The Register's Chad Leistikow and Danny Lawhon talk about what to expect from a revamped Iowa offense as they head to Valley Stadium in West Des Moines for practice.
Brandon Smith has genetics on his side.
His father was a hurdler at Mississippi State and his mother a sprinter at Mississippi. Older sister Brianna was a state champion sprinter in high school who now throws the hammer at her father’s alma mater.
Brandon is a standout high jumper himself — good enough to approach 7 feet as a high school senior in Lake Cormorant, Miss.
But Brandon has two other qualities that set him apart from his family: hands so big that he wears XXXL gloves, and a longstanding preference for football.
“I didn’t like track because, to me, it was just, like, running in circles,” Brandon said. “When I run, I wanted to do something — I had to hit somebody.”
Smith’s next stop will be Iowa City, where the 6-foot-3 wide receiver with the 39-inch vertical leap is generating buzz two months before joining the Iowa football program. For Hawkeye fans, Smith is the perfect storm of intrigue — a blend of rare athletic talent from a football hotbed state deep in SEC country who happens to play a position of extreme need.
“When he gets in that strength program of Iowa’s, he’s only going to get better as a runner and a jumper. I’m not even sure he’s done growing,” raved Nick Nester, Smith’s coach the past four seasons at Lake Cormorant. “He’s a hard worker. There’s nothing about him that’s average. He’s never made a ‘C’ in his life. I know that he’s going to come and compete from the day he gets there.”
Smith started playing football at the age of 7, with the encouragement of his parents, Roy and Tyjuana. He preferred defensive end at first, although he also was a running back, hurdling the other pee-wee players in a style reminiscent of Roy’s track days.
By the time Smith got to Lake Cormorant High School, which didn’t exist until 2010, Nester recognized his potential as a game-changing wide receiver. Smith already stood 6-1, 175 pounds. Combine that with those hands and that leaping ability…
“That was the one place we could put him and get him matched up, one-on-one. We felt like he could win against anyone one-on-one,” Nester said.
“His ability to go up and get the football is what makes him stand out. Backs could have great coverage on him, but he has a 40-inch vertical. He’s just going to take it from people. He just basically outrebounds you. He can jump higher than you, he’s stronger than you and his hands are bigger than yours.”
Smith missed most of his freshman season after breaking his wrist while trying to block a senior defensive back in practice. “I put my arms in the wrong spot,” he said. That’s been his only injury.
As a sophomore, Smith gained more than 700 yards receiving for a team that failed to record a victory. Being a newcomer in Mississippi’s Class 5-A is difficult duty, and Nester’s young team paid the price.
In the final game of that season, though, Nester saw something from Smith that will stick with him forever — Smith caught a pass on the sideline and dragged a pair of would-be tacklers 30 yards into the end zone.
“The season was over, and he was still competing and trying to do the best he can,” Nester said. “It was like he took it personally.”
Better days were ahead for Smith, including a five-touchdown outburst in one game as a junior. Still, it wasn’t easy to get attention for a kid living in an unincorporated town with a new high school, far north of the big city of Jackson.
“You’ve almost got to break a leg to get noticed,” Smith said.
What Register columnist Chad Leistikow is looking to learn more about during the April 7, free event in West Des Moines. The Hawkeyes' spring practice in Central Iowa begins at roughly 6:30 p.m. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Smaller Division I schools like Memphis, Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State extended scholarship offers.
Last June, serendipity led Smith to Iowa. Hawkeyes recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell is from Olive Branch, Miss., and was visiting his mother when he started to hear tall tales about this wide receiver out in the boondocks, and so he drove over to see for himself. Smith and his family later visited Iowa, and he committed that weekend.
“I felt comfortable there. My position is needed, and I wouldn’t go anywhere where I’m not needed,” Smith said matter-of-factly.
During Smith’s senior season, he caught 80 passes for 1,509 yards and 19 touchdowns while never seeing single coverage. He also averaged almost 40 yards per punt. He was labeled a three-star recruit, the biggest in the seven-year history of Lake Cormorant High. Smith wasn’t such a secret anymore.
Other schools started to take an interest. Vanderbilt wanted him. Wisconsin texted to try to coax him up for an official visit. Smith showed the text to Nester, then deleted it.
Smith wasn’t interested in any of the overtures. He took his father’s advice.
“I told him, 'We’re not concerned about what anybody else is doing or what they think — we’ve done made a decision.' Other schools were trying to get him to come on visits,” Roy Smith said.
“I said, ‘Tell them you’re a Hawkeye and be done with it. Tell them you don’t mean to be rude but you don’t want to continue this conversation.’ I tried to teach him to be a man of your word. There’s nothing else to talk about.”
The Smith family spent last year getting acquainted with Iowa football and the Big Ten Conference. They watched every game. Roy has even become a Hawkeyes basketball fan. “You might as well watch all the sports,” he said.
For Roy, seeing his children follow in their parents’ footsteps as major-college athletes is the culmination of a dream. Roy and Tyjuana met in high school before going their separate ways as college track stars. Now, he is a truck driver and she a school teacher, both intent on instilling in Brianna and Brandon that it’s discipline as well as talent that will carry them through.
“They wouldn’t let me get lazy. They were always on me about staying ready,” Brandon said of being the son of two Division I athletes.
Roy made sure that Brandon always mowed half of their 2 ½-acre spread before going off to play football with his friends. Roy would take care of the other half.
Roy transformed one bedroom in the house into a gym, filled with workout equipment. He noted with pride that Brandon spends more time in there than he does.
The family will make the trek north June 10 to get Brandon moved in. Neither Roy nor Brandon figures it will be a big adjustment.
“I’m really ready to leave now,” Brandon said last week.
Roy never got a chance to play football. His tiny high school, now defunct, didn’t offer the sport, which is how he settled on track.
“I just got over not playing football and I’m 49 years old,” Roy joked.
“I’m not trying to live my life through him. I’m just excited for him. We are very much looking to his time at Iowa.”
The house back in Mississippi will soon be emptier with Brandon far from home. But Roy’s not worried. He is making arrangements to drive to as many of Brandon’s games as he can.
“We still have a German shepherd,” Roy said.