Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley breaks down the Minnesota defense and speaks of the need for a fast start Saturday Mark Emmert, firstname.lastname@example.org
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ihmir Smith-Marsette was briefly committed to playing football for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Three days later, the New Jersey native announced he was coming to Iowa instead.
When Minnesota and Iowa met last October, Smith-Marsette caught one pass for 8 yards and picked up another 17 yards on a running play.
But it was a deep pass from Nate Stanley that bounced off Smith-Marsette’s facemask and into the hands of a Gophers’ defender that was the lasting image of that contest. At least as far as the Hawkeye freshman wide receiver was concerned.
“Mentally, that threw me off,” Smith-Marsette said this summer. “It was a jitters thing, first-year experience thing.”
Iowa beat the Gophers 17-10 that day, so the dropped pass that became a turnover was not a turning point in the game. But it might have been in Smith-Marsette’s career.
Iowa’s next two games last season were against Ohio State and Wisconsin. Smith-Marsette, his confidence shaken a little, totaled 7 yards from scrimmage in those.
His teammates came to his rescue, starting with Stanley.
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“We went out there and told him, ‘Hey, we still have a lot of confidence in you. We know that you can make these plays, and the ball’s not going to stop coming to you. We know that you can help us,’” Stanley said Tuesday as Iowa (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten Conference) prepares to face Minnesota (3-1, 0-1) again at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
“One of the best things you can do is to just make sure somebody knows that you have their back and know that we believe in him. He’s done a great job at responding and moving on and growing as a leader, as a teammate and as a player out there on the field. He’s doing that now with other people that might have tough times, too.”
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Smith-Marsette remains Iowa’s top deep threat, averaging 18.7 yards on his seven catches. That’s the best mark on the team by anyone with more than two receptions. And the sense from Stanley is that there’s much more in store.
“When he has the ball in his hands, he has the ability to make special plays, just like Akrum (Wadley) did last year or like Ivory (Kelly-Martin) can this year,” Stanley said.
“As you continue to study opponents and study the secondary and the linebackers, you definitely start to look for matchups, especially when you get ‘cover 1.’ I think the coaches expect him to win those. And obviously I have a lot of confidence in him to make those plays, too.”
Iowa senior wide receiver Nick Easley said the entire offense was upset with how it played against Minnesota last year. The margin of victory should have been much more than seven points, he said, but there were too many breakdowns.
He and Stanley both noticed a change in Smith-Marsette’s demeanor after making such a visible mistake.
“He’s kind of a fiery guy and he’s always upbeat, so you can definitely tell when something’s bothering him,” Stanley said. “A lot of people helped him out. The more people that help you out, the faster and better you can respond.”
Smith-Marsette did have five catches for 55 yards in Iowa’s final two games of the 2017 regular season, against Purdue and Nebraska. He gained 128 yards on three kickoff returns in those games as well.
He was back to his usual self.
“He’s an enthusiastic guy and we all feed off of that,” Easley said of Smith-Marsette.
The Gophers, under second-year head coach P.J. Fleck, are certainly aware of the need to keep track of Smith-Marsette. Minnesota is allowing just 167.5 passing yards per game, with four touchdowns. But the Gophers lost their best defensive player, Antoine Winfield Jr., for the season with a foot injury two weeks ago.
“He’s an incredibly dynamic player. He’s got a ton of speed. They use him down the field. They use him exactly what his strength is,” Fleck said of Smith-Marsette.
The Gophers have already watched Smith-Marsette get away once. They don’t want to see it again Saturday.