Brandon Smith arrived in Iowa City with the physical tools needed to become a top level wide receiver in the Big Ten. His impressive frame, 6’2 219 pounds, combined with legendary hand size present an ideal target for a quarterback. Smith was having his best stretch of his career when he suffered a leg injury late against Purdue causing him to miss the final five games of the regular season. In the four games prior to the injury, Smith had 24 receptions, 308 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Before the 4th quarter injury facing Purdue, he had 9 catches for 106 yards. Here is the play where Smith gets injured as his legs get caught and twisted underneath him and the defenders.
When breaking in a new quarterback, it is often said the tight end can be their best friend. but Smith may be that guy for first year starter Spencer Petras. Iowa likes to use him on hitch routes where he can capitalize with his size and provide an easy completion for his quarterback. For his size, Smith does a great job of stopping quickly, positioning his body, and then plucking the ball with his hands. Once he has the ball, it often takes multiple defenders to end the play.
On the final clip, it takes four defenders to eventually tackle Smith, who gained the first down by pushing the pile ahead an extra three yards.
Down Field Threat
Part of what makes the hitch route so readily available is teams must respect Smith has a vertical threat. While he doesn’t have the speed of Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith poses plenty of problems vertically for defenses.
Against press coverage, he’s able to avoid the initial contact from the corner with his strength. He easily runs through the last ditch attempt to slow him down. This gives him an open release toward the boundary with the safety positioned just outside the hash marks. The ball is slightly under thrown, but he is can use his frame to shield the defender who is chasing and still attack the closing safety. The safety and corner combine on the tackle, but not until Smith is able to fight forward for a few extra yards.
What makes the best players special is their ability to make plays when nothing is really there. Late in the game, the Penn State corner is immediately bailing at the snap to avoid giving up the big play. When the ball is released, Smith and the corner are even. The defender has the inside positional advantage. In what is as an impressive of a catch as there was all season, Smith jumps right over the corner and takes the ball from in front of his face mask.
Not only is the initial grab impressive, but it is amazing he was able to control the ball through impact with the ground. For those of us who do not require extra-extra-large gloves, we are probably not completing the catch.
Route Running Improvement
Smith continues to grow as a route runner as he refines his technique. With his size and long stride, it is important for Smith to focus on stacking low on breaks and keeping his head over his center-of-gravity.
Facing third down, Stanley is able to connect with Smith on a perfectly executed corner route. He does an excellent job of breaking inside and clearing the face of the boundary corner as he begins upfield. Soon after passing the corner, he abruptly snaps his route breaking back to the sideline. His change of directly here is impressive as he bends the route in front of the deep safety. With his size, the safety has no chance to get between Smith and the ball. It is an easy completion as he goes to the ground shielding the ball with his body.
One 2nd and 10, Smith is not the primary target as Stanley begins his progression opposite Smith’s in breaking route. As Stanley works back to Smith’s direction, he is flushed from the pocket scrambling to his right. Seeing this, Smith breaks off his initial route and moves back toward the near sideline. With no deep defender, Smith smartly cuts upfield and Stanley is able to find him for a big off-schedule 3rd down conversion. He shows veteran field awareness as well to attempt a toe tap to make sure he stays inbounds.
Unfortunately, following these two breakout games Smith had to miss significant time due to injury. He was able to came back in Iowa’s bowl win over USC with four catches and a touchdown. Iowa’s offense will need Smith to continue his recent production and development if it wants to become more dynamic in the 2020 season.