Opinion | Observations from the Iowa football team’s open spring practice

The Hawkeyes took the field with fans in attendance for the first time since 2019.


Katie Goodale for The Daily Iowa

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras (7) throws a pass during Iowa football spring practice on Saturday, April 17, 2021 in Kinnick Stadium.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz made a quick stop by the press box at Kinnick Stadium Saturday morning before the Hawkeyes began their first open practice of the spring.

“It’s good to see actual faces,” Ferentz told the dozen reporters gathered to cover the practice.

That marked my first non-Zoom interaction with Ferentz since October. In another return to somewhat pre-pandemic normalcy, Ferentz also described having seen Hawkeye fans set up near the stadium, tailgating with adult beverages, hours before the team’s 9:30 a.m. practice began.

And, unlike last season, there were actual faces in the stands as well. Gone are the cardboard cutouts that filled the stadium for four home games in the fall. Actually, those cutouts were available to pick up for anyone who purchased one last year. There’s some sort of symbolism there I suppose.

Upward of 7,000 fans, per a University of Iowa official, were spread across Kinnick’s south grandstand to watch Iowa practice for two hours.

This was Iowa’s ninth of 15 practices this spring. There’s a long way to go until the team’s Sept. 4 opener. That being said, here are some observations from Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Starting with the position everyone has their eyes on…

Petras briefly sidelined during practice, Padilla looks sharp with first-team offense

About an hour into Saturday’s practice, backup quarterback Alex Padilla was thrust into action with the first-team offense. The top quarterback on the depth chart, last season’s starter Spencer Petras, limped off the field only a handful of snaps into the 11-on-11 portion of practice.

Padilla didn’t waste his time with the starters.

The redshirt sophomore completed four of six pass attempts in his first stint of the team scrimmage period, including a 30-yard touchdown to tight end Sam LaPorta up the seam. One of Padilla’s best passes of the day didn’t even count. A well-placed goal-line fade to wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. was called back because of a penalty (which, yes, are still a thing even in spring practices).

One of Padilla’s two incompletions was dropped by LaPorta over the middle of the field in the end zone. It was a small sample size, but Padilla was accurate with his passes and smooth in the pocket when he was in.

Against a blitz, Padilla surveyed the field and found an opening, running it in for an eight-yard score.

After a couple of minutes on the sideline, Petras returned to the field. No limp was noticeable.

Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla commands the huddle during Iowa football spring practice at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, April 17, 2021. (Jerod Ringwald)

Petras was picked off prior to leaving the field. On the third snap of 11-on-11, safety Kaevon Merriweather stepped in front of an “Out” route to the far side of the field. Despite some of the wild throws he displayed throughout last season being apparent again on Saturday, Petras ended the practice with his best football of the day.

Petras led Iowa in the two-minute drill, connecting on four straight completions to three different parts of the field. The drive ended with a 33-yard touchdown run by running back Tyler Goodson.

Iowa coaches have said this spring that the team’s quarterback competition is open. But Petras, who led the Hawkeyes to a 6-2 record last season, seems to have the best path to the starting job in 2021. And Padilla seems to be ahead of second-year player Deuce Hogan in the race for the backup job.

RELATED: Spencer Petras brushes off criticism as he competes to earn Iowa’s starting quarterback job for second-straight season

“After Spencer right now, it’s wide open,” Ferentz said after practice. “I’d probably say Alex and Deuce [Hogan] are probably the closest to each other at this point… It’s way too early to call it. If one of them can elevate above Spencer, so be it. It’s all about competing. I’m pleased with the group.”

Iowa’s unknown defensive line stands out

For most of Saturday, Iowa’s defensive line won the battles in the trenches with the team’s offensive line.

Zach VanValkenburg, John Waggoner, and Joe Evans saw the most time at defensive end, while Noah Shannon and Louie Stec saw most of the snaps at defensive tackle. I was looking forward to watching Yahya Black and Logan Lee, but they were both out Saturday.

VanValkenburg, a returning second-team All-Big Ten performer, “sacked” Petras once and was consistently dominant on the edge. Waggoner’s best play of the day came when he stuffed Goodson for a four-yard loss in the backfield.

With the losses of Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Golston, and Jack Heflin, the defensive line is a position group with lots of questions attached to it.

