Leistikow's 9 thoughts: Hard-to-miss buzz about Iowa WRs Nico Ragaini, Tyrone Tracy Jr.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — For all the talk of replacing NFL-bound tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson this spring, we probably haven’t spent enough time discussing Iowa's succession plan for Nick Easley.
Easley was an ultra-productive slot receiver in his two-year career with the Hawkeyes. The former walk-on from Newton racked up 103 catches and scored nine touchdowns. He was a weight-room fanatic who ran fantastic routes. He was the Outback Bowl MVP. He’ll likely be in an NFL camp this spring.
Yet Iowa is quickly acclimating two red-shirt freshmen to the mix in Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. And if a Hawkeye starting safety is to be believed, Ragaini (6 feet, 192 pounds) is picking up where Easley left off.
“He makes a lot of quick moves on you,” Geno Stone said Tuesday.
“He’s harder to guard than Easley. I would say that,” Stone said, doubling down on his assertion. “Easley, he had good quick steps and everything. But Nico is harder to guard.”
Iowa first-string “X” receiver Brandon Smith backed his junior classmate. Smith pointed to Ragaini and Tracy (5-11, 200) as having impressive spring sessions, with 10 practices down and five to go.
“To me, they’ve had the best spring. I’ve seen the most growth out of them,” Smith said.
So, that's pretty high praise. Surely their position coach would tamp that down. Right?
Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland was gushing about the early returns — he did stress the word "early," as should we — of Ragaini and Tracy when he met with the media about two hours later.
Let's start with Tracy this time.
“This kid, he’s phenomenal," Copeland said. "I don’t use that word a lot.”
The Indianapolis product's electric play-making ability has shown up in his first spring, as Copeland noted that Tracy is making "wow" catches in practice. But more impressive is Tracy's passion for understanding film and Brian Ferentz's offense. Iowa is asking Tracy to play all three receiver positions (X, Z and F — which is the slot) and even running back, occasionally.
“Yes, he has ability. But this kid wants to be great," Copeland said. "He doesn’t want to be just good. He wants to be great.”
Copleand said Tracy and Ragaini are always the first to arrive to wide-receiver meetings. They're hungry.
And don't forget, this is Ragaini's second spring. He enrolled last January from East Haven, Connecticut. So he's hardly new. And now that he's in a more featured role, the results have been encouraging.
Let's have Copeland take it from here.
“He has a complete skill set," Copeland said. "He has … exceptional ball skills. He can track balls that even a good receiver may struggle with. He has very confident hands. I wouldn’t label him a blazer, as far as top-end speed, but he’s fast. He plays fast, more importantly.”
It's worth remembering: Tracy (four games) and Ragaini (three) got experience last fall but preserved four years of eligibility.
Copeland couldn't stress enough how much the NCAA's new red-shirt rule helped both athletes. He wished he had been able to red-shirt Smith, who caught three passes as a freshman in 2017.
"To get four games of true experience out of the way … now when it’s for real, they can go out and relax and be who they are," Copeland said. "And just go out and play.”
We'll hopefully get a better idea on the impact of this young duo on April 26, when Iowa opens its final practice to media members and family. But if they're as good as advertised, Iowa's receiving position is in good hands.
To be clear, Copeland wasn't heaping praise on everyone.
A week ago, offensive line coach Tim Polasek used his media platform to call out Mark Kallenberger for being too inconsistent in practice. This week, Copeland gave similar treatment to junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette — who, with 41 career catches, is by far Iowa's top returning receiver.
“He hasn’t excelled quite as much as I hoped," Copeland said, noting an up-and-down spring. "The good news is, we have five more (spring-practice) opportunities.”
A year ago, Copeland challenged Smith (an impressive 6-2, 218) to "play how you look."
The challenge for 2019? "Consistency. Being that dominant, that explosive physical player that he can be.”
Smith hears that and knows he has the physical tools to be Nate Stanley's go-to receiver.
“You’ve got to be real physical and attack the ball," Smith said. "When the ball’s coming to you, you’ve got to make the play. I take pride in being the 'X' receiver, because you’ve got to be one of the most dominant receivers on the field.”
You probably want to know about red-shirt freshman Calvin Lockett.
And here's the scoop: He missed most of August camp and the first month of the regular season with a soft-tissue injury. So the rangy Largo, Florida native (6-2, 182) is finally getting meaningful reps for the first time.
"He’s just now coming along physically, to the point where you’re starting to see some good things out of him," Copeland reported. "In fact, today he had a phenomenal catch.”
Backup quarterback Peyton Mansell discussed one of the toughest moments of his young career.
Remember the ill-fated fake punt at Penn State? The one where Mansell and starting quarterback Nate Stanley were on the field at the same time?
For the first time, Mansell discussed that fourth-and-10 play in which he took a shotgun snap and was looking up the left sideline toward Hockenson. But Mansell elected to keep the football and was tackled for no gain.
“It was supposed to go to T.J., and I probably could have thrown it,” Mansell said. “But I just wasn’t in love with how it looked.”
If Hockenson wasn’t open, Mansell’s instructions were to punt. But he said he was worried about it getting blocked. So Iowa handed the ball back to Penn State at its 42-yard line with 37 seconds left in the first half, and the Nittany Lions turned that momentum into a tying field goal (at 17-all) before halftime.
“Probably the lowest part of my career so far,” Mansell said. “(Then-staff member) Declan Doyle did a good job of (saying), ‘Dude, you’re just one play away from going in.’ Especially after Nate hurt his thumb. I had a bad play, but I’m still one shot away from going in.”
Look for more coverage on Iowa's quarterback position in the coming days.
With all this receiver talk, don't forget the fifth-year senior tight end.
Nate Wieting has been a sometimes-injured, blocking-first tight end for the past three seasons. Although he's averaged one reception per season, he insists he's a capable receiver, too. Stone attested to that, saying Wieting's skill set is akin to Hockenson's, while speedier Shaun Beyer plays more like Noah Fant.
"With T.J. and Noah, those guys were incredible route-runners, so that’s who you’re wanting to get the ball to," Wieting said. "And now with those guys gone, there are opportunities for playing time in different situations, big third-down situations.”
Spring is a time for optimism. And there was plenty of that Tuesday.