Des Moines Register sports reporters Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar preview the next Iowa Hawkeye football game against North Texas.
Weequahic High School head coach Brian Logan wants to have a laugh before breaking down the development of Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
Sure, the numbers show the 18-year-old isn’t supposed to be here — starring at Iowa, 1,000 miles from home, catching a game-winning touchdown in the second week of his college career — but, so what? Scouts just didn’t see what he and the Hawkeye coaching staff did in the heart of Newark, N.J.
“Underrated? Is that what he was?” Logan asks rhetorically. “Oh, OK.
“They never talked to us. They never come see us. I don’t know where they get their information from.”
Smith-Marsette was a two-star cornerback prospect according to 247Sports. After playing both ways and returning kicks for Weequahic’s unbeaten New Jersey sectional title run in 2016, he held five FBS scholarship offers: Boston College, Minnesota, Rutgers, Temple and Iowa. He picked the Hawkeyes on Feb. 1 amid a contested verbal commitment process, and hasn’t looked back since National Signing Day.
Smith-Marsette scored on two impressive receptions against Iowa State and is already showing enough talent and toughness at wide receiver to make him a 2017 recruiting steal for head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad.
“I saw a kid that made good use of his time and education and wanted something more for himself,” Logan said. “He liked track, he liked football, so he put his time in.
“We don’t necessarily get to go to the best camps or polish up our skills the way NFL people’s kids do, but we put a little love and affection into what we do around here with the staff that we have.”
Iowa doesn’t allow true freshmen football players to meet with the media, but the 6-foot-2, 175-pound speedster already has coaches and teammates speaking up for him. Smith-Marsette fumbled an end-around against Wyoming on his first collegiate touch, but was trusted to bounce back in Week 2, catching four passes for 36 yards and often appearing solo or opposite one other wide receiver in Iowa’s offensive formations.
“Man, it’s how you respond. It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish,” Iowa running back James Butler told reporters Tuesday.
“He just turned 18 years old. Being able to respond like that and have such a big game in a crucial moment shows how mature he is and really how good of an athlete he is.”
Ferentz praised Smith-Marsette’s “spirit” and “football mentality” after the win, traits that seemed destined to go elsewhere even eight months ago.
The 54th-ranked senior prospect in New Jersey last year initially committed to stay close to home and attend Rutgers. That Dec. 11 verbal turned up the pressure on a recruiting process that had stayed relatively silent until Weequahic’s title.
The former water polo player at St. Benedict’s in Newark was suddenly being pursued in the Midwest, and decommitted from the Scarlet Knights three days after visiting Iowa City on Jan. 20. He took an official visit to Minnesota, featuring new head coach P.J Fleck, the next weekend. Sources indicate Smith-Marsette felt pressured to give the Golden Gophers a verbal commitment before leaving Minneapolis, but ultimately changed his mind when it was time to make a binding decision.
The National Letter of Intent was sent to Iowa, becoming the squad’s 22nd and final recruit on Feb. 1.
“When I first arrived on campus at Iowa, I got a different feeling,” Smith-Marsette told NJ.com after the decision. “They were great over there and it felt like they were brothers. I loved the feeling that I got there. It was a like a ‘welcome home’ feeling. That is what ultimately separated Iowa from Rutgers and Minnesota.”
Logan thinks fellow Weequahic alum Akrum Wadley factored massively into Smith-Marsette’s decision to land at Iowa, where the senior running back could show the true freshman how to grow up, get playing time and become a shoulder to lean throughout the season.
Learning from Iowa’s coaching staff and senior receiver Matt VandeBerg being, “one of the best in the business,” didn’t hurt, either.
“Ihmir was a raw talent,” Logan said. “He got out to Iowa, they told him a little about tradition, and it helped to have VandeBerg as a tutor and a mentor. If you get an opportunity and work real hard, you can be what you want to be.”
After a clutch performance in overtime of last Saturday’s Cy-Hawk showdown, Smith-Marsette is Iowa’s newest star skill player. The 13 touchdown catches, three interceptions and three return touchdowns he collected as a senior at Weequahic were only a taste of what he could prove to be with four years at the next level. Iowa has ensured he’s getting confidence to start.
The grad transfer from Nevada has 21 touches for 110 yards during Iowa's 2-0 start.
“One of the great things about coaching at Iowa and playing at Iowa, and I learned this in the 80s, is that people care,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “There is a lot of interest, and that’s great. But one of the downsides is, young people and anybody, you tend to get a higher opinion of yourself really quickly if you do something. All of a sudden you’re the best that ever did this and it’s not that way. Sports and life are pretty humbling.
“So, hopefully I think all the teammates will do their best. But I haven’t seen any indication (he's getting cocky). He’s practiced really well this week.”
Back home, coaches, friends, and even Weequahic teachers have seen that kid before. Smith-Marsette turned 18 on Aug. 29, but he’s got the maturity and makeup to keep Hawkeye fans happy for years to come.
“Ihmir didn’t do a lot of talking when he was here,” Logan said. “He proved it through his actions. He wanted the ball, he wanted to make plays, he was hungry. That made a lot of other guys get hungry and competitive.
“If he stays focused and stays humble, he should be just fine.”
The Iowa coach reacts to new 2020 and 2021 Big Ten schedules that pit Iowa vs. Wisconsin on the last Saturday in November. Chad Leistikow