Ihmir Smith-Marsette: ‘I definitely feel like I can take over the NFL’

One of the most dynamic players in this year's draft can be found in... Iowa? You better believe it.

Teams never mine this terrain for playmakers. Iowa City is the land of mauling, cornfed, 330-pound offensive linemen with bulky knee braces on. When you think of Iowa Football, you think boring and slow and sluggish 10-3 games in the Big Ten that you click right on past for something more exciting on a Saturday afternoon.

This is not a school that produces playmakers, no.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette gets this a lot and even agrees that he’s everything Iowa football, traditionally, is not. Part of him likes being “different” but the wide receiver also knows he has much more to give than what everyone saw, too. He was a predator of sorts dropped into the wrong habitat. In the NFL, he expects to feast.  

“It’s crazy because I haven’t showed you all the whole game,” he says, “and how much more you can give.”

The last two seasons, over 20 games, Smith-Marsette caught 69 passes for 1,067 yards with nine touchdowns with another four scores on the ground. He’s a dangerous kick returner, too, averaging 28.7 yards per return over his four-year career. Want a player capable of busting a game wide open on Day 2 of the draft? This 6-foot-1, 181-pounder with the laser time of 4.43 is a steal.

Like D’Wayne Eskridge, like Josh Imatorbhebhe, right here is a hidden playmaker in this year’s draft class. Smith-Marsette didn’t get the ball nearly as much as the names you hear all day on NFL Network and ESPN but knows for certain that he is a modern player for this modern game — a pure weapon.

When the ball’s in his hands, his mentality’s very simple.

“Get to the end zone,” he says. “The best route to get me to the end zone, that’s the one I’m trying to take. If I gotta hurt somebody. If I gotta spin. In the game, that stuff instantly comes to my head — if I’m going to jump over somebody, spin, juke ‘em, it instantly comes to me. And I always think about, once the ball gets to my hands, to get a touchdown. My thinking was, ‘You never know when you’re going to get the ball again.’ So, I always was thinking end zone.

“This is what I tell myself: This is what I do, I play football. I don’t let nerves, pressure get to me.”

A random play in a meaningless game against a school you’ve never heard of feels the same to Smith-Marsette as the last play of a championship game.

Maybe that’s why he’s so blunt, so bold.  

“I feel I can be one of the most dangerous players in this draft.”

And when asked if he is the most dangerous, he does not hesitate.

“Definitely. I can do it all. … I definitely feel like I can take over in the NFL.”

The uniqueness of Smith-Marsette’s game is traced back to his home city, to Newark, N.J. His grandmother raised him and Grandma was tough. Really tough. There was “no sitting around” whenever she was near — you better be working at something around the house. And, oh, you thought you’d get to sleep in on a Sunday? Think again. Grandma would wake him up to get the newspaper, to clean a room, to do something.

She’s the one who made him tough in a city that absolutely demands toughness.

She didn’t take shit from anyone so, Smith-Marsette says, “neither do I.”

This particular neighborhood of Newark was rough, too. Smith-Marsette remembers seeing gangs everywhere. He learned — quickly — not to stay out late. And in this environment, he was more than equipped to hold his own.

“You don’t really want to let anybody know you’re a weak link,” Smith-Marsette says. “Because if you do, they’re going to keep trying you. See what I’m saying? So, you have to let people know you’re not the one to play with. And that’s not like going around causing a scene or anything. You stand up for yourself. You let things be known. Basically, that place makes a lot of leaders because you don’t take a back seat to anybody. You fight for everything you want and you go hard for yourself.”

Smith-Marsette drew that line in the sand, early, and nobody messed with him.

He didn’t have to prove himself fight after fight, no, it could be something as simple as a classmate walking up to you in lunch and swiping food off your tray.

“You’ve got to snatch it back,” he says, “and let ‘em know: ‘Stop playing with me.’ It’s little stuff. You’ve got to be able to stand up for yourself and let people know, ‘Not me.’”

Over time, he learned that all of these little things add up.

It also helped that his grandmother got him into swimming. Smith-Marsette didn’t play football as a kid — he didn’t play the sport, period, until 10th grade — but he did shine in a totally different sport: water polo. This ultimate endurance sport absolutely helped morph him into a different type of weapon once he did hit the football field. You’ve got to be able to swim, nonstop, for an entire game.

Smith-Marsette assures that he was a damn good player, too.

There’s kicking. There’s punching. Anything goes under water because it’s not like a referee can see what’s happening.

“You’ve got to be competitive and you’ve got to be scrappy,” he says. “It looks like it’s just shoulders and heads outside of water but under water it’s like a full 12-round knockout fight. So, you’ve got to be able to get past that. You’ve got to be strong.”

