I know spring has sprung when I start complaining about 50-degree days after a stretch in the 70s down here in Northwest Arkansas. As a born-and-raised Iowan, that’s dangerous territory and asking for a week or two of miserable weather.
Anyways, that’s enough small talk. The better way to know it’s spring is that football is in the air and, as always hope springs eternal. For my money, Iowa’s three most interesting coaches met with the media this week and gave enough meat on the bone to pique plenty of interest. We’ll hit each one with a hope (or two), let’s get into it.
Item #1: Improvement in the passing game
Ken O’Keefe met with the media on Wednesday on the heels of Spencer Petras’ Zoom sesh Tuesday. Putting two and two together, Iowa has 100% their version of a quarterback competition. The name of the game is accuracy.
The concern I see is tying quickness in releasing the ball to overall healthiness of the passing offense. As Scott Dochterman broke it down, Petras was 66% on passes thrown inside 2.5 seconds to the tune of 6.6 yards/attempt. Any longer than that, he was 44.7% and 5.9 yards/attempt. He was second fastest in the conference at getting the ball out, per Doc’s article, at 2.42 seconds/throw. Doing some algebra, he release the ball under 2.5 seconds nearly 60% of the time.
He turned to Mac Jones as part of his offseason scouting and frankly, that feels like a stylistic miss. Not only was Jones dealing the ball to exceptional wide receivers - while Iowa’s 2020 WRs were as close to NFL prospects as they’ve had in a decade, they lagged as route runners - but the structure of Alabama’s offense included a heavy dose of the run-pass option, something Kirk Ferentz has long been averse to. Nick Saban deconstructed that stodginess this offseason:
Saban talking about how lead/gap scheme RPO's do a better job displacing second level defenders to open throwing windows than zone concepts making them harder to defend, which makes sense considering his defense saw it every day in practice pic.twitter.com/ScourJNl3d— Fit Harrington (@futbolguysguy) April 5, 2021
This allowed Jones to hold the ball longer than Petras (2.51 seconds/pass) and lap him in pretty much every other passing statistic, though having absolutely elite wide receivers helps here.
What’s concerning is the ceiling which seems to exist on Petras inside that 2.5 second window, with 6.6 yards/attempt. Overindexing on getting it out quickly feels like accelerating the checkdown game, which is a movie we’ve seen before.
Enter Alex Padilla.
Now I am under no allusion that Padilla and Petras are neck-and-neck in this race but piecing Petras’s focus on accuracy with KOK’s rhetoric on Padilla - command of the offense with accuracy - and he appears to be pushing Petras in the areas Iowa needs (accuracy) without being a risk in areas Iowa won’t accept (lack of command).
So maybe not a true QB competition but it certainly feels like maybe Iowa’s version. Call it a closest to the pin challenge where Petras gets all spring to match what Padilla can do.
Item #2: Depth along Iowa’s defensive line
I could not feel better about Iowa’s defensive backfield. They return 5 starters, bring in an FCS [4th team] All-American and have elite special teamer Terry Roberts waiting in the wings (among others). With just two LB spots to fill out, hard not to feel great about Jack Campbell & Seth Benson.
But the line...that’s a different story.
Iowa has more or less turned the DL over three times the last 4 seasons which is 1) a part of college but 2) a function of Iowa pumping out guys quickly (Anthony Nelson, AJ Epenesa, & Daviyon Nixon all left with eligibility remaining). In a way, Iowa’s defensive line reminds me of the basketball team going into next year: asking a lot from a lot of guys who haven’t done much with just Zach VanValkenburg being a returning contributor. There’s also Joe Evans but he is an undersized DE who got jumped by John Waggoner for the starting LE spot.
Phil Parker’s talk with the media was basically a hype session while telling guys it shouldn’t be a hype session. Chad Leistikow dissected it succinctly after noting how Parker called his shot with Iowa’s LBs: “Now, Parker is expressing a quiet confidence in what is viewed as the biggest question mark on the 2021 team: The defensive line.”
Leistikow went on to list six additional guys, all of which received praise from Parker. With this many bodies in the mix on 4/8, it feels safe to say a decent rotation will emerge by 8/4.
Item #3: Continued progress off the field
Kaevon Merriweather & Matt Hankins were both complimentary with the progress made since last summer’s reckoning within Iowa’s program. Merriweather discussed the empowerment they now feel to be themselves and hold others accountable for their actions: “And if we see anything that’s going on, or any changes, we’re more confident to go to coaches, and actually talk to them about those issues and see the changes within.” Hankins noted how the anxiety has been lifted from the program with the removal of Chris Doyle.
Adding to the anxiety was sleep monitors which Raimond Braithwaite said are still available to players but no longer required and its data is no longer linked into staff computers automatically. Recovery is still important, and Braithwaite emphasized that, but it’s no longer used to punish players. It’s part of a total mindset change from strength and conditioning:
Raimond Braithwaite says that he doesn't opt to anger when a player doesn't appear ready. He's a believer of asking questions including if there's a problem with academics, an injury etc.— David Eickholt (@DavidEickholt) April 7, 2021
"It lets kids know that you care about them more than just on the football field.
This is exciting.
Bonus basketball item: Post transfers
I won’t wax poetic about Fran’s inability to land recruits, but...
Getting my hopes too high for Iowa to get both Robbins & Rebraca.— Harrison (@HD_starr) April 8, 2021
Bonus drink item: British “lemonade”
Is it really just Sprite?