Leistikow's 4 Iowa-Purdue thoughts: Charlie Jones' transfer dominates pregame talk
IOWA CITY − Even after the Iowa offense’s most productive game of the season, the Hawkeyes’ wide receivers have a total of 49 receptions for 535 yards and one touchdown through eight games.
In as many games since transferring from Iowa to Purdue, Charlie Jones has 72 catches for 840 yards and nine touchdowns by himself.
Now, the long-anticipated matchup is here since Jones’ abrupt and surprising late-May departure from the Iowa program. The Hawkeyes (4-4, 2-3 Big Ten Conference) visit the Boilermakers (5-3, 3-2) in Saturday’s 11 a.m. CT matchup at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Jones’ departure took a lot of people inside the program by surprise. There were some hurt feelings. There were also some players who understood Jones’ desire to transfer to a more productive offense.
Nico Ragaini, a fifth-year senior wide receiver for Iowa, lived with Jones and Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras during the COVID-19 pandemic. They all bonded during that time.
“It was a surprise, I guess. I didn’t expect anyone to leave, because we have such a brotherhood here and everything,” Ragaini said. “But he left. If you don’t want to be here, you can’t force someone to be here.”
Some players haven’t spoken with Jones in a long time. Others talk to him more often. Petras is one of those players who has remained on good terms with Jones, and they’ve text-messaged each other this week.
“It’s been cordial thus far,” Petras said. “We’ll see leading up to the game. I might throw a couple jabs at him. No, it’s all friendly.”
Considering that Jones’ game-high in two seasons as an Iowa wide receiver was three receptions and he’s averaging 9.0 a game at Purdue (second-best in FBS behind Iowa State’s Xavier Hutchinson), he’s made the right move for his future. “Chuck Sizzle,” as he was first called in Week 1 by Fox announcer Gus Johnson, has elevated his profile to say the least.
“I just felt like this was going to be the best decision for me, making the switch,” Jones said before the season. “Just putting myself in an offense that’s going to showcase my abilities as a receiver.”
Now, the Hawkeyes’ talented secondary meets the most prolific receiver in the Big Ten Conference − a player who for three years practiced against these defensive backs.
Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather in the summer said he was looking forward to knocking some heads in Jones and ex-Hawkeye Tyrone Tracy Jr. If he gets a chance to give Jones an extra hard hit, would he take it?
“Yeah,” Merriweather said, grinning. "A little love tap to say, ‘How ya doing?’”
Added Ragaini: “I’ll see (Jones) out there Saturday and wish him well. Hopefully, he has no catches. Tyrone, too. And then we’ll get the win.”
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was peppered with Jones questions during his Tuesday news conference, as he surely expected. From Ferentz's view, Jones was always a good punt returner. But he thought Jones took the next step as a receiver during spring practice at Iowa before departing.
“We’ll never know what would have happened if he was here," Ferentz said. "We saw him make great improvement, I thought, in the spring. We were really excited about that. And then, he’s not here. There’s not much you can say about that.”
Is Charlie Jones a threat to burn Iowa football like David Bell did?
Jones wears No. 15 now for the Boilermakers; he wore No. 16 at Iowa. Hawkeye players on Tuesday downplayed that their familiarity with Jones in practices would be an advantage.
“He made me a lot better corner,” senior cornerback Riley Moss said. “And I think I made him a lot better receiver.”
Moss said he hasn’t talked to Jones for a long time, but as the reigning Big Ten defensive back of the year, he’s looking forward to the challenge of facing Jones. Merriweather was asked which Hawkeye scout-teamer was mimicking Jones in practice but said it's been a variety of guys. Quarterbacks Joe Labas and Carson May have been operating the scout team as Purdue signal-caller Aidan O'Connell.
“I’m going to make sure he doesn’t catch the ball,” Moss said of Jones, probably half-joking. “No. He’s a fast kid, and he can run around. Just stay on him. It sounds stupid: Just literally stay on him and don’t let him catch the ball.”
