There weren’t a lot of reasons to enjoy Iowa’s offense last season if you’re a fan of the Hawkeyes. It didn’t matter if it was Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla directing the show for Iowa in 2021; the Hawkeyes’ passing attack just didn’t get the job done last season.
The Hawkeyes excelled in the other two phases of the game, and that’s why the loss of Charlie Jones hurts Iowa so much going into 2022. Jones might have been fourth among Iowa pass-catchers in 2021, grabbing 21 balls for 323 yards and three touchdowns, but his return abilities were what really made him invaluable to the Hawkeyes.
Iowa’s strategy has long been dependent on not beating itself and getting good field position and having Jones return kicks made teams think twice about giving the Hawkeyes a chance to bring punts back. Put simply, there’s a reason Jones was named the Big Ten’s returner of the year last season.
This year’s team won’t have Jones, as he traded in Iowa’s shade of black and gold for Purdue’s via the transfer portal. With Jones now elsewhere in the Big Ten West, Iowa believes that Nico Ragaini is the man for the job. Here’s why the Hawkeyes believe this move can work!
— Nico Ragaini (@Nicoragaini21) September 30, 2021
Why The Hawkeyes Trust Nico Ragaini
Ragaini Has Done This Before
It’s hard to remember much from before the pandemic began, but Ragaini was once Iowa’s best special teams player before Jones showed up in Iowa City. In 2019, the junior averaged 10.7 yards per punt return and earned recognition as first-team all-Big Ten leading into the next season. However, Ragaini didn’t get the chance to build on that because Jones proved more valuable as a return man while Ragaini was catching passes.
Unlike a lot of schools, special teams are a big focus at Iowa, and having Jones returning kicks meant the Hawkeyes could dedicate two weapons to different jobs while mixing Jones in on sets with four and five wide receivers.
Still, kick returning is a skill that’s never lost once you have it, and Ragaini shouldn’t have much trouble getting back in the groove once he’s returning kicks again. Iowa’s strong defense will likely give him plenty of early chances to test himself, so he should be back in form by the time Michigan visits on Oct. 1.
The Hawkeyes stealthily recruited '18 CT WR Nico Ragaini. The offered scholarship Sunday night. He accepted it. He'll enroll Thursday. He spoke with HN about it Monday https://t.co/phjw2T56NH pic.twitter.com/YDp0qKDA6x
— Rob Howe (@RobHoweHN) January 9, 2018
Special Teams Matters for Iowa
Prior to coming to Iowa City, Kirk Ferentz was an offensive line coach, but you’d be forgiven if you thought he had a background in special teams because of how good the Hawkeyes are at the third phase of the game.
Iowa always has strong kicking, punting, and return options, and under Ferentz and special teams coach LeVar Woods, the Hawkeyes have ranked no lower than 22nd in the nation in special teams play over the past six seasons. In 2019, with Ragaini returning kicks, the Hawkeyes ranked 13th in the nation in special teams.
Ragaini isn’t going to be doing this by himself. He’s got a team of experienced blockers ahead of him and should have plenty of lanes available, especially in the early going. With Jones now gone, Big Ten opponents might be a little more willing to kick to Ragaini and give him a chance to make something happen until he proves himself to them. That might give him a chance to make a big difference for Iowa.
“Ragaini can win with methodical route running and space manipulation. That alone makes him a reliable target for whoever winds up at QB.”
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) June 4, 2022
Ragaini and Jones have been good friends off the field for the past two seasons, which should pay off in a big way. Given that the two players have done the same job for the past two years, there’s a good chance Ragaini has picked up a thing or two from watching Jones and talking with him about special teams.
When Jones announced that he was heading to Purdue, Ragaini was the first member of the Hawkeyes he told about his decision.
When two players have that kind of friendship, they’re going to discuss a lot over the course of two years, and that includes football strategies. Ragaini even said after Jones left the team that he’d learned a lot from Jones, which likely translates to improvements on the field.
— Pat Harty (@PatHarty) June 23, 2022
Betting on Iowa Football in 2022
With Ohio State and Michigan matriculating onto the schedule this season instead of Maryland and Indiana, bettors might be expecting the Hawkeyes to take a step back from the 10 wins they picked up in the 2019 and 2021 campaigns. That’s one big reason why the Hawkeyes’ expected win total for 2022 is just 7.5, which would be their lowest number of wins since 2017.
However, if the Hawkeyes do take a step back in 2022, Ragaini returning kicks likely won’t be the reason. Iowa still needs to figure out how to get its offense in gear, but the Hawks should be in almost every game they play thanks to the defense and special teams. Ragaini should be a big part of that success.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) August 22, 2022
Credits on Featured Image: Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons