IOWA CITY, Ia. — If you’re tooling around Iowa City and happen to bump into Iowa football player Ihmir Smith-Marsette … you have full permission from Hawkeye coaches to tell the speedy sophomore to put his cellphone away.
Smith-Marsette was called out (pun semi-intended) recently in a news conference by the Hawkeyes’ 20th-year head football coach, Kirk Ferentz.
“I think the challenge for him right now … is better focus,” Ferentz said then. “Whether it's when he's in the player lounge, maybe getting off the phone a little bit more and maybe walk across the hall and watch film — those types of things.”
The dean of college football coaches going public about a player’s cell phone usage? That got the attention of Smith-Marsette’s circle back in New Jersey. Friends told him they heard he would get his phone taken away if he kept using it at the expense of team activities.
“I see it on a day-to-day basis,” second-year wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland confirmed Tuesday. “It was probably a good thing that Coach Ferentz said that in a public setting. It’s one thing for 'Coach Cope' to say it in a meeting or in our one-on-one meetings. … But when Coach Ferentz says that in a public setting?
“That’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing. The more people that know that … if you guys see him out and about, tell him to get off his phone.”
It was one of the more comical moments of Tuesday’s interviews with Iowa assistants Copleand and Ken O’Keefe. But it also underscored how badly the Hawkeye staff wants to push Smith-Marsette’s development forward.
They know he’s a huge talent.
“Speed. Can’t coach speed,” Copeland said of Smith-Marsette, who had 18 receptions for 187 yards last fall, plus another 41 rushing and 134 on four kick returns. “One of the faster players in our room; definitely on this team.”
They saw him score the game-winning touchdown at Iowa State in September and make some electric plays here and there as a true freshman. They also say he is a football fanatic and knows the game very well.
But they also know the 6-foot-1, 175-pound receiver could give more.
And they’ve now taken to public settings to try to get through to him. It’s also the way they went about reaching former running back Akrum Wadley about his continued struggles to reach his target body weight.
It served as a kick in the tail for Wadley, who wound up with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Let’s see how it pans out for Smith-Marsette. (And now, you can help.)
Who's made Kelton Copeland say, 'Wow.'
Smith-Marsette entered spring practice on the No. 2 line at receiver, despite having better returning numbers than fellow true sophomore Brandon Smith (three catches, 15 yards in 2017), who was on the No. 1 line.
Copeland raved about the play-making ability that Smith has brought to the table this spring and said he has "high expectations" for the native of Lake Cormorant, Mississippi.
Smith didn’t play much last year, as he was playing behind fifth-year senior Matt VandeBerg, one of Iowa’s all-time receptions leaders. But now?
The door to playing time is open.
“We had a talk before spring ball even started that, ‘OK, now’s your time. There’s no more senior in front of me. There’s no more excuses,’ ” Copeland said. “ 'It’s your time to shine. It’s your job to win. It’s your job to earn.’
“And he’s taken that on, full steam ahead. He has done some things every day. … He has done something that stands out, that catches your eye, like, ‘Wow.’ That’s something I haven’t seen in the past.”
Every spring, Iowa seems to have a full-of-potential receiver that doesn’t pan out in the fall, for whatever reason. You know the names — Derrick Willies, Cam Wilson and Jay Scheel among them.
Smith (6-3, 219) is the next in line to bring with him offseason hype. It sounds like he’s got the right character and abilities to deliver. But, given Hawkeye history, we’ll have to believe it when we see it.
Don't forget about this steady guy.
Sometimes in spring ball, the proven commodities get swept to the side as eyes peer toward the next top talent.
Certainly, Copeland acknowledged, Nick Easley (5-11, 205) isn’t an eye-grabber.
“No offense to Nick, but there’s nothing about him, physically, that you look at him and say, ‘Wow.’ But he’s a fundamental technician,” Copeland said. “He does everything well. He does everything the way you coach it.”
That’s the reason Easley led the Hawkeyes with 51 receptions in 2017 — 21 more than second-place Noah Fant (30) and nearly double that of VandeBerg, the expected team leader (28).
Don’t be surprised if Easley’s total production dips in 2018, as more receiving options emerge. But don’t discount his steady importance in this deeper-than-last-year position group.
'K.G.' remains a mystery to us, but Iowa coaches see something there.
Get to know the name, which isn’t a typo — even if it’s difficult to say: Kyle Groeneweg.
He is an intriguing but unknown name on Iowa’s receiver depth chart. He's No. 92 on the roster. And it sounds like he is in the plans.
Copeland calls him “K.G.” for short, after admitting he only recently was able to remember the fifth-year senior’s name.
The transfer from the University of Sioux Falls remains a bit of a mystery. He averaged 17.6 yards per catch and 13.4 yards per punt return in three years at the Division II school in South Dakota before coming to Iowa and sitting out a year.
Now, it’s the walk-on’s last year of college eligibility.
“K.G.’s kind of the dark horse, so to speak, for a guy that could really, really help us,” Copeland said. “He can contribute in a lot of ways because of what his skill set brings to the table for us.
“A lot of people really don’t know about him or maybe forgot that he’s here.”
Copeland did not expand on Groeneweg’s skill set. Ferentz has divulged that the 5-10, 186 receiver has “nifty” skills (whatever that means) and that he could be an intriguing return-game option.
Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see what he’s got.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.