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Xs & Os: Ihmir Smith-Marsette Brings 'Top-End Speed,' Operates Great in Space

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings drafted their fourth wide receiver in three years this spring.

Minnesota selected Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the fifth round (157th overall) one year after using a first-round pick on Justin Jefferson, who turned out to be a rookie phenom. In 2019, the Vikings grabbed Dillon Mitchell and Bisi Johnson in the seventh round; while Mitchell no longer is on the roster, Johnson has contributed on offense and special teams.

Smith-Marsette, who received Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors in 2020 as both a receiver and return specialist, was the Vikings only fifth-round selection.

Coming into the NFL Draft, he was praised for his body control – a trait he partially credits to a diverse athletic background. Smith-Marsette ran track, where he especially excelled in hurdle events, and also played water polo.

"A lot of stuff people don't see underwater. It just teaches you toughness and grit. I loved it," Smith-Marsette told media members after being drafted. "It pretty much put me in the best shape to move on to football when I did. Being able to succeed in that."

Former Vikings linebacker-turned-analyst Ben Leber pointed out that Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer emphasizes a run-first offense, and Smith-Marsette likely will be asked "to do things that maybe are less sexy" and flashy than typical receivers.

That's not a new situation for the rookie, though.

"He was the most dynamic wide receiver on the [Hawkeyes], one of the best kick returners in the whole game, and he also knew that it was a play-action, run-first heavy team," Leber explained. " 'When your name is called on a certain passing situation, you've got to make it work. We've got to be able to rely on you, and you've got to be 100 percent.'

"I think he's OK with being in that role, and that's basically what the Vikings are," Leber continued. "He went from an Iowa Hawkeyes philosophy into, basically, an Iowa Hawkeyes philosophy with the Minnesota Vikings. It's a run-first, play-action pass [offense]. You may not get a lot of targets. But when you do, you've got to step up, and you've got to be electric. And that's what he was in college."

See more of what Leber had to say about Smith-Marsette below, and be sure to follow him on Twitter @nacholeber.

View photos of Iowa WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette who was selected in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Player Profile: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa,senior

Smith-Marsette led the Hawkeyes with 345 receiving yards and four scores, and his 25 catches were second on the team in a shortened 2020 season. He also averaged 22.0 yards on eight kickoff returns.

The youngster told Twin Cities media members that he views himself "as a receiver first, that's excellent at returning kicks." He noted that he's also capable of returning punts and that he takes a certain level of pride on special teams.

Smith-Marsette finished his junior season in 2019 in a big way, earning Offensive Most Valuable Player honors in the Holiday Bowl after scoring a rushing, receiving and kickoff return touchdown against Southern California.

He had two receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown and added two carries for 15 yards and a score. Smith-Marsette also found the end zone on a 98-yard return. He became just the second player in Iowa history with a rushing, receiving and kickoff return touchdown in a single game.

2021 Outlook:

Smith-Marsette, who is wearing No. 15 for the Vikings, will likely have an opportunity to contribute in more ways than one.

It's too early to say whether Smith-Marsette will claim the kickoff returner job, as competition for the role will certainly exist, but Leber feels confident that he'll make an impact on special teams.

"I think that Smith-Marsette has the ability to be a gunner, as well, and make his presence known on the punt team covering kicks," Leber said.

And as for offense?

He has a shot there, too.

The Vikings are clearly well-situated at WR1 and WR2 with Adam Thielen and Jefferson. Behind the starting duo, though, remains a little bigger question mark.

Minnesota this year returned Johnson and Chad Beebe, both having vied for the role of third receiver in the past, and Smith-Marsette will be in the mix during training camp, too.

Leber opined that Johnson has "a huge advantage and head start" because of his highly touted route-running abilities.

"They have applauded [Johnson] for his technical aspects of running routes and understanding how to run routes. If Smith-Marsette can show that he is not just a slot receiver – because he played both – he already versatility-wise has shown more than Chad Beebe," Leber said. "If he can show that he can run routes, maybe not quite good as Bisi Johnson, but close enough, and he can give you that sort of return-man ability to always have his eyes one the end zone when he catches the ball, I think that's what's going to put him over the top.

"But I think early on, it's Bisi's job to lose," Leber added. "If Smith-Marsette can come in and put his head down and be a student of the receiving game and realize you really have to be a technician, especially with Kirk [Cousins], to run the routes the way they're supposed to be run, he has a great chance to be WR3."

Outside Opinion: The Athletic's Dane Brugler evaluated Smith-Marsette in his annual pre-draft guide and wrote: "Though he is mostly a linear route runner, Smith-Marsette has outstanding straight-line wheels that the defense must account for every time he takes a snap. His ball skills have room for improvement, especially when he is asked to work into traffic or out-muscle defenders. Overall, Smith-Marsette needs to develop better consistency as a finisher and separator, but he has dynamic speed with or without the ball. He projects as a back-end-of-the-roster receiver with home run ability and kick return value."

Film Breakdown: Former Vikings player and coach Pete Bercich, now a Vikings Radio Network analyst, looked at some of Smith-Marsette's tape from Iowa.

Bercich highlighted Smith-Marsette's "top-end speed" and separation ability. He pointed to a play against Wisconsin on which the receiver darted downfield and split the pair of Badgers safeties en route to the end zone for a 53-yard touchdown that was his second score of the game and final one of his college career.

"The bottom safety can see, he's in quarters coverage, he can't even turn around – it's already too late," Bercich explains. "And by the time Smith-Marsette catches this ball, he's already 5 yards past both of the safeties. A great route up the middle, and it gives you an idea of his speed and athletic ability."

Bercich noted that Iowa featured Smith-Marsette often in the end zone: "Put him in motion, switch the guy that's gonna cover him, get that athlete in space so he can make a play."

He reviewed film from a Hawkeyes game at the University of Minnesota, on which Iowa was inside the Gophers 10.

"[Smith-Marsette] motions across, a nice little pick route by [receiver Brandon Smith]," Bercich said. "Smith-Marsette catches the ball in space, turns it up, and what an easy touchdown."

As another example of getting the ball in space, Bercich referenced an Iowa-Illinois game. In the specified play, the Hawkeyes were working out of their own red zone.

"Here's the inside whip screen," Bercich explained. "He allows the two offensive linemen to come up and block. He's that kind of a wide receiver – you want to give him the ball in space, he churns ahead and gets about 5 or 6 good yards, so good run after the catch."

Lastly, Bercich showed the way Iowa occasionally used Smith-Marsette as a ball carrier.

"He takes a step up, hand the ball off, reverse the other way. Quarterback gets himself a good block, [Smith-Marsette] turns it up north and south," Bercich detailed of film against Purdue.

"I'd like to see a little better move there, get closer to the end zone," Bercich added when Smith-Marsette was brought down short of the goal line. "But the kid's a great athlete, operates really well in space, and I think he's going to be a great addition – also as a return guy. That's going to be the fastest way for this young man to get onto the field."