IOWA CITY — When Brian Ferentz dropped compliments all over wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette just before the season started, you thought maybe it was a recruiting thing.
Iowa’s offensive coordinator recruited Smith-Marsette from Newark, N.J. He talked him into moving halfway across the country to a strange land. The process pulled Smith-Marsette a bunch of different directions. He initially committed to Rutgers and then to Minnesota before he stayed with Iowa.
You thought maybe Ferentz was protecting his guy, the kid he made all of those sweet, sweet recruiting promises to.
“He didn’t make any promises,” Smith-Marsette said.
That’s kind of the theme with Iowa’s wide receiver group this season. Sure, Brandon Smith was a 3-star recruit on Rivals.com, but his best offer after Iowa was Vanderbilt. There’s redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini, who didn’t get the offer he wanted in high school and then went to prep school to prove himself.
Tyrone Tracy was a 3-star and had offers from Boston College and Northwestern, but when he arrived, head coach Kirk Ferentz mentioned him as a potential running back at one point. Oliver Martin came in with stars, but he also transferred from Michigan and is finding out what he really can do in college football in his hometown.
No one had a golden path to college football stardom in front of them. They still don’t. There are no promises. There is hard coaching.
“It’s always been streamlined with Brian,” said Smith-Marsette, who led the Hawkeyes with 113 yards receiving and a 58-yard TD in last week’s win over Rutgers. “He’s not going to let me slip. He’s always going to keep me true to myself. When I’m slacking, he’s going to let me know. When I’m doing well, he’s going to let me know.
“It’s always been tight, it’s always been real and genuine.”
Kind of like Iowa’s wide receivers.
Of course, they’re a tight group.
Smith-Marsette and Smith have become genuine friends and are roommates.
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“He keeps it cool, but he’ll make some jokes with everyone,” Smith-Marsette said.
They do keep it light.
“If you came to one of our meetings, I’m sure you’d be laughing the entire time, which is what I love about the receiver room,” Ragaini said.
Funny and then serious.
“We’re all serious when it has to be that way,” Ragaini said, “but we’re all having fun all of the time. I think we have the perfect mixture of everyone’s personality.”
Smith-Marsette and Smith are driving the room.
Last week against Rutgers, the Hawkeyes put a ton of pressure on the defense with the passing game. The Hawkeyes’ first score was Smith-Marsette from 58 yards right down the seam. He finished with a career-high 113 yards and tied career highs with four receptions and a pair of TDs.
Smith caught two passes for 22 yards and drew two pass interference penalties. Smith-Marsette also has drawn a pair of penalties this year.
They started their careers as true freshmen in 2017, which was the same year senior quarterback Nate Stanley won the starting job.
Stanley charted the “then and now” with Smith-Marsette and Smith.
“When Ihmir was younger, he relied on his speed a lot,” Stanley said. “He’s still extremely fast, but earlier if you knocked him off his route, he wasn’t physical enough to fight through any contact. He’s added a couple extra pounds and has really learned how to use his body.”
Smith was always a big receiver, but he didn’t always use his size.
“He’s learned how to position himself to make plays,” Stanley said. “He’s always been physical, but he was allowing DBs to dictate where he went earlier in his career, whereas now he doesn’t do that.”
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Smith-Marsette was fast and is now learning how to use it as a wide receiver. Smith was big and now he’s learning playing “smaller” and giving corners less to hang on to.
You wondered what Iowa’s passing offense might look like this year with two tight ends going in the first round of the NFL draft.
Well, Smith-Marsette and Smith are the new T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. They’re No. 1 and 2 on the team in targets (12 for Smith-Marsette; 11 for Smith).
“Last year our best talent was at the tight end position,” Kirk Ferentz said. “So you kind of go where your talent is in some ways, and then everybody else has to fill in around it.
“We’re a little bit more able to make people respect us, I think, out wide now than we were two years ago. Hopefully, that will continue to develop.”
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