Even in loss, Iowa wide receivers Ragaini, Smith-Marsette find signs of progress

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nico Ragaini has the letters “LT” tattooed between two fingers on his left hand.

It stands for “Little Things,” the Iowa redshirt freshman wide receiver explained Tuesday. That was a saying that he and two buddies back in Connecticut developed years ago.

“We kept saying, it’s the little things that we do for each other that makes us best friends,” Ragaini said.

“And the crazy part is, I come here and all the time coach (Kirk) Ferentz is always talking about, ‘It’s the little things that you do. It’s the little work that you put in.’ And it’s just like a little connection. It could be nothing, but it’s just like a little sign that I think is pretty cool.”

The little things that Ragaini has been doing to earn a spot as the primary slot receiver for No. 18 Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) resulted in his biggest game yet Saturday. Lost in all of the offensive ineptitude during Iowa’s 10-3 loss at Michigan was this: Ragaini hauled in a career-high six receptions. None of them gained more than 11 yards. But three resulted in first downs.

If that sounds like the kind of contributions Nick Easley made for the Hawkeyes out of the slot the previous two years, it’s no coincidence. Ragaini, at 6-foot, 192 pounds, is a proud student of Easley’s.

“I think he really took a big step last week in making some plays in tough situations that maybe he hasn’t been in those situations before,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said of Ragaini, who has 17 receptions for 194 yards, but is still looking for his first career touchdown.

Iowa wide receiver Nico Ragaini stretches to catch a pass against Iowa State on Sept. 14. The redshirt freshman has 17 receptions in his first five games.

Stanley was intercepted three times and sacked eight others in the dreary loss at Michigan. Those numbers rightly got much of the attention afterward. But he also threw for 260 yards. Fourteen of Iowa’s 18 first downs were achieved through the air. It wasn’t all gloom.

“We’re a mature group. We have so much chemistry together and we can play with any defensive backs out there,” Ragaini said. “We felt like we had our groove against them, and we’re just taking that and moving it forward to this week, not looking in the past and being upset about the loss.”

Ragaini and Iowa’s wide receivers will test themselves against No. 9 Penn State (5-0, 2-0) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Kinnick Stadium. The Nittany Lions rank second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 7.4 points per game. They are particularly stingy against the run, letting up just 50.6 yards per game.

So it will be an opportunity for Iowa’s wideouts to show that maturity Ragaini spoke of.

Against Michigan, there were big plays in big moments from all four key receivers. Junior Brandon Smith picked up 34 yards on a third-and-22. Junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette went over the middle to haul in a 19-yard gain on a third-and-10. He later added a 27-yard grab along the sideline. Redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy worked the middle of the field for a 15-yard pickup to keep one third-quarter drive alive.

“It wasn’t a total lockdown game. People may have thought that,” Smith-Marsette said, an air of defiance in his voice.

Smith-Marsette is Iowa’s leading receiver, with 19 catches good for 314 yards. That’s 16.5 yards per catch. He has three touchdowns.

But he’s no longer the sprinter who merely wants to take off on a vertical route and try to outrun a defender. The catch he made over the middle against the Wolverines was an example of his growth. He wasn’t concerned about linebackers lurking, looking to make a big hit on the 177-pounder.

“You’ve got to able to be fearless and do what you do. Because at the end of the day, you get hit in the game of football,” Smith-Marsette said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, you’re going to get hit. And it may be the smallest guy that hurts you.”

Ragaini has gotten used to working in tight windows between the hash marks. He is often drawing double-teams on third downs, as opponents realize he is a prime target when Stanley looks to move the chains.

“When somebody’s all over me, you’ve still got to catch it,” said Ragaini, who was still angry with himself about the one pass he dropped Saturday, on Iowa’s final possession. “That definitely helps Stanley have trust in me.”

Ragaini was asked what is the most important “little thing” he’s learned in his two years as a Hawkeye. He pondered the question for a long time, and then spoke about a message wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland often delivers.

“He’s not extremely pumped about having to get up (at 5 a.m.) and coach us and yell in our faces,” Ragaini said. “But still, when you come here, you’ve got to be ready to go, no matter what. And I think that’s definitely stuck in my head.

“There’s some days when I’m waking up, getting out of bed and my legs are killing me, my back is sore and everything. But once you get here, you can’t think about that. You’ve just got to be ready to work.”

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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