IOWA CITY — Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland could’ve dug a little deeper into the Hawkeyes’ wide receiver depth last season.
That would’ve meant taking Nick Easley or Ihmir Smith-Marsette or Brandon Smith off the field.
“How do you justify taking one of those older guys off the field and restricting their abilities to put one of the younger guys in?” Copeland said. “Basically, it was ballin’ on a budget, trying to pick out their playing time and playing our mainstay starter guys.”
Wide receiver was Easley and his team-high 52 receptions, Smith-Marsette and Smith with some Kyle Groeneweg and Max Cooper grabbing snaps here and there.
The staff’s plan was to keep the redshirt on true freshmen Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini. They would’ve been the next two. But the “budget” thing kept their games limited. It was mission accomplished in this regard, with both going into 2019 as redshirt freshmen.
Given that the slot receiver has led the Hawkeyes in receptions for four consecutive seasons (Easley the last two, Riley McCarron and Matt VandeBerg), you might get to know Tracy, Ragaini and Cooper (who’s coming off an ACL repair following the Wisconsin game in September) fairly quickly next season. Copeland said they’ll be competing for the slot (which Iowa calls the “F” receiver).
Easley caught 103 passes in two seasons as Iowa’s slot receiver. Who does he see making a charge for what has been an incredibly productive position for the Hawkeyes?
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“Max Cooper and Nico Ragaini are guys who have demonstrated the ability to play in the slot,” Easley said. “Both are quick. They’re guys who don’t necessarily have top-end speed or are super fast, but both are sudden in their routes and understand the game.”
Don’t get too far into the slot receiver discussion. Smith-Marsette and Smith will begin 2019 with their expectations, which, after productive and sometimes explosive and spectacular sophomore seasons, should be fairly healthy expectations.
Smith really exploded after a quiet freshman season that saw him catch just three passes. The 6-3, 219-pounder caught 28 passes for 361 yards and a pair of TDs.
Yes, he had a pair of catches make the ESPN SportsCenter’s top 10 plays (over and around a defensive back from Minnesota and one-handed for a TD against Maryland), but Copeland liked his rebound from a subpar performance in week 1 against Northern Illinois.
Smith was pushed around and let a defensive back have position on him on a long ball from QB Nate Stanley. The play ended in an NIU pick.
“I’ll never forget our first day in pads with him two training camps ago, back in 2017,” Copeland said. “We have a drill called the ‘blocks drill.’ He didn’t quite know what to expect. It was his first-ever drill in full pads going against a DB. ‘Blocks drill’ is pretty competitive. Let’s just say it wasn’t his best outing.
“It was obvious that he let himself down and that he was embarrassed by his performance. The very next day he came out and it was totally the opposite. From that point on, I saw something in that young man that I’ll never forget. I told him that after the NIU game, because he was down in the dumps a little bit. I said, ‘Remember that first blocks drill? You didn’t do as well as you thought and you were embarrassed. What did you do the next time out?’”
Smith had a 20-yard reception the next week against Iowa State to help set up the game-sealing TD.
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Smith-Marsette’s game grew a few ways in 2018. He became a real target for the Hawkeyes, catching 23 passes for 361 yards and three TDs. Expect that to continue. Smith-Marsette also built on the return skills he flashed late during his freshman season. He led the Big Ten with 29.7 yards on 24 kick returns. Smith-Marsette was named the Big Ten return specialist of the year.
“He’s come a long way,” Copeland said. “Not only physically, but what people don’t see behind the scenes. The maturity of handling the day-to-day operation, the boring part, the walk-throughs, the process, the meetings. It takes awhile for a young man coming out of high school. It wasn’t as detailed.”
Wide receiver likely will have to see more targets in 2019. Of course, tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant have made the leap to the NFL. Hockenson led the Hawkeyes with 760 receiving yards, the first time an Iowa TE led the team in receiving yardage since Alan Cross had 600 in 1992.
Copeland is keeping the pressure on. After saying nice things about Smith-Marsette and Smith, of course Copeland added “long way to go.”
They get that.
After catching three passes for 78 yards and a 60-yard TD in a win at Minnesota last September, Smith-Marsette said, “We can’t fall into the success trap. A lot of people are saying now we’re improved over last year. To me, I don’t feel like we’re where we need to be. We have to keep improving, we have to do that week-to-week, day-to-day, so falling into the success trap isn’t fun.”
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