Leistikow: The players I'll be tracking at Hawkeyes' final spring practice
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brian Ferentz has no problem being a buzzkill about one of his Iowa football players if he feels the noise is getting too loud.
"I’m pretty good about slowing down the hype train," the third-year Hawkeyes offensive coordinator memorably said last August. "I’ve had to do it in the past. I relish that role sometimes."
In that quote, he was referring to preseason adulation that was being heaped on talented tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. On another occasion before the 2018 season, Ferentz also was publicly pumping the brakes on Brandon Smith becoming Iowa's next big-time wide receiver.
With that backdrop in mind, I was especially curious to hear his take on two redshirt freshmen wide receivers who have shared the unofficial honor as the spring's most hyped Hawkeyes.
Nico Ragaini? Already tougher to cover than Nick Easley was, starting safety Geno Stone attested.
Tyrone Tracy Jr.? Called "phenomenal" by his position coach, Kelton Copeland.
But instead of racing to douse those flames, Ferentz was willing to concede that yes ... he's "cautiously optimistic" about what Ragaini and Tracy can do for the 2019 Hawkeyes.
"I know that 'Cope' mentioned those guys, and rightfully so," Ferentz said. "Those guys have jumped off the tape, and they are doing a really nice job."
At the same time, Ferentz dipped back into his memory — which is as sharp as his steel-trap father's — about the Smith buzz before the 2018 season. At that point, Smith had three career catches for 15 yards.
Tracy and Ragaini (in a handful of snaps last season that didn't cost them a year of eligibility) enter 2019 with one mop-up reception apiece.
"Until you show me in a game, I'm not real interested," Ferentz said. "A lot of guys can do a lot of things when the lights are not on. That's why you appreciate some of the guys we've had (play) their best football when the lights come on."
So that leads us to Friday night.
The lights will eventually be on as the Hawkeyes take part in their final spring practice, which starts at 5:30 p.m. It'll be closed to the public, with family and (lucky us!) media permitted inside the gates to the team's practice fields.
Although this isn't a game setting, it's a chance to see game-speed blocking, tackling, running, throwing and catching.
Count me as excited to get a little dose of college football in late April.
And here's my checklist of guys I've got a particular interest in seeing.
I've got Ragaini and Tracy at the top. This is a key position, a big deal. The slot receiver at Iowa has led the team in receptions four years running (Matt VandeBerg, 2015; Riley McCarron, 2016; Easley, 2017 and 2018). That streak going to five depends on how efficiently Ragaini and Tracy can break open ... and how much trust they earn from Nate Stanley.
Next on the list is Tyler Linderbaum. If the redshirt freshman from Solon is lined up as the No. 1 center, that alone is a sign that he's trending toward starting Aug. 31 against Miami of Ohio. I want to see how frequently he's controlling senior defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff.
Speaking of defensive tackles, there's probably more intrigue about sophomore Daviyon Nixon than anyone else on that side of the football. Nixon (6-foot-3, 306 pounds) is Iowa's best chance of featuring a space-clogger up the middle. We've heard Nixon is rusty, but it's encouraging that the 2017 signee has made it this far after a year at Iowa Western Community College and another year on the sideline for academic reasons. Let's see what he can do.
Can redshirt freshman defensive end John Waggoner become part of Kelvin Bell's 2019 line rotation? Waggoner's having a good spring, we're told, and he's added some muscle (6-5, 267). It's time to get our first college assessment of the Dowling Catholic product.
Who is getting the most reps at inside linebacker? We've seen quite a bit of game action with Kristian Welch and Djimon Colbert, but I'm especially intrigued to see what redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle (6-3, 233) brings to the defense. He was an imposing force at Iowa City West and is in the mix to be the guy at middle linebacker.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker wants a savvy player as his "cash" linebacker. Is redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson the real deal? So far, he's the front-runner to take over that spot from NFL-departed Amani Hooker.
Speaking of pass defenders, how much progress have cornerbacks Julius Brents and Riley Moss made after being thrown into the deep end as true freshmen? Same goes for new No. 1 free safety Kaevon Merriweather; we know even less about him.
A few other off-the-depth-chart guys on my list are safety Dallas Craddieth and linebacker Jayden McDonald. They had a ton of buzz as recruits in the 2018 class, but are they anywhere close to contributing?
Backup quarterback is always fascinating. I remember seeing true freshman Nate Stanley outperform Tyler Wiegers during a Kids Day scrimmage in August 2016; and he eventually won the No. 2 job. The eye test at QB can provide clues in these rare practice glimpses. I wonder if we'll see any such separation between Peyton Mansell and Spencer Petras.
Noticing a trend? Yeah, a lot of young guys on here. But we mostly know what we're getting from the pillars of the team: Stanley, Alaric Jackson, Tristan Wirfs, A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston.
This is a chance to get a glimpse into the future of Hawkeye football. It should be fun.
I'll report back.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.