IOWA CITY – One reception at a time, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are wrapping arms around their potential.
Iowa’s sophomore receivers have endured their share of lessons learned, but both are catching on as the Hawkeye season reaches a midpoint in Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Indiana.
Smith doubled his season total with five catches totaling 68 yards in last weekend’s 48-31 win at Minnesota.
At the heart of the career day for the Lake Cormorant, Mississippi native was a leaping 26-yard reception he made while reaching behind the head of Golden Gophers defensive back Terrell Smith.
“That’s what he does,’’ Smith-Marsette said. “He makes some big-time catches all the time in practice. It’s just taken some time for it all to carry over to games.’’
That’s not uncommon.
Smith-Marsette endured his share of drops during his freshman season and both receivers have let a few opportunities slip through their hands as Iowa has crafted a 4-1 start to the current season.
“It’s frustrating, but you have to move on to the next one and put yourself in a position to make the next catch when the ball comes your way,’’ Smith-Marsette said. “We’re both learning. And we both work to keep each other feeling positive, moving in the right direction.’’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz saw that as he watched both players compete at Minnesota, a game which saw Smith’s effort complemented by three receptions made by Smith-Marsette which covered 78 yards and Nick Easley catching six passes for 52 yards.
“That whole group is gaining ground right now and that’s what we need,’’ Ferentz said. “It’s great to see.’’
Tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson continue to lead Iowa in receptions with 19 and 18, respectively, but Easley, Smith and Smith-Marsette have combined for 38 catches as well through the Hawkeyes’ first five games.
It’s been a growing group effort that Smith believes is a byproduct of experience.
At 6-foot-3, 219 pounds, he has the size to do what he did against Minnesota defenders, with increased confidence only helping him complete.
“The more reps I get, the better things are getting for me,’’ Smith said. “It didn’t happen as quick as I thought it would. Everybody kept telling me, ‘be patient, be patient, it’ll happen’ but that’s hard. It’s coming together now for me and the offense.’’
Ferentz saw that in Smith’s performance against Minnesota.
“I thought he played like he belonged on the varsity,’’ Ferentz said. “He used his size a little bit and did some good things blocking, and obviously making plays.’’
It’s all part of the process for an athlete who caught 80 passes and recorded a high jump of 6 feet, 8 inches as a high school athlete.
“You come in thinking you know it all, but you don’t. You have to learn it all over again,’’ Smith said. “That’s where I’m at right now, learning and working to get better every game. I’m feeling more and more comfortable every time out. It’s coming together.’’
The same can be said for Smith-Marsette, who was patient enough to wait until just the right time to give a scrambling Nate Stanley the chance to throw across the field and create play that went 60 yards for Iowa’s second score against Minnesota.
He complemented that with 49-yard kickoff return in the second half, positioning the Hawkeyes for a score which extended a 31-24 lead.
“It was a good day but it could have been better,’’ Smith-Marsette said. “We got the touchdown, but I felt like I had a chance to take the return to the end zone. I’ve got to find a way to get that done. I could have picked up a few more yards after my catches. I gotta get that done.’’
Easley said as a group, Hawkeye receivers are embracing an objective of being part of the solution, dedicated to improvement.
“It’s not as much the technical aspect of it, it’s more kind of the mentality that we came out with, just going out making plays,’’ Easley said. “We just want to go out there and start fast, catch the balls, beat some guys on routes, just kind of taking ownership of coming out and making plays.’’
He said it’s a mindset that’s become contagious.
“Everybody’s coming along, working hard and the results, they’re starting to show,’’ Easley said. “To me, that’s the biggest thing. Minnesota was a good game for all of our receivers, something we can build on as a group.’’
Most importantly, Smith-Marsette said, is that Iowa can’t live on its reputation.
He said the Hawkeyes must avoid falling into what he labels “the success trap.’’
Smith-Marsette suggests that he has already heard a few too many compliments this week.
“A lot of people are saying we’re improved, but to me it’s not about what you’ve done, it’s about what you’re going to do the next time an opportunity comes your way,’’ Smith-Marsette said.
“We’ve got to keep improving day to day. We’ve got to stay away from the success trap, keep working, stay humble. If we do that, we’ll get done what we know we can do. We’re getting there, but we haven’t arrived yet.’’