Spring Outlook: Competition Heating Up at Receiver
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Brandon Smith recognized a coverage while lining up during spring practice this week. Iowa’s junior receiver glanced over at quarterback Nate Stanley. Their eyes met. They were on the same page.
It took time getting here. Repetitions in spring ball, summer workouts, training camp, in-season practices, bowl prep and games built the relationship.
The Hawkeyes began rebuilding wide receiver two springs ago when assistant Kelton Copeland took over the position. Smith and fellow true freshman, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, were thrown into action for a depleted group. Stanley, a true sophomore, was in his first year as the starter.
After experiencing growing pains, they’re ready for the payoff in ’19. They believe familiarity is leading to rhythm and chemistry in the passing game.
“I already knew the ball was coming to me, so I ran the route and the ball was right in front of me,” Smith said of the non-verbal communication earlier this week. “It was good having that kind of chemistry coming together.”
Super-human tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, along with slot receiver Nick Easley, dominated Iowa’s passing attack the last two seasons. They ended their college careers in January’s Outback Bowl.
Their exits leave Smith (28-361-2) and Smith-Marsette (23-361-3) as the leading returning receivers. With inexperience at tight end, head coach Kirk Ferentz believes more production could come from the outside guys.
“Moving forward, obviously we don’t have those guys (Fant and Hockenson), so somebody has got to fill that void,” Copeland said. “As we get closer to training camp, that’s going to be our focus. Who is going to fill that void?
“We have some talented receivers. Maybe they’re the guys to fill that void.”
Beyond Smith and Smith-Marsette, Iowa’s receiver position is filled with unknowns. Kyle Groeneweg, who caught 14 balls last season, joins Easley in trying to reach the NFL.
Max Cooper is the third most experienced returnee. He’s out for the spring with an injury after missing a chunk of last season with health issues.
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Redshirt freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy have taken advantage of more reps. Ferentz mentioned them last month and Copeland gushed over them on Tuesday.
“(They) have made the biggest strides and had the biggest effect in our room. Those two guys have done a great job of taking the lead on the field, taking the lead as far as meetings. You don’t really see that a lot from young guys. When you’ve got two young guys doing that, it’s impressive,” he said.
Tracy saw action in four games last season, while Ragaini played in three. Each newcomer caught one pass.
Ragaini (6-0, 192) enrolled at Iowa in January of 2018 after a year of prep school. The Connecticut native impressed the coaches right away.
Safety Geno Stone said this week that Ragaini was tougher to cover than Easley, who led the team in receptions the last two seasons.
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“He’s a complete football player,” Copeland said of Ragaini. “I hesitate to say that about a young guy, but he has a complete skill set. He has very, very good ball skills. He has exceptional ball skills. He can track balls that even a good receiver may struggle with.
“I wouldn’t label him a blazer as far as top-end speed, but he’s fast. He plays fast.”
Tracy (5-11, 200) played all over the field at Indianapolis Decatur Central High. He lined up a receiver, running back and as a returner.
“This young man has a magnetic ability. Anytime he has the ball in his hands, he has the ability to make plays,” Copeland said.
Tracy is soaking up as much information as he can this spring. He contacts Copeland every weekend asking if practice film is ready to study.
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“He wants to be great. He doesn’t want to be just good, he wants to be great,” the coach said.
The youngsters have made up ground on the experienced Smith-Marsette, who last year at this time was called out by Copeland and Ferentz for being on his phone too much.
“He hasn’t excelled quite as much as I had hoped up to this point of spring. Up to this point, he’s kind of been stop and go, stop and go. So, I haven’t seen the true development like some of the other guys,” Copeland said Tuesday.
Copeland is looking for more consistency out of Smith-Marsette (6-1, 177).
“Taking advantage of the opportunity is what I want to see from each individual, whether it’s Ihmir or whether it’s Nico Ragaini and everybody in between. Those younger guys have taken advantage of those opportunities,” the coach said.
Redshirt freshman Calvin Lockett (6-2, 182) is advancing this spring after missing training camp and the beginning of last season with an injury.
“He’s come a long way. You’re starting to see some good things out of him. He definitely has the tools. He’s a long, rangy kid. He runs well. He runs routes well,” Copeland said.
The Hawkeyes will add Missouri’s Desmond Hutson (6-3, 185) to the group in June.