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Hawkeye Football: What We Learned from Iowa’s Spring Game

There were highs and lows on Saturday, but we left Kinnick with more questions than answers.

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It wasn’t all good!
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Iowa Hawkeyes closed out their spring practice season on Saturday with a session open to the public. Several thousand Iowa fans flocked to Kinnick Stadium to soak up some beautiful sunshine and their one shot at catching a glimpse of the Hawkeyes before next fall.

As we’ve come to expect, this year’s iteration was not at all a spring game and very much an open practice. However, there were a slew of injured Hawkeyes to close out spring practice and the session overall was a bit more brief than in years past. In line with prior years, there isn’t a lot of concrete takeaways and there are now probably more questions than answers.

However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some things to take away from the day. Here are four takeaways from Iowa’s final practice of spring.

QB Controversy? QB Controversy.

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. If you went into Saturday hoping and wishing the Iowa coaching staff would move on from Spencer Petras, you aren’t moving any closer to the Petras side of things. The senior-to-be did not have a great day throwing the ball, finishing just 7/16 for 52 yards according to The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman.

More troubling for Hawkeye fans than the raw stats was the missed throws. That included several misses that weren’t all that close on throws down the field (it’s worth noting - and not for the last time - that it was very windy in Iowa City on Saturday) and a miserable throw into the flat in the face of pressure that was nowhere near a wide open Arland Bruce.

In short, Petras did not look different than what we’ve seen out of him for the past two seasons. Here’s a look at each of his throws from Saturday.

In contrast to Petras, both 2nd stringer Alex Padilla and third stringer Joe Labas completed at least half their throws and each topped Petras in total yardage. It’s worth noting that Labas was largely going against a third team defense that was littered with guys even further down the depth chart with so many players in the two-deeps resting.

That said, Padilla finished the day 5 of 7 throwing for 66 yards, again per Doc. It’s much too small of a sample size to make any real conclusions, but that completion percentage is in stark contrast to the 49% completion percentage Padilla finished with a season ago and if he can consistently be in that 55-60% area he has a real chance at taking the starting job.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz said when asked in the post-practice presser that Petras IS ahead of Padilla as of now, but he reiterated they’re keeping an open mind and it’s worth noting that Padilla was getting reps with the first team offense, even subbing in for Petras mid-series after the blown hot read to Bruce.

Here’s a look at all of Padilla’s throws from Saturday.

One thing you’ll notice from the above video, which carries over even more to Labas, is just how different the play designs seem when Petras isn’t on the field. Nobody is going to say that either Padilla or Labas are dual threat guys, but both are vastly more mobile than Petras and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz did a lot to move the pocket with each on Saturday. We saw that in the limited time Padilla got a season ago as well and with the injuries on the offensive line, it was a much needed aspect that Petras doesn’t bring.

Here’s a look at all the throwing reps for Labas, who Doc had finishing 7 of 12 for 93 yards (it’s worth noting here again the difference between the 1s and the 3s and also worth calling out several completed passes after clear sacks).

Ground Game Grounded

Apologies for continuing to bang this drum but I’m going to keep doing it every time I get behind a keyboard to talk football: the Iowa offense is not itself when it cannot establish the run. That was a major issue in 2021. It started with injuries up front and was likely exacerbated by Tyler Goodson, talented as he is, having one of highest TFL rates of any Hawkeye back the last 20 years.

One of the major hopes for 2022 is that the offensive line, even without Tyler Linderbaum in the middle, can gain some experience and cohesion to get the ground game going. Unfortunately, that’s not what we saw on Saturday.

The Hawkeyes had both Gavin and Leshon Williams available, but both were held to limited reps presumably in an attempt to keep them healthy as third teamer Devin Hilson was on crutches with an injury that may have him out into the fall. Neither was able to do much of anything as Iowa’s front seven were repeatedly in the backfield, often as backs were taking a handoff with nowhere to go.

That’s not on the Williamses, that’s an offensive line issue that simply can’t persist. Now, some of it may have been injury related as the Hawkeyes were without Justin Britt, Nick DeJong, Gennings Dunker, Griffin Liddle and Mike Myslinski. That left Mason Richman, Tyler Elsbury, Logan Jones, Connor Colby and Jack Plumb as starters from left to right.

It’s a relatively young group and with Jones going from defensive tackle to third string center to eventual starter all in the span of a few months, it’s a relatively inexperienced one as well. The Hawkeyes have to see improvement here between now and September 2nd or the offensive struggles we saw a season ago will linger regardless of who is under center.

Defense Wins Championships

The old adage has proven true at Iowa over and over (OK, perhaps not championships but certainly games) and based on what we saw Saturday it’s going to need to be true again in 2022. The defense always looks better than the offense in spring, but this group looks poised to be very, very good.

The Hawkeyes were without several key players on defense, like virtually every position, but the front four was down only Jeff Bowie and Joe Evans and they looked the part. Very much the part.

Lukas Van Ness has gotten plenty of buzz this spring and he seems poised to make the leap in 2022. Iowa needs him to step into a major role with the departure of Zach Van Valkenburg, along with bump ups from Joe Evans and John Waggoner on the outside. Deontae Craig is another guy that really looks like he’s ready to step into a major role on the edge.

One thing we didn’t see on Saturday was Iowa’s stellar group of linebackers as all three projected starters (Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs) were sitting out along with promising youngster Justice Sullivan. But Jay Higgins continues to flash and the Hawkeyes have a stable of linebackers ready to step in when asked with Kyler Fisher, Logan Klemp and now Jaxon Rethroth who has moved down from safety.

Here’s a look at some of the defensive highlights from Saturday.

Not So Special Teams?

Say it ain’t so! It (probably) isn’t. LeVar Woods has been tremendous as Iowa’s special teams coach and the expectation is that excellence will continue in 2022. But there were some issues on Saturday.

Or perhaps more accurately, there were issues when it came time to put points on the board. A season ago, the Hawkeyes relied on Caleb Shudak to put points on the board from all over the plus side of the 50 and he delivered time and time again. Saturday, none of Iowa’s kickers looked to be in a position to bail out a struggling Hawkeye offense.

The unofficial counts had both freshman Drew Stevens and redshirt sophomore Aaron Blom at around 50% on field goal attempts, but reports also had Stevens going 0-fer on kicks beyond 40 yards. Again, it was a very windy day in Kinnick, but those numbers are a potential major issue heading into the fall and something to keep an eye on.

Outside the field goal percentage, the Hawkeyes also had a 40-yard attempt blocked - something Iowa has rarely seen the last several seasons and another concern in an area where things have been incredibly steady.

One place where there were no concerns was at punter. Tory Taylor continues to look like Tory Taylor and he was taking advantage of the wind at times to boom 70-yarders. He’s an absolute weapon and the only silver lining to a potentially miserable offense repeatedly going three and out.

Final Thoughts

It’s worth repeating: this was one open practice in the middle of spring in a shortened format with a slew of guys sitting out. Things will change and things have no doubt looked different every time the Hawkeyes have strapped them on this spring.

Having said that, this appears to be another group with a very good defense, a ho-hum offense and highs and lows in special teams. At first glance, this looks like your average Kirk Ferentz special: 8-4 with a second place finish in the West.

But there are playmakers waiting in the wings. The defense has all the pieces to be special. And if we actually get cohesion up front, this team has enough in place to make another run to Indianapolis. We’ll have several months to now dissect every clip from Saturday before we start to get the slow drip of fall camp reports and really start to form an opinion on this year’s team.

Until then, take the practice reports, video clips and tweets with a grain of salt.