Iowa Football

Iowa 2020 depth chart projections, WR and TE: Yeah, there are playmakers here

A new starting QB will have plenty of weapons in the passing game

Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6) eyes a path to the end zone and a touchdown during the first half o
Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6) eyes a path to the end zone and a touchdown during the first half of the 2019 Holiday Bowl against the USC Trojans at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — In the wee hours after the Holiday Bowl, Brandon Smith was asked if Ihmir Smith-Marsette was ever going to come down from 1) a 98-yard kick return for a TD, 2) a rushing TD and 3) a receiving TD off a tunnel screen pass that the defense read and called out presnap.

“He’s the most vibrant in the room,” Smith said with a laugh. “Yeah, we’re going to hear about this for a little while, but he’ll be into spring ball soon and back to work. He’s definitely going to enjoy this. He deserves it.”

Smith-Marsette, Iowa’s 6-1, 183-pound senior Z wide receiver, would’ve gotten votes for offensive MVP and special teams MVP in 2019 for the Hawkeyes. He doubled his production from 2018. As a sophomore, he caught 23 passes for 361 yards and three TDs. Last year, it was 44 catches for 722 yards and five TDs.

 

The kick returns didn’t drop until the last two games of the season (he had a 95-yarder for a TD vs. Nebraska), but for the second consecutive year, Smith-Marsette ended up leading the Big Ten in kick returns. There is some math on this. Smith-Marsette only had 17 kick returns in 2019. Players must see action in 75 percent of a team’s games and/or have 1.2 attempts per game. Smith-Marsette had 1.3, so, with a late rush at the end, he’s the Big Ten’s best kick returner for the second consecutive season.

Going into the last two games of the year, Smith-Marsette had 262 kick return yards and averaged 26.2 yards per return. Smith-Marsette nearly doubled his season total in the final two games, going for 99 and 142. Smith-Marsette’s average shot up to a Big Ten-best 29.6, just ahead of Wisconsin’s Aron Cruickshank (29.3 yards per return).

Smith-Marsette has become a consistent playmaker, a golden element in the Iowa offense. The number that says this: He finished seventh in the Big Ten with 102.5 all-purpose yards per game.

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Maybe one of the bigger takeaways from 2019 is the idea of calling plays for players. Iowa has always done this, it just hasn’t been as apparent as it was last season.

In the bowl postgame, quarterback Nate Stanley talked about specific plays being called for specific players. Going into the bowl, the Hawkeyes called 16 “trick” plays, in Iowa’s case we’re talking reverses and jet sweeps. Fourteen of those 16 plays were called for Smith-Marsette and fellow wide receiver Tyrone Tracy.

And then you saw the bowl game. Smith-Marsette, second on the team with 74 targets and second in yards after catch, scored three ways. Tracy scored on a 23-yard double reverse handoff from running back Mekhi Sargent.

“Like Ihmir said, there’s a lot of plays scripted for specific people,” Stanley said. “Depending on the situations that come up, those plays get called. Ihmir got the lucky draw today, had a lot of those plays called for him.”

I’m thinking you guys like plays called for the playmakers. I asked offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz in San Diego about balance.

“Mike Leach (newly-minted Mississippi State head coach and Air Raid practitioner) probably said it best when talking about balance, ‘You need to make sure guys touch the ball,’” Ferentz said. “In that regard, I think we were fairly balanced.”

In that regard, yes, the Hawkeyes were balanced and playmakers were born in 2019.

Yeah, I don’t know why Iowa doesn’t recruit New Jersey more. (Smith-Marsette is a Newark native.)

Next Z WR in

This is where I’m putting Oliver Martin. The 6-1, 200-pound junior will have a year in this offense. 2019 was a learning year. Why is that so hard for some to accept? Look at the ballers — hate this word, but it’s THE word here — Iowa has recruited and developed at this position and then use the powers of logic and deduction.

Iowa isn’t giving away reps at WR like Halloween candy. This isn’t 2016.

