With Brandon Smith sidelined, Iowa football looks for new options in passing game
IOWA CITY, Ia. — No quarterback in the Big Ten Conference has thrown for more yards this season than Iowa’s Nate Stanley, with 1,771.
But he’ll be without his favorite target, Brandon Smith, when the No. 19 Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) visit Northwestern (1-5, 0-4) at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Smith, the junior leader of the Hawkeyes’ wide receiver corps, exited Saturday’s win over Purdue after making his ninth catch, limping on his right leg.
On Tuesday, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz delivered the news that Smith’s injury is more severe than originally thought. A Monday test revealed it was more than a bruise. He’s out three to five weeks, Ferentz said.
“It's taken one of our better threats off the field,” Ferentz said.
“You just make adjustments and keep playing. That's the way it goes.”
Replacing Smith will not be easy. He is the team’s biggest wideout, at 6-foot-2, 218 pounds. He couples that with terrific leaping ability, large reliable hands and a growing confidence that has resulted in 33 catches for 407 yards and four touchdowns.
Stanley told reporters Tuesday that Smith’s absence won’t change Iowa’s offensive attack, which has been slowed in recent weeks and averages only 18 points per game against Big Ten competition.
“We feel confident with whoever’s out on the field that they’re going to make plays for us,” he said.
But obviously someone’s going to need to take a big step forward if Iowa is going to take aim at a Big Ten West title without the league’s fifth-leading receiver in the lineup. That starts Saturday, when the Hawkeyes face a Wildcat defense that is sixth in the conference against the pass (180 yards per game).
Here are some contenders:
- Redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy jumps to the top of the depth chart at the “X” receiver spot, moving from his normal role in the slot. Tracy is shifty and elusive in space, picking up 218 yards on his 15 receptions. But, at 5-11, 200 pounds, he doesn’t give Stanley that big target on the outside that Smith provides. And he’s had a few dropped passes in his rookie season.
- Ihmir Smith-Marsette leads the Hawkeyes in receiving yards with 443, a gaudy 16.4 per reception for the junior who is Stanley’s best deep target. He has shown great maturation this season, and no doubt is aware that he’ll be asked to be the leader of the receivers in Smith’s absence. He has the talent to make any defender pay in single coverage. But will he see more double-teams without Smith on the opposite side?
- Nico Ragaini has 30 catches in a promising redshirt freshman season as Iowa’s primary slot receiver. He has been a sure-handed safety valve for Stanley, but is averaging just 9.3 yards on his receptions. Perhaps it’s time to explore him as more of a vertical option.
- Oliver Martin arrived at Iowa this summer as one of the more ballyhooed “recruits” in the history of the program. The redshirt sophomore, an Iowa City West graduate, transferred from Michigan and was granted immediate eligibility after a process that stretched nearly to the season opener against Miami of Ohio. Martin scored a touchdown in that game. And has barely been seen since. He didn’t play a single snap against Purdue, the first time that has happened this season. He is not listed on the depth chart, but Martin “is in the mix for competition this week,” Ferentz said.
- The surprising new name on Iowa’s depth chart, listed as Tracy’s backup, is redshirt freshman Calvin Lockett, who has yet to play a snap. Lockett has good size (6-2, 182) and speed, but would Hawkeye coaches really trust him in league competition?
- Tight ends Nate Wieting and Shaun Beyer have combined for only 10 catches this season, a surprisingly low number for an Iowa passing attack that typically relies on that position. This could certainly be a chance for those two to get more involved. But that might weaken Iowa’s pass protection, where Wieting was of big help against Purdue.
“I don't know that we're going to change our offense or tell Nate (Stanley) to look here more than there,” Ferentz said when asked about the tight ends.
“I don't think you're going to see any wholesale changes with one player down.”
Stanley won’t be the one making the decisions on playing time. But the senior will be called on to try to make it all work.
He’s coming off a game in which he passed for 260 yards, including a brilliant 32-yard strike to Smith-Marsette.
“He’s really doing a good job at running good, crisp routes, and he’s getting himself open,” Stanley said of Smith-Marsette’s progress in his third season.
Stanley said he spent enough time this summer and fall working with all of the receivers to have established a good comfort level. That includes Lockett, a native of Florida who could be a literal “X” factor.
“Big, tall guy and he can run, too,” Stanley said of Lockett. “I wouldn’t say he’s as physical as Brandon, but he has the ability to run and go get the ball as well.”
And then there’s the man who’s been one of the biggest storylines of the season. After a summer full of waiting and wondering, Martin has only five catches for 28 yards in his Hawkeye debut. Ferentz praised Martin this summer for his ability to learn all three of Iowa’s receiving positions.
But that’s apparently not quite true. Martin has not been playing the “X” spot, Stanley said. That may be why he’s not on the depth chart, although he is in Iowa’s plans.
“He’s doing a great job at paying attention to detail in whatever he’s doing,” Stanley said of Martin. “Running his routes, he’s really focusing on the technique that he needs to use. And then in the run game, he’s doing a great job at being physical and blocking for our running backs.”
Stanley was unaware that he led the Big Ten in passing yards until a reporter pointed it out to him Tuesday. His job may have just gotten a little harder, but that’s not his focus.
Stanley was asked to assess his season so far.
“A few too many mistakes,” he immediately answered. “There’s always room to grow.”
For Stanley. And for someone in the Iowa receiving group who is about to get a big chance.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines Register.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.