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12 Days Until Iowa Football: Brandon Smith & D.J. Johnson

Is your old Ricky Stanzi jersey collecting dust in the closet? Two talented Hawkeyes are out to bring the #12 black and gold jerseys back into circulation.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 15 Northern Iowa at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The next installment in our countdown to the kickoff of the Hawkeye football season features two players expected to be significant contributors on their respective sides of the ball.

Brandon Smith- JR

Lake Cormorant, Mississippi (Lake Cormorant)

6’2”, 218 lbs

2019 Projection: Starting Wide Receiver

D.J. Johnson- RS FR

Indianapolis, Indiana (North Central)

5’11”, 183 lbs

2019 Projection: Starting Cash/Nickel Back

Starting with the veteran, Brandon Smith appears ready to make a big impact during his third season in the black and gold. Smith was something of a diamond in the rough coming from a small, unincorporated community in the northwest corner of Mississippi. Smith’s only power five offer came from the Hawkeyes, despite receiving first-team all-state honors as both a junior and senior and setting school records for career touchdowns, receptions, and receiving yards.

Smith made some waves during his first fall camp in Iowa City, and expectations were high enough that the coaches opted not to redshirt him in 2017. However, Smith was largely underwhelming as a true freshman, totaling only three catches for fifteen yards while struggling with drops. Smith’s most memorable play on the season was this ill-timed fumble in Iowa’s loss against Michigan State:

After failing to make a catch in Iowa’s season opener in 2018, naysayers like myself were concerned that Smith was destined to join the long list of workout warrior wide receivers who dominate camps but fail to make an impact on gameday. That was until the following week when Smith made this play against Iowa State:

From that point on Smith became a consistent contributor in Iowa’s passing game, finishing the season with 28 receptions for 361 yards and two touchdowns over twelve games. Smith stood out for his ability to catch the football despite tight coverage, posting a catch rate of 62.5% on contested balls, the second-highest rate among returning Big Ten players. His large 6’2, 218 lbs. frame gives him the strength to outmuscle defenders,

while his pedigree as a state champion high jumper allows him to elevate over opposing cornerbacks on jump balls.

Smith can hopefully help fill left by the departed Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson by serving as a big, physical, athletic weapon for Nate Stanley to target downfield. Smith will need to make a few more plays like the one below to help make up for the lost production from Iowa’s two departed tight ends.

Speaking of making up for lost production, redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson has the unenviable task of filling the shoes of Amani Hooker, whose unique blend of cover skills and sure tackling led to the creation of the “Cash” position. On one hand, Johnson seems like an odd fit to be Hooker’s successor. Johnson is nearly 30 lbs. lighter than Hooker and is untested in run support, making him a less natural candidate for the position than bigger defensive backs like Michael Ojemudia or Julius Brents. However, defensive coordinator Phil Parker explained that he was looking for a smaller, quicker defender to fill the Cash role this season, and in that sense Johnson certainly fits the bill. Johnson touted his physicality and ability to make plays off the blitz in a recent interview, raising hopes that his skillset may extend beyond his coverage skills.

Johnson was one of Iowa’s biggest pickups in its 2018 recruiting class, as the highly-coveted cornerback from Indiana turned down blue blood programs such as LSU and Notre Dame to sign with the Hawkeyes. While a nagging hamstring injury caused Johnson to redshirt last season, he did see action against both Penn State and Illinois and appears ready to compete for serious minutes in 2019.

So just how much playing time should Johnson expect this season? That depends on several factors. Johnson is listed as a co-starter alongside outside linebacker Barrington Wade, a sign that the Hawkeyes will continue to play three linebackers against teams with offensive schemes similar to Iowa’s (hello, Wisconsin). Further complicating things, Johnson mentions in the above interview that Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins have also been seeing snaps at the Cash position during fall camp. Should Julius Brents or Riley Moss manage to unseat Ojemudia or Hankins at the starting cornerback position, Parker may be tempted to move one of the veterans to the Cash position in place of the talented but unproven freshman.

As talented as Johnson is, he is still a young player. Asked to evaluate the freshman’s performance at the Cash position, Ferentz had this to say:

“He’s doing okay out there. Winning a few and losing a few, but he’s doing okay so far.”

This assessment could be written about basically any freshman in America, but if Johnson emerges as Iowa’s starter at the Cash position, Hawkeye fans will be hoping he manages to win far more battles than he loses this coming season.