IOWA CITY — Spring is the time of competition among teammates. That can get weird and claustrophobic. Iowa’s wide receivers might have a way around this.
The slot receiver position is open for the Hawkeyes. Nick Easley and his 103 receptions over the last two seasons is gone. Matt VandeBerg and his 65 receptions in 2015 are long gone. Riley McCarron and his team-high 42 receptions have been hanging with the New England Patriots for a while.
That’s three slot receivers and four years worth of leading receivers for the Hawkeyes. Iowa obviously values the slot receiver position (or “F” in the Hawkeyes’ terminology). The athletes have been quick and shifty and sometimes explosive. The slot receivers are quicker and offer quarterbacks a low-risk outlet.
That’s important in a lot of offenses and Iowa is no different. Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said Tuesday the slot receiver isn’t always a receiver in Iowa’s offense. Depending on personnel group, it could be a tight end or even a running back.
“The way our offense is set up that ‘F’ position has to be a guy, going back to the trust, who knows what to do and when to do it on a play-to-play basis,” Copeland said. “ ... The offense is pretty much centered on that guy. A lot of what we do, he has to understand what he’s doing and why. It all has to go together.”
Iowa is heading into the final two weeks of spring practice and the search for the next slot wide receiver has come down to redshirt freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy.
The slot is important to what Iowa does and wants to be on offense, so it’s good when you’re looking for a new one that the guys guarding them have been impressed.
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Strong safety Geno Stone has had enough of Ragaini, a 6-0, 192-pounder who the Hawkeyes found at Old Farms Prep School (Conn.).
“Nico, I’d say he’s the most improved receiver right now,” said Stone, who is staying at strong safety in 2019. “He’s the hardest for us to guard. He’s making a lot of plays out there. He’s really fast, I’ll say that.
“ ... He’s a quick person off the line of scrimmage and has good hands, too. He makes a lot of quick moves on you. He’s hard to guard, to be really honest. He’s harder to guard than Easley. Easley had good, quick steps, but Nico is harder to guard.”
At his high school, Notre Dame in New Haven, Conn., Ragaini holds the lacrosse school records for assists (109) and points (180).
“He has a complete skill set,” Copeland said. “He has exceptional ball skills. He can track balls that even a good receiver might struggle with. He’s got very confident hands. I wouldn’t label him a ‘blazer’ as far as top-end speed, but he’s fast. He plays fast more importantly.”
During recruiting, Iowa saw Ragaini in its high school summer camp and decided not to offer. But it does sound like Ragaini might be turning out to be exactly what the staff thought he might be.
“What does he bring to the table? Good ball skills, short-area quickness, ability to make the tough catch,” said D-line coach Kelvin Bell, who was the recruiting coordinator when Iowa signed Ragaini last year. “You watch his tape, it goes on and on and on with runs after the catch. Similar body type to Easley, McCarron, that type of guy. He can make tough catches in a short area.”
Tracy, a 5-11, 200-pounder from Camby, Ind., is having a similar spring.
He’s made the secondary work.
“Tyrone is a little, shifty guy out there,” Stone said. “He’s showed a lot of flashes with what he’s done in high school.”
Tracy has Copeland’s attention.
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“His skill set going back to when I was evaluating him out of high school, you saw things out of Tyrone Tracy that were magnetic,” Copeland said. “This young man has magnetic ability. Anytime he has the ball in his hands, he has the ability to make plays. ... He’s obviously dynamic and can do a lot of things for us.”
Both players understand the responsibility they’ve signed up for. Copeland said Tracy contacts him on the weekends and asks when the film from practice is going to be posted.
So, the way around a competition that is obviously head-to-head? The nickname “Sweet Feet” might be up for grabs.
“Tyrone nicknamed himself ‘Sweet Feet,’” junior wide receiver Brandon Smith said. “I give him a hard time. I’m like, ‘Nah, Nico, he’s Sweet Feet.’ Nico has the sweet feet.”
Copeland has heard about the “Sweet Feet” thing.
“That’s not something we talk about as coaches,” Copeland said with a laugh. “That’s their own little deal. I’m not even going to tell you who started that. That would give it credence and go viral or whatever, so I’m not going to give you that information.”
So, Ragaini is “Sweet Feet” and Tracy is after it.
“I tried to tell Tyrone that you can’t give yourself a nickname,” Smith said. “I tried to tell him you can’t give yourself a nickname.”
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