By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Neither Ihmir Smith-Marsette nor Brandon Smith were made available to the media on Tuesday, but the two Iowa receivers both still dominated the conversation.
In fact, the second question asked to Iowa receivers coach Kelton Copeland was about Brandon Smith, who played sparingly as a true freshman last season.
“This young man has done some things every day that kind of stands out and catches you saying, wow, that’s something I haven’t seen in the past,” Copeland said of Brandon Smith, a 6-foot-3, 219 pound native of Lake Cormorant, Miss. “And then also there are times when it’s like come on Brandon, you’ve got to get rid of that old habit or that old habit will creep back in there a little bit.
“And that goes for the whole group, not just Brandon. We take strides forward and then there is something that happens whether it’s individual or as a group where our inexperience is showing up. So it’s my job to step in and say, okay, this is not acceptable.”
Smith-Marsette as a true freshman played a more significant role than Brandon Smith did last season and is one of the fastest players on the team, according to Copeland.
But Smith-Marsette is also still very much a work in progress as Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters at a recent press conference.
You’ve got to love his attitude,” Ferentz said. “He’s fearless out there, and he’s going to go for it. He’s that type of player, and that’s good. He’s got a good energy to him.
"I think the challenge for him 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.”
People tend to listen when the longest-tenured coach in college football speaks. Ferentz’s comment about Smith-Marsette’s phone usage caused a stir with Smith-Marsette’s family and friends back in his home state of New Jersey.
Copeland, on the other hand, loved what Ferentz had to say.
“I see it on a day-to-day basis,” Copeland said Tuesday. “It was probably a good thing that Coach Ferentz said that in a public setting. It’s one thing for 'Coach Cope' to say it in a meeting or in our one-on-one meetings. … But when Coach Ferentz says that in a public setting?
“That’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing. The more people that know that … if you guys see him out and about, tell him to get off his phone.”
Smith-Marsette had some spectacular moments as a true freshman last season, including catching the game-winning touchdown pass to defeat Iowa State in overtime.
But he struggled with consistency as shown in the victory over Nebraska in the regular-season finale. Smith-Marsette stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line on one kickoff, but then two quarters later he returned a kick 74 yards.
“Ihmir has to learn to trust what we’re coaching him, trust the fundamentals, trust what he has, which is speed, athleticism, and he’s a very bright young man,” Copeland said. “He understands football. That kid studies football, lives football. What he has to do is trust what we’re coaching him, trust the system. Once we put those two together, we’re going to have something special.”
Copeland thinks Brandon Smith is ready to play a significant role now that Matt VandeBerg has used up his eligibility. They had a discussion before spring practice in which Copeland told Smith that it was time for him to seize the opportunity.
“Once we get him to trust his fundamentals, use his size, use his speed, use his strength, all of his God-given abilities on a play-by-play basis, day in and day out, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Copeland said. “There’s no question.”
Copeland also raved about senior receiver Nick Easley, saying that he has emerged as the leader among the group. Easley led Iowa withg 51 catches for 530 yards last season.