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Ihmir Smith-Marsette says he’s a more mature player as he enters his junior year. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. —Ihmir Smith-Marsette claims it wasn’t a metaphoric decision, that the dreads were always disappearing after sophomore year. However, when assessing his shift from locks to low cut, the Iowa wide receiver succinctly summed up a deeper message.

“It was time to let it go,” Smith-Marsette said. “I gave myself the grown-man look.”

Similar themes echoed loudly from Kirk Ferentz’s office as he sat with his gifted wideout entering the summer. This wasn’t a disciplinary meeting — rather, the standard end-of-year discussion — but there were corrective undertones to this sit-down.

In two seasons, Smith-Marsette had displayed plenty of on-field growth — dazzling catches, emphatic kick returns and more. Now was time for his everyday focus to catch up.

“I just talked to coach Ferentz about maturity,” Smith-Marsette said Tuesday, recalling that breakthrough conversation. “We’re running a race, and it’s time to grow up. That just hit me hard.

“I came into summer workouts with a different mindset, different attitude, eating right. I just changed my whole thinking around. I knew Brandon (Smith) and me were the older guys in the (wide receiver) room. So it was just time to take that step forward and stop with the shenanigans.”

That’s a fitting word.

It’s not as if Smith-Marsette was close to becoming a program casualty — or was an on-field liability of any sort. But his leadership and daily approach needed significant tightening.

There was the phone chastising during the 2018 spring, followed by Kelton Copeland’s ominous words in April. Ferentz’s comments at Big Ten media days regarding Smith-Marsette’s early offseason weren’t promising, either.

The Hawkeyes didn’t want their junior receiver to completely shed his spirited demeanor, just fine-tune the edges needed to meet Iowa’s standards for its upperclassmen. Since that pivotal meeting, signs of Smith-Marsette’s maturity can be found throughout Hawkeye dialogue.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz didn’t hold back the praise when meeting with the media last week, calling Smith-Marsette “as impressive a guy as we have on our roster right now.” Iowa’s football leader had a similar assessment Tuesday.

“It’s a matter of really directing his energies and focusing his energies a little bit better, and that’s part of maturation,” Kirk Ferentz said, “Every player goes through it.

“… Ihmir’s done a good job, and I couldn’t be more complimentary of what he did during the summer. He was in tremendous condition — the best condition we’ve seen him in — and same thing over the last three-plus weeks. He’s really done a good job out there.”

It’s solid timing, considering Smith-Marsette’s workload is expanding. In addition to roles as Iowa’s top “Z” receiver and arguably the conference’s most electric kick returner, the New Jersey native will field punts in 2019. The agility and explosiveness Smith-Marsette showed in winning Big Ten return specialist of the year last year should carry over to his new side job.

Those who relish punt returning are a different breed. Some of football’s most dynamic athletes don’t enjoy that all-alone feeling, as a wobbly boot starts to sink with an entire special teams unit charging at you.

Blocking remains just as important — but those first few seconds after the catch is often a solo task. Breaking through that first wave requires lots of moving and grooving.

Smith-Marsette loves it.

“I’m fearless,” he said. “I’ll do anything. I’ll catch those crazy types of punts, those wicked balls and stuff like that. My fearlessness takes over.

“I look at Devin Hester’s (punt returns) a lot. He just did whatever he wanted when he got the ball. Just trying to take that and implement it into my game is something I want to do.”

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Kyle Groeneweg’s graduation left a punt-returning hole — but special teams coach LeVar Woods wouldn’t have selected Smith-Marsette if there wasn’t trust and reliability. Iowa learned last season how costly punt-return errors can be.

Consider that another sign of Smith-Marsette’s growth.

“I want to be the best player I can be,” Smith-Marsette said. “Day in and day out, I want to be one of the best players ever. That’s just my mindset. Just looking back on it and reflecting, it was time to step it up.”

His quarterback sees the shift as well.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a lack of physical effort from Ihmir. The biggest thing is him growing as a leader for the other guys,” senior Nate Stanley said. “He’s obviously a very impactful player, and no matter what his attitude is, it’s going to be infectious to the team — whether it’s good or bad. And he’s done a great job at being a very positive leader for this team and the younger guys.

“It’s awesome, because that’s when you have a really special team. When, not only are you playing your best football, but your teammates play their best as well.”

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Nate Stanley has seen plenty of leadership growth in Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

As with his hair, it took some time for Smith-Marsette to relinquish those juvenile tendencies. But he’s all in now.

His refined look mirrors his refurbished approach.

“Every kid’s got to grow up,” Smith-Marsette said. “Time to lead.”

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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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