By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Wide receiver Nick Easley led the University of Iowa in receptions the past two seasons.
He is gone.
So are NFL tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, who a season ago combined for 88 catches and 13 touchdowns.
That’s a lot of production to account for, but the Hawkeye passing game appears up for the challenge. In fact, this group could develop into one of Iowa’s top collection of wide receivers in many years.
“We are turning the page,” said receivers coach Kelton Copeland, who begins his third season at Iowa. “It is 2019, and if you asked me who our leading receiver would be, I wouldn’t have a good answer for you.”
That’s good news, not bad. Because…
“There are so many candidates who are doing the right things on a daily basis,” Copeland added.
Segway to 6-foot-2, 218-pound junior Brandon Smith, junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and redshirt freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy, Jr.
“It’s exciting to think about,” Copeland said. “We feel we have put a good room together and there are more than four (receivers). We feel we have a complete room and we have some answers.”
The most physical presence is Smith, who hauled in 28 catches for 361 yards and two touchdowns in 2018 when Iowa finished 9-4 and won the Outback Bowl over No. 18 Mississippi State. During the bowl victory, Smith caught three passes for 33 yards.
“I’m getting more confident in the way I play and going out there and doing what is best for the team,” Smith said. “The guys in the receiver room are a tight-knit group and we know it will be a big task to replace the two first-round tight ends; we know we will be getting more looks and receptions this year and we plan to take advantage of each opportunity.”
Copeland said Smith is raising the standard for himself as well as for everyone in the receiver room.
“He is starting to lead by example and holding his teammates accountable to that standard,” Copeland said. “I’m pleasantly aware of where he is at.”
When you look back at the 2018 season, Smith might have been one of the most underrated Hawkeye pass-catchers.
“I don’t know if we had a guy who made more plays down field than Brandon Smith when you look at all the fade balls and goal line plays he made in the end zone,” Copeland said.
The electrifying Smith-Marsette has posted seasons of 18 and 23 receptions. Copeland calls him one of the best leaders in fall camp.
“As my mom would say, sometimes a young man just needs birthdays,” Copeland said. “Ihmir has done a tremendous job and he realizes what is at stake. He is a veteran in the room, too.”
That brings us to the interior slot position vacated by the graduated Easley and his 103 receptions from 2017-18. Currently Ragaini (one catch for seven yards in 2018) and Tracy, Jr., (one catch for 22 yards) are in the mix. They won’t look like typical freshmen when Iowa’s season begins Aug. 31 against Miami (Ohio).
“They are good, well-rounded football players and it’s hard to find anything they don’t do well,” Copeland said. “Both of them can be great players, but we have to produce when it matters on Saturday.”
Copeland says sophomore transfer Oliver Martin fits well with the rest of the team and has done a nice job learning Iowa’s playbook. The NCAA has yet to decide if Martin is eligible to play in 2019.
“His speed, strength, and polished catching ability is a bonus,” Copeland said. “We’re getting an advanced player who is a smooth route-runner.”
Aiding the cause of any receiver group is a proficient quarterback. The Hawkeyes have that in senior Nate Stanley, who has thrown for 5,351 yards and 52 touchdowns.
“He makes a world of difference,” Copeland said of Stanley. “You have a guy leading the charge with experience and calmness. His nature is being a cool, calm, composed guy with confidence. He brings it on the field and in the meeting rooms.”
In 2018, Iowa’s wide receivers combined for 112 receptions, 1,304 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Compared to 2017, that was an improvement of 12 catches, 188 yards, and two touchdowns. Look for those numbers to continue to climb.
“We’re more confident and we know the expectations,” Copeland said. “Now we want to raise the standard individually and as a group.”