Brandon Smith talks about the importance of moving on and refocusing ahead of Purdue Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brandon Smith’s eyes lit up when a reporter informed him of the news. For this Mississippian, a slice of fast-food home is just 20 minutes down the road.
“I’ll drive 20 minutes to go get Five Guys,” Iowa’s sophomore wide receiver said, referring to the popular restaurant chain that’s located throughout the country — but is most heavily rooted down south.
Plucking a player from 500-plus miles away and dropping him into an unfamiliar setting is nothing new in college football’s grand world of prospect hunting. But some moves are more drastic than others.
There’s no welcome manual when shifting from the Mississippi heat to the Iowa cold, no brochure on how to temper those southern fast-food cravings. A program like the Hawkeyes, which primarily leans on its in-state and Midwest recruiting bases, doesn’t venture down south often.
But that’s exactly where Iowa found Smith, who hails from the tiny unincorporated community of Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. Two years after this serendipitous discovery, the Hawkeyes are seeing Smith's play-making abilities come to life on Saturdays.
“Brandon just really comes to work every single day at practice,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “He’s always going to give you 100 percent, and that’s all you can ask for. That relationship has continued to grow, especially the confidence I have in him to make a lot of those plays that he’s shown in games.
“He does it in practice, so it’s definitely come a long ways, and I just think that comes from the amount of work that we put in together.”
As No. 19 Iowa (6-2, 3-2) heads to Purdue (4-4, 3-2) Saturday for another pivotal Big Ten showdown, Smith continues to emerge inside the Hawkeye offense. Last week’s pedestrian air effort aside, the sophomore receiver has delivered splash plays, one-handed catches and reliability on the outside.
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Smith’s 18 catches and 241 receiving yards both rank third on the team, behind only the sure-handed Nick Easley and Iowa’s much-hyped tight end duo. There hasn’t been that ridiculously gaudy stat line yet — 100-plus yards receiving plus a couple TDs, something like that — but Smith’s services have proved crucial in myriad scenarios.
There was the fourth-quarter third-down grab against Iowa State, which covered 30 yards and set up Iowa’s game-clinching touchdown with just under five minutes to play. Smith’s breakout performance to date came three games later at Minnesota, where he punctuated a five-catch, 68-yard performance with a Randy Moss-esque snag over Gophers defensive back Terell Smith. The one-handed score against Maryland was Iowa’s only offensive TD on a brutally windy day.
Ask anyone inside the Hawkeye football program, and you’ll hear a universal assessment of Smith’s exceptional athleticism: We see these kinds of plays in practice all the time. Now, everyone else is getting a glimpse of the fun on Saturdays.
“He feels a lot more comfortable,” fellow sophomore Tristan Wirfs said. “He’s making plays that he may not have made even six weeks ago. And I think that just comes with being out there more and catching passes and getting that feel in a game.”
Increased comfort is a common analysis when diving into Smith’s early development, and understandably so. An environmental shift requires some adapting, from both player and those closest to him.
Take freshman year, when Smith had to navigate through his first Iowa winter. Negative temps and mounds of snow aren’t on the Lake Cormorant menu, especially into April.
“The first winter was terrible for me,” Smith said, almost shuddering at the chilly details. “I was riding around on my moped with a thick jacket on — a thick coat — and everybody else has on a light jacket. I looked at them like they were crazy — ‘Are you not cold?’”
Iowa familiarization was needed well before arrival too. After choosing the Hawkeyes, Smith said friends and community members kept congratulating him on committing to Southern Mississippi — another black-and-gold school with a bird logo.
There was questioning once Smith issued a correction. The Mississippi-to-Iowa City itinerary isn’t a common one.
“They were kind of confused — why would I go all the way up there? It’s really cold,” recalled Smith, who said his dream school was Ole Miss, but made a “business decision” in joining the Hawkeyes. “The first thing they would talk about is the weather and how Iowa is mainly a running team and all that stuff. But I really didn’t pay attention to all that. I just knew I had an opportunity to come here and contribute. So that’s the only thing I was really focused on.
“Those same people who were getting on me about coming to Iowa, they’ve turned into Iowa fans now. They’re asking me for gear, telling me I’m doing a really good job. It’s just nice turning them into fans.”
In college football’s spectrum of instant gratification, many Iowa supporters wondered about Smith’s long-term outlook after a freshman season with minimal impact (three catches for 15 yards to be exact). The reality is, though, early contributions are far from a sure bet. First years are more often spent learning and developing than catching and scoring.
It’s all about the progression, and Smith has done so nicely in year two.
“He’s definitely a freak of nature, one of those guys who can make some spectacular catches,” tight end Noah Fant said. “I feel like with those catches and him getting more involved, he gets more comfortable out there on the field.”
Oh, and if you see Smith at the Cedar Rapids Five Guys soon, stop and say hello. That’s comfort food for any southern transplant.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.