IOWA CITY, Iowa — Brandon Smith has a big, physical frame with extra-long fingers and the ability to outjump just about every opponent.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette is tall, sleek, fast and explosive. Combined, these sophomores form the foundation of Iowa’s present and future at wide receiver. Both collectively could take the position in a direction to where it hasn’t been in nearly a decade.
Both played last year in their first semester on campus. Smith-Marsette caught 2 touchdowns against Iowa State and hauled in 18 catches for 187 yards last season. Smith’s production was sparse at 3 catches for 15 yards. Both flashed their talent but also were inconsistent.
Now, after a season of gaining experience and a spring of development, Smith and Smith-Marsette are more than just potential starters. Both have the chance to vault into being key contributors or perhaps even star players.
Smith, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 219 pounds, was an unheralded recruit from Lake Cormorant, Miss. Many SEC schools saw him as a fallback option, especially after he ran the 40-yard dash between 4.63 and 4.77 seconds at different camps. Iowa’s staff immediately fell in love with Smith, who wears XXXL-sized gloves, won the Mississippi state high jump as a senior and carried a 4.0 grade-point-average in his final semester.
Smith also was productive. In 2016, he caught 80 passes for 1,509 yards and 19 touchdowns. In a game against Center Hill, Smith caught 8 passes for 290 yards and 5 touchdowns. In four varsity seasons in a run-first offense, Smith totaled 206 catches for 3,672 yards and 41 touchdowns. As a prep freshman, he caught just 1 pass for 31 yards.
“High expectations for Brandon,” Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said. “Brandon’s doing a tremendous job. Him coming off last season, he played sparingly obviously behind [Matt] VandeBerg last season. Now we had a talk before spring ball started about, ‘OK, now’s your time. There’s not a senior in front of me, there’s no more excuses — not that that was an excuse — but it’s your time to shine. It’s your job to win, it’s your job to earn.”
Smith is close to becoming a major contributor, Copeland said.
“Once we get him to trust his fundamentals, use his size, use his speed, use his strength, all of his God-given abilities on a play-by-play basis, day in and day out, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Copeland said. “There’s no question.”
Smith’s demeanor is low-key, friendly, quiet and humble. Smith-Marsette (6-1, 175) has oodles of personality that leads people to gravitate to him. He mixed inconsistency with dynamic plays throughout his freshman season. He fumbled in his first game on a jet sweep, then he caught the game-winning touchdown the next week in overtime at Iowa State. At Nebraska, he stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line on a kickoff return. Two quarters later, he returned a kickoff 74 yards.
“You’ve got to love his attitude,” Iowa coach Kirk 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.”
Ferentz’s comments quickly ricocheted from Iowa City to Smith-Marsette’s hometown of Newark, N.J.
“What Coach Ferentz said was no surprise to me,” Copeland said. “I see it on a day-by-day basis. It was probably a good thing that Coach Ferentz said that in a public setting. It’s one thing for Coach Cope to say it in a meeting or our 1-on-1 meetings. But Coach Ferentz, when he says that in a public setting, certain people hear it.
“What’s funny about that is Ihmir came to me after that and was like, ‘Man, Coach, you know what, my people back home, they’re talking about I need to get off my phone. They’re threatening to take my phone because Coach Ferentz got in a press conference and said I was on my phone too much.’ That’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing. The more people that know that, you guys see him out and about, tell him to get off his phone.”
But there’s no denying either player’s potential. Smith gained about 15 pounds of muscle this offseason and increased his speed. No Iowa receiver since Damond Powell in 2014 can match Smith-Marsette’s straight-ahead sizzle. If Smith and Smith-Marsette can improve on their fundamentals and gain consistency, they have the potential to become Iowa’s best receiver combination since Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos in 2009 and 2010.
“Every day [Smith] has done something that kind of stands out,” Copeland said. “It catches your eye like, ‘Wow, that I haven’t seen in the past.’ Also there’s times like, ‘Come on, Brandon, you’ve got to get rid of that old habit or that old habit will creep back in there.’ That goes for the whole group, not just Brandon.
“Ihmir has to learn to trust what we’re coaching him, trust the fundamentals, trust what he has, which is speed, athleticism, and he’s a very bright young man. He understands football. That kid studies football, lives football, what he has to do is trust what we’re coaching him, trust the system, once we put those two together, we’re going to have something special.”