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Can Iowa Football Improve its Passing Game? Spring Football May Help Provide Some Answers.

Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have plenty of weapons at their disposal in the passing game.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Iowa football team has long had a complicated relationship with its passing game. While the Hawkeyes have produced several star quarterbacks over the years (including three players who finished in second place in Heisman Trophy voting), Iowa has rarely produced high-octane passing attacks during the Kirk Ferentz era and has traditionally relied on its defense and running game to propel the team to victory. Despite returning a host of athletic pass catchers last season and a veteran offensive line capable of giving its quarterback a clean pocket, Iowa’s passing attack was one of the weakest in the conference, finishing third from last in the Big Ten in completion percentage (56.9%), passing touchdowns (nine), and team passer rating (118.3). While Iowa’s defense, running game, and special teams all shined last season, the Hawkeyes were once again weighed down by a passing attack that failed to produce at critical moments in big games early in the season.

Yet hope springs eternal during spring football, even in Iowa City. Saturday’s open practice gave Hawkeye fans their first look at Iowa’s passing attack since the team defeated Wisconsin back in December and the first public spring football action since 2018. While much of the public attention was around the three-man quarterback competition between returning starter Spencer Petras and backups Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan, Iowa’s open practice provided a few other hints about where the passing game might be headed in 2021 and whether it can surpass the middling heights it reached in 2020.

Which quarterback will win the starting job?

No college football team can have an effective passing game without competent quarterback play. Iowa’s 2020 starter Spencer Petras struggled last season, throwing nine touchdowns to five interceptions while completing only 57% of his passes. However, Petras also showed substantial improvement during his final two games in the season which saw him throw for 431 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions while posting passer ratings above 150.0 in both contests. Petras earned plenty of doubters within the fanbase due to his inconsistency in 2020, but his performance to close the year hinted at the potential the coaching staff saw in him when they anointed him the new starter at the conclusion of the 2019 campaign.

While spring practice is far from over, all indications are that Petras is successfully holding off challenges from sophomore Alex Padilla and redshirt freshman Deuce Hogan. Kirk Ferentz’s comments after Saturday’s open practice made it clear that Petras still holds a lead over his younger competitors, and that the more fiercely contested battle at the position is the one between Padilla and Hogan for the #2 spot on the depth chart. While quarterback coach Ken O’Keefe recently praised Padilla for his accuracy and command of the offense, Ferentz’s statement that Petras’ starting experience gives him an edge over his competitors should give fans an indication of where the competition stands. One can only hope that Petras has indeed earned his apparent position atop the depth chart on the basis of his continuing improvement as opposed to stasis on the part of Ferentz and the offensive coaching staff and a desire to stick with a player due to his starting experience alone.

Despite Petras’ inconsistence last year, there is still reason for cautious optimism surrounding the quarterback position. Petras’ improvement towards the end of the season was as encouraging as it was statistically significant, and if either Padilla or Hogan is able to unseat him this fall, fans can be VERY confident that they must have clearly outplayed the former starter given the premium Ferentz places on stability at quarterback. And, as the open practice reminded us, whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have plenty of weapons at their disposal in the passing game.

Iowa’s receiving corps is still bursting with talent

The loss of Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith to graduation deprived Iowa’s quarterbacks of two reliable and proven targets who demonstrated sure hands and above-average athleticism for several years in the Iowa program. However, the cupboard was hardly left bare with their departure, a fact which was made readily apparent during Saturday’s practice.

Tyrone Tracy Jr. is one of the most athletic players on the Iowa roster and was identified by HawkeyeInsider’s David Eickholt and Sean Bock as the clear Offensive MVP of the session in the latest episode of the Swarmcast. True freshman Keagan Johnson ran with the first team offense on Saturday and has been praised by several coaches this spring for his maturity and fit within the offensive system, so it would hardly be a surprise to see him see the field early and often this year. Nico Ragaini returns a reliable slot target, and Charlie Jones displayed the speed and athleticism last season during his stint as Iowa’s starting punter returner which could make him a factor in the wide receiver competition as well. Freshman Arland Bruce flashed with a 35-yard reception on Saturday that showed his quickness and ability to beat defenders in space, while Quavon Matthews came down with a 28-yard catch on a cross route from Deuce Hogan. Desmond Hutson, a former camp darling himself from a few years back, also remains very much in the mix for snaps next season.

Iowa’s pass-catching talent expands beyond the wide receiver room, however. Tyler Goodson is still an explosive threat to catch the ball out of the backfield who has tallied 318 receiving yards over the past two seasons. Sam LaPorta led the Hawkeyes in receptions last year with 27 and has plenty of untapped potential behind him at tight end, including intriguing freshmen Luke Lachey and Elijah Yelverton. Josiah Miamen could also emerge as a factor if his legal troubles are quickly resolved.

Iowa should have enough talent in its receiving corps to make things easier for its quarterback, but talent alone does not translate into production. Iowa’s passing offense struggled last season despite boasting a stable of talented pass catchers, and reading NFL analysts describing how woefully misused Smith-Marsette was in 2020 is enough to cast some doubt on whether players like Tyrone Tracy might suffer the same fate absent an improvement in quarterback play.

Can Iowa find an answer at the tackle position?

Still, for all the talk about quarterbacks and receivers, the success of the passing game may ultimately be tethered to the fate of Iowa’s offensive line. The Hawkeyes return quite a bit of proven production in the interior line, including star center Tyler Linderbaum and veteran guard Kyler Schott. However, Iowa must now replace two starting offensive tackles due to the departures of Alaric Jackson, Coy Cronk, and Mark Kallenberger. Jack Plumb (two career starts at right tackle), Cody Ince (six starts at left guard but no meaningful collegiate experience at tackle, last seen wearing a boot on the sidelines during Saturday’s practice) and Nick DeJong (a walk-on who has seen limited action) are among Iowa’s most experienced candidates for the job, though young players like Mason Richman, Tyler Endres, and true freshmen David Davidkov and Connor Colby could potentially make a push as well. Saturday’s practice, which saw several players injured and a heavy rotation of players across positions, provided few hints at how the starting lineup might look once everyone returns to full strength.

Inexperience at offensive tackle could have a major impact on the success of the passing game. Not only are tackles essential to stifling edge rushers and keeping the pocket clean for Petras and company, but they will also be called upon to play a major role in opening holes for Goodson and the running game. If Iowa struggles to run the ball consistently, it could put immense pressure on the passing game to carry the load—a dicey prospect given its production last season. If the Hawkeyes can find two reliable players to man the tackle spots, the offensive line could coalesce and give Iowa’s skill players the time they need to make plays. However, if offensive tackle emerges as a position of weakness next season, don’t be surprised if Iowa struggles to air it out once again.