Iowa football takeaways: Kelton Copeland comfortable using just three wide receivers

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The conversation since Iowa’s leading receiver, Brandon Smith, was sidelined by a leg injury has been: Who among the group of wideouts will step up and fill that void?

But Hawkeye wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland indicated Tuesday that perhaps there is no need to identify a fourth option from his group. Iowa got by with three wide receivers in a 20-0 win at Northwestern on Saturday. And that could be the plan again Nov. 9 at Wisconsin.

“It really comes down to matchups. As we saw, (running back) Tyler Goodson has lined up at wide receiver and has made some very impressive plays for us,” Copeland said in a news conference during Iowa’s bye week. “It’s not necessarily how many of ‘my’ guys, so to speak, are on the field — whether it’s one or four. Whoever is going to give us the best chance to win.”

Copeland’s top three healthy receivers are Nico Ragaini (31 catches), Ihmir Smith-Marsette (30 for a team-high 463 yards) and Tyrone Tracy (17, with an average gain of 18 yards). He said he is comfortable using only those players while Smith is out. If the Hawkeyes want to spread the field, they can turn to a running back like Goodson or even a tight end, Copeland said.

That may put to rest the notion that Oliver Martin, a transfer from Michigan who has been used sparingly, is the next man in. Copeland said there’s certainly a renewed urgency for Martin, an Iowa City native who has five catches this year. But he also tamped down expectations for the highly touted sophomore.

“Everybody wants Oliver to play right now, and it’s kind of unfair. It takes a lot to learn what’s being asked of you on a day-to-day basis,” Copeland said. “To his credit, he’s done a really good job of being accountable. I have no issues with Oliver off the field. … He’s one of those guys I’m looking for improvement because, obviously, there’s opportunity with Brandon being out.”

Junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette, here running after a catch vs. Purdue, has become the leader of Iowa's wide receiver group, even more so now that Brandon Smith is sidelined with a leg injury.

More on wide receivers: Ihmir Smith-Marsette sets the tone

Smith, a junior with 33 catches this season, was seen in a walking boot Tuesday and is not expected back for a few weeks. That means fellow junior Smith-Marsette has to be the leader of Copeland’s group. Copeland praised Smith-Marsette for the maturation he’s shown from the spring until now.

Copeland, who watches games from the press box, said he always looks for Smith-Marsette on the sideline when he wants to gauge the mood of the team.

“He is the heartbeat of our offense. He is the guy that gets the guys going when things aren’t going too well. And when things are going great, he’s one of the guys that keeps guys high,” Copeland said.

“With Brandon being out right now, he’s a guy l’m leaning on a lot.”

Running backs: Mekhi Sargent gets his groove back after fumble

Iowa running backs coach Derrick Foster said he was concerned when Mekhi Sargent lost a fumble on the opening play of an Oct. 5 loss at Michigan. The junior is the leading rusher for the No. 19 Hawkeyes (6-2), with 443 yards. It was the second lost fumble of his career. Foster had reason to be worried.

“I think it weighed on him a little bit. This is a kid, he holds himself to a standard and he’s a team football player,” Foster said of Sargent. “I think he was a little bit harder on himself than I probably was. He had to get back in the flow, regain his confidence. And I think he’s done that the last two games.”

Sargent had rushing touchdowns in wins over Purdue and Northwestern.

ON TYLER GOODSON: Foster had high praise for his true freshman, who has 316 yards rushing and 137 receiving. He noted that Goodson also plays on all four special-teams units. “He’s not above any job,” Foster said. “He loves to work. He loves football. … I think he’s earned the right to be on the field.”

ON IVORY KELLY-MARTIN: The junior has become the odd man out in the running back trio (Toren Young is the other) and has a redshirt year remaining. He has played only four games, so that redshirt is a likely option. “He is very in tune. He has not taken any days off, as a player. He’s giving great feedback on the sideline during games. He’s been very attentive in practice,” Foster said. “It’s not easy because I think every guy wants to be out there playing, but I think he understands.”

Linebackers: Jestin Jacobs on the rise

Jestin Jacobs arrived at Iowa in the winter from Ohio with a great deal of fanfare as an Army all-American. The linebacker had a setback in the summer with an injury and hasn’t played yet. But linebackers coach Seth Wallace said that could change soon, at least in terms of special teams.

Jacobs, at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, has traveled with the team for every game and is being groomed to compete for a starting spot, Wallace said.

“I do see him as a guy who’s real close to the fringe right now. Linebacker-wise, he’s not quite there,” Wallace said. “But I do want him around those opportunities so he can feel the emotion — he can feel the intensity of a Friday evening meeting that we have, defensively.”

AT MIDDLE LINEBACKER: Wallace said senior starter Kristian Welch will hopefully be back in the lineup for the game at Wisconsin, his home state. In his absence, Iowa has used redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle and true freshman Jack Campbell at that spot. Against Purdue, those two split reps. At Northwestern, Campbell was pulled after one snap. “Jack had a little bit of a hiccup there in the first play that he took in the second series,” Wallace said. “From that point, I wasn’t going to mess around with where he was at, stability-wise, so we just kept going with Dillon.” Doyle finished with seven tackles and a quarterback hurry.

TWO SECOND-YEAR PLAYERS REDSHIRTING? Defensive backs Julius Brents and Kaevon Merriweather each played more than four games last season as true freshmen. Merriweather started this year’s opener at safety, then got hurt and lost the job to Jack Koerner. He’s played in only one game since, on special teams. Brents likewise has dealt with an injury and gotten into only one game. Wallace said it’s logical to assume both will redshirt this season. “We’re also cautious of holding guys back vs. what we’re trying to accomplish, as well,” Wallace said. “If we can use them and it benefits the team, then I think you’ll see them out there.” Iowa is at full strength in its secondary now, however. So that doesn’t seem likely.

Defensive line: A.J. Epenesa becoming a run-stopper

Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was a preseason all-American after a 10.5-sack sophomore season in which he was a reserve. Now a starter, Epenesa has been limited to three sacks while seeing a great deal of double-teams. But defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said Epenesa is having a big impact in games, nonetheless, including showing that he can stop the run. He had five tackles against Northwestern.

“We put him in a position the first two years where we tried to utilize his strengths. He had a strength of rushing the passer, and there were other guys who were better at playing total defense,” Bell said. “But now, he has to be that every-down guy for us.”

ON CHAUNCEY GOLSTON: Iowa’s “other” defensive end leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss and had his second career interception at Northwestern. “He’s one of the sharpest guys in the room. I love putting him on the (dry erase) board and talking to the older guys, because he understands not only where he fits but where other people fit,” Bell said of his junior, also a first-year starter.

ON JOE EVANS: The walk-on redshirt freshman has been inserted at defensive end in passing downs the past two games — remarkable progress for someone who came to Iowa as a linebacker and is undersized (6-2, 240). “He’s got a big head, like a blockhead. And he’s a thick kid. And he doesn’t mind contact. He just wants to find a way to contribute. You’re looking for a spark, a change of production,” Bell said. “I told him on the Monday of the Northwestern game: ‘You’re going to get a sack. You’d better believe it.’ And he got 1 ½. So he proved me right.”

ON LOGAN LEE: The true freshman has already moved from tight end to defensive end. “Logan’s been scout team defensive player of the week twice — and that’s kind of disappointing because he should be every week. That’s my expectation for him,” Bell said. “He’s as studious a guy as I have in the room. He’s always asking questions. … And his future’s bright. I can’t wait to get him for bowl prep.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines to make sure you never miss a moment.