IOWA CITY — Every player runs a race against something. For some, it’s whatever puts the chip in the shoulder. Too short. Too slow. Underrecruited. From the middle of nowhere. Name it.
For wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the race has been with maturity.
Smith-Marsette is going into his third year, so the eyebrows rise when the head coach says this: “I don’t want to call him a train wreck in January, but there were a lot of loose edges and details. Really trivial stuff but it’s important.”
That was head coach Kirk Ferentz at Big Ten media days.
What does a race with maturity look like? It’s more mundane than you think. It’s less about style points and more about discipline.
“It’s what people don’t see, behind the scenes,” wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said. “It’s the maturity of handling the day-to-day operation. The boring part. The process. The meetings. It takes awhile for a young man to come out of high school where maybe it wasn’t detailed this much. Maybe he wasn’t coached and he wasn’t asked to do certain things.
“Now, we’re asking a lot out of this young man.”
Smith-Marsette’s response to “Train wreck January” was answered this week by offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
“He has been as impressive as any guy on our roster right now,” Ferentz said. “Skill set, not an issue. Good guy, good player, good teammate, all of those things. ... He’s taken on a leadership role with some of our younger players and that’s really encouraging.”
Last spring, Kirk Ferentz gently chided Smith-Marsette for having his phone out too much. This year, it was “train wreck.”
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Of course, Smith-Marsette looked within. Again, the coaches aren’t talking about conduct, but about the details that might push Smith-Marsette’s career.
“Everybody contributes to picking everybody up,” said Smith-Marsette, who had 15 of his 23 receptions go for first downs in 2018. “I tell myself that I need about six seconds of short-term memory. Every play is about six seconds. You’ve got to have that short-term memory and keep moving forward.”
Smith-Marsette went to the same high school — Weequahic High School in Newark, N.J. — as former Iowa running back Akrum Wadley. Smith-Marsette transferred there after his freshman year, so he missed one year of prep football.
He was 150 pounds when the Weequahic vice principal/offensive coordinator talked him into giving football a shot.
“We were at lunch and he said, ‘Meet me for a weight room session at 4:30,’” Smith-Marsette said. “Every since then, I’ve been playing football. I was a skinny guy, but I was always fast.”
Let’s go to Brian Ferentz again on the “skinny guy” thing. This is a big deal and maybe one of the better signs for 2019. You already know Smith-Marsette is fast, well now he’s bigger.
“One of the biggest changes he’s made? I think he’s up 12 pounds (listed at 183 this year),” Brian Ferentz said. “If you’re a guy who runs fast, that’s good. But if you’re just a guy who runs fast, you can still get up (defensively) and take him away. He’s developed the strength and the size to make it easier to get off the line of scrimmage.”
Really, Smith-Marsette always had this. Growing up in Newark, Smith-Marsette kept his life to sports and school.
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“I wasn’t one to be in the streets, but the streets were a hard time,” Smith-Marsette said. “You walk to school, you see drug dealers and gang members. You actually go to school with a lot of drug dealers and gang members.
“It makes you tough. Being from where you’re from, you’re going to go through some things. People are going to test you. When you get tested, you’ve got to step up to the plate or people are going to continue to test you. People won’t stop testing you until you step up for yourself. That’s never going to be easy.”
Smith-Marsette did commit to Rutgers at one point.
“I couldn’t stay home,” he said. “I couldn’t be 30 minutes from what I didn’t want to be anymore. I wanted to get as far away from that as I could. I just felt it was best to get away from all of that.”
Smith-Marsette is one of the fastest Hawkeyes. In the race to maturity, it feels like he might have taken the lead.
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