Football Notebook: Hawkeye Passing Game Coming Together, Injury Report

October 9, 2018

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – You almost don’t want to jinx it by talking about it. It’s hard to ignore the progress, however. It sticks out considering recent history.

You may have noticed. The Iowa receiving corps have struggled the last few years.

Saturday’s performance from that position during a 48-31 victory at Minnesota turned heads. It caught 14 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Through the first two games of the season, it sat at eight receptions for 126 yards and no scores.

Things picked up against Northern Iowa in Week 3. Senior Nick Easley led the way with 10 catches 103 yards and a touchdown. The next game against Wisconsin, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith combined for five grabs and 82 yards.

Then things opened up against the Golden Gophers, who loaded up to stop the run.

“When we have the offensive line that we do and we’ve proven we can move the ball (on the ground), teams are going to try to take that away and we’ve got to make them pay,” Easley said.

Opponents stacked the box a lot last season. The Hawkeyes couldn’t take advantage with Smith-Marsette and Smith still learning the ropes as true freshmen.

You could see them maturing early this season. Each made a critical long catch in a 13-3 win against Iowa State in Week 2. Smith’s 30-yarder set up a decisive fourth-quarter touchdown.

Junior quarterback Nate Stanley has witnessed the growth from his two young receivers. He’s worked hard with them to establish an on-field rapport.

“There’s definitely a learning curve when you start to throw with younger guys, throw with guys that don’t have much experience. Where that shows up is in a lot of the timing routes or routes where you have to read different coverages,” Stanley said.

“People might think that it’s just the quarterback that has to read the coverages but the receivers do as well. Their routes might change depending on coverage. The more looks you get, the more times you do it, the better you get at throwing against all types of different coverages.”

Smith-Marsette showed maturity on Saturday when Stanley was scrambling, looking for an open man in the first quarter. He came back to the ball, finding a hole in the coverage. Stanley hit him with a pinpoint pass and the speedy receiver took it to the house for a 60-yard touchdown.

Stanley has noticed Smith-Marsette’s improvement in getting off the line. And when he’s running the route, he’s thinking less and reacting more.

“Getting in and out of breaks faster and just playing smarter and faster and seeing the whole picture on the field defensively so we’re able to play faster, making the cuts when we have to and being in sync with Nate whenever he’s ready to throw the ball to us is really the most technical thing we’ve been working on,” Smith-Marsette said.

Smith delivered the catch of the year in Minneapolis. He leaped up and hauled in the ball over the cornerback, securing it against the defender’s back. He suffered from some drops last season, but he’s cleaned it up.

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“The more playing time I get, the more reps I get, I can feel myself improving. It just feels more comfortable than last year,” Smith said.

Easley played a lot last season. He led the team with 51 receptions. Smith and Smith-Marsette saw significantly fewer snaps. They’d only been on campus for a few months.

“I keep reminding myself and probably everybody how young he and Ihmir are. Those guys are second-year players, Ferentz said.

More development and increased production from the receivers allows Iowa to reach its potential on offense. It already features two all-Big Ten caliber tight ends in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, who lead the team with 19 and 18 catches, respectively. It would open things up for the running game by burning opponents that stack the box.

Hockenson is all for spreading the ball around.

“It’s team football,” he said. “We could go out there and the tight ends could have zero catches and we win the game and that’s fine. We just want the win. It doesn’t matter about anything else. We here to do whatever we need to for the team.”

INJURY REPORT: Ferentz ruled out starting linebackers Nick Niemann (leg) and Jack Hockaday (leg) for Saturday’s game at Indiana. He listed Fant and No. 1 running back Ivory Kelly-Martin as questionable.

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“They’re injured. They both came out of the game. I think the whole world saw that. Right now we’ll see where it goes. I think we’ll probably know more by Friday,” the coach said.

Niemann hurt himself during the Wisconsin game on Sept. 22 and missed last week’s game at Minnesota. Hockaday injured himself against the Gophers. He has made progress.

“Very encouraging based on what we saw the last 48 hours. I doubt he’ll be ready this week. It’s possible, but I doubt it. We’re not counting on that. But at least I think next week is probably realistic, and that’s good compared to where it could have been,” Ferentz said.

Aaron Mends and Wes Dvorak, who suffered spring injuries, have been progressing through rehab and have a chance to return this season.

“(They) are both improving. I don’t want to try to put a number on it, but I think they’ve got a shot to get back, and that’s what they’re working hard for right now,” Ferentz said.

OUTSIDE NOISE: Fant’s older brother, Chris Fant, created some controversy on social media this week when he criticized the Iowa coaches for their usage of Noah.

Ferentz was asked about it at Tuesday’s press conference. You could tell it wasn’t news to him.

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“I don’t really have much to say about it. We’re trying to do things that we think are best for the team, whether it’s how we sub on defense, same thing on offense, and the bottom line is as I said after the game, we’ve got two really good tight ends right now, and they both play really critical roles on our team,” he said.

Fant is seeing fewer reps than Hockenson but they both play a lot. Fant leads the team with 19 catches and five touchdowns, part of his school record for a tight end in a career.

Noah hasn’t complained to the coaches.

“He’s been great. Hopefully we’ll have him back this week. It would really help us if he’s there,” Ferentz said.

YOUTH SERVED: Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins have practiced as full participants this week. The duo dealt with injuries after the Wisconsin game and did not start at Minnesota. True freshmen Julius Brents and Riley Moss replaced them as the starting cornerbacks.

The newcomers played well enough to “most likely” stay at No. 1 heading into the Indiana game, Ferentz said. Ojemudia and Hankins were expected to be reserves.

“We’ll just see how the week pans out. We’ll see if they make it to the plane on Friday without getting lost or having a panic attack, but they got through one week at least, so that’s good,” the coach said.

“The most important thing I think about both those guys and probably all these guys is we’re seeing improvement during the course of the game, and that’s encouraging. When you see guys growing and their arrows are going up, that’s really positive.”

After a rough start, Moss settled down, picked off two passes and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week. Brents intercepted a pass and performed beyond his years.

Ojemudia played at Minnesota in sub packages. Hankins was available but did not see action. He was wearing a cast on his left arm.

“We’re going to get that thing scaled down. At least so I’ve been told. That’ll help a lot, too,” Ferentz said.

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