By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – When covering the Iowa football team, I usually try to stay away from the spring hype because it often turns into fall disappointment.
But I made this one exception because too many credible sources have said the same thing about Iowa redshirt freshmen receivers Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. to not address it.
The most credible source being Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
He mentioned both Ragaini and Tracy on the Allhawkeyes radio show and podcast last Friday for having made significant improvement during spring practice.
Iowa receiver Brandon Smith also singled out Ragaini and Tracy for praise on Tuesday, while defensive back Geno Stone went as far as to say that Ragaini was more difficult to cover than former Iowa receiver Nick Easley, who led Iowa in receptions in each of the past two seasons.
"He's harder to guard than Easley, I'll say that," Stone said. "Easley had quick steps and everything, but Nico is crafty and harder to guard."
Iowa receivers coach Kelton Copeland also climbed aboard the hype train on Tuesday as he gushed about both Ragaini and Tracy. Copeland raved about their physical ability and about their focus and work ethic.
He said that Ragaini had a complete skill set, exceptional ball skills and plays fast, and that Tracy is phenomenal.
“I use that word with guard,” Copeland said of phenomenal. “I don’t use that word a lot. It’s kind of like when I use the word great.
“He hasn’t done it yet on the field when it counts. But his skill set going back to when I was evaluating him out of high school, I just saw certain things out of Tyrone Tracy that were magnetic. This young man has a magnetic ability. Anytime he has the ball in his hands, or is around the ball and he’s on the field, he has the ability to make plays.”
Copeland then talked about the time when he watched Tracy score touchdowns as a return specialist, a receiver and a running back during a high school game in Indiana. Tracy was committed to Iowa at the time, and Copeland was more determined than ever to keep him committed after seeing that performance.
Tracy and Ragaini also have made an impression with more than just their talent and performance on the field.
“Nico and Tyrone are the first two in my meeting room every day,” Copeland said with pride. “They’re one of the last ones out and they ask great questions. And you would expect that out of young guys and you want that out of young guys.”
Copeland must really believe in his two redshirt freshmen receivers because he held nothing back on Tuesday while addressing the media.
And it was music to the media’s ear because spring football is so often about hype and making bold predictions.
Fans always love the new guys because they represent something fresh and different.
Iowa also has struggled to recruit and to develop game-breaking receivers, so to have two possibly emerging at the same time as redshirt freshmen is a big deal.
The risk with embracing all the hype is that there is no guarantee that Ragaini and Tracy will live up to what is being said about them this this spring.
They both have one catch between them, and spring ball isn’t always an accurate measuring stick for determining success in the fall.
But they’re also not completely untested as Tracy and Ragaini appeared in four and three games, respectively, last season as true freshmen.
The NCAA has a new rule that allows a true freshman to appear in four games without losing a season of eligibility.
Copeland said Ragaini and Tracy have both benefitted from the rule change because they both know what to expect on game day, and yet, still have four seasons of eligibility.
Ragaini and Tracy both appear to be in the right place at the right time with Iowa having to find a replacement for Easley at slot receiver.
Easley combined for a team-leading 103 receptions over the past two seasons, so there should be plenty of opportunities for Ragaini and Tracy to shine, considering a slot receiver has led Iowa in receptions in each of the past four seasons.
Iowa also has two established receivers in juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette to help take some of the pressure off Ragaini and Tracy, although, Copeland raised a few eyebrows on Tuesday when he gave a less-than-flattering update on Smith-Marsette’s performance this spring.
“Up to this point, he’s kind of been stop-and-go, stop-and-go, stop-and-go, so I haven’t seen the kind development like some of the other guys,” Copeland said of Smith-Marsette.
That could have been Copeland’s way of motivating his speedy receiver from New Jersey because spring is also a time to send messages and to test a player’s resolve and commitment.
But whatever the case, Smith-Marsette is too fast and too talented to not play a significant role in Iowa’s passing attack.
If Ragaini and Tracy are as good as being advertised, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley will have a number of options from which to choose.
Stanley has combined to throw 52 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, which is the most by an Iowa quarterback in back-to-back seasons.
However, 27 of his scoring strikes were caught by former tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, both of whom are now preparing for the NFL Draft later this month.
The receivers might have to play a bigger role while Iowa’s learns to play without its two star tight ends.
And if what we’re hearing about Ragaini and Tracy proves to be true, then they both should be ready to contribute right away.
Tyrone Tracy Jr.
Height-weight-position: 5-11, 200, receiver
Class: Redshirt freshgman
Hometown: Camby, Ind.
Height-weight-position: 6-0, 192, receiver
Class: Redshirt freshman
Hometown: East Haven, Conn.