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Jerod Ringwald

Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla throws a pass during a football game between Iowa and Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. Padilla threw for 206 yards on 24 attempts. The Hawkeyes defeated the Gophers 27-22.

Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla prepared to potentially make second career start

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz hasn’t announced a starting quarterback for this weekend, but all signs point to Padilla leading the Hawkeyes on Saturday.

November 18, 2021


Alex Padilla stood on the visitor’s sideline at Ryan Field on a brisk November night. The redshirt sophomore couldn’t help but overhear his name being discussed by the Hawkeye coaching staff over the headset he wore as the backup quarterback.

Iowa’s offense had just trotted off the grass field late in the first quarter of a Week 10 game against Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois. The game was still scoreless. The Hawkeyes had already punted three times through their first three possessions. Spencer Petras, Iowa’s starter under center the last two years, didn’t look right. The pain from the shoulder injury he sustained a week prior against Wisconsin was still lingering.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz and the rest of Iowa’s coaching staff noticed and discussed their options over their headsets. They came to a consensus: Padilla was going into the game in a road primetime matchup against a division rival.

Padilla frantically looked for his helmet. He started warming up his arm by throwing a couple passes near the bench. Alison and Mike Padilla, Alex’s parents, sat a couple yards away, donning Hawkeye apparel in the bleachers. They were shaking. Suddenly, they struggled to spot their son. Usually, over the past two seasons, Alex wore a red baseball cap on the sideline, indicating he was the backup quarterback. But they couldn’t find that patch of red that usually stood out on the sideline.

The Padillas finally found their son. His hat was off. But his black and gold helmet was on. Padilla was jogging onto the field and into the Hawkeye huddle.

“Like everybody else, you’re excited to see him play,” Mike Padilla said. “You get a little anxious and nervous, kind of the whole gamut of emotions.”

RELATED: Iowa football notebook | Petras taking second-team reps, Moss not ruling out another year

The Padillas hadn’t planned on traveling from Colorado to watch the game. But when they heard Alex might play, they changed their plans. With Petras hurt, Padilla had been taking first-team reps in practice earlier in the week. He was prepared to go into the game, if needed.

But he is always prepared for that.

“My job is to prepare like a starter every week,” Padilla said after the Northwestern game. “And I’ve been doing that over the course of the season. I just had to be ready for my opportunity, and that came today.”

The opportunities have kept coming since then. And another one could be coming on Saturday.

A little help from his friend

A light snow flurry started to roam through Kinnick Stadium as the final seconds of Iowa’s 27-22 win over Minnesota ticked off the scoreboards last weekend. Padilla had just accounted for three touchdowns while leading the Hawkeyes to a win in his first collegiate start. The Hawkeye Victory Polka could be heard from the south end zone. Across the field, Padilla stood in front of offensive lineman Kyler Schott and defensive end Joe Evans as they hoisted the Floyd of Rosedale trophy.

But Padilla wasn’t the only quarterback celebrating.

Petras was in full uniform and was medically cleared but wasn’t considered to be healthy enough to throw effectively. Right as the game ended, Petras jogged to midfield for postgame handshakes. Then, the starting quarterback for Iowa’s first nine games of the season took off his red stocking cap — the one that backup quarterbacks wear on the sideline. He smiled. After briefly glancing at the Hawkeye fans high-fiving and taking pictures in the grandstands, Petras sprinted to Floyd. And, as he escorted the 98-pound bronze pig to the home locker room with the rest of his teammates, he didn’t look like you might assume a player would after sitting on the bench for almost two games.

Petras is out of the limelight after 17 consecutive starts for the Hawkeyes. The redshirt junior might never get the job back. But he hasn’t stood in the way of helping Padilla succeed in his absence. He’s been his biggest supporter.

“He really rallied around me,” Padilla said of Petras. “This is kind of my first real action as a player here at Iowa. He was being supportive and giving me a whole bunch of tips. He’s a great player, a great teammate. I’m with him more than anyone else. Big thanks to him.”

Iowa quarterbacks Alex Padilla, Spencer Petras, and Deuce Hogan pose for a portrait during Iowa football media day at Iowa football’s practice field on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. (Jerod Ringwald)

Padilla said Petras has been vital to his success while leading the Hawkeyes in seven quarters of action this season.

While Padilla went 18-of-28 passing for 172 yards in relief against Northwestern, Petras was offering play suggestions and helping to break down the Wildcat defense. Leading up to Padilla’s first start against Minnesota, Petras provided some pertinent advice.

“Rip it,” Padilla recalls Petras saying.

That’s what he did.

Padilla finished 11-of-24 passing for 206 yards in his first start. The even-keeled quarterback ran for a score and threw two touchdowns, including a 72-yarder to Charlie Jones in the third quarter that had his parents jumping in the stands.

RELATED: Looking at Iowa football bowl projections after Week 11

“Everything from that game is going to be memorable,” Mike Padilla said. “It will last a long time.”

It was Iowa’s first 200-yard passing game since Oct. 1, and Padilla’s 18.7 yards per completion was the best mark for an Iowa quarterback in a game since 2011. Even after Padilla’s standout performance, freshman wide receiver Keagan Johnson couldn’t help but interrupt his own postgame press conference to credit Petras.

“A great leader on the sidelines,” Johnson said. “Just a great teammate.”

Padilla said his friendship with Petras was already strong before he started to see the field. They spend most hours of the day together at practice, in the quarterback’s room, or taking a trip to Dairy Queen together. During the MLB playoffs in October, Padilla — a Los Angeles Dodgers fan since his father is from LA — posted a photo of Petras — a San Francisco Giants fan since he is from the Bay Area — wearing Dodgers gear after they beat the Giants.

Iowa is in the middle of a quarterback controversy. But that hasn’t impacted the friendship between Padilla and Petras. It has actually flourished in recent weeks, Padilla said. And so has the one between their families.

“We were Spencer’s biggest fans while he was playing and they’ve been that to Alex too,” Mike Padilla said of Petras’ parents. “They’ve congratulated [Alex] on his success the past couple weeks. That’s all you can do. It’s a tough position. Only one guy can play at a time. Injuries are part of it. Sometimes you have to wait for your opportunities, and sometimes your opportunities drop in your lap, and you’ve got to run with them.

“They’re great friends and I think they will be for a long time. They get each other. Spencer is a great kid.”

Sticking with Iowa

There’s one factor about Padilla that is unique compared to every other player on the 2021 Hawkeye roster: He is from Colorado.

“Coming from Colorado, it’s not really known as a big football state in terms of recruiting,” Padilla said. “But myself and a lot of other guys have shown that it is possible. Putting Colorado on the map is really good.”

Iowa doesn’t have a history of recruiting the Centennial State to find players. But quarterbacks are an exception. While the Hawkeyes may favor the Midwest and select states throughout the country to fill out most of its recruiting classes, quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe will search nationwide to find a quarterback he considers the right fit for the Hawkeyes.

Petras, in the recruiting class above Padilla, is from California. Deuce Hogan, the quarterback in the class below him, is from Texas. For the program’s 2019 class, O’Keefe and the Hawkeyes found the quarterback they wanted in a three-star, pro-style prospect out of Greenwood Village.

“We don’t do a lot in Colorado,” Ferentz said. “Haven’t had a lot of success there … In Alex’s case, it just seemed to work out. It kind of meshed.”

Iowa contacted Padilla during the summer between his junior and senior years of high school.

At the time, he was coming off of a first-team all-state junior season, where he was also named his conference’s Comeback Player of the Year after suffering a broken thumb as a sophomore.

Mike Padilla, a former center at Colorado State, said most of his son’s recruiting attention didn’t start until after his junior year of high school. Schools were interested after Alex’s sophomore year before the injury, per his father, but wanted to see more of what he could do out on the field. Mountain West and Ivy league programs made up most of Padilla’s early scholarship offers. But Padilla wanted a shot at joining a Power Five program.

Then the Hawkeyes came calling — becoming the first Power Five team to do so.

“When you think of Iowa, you think of a good, strong, Big Ten football team,” Mike Padilla said.

Within days of the Hawkeyes reaching out, Padilla was in Iowa City taking part in one of the program’s summer camps.

Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla passes the ball during a football game between No. 19 Iowa and Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois, on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats 17-12. Padilla replaced starting quarterback Spencer Petras during the first quarter of the game. (Grace Smith)

Ferentz and O’Keefe, having already liked what they saw on film, got the chance to meet Padilla and see him throw in person. Padilla also recalled a whiteboard session with O’Keefe, where he was tested on offensive personnel, defensive schemes, and other aspects of his football knowledge. He passed.

