IOWA CITY, Iowa – While other members of Iowa football’s junior class discussed upcoming decisions regarding the NFL Draft in early December, Ihmir Smith-Marsette let people know he’d made up his mind already. He was returning in 2020 because he had “unfinished business.”
Whether or not Smith-Marsette would have been drafted or made it in the NFL with eligibility remaining doesn’t matter. Plenty of players bet on themselves in a physically unforgiving sport. And the trend of taking a shot at the league before the body adds more miles in college is rising.
Smith-Marsette believes his best path is helping the Hawkeyes with his dynamic skill set for another year. If he does that, his NFL stock increases. With what he’s shown to date, you have to like his chances.
The New Jersey native’s performance overshadowed a highly-touted group of USC receivers in December’s Holiday Bowl. He scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a kick return in earning offensive MVP honors during a 49-24 Iowa victory.
Smith-Marsette supplies the Hawkeyes with one of the nation’s top kick-return men and a receiver becoming more well-rounded by the game. He has a knack for delivering in the clutch.
Despite boasting an offense with playmakers like Tyler Goodson, Tyrone Tracy, Nico Ragaini, Brandon Smith and Sam LaPorta, Iowa would have suffered a big blow to the unit had Smith-Marsette left school early. It was no less important than offensive tackle Alaric Jackson and defensive end Chauncey Golston returning for their final college campaigns and a strong argument can be made it might end up being more impactful.
Smith-Marsette (6-1, 186) has hurt opponents on special teams, catching passes and running the ball. For a large portion of the last decade, Hawkeye fans yearned for game-breakers. He arrived back in ’17 as an underweight, unpolished product who coaches called out for a lack of focus.
He’s put in the work and become a leader in the receiver room. He’s added 27 pounds since arriving on campus, the strength helping him block better. He caught 18 passes as a true freshman, 23 as a second-year sophomore and 44 for a team-high 722 yards and five touchdowns in ’19. He’s ranked in the Top 4 nationally for kick returns each of the last two seasons, averaging 29.6 yards per return, and earning Big Ten return specialist of the year honors in ’18.
We first witnessed Smith-Marsette’s flair for the dramatic back in ’17 at Iowa State. With the Hawkeyes trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter, he caught the first touchdown of his career. He then hauled in the game-winner in a 44-41 overtime victory. The next season, he set a bowl record with 150 yards on five kickoff returns in an upset of Mississippi State in the Outback.
He played his best football when Iowa won its final four games of last season. The stretch started with a 23-19 win against Top 10 and previously unbeaten Minnesota. He contributed a five-yard touchdown and a key third-down conversion catch late in the fourth quarter. The next week, he accumulated a career-best 121 receiving yards on four catches against Illinois.
In the regular-season finale at Nebraska, Smith-Marsette’s 45-yard, first-quarter touchdown run put his team up 7-0. His 95-yard kick return for a touchdown came after the Huskers cut their deficit to seven points in the second quarter. He hauled in a 22-yard reception on 3rd-and-10 deep in Iowa territory late in the fourth quarter, helping set up the game-winning field goal in a 27-24 victory.
It’s fun imagining what memories Smith-Marsette will add to his legacy in ’20. We could all use some positive stories with the year we’ve experienced to date.
That Smith-Marsette’s contributions will stretch beyond the box score means as much if not more than his yards or touchdowns. His value is exponentially greater in a program working at becoming more inclusive. His magnetic personality and sense of humor bring people together at a much-needed time.
There’s unfinished business, on and off the field, and Smith-Marsette is the right man for the job.