Iowa takeaways: A new receiving option, two holdovers looking for big plays, and interchangeable tackles

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Who was this new senior wide receiver on Iowa’s depth chart Tuesday?

It turns out even Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t have a lengthy history with Kyle Groeneweg.

“Up until last August, I didn’t know much about him,” Ferentz confessed during his news conference previewing the spring practice sessions that began Wednesday morning. “He just showed up. He’s kind of a quiet — I don’t want to use the world ‘nondescript’ — but he just kind of blended in out there. Until we started playing, and then he did some really good things. And he really had a good month of December. So we’re anxious to see what he can do this spring.”

Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette pulls in a 29-yard pass during the Hawkeyes' game against No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

Groeneweg is from Inwood and began his college career at Division II Sioux Falls. There, he caught 36 passes for 635 yards and six touchdowns before transferring to Iowa. Hawkeyes special teams coordinator LeVar Woods, a fellow native of northwest Iowa, knew about Groeneweg before Ferentz did.

As a redshirt last season, Groeneweg was so impressive that he won Iowa’s “Team Leader” awards for offense and special teams. He is 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds. He is listed as Brandon Smith’s backup at split end.

And one more thing: Ferentz said Groeneweg has inserted himself into the discussion at kick returner. He gained 508 yards on 38 punt returns, and another 1,282 yards on 50 kickoff returns (two for touchdowns) at Sioux Falls.

“He really is pretty nifty fielding balls and doing some things with the ball,” Ferentz said. “He’s one guy that will be in the mix.”

Last year, Nick Easley transferred in from Iowa Western Community College and led Iowa with 51 catches. Could Groeneweg provide an encore?

Smith adds pounds (and confidence?)

Smith, a sophomore, has added 14 pounds to his 6-3 frame. He’s up to 219 now, and the Hawkeyes would love to see him become a big-play option on the outside after a rather quiet debut season.

Smith caught three passes for 15 yards last fall.

“He does have the potential. Now, we’re just hoping to see the growth,” Ferentz said. “I would not describe him as a confident player, and that’s not unusual for guys that are first-year players.

“He's one of the guys that we're really curious to see. You've got a couple different tiers on every roster this time of year. And he's a guy that's been running in the offense, but really hasn't played very much. So you hope that he takes that next step and really can ascend.”

Smith was a state champion high-jumper in Mississippi. So obviously, he’s capable of ascending. It’s just a question of how high this season for the Hawkeyes.

Put down the phone, Smith-Marsette

Sticking with wide receiver, it was interesting to hear Ferentz call out Ihmir Smith-Marsette for spending too much time on his phone. The sophomore from New Jersey showed he can be an electric player at times last year, grabbing 18 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner at Iowa State.

He also had some memorable mistakes.

“You've got to love his attitude. He's fearless out there and he's going to go for it. He's that type of player, and that's good. He's got a good energy to him,” Ferentz said. “I think the challenge for him right now, which is true for most guys, is better focus. 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.

“That's just part of maturity, learning to budget your time, having a plan. I'm all for recreation and all that stuff, that's good. But just learning how to really be a better player, more mature player.”

Smith-Marsette, who also returned four kickoffs for 134 yards, may be the most dynamic playmaker on Iowa’s offense this year, perhaps taking up the mantle left by graduated running back Akrum Wadley. They come from the same New Jersey high school (Weequahic in Newark). And they both have difficulty putting on weight, apparently. Smith-Marsette, listed as Easley’s backup, is still at 175 pounds.

“He's not the biggest guy in the world,” Ferentz said, a refrain familiar from the Wadley era. “So if he works hard in the weight room, all those types of things, that will make him a better player. … Ihmir is a real football junkie. He's a football guy. He likes football. That's a good thing. Maybe it will suck him in the way we want.”


Two big, interchangeable parts

Tristan Wirfs is listed as the starting left tackle, and Alaric Jackson is at right. Or is it vice versa?

“They’ll both practice both ways. I don’t even know how we have them listed right now,” Ferentz said.

Last season, it was Jackson on the left side of the offensive line and Wirfs on the right. Until the Pinstripe Bowl, that is, when Jackson was suspended and Wirfs moved over. Jackson is in good standing with the Hawkeyes now, Ferentz confirmed.

And he’s still standing 6-7, 320 pounds. Wirfs is 6-5, 320. Both are sophomores. Those are two fantastic building blocks for a team with question marks on the interior of the offensive line.

Ferentz, a veteran offensive line coach, has often said he doesn’t see as significant a difference between left and right tackle as fans and the media do. He said coaches will get a long look at Jackson and Wirfs on both sides and eventually make a determination of where each stays.

“You watch these guys on film, there are a lot of things that they did pretty well last year,” Ferentz said. “But a lot of things that they’re going to do better in the future, because they’ve got really good attitudes.”

Safety in numbers?

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker hinted last year that he might look at moving a safety to outside linebacker to replace the graduated Ben Niemann. Senior Jake Gervase or junior Amani Hooker, the listed starting safeties, could potentially fill that gap.

But nothing will happen this spring, Ferentz said. That’s because senior Brandon Snyder, the former starting free safety, is still recovering from his second knee surgery. The Hawkeyes might revisit things in August camp, however.

“The guys that make the most sense are probably (Snyder) and Jake. Fifty percent of that pool is already off the field … plus, we're also trying to identify what our linebackers can do. So I don't know how much we'll toy around with that this time of year,” Ferentz said. “The thinking there is we played so many teams that don't play with fullbacks or tight ends, that it's kind of the world that college football has become. So there might be that flexibility of integrating that package a little bit.

“The other part I would add, both those guys are pretty veteran, smart, savvy guys that are both fifth-year guys that know what's going on. So I think they could do that without crossing their wires back in the back end.”

Intriguing. Stay tuned.