In Iowa’s zone scheme under Phil Parker, Moss lines up at right cornerback. But based on tendencies, the Hawkeyes expect Jones to line up more on the other side of the field. That spot has been manned mostly by talented sophomore Cooper DeJean (three interceptions) during Big Ten play with Terry Roberts sidelined by injury, and Roberts is out again this week. That means DeJean will likely wind up with the most one-on-one opportunities against Jones, with Sebastian Castro assigned to the cash position.
Iowa has been burned the last three years by a star Purdue receiver in Bell, who amassed 37 receptions for 558 yards and five touchdowns in three meetings vs. the Hawkeyes. Has it been Iowa’s defensive scheme or just Bell’s ability? Moss leaned toward the latter but said Iowa could do some different things to limit a single receiver (say, Jones) from being open time after time. In this case, that means playing tighter coverage − maybe taking some more chances.
“Sometimes we can play routes a little soft,” Moss said. “They dink and dive down the field with some of those types of routes. Just trying to squeeze on top of those routes, we’ll see some success.”
Is this the week Riley Moss has his first interception of the season?
Moss has a history of making splash plays in big moments. He has 10 career interceptions for the Hawkeyes. Yet he has no interceptions this season. In fact, he doesn’t have a pick since the Penn State game in Week 6 of last season in which he injured his knee. He’ll certainly have his own spotlight Saturday at Purdue.
To that point, Moss said he was putting too much pressure on himself early in the season and wasn’t playing like himself. Moss is at his best when he’s playing fast and loose and trying to get inside opposing receivers’ heads. A confident player, he said he was trying to do too much in some early-season losses. But he felt like he played well against Ohio State’s fleet of NFL wide receivers and looked tremendous in shutting down Northwestern last week.
“The past two games, I think I’ve had my better game,” Moss said. “I felt a sense of pressure the first few games. I sat back and just said, this is the game I love, this is just a game at the end of the day, let’s just go and play football. Ever since I’ve gone back to that mindset, I think I’ve played a lot better.”
And with Purdue, Moss has a unique history. This will actually be his third career start in West Lafayette. What a rarity that is for a player. He started there as a true freshman in 2018 and infamously got burned for numerous deep balls vs. Purdue receiver Terry Wright in a 38-36 loss.
“That freshman game kind of molded and sculpted who I am today,” Moss said.
Then in 2020, Moss and the Iowa secondary were burned for three Bell touchdowns in a 24-20 defeat. You could say Moss has some unfinished business against the Boilermakers, though he did have a pick against Purdue in Iowa’s 2019 home win after coming off the bench to guard Bell. Now, he gets a chance to have the final word against the Boilers.
Nico Ragaini’s slow road to recovery is speeding up
In Saturday’s 33-13 win against Northwestern, Ragaini recorded four receptions for 66 yards – his most productive game since when he was the hero for Iowa against Penn State in Week 6 of last season. It’s been a long time since Ragaini has felt like himself on the football field. He experienced significant back pain in the back half of last season, and then he broke a bone in his foot this past August.
After missing Iowa’s first two games, he returned ahead of schedule but at less than 100%. Now, Ragaini has been feeling better. Why?
He’s been in rehab on the foot every day, not just sporadically.
“Last week and this week has been the best I’ve felt in a while,” Ragaini said. “Right after surgery, I felt like it was going to go right back to normal so I wasn’t rehabbing it as best as I could. The last two weeks, I’ve decided to rehab it as much as I possibly can. Obviously, because of that, my foot is starting to feel better. It’s almost as if the trainers know what they’re talking about when they tell you things. So, I just decided to listen to them.”
Obviously, Ragaini was being a little funny with that quote. But his re-emergence as a viable threat in this offense is important. Ragaini has 109 career catches for this program. The fifth-year senior’s role becomes that much more important Saturday with Jones on the other sideline and Keagan Johnson (hamstring) still sidelined. And don’t forget, Ragaini could return for a sixth-year senior season if he so chooses − like Jones did after going through senior-day ceremonies. Iowa is clearly going to need wide-receiver help in 2023, and it would not be a surprise if it asks Ragaini to return for one final ride. When he’s healthy, he’s a productive player for the Hawkeyes.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.