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Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland challenged Brandon Smith to step up this season. Hear what the results were: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s a “sweet feet” club in the Iowa wide receivers room and, so far, it consists of just two members: Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr.

Those are the two redshirt freshmen vying to replace the graduated Nick Easley as the Hawkeyes’ slot receiver. And those are the two players Iowa coaches have consistently singled out this offseason for their vast potential.

“Just trying to add some flavor to practice, so it won’t be so dull and gray,” Tracy said at Friday’s media day when asked why he started the “sweet feet” movement.

Receivers can join the group if they make a play in practice so electrifying that it would bring a gasp from the fans. It’s about maneuvering yourself past defenders after catching the ball.

And it’s a mantra that each of Iowa’s top four wide receivers repeated Friday.

Even 21-year head coach Kirk Ferentz seems to buy into the notion that his wide receiver group will cause opponents some problems this year. He contrasted that to two seasons ago.

“They weren't going to make anybody too nervous,” Ferentz said of that group, which was led by Easley’s 51 catches and four touchdowns. “Hopefully, the ball is going to get spread around a little bit more and people are going to have to defend us a little differently than they did last year.”

Iowa is minus its top three receivers from a year ago with the NFL departures of Easley, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, the latter two first-round NFL draft picks.

Into that void step junior wideouts Brandon Smith (28 catches for 361 yards last season) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (23, 361).

They are joined by Ragaini and Tracy, who both contributed a single reception a year ago, for what Iowa believes can be a quartet capable of big plays and sweet feet.

Smith is the biggest voice in the receivers room now that Easley is gone. Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said he challenged the introverted Smith a year ago to be that person, and is excited by the results.

“I don’t feel like you have to be the loudest to be a leader,” Smith said, pointing out Easley wasn’t exactly a “chatterbox.”

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But Easley, now with the Buffalo Bills, did raise the standards of those around him. Ragaini and Tracy both pointed to him as an important mentor.

Ragaini, a 6-foot, 192-pounder out of East Haven, Connecticut, is the front-runner to start in Easley’s place. He’s comfortable in the slot, and has shown the shiftiness required to excel there, according to his coaches and teammates.

Smith said Ragaini is the true “sweet feet” champion even though Tracy gave himself the nod in that lighthearted competition.

Ragaini, meeting with the media for the first time Friday, was reluctant to say anything about himself. He’s just trying to improve every day, he said, sounding exactly like Smith in that regard.

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Senior quarterback Nate Stanley has pointed out the connection he quickly developed with Ragaini.

Ragaini said there’s no secret as to why.

“Every time he throws the ball, I’ve got to try to catch it even harder than when everyone else throws it, which sounds bad now that I just said that,” Ragaini said. “Whenever Stanley’s in there, you’ve got to be 100% on your game all all the time. He’s the man.”

Tracy, at 5-11, 200 pounds, is adjusting to the slot after lining up out wide a year ago. But he believes his elusiveness, his side-to-side speed, is more suited to attacking the interior of a defense.

He believes he and Ragaini will both provide explosive plays for the Iowa offense this season, and is eager to show what he can do.

“I wish you could have seen some of the plays both of those guys made in practice today,” Copeland told reporters.

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Smith-Marsette, who also excels as a kick returner, remains the fastest Hawkeye receiver, and is up to 184 pounds now. He promised more consistency this season, and Copeland said he has faith that Smith-Marsette will get there. He can be the deep threat the team has lacked in recent years.

Or maybe that could be Smith, the most gifted of the group at 6-2, 218 pounds.

“I don’t know if we had a guy that made more plays downfield than Brandon Smith,” Copeland pointed out. “When you look at all the fade balls and the goal-line plays that he made in the end zone. When you look at that, he’s a deep threat guy, as well. He’s a big physical guy that can high-point the ball.”

Smith wants to be more aggressive in 2019. His combination of size and speed can be difficult to defend.

“This season, I definitely want to try to do something with the ball after I catch it,” Smith said.

“I love the deep ball, just going up there and making a 50/50 ball like an 80/20 ball. Just using what I’ve got to get what I want.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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