IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s perpetual position of weakness has the potential to become a solid situation for the Hawkeyes this year.
Iowa regularly has underperformed at wide receiver over the years but last spring was like watching a sculptor use a hammer to make a ham sandwich. With only two scholarship receivers without a career statistic running routes alongside a then-unknown walk-on named Nick Easley, Iowa’s passing offense was more theory than reality.
Much has changed one year later. The position group remains filled with youth and inconsistency and is not considered a strength. Yet, there’s enough potential to consider it a positive entering March practices.
Unlike last spring where no receiver on the field had any catches with the Hawkeyes, Iowa has three on the depth chart who do. Easley turned out as quite a find with a team-high 51 catches for 530 yards and 4 touchdowns last fall. Ihmir Smith-Marsette finished with 18 catches for 187 yards and 2 scores — both of which took place in Iowa’s overtime victory against Iowa State. Brandon Smith had 3 catches for 15 yards a year ago.
Smith and Smith-Marsette were in high school this time last year. Easley earned his playing time the hard way. Now all three can continue to elevate the position to its best spot in years.
Smith (6-foot-3, 219 pounds) gained weight and obvious muscle mass this offseason. He’s now the starting split end, and with his large frame and even bigger hands, he has a chance to grab that position and become a go-to threat for quarterback Nate Stanley. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, Smith has to prove this spring that he’s consistent and confident.
“He does have the potential,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Now we’re just hoping to see the growth. I think we saw growth during the course of the fall. I would not describe him as a confident player. That’s not unusual for guys that are first-year players. But he’s done a lot of good things. He’s continued to improve based on what we’re seeing in the winter program.
“He’s one of the guys that we’re really curious to see. You’ve got a couple different tiers on every roster this time of year. And he’s a guy that’s been running in the offense, but really hasn’t played very much. So you hope that he takes that next step and really can ascend.”
Smith played sparingly behind senior Matt VandeBerg, and his contributions were minimal. But to Ferentz, Smith has potential to join Noah Fant in making a major one-year leap. Fant was slight as a freshman in 2016, then gained 12 pounds and became a force at tight end. Fant caught a national-high 11 touchdowns by tight ends and also averaged 16.5 yards per reception, also the best for his position group.
If Smith makes those kinds of strides, watch out.
As for Smith-Marsette, there’s some intangible work he needs to do with Ferentz. As electric as he was at times, Smith-Marsette also dropped passes and fumbles. While Smith officially gained 14 pounds, Smith-Marsette didn’t gain any this offseason. He’s easily Iowa’s most explosive wideout, yet he needs to make a better daily impression with Ferentz.
“You’ve got to love his attitude,” Ferentz said. “He’s fearless out there, and he’s going to go for it. He’s that type of player, and that’s good. He’s got a good energy to him. I think the challenge for him right now, which is true for most guys, is better focus. Whether it’s when he’s in the player lounge, maybe getting off the phone a little bit more and, you know, maybe walk across the hall and watch film, those types of things.
“That’s just part of maturity, learning to budget your time, having a plan. I’m all for recreation and all that stuff, that’s good. But just learning how to really be a better player, more mature player, those types of things.”
Easley remains the starter at flanker with Smith-Marsette officially listed as the No. 3. But both are on the field in three-wide receiver sets, of which the Hawkeyes employed 46 percent of the time last fall.
An unexpected addition to the depth chart was senior Kyle Groeneweg (5-10, 186), a transfer from Division II Sioux Falls. In 2016, Groeneweg caught 24 passes for 402 yards (16.8 yards per catch) and 5 scores. But he was even more impactful as a returner. He ranked seventh in Division II and first in the Northern Sun Conference with 891 combined kick and punt returns.
Groeneweg, a high school teammate of safety Brandon Snyder at Class 1A state champion West Lyon, appears as a second-team receiver behind Smith.
Ferentz knew little of Groeneweg until he showed up on campus last August. Then Groeneweg earned the Team Leader Award for both offense and special teams while redshirting.
“He kind of blended in out there until we started playing,” Ferentz said. “Then he did some really good things, and he had a really good month of December.
“We’re anxious to see what he can do this spring. But he’s a guy, I think, that we’ll add to that senior class. That’s kind of a pleasant surprise, maybe it helps rub out the loss that we had.”
Sophomore Max Cooper (6-0, 185) and junior Devonte Young (6-0, 203) also have experience. Several newcomers join the mix both this spring (Nico Ragaini) and this fall (Tyrone Tracy, Calvin Lockett, Samson Evans). A position group that was dusty as a country road last spring has a chance to become an interstate highway. Or, at least, a decent paved one. Either way, it’s a nice upgrade.