Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to give readers greater insight into the Class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are traveling the country to meet the Iowa incoming freshman class. This week, we feature 3-star WR Brandon Smith of Lake Cormorant, Miss.
LAKE CORMORANT, Miss. — Brandon Smith’s hands are so large that you blink twice once you see them.
Smith is well-proportioned on his 6-foot-3, 205-pound wide receiver frame. But those hands — and those fingers — are something else. Smith’s fingers are so long and his hands are so wide that when he tried on a pair of XXL gloves at Iowa’s football facility last summer, they were too tight.
“He’s got some spider hands, doesn’t he?” said Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell, the team’s chief recruiter on Smith.
In the athletics office at Lake Cormorant High School, Smith tossed a football in the air and then held it out in front of his chest. His fingers wrapped around it like it was a mini-football.
“I can grip the ball well because they’re so big,” Smith said.
That’s an understatement.
Smith did plenty of catching during his three seasons of varsity football at Lake Cormorant, which is located about 20 miles south of Memphis, Tenn. He received honors everywhere, from all-state groups to the Liberty Bowl. He was both feared and respected on the football field. Yet, his home-state schools kept him at an arm’s length during the early recruiting process. By the time they wanted to get involved, it was way too late.
Iowa offered Smith a scholarship on the last day of school in 2016. He accepted a month later. And when his neighborhood suitors tried to catch up, Smith used his big hands to keep them away. He was 100 percent committed to Iowa. No school was going to shake that.
Getting involved with a Deep South recruit
So how does a 3-star wide receiver with an all-state pedigree, and ability, leave the Deep South and head north to Iowa of all places? It involved luck, persistence, faith and relationships.
Recruting coordinator Bell comes from Olive Branch, Miss., which is about 25 miles east of Lake Cormorant High School. In May 2016, Bell was in Killen, Ala., checking out linebacker Colin Anderson’s spring game. Afterward, Bell had some down time, so he drove 150 miles to his mother’s house in Olive Branch. But when he got there, his mother had to work that day.
Instead of sitting alone in his mother’s house, Bell opted to evaluate prospects outside of Iowa’s traditional recruiting territory. His first stop was his old high school, where former teammate Michael Evans was the coach. Evans told him Lake Cormorant had a receiver he should see. Bell didn’t know Lake Cormorant, which was built after he left the area in 2000.
— Tyjauna Vance Smith (@TyjaunaVance) January 15, 2017
Bell called Lake Cormorant coach Nick Nester, who filled him in on Smith. En route to Lake Cormorant, Bell stopped at Horn Lake High School, where he met with coach Brad Boyette, who was Bell’s position coach at Olive Branch in the late 1990s.
“If you see him, you’re going to like him,” Bell recalled from his conversation with Boyette. “I said, ‘Everybody keeps telling me good things about the kid. What’s the knock on him?’ He said, ‘The knock on him would be top-end speed. Everybody’s worried about how fast he is.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve seen receivers that don’t run great 40s but run away from people. That’s no reason not to recruit the kid, if the kid’s got good character, if he’s got good grades and good bloodlines. You’re going to hold back on him just because of a stopwatch?'”
Bell investigated Smith a little more and found his 40-yard dash times at various camps ranged from the high 4.6s to high 4.7s. He called Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes to get a another pair of eyes on Smith’s tape. Barnes confirmed Bell’s initial thoughts: Smith was worth recruiting. Bell then went to Lake Cormorant, spoke with Nester and further evaluated Smith’s tape and academics. The more Bell saw and heard, the more he liked.
A scholarship offer was extended but with a twist: Smith had to visit Iowa unofficially.
“I’m thinking big receiver, big hands, good character, two-parent home, just being overlooked because of a measurable,” Bell said. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to waste my time with you, Brandon. I want you to come to Iowa, but I played this game before.’ The further away you get from Iowa City, the less realistic things are. Because you’re just selling a kid on a pipe dream on what Iowa City is. They need to see it for themselves for it to become reality. That’s the sales pitch.”
Excited about the offer
Smith had attended camps throughout the South and had drawn interest from several Southeastern Conference schools. He made unofficial visits to Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU but never received a major offer until Iowa stepped in.
“I was excited because I got my first Power 5 offer,” Smith said. “I was more excited than anything. I wasn’t going to go turn it down because of the distance. That would be crazy.”
“I was pretty amazed,” said Tyjauna Vance Smith, Brandon’s mother, who teaches elementary school in Memphis. “I had seen Iowa the previous year in a bowl game on television. I guess what sparked my interest in Iowa — or for me to even like Iowa — was that they had uniforms like the Steelers, and the Steelers are my favorite NFL team. That’s what got my attention about Iowa, and they go to the bowl games almost every year. When he told me he had gotten a visit and an offer, it kind of blew my mind. It was the biggest offer he had gotten. I think I was in the middle of my classroom, and I was pretty amazed.”
