Speedsters Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Tyrone Tracy emerge as dynamic duo in Iowa passing game
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It has been nine years since Iowa has had a pair of big-play wide receivers like Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy.
You have to go back to 2010 to find two wideouts with at least 30 catches apiece and averaging at least 16 yards on those receptions. That was when Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos combined for 101 catches and 18 touchdowns from senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi.
This year, it’s senior Nate Stanley making a deep connection with Smith-Marsette (41 catches, 654 yards) and Tracy (34, 569). They have only seven touchdowns between them, as reaching the end zone has been a season-long problem for Iowa, but they’re clearly injecting a dynamic in the passing game that isn’t typically seen around here.
“They’ve done a real good job of spacing, not getting thrown off their routes — because that’s one thing that can kill the vertical passing game, is when defenders get their hands on you and push people off their routes,” Stanley said Tuesday as No. 20 Iowa (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten Conference) prepares to end its regular season with a 1:30 p.m. Friday kickoff at Nebraska (5-6, 3-5).
Smith-Marsette and Tracy are the Hawkeyes’ two fastest receivers. They are both seeing more targets now that Brandon Smith is sidelined with a leg injury (Smith had 33 catches and four touchdowns through eight games).
How have they done it? Let’s take a look:
Tracy: ‘I had to take a step further to make sure there was no void’
Tracy, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound redshirt freshman, was starting to emerge before Smith went down. He was splitting duties at the slot receiver position with Nico Ragaini, but has now combined that with snaps on the outside, where Smith excelled.
In his past five games, Tracy has 22 catches for 379 yards, including highlight-reel touchdowns at Northwestern and Wisconsin.
“I had to take a step further to make sure there was no void,” Tracy said of Smith’s injury.
Tracy likes moving around in Iowa’s formations because it makes defenses have to constantly account for him. He has six catches in each of the past two games, both Iowa home victories. He showed his uncanny ability to make tacklers miss in the first quarter at Northwestern, collecting a Stanley pass in the middle of the field, surrounded by Wildcats, and somehow spinning away from all of them for a 50-yard score.
It was the definition of what Tracy means when he says he wants to be “electric.”
“I’m just trying to stay up no matter what. No matter how many people I’ve got on me. No matter what angle they‘re coming from,” Tracy said.
“(Being electric is) not just one play where you get 20 yards, but it’s making play after play after play. That’s when the coaches know, ‘All right, No. 3, when he gets the ball, he’s going to do something with it.’ That’s when the crowd knows, ‘When No. 3’s on the field, he’s going to do something with it.’ ”
Still, the play that showed Tracy’s greatest growth came in the next game, at Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes trailed 24-16 in the fourth quarter with the ball at their 25-yard line. Tracy lined up to the right and saw the same thing Stanley did.
“It looked like ‘cover 2’ at first and then they rolled to ‘cover 4,’ ” Tracy explained of the Badger defense. “That’s when the post (route) comes alive. When they did that, me and Nate knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew I was going to get the ball before I got the ball.”
It was the first time in the game that Wisconsin had shown that look against that Iowa formation. The fact that Tracy saw it means he’s been closely studying film. Stanley delivered a strike. Tracy beat his man and raced 75 yards to the end zone.
“The team needed something, someone to make a play, and I was just in the right position at the right time,” Tracy said.
He has been often recently.
Smith-Marsette: ‘I can go out there and play with anybody on any day’
Smith-Marsette is a 6-1, 177-pound junior who brought big-play potential with him when he came to Iowa from New Jersey. He can run, but he wasn’t a consistent threat in his first two seasons, combining for 41 receptions and a 13.4-yard average.
He has matched that catch total in a breakout season that has seen him making some difficult grabs in heavy traffic. He is getting double-teamed more often with Smith out. But he is tougher and stronger than before. And he showed that Saturday with four catches for a career-high 121 yards in a win over Illinois. There was nothing easy about any of them, and he made them despite taking a pounding from an aggressive Illinois secondary.
“I always felt like I could go out there and make those catches. Now, growing up, I know and believe in myself that I can go out there and play with anybody on any day,” Smith-Marsette said.
Smith-Mariette's mindset can be traced to last season. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz would speak about how he wanted third-down passes to be directed to tight end T.J. Hockenson because of his reliability. Hockenson is with the Detroit Lions now.
“That hit me hard because I was thinking I want to be that player that comes up big on those third downs,” Smith-Marsette said.
On Saturday, Smith-Marsette converted a fourth down on Iowa’s lone touchdown drive. He gained 23 yards on third-and-10 in the third quarter.
He is becoming “that player.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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