IOWA CITY, Iowa — The turnstile known as the Iowa wide receiver position has turned and churned so many players in recent memory it’s almost become a football version of Ellis Island.
In 2013, the Hawkeyes recruited five freshman wide receivers and then moved a running back there. Only Matt VandeBerg has stayed to complete his eligibility. Of the five receivers signed from 2014-16, only two remain on the roster and neither is in the primary rotation.
That’s 10 scholarship receivers over four recruiting classes and only three remain. VandeBerg, a senior starter, is the only one to catch a pass for the Hawkeyes.
On the 2017 recruiting trail, playing time was dangled and four sought the opportunity. Three of those receivers — Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and Max Cooper — have played and are key cogs in Iowa’s five-receiver rotation.
“The common denominator is they came here — and it’s well documented — it was a land of opportunity to come here this August and start camp with us,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I made reference, we’re hardly the team we were back in January, certainly not the team in April or August. You know, a big part of that is the receiving game.”
All three freshmen have different sizes and skill sets and have helped Iowa this fall. Smith-Marsette competes in Iowa’s three-receiver set with one start. Against Iowa State, he caught 4 passes for 36 yards and 2 touchdowns. One of the scores was a 15-yard fade route in the back of the end zone. The other was a 5-yard out for the game-winner in overtime.
Smith-Marsette attended Weequahic (N.J.), the same high school that produced running back Akrum Wadley. Smith-Marsette has 8 catches for 111 yards this season. At 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, his speed enables him to stretch the field unlike any other receiver on the team.
Smith-Marsette had to live up to Wadley’s benchmark, the senior running back said.
“He’s got to, man,” Wadley said. “He’s from New Jersey. I wouldn’t accept it. I would disown him if he didn’t live up to the standards.
“He’s a very talented guy. The ball in the air, he’s like 99.9 percent he’s going to come back down with it unless it was a pass interference on the defense. He’s a go-getter. He works hard and he’s got a little bit more maturing to do, but other than that, he’s a great, great guy.”
Cooper (6-0, 175) hasn’t caught a pass yet, but has played multiple games. A native of Waukesha, Wis., Cooper has impressed his teammates and coaches with his work ethic and how he catches the football.
“Just a guy that wants to get better each and every time,” VandeBerg said. “He’s got questions that he wants answered so he can be the best receiver he can be.”
“Max has done a good job in practice,” Ferentz said. “He’s not as big or strong as we’d like right now. He’ll be much more mature two years from now, but he’s starting off good out in practice, competing against our guys, where we thought he could maybe make contributions to help our football team.
“That’s really the opinion or the eye we’ve tried to have with every position. If we feel a guy can compete better than the guys that he’s competing with, we’re going to put him in there.”
Smith (6-3, 205) is tall, strong and has huge hands. He’s not as fast as the other two, but he’s made a big impression. He has 2 catches for 10 yards, but also fumbled against Michigan State.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley sees all three receivers as integral to the Hawkeyes this season and into the future.
“Max runs good routes,” Stanley said. “He does what he’s asked to do. He’s always going to run good routes and get open. Ihmir is super fast. He can stretch the field so we try to take advantage with that. And Brandon can be a mismatch with some D-backs. He’s a big guy, being able to get him one-on-one and give him a chance to make a play.”
Of Iowa’s top five receivers, none were on the field for Iowa’s final nine games last season. Along with the freshmen, VandeBerg broke his foot after the fourth game and received a medical redshirt to play this season. Nick Easley, a junior walk-on, was a junior-college All-American at Iowa Western Community College. Holdovers Devonte Young and Adrian Falconer have played sparingly with Young working mostly on special teams.
Newcomer Matt Quarells, a graduate transfer from New Mexico who couldn’t practice until mid-training camp, has yet to play. Quarells, a junior, was listed on some of the team’s early depth charts but has been passed by the freshmen.
“Right now we’ve got guys that are ahead of him, and the challenge would be for Matt to push and move past some of these guys,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “They obviously had a head start on him. But right now those guys have continued to climb, and it’s not so much what Matt is or is not doing; it’s the fact these other guys are coming in every day and pushing it forward, and so I think the challenge for Matt would be to get going a little bit and try to pass them.”
Through six games, it might be tough for another receiver to dislodge someone in the top five. The Hawkeyes average 13.21 yards per reception, the program’s best number since 2010 (13.49). Smith-Marsette leads the way with 13.9 yards per reception.
“Those guys have just taken advantage of their opportunity,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Again, they’re very different players, all three of them. But they’ve done enough good things to show us at least they can help us win this year, and that’s what we’re focused on. Plus it will help them as they go along, too.
“If we didn’t think they could handle it, then we’d keep a redshirt on them. That’s kind of the decision you end up making.”