Spring has sprung. In Iowa City, that means spring football is in full swing and has been for a couple weeks. We now find ourselves counting down the hours, not days, until the end of Iowa’s final spring practice - or as other programs call it: the spring game.
In Iowa City, however, that final practice is always just that: a practice. There will be some live-ish scrimmage periods where we get to see the 1st team offense face off with the 1st team defense and the like, but by and large this is simply the final practice of the spring season for a football program focused on using every waking moment of practice to continue teaching fundamentals, scheme and technique. Saturday will be no different.
But that doesn’t mean the casual Hawkeye fan heading to Kinnick on Saturday morning can’t both enjoy a warm spring day inside one of the best venues for college football and quench the thirst for watching live football again more than three months after our last chance to do so. While in town, there are certainly some things worth monitoring from a purely football standpoint as there has been quite a bit of news this offseason.
This is always one of the things most watched as Hawkeye have are notorious for pining for the backup QB the moment they see the starter live, but it’s more true this year than probably any other for a number of reason.
First among them, Spencer Petras has not exactly lit the world on fire in his time under center (yes, that’s putting it lightly). Despite Iowa winning 75% of regular season games he starts and making just the second Big Ten Championship Game in program history with Petras under center, the California native has completed just 57.1% of his passes with a 6.4 yard per attempt average to go with 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Hawkeye fans and the Iowa staff alike could likely live with the 57% completion percentage, but the 6.4 yards per attempt is one of the lowest of any starting QB under head coach Kirk Ferentz and that touchdown to interception ratio of just 1.35 isn’t going to get it done in an offense that values the ball more than anything else.
That’s why we got a glimpse of backup Alex Padilla a season ago, but also why he got pulled after just two starts. In that time, Padilla completed less than 50% of his passes and despite connecting on some notable deep passes, averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Frankly, those interception numbers are lower than they should have been with multiple dropped by opposing defenders.
So we enter Saturday looking for progress of any kind from either of the guys who started a game last year. And while the expectation from many is that we don’t much if any of that progress, there are early reasons to believe we might see just a little bit of improvement from the QBs and the passing game overall on Saturday.
For starters, Iowa changed up their coaching staff this offseason with the retirement of former QB coach Ken O’Keefe setting off a chain reaction. His departure opened up a paid, on-field assistant spot which Kirk Ferentz filled with former standout linebacker Abdul Hodge. Hodge, of course, was named the tight end coach, which pushed offensive coordinator and former tight ends coach to O’Keefe’s vacated QB coach role.
Alarm bells started sounding across Hawkeye nation.
Then, largely under the radar, Ferentz added former Wisconsin QB coach and more recently Colorado State offensive coordinator and QB coach as an off-field analyst while also keeping O’Keefe around as a consultant. That is to say, Iowa now has a QB coach, who happens to be the person calling plays and designing the offense, a QB analyst and a QB consultant. Despite concerns over Brian Ferentz’s ability to coach the position, it’s a lot of firepower and a new blood on the staff.
So naturally, Hawkeye fans should be anxious to see if that means anything for next year’s offense, which simply has to be better throwing the ball. And early indications from both coaches who have spoken to the media and the few players who have been made available are that there has been something that’s different.
Interesting Wallace hinting at seeing some new things from the Iowa offense and passing game.— Tom Kakert (@HawkeyeReport) April 6, 2022
Beyond the words from Wallace, multiple coaches and players have said the passing game has been simplified while WR Keagan Johnson noted the passing tree was simplified. Hawkeye fans will want to see what that looks like in Kinnick and judge the progress for themselves.
As much as the fanbase wants to see improved quarterback play, a big part of that starts up front. There’s no other way to put it than to say Iowa’s offensive line play in 2021 was not good enough. Spencer Petras was not good enough and his weaknesses were magnified by an inability to give him a consistently clean pocket or generate consistent momentum in the running game.
Now we enter spring practice with all-world center Tyler Linderbaum officially gone and question marks as to who will not only take his place but also fill the other holes along the OL.
Earlier this spring, it was very quietly announced that former defensive tackle Logan Jones had moved to the offensive side of the ball to try his hand at center. Hawkeye fans will recall that’s the exact path taken by Linderbuam. It would be a tall task for Jones to fill Linderbaum’s shoes, but it will be very interesting to see just how many snaps Jones gets with the first group on Saturday. Early reports from the staff and those who have been to spring practices is that Jones started with the third team but has pushed his way into reps with the second and more recently the first team. Keep an eye out for that Saturday and keep track of how many reps Tyler Elsbury and Matt Fagan are taking with each group.
