Leistikow: Ihmir Smith-Marsette ready to break Iowa's wide-receiver drought in NFL Draft

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

One of the most exciting players of the Kirk Ferentz era probably won’t be the highest-picked Hawkeye in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he’s maybe the most interesting one to watch.

Given his top-end speed (a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at his pro day) in a 6-foot-1 frame and ability to contribute immediately as a return specialist, Ihmir Smith-Marsette possesses traits that have him poised to become the first Hawkeye wide receiver taken in the NFL Draft since 2012.

Additionally, only one Hawkeye wideout, period, has been chosen in the last 18 drafts (Marvin McNutt in the sixth round, to the Philadelphia Eagles).

Oh, and one more thing: The last former Hawkeye wide receiver to catch a pass in an NFL game? Tim Dwight, a 22-yarder for the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 9, 2007.

“We’re going to change that,” Smith-Marsette said at the end of an interview this week with the Des Moines Register. “I’m letting you know: We’re changing that."

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Ihmir Smith-Marsette scored three touchdowns in three different ways at the 2019 Holiday Bowl (returning, rushing, receiving) in Iowa's 49-24 win against USC.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette: A unique receiver who delivered in style

Smith-Marsette’s career at Iowa was intertwined with Brian Ferentz from the beginning. It was Ferentz who convinced Smith-Marsette to defect from his commitment to P.J. Fleck at Minnesota to join the Hawkeyes, and it was Ferentz who was a first-year offensive coordinator and Smith-Marsette a first-year receiver in 2017.

The relationship got off to a splendid start, with Ferentz calling the winning play in a 44-41 win at Iowa State to Smith-Marsette — who caught his second touchdown pass of the game in overtime from 5 yards out, just inside the south end zone pylon at Jack Trice Stadium. But amid their collective successes, the two strong-headed individuals would also verbally spar during their four years together.

Laughing, Smith-Marsette told of a time when he and Ferentz butted heads during a 17-10 loss at Michigan State. Smith-Marsette essentially told Ferentz he wanted the ball more. He had one target (caught for 31 yards) in that frustrating game.

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“So many stories. So many times we didn’t see eye to eye on the field and in practice,” Smith-Marsette said. “But it’s what made us ‘us,’ you know what I’m saying? I respected him, and he respected me.”

While Ferentz’s pro-style scheme asks receivers to do a lot of blocking, Smith-Marsette found a way to deliver plenty of fantastic moments and statistics in his Hawkeye career. He scored 20 touchdowns (14 receiving, four rushing, two on kick returns). He caught 110 balls for 1,615 yards (18th in program history). He rushed 34 times for 274 yards (8.1 average). He averaged 28.7 yards on 53 career kickoff returns, one of the best marks in Big Ten Conference history.

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On that note, Smith-Marsette was asked: What was your favorite moment at Iowa?

He picked three.

No. 1: His 98-yard kickoff return in the 2019 Holiday Bowl

There’s a back story here. At a bowl-week dinner featuring both teams, highlight videos were shown. In Iowa’s, Smith-Marsette tells cameras, “Don’t kick it to me.” At that moment, Smith-Marsette observed USC players howling at his bravado. He took that as a measure of disrespect. Then early in the game, he said a USC player intentionally kicked him in the face.

“I stood up and said, ‘You’re going to do me like that? Watch this,’” Smith-Marsette said. “The next time they kicked it to me, I returned it for a touchdown.”

Smith-Marsette’s blazing kick return up the left sideline broke a 14-14 tie. Iowa never trailed again. He scored three touchdowns in Iowa’s 49-24 win and was named the game’s offensive MVP.

No. 2: His 95-yard kickoff return at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium in 2019

Throughout the game in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers kept kicking away from Smith-Marsette. But after a pick-six of Nate Stanley in the second quarter cut Iowa's lead to 17-10, Nebraska kicked a ball that Smith-Marsette caught at the 5-yard line. Whoops. He skipped through a few tackle attempts and was gone.

“They think they’re back in the game. It’s getting wild. They weren’t kicking me the ball the whole game,” Smith-Marsette said. “And then they got the pick-six and their coach (Scott Frost) must’ve gotten happy, and they kicked it to me and I returned it. I hushed the crowd, and it got quiet.”

Iowa won, 27-24. Frost would later say it was a miscommunication that the ball was ever kicked to Smith-Marsette.

No. 3: His 53-yard touchdown catch (and flip) vs. Wisconsin

Smith-Marsette said Badgers safety Eric Burrell was trash-talking him after an early tackle for loss. With Iowa leading, 14-7, late in the third quarter, Smith-Marsette found himself matched up with Burrell, then burned him.

“I told them boys, ‘Nobody out here can 'D' me,’” Smith-Marsette said. “… I got (Burrell) one on one, and I ran right past him. I got the touchdown, did the flip.”

