POSITIONAL AWARENESS 2018: THERE'S TALENT AT WIDE RECEIVER, NOW IOWA NEEDS RESULTS

By Mike Jones on June 21, 2018 at 11:23 am
Easley TD vs. Penn State

© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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Positional Awareness is our annual rundown of the Iowa depth chart, from the position where we are most confident in what Kirk Ferentz intends to do, to, well, running back.

Previously on Positional Awareness:

  1. Quarterback
  2. Tight End
  3. Defensive End
  4. Defensive Tackle
Eligibility Remaining  
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
14 Kyle Groeneweg SR 5-10/186 Splint End #2          
84 Nick Easley SR 5-11/205 Wide Receiver #1          
23 Dominique Dafney JR 6-2/225 Wide Receiver          
80 Devonte Young JR 6-0/203 Wide Receiver          
6 Ihmir Smith-Marsette SO 6-1/175 Wide Receiver #2          
12 Brandon Smith SO 6-3/219 Splint End #1          
19 Max Cooper SO 6-0/185 Wide Receiver          
13 Henry Marchese FR(RS) 6-3/195 Wide Receiver          
41 Drew Thomas FR(RS) 6-0/189 Wide Receiver          
89 Nico Ragaini FR 6-0/191 Wide Receiver          
  Blair Brooks FR 6-2/180 Wide Receiver          
  Samson Evans FR 6-1/205 Wide Receiver          
  Calvin Lockett FR 6-2/170 Wide Receiver          

REIVER

WR #1: NICK EASLEY (#84, Senior, 5-11, 205 lbs., Iowa Western CC, Newton, IA)

The Newton native and one time Reiver received a surprising amount of hype when he walked on at Iowa last year. Easley was as advertised, though, as he became Iowa’s leading wide receiver in every category: receptions (50), yards (498), and touchdowns (4). In a way, Easley became Matt VandeBerg as Matt VandeBerg wasn’t quite the same after his foot injury. He’s quick, runs crisp routes and has steady hands. Exhibit A:

He is an exceptional slot wide receiver. But, y’know, is on the outside. 

What can Easley do in his second year with the program? Work on his hands. Easley had several notable drops last season, including those against Michigan State and Purdue. He’s the most proven name on the depth chart but if he’s going to become Iowa’s #1 “possession wide receiver”, he’ll also need to be the most reliable. That means no drops.

Zero. 

GoBot

SE #1: BRANDON SMITH (#12, Sophomore, 6-3, 219 lbs., Lake Cormorant, Lake Cormorant, MS)

The naming of Brandon Smith as a starter may surprise a few people but if you’ve been following Iowa football for as long as we have, you’ll recognize this as a classic Kirk Ferentz motivational tactic. Smith had an interesting journey to Iowa and was expected to see playing time last season thanks to his size. Indeed, he did get a lot of in-game experience in 2017, but the results were…not good. In nine games, Smith only had three receptions for 15 yards. In fact, his most notable highlight from last season was a lowlight against Michigan State, when he fumbled away the ball on one of Iowa’s many ill-fated drives of that game.

But, here he is. Iowa’s starting split end. He’s 15 pounds heavier and the hype machine is fully rolling. Post-spring, Nate Stanley said that “Brandon really realized his strength…He did a great job at the ‘X’ position and really made a lot of great plays. He became a lot more physical.” Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland was similar in his praise of Smith “You know what, if I had to name one person that had the biggest improvement this past spring, it’s Brandon Smith, hands down.”

The hype is there. The size is there. The strength is there. The motivation is there. Now, we need the results. 

SPECTACULAR CATCH

WR #2: IHMIR SMITH-MARSETTE (#6, Sophomore, 6-1, 175 lbs., Weequahic, Newark, NJ)

When Smith-Marsette committed to Iowa, he had a reputation for being a deep threat. His reputation was well earned, as I cannot recall seeing a Kirk Ferentz coached wide receiver stretch the field quite like Smith-Marsette since, well, ever. An example of Smith’s speed and his spectacular playmaking ability:

This is the type of player Smith-Marsette can be.

I used to joke about Brandon Marshall by saying that he had a Madden rating of 99 spectacular catch but only a rating of 70 when it came to regular catch. Smith-Marsette had that problem last season. He was a brilliant route runner and someone that could easily leave cornerbacks in the dust but he couldn’t hold onto the ball. His very first play (albeit, a rushing play) resulted in a fumble. Against Penn State, he dropped a perfect deep pass that forced Iowa to punt. A miscue against Minnesota resulted in the ball bouncing off his facemask and into a defender’s hands for an interception. There was another drop against Purdue later in the season. For all his brilliance, his inconsistency and fundamentals held him back.

Maybe his focus did, as well. Not since the days of Derrell Johnson-Koulianos has a player been publicly criticized like Ihmir Smith-Marsette was this spring. At a press conference in April, Kirk Ferentz was quoted as saying:

“I think the challenge [for Smith-Marsette] right now … is better focus…Whether it's when he's in the player lounge, maybe getting off the phone a little bit more and maybe walk across the hall and watch film — those types of things.”

