Iowa Hawkeye receiver Nico Ragaini shakes off back injury, eyes return to form in 2021

From late March through early May, Iowa's football team took part in spring practice in their first steps to return to normalcy in 2021. But they did it largely without one of their key players on offense.

Wide receiver Nico Ragaini missed spring practice due to injury. However, the redshirt junior is healthy now and prepared to take part in the next phase of summer conditioning starting on Tuesday. 

"I had a little bit of a back problem," Ragaini said. "I've been working out again, I'm cleared and a full go, so I'm excited to get going again. 

"We start up 7-on-7 and all of that stuff (Wednesday) so we're all excited for that to happen; start throwing the football around and stuff so it should be exciting." 

Iowa wide receiver Nico Ragaini is back after missing a considerable portion of spring practice.

Ragaini's presence will be a welcomed addition to an Iowa receiving corps that lost it's top two wide receivers from last season in Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Ragaini isn't lacking in experience, with 24 career games and 65 receptions in his Hawkeye career. He has primarily worked out of the slot, but Iowa coaches will likely lean on the veteran this fall. 

He's more than fine with that. 

"That's always the goal to be the No. 1, go-to guy," Ragaini said. "Just want to make (quarterback Spencer Petras) as connected to me as he possibly can and have all the trust in me to throw me the ball in a third down when we need to move the sticks. 

"I just have to keep working and building up the chemistry with Spencer and the other quarterbacks to be that go-to guy." 

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In addition to Ragaini, the Hawkeyes return fellow junior Tyrone Tracy Jr. Both receivers had big roles during 2019, reeling in a combined 82 catches but due to a multitude of factors in 2020 including fewer games, more double tight end sets and a new quarterback in Petras, their production dropped off with only 32 combined catches. 

Regardless, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz expects a bounceback season for the pair.  

"It's interesting, we graduated two very good receivers," Ferentz said. "And I do feel like we have two guys in my mind who are starters. Nico will be fine and ready to go." 

After a drop in production in 2020, Iowa expects Nico Ragaini to become a dependable option for the quarterback, whoever that is.

The chemistry in the pass game is growing in what's expected to be year two of Petras as starting quarterback. Ragaini and Petras are roommates, and the two have a better understanding of what to expect from each other. 

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"We have a pretty close connection," Ragaini said of the favorite to start. "We all have pretty good communication with each other. If Spencer sees something we're doing wrong or wants the route a different way, we know what we have to do to get the ball. 

"The goal is to score the ball and if we keep communicating, I think we'll be able to do so." 

In addition to a bigger on-field role, Ragaini is tasked with mentoring an inexperienced group behind him and Tracy. Outside of the two starters, the remaining four receivers have only four career catches combined and two — Arland Bruce IV and Keegan Johnson — are true freshmen. 

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After an 0-2 start to last season, the Hawkeyes offense took significant strides during the six-game win streak to end the season. Ragaini hopes the offense takes another step with a more normal offseason.

"We wish we didn't lose (Smith and Smith-Marsette)," Ragaini said. "But we know that's an opportunity for other people to start making plays. We're all hungry to get out there and catch the ball and the goal is to score and as a receiver room we all want that." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com