That flip resulted in a high-ankle sprain and kept Smith-Marsette sidelined for five weeks. If not for that injury, Smith-Marsette feels he would’ve gone faster than 4.43 in the 40.

2021 NFL Draft scouts think Smith-Marsette could be a possible sleeper

Smith-Marsette is awaiting the draft in his native New Jersey, where he is staying with his grandmother (who he affectionately calls “Nana”). He's been talking with a lot of NFL teams, and he does get asked frequently about his OWI arrest that occurred seven hours after Iowa’s 21-20 home loss to Northwestern on Oct. 31. He was clocked driving 74 mph in a 30 mph zone.

"They want to know what happened. I just tell them, that’s not who I am,” Smith-Marsette said. “It was a poor decision on my part. That’s not something you’ve got to worry about.”

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Opinions on Smith-Marsette are all over the map. His agent tells him he could be a third- or fourth-round pick. Pro Football Focus rates him as a fifth-rounder. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler grades him as a seventh-rounder and the No. 37 overall receiver.

ESPN’s Louis Riddick, in a recent tweet, was raving about Smith-Marsette while also taking a swipe at Iowa.

"Underutilized at Iowa. He should have had HUGE production,” Riddick wrote. “He was open over and over and they simply didn’t throw it to him. He goes to right situation in league, he will explode onto the scene.”

In a recent podcast, former Iowa defensive back Matt Bowen — now an ESPN analyst — called Smith-Marsette the sleeper of the Hawkeye draft class, which could see anywhere from two to seven players chosen.

“Straight-line acceleration. Ball-carrier vision in the open field. He’s going to upgrade your kick-return game immediately,” Bowen said. “As a wide receiver, too, you can scheme for him. … Then (his) traits (can) take over.”

More:Ihmir Smith-Marsette ends dynamic Iowa football career, declares for NFL Draft

Smith-Marsette, of course, would’ve loved to have been used more at Iowa. But he is also appreciative for the times Brian Ferentz schemed to get him the football.

“The type of offense we run, I expected that. I can’t really complain,” Smith-Marsette said. “They made ways for me to get the ball, and I’m thankful for it.

"Trust me, if I get in the right system and they implement ways for me to get the ball, it’ll be crazy."

An ideal scenario in Smith-Marsette's mind is that he and teammate Brandon Smith become the first two Hawkeye receivers drafted since McNutt in 2012. Smith (6-1½, 218 and Brugler's No. 53 overall receiver) and Smith-Marsette arrived at Iowa together. Perhaps one of them will be the first Hawkeye wide receiver to catch an NFL pass in 14 years.

More:Receiver Brandon Smith declares for NFL Draft as Iowa's bowl game in doubt again

“It’d mean a lot (to get drafted), just because we don’t typically get receivers into the league," Smith-Marsette said. "I feel like it’d be opening the door for future Hawkeye receivers to come. Something new, something different and take the legacy on a different path at Iowa."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Hawkeye hopefuls in the 2021 NFL Draft

A look at top Iowa players who could hear their names called in this year’s NFL Draft, which runs Thursday (Round 1), Friday (Rounds 2-3) and Saturday (Rounds 4-7). Measurements are from Iowa’s pro day, with consensus projection.

DT Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 313) — Rounds 2-4. The Big Ten defensive player of the year was initially deemed a possible first-rounder but has since dropped on mock drafts; exploded onto the scene in his only year as a Hawkeye starter. Extremely strong and quick at the point of attack.

DE Chauncey Golston (6-4½, 269) — Rounds 3-5. A first-team all-Big Ten pick and considered the safest Hawkeye in the board with a combination of length and versatility. Can play inside or outside and known for high character. 

WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-1, 179) — Rounds 4-7. A good chance of becoming Iowa’s first wide receiver drafted since 2012 (Marvin McNutt) and second since 2002 (Khalil Hill).

OL Alaric Jackson (6-5½, 321) — Rounds 4-7. The only draft prospect with 40-plus starts at left tackle is seen as a powerful run blocker and, at minimum, projects as a solid NFL backup.

LB Nick Niemann (6-3, 238) — Rounds 6-7. The younger brother of NFL linebacker Ben (Kansas City Chiefs) wowed scouts with his 4.45 run in the 40-yard dash on pro day and can contribute immediately on special teams.

WR Brandon Smith (6-1½, 218) — Round 7 or free agent. Was a premier blocker and has unique athleticism and strength, having delivered a 44-inch vertical jump in March.

TE Shaun Beyer (6-5, 250) — Round 7 or free agent.  Lacked big stats in college while dealing with a variety of injuries, but brings athletic upside at a position Iowa typically delivers well to the next level.

Others — OL Cole Banwart, K Keith Duncan, DL Jack Heflin, RB Mekhi Sargent and LB Barrington Wade are projected to be undrafted free agents.