Both of Smith’s parents competed in track for SEC schools. Tyjauna Vance Smith ran the 400, 800 and 4×400 at Ole Miss. Roy Smith ran the 400 hurdles and 4×400 at Mississippi State. They were high school sweethearts growing up in rural Carroll County, Miss., and stayed in contact when they split for college. Tyjauna was a middle child of six in her family. Roy was the youngest of seven.
“My mom told me, ‘You do not need to go to Mississippi State because he’s over there,’ ” Tyjauna said with a laugh. “We’d meet up on track trips. We were at an LSU track meet, and he took a cab over to my hotel. So I think we had dinner or something like that. It was kind of cool meeting up on track trips.
“When I was in college, after we started talking and stuff, I knew I wanted to marry him then. Just wait a few years.”
They got married in 1995 and had daughter, Brianna, in 1996. Two years later, Brandon was born. Brianna now throws the hammer for the Mississippi State track and field squad.
The track programs at both Ole Miss and Mississippi State showed interest in Brandon — he won the Mississippi state high school high jump crown this year and finished second in 2016 — but neither extended an offer for football. That frustrated the family.
“To be honest, I was a little disappointed because we were good enough to go there,” his mother said about herself and her husband. “We don’t hold a candle to what kind of athlete he is. I just feel as if, in retrospect, it all was in God’s plan. To me, Brandon looked like he was a Division I athlete in high school, in my biased opinion. I scratched my head here and there.”
Trucking to Iowa
It’s only an eight-hour drive from northern Mississippi to Iowa. Maybe it’s the unusual direction for a football prospect from SEC country that makes the distance seem farther.
“Eight hours is a long ways away, but Ohio kids understand because they’re in a Midwest state,” Bell said. “They’re in the Big Ten. They see Iowa. The kids in the SEC don’t see Iowa. This black and gold with a bird head on it is Southern Miss when we walk in.
“In Florida and Georgia, it’s a totally different story. In Mississippi, it’s Southern Miss.”
Each June, Iowa hosts the Hawkeye Tailgater for junior prospects. This unofficial event was Smith’s chance to display his abilities and reciprocate his interest in Iowa. The trip northward was nothing for Roy Smith, who drives trucks and owns a trucking business.
“I don’t think they expected us to make that drive, but we were looking forward to it,” Tyjauna said. “It was like a test. I knew that we wanted to get there and really see for ourselves. I think it was also like a camp he was going to. ‘They want to see what you’re made of, Brandon. This is more than just if you’re coming up there. We want to lay eyes on you.’ I told my husband they need to see what you got. That too was intriguing. I couldn’t wait to get there.
“They were impressed, and so were we.”
On hand-timed stopwatches, Smith clocked a 4.63 40-yard dash. The family met the coaching staff and toured the Iowa campus. In some ways, it reminded them of their home. The family owns 2.65 acres in Lake Cormorant and built a two-story brick house 11 years ago. Their 2-year-old German Shepherd, King, looks like a guard dog but is as gentle as a house cat. Like DeSoto County, Miss., the Iowa City area was large enough to provide Brandon with everything he needed but small enough to feel secure.
“We fell in love it with it,” Roy Smith said. “It’s got that nice hometown feeling, and we’re small-town people. Everybody we met was friendly. From the school staffs to the people at the hotel, everybody was trying to find out who he was.”
The school’s academic profile fit what the family wanted for Brandon. On a mid-May afternoon at their home, Brandon walked in the living room and presented a certificate to his mother. In his final semester at Lake Cormorant High School, he made the “A” honor roll. He’s never had a “C” on a report card in his life.
“My mom, she got it set in me because she’s a teacher and she’s big on academics,” Brandon Smith said. “A ‘C’ is unacceptable to her.”
As the visit to Iowa came to a close, Brandon decided he had seen enough. He wanted to make Iowa his destination. There was no pressure from the Hawkeyes’ staff, but a commitment would mean no official visits to other college campuses on game days, even for fun. If he picked Iowa, he had to be all in.
And he was.
— Brandon Smith (@brandon28255) June 27, 2016
“I just liked it,” he said. “I really don’t know. I just liked everything about it. You know when you go somewhere and you feel like you fit in? That’s how I feel. I didn’t feel that way about any other place I visited.”
Despite the distance, his parents supported his decision.
