IOWA CITY, Ia. — They call themselves “the Smith brothers,” though they grew up 1,100 miles apart and bear no resemblance to each other, in stature or personality.
But Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette settled in Iowa City last summer, were assigned to be roommates, and forged a bond they hope will show up on the field this fall as the latest hope that a new era has dawned for Iowa Hawkeye wide receivers.
The first test comes at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, when Iowa hosts Northern Illinois in the season-opener at Kinnick Stadium (Big Ten Network).
“We’re totally different,” the loquacious Smith-Marsette said when asked to compare his playing style to Brandon Smith.
Smith-Marsette then quickly changed course, as he’s known to do on the field.
“Well, not totally different. We both make down-the-field plays. We can both make short plays into big plays.”
That’s the key for the Hawkeye passing game this season. If these two sophomores can make any kind of plays, it would be a sign that brighter days are ahead for a wide receiver corps that has barely registered in recent seasons.
- Iowa’s passing offense has ranked an average of 90th among FBS teams in the past five seasons.
- The Hawkeyes have fared slightly better in yards per completion, an average finish of 74th from 2013-17, but that’s still in the bottom half of their peer group.
- A university that routinely sees offensive linemen and defensive backs making it to NFL playing fields can hardly say the same for wide receivers.
There is more to an effective passing game than quality wideouts, of course, but it was noteworthy to hear offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz speak this summer about the need for his team to be able to test defenses on the perimeter.
And that’s where the speedy Smith-Marsette and the muscular Smith can come into play. If they prove they can do it this season, there is the potential for two more autumns of them punishing Big Ten Conference defenses. If not, the nondescript image of Iowa’s wide receivers will continue for at least another year.
Senior wide receiver Nick Easley, the leader of the group, said the early results have been encouraging.
“They’re light years ahead of where they were last year,” Easley said of Smith and Smith-Marsette. “That transition from first year to second year is huge. They’re a lot more comfortable and know what they’re doing now.”
Smith-Marsette confirmed this viewpoint.
The New Jersey native came in last year weighing just 159 pounds, he told reporters this week. He was light on his feet, proving to be the fastest Hawkeye while catching 18 passes, rushing seven times and returning four kickoffs. But he was also a little light in the dependability department, fumbling the ball and dropping passes at times as well.
Smith-Marsette is up to 176 pounds. He said he has his confidence back, and he told everyone who would listen this week that his primary goal in Year 2 is consistency. That’s just what his coaches want to hear.
Smith-Marsette was rewarded by being selected as the Hawkeyes’ primary kickoff and punt returner heading into the opener. That’s a sign of faith in a player who just turned 19 on Wednesday (“I’m going to celebrate by coming in here and practicing,” he said with a smile.)
He said the extra weight will help him absorb contact, maybe break some tackles, and get into and out of his breaks faster. Smith-Marsette looks lankier than his 6-foot-1 height, and it was those long legs that helped him excel in the hurdles at Weequahic High School.
But track was just a means to getting better at football, Smith-Marsette said. That’s his real passion. He quit track after his junior season.
“It helped a lot. It slowed the high school game down,” Smith-Marsette said. “But when I got here, everything was faster.”
Smith was a high jump champion in his native Mississippi. He combines that ability with prototypical size for his position (6-3, 219) and admits that he came to Iowa last summer feeling the weight of expectations.
“It was a little bit overwhelming, just being new to the program and I really didn’t want to make mistakes because there were high hopes for me coming here,” said Smith, who is the quieter of the receivers.
He played in nine games but ended up with only three receptions for 15 yards.
Smith had a strong summer camp, though, and is listed as a starter heading into the season. He said the extra year on campus has allowed him to clear his head. Smith-Marsette and Easley will be the other two top options at wide receiver.
They’ll be facing a pair of fifth-year senior starters at cornerback in Albert Smalls and Jalen Embry. They combined for nine pass breakups last season, but zero interceptions, for a Northern Illinois team that finished 8-5. Embry transferred to the Huskies from the Hawkeyes.
It’s a big opportunity for Smith and Smith-Marsette to make an opening statement.
“Just me and my boy out there,” Smith-Marsette said, anticipating the moment. “He’s just a complete player — size, strength. My man Brandon, he’s a different breed.”
They both are a different breed from what Hawkeye fans have seen recently from their wide receivers. And that’s precisely why the “Smith brothers” are so intriguing.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT IOWA
- WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
- WHERE: KInnick Stadium
- TV: Big Ten Network (Joe Beninati, Chuck Long, Ally Sturm)
- LINE: Hawkeyes by 10
- WEATHER: High of 84 with thunderstorms likely; winds from the south-southwest at 10-15 mph