By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Preseason hype isn’t usually my thing because actions always speak louder than words.
But something tells me that Ihmir Smith-Marsette is poised to have a huge season for the Iowa football team as both a receiver and as a return specialist.
Actually, it’s Smith-Marsette telling me that with his swagger and with his unwavering confidence.
Combine those traits with his blazing speed, his fearlessness and his accomplishments so far as a Hawkeyes and you have a recipe for success.
It’s easy to overlook Smith-Marsette on a roster that includes star defensive end A.J. Epenesa, standout offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs and three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley. But Smith-Marsette is without question one of the most important and exciting players on the team.
His ability to stretch defenses and shift field position with his sprinter’s speed is like few others in the Big Ten.
Smith-Marsette showed that ability last season when he led the Big Ten and ranked second nationally in kick return average with a 29.5 average on 24 returns.
The New Jersey native came close to breaking several kicks for touchdowns last season, and he vows to finish the job this season.
“I don’t know who was the last (Iowa player) to return a kick, but my goal is to take as many as I can to the house and I don’t think anything is going to stop me from taking one to the house this year,” Smith-Marsette said at media day last Friday. “I’m definitely going to take one and I need to because I won’t be satisfied with myself if I don’t.
“Just being able to go out there and put the offense in the best field position possible is just one big step, one big leap for the whole team.”
I mistakenly told Smith-Marsette at media day that Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was the last Iowa player to return a kick for a touchdown in 2010, but the correct answer is Jordan Cotton, who scored on a kick return in a loss to Penn State in 2012.
It isn’t often that an Iowa player returns a kick for a touchdown.
Besides Cotton and Koulianos, there was Jermelle Lewis blasting through a gaping hole against Michigan State in 2002 and then racing untouched into the end zone, and C.J. Jones gliding down the sideline and scoring with the opening kick against Southern California in the 2003 Orange Bowl.
But it’s hard to think of any other kick returns for touchdowns during 20 seasons under Kirk Ferentz and there weren’t many that occurred under Hayden Fry, either.
Tim Dwight returned five punts for touchdowns as a Hawkeye from 1994 to 1997 and Andy Brodell had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in a 17-5 victory over Iowa State in 2008.
Walner Belleus also returned a punt for a touchdown in a 44-7 loss at Arizona State in 2004, but you have to look long and hard to find touchdowns by a return specialist because they just don’t happen very often at Iowa, or at most schools.
Smith-Marsette is determined to change that.
“When the ball comes down and it’s in my hands, I feel as though this might be the one that goes to the house,” Smith-Marsette said. “You never know which one might go to the house and I’m always thinking that I’ve going to take it to the house just because I’m confident in myself and my ability to get there.
“The blocking in front of me has always been tremendous and you’ve just got to see things that other players don’t see and be able to hit it with a full head of steam and just be able to take it all the way.”
Smith-Marsette played a huge role in Iowa’s 27-22 victory over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl in January by setting an Outback Bowl record with 150 yards on four kick returns.
Iowa’s rushing attack was held to negative yards in the Outback Bowl, but Smith-Marsette’s four kick returns helped to offset that by shifting field position.
Smith-Marsette already has a major responsibility as a starting receiver, but that isn’t enough to satisfy his competitive juices.
He also relishes the chance to be a kick and punt returner because he enjoys doing both and because he wants to help his team win in every way possible.
“I want to impact the game elsewhere than just offense, so just being able to make a big impact elsewhere and get your name heard from different points of view is just a big opportunity for me to put myself out there and put the whole team out there,” Smith-Marsette said. “So I take pride in it and I enjoy doing it because it’s fun. Not everyone wants to do it, so I want to do it.”
Smith-Marsette exudes confidence to the point of almost being cocky.
But as Smith-Marsette showed last season when he averaged nearly 30 yards per kick return, it's not bragging if you can back it up.
It also takes a special kind of player to be a good kick returner because speed and quickness will only take you so far.
A kick returner also has to be fearless and willing to take chances with his body and with circumstances on the field.
Smith-Marsette only carries about 183 pounds on a slender 6-foot-1 frame, but you’d never know it by how he races up field after catching a kick. The only time he hesitates is when trying to juke a defender, but never from fear of being hit.
“When you go into a little hole and you’re timid then for sure you’re going to get stopped or you’re going to get tackled,” Smith-Marsette said. “But if you go in there like a bat out of hell, you’re going to be cool. You’re going to break a few arm tackles, full speed momentum. You’re going this way and they’re coming towards you. Somebody is going to win that battle.
“So you just have to have that heart to just go in there and be able to prevail and come out on top. I’ve been able to do it and I look forward to being able to do it some more this year.”
Smith-Marsette has struggled at times as a Hawkeye with paying attention to details and there was speculation during the spring that he was in Kirk Ferentz’s doghouse.
Ferentz told reporters at Big Ten media day last month in Chicago that Smith-Marsette wasn’t necessarily in his doghouse, but that he needed to be more focused on the little things that also matter from a team standpoint.
Smith-Marsette apparently got the message because Ferentz now praises him for his focus and preparation.
However, there is one thing that Smith-Marsette and Ferentz will never agree on and that is when not to return a kick.
If Smith-Marsette had his way, there would no such thing as a touchback.
Every kick, in his opinion, no matter how far the ball sails into the end zone, is meant to be returned.
The Iowa coaches, however, don’t see it that way.
“For me, the deepest I believe is out of bounds,” Smith-Marsette said. “I’m just being honest. If I could return every kick possible, (I would). But you’ve got to be coachable. So the limit is if it’s two-yards deep, sometimes three or four.
“You’ve just got to be able to know when not to take it. And if the ball is in the hair too long, then you’ve just got to know to leave that one there. But if it’s come down fast, you’ve got an opportunity.”
And, of course, there is no substitute for speed and Smith-Marsette is well equipped in that area.
“Once I break one ‘scot free’, I believe no one will catch me,” he said.
In addition to being arguably the Big Ten’s top return specialist, Smith-Marsette also forms a potent one-two punch at receiver with fellow junior Brandon Smith. They both finished with 361 receiving yards last season and should have more chances to shine in the passing game as Iowa moves on without star tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant.
Their personalities might be different with Smith-Marsette more outgoing and more willing to make bold predictions than the soft-spoken Brandon Smith. But they complement each other well on the field.
“They’re two competitors,” said Iowa receivers coach Kelton Copeland. “No matter what their personalities are off the field, when they step on the field, they want to win badly.
“The key now is they understand what it takes to win and they understand the sacrifice and the attention to detail that it takes to win at this level. And they’ve both bought into that. And that’s what is important.”
Iowa also has in Nate Stanley one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the Big Ten with 26 consecutive starts under his belt.
Stanley has combined to throw 52 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, which is the most by an Iowa quarterback in back-to-back seasons.
“I’m very excited,” Smith-Marsette said. “We built our chemistry last year being able to play that much and being on the field with him.
“I think it’s just a tremendous opportunity just to play with him. He’s probably one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Iowa history. So just being on the same field with him is pretty cool. I respect him a lot.”
Smith-Marsette doesn’t just have big plans for himself this season, but also for his team.
“Our goal and our expectation is definitely a Big Ten championship and winning it,” he said.