“Brandon had traveled to quite a few schools and had met quite a few coaches and the atmosphere there in Iowa, it was totally different,” Tyjauna said. “It was just like business. A lot of these places — we even visited Alabama — it was like business. It was like looking at my child like a steak. They were looking at him like a juicy steak. We got to Iowa, of course we knew there would be a business side, but the atmosphere there was so welcoming. It was more of an interest in us as a family. Like I told Brandon, they not only recruited him, they also recruited us as a family. I really appreciate that. I can truly say we were comfortable from jump. We were comfortable there. No pressure at all.”
Smith’s commitment set off alarm bells in his neck of the woods. Players with that type of ability don’t leave Mississippi for Iowa. Maybe for another SEC school or somewhere in Texas. But not Iowa. Bell had to brace Smith for what was about to happen.
“I knew that once he got a Power 5 offer that blood would be in the water and other people would come calling,” Bell said. “His sister went to Mississippi State, his dad went to Mississippi State, his mom went to Ole Miss. I knew he might not be a priority for them right now but as time goes by and they start losing out on these fantasy football guys that everybody likes to recruit, you’re going to end up coming back to the kids that you overlooked in the beginning.”
But that’s where Bell’s head start in building a relationship with Smith and his family put Iowa well beyond the competition. He maintained it through text messages, phone calls and contact on social media. Every time another school was interested in Brandon, coach Nester would let Bell know. But there was no wavering on Smith’s side. He was every bit as committed to Iowa as the Hawkeyes were to him.
Mississippi State came on strong, as did Vanderbilt. Washington State officials sent him direct messages on Twitter. Wisconsin officials texted him while he was in class. Smith rebuffed them all.
“[Mississippi State] tried to get me to visit, but I told them, ‘No, I’m set,’ ” Smith said. “Because they’d been knowing me since my 10th–grade year. And a school as far away as Iowa noticed me before the people in my own backyard, so I wouldn’t give them a chance at all. Anybody who tried, I was with Iowa. I felt like they took a chance on me when everybody else wanted 5 stars and 4 stars.”
“When you commit to something like that, it should stick,” Bell said. “It should stick because it was a legitimate opportunity where all these schools, the aforementioned schools, the state schools, they all had the opportunity to see Brandon long before we did and they chose not to hop on it.”
What type of player is Iowa getting?
Smith’s statistics back up his physical prowess. In 2016, he caught 80 passes for 1,509 yards and 19 touchdowns. In a game against Center Hill, he grabbed 8 passes for 290 yards and 5 scores.
In four varsity seasons, he totaled 206 catches for 3,672 yards and 41 touchdowns. As a freshman, he caught just 1 pass for 31 yards.
“You turn on the tape, you look at his numbers. They’re not skewed,” Nester said. “People think they see 80 catches and 20 touchdowns, [so] they think we throw it every play. We’re a balanced offense. It’s legitimate numbers, and it’s going against the best competition in the state of Mississippi. It’s not a smaller league; it’s a large classification where they have great players.”
Smith uses his size effectively. He’s usually taller than most of his opponents and can out-jump all of them. Sometimes the game plan was to isolate Smith one-on-one with a corner and just turn it into a jump-ball situation.
“I think the thing with Brandon that really makes him special is his ability to go up and get the football,” Nester said. “Even when people are hanging all over him, he’s so strong and he’s so physical in that aspect, and I guess the intangibles that make him such a great receiver is he has the ability to go up vertically and get it. But he also has the ability, kind of like a basketball player, to box you out and get in front of you. Then when you put that together with his 3X hands, it’s just a perfect combination for that.
“One-on-one, people think it’s 50-50. With him, it’s really not 50-50.”
Smith was named to the Dandy Dozen as one of the 12 best players in Mississippi and won the state high jump title with a 6-foot-6 leap. His vertical jump is 39 inches, which would have placed fourth at the NFL combine in March. His size is an asset. He also has enough self-awareness to know he needs plenty of coaching, especially on his footwork and route running.
Nester swears by Smith’s work ethic, which in high school often included daily track practice and a football workout either at the school or at his home gym.
“I think when people realize what Brandon is as a person and as a player, it’s a total package,” Nester said. “He’s going to wow them.”
Smith has the physical tools to succeed in any conference. When you combine his intangibles, which range from character and work ethic to a team-first attitude and top-notch academics, that’s when coaches get excited. That’s how a school such as Iowa — with a coach not satisfied with a day lounging at his mother’s house — beats the home-field advantage to grab one of the school’s most important commits this year.
“He’s a true diamond in the rough,” Bell said. “So much thanks and appreciation for his parents. If he comes to Iowa and he gets a degree, I’m extremely happy. Everything else is gravy on top.”
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Nate Wieland’s size and speed suggests he could develop into a special linebacker.
For the complete Iowa NextGen series, click this link.