We’ll also be looking to see how things shake out everywhere else. Iowa had a lot of moving parts in 2021, particularly at tackle. Redshirt sophomore Mason Richman got reps there and came into spring listed as the starter at left tackle. Will he be the full time answer, or will we see Jack Plumb, who is listed at RT, taking reps there as well with Nick DeJong continuing to push for time? And at guard, is Justin Britt going to finally be a cog in the middle or will one of the younger guys make a run? Connor Colby seems to have locked down a spot, but will that be at guard or could he even get some run on the outside and see someone like Beau Stevens or Josh Volk get more work at guard?
Those questions won’t be fully answered in one open practice, but we’ll catch a glimpse. And if that group looks solid in the running game and pass protection against what is expected to be a very good Iowa defensive front seven, it might be time to believe the offense could be improving in 2022.
Who Lands Where in the Secondary?
While the question marks on the offensive side of the ball will give fans heartburn, it should be much more enjoyable to soak in the fun on Saturday pondering the ‘what-ifs’ on the defensive side of the ball. In particular, where will Phil Parker put all his fancy toys.
Iowa’s secondary was tremendous in 2021, again, and despite losing a few pieces like Matt Hankins, Dane Belton and Jack Koerner, they return superstar Riley Moss, starter Kaevon Merriweather and a host of cornerbacks who were thrust into the spotlight in 2021 due to injury. Oh, and the Hawkeyes signed a couple of guys you might have heard about in the secondary the last few classes.
So where do they all fit?
Jermari Harris was listed as the starter at cornerback opposite Riley Moss when Iowa released their spring depth chart, but he was picked up on OWI charges earlier this spring. So does he lose his spot to start the year? Cooper DeJean, long thought to be a safety or CASH prospect, was listed at CB behind Harris both at the end of the season and early in spring. So does he really become a corner at Iowa or could we see him move to that CASH role with a guy like Terry Roberts stepping into a bigger role on the defense?
And where do Xavier Nwankpa and TJ Hall fit in if at all this spring? Both were highly sought after recruits who enrolled early. Are they getting reps with the first two groups? And if so, where? The vacancy left by Belton’s departure opens up a world of possibilities at CASH and it will be interesting to see if it’s a freshman like Nwankpa who steps in or a veteran like Sebastian Castro who has seemed like a perfect fit for years.
Finally, at free safety the Hawkeyes will also be looking at a new starter. It seems like the job is Quinn Schulte’s to lose, but does anyone else get work with the ones? And walk on Jaxon Rexroth has gotten lots of buzz so far this spring so keep an eye on his involvement with the defense beyond a big special teams role.
How Special is Special Teams
It’s Iowa and punting will forever be winning. We know Tory Taylor is an absolute weapon and he’s back to boom punts for another year. But Iowa lost kicker Caleb Shudak to graduation and now things open up for Aaron Blom, Lucas Amaya and incoming freshman Drew Stevens. Will the true freshman have the stuff to win that job? And what sort of distance and accuracy do any of them have to aid an offense that can use all the help it can get in terms of generating points?
Top 10 #collegefootball teams with the highest CBTN Overall Special Teams Efficiency Score over the last 3 years:— SportSource Analytics (@SportSourceA) April 18, 2022
And speaking of generating points, do we see any inkling of trickeration out of the best special teams coach in America? LeVar Woods noted in his press availability that Cooper DeJean is likely to be the holder, breaking the tradition of Iowa’s punter holding that title. That would lead one to believe Woods at least has a few ideas in mind with one of the most dynamic players on the roster holding the ball for kicks. Oh, and he was a high school quarterback. The possibilities are endless.
It’s worth repeating that this is Iowa and Kirk Ferentz so there may well be more questions than answers leaving Kinnick on Saturday. The Hawkeyes will not spend three hours playing a pretend game in front of a full stadium with the scoreboard running. That’s a show and this program is about getting in the work rather than showing it off. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be lots of observations to be made and fun to be had by those who choose to attend.
Because it’s not a traditional spring game, Iowa’s open practice will once again not be broadcast anywhere. But it is open to the public with gates opening at 8:45am local time with fans required to enter through gates A, B or H. Practice will kick off at 9:45 and free parking is available at all hard surface lots surrounding Kinnick Stadium. There is no tailgating permitted on Saturday. Regular game day protocols for searches and permitted items will be enforced.
Until things kick of on Saturday morning, here are a few clips from Iowa’s practice open to the media a few weeks back courtesy of HawkeyeReport.com.