Iowa offered Padilla soon after that camp on June 11, 2018. Three days later, Padilla committed to the Hawkeyes. Within a week, Padilla was back in Iowa City on an official visit, and Petras was his host.

Padilla was thrust into action for his first high school start as a 14-year-old freshman. The starting quarterback had suffered an injury, and Padilla was made the starter right before a pivotal playoff game in a snowy Colorado climate. His team won. And, to Padilla’s surprise, the coaching staff had him air it out. By the end of his high school career, he was a two-time all-state player and set Cherry Creek High School records for passing yards and touchdowns. In the middle of Padilla’s senior season, Georgia — the current No. 1 team in the nation — somewhat surprisingly offered him a scholarship before he planned to sign with Iowa. But Padilla signed with the Hawkeyes anyway.

“It was a flattering offer, and he spoke to them more out of curiosity,” Mike Padilla said. “It’s a big school, a higher-echelon school. It might have been intriguing, but he didn’t see it as a great fit. He was committed to Iowa, and I think that stayed pretty firm. There was never a point where he wavered on that. I think he knew Iowa was going to be a better fit, and he was pretty comfortable with that.”

“Won’t be visiting there,” Alex Padilla said to Hawkeye Report at the time about his Georgia offer. “[I’m] done with recruiting.”

How the Hawkeyes will move forward

Petras is fully healthy after his shoulder injury and has practiced ahead of Iowa’s 1 p.m. home game against Illinois on Saturday. But he’s done so with the second-team offense.

For the second week in a row, Padilla is listed as Iowa’s starting quarterback on its two-deep depth chart. But Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday no decision has been made — or at least, it hasn’t been announced — as to which player will start against the Illini. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz reiterated that point on Wednesday.

“It was an easy decision two weeks ago because [Petras] really couldn’t go,” Brian Ferentz said on a Zoom conference. “It was an easy decision last week because he couldn’t go then, either. Now, you fast forward to this week where I think he’s looked pretty good throwing the ball and moving around — and he’s certainly back to health — it makes it challenging.

“Either guy could start on Saturday.”

In 23 years as Iowa’s head coach, Kirk Ferentz has rarely made a midseason change at starting quarterback. Kyle McCann to Brad Banks in 2001, Jake Christensen to Ricky Stanzi in 2008, and Jake Rudock to C.J. Beathard in 2014 are the exceptions.

Padilla took over a 6-2 Iowa team that had lost back-to-back games by double-digits, and an offense that only managed to score 14 points across those two losses and ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten. Immediately after jogging into the huddle against the Wildcats, the 6-foot-1, 197-pound quarterback commanded Iowa on two touchdown drives in a 17-12 win over Northwestern. He followed that up with a three-touchdown performance against Minnesota in his first collegiate start last weekend.

RELATED: One-on-one with Iowa backup quarterback Alex Padilla

Iowa is now 8-2 on the season.

Brian Ferentz commended Padilla’s command of the offense and said the Hawkeyes have tried to take advantage of his mobility by calling rollouts, sprintouts, and naked bootlegs. The fifth-year offensive coordinator also praised Padilla’s ability to avoid mistakes while leading the offense. Padilla has yet to turn the ball over this season.

Padilla has helped build his resume while leading the first-team offense this season, Kirk Ferentz said, while also pointing out that Petras already has a strong one. The Hawkeye coaching staff seems pleased to have two options to go with at quarterback on Saturday.

“When you look at the body of work and the immediacy, I think you have to go with what you’re seeing right now,” Brian Ferentz said. “That being said, no final decisions have been made … We feel really confident with both guys.”

Both Kirk and Brian Ferentz have said that no decision has been made yet, but signs point to Padilla making his second start.

Between Padilla being at the top of the depth chart and Petras taking second-team practice reps this week, No. 8 seems likely to jog onto the field and into the huddle to open the game against the Fighting Illini. But Padilla isn’t focused on that right now.

And it doesn’t really matter to him. Padilla is always prepared to start, even when he wasn’t expected to.

“There hasn’t been too much of a discussion about it,” Padilla said when asked about starting this week. “Our thought process as an entire team is that your job is never solidified. You have to come in and work every day. Spencer and I have been doing that. We’re going to be supportive of each other no matter who is on the field. There’s no looking over the shoulder. We’re both focused on working hard every day and pushing our team forward however we can.”

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