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Speaking 11 days out from the season opener vs. Miami of Ohio, Iowa's offensive coordinator gave glowing answers about his quarterback and a receiver. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ihmir Smith-Marsette has occasionally been singled out by Iowa’s football coaches for some lackluster practice habits and inconsistent performances.

That is certainly not the case this summer. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz went out of his way to heap praise on the junior wide receiver in a meeting with reporters Tuesday.

“He’s been as impressive a guy as we have on our roster right now,” Ferentz said when asked about Smith-Marsette. “Developing that attitude of playing the next play and trying to build on things and taking care of the football and making the smart plays."

Smith-Marsette has even become a leader among a young core of Hawkeye wide receivers, Ferentz said — a testament to his maturity.

There’s also been a physical maturation to his game. Smith-Marsette, a 6-foot-1 speedster, has bulked up by 12 pounds, to 183.

That extra size can make Smith-Marsette’s ability to accelerate an even bigger asset, Ferentz said.

“It has a real effect on the game when you have the ability to send a guy down the field and now you have to make a choice defensively as to how you want to play things. You may not be able to get as tight to the line of scrimmage,” Ferentz said of his biggest deep threat. “I think he’s developed that strength, that size that makes it easier for him to get off the line of scrimmage, to beat press. And I think that’s really going to elevate his performance.”

Preparing Oliver Martin as if he'll play

The Hawkeyes are still awaiting word from the NCAA on whether wide receiver Oliver Martin will be able to play this season after transferring from Michigan. Ferentz said the team has been getting the former Iowa City West star up to speed as if he will be on the field when play begins Aug. 31 against Miami of Ohio.

Martin would clearly be among Iowa’s top wide receivers, and would be able to help the team lining up outside or in the slot.

“(Martin) is a good short-area quickness guy. But he does a real nice job on some vertical routes and tracking the ball down the field,” Ferentz said.

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At running back, a clear top two

The Hawkeyes return three experienced running backs, but Ferentz said two of them have stood out this summer and are in line to get the most playing time.

Toren Young is running the ball as good as he ever has. He’s a tempo-setter,” Ferentz said. “And Mekhi (Sargent) is kind of a jack of all trades, a little bit of a utility knife.

“Those are certainly two of our best players. Let’s keep them involved offensively and maybe look at some personnel groups where we try to utilize both of those guys at the same time.”

The odd man out, for now, is Ivory Kelly-Martin, who was announced as the starter at this time a year ago but has battled injuries throughout his Hawkeye career. He’s healthy now, just a little behind the other two juniors.

“The first thing I would say is he’s been able to be out there the whole time, and that’s  been a big step for him. That’s what he hasn’t been able to do,” Ferentz said of Kelly-Martin. “So he’s improving every day, and really I think he’s making a push to certainly be in that conversation.”

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Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz says Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young are a clear top 2 at running back. What about Ivory Kelly-Martin? Listen: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

No backup quarterback yet

Ferentz said the coaches are close to naming a backup quarterback to senior Nate Stanley. But he’ll let his father, head coach Kirk Ferentz, make that announcement next week. Sophomore Peyton Mansell and freshman Spencer Petras are the two contenders.

Ferentz said he’s happy with what he’s seen from Stanley as he prepares for his third season as the starter.

“It just comes down to running the offense and getting us in and out of the huddle, as simple as that sounds. Because there’s a lot of information being processed on his end,” Ferentz said of Stanley. “I think we’ve seen that operation really speed up, and that’s a good thing. We’ve seen it at the line of scrimmage and certainly have seen it when he’s coming back and surveying the defense and seeing what’s going on in his drop and trying to play through coverages and concepts.”

On the line, the battle is at guard

Iowa is set at offensive tackles with junior stars Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. Freshman Tyler Linderbaum has grabbed hold of the center spot.

It’s at guard where the competition for starting spots as been the most heated, and one of the primary contenders there is apparently dealing with an injury. Junior Cole Banwart was not practicing Tuesday and was spotted at the football facility in a walking boot.

Banwart is listed as the starting right guard with senior Landan Paulsen at left guard. But Landan’s twin brother, Levi, has plenty of experience and is in the mix to start. Ferentz said Mark Kallenberger and Cody Ince are also pushing for playing time.

“There’s not a lot of clear separation there,” Ferentz said, “but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.”

On defense, some uncertainty at free safety

Sophomore Kaevon Merriweather worked his way to the top of the depth chart at free safety with a magnificent set of spring practices. But defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Tuesday that he hasn’t backed that up with as strong of a summer.

That means sophomore Jack Koerner, a walk-on from West Des Moines Dowling Catholic, is suddenly being viewed as a potential starter. Parker is going to let the possibilities play out one more week.

“He needs some growing,” Parker said of Merriweather. “I’m concerned with it.

"You know how some guys get sometimes … they’ve got to keep pushing themselves to keep getting better.”

Parker compared Koerner to recently graduated safety Jake Gervase, who also arrived as a walk-on.

“I like the way he competes, the way he thinks about things and how he goes about his business,” Parker said of Koerner. “He’s going to put the time and effort into it. It means something to him. Any time you have a little chip on your shoulder, that helps you.”

Free safety is the most important position battle on the Iowa defense. Whoever wins it will line up alongside junior Geno Stone.

At linebacker, plenty of depth and one departure

The Hawkeyes lost one linebacker last week when redshirt freshman Jayden McDonald decided to transfer.

Parker said it was likely a result of the number of linebackers ahead of McDonald on the depth chart.

“I’m not surprised by anybody nowadays of what they do and how they go about things,” Parker said. “I liked him and I wish him the best. I’m sure he’ll find a place where he can go and be successful.”

McDonald tweeted this week that he’ll continue his career at Troy.

Meanwhile, Iowa seems set at its two starting linebacker positions with senior Kristian Welch and sophomore Djimon Colbert. Junior Nick Niemann is the next option and can play any of three positions (when the Hawkeyes use a 4-3 alignment).

Parker mentioned Dillon Doyle, Jack Campbell and Seth Benson as three young players vying for playing time. Junior Barrington Wade is also healthy again and competing.

“That’s a really close battle,” he said of picking the backup linebackers. “It’s nice to have a battle going on, because then everybody’s working to be better.”

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Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker says Daviyon Nixon is bringing "juice" to his team. He has more thoughts on his defensive line. LIsten: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Building versatility on the defensive line

Parker pointed to sophomore defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon as having an eye-opening summer camp. Nixon is slotted behind senior starters Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff.

“He brings juice to the defense,” Parker said of Nixon.

At defensive end, preseason all-American A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston form a formidable starting duo. But converted linebackers Amani Jones and Joe Evans are providing a different look for that unit. Parker said he’s pleased with what he’s seen from both.

“Both can play with their hand down, or they can stand up,” he said of two players being looked at initially as pass rushers. “We feel very comfortable whether they’re playing in a sub package or they’re playing first and second down.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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