IOWA CITY, Ia. — Coverage of spring football in our newspaper and online has exploded over the past few years. We have more ways than ever to measure readership and interest, and we have seen that reports about Iowa and Iowa State spring practices resonate in our state.
Yet, unlike in the fall, wein the media don’t get to see the players perform in the spring. Almost every practice is closed. (For the team I cover, Iowa, media has been permitted to watch for roughly 30 minutes since spring practice began March 21.)
That’s not a complaint; just a reality. Practices in a highly tactical game should be generally closed. But that’s a way to underline there’s only so much we can report to you with our eyes, at this point, about what your favorite 2018 team might look like come September.
That means our ears must be sharp, constantly tuning in to pick up tangible story lines we can trust to be accurate before sharing with you.
So, when Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe said this week, “the speed of the receiving corps right now is a little bit better” than in 2017, that got my attention. It warranted a follow-up.
The next Hawkeye assistant available for interviews happened to be second-year wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland. Good timing.
So I asked: Was O’Keefe’s speed comment an accurate assessment?
“Absolutely,” Copeland responded. “Absolutely.”
OK, so now we’ve got some ear confirmation. The Hawkeyes have increased their team speed. Cool. But how much better is it?
“(From) 2017 spring to 2018 spring, it’s night and day as far as the group speed, the individual speed,” he said. “There’s a couple things you can’t coach. I don’t care how good of a coach you think you are. Speed and size are two things you can’t coach. So, if you have speed as a group, that just makes you that much better.”
Amen to that.
The Hawkeyes’ offense has never been confused with the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams teams. They probably haven’t been as slow as you think, either. (Receiver Tevaun Smith ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash after his 2015 season; 2016 receiver Riley McCarron ran a 4.36.) But it's no secret team speed has been severely lacking in certain years, especially at receiver in 2017.
Even head coach Kirk Ferentz, on Wednesday’s Big Ten coaches' teleconference, delivered a quote that had me chuckling because of the matter-of-fact way he said it.
“We just were really struggling at this time last year, as you know, on the perimeter,” the 20th-year Iowa coach said when I asked him about evidence for team speed — again, fishing for clues here. “(Running back) Akrum (Wadley) had good speed certainly.”
Next came the self-deprecating zinger: “But, basically, our whole passing game … there wasn’t much to it.”
Now, it was Ferentz’s turn to continue. The biggest difference-makers this spring, he mentioned, have been Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. That statement confirmed what Copeland had communicated a a day earlier.
Both are finishing up their first year at Iowa; neither was here last spring, when the receiving group was led by a 5-foot-11 walk-on from Newton, Nick Easley.
As freshmen, Smith and Smith-Marsette were raw on the field. Smith-Marsette flashed more, with eight catches for 87 yards — including a memorable game-winning touchdown catch in overtime at Iowa State — and a 74-yard kickoff return at Nebraska.
“Compared to August and even compared to December, I think they’re a little more mature and a little more confident,” Ferentz said. “So they’re playing faster than they were in the fall. That’s helpful. I think if you factor (in) the tight ends (a group led by 11-touchdown grabber Noah Fant), things look a little bit better right now.
“But, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Indeed, let’s not get carried away here. Like I said, most of us haven’t seen anything from either player for months. Even coaches have seen just 11 or so practices, compared to the 30 or so they’ll see in preseason camp come August.
But let’s examine what we know, starting with the guy on the No. 1 line on Iowa’s pre-spring depth chart: Brandon Smith.
At 6-3 and now 219 pounds, Smith physically has looked the part since his June arrival.
“If you talked to (strength coach Chris) Doyle, he’s one of the most explosive guys on the team," Copeland said. "Not just the receiver position.”
But the muscular-yet-lean Mississippi native with unusually large hands rarely got on the field last fall. Smith caught three passes for 15 yards, and one of those catches became a lost fumble, while playing behind senior Matt VandeBerg.
Now, spring progress has been noticed.
“Huge strides,” Copeland said. “… He just does something, at least once a day — most times two or three times a day — where it’s like, ‘OK, that’s what I’m hoping to see. That’s what we were thinking when we recruited you.’
“Once we get him to trust his fundamentals, use his size, use his speed, his strength, all his God-given abilities on a play-by-play basis — every day, day in and day out? He’s going to be a force to reckoned with. There’s no question."
As for Smith-Marsette? The listed backup to Easley (51 catches in 2017) has already been mentioned as a leading return-man candidate by special-teams coach LeVar Woods. And the 6-1, 175-pound New Jersey product has opened Copeland's eyes ... with his legs.
"Can’t coach speed," Copeland said. "One of the faster players in our room (and) definitely on this team."
Again, the ears perked up.
“Once he truly understands what he’s supposed to do," Copeland continued, "(and) when he’s supposed to do it and where he’s supposed to be … and then implement his athleticism and his intuition, as far as the mental side of the game? That kid’s going to take off. He really is."
So, I feel pretty confident reporting that Iowa has speed options in Smith and Smith-Marsette. But, we won't know how effective they can be until we see them with our eyes.
Iowa's final spring practice, at 7 p.m. on April 20 at Kinnick Stadium, is open to the public. Coaches have warned us: It's never pretty in the spring. Don't expect offensive fireworks.
But there is confidence that Iowa's receivers group is on the right (and maybe fast?) track.
"We’re building this thing," Copeland said. "We’re moving the room forward, one day at a time."
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.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz looks at his 2018 team before spring ball begins. Chad Leistikow