Iowa receiver and Mississippi native Brandon Smith gets unique chance in Outback Bowl

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — There are 56 native sons on the Mississippi State football roster.

Brandon Smith is not one of them. His father, Roy, and older sister, Brianna, competed in track and field for the Bulldogs. But Mississippi State’s football coaches had shown only tepid interest in Brandon.

So Brandon Smith ended up at Iowa, an 8 ½-hour drive from his small hometown of Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. The sophomore wide receiver was content with what he considered a business decision that he made, never expecting his worlds to collide. The Hawkeyes have never faced the Bulldogs in football, after all.

Iowa wide receiver entertains a media gathering Thursday in Tampa, Fla., where the Hawkeyes were preparing for Tuesday's Outback Bowl against Mississippi State. Smith is from Mississippi, but was only lightly recruited by the Bulldogs.

That changes Tuesday. Iowa (8-4) will tangle with No. 18 Mississippi State (8-4) in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m.; the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

The Smith family will be on hand to witness a matchup they never envisioned.

“It’s weird it’s happening on his watch,” Roy Smith said of Iowa’s inaugural game against his alma mater, with his son a key participant. “It’s karma, because I think they missed out on a great player.”

Heading north to Iowa: 'I'm a receiver, and that's all I want to do'

Brandon Smith grew up an Ole Miss fan. That’s where his mother, Tyjauna, ran track. It’s closer to Lake Cormorant than Mississippi State. He visited the campus often.

The Rebels saw the 6-foot-3, 219-pound Smith as a defensive back. They were stacked at wideout. He had no interest in playing defense.

Brandon told Tyjauna: “I’m a receiver, and that’s what I want to do.”

His parents left the decision up to him.

Tyjauna, a teacher, was in her classroom one day when Brandon texted that he had received a scholarship offer from Iowa.

“Oh my God, that’s the team that looks like the Steelers!” Tyjauna remembers thinking, a reference to her favorite NFL team. “That’s the first connection that I had — that’s all I knew about the University of Iowa.”

The family drove up to visit Iowa City; they loved its small-town feel. Brandon soon committed. Mississippi State finally came in with a scholarship offer of its own.

It was too late. Brandon had found a home.

Iowa wide receiver Brandon Smith celebrates his touchdown catch against Nebraska on Nov. 23. Smith caught 25 passes for 328 yards as a sophomore, and could be the Hawkeyes' leading returning receiver next season.

Brandon Smith, Year 2: Marked improvement on and off the field

Brandon Smith’s freshman season was nothing to write home about: He caught three passes, none longer than 8 yards — he struggled to adjust to the demands of the college game, Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said.

Brandon was too worried about failing, Roy Smith said.

“He’s just so concerned about making a mistake,” Roy Smith said of his son. “I told him, ‘That’s part of it; you’re going to be making mistakes until the day you die.’”

Coaches and parents alike noticed a significant change in Brandon Smith this season. Tyjauna said he has learned to stop fretting over every minor occurrence in his life. Copeland said Smith has gotten serious about the off-the-field work required to excel against other top-notch athletes.

“He’s probably the most improved receiver and, I would argue to say, one of the most improved on the offense as a whole,” Copeland said. “His day-to-day preparation, the meetings and walk-throughs and practice, has improved tenfold.

“We had many conversations, some more positive than others, last season when he was a true freshman, (about) having the right mindset, having the right approach. … And I think he is definitely understanding that. He has embraced that. Now, you see the product of that.”

There was never a question about Smith’s physical gifts. He is a state champion high jumper with hands so big they dwarf the football when it lands in them.

In Week 2, against Iowa State, it was Smith’s 30-yard reception near the goal line that helped the Hawkeyes secure a 13-3 win. Quarterback Nate Stanley saw it as a turning point.

“(It) really showed how physical of a player he is and just his natural ability, as well. After that, he made a lot of plays for us,” Stanley said.

“(He’s) a big receiver that’s fast and physical and can go up and make a play on a fade ball or a conversion.”

Smith’s first touchdown catch came as he backpedaled in the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium and snared a pass with one hand just before landing on his backside in a win over Maryland. He added a 15-yard scoring catch on the opening drive of Iowa’s last game, a victory against Nebraska.

In all, Smith caught 25 passes for 328 yards. He has a 10-game streak with at least one reception.

That is modest production for a player of Smith’s skills. But he could soon be the Hawkeyes’ most important pass-catcher.

Wide receiver Nick Easley (44 catches) is playing his final college game Tuesday. Tight end Noah Fant (39) is heading to the NFL draft early and skipping the bowl game. Tight end T.J. Hockenson (46) may also pursue the NFL, with an announcement expected early in January.

That would leave Smith as Stanley’s top returning target. He is on the verge of becoming as important an offensive player as Iowa will have in 2019.

A snake named Rufus, growing independence, and a bowl game with extra meaning

Six months ago, Brandon Smith wandered into Petland and emerged with a ball python. He knew instantly that the snake should be named Rufus.

After the victory against Nebraska, Smith brought Rufus home to Mississippi, to the dismay of his mother, in particular.

“I’m terrified of it — I’m sorry — I'm never gonna hold it," Tyjauna said.

Roy Smith would rather hang out with the family's German shepherd, King.

The snake is Brandon’s thing, a symbol of his growing independence.

Roy texts Brandon before every game: “You’re the man. Go hard every play.”

His parents say they are watching Brandon become a man, excited by the changes they’ve seen in him since moving to Iowa, far from their SEC roots.

Roy, Tyjauna and Brianna will be wearing their Hawkeye gear Tuesday, soaking in the latest chapter in that transformation. This one will feel more personal, surrounded by thousands of fans clad in the familiar Mississippi State maroon and white.

Roy said he’s not in the least conflicted.

“I done had my day in the sun,” he said.

Tyjauna said Sunday morning she was sitting in church shaking her head in wonder about Tuesday’s game.

“This is unbelievable,” she thought.

Brandon is publicly taking a low-key approach to the improbable matchup with his home state school.

“I feel like I have to take this opportunity and do my best,” he told reporters last week.

“I wouldn’t say (it’s) motivation, because football is a business. It was a long time ago, so I really got over it.”

Smith’s teammates and family can tell it means more than he’s letting on.

The Bulldogs never gave Brandon Smith much of a look in the recruiting process.

“But they’ll get to look at him Tuesday,” Roy Smith said.