Not that he was a brawler in the pool. Smith-Marsette says he was more of a “finesse” player and that he learned the value of outsmarting opponents. His go-to move? He’d take one stroke and… disappear. He’d “dolphin-dive” under water and pop up at a completely different spot in the pool.

It drove opponents mad.

After playing water polo all the way up to his freshman year of high school, Smith-Marsette transferred schools and started trying everything else. Basketball. Baseball. Track. Football. And with two memorable touchdowns one game his sophomore year — including a two-footed, toe-tapper in the back of the end zone — he realized football could be his future.

Nearby Rutgers was interested but Smith-Marsette wanted to get away from home. And since he had a much better feeling at Iowa than Minnesota, the choice was easy. He loved swapping the city for the cornfields, too. Smith-Marsette couldn’t believe how nice people in the Midwest were, how people were so quick to say “Good morning! How are you doing?” as he walked down the street. He could walk outside any time, too. In Newark, life was fast. Here, life was slow. The days, he says, just “feel longer” and he welcomed it all.

Exactly as he welcomed Kirk Ferentz’s famously disciplined program. He says Ferentz was essentially an extension of his high school coach who used to always say “the hay is never in the barn.”

Ferentz, the longest-tenured head coach in the nation, instills a borderline-manic attention to detail in all players.

“You see small stuff being done at Iowa that’s not done at other places,” Smith-Marsette says. “Everything is perfect. Feet behind the line. Hands behind the line when we’re sprinting in conditioning. When you’re working out, you work on literally the smallest stuff. I don’t want to give away the secrets.

“Everybody may say, ‘We do that.’ But it’s different.”

Once again, Smith-Marsette saw how the little things can add up. In the moment, players are wondering why an inch here or inch there even matters but taking such a hyper-nuanced approach to the sport absolutely molds a psyche over time. Smith-Marsette obviously wanted the ball more his four years at Iowa but his team also went 8-5, 9-4, 10-3 and 6-2 — so he says he genuinely loved winning above all else. When his number was called, he delivered. In the 2019 Holiday Bowl, he detonated for three touchdowns. Smith-Marsette rushed for a six-yard TD, returned a 98-yard TD and caught a 12-yard TD in a 49-24 knockout of USC.

All four years, he saw other receivers with his ability targeted far, far more often. Alabama’s offense has become so unbelievably receiver-friendly that four receivers on the same team are about to go first round in back-to-back years. Smith-Marsette can’t lie. Of course he sees a team like Alabama chuck it 40 times a game. Of course he sees receivers at inferior schools put up 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown seasons and part of him is a bit envious.

“I’m going to get frustrated when you turn on the TV,” Smith-Marsette says, “and you’re just as good as these guys going in the first round. Second round. They’re out there killing it. But when it’s time for me to play, I’m not thinking about those people. I’m thinking about if we’re going to get this win or not. I took those sacrifices — not getting the ball every so often — and, as long as we win, I’m cool about it. I’m not the type of person who goes out there looking to have the best game of my life. If it’s a W, not an L, that’s cool with me.

“I wanted to win. I’m not a loser, man. I’m trying to win games.”

The good news is, he certainly did more than enough to prove he’s different.

There’s a gear to Smith-Marsette’s game that frankly wasn’t utilized in an offense never known for its passing.

Here’s a quick exercise: Name the best quarterback and best wide receiver to ever come out of this Big Ten power. Ricky Stanzi? Brad Banks? Marvin McNutt? Tim Dwight? It’s remarkable how essentially no talent has been produced at the skill positions in Iowa City. Ferentz has done plenty right over his two decades as coach — the Hawkeyes crank out some of the best linemen the game’s seen with a tight end or two, as well.

It’s just either hard to convince elite speed and athleticism to play here and/or Ferentz struggles to identify such players. (For example, he somehow missed David Johnson in his own state.)

Yet even in a shortened 2020 season, Smith-Marsette’s talent bubbled to the surface. He cites Iowa’s 28-7 win over Wisconsin when he went off for 140 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions. He dominated outside and inside.

That day, the Badgers’ defensive backs appeared to be moving in slow-motion.

Now, that kid popping up all over a swimming pool is confident he can burn any defender in any one-on-one situation. In Iowa, he explains, coaches don’t look to create mismatches. You’re in a “spot.” Your position is set. That’s why he cannot wait to be unleashed in a creative offense. Bubble screens. Underneath routes. Anything that’ll allow his Get to the End Zone mindset to take over.

Smith-Marsette reiterates once more that he is, hands down, one of the most versatile players in this draft.

Positions and roles are evolving and blurring in the NFL. He loves it.

His pitch to all teams is as direct as every highlight above.

“Get me the ball,” he says, “and you’ll get your reward.”

Past draft profiles at Go Long:

Could Josh Imatorbhebhe be this draft’s DK Metcalf?

D'Wayne Eskridge is the X-Factor: 'I can see it in guys’ faces: They’re scared'