The message here is clear: Ferentz obviously recognizes Smith-Marsette’s talent, but Ihmir needs to put in the hard work to recognize that talent. By June, Coach Copeland told a different story of Smith-Marsette’s focus by saying “Put it like this…Every time I see him in the building, I don’t see his head down and his thumbs typing. So, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Long story short: Smith-Marsette has the potential to be one of the most electric wide receivers in Kirk Ferentz history. If he can focus, he can turn potential into reality. 

NIFTY

SE #2: KYLE GROENEWEG (#14, Senior, 5-10, 186 lbs., West Lyon, Inwood, IA)

Upon seeing Groenweg’s name on the depth chart I let out an audible “who?”  Fortunately, Ross did a write-up and here are some of the crucial factoids. Groenweg is a walk-on/transfer from the University of Sioux Falls, a DII program, and hasn’t (officially) played football since…2016? True story! The Iowa native was a wide receiver and special teams superstar for the USF Cougars, catching 36 passes for 635 yards and six touchdowns and returning eight punts for 508 yards and 50 kickoffs for 1,282 yards and two touchdowns. 

Due to transfer restrictions, he was forced to sit out in 2017 and was back in the fold this spring. How “in the fold”, you ask? Well, now he’s listed as the #2 split end. What type of player is he? What type of player do you think he is? Kirk Ferentz has described him as “nifty” and has praised his “shiftiness.” You know exactly what type of player Groenweg is. He’s Nick Easley all over again. Or Stross. Or VandeBerg. Or Brodell. Or etc. etc. etc.

Here’s an interesting question: does he play? He’s only played three years of collegiate football and sat out the entirety of 2017. There’s probably going to be a learning curve and with the new redshirt rules, he could see a decent amount of playing time before the coaches decided whether or not he should consider redshirting for a super SUPER senior year. Just something to consider.

If Groenweg does end up playing throughout 2018, there’s a strong possibility it could be at returner. Those punt/kickoff return statistics are absurd and Iowa has needed an exciting returner that isn’t a starting running back or cornerback since…as long as I can remember. Should be interesting to watch.

WHILE YOU WAIT FOR THE OTHERS

DEVONTE YOUNG (#80, Junior, 6-0, 203 lbs., North Point, Waldorf, MD)

DOMINIQUE DAFNEY (#23, Junior, 6-2, 225 lbs., Iowa Western CC, West Des Moines, IA)

Young and Dafney have been with the Iowa program since 2016 and played nearly every game last season. Their combined career stat line checks in at 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns. I thought Young might make a jump in production following his impressive 2017 spring game performance. He did not. I thought Dafney might actually catch a ball after being placed in witness protection for the 2016 season. He did not. And with guys like Smith, Smith-Marsette and Max Cooper making moves, I don’t expect to hear from Young and Dafney any time soon.

MAX COOPER (#19, Sophomore, 6-0, 185 lbs., Catholic Memorial, Waukesha, WI)

HENRY MARCHESE (#13, Redshirt Freshman, 6-3, 195 lbs., Stevenson, Vernon Hills, IL)

DREW THOMAS (#41, Redshirt Freshman, 6-0, 189 lbs., Humbolt, Humbolt, IA)

Max Cooper is your latest winner of the Jay Scheel Award for Spring Game Excellence Presented by Don Nordmann. In this year’s spring game he caught eight passes from four different quarterbacks for a total of 82 yards. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he also had a good spring game in 2017 and caught exactly zero passes during the actual season. The spring game superstar has sort of become the new AIRBHG, as they almost never pan out. Is there an Angry Iowa Spring Game Hating God? AISGHG doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?

Marchese is a one time three-star recruit that redshirted last season. He’s got size and is physical but clearly has a steep hill to climb if he’s going to crack the depth chart.

Thomas is a walk-on from Humbolt that redshirted last season. Chances are, he’ll be starting in 2 years.

THEY WERE ONLY FRESHMEN

NICO RAGAINI (#89, Freshman, 6-0, 191 lbs., Notre Dame, East Haven, CT)

BLAIR BROOKS (Freshman, 6-2, 180 lbs., Marion, Cedar Rapids, IA)

SAMSON EVANS (Freshman, 6-1, 205 lbs., Prairie Ridge, Crystal Lake, IL)

CALVIN LOCKETT (Freshman, 6-2, 170 lbs., Largo, Largo, FL)

Lockett is arguably the star of Iowa’s incoming freshman crop of wide receivers. A one time 3-star recruit with offers from BC, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon State, Purdue, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin, he was recruited by Kelton Copeland and coached by former Hawkeye Marcus Paschal down in Largo, Florida. He’s put on some weight since joining the program but at 6’2, 170 lbs., he’s still a tall drink of water for a wide receiver. He’ll see action, but the redshirt will be in play as well.

Ragaini and Evans were recruited as athletes had a respectable number of offers from Power Five schools. Ragaini got a couple of targets during the spring game and actually has a number, so that could mean something or absolutely nothing.

Blair Brooks is the grandson of Bob Brooks, a Drake Relays long-jump champion, and future coach in the making.

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