Ferentz said the team has confidence in all three of the edge rushers that worked with the starters Saturday. Waggoner and Shannon are still a tier below VanValkenburg on the defensive line (and maybe Evans, a more experienced player), according to Ferentz, but the staff is gaining confidence in them.

“They’re demonstrating right now they have a good feel for what it takes to play and play successfully,” Ferentz said.

Tyrone Tracy: The No. 1 Hawkeye receiver

With the departures of Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith in the offseason, Tracy has said this spring he is ready to be Iowa’s new No. 1 wide receiver.

The redshirt junior’s play on Saturday seemed to back up that claim.

Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracey Jr. (3) catches a pass during Iowa football spring practice on Saturday, April 17, 2021 in Kinnick Stadium. (Katie Goodale for The Daily Iowa)

Tracy was by far Iowa’s most explosive and impressive receiver during the open practice. The 5-foot-11, 203-pounder made a contested catch against cornerback Xavier Williams for a 15-yard gain early in the morning, and ended practice with a 45-yard catch-and-run highlight. Tracy ran precise routes, looked explosive on his breaks, and made tough catches, including the fade he caught in the end zone that was called back.

Lots of Keagan Johnson… including on special teams

Nico Ragani was held out of practice on Saturday as he deals with an injury. Tracy and Ragaini are Iowa’s most experienced options at wide receiver. Charlie Jones is probably the leader for the third spot on the depth chart. But after that…

“It’s a land of opportunity, it’s really interesting,” Ferentz said of the wide receiver position. “It’s a land of opportunity for everybody, including the two newcomers.”

One of those newcomers — Keagan Johnson — seemed to make the most of his opportunity. At times working with the starters, Johnson, a freshman who enrolled early in January so he could compete this spring, caught passes from Petras and Padilla. He also worked as a gunner on Iowa’s punt team and downed a punt at the one-yard line. Anything he could do to get on the field, he did.

Johnson looked smooth in his routes and at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds has a larger frame than a lot of freshman receivers. He acts beyond his years, too.

“The first thing that really jumped out to all of us I think is just his attitude,” Ferentz said. “He’s really serious and really focused. It’s hard to make him smile sometimes. It’s kinda unusual for a younger guy. He’s giving himself a chance to get some work.

“Whatever situation he’s been in he’s handled in a really focused, mature way. He’s part of the competition at the receiver position, as is [freshman] Arland Bruce.”

RELATED: Iowa football notebook: Shudak’s opportunity at kicker, young wide receivers standing out, filling the gaps on the D-line

Johnson’s standout play of the day came in 7-on-7, when he ran a sharp curl route to win a battle with veteran cornerback Riley Moss for a 10-yard gain. Ferentz stressed the thing he wants to see out of Johnson moving forward is consistency. But as of now, Johnson could be in line to see playing time this fall.

Bruce worked with the first and second team offenses Saturday, but seems to be behind Johnson on the depth chart at the moment.

Some quick hits:

  • Matt Fagan and Connor Colby both took snaps as Iowa’s backup center. Noah Fenske, who was originally penciled into that spot, entered the transfer portal last week. Iowa’s top offensive line unit on Saturday, from left to right: Jack Plumb, Mason Richman, Tyler Linderbaum, Kyler Schott, and Nick DeJong.
  • Xavier Williams played cornerback on Iowa’s second team on Saturday. Ferentz said Williams, a transfer from UNI, was hampered with an injury during the winter and is still learning the team’s system and calls, but should be an impact player in the secondary come the fall.
  • Matt Hankins, Jack Koerner, and Terry Roberts were among the 10-15 players or so who did not practice Saturday. Ferentz said, aside from one player he didn’t name, none of the players being held out of practice are working through a severe injury.
  • It’s been two years since the Hawkeyes have been in spring ball. Ferentz said that 65 players on the team’s roster had never been through spring practice with the program before this year.
  • Redshirt freshman Gavin Williams stood out at running back when he got snaps. Goodson is the obvious starter in the backfield, but with backup Ivory Kelly-Martin out this spring, Williams could be playing his way into snaps in the fall with his performance. Williams’ best play of the day was a 21-yard rushing touchdown, which was set up by a sharp cutback as the play developed.
  • New starting kicker Caleb Shudak has a big leg. The sixth-year Hawkeye nailed a field goal attempt from 51 yards out with room to spare.

Iowa’s second open spring practice (and the last practice of spring football) is scheduled for May 1 at 9:30 a.m. inside Kinnick Stadium.