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Leistikow: Tyrone Tracy Jr. has traits, opportunity to be Iowa's next star wide receiver

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Since Marvin McNutt’s record-setting 2011 season at Iowa, the wide receiver position and Hawkeye football have had an inconsistent and somewhat unfulfilling relationship.

There were the jokes about Iowa’s horizontal passing game early in the Greg Davis era as offensive coordinator; in a 2013 bowl season, 40 catches for 388 yards led the team in both categories. There were high-profile recruiting misses that led to a near-empty cupboard for first-year receivers coach Kelton Copeland and first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz in 2017.

There was the exciting resurgence of 2019, in which four wide receivers emerged from the tight-end shadows of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant to raise expectations for a 2020 breakthrough. But between a pandemic-abbreviated season and uneven quarterback play, there was a lot left on the Hawkeyes’ passing-game table. Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 49.3 receiving yards per game led the team.

Iowa hasn’t enjoyed a first-team all-Big Ten receiver since McNutt in 2011. It’s hasn’t had a second-team all-Big Ten receiver since 2011. Not even a third-teamer.

Could this finally be the year that Iowa unleashes that breakout star at wide receiver?

And could Tyrone Tracy Jr. be that guy?

“I’ve got really high goals for this year,” Tracy said Tuesday, upon completion of Iowa’s seventh of 15 spring football practices. “… I’ve got big shoes to fill, and I’m ready to take that role.”

On the surface, such a statement might seem like a real reach, considering Tracy had a modest 14 catches for 154 yards (11.0 average) and one touchdown last fall.

But let’s take a step back for a moment to unpack the circumstances that Tracy has faced and is now facing.

As a second-year player in 2019, Tracy was among that four-pack of emerging wideouts. When given a more prominent role after Brandon Smith’s high-ankle sprain, Tracy took advantage.

He dazzled with a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown at Northwestern, showing the electric traits that backed up his nickname “Sweet Feet.” He burned the Wisconsin secondary for a 75-yard touchdown on a deep post, showing his versatility at the “X” (outside) receiver position that’s been manned mostly by Smith for the last three years. He scored the first of seven Iowa touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl, a reverse run from 23 yards out.

In short: He’s got the do-it-all traits in a 5-foot-11, 203-pound package.

Three springs ago, I remember Copeland coming on our radio show and raving about what he had seen from Tracy, who was still in high school in Indianapolis.

“He’s just electric with the ball in his hands," Copeland said then. "For a high school level kid, (he’s) probably one of the more complete players that I’ve seen in person.”

Those skills haven’t vanished. Tracy had to remind himself of that last season, as a redshirt sophomore, when he saw his snap count dwindle. In fact, he used the word “downfall” to describe last season’s lack of production.

Tracy admitted he fell into the trap of measuring his value by in-game touches, of which there weren’t many. He had four receptions and zero carries (for 52 yards) in Iowa’s 0-2 start in 2020. His longest gain of the season was 24 yards, a far cry from his redshirt freshman season of 2019 (36 catches, 589 yards). He wondered why he wasn't getting the ball.

“My expectation was to do better than that. And obviously, it didn’t go that way,” Tracy said. “But at the end of the day, you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘What are you doing to make the team better?’ Me complaining, walking around with my head down and have that negative energy does not make the team better overall.”

That was a mindset he realized he needed to develop after gaining a midseason audience of his position coach (Copeland), play-caller (Brian Ferentz) and head coach (Kirk Ferentz).

“They were saying, there was nothing I was doing wrong,” Tracy said. “Some plays just (weren’t) going my way.”

This spring, Tracy is entering his fourth year in the program. With Smith and Smith-Marsette hoping to become Iowa’s first receivers drafted by the NFL since McNutt in 2012, the stage can be Tracy’s.

“Cope told me if I lead the group, everything else would come,” Tracy said. “He wants me in playmaking positions, obviously.”

Iowa has 16 wide receivers on its spring roster, giving coaches a slew of options to sift through. We heard more good things Tuesday from Charlie Jones and Max Cooper — two fifth-year seniors hoping to make their receiving mark — that freshmen Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV were evolving quickly. That’s exciting to think about. And slot receiver Nico Ragaini (46 catches in 2019, 18 in 2020) figures to be heavily in the mix, too.

But with Tracy’s combination of speed, explosiveness and experience, he is the Hawkeye receiver most poised for a big year to complement all-Big Ten running back Tyler Goodson.

Only two Iowa wide receivers have surpassed 600 yards in a season since McNutt’s school-record 1,315 in 2011 (722 by Smith-Marsette in 2019, 703 by Matt VandeBerg in 2015).

It’s no accident that Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras last week was talking about on-target, quick-release throws to his receivers, who can then turn in-rhythm connections into long gains. Tracy’s skill set in space is tailored to that type of approach. 

In referencing last year’s disappointing numbers, Tracy knows he can do so much more.

Iowa coaches know that, too.

“This year, obviously my goal is to do better than 13 catches and 100 yards,” Tracy said. “Hopefully, I can get that in one game. But we’ll see where we go. My main goal right now is just being a great teammate.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.