 
 

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You’re never going to get a straight answer from a coach on this. They’re not in the business of saying “Dude couldn’t crack the lineup.” That’s what I’m deducing from the facts on the table. He couldn’t crack the lineup, which, hey, includes arguably the best group of receivers in Kirk Ferentz’s 21 seasons as head coach. It’s not a failure, it’s about starting point. Martin wasn’t here until mid summer. Let’s look at the facts we can grasp. Maybe there’s some leaked practice tracking out there that says something totally different. I haven’t seen that and you haven’t, either.

We can debate on whether the Iowa offense is too difficult to grasp, but how do any of us really know? It’s a weak thought, frankly. We haven’t really seen Martin (60 snaps, seven targets). I think he can make plays and help Iowa. I can’t wait for the day when it’s just football for the guy.

Maybe the two late walk-ons from last summer — Jack Combs and Charlie Jones — fit here. Combs transferred in from Central Michigan. Jones made waves at Buffalo, but is from the Chicago area and wanted to test out of the Group of Five.

Maybe incoming freshman Diante Vines can make a wave or two. As a senior at The Taft School (Danbury, Ct.), the 6-0, 190-pounder had 48 receptions, eight receiving TDs, three rushing TDs, one kick return for a TD and two TDs on interception returns.

X wide receiver starter: Brandon Smith

Let’s put ourselves through the pain of what might’ve been with Smith’s 2019 season. When he suffered his high-ankle sprain that I think required surgery on Oct. 19 vs. Purdue, Smith had 33 catches for 407 yards and four TDs.

If he hit his averages in the five games he missed, Smith would’ve finished 2019 with 57 catches for 608 yards and seven TDs. Ankles are pretty important for football skill players. It had to have been agonizing for Smith and Iowa to not have him for the Wisconsin game. It was decided by two points. The caution was needed. When Ferentz first got here, he often said he didn’t want players gutting it out for one game and then missing five.

 

Smith showed up in the Holiday Bowl, catching four passes for 32 yards and a crazy TD, where Stanley fired a short-range rocket and Smith gathered it in inches off the ground with a defender hugging him like a long-lost cousin whose other cousin just entered the NFL draft.

Smith arrived in 2019. The ankle thingie was a bus stop.

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Smith finished 2019 with 54 targets. The 6-2, 218-pounder from Lake Cormorant, Miss., had one drop this year for a drop rate of 2 percent (kind of exactly what you’re shooting for). At 120.0, Smith had the best pass efficiency with Stanley out of Iowa’s wide receivers (that’s an uncommonly high percentage, FWIW). His YAC was lesser than the other receivers, but Smith’s chance were different. His size gets him one-on-ones and fades.

Smith’s growth can be tracked in how he uses his body. In his first games, Smith was knocked out of position by a Wyoming defensive back, who then picked off the pass. Since that play, Smith has had at least two catches where he caught the ball and the defensive back. He uses his body to create his space. The training from WR coach Kelton Copeland has been impressive, to say the least.

Next X WR in

When Smith was hurt last season, Tyrone Tracy moved in and thrived. In his five games at X, Tracy caught 27 passes for 371 yards (13.8 per catch) and two TDs. So, if Smith gets hurt, this is probably what’s going to happen.

 
 

For the health and wealth of the Iowa program, you’d like to see a big body WR make a move here. Redshirt freshman Desmond Huston (6-3, 200) and sophomore Calvin Lockett (6-2, 182) have potential to be that big body WR.

F wide receiver (slot) starters: Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr.

It’s probably not cool to staple these two together. Ragaini and Tracy are very different players/wide receivers.

Where did they line up? Tracy isn’t really a slot receiver. Last season, he lined up as the outside receiver more than 400 times and just 110 in the slot. Tracy had 49 targets outside and 19 in the slot. We’ve been over how he filled in at the X for Smith when he missed five games. That might account for how his snaps have been shaped.

Ragaini is the opposite. He saw 65 snaps outside with just 11 targets. Ragaini was the slot receiver last year, seeing more than 400 snaps there with 64 targets. Ragaini led the Hawkeyes with 46 receptions, marking the fifth consecutive season the slot receiver has led Iowa in receptions (Nick Easley twice, Riley McCarron and Matt VandeBerg).

 

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Tracy led the team in drops (eight), but he also led the Hawkeyes with 247 yards after the catch. His 2019 felt like an unveiling. You saw the speed and elusiveness (the 14 missed tackles he forced on defenses was third on the team).

Tracy has the blend of speed, athleticism and strength that can probably line up anywhere. You could make an argument that he’s the Hawkeye with the highest ceiling, almost positionless in a good way. At least now he might be, you know with A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs NFL bound.

Ragaini led the Hawkeyes with 75 targets. A top-shelf prep lacrosse player, Ragaini shows the short-area quickness that slot receivers need. Ragaini ran routes that generally were less than 10 yards in depth and averaged 9.5 yards on his 46 catches.

Oh, they’re only sophomores. It’ll be interesting to see how their roles evolve.

Next slot WR in

I mentioned Jones above. He might actually be a better fit here. He’s got the slot bod, at 5-11, 184. Jones did football at Buffalo that probably shouldn’t be taken lightly. He caught 18 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns. He also had 15 kickoff returns for 289 yards.

 
 

Martin and Combs could possibly find something here. This probably is where incoming freshman WR Quavon Matthews (5-11, 170, Largo, Fla.) ends up.

Tight end starters: Shaun Beyer and Sam LaPorta

Shaun Beyer is a senior. Yes, he caught just seven passes for 117 yards last season, but you know where the ball went in 2019. Of course, it went to the Learjet SWAT team Iowa now has assembled at wide receiver.

Beyer would probably tell you his 2019 didn’t unfurl the way he thought it might, but the offensive identity did change quite a bit from 2018 to 2019. That change was the tight end position. Iowa’s wide receivers came through in 2019 mostly because they finally got a chance. First rounders T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant chewed up a lot of the scenery in 2018.

With Hockenson and Fant gone, the targets went to the receivers. The primary starters at TE, Beyer and Nate Wieting, combined for fewer than 40 targets and caught just 17 passes. Hockenson and Fant combined for 88 receptions last season.

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Beyer has 2020 to hit it big. Last season, he played more than 300 snaps at the inline TE spot and was in the slot around 50 times (there were 22 snaps, also, from the backfield). That says coaches like his speed and what he can do on the seam. After 2018, no one was dropping coverage on Iowa TEs in 2019.

Of course, hey, how about that Sam LaPorta?

As a true freshman last season, the 6-4, 242-pounder from Highland, Ill., caught 15 passes for 188 yards (12.5 average). Kirk Ferentz made jokes about what LaPorta may or may not have known about what was going on, but after not seeing any targets and very little playing time in the first seven games, LaPorta caught at least one pass in the last six games. The big highlight was on the final drive against Nebraska, LaPorta caught a 22-yard pass from Stanley to set up Keith Duncan’s 48-yard game winner.

 

That carried over into the Holiday Bowl, when LaPorta caught six passes for 44 yards.

Iowa keeps true freshmen off limits for interviews, but LaPorta got to talk to school media in the postgame.

“I’ve been supported and learned a lot from the older guys — Nate, Drew (Cook), and Shaun,” LaPorta said. “They have helped me out so much throughout the season and throughout the second half of the season as I saw more of the field, they were there to support me the entire way and I can’t thank them enough for that.”

You saw the birth of a playmaker. LaPorta has enough speed, seems to know where he has to be in route, but the biggest fun thing was watching him compete for passes, high pointing, body control and taking a big hit to hold on to a catch.

Next TE in

Josiah Miamen (6-4, 235) should have the inside track for No. 3 TE snaps, and there are a few of those. In ’19, Iowa did get back into 13 personnel (one back, three TEs). It wasn’t a ton (just 15 snaps) and it came toward the end of the season, but there were packages.

 
 

So, you could maybe see some differentiation in skill sets at TE and how they might be used.

Miamen will be pushed by a pair of incoming freshman, Elijah Yelverton (6-4, 220) and Luke Lachey (6-6, 215). Yelverton was a U.S. Army All-American Bowler. He caught 62 passes with nine TDs at Trinity Christian (Royse City, Texas) High School last fall. Lachey had 57 catches for seven TDs along with 43 carries for 357 yards and three TDs. (Carries? Now that’s intriguing.)

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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