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The Hawkeyes start the season at home against surprising Illinois State. Rodney White | The Register

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IOWA CITY, Ia. – Tevaun Smith is quiet and laid back by nature. A cool Canadian.

But Iowa's senior wide receiver wants to play mad this season, and it must be working.

"Some of the coaches tell me I need to smile more," Smith said.

Wide receiver is viewed as a glamour position, away from the trenches. But Smith said there's been a change in attitude. The wide receivers have been asked to polish their blocking skills. It's been a point of emphasis in fall camp leading up to Saturday's opener against Illinois State at Kinnick Stadium.

"As receivers, they look at us as pretty boys and what not," Smith said. "They want those gritty-type guys. We're definitely working on that."

Smith doesn't care if you call him a gritty receiver. In fact, he wants you to.

"You have to be that angry-type guy, and I feel a lot of us have taken pride in that," Smith said. "I know I get pretty angry running my routes, so I've got to put that in my blocking, too. That makes me a better receiver, and everyone better."

Smith caught 43 passes last season for a team-best 596 yards and three touchdowns. He's part of a receiving corps that needs to take a step up this season.

"I think that group has really improved," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We've got four players right now we've got great confidence in."

Smith is one of them. He has 70 career receptions, and is 63 yards shy of becoming the 37th player in Iowa history to reach the 1,000-yard mark. The others Ferentz speaks of are Matt VandeBerg, Riley McCarron and Jacob Hillyer. They've combined for 48 catches for 581 yards.

"Matt VandeBerg has done a really nice job, and he did a good job last year," Ferentz said. "I think he's really improved since January. And then Jake Hillyer is probably one of our more underrated players on our team, not just the receiver corps. I think Jake's a really good football player. And McCarron has taken a big step for this year, even from the spring."

True freshman Jerminic Smith has also played his way into the rotation, and is expected to play Saturday. But it's the other Smith who has become Iowa's go-to guy.

"I think he continues to grow," Ferentz said.

Speed and precise routes are a must for any successful receiver. But getting gritty comes in handy at the line of scrimmage, where the defensive back will try and jam that receiver and impede his route.

"There's a lot of contact, and there's a lot of holding in college, too," Smith said. "You've got to do whatever you can to get open."

The edict to block better has led to some skirmishes on the practice field. Smith said he's had dust-ups with starting cornerbacks Desmond King and Greg Mabin more than once.

"There's been a few scuffles in practice," Smith said. "I like that."

Establishing an edge on the field starts early.

"As a player, you always want to throw that first punch," Smith said. "Whoever does is really going to dictate that game. If you can get gritty and get in their face early in the game, that will help you later."

That will be Smith's approach on Saturday. Get gritty, and play mad.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.

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Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow and Rick Brown preview Saturday's game versus Illinois State after speaking to players and coaches.

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