Wide Receiver Becoming Position of Strength for Iowa Football
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa football has had more than its share of quality tight ends during the Kirk Ferentz era. Wide receivers? That’s a totally different story.
Eleven tight ends have been selected in the NFL Draft since Ferentz took over in 1999, including first-round picks Dallas Clark (2003), Noah Fant (2019) and T.J. Hockenson (2019). Three wide receivers have been drafted, all in the sixth round – Marvin McNutt (2012), Kahlil Hill (2002) and Kevin Kasper (2001).
Over that same period, the Hawkeyes had six first-team all-Big Ten selections at tight end – Hockenson, Fant, C.J. Fiedorowicz (2013), Tony Moeaki (2009), Brandon Myers (2008) and Clark.
That compares to two first-team all-Big Ten wide receivers – Marvin McNutt (2011) and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (2010).
Iowa’s program history tells much of the same story. Of the nine players currently residing in the Kinnick Stadium Wall of Honor, none played wide receiver.
There are portraits of Iowa’s 25 consensus all-Americans in the football complex. Only one of them – Tim Dwight (1997) – was a wide receiver.
Iowa’s only consensus all-American from Iowa City is third all time in receiving yards (2,271) and seventh in receptions (139).
But he earned all-American status because of his brilliance as a kick returner. He set Big Ten records for career punt return yardage (1,102) and punt return touchdowns (five).
McNutt, Iowa’s career leader in receiving yards with 2,861 (2008-2011), is one of just two Ferentz players to lead the league in that specialty. McNutt’s 1,315 receiving yards in 2011 was a league best. So were his 53 catches in Big Ten play and 82 catches overall.
The other was Kasper, who had a league-best 82 catches in all games in 2000.
Wide receiver clearly has not been a position of strength. But change is in the air. And the timing couldn’t be better for new quarterback Spencer Petras.
Four returning receivers caught at least 36 balls last season. Iowa hadn’t had four different receivers catch at least 36 balls since 2014 when four players did it. But just two, Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith, were wide receivers. The others were tight end Jake Duzey and running back Damon Bullock.
Nico Ragaini had a team-high 46 receptions as a redshirt freshman.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, a threat as a pass catcher and kick returner, had 44 catches for a team-high 722 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. The most valuable player of the Holiday Bowl, he’s logged 16 starts.
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Brandon Smith had 37 catches for 439 yards and five touchdowns in a junior season that was shortened by injury. Smith had a career-best nine catches for 107 yards against Purdue on Oct. 19, but injured an ankle late in that game. He didn’t play in the next two games, at Northwestern and at Wisconsin, tried to come back against Minnesota but lasted just one play, then sat out the final two regular-season games against Illinois and Nebraska. He has 19 career starts.
Tyrone Tracy made an impressive debut as a redshirt freshman, catching 36 balls for 589 yards and three touchdowns. That included a 75-yarder at Wisconsin that was Iowa’s longest scrimmage play of the season. Tracy finished that game with five catches for 130 yards. That was the most yards by a Hawkeye receiver since McNutt had 130 (eight receptions) against Michigan State in 2011. Tracy started eight games last season.
In addition to that foursome, Petras will have several other effective targets to throw to.
Running back Tyler Goodson caught 24 passes out of the backfield as a true freshman. And there’s fast-improving Sam LaPorta, who seems destined to carry on Iowa’s rich tradition at tight end. Nine of LaPorta’s 15 receptions last season came in the final two games of his freshman season.
And there is potential in players like wide receivers Desmond Hutson, who will be a redshirt freshman, and incoming rookies Quavon Matthews and Diante Vines.
“We clearly have a better group of receivers right now than we had a couple, three years ago,” Ferentz said in January.
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When Nate Stanley took over for C.J. Beathard at quarterback in 2017, he didn’t have a lot of experience to throw to. Senior Matt VandeBerg had 106 career receptions for 1,302 yards and eight touchdowns. Running back Akrum Wadley had 43 catches for 408 yards. Fant had nine catches for 70 yards as a true freshman. Joining that group was wide receiver Nick Easley, a walk-on from Iowa Western in Council Bluffs, and Hockenson, who redshirted in 2016. Smith-Marsette and Smith were true freshmen.
Asked at media day in August of 2017 if he was concerned about the receiving position, Ferentz said, “Concerns, yeah. They’re better than they were in the spring, and we’re better with the new guys in there. So now the question is how fast can we get to where we’ve got to get?”
Easley was a pleasant surprise, catching a team-high 51 passes in 2017. Fant had 30 receptions, VandeBerg and Wadley 28 each and Hockenson 24. Smith-Marsette added 18 as a rookie, while Smith had just three.
The receiving position made positive steps during the time Stanley passed for 68 touchdowns and 8,302 yards in 39 career starts between 2017 and 2019.
Easley was again the leading receiver in 2018 with 52 catches. Hockenson had 49 and Fant 39 on their way to the first round of the NFL Draft.
The first significant catch of Smith’s career came in the fourth quarter of a 13-3 victory against Iowa State in the second game of that 2018 season.
Iowa was clinging to a 6-3 lead in the fourth quarter when it faced a third-and-four situation from the Cyclones’ 32. Stanley found Smith for 30 yards, and Mekhi Sargent scored on the next play to cap an 82-yard game-clinching drive with 4 minutes 47 seconds remaining.
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“Everybody was saying, “Finally, we’ve been waiting for that moment for so long,’ ” Smith said of his Hawkeye teammates. “It finally happened in a game. You can’t take the smile off my face.”
Smith finished the season with 28 catches and Smith-Marsette added 23. Both stepped up as playmakers last season, and are poised to do even more as senior leaders.
And a position without a rich history at Iowa has the potential to be a position of strength in 2020.