Leistikow: Who stood out in Iowa football's final spring practice

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In a column last week, I promised to report back on several of the young Iowa football players we all wanted to learn more about at the Hawkeyes’ final spring practice Friday.

So … let’s get to it.

Nico Ragaini, for one night, lived up to his spring hype.

Granted, arguably Iowa’s top three cornerbacks were out with short-term injuries — Matt Hankins, Michael Ojemudia and Julius Brents. But, Ragaini couldn’t be covered. The redshirt freshman unofficially caught eight passes for 96 yards in 11-on-11 scrimmage action, easily taking the prize as the offensive star of the night.

Quarterback Nate Stanley became the latest Hawkeye to provide glowing reviews on Ragaini. He said the 6-foot, 192-pounder is quicker than the productive Nick Easley — who caught 103 balls for the Hawkeyes over the past two seasons in the same position, slot receiver.

Nico Ragaini (89, being tackled by Geno Stone0 caught balls over the middle and on the sideline throughout Iowa's final spring practice Friday.

Ragaini even snared one pass with one hand, and fittingly finished the night with a 32-yard touchdown grab from walk-on quarterback Ryan Schmidt.

By the way, Ragaini high-pointed the ball over the coverage of redshirt freshman safety Dallas Craddieth (another youngster I wanted to watch) on that play. Craddieth seems buried in the rotation for now.

In my opinion, the defensive star of the night was redshirt freshman cornerback D.J. Johnson. Iowa’s leading contender at its “cash” position in a 4-2-5 alignment has an aggressive approach to his craft.

While head coach Kirk Ferentz noted that Johnson (who seems to play bigger than his listed 5-10, 183) has “given up some plays, too, just for the record” — the youngster from Indianapolis had an impressive interception (and runback) off a pass from Alex Padilla.

Johnson was seemingly given more reps than any defender, indicating that Iowa coaches see a lot of upside in a player that held offers from LSU and Notre Dame out of high school.

Not to be short-changed, sophomore Riley Moss had an interception, too. It’s easy to discount the Ankeny product after a rough game against Purdue last season, but he’s a gritty player with top-end speed who seems to be only getting better.

On the fourth snap (out of roughly 75) for the night, A.J. Epenesa tagged Peyton Mansell for a sack. This would become a theme. Epenesa (6-5, 280) is still a defensive-end monster. What a good deal for Iowa.

Chauncey Golston was fantastic, too, but he was operating against backup Levi Paulsen at right tackle — Tristan Wirfs was dealing with a minor injury. By the way, Landan Paulsen and Cole Banwart were the starting guards.

Ferentz said the race to be Stanley’s backup is still tight between Mansell and Spencer Petras, but I thought Mansell looked more comfortable on Friday. While he’s a little too quick to tuck and run, Mansell throws a nice ball. I had him 5-for-6 for 41 yards, compared with Petras’ 3-for-13 for 22 yards. And I wouldn’t totally count out Padilla; while the true freshman’s head is spinning, he’s got an accurate arm and puts zip on the ball.

Ferentz identified Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young as the top two running backs, but it was nice to see some wiggle from Ivory Kelly-Martin (who’s been hurt) with eight touches for 40 yards. I also was initially impressed by freshman Shadrick Byrd (nine carries, 30 yards), who showed elusiveness and caught a touchdown pass from Petras.

It feels like running back is headed for a by-committee approach in the fall.

The most jaw-dropping admission of the night from Ferentz was about redshirt freshman center Tyler Linderbaum.

“It’s going to be tough to beat him out,” the head coach said, a rousing endorsement of the Solon product who transitioned from the defensive line in December.

And then consider this quote from left tackle Alaric Jackson on Linderbaum: “He’s fast. He’s strong. He’s a very smart kid. He can take us to the next level.”

Cornerback Terry Roberts (5-10, 176) got some run with the No. 1 unit with the corners hurt and showed a combination of speed and physicality. He made a real nice solo tackle on the much-larger Young (5-11, 223).

True freshman Daraun McKinney (5-10, 185) had an interception, too. This Phil Parker find is worth watching.

Jayden McDonald finished the spring with a flurry, according to Ferentz. The redshirt freshman from Georgia (6-0, 227) worked as an extra defensive end that gives Iowa a 3-4 look and at inside linebacker. Ferentz threw a reference out to “feisty” walk-on Joe Evans of Ames, too, as a linebacker serving as an edge defender. Worth noting.

Maybe it was one day, but I’m real encouraged by Nate Wieting as a tight end. No, he’s not going to be T.J. Hockenson. But he was a friendly target for Nate Stanley and feels like he’s got a little bit of Henry Krieger Coble to him. Stanley looks sharp, by the way.

Keith Duncan had the better kicking day than Caleb Shudak. That battle is a “coin toss,” Ferentz said. I wouldn’t be surprised if Duncan handles placements and Shudak kickoffs.

Ryan Gersonde had the better punting day, but graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton is arriving in June.

Linebacker is going to be the most interesting position battle come August. It was hard to say anyone stood out. If I had to handicap the two inside positions, I'd say Djimon Colbert has the highest likelihood to start. Parker was liberally sending blitzes at Iowa's quarterbacks and run plays, with Seth Benson getting the payoff on one.

“Phil was calling the plays before they were run tonight,” Ferentz said. “You look at each other long enough (in practice), and it gets that way.”

Daviyon Nixon (one sack) and Noah Shannon (one tackle for loss) were decent but didn’t stand out. Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff are still the top defensive tackles.

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.