020, you found it.
'Everybody is returning,' Smith-Marsette said. 'Everyone has to do what they need to do to improve. What we have to do is improve and then go out there and do what we have to do on Saturdays again.'
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