IOWA CITY, Iowa — Perhaps no Iowa player last fall rode the pendulum of inconsistency — especially in the same game — quite like kick returner Ihmir Smith-Marsette against Nebraska.
Barely 6 minutes into the game, Smith-Marsette fielded a kickoff angling toward the sideline, caught the ball on the 1-yard line, then stepped out of bounds. His teammates bailed him out with a 99-yard scoring drive, but the play remains an eye-roll for Iowa’s coaching staff.
But to start the second half, Smith-Marsette atoned for his mistake. On the kickoff, he caught the ball at the Iowa 15, ran to his right, cut diagonally to the middle of the field, then burst up the left sideline. Smith-Marsette broke a tackle at the Nebraska 40 and rushed into the end zone. An illegal block brought the ball back to the 22, but Smith-Marsette’s effort and execution erased his previous miscue.
Smith-Marsette, now a sophomore, returned only 4 kickoffs last year but averaged 33.5 yards per return to rank second in the Big Ten. He’s now considered a potential specialist for both kickoff and punt return units.
“Ihmir Smith-Marsette, aside from his silly, crazy stepping out of bounds at the minus-1 against Nebraska, showed some flashes last year as a returner,” Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods said. “He had very good film in high school. He’s progressing well as both a punt returner and a kick returner. He’s turned a couple of heads in the spring.”
Iowa could use Smith-Marsette’s abilities returning punts. Last year, the Hawkeyes gained just 6.15 yards per return to rank 89th nationally. With Desmond King bringing back punts in 2015 and 2016, the Hawkeyes averaged 12.48 and 13.94 yards per return, respectively. Woods and the Iowa staff want more and need more from the punt unit.
“I do feel like 2015, we didn’t field as many balls that year,” Woods said. “In 2016, the emphasis was on let’s field the ball. If we can get the ball in Desmond’s hands, then we have a chance to go. That was his focus all that year. Let’s field the ball, field the ball. Going forward, last year in 2017, I’m not sure how many of those balls were really field-able from punters. Part of it, too, was, ‘What’s the punter like? Can you predict where the ball is going to go?’
“You’re not always sure where the ball is going to go. That’s part of it, getting a guy in position to get under the ball to field it. But again, what we’re looking for is 10 yards per return; that’s the standard that we’re looking for when we get our hands on it. Then the other part is putting the guy in position to where he could actually be confident to field the ball.”
Cornerback Josh Jackson and receiver Matt VandeBerg misjudged some punts last year, which sometimes pinned the Hawkeyes offense close to the goal line. Three times in the first half against Penn State, the ball was downed or fair caught at or inside the 10-yard line.
At Northwestern, 2 punts were downed at Iowa’s 10 and a misplayed punt early in the second half led to an 80-yard Wildcats punt. After stopping Northwestern at its 17, the miscue gave Iowa the ball at its 3. The loss in field position proved costly as Northwestern scored on its next possession with a shorter field.
Woods cited a lack of confidence as a reason for the unit’s punt return struggles. It should improve this fall with Smith-Marsette, sophomore running back Ivory Kelly-Martin or senior walk-on receiver Kyle Groeneweg fielding the ball.
Kelly-Martin led the Hawkeyes with 19 kickoff returns at 21.3 yards per return. His average was behind Smith-Marsette and Akrum Wadley, who filled in for an injured Smith-Marsette in the Pinstripe Bowl, but Kelly-Martin excelled at times.
Groeneweg is perhaps the most intriguing candidate. He sat out last season after transferring from Division II University of Sioux Falls. In 2016, Groeneweg ranked seventh in Division II and first in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in combined returns with 891 kick and punt return yards. He averaged 25.5 yards per kickoff return and 13.2 yards on punt returns. In 2015, Groeneweg returned 2 kickoffs for touchdowns.
“I think we have some guys now we that have the confidence to go back there and go looking for a big return,” Woods said. “Those are some guys I think that can do the job. Part of it to me is being confident to field the ball. Being confident to go back there, stand back there when everyone’s screaming, running down at you with the possibility of you getting blown up. I think we’ve got a couple of guys who do that naturally or innately. I’m looking forward to seeing that progress.”