IOWA CITY, Iowa — Jerminic Smith sprints off the line of scrimmage. At 15 yards he cuts to his left. He hauls in a pass, turns up field and sprints to the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown.
Yes, it was a big pass play from an Iowa wide receiver. Now, after going for 5 receptions and 85 yards at No. 10 Penn State, can Smith build on it?
“It gives Jerminic some confidence going into the rest of the season,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “He did a good job catching the ball and getting open. Any time you have a receiver doing that it’s good.”
The only thing Iowa may need as bad as a win (the Hawkeyes are one victory shy of bowl eligibility) is a wide receiver to make plays. Pass catchers struggling to create separation and get open is the biggest problem facing an offense held to 14 points or less four times in Big Ten play.
The passing game crumbled when No. 1 wide receiver Matt VandeBerg went down. Smith tried picking up the pieces in Happy Valley. He caught more than 3 passes for the first time this season. His best success came on the dig route. It led to his touchdown and a 27-yard reception.
“He is improving,” Iowa cornerback Desmond King said. “That is what happens over time. You improve and he is growing up. He’s maturing. He knows that he’s one of our key receivers as well. He is doing his job.”
Smith is a sophomore. He was expected to be a role player, a downfield threat that could help out once in a while.
Iowa needed more from him when VandeBerg got injured. He wasn’t in a position to do so in October. He may be getting there in November. King goes against Smith in practice and is seeing subtle changes.
“His route running, period,” said King on where Smith is improving. “He is doing his job and just running his route.”
Jerminic Smith stats
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So what would a strong finish look like? Let’s go back and look at the breakouts of Tevaun Smith and Matt VandeBerg, the last two receivers to lead Iowa in receiving yards. Smith likely won’t lead Iowa in receiving yards this season. He is 107 yards behind Riley McCarron, but Tevaun Smith and VandeBerg turned into the type of impact receivers Iowa is after. It’s the type of performer the Hawkeyes desperately need at receiver.
Matt VandeBerg stats
Those are the second and the third games from the 2015 season. The Pittsburgh contest wasn’t as explosive as the Iowa State game, but the 7 receptions foreshadowed that VandeBerg would be a top target for Beathard. VandeBerg finished the season with 703 receiving yards.
Tevaun Smith stats
This is a very loose definition of a breakout. There isn’t anything overwhelming about the first three games for Tevaun Smith in 2014. The numbers look similar to the Pittsburgh game for VandeBerg, showing a receiver Beathard eyed in a run-first offense. But that player, one Beathard can look to on intermediate and deep passes, isn’t there this season.
Iowa will never be confused with Western Kentucky or Texas Tech. It’s not a pass-happy team. The Hawkeyes would prefer a game with 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards. Offensive balance matters. It’s part of the reason why the last 1,000-yard receiver came in 2011.
The bar for a productive final three games isn’t 100 yards, and that’s before factoring in No. 3 Michigan brings one of the best secondaries in the nation on Saturday (8:12 p.m. ET, ABC).
Passes come Smiths way on a consistent basis. He must make the most of it. If Smith can top the 50-yard receiving mark in two of the final three games it would be proof that he built off his Penn State performance and give tangible proof of progress. Hitting that figure would ensure a big reception or two.
That’s what Iowa needs. Now, it’s up to Smith to do it.