Leistikow: The 3 most noteworthy things we learned from Ken O'Keefe, Phil Parker, Raimond Braithwaite
Every spring football article written about the Iowa Hawkeyes should come with the disclaimer that media members haven’t seen a single minute of practice since … a few days before the 2019 Holiday Bowl in San Diego. The last Iowa football action of any kind we’ve seen was Dec. 12, a 28-7 win against Wisconsin to cap a pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season.
Those droughts will end April 17, weather permitting, when the Hawkeyes host an open-to-the-public practice at Kinnick Stadium. Until then, we’re at the mercy of telling you what we hear from Zoom interviews and other sources. But we aren’t yet allowed to see anything with our own eyes and share those evaluations.
With that backdrop, three Iowa assistants — defensive coordinator Phil Parker, quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe and strength coach Raimond Braithwaite — visited with the media on Wednesday for more than an hour. Here are the things that stuck out most from each, ahead of Thursday’s fifth practice out of 15 this spring.
Ken O'Keefe: Is there really a quarterback competition?
O’Keefe actually asked that question rhetorically, then provided his answer.
“I would say yes there is,” he said. “Because everybody's splitting reps. Everybody’s there right now to show us what they’re capable of doing. Every throw, every incompletion, interception, explosive play … gets recorded and looked at every day. The body of work is really just beginning here in spring ball.”
As I mentioned on Wednesday’s Hawk Central radio show, Iowa fans should hope this spring that Spencer Petras builds off his eight games of starting experience last fall, takes giant steps forward and leaves no question that he is superior to backups Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan.
While O’Keefe certainly echoes head coach Kirk Ferentz’s confidence in Petras as a starter, it was notable how complimentary he was of Padilla, who is entering his third year in the program and is 1-for-2 for 12 yards in two career games. What little we've seen from the Colorado native (including an April 2019 spring-ending scrimmage) has been encouraging.
“Alex has done a nice job. He’s got pretty good command of the offense at this particular stage. He operates it well,” O’Keefe said. “He's a pretty accurate player. He was very accurate in last year’s preseason, even without spring ball.
“He's got really good feet. He moves through his progressions really well.”
Hogan, the highly acclaimed Texan, is only beginning his first spring with the Hawkeyes. It’s not realistic to expect him to be on par with Petras, the big Californian (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) who is entering his fourth year in the program and has become a revered leader among teammates. But there is a lot of interest surrounding Hogan, and O’Keefe offered the most insight we’ve heard yet on his progress.
“Alex’s ability to see the field and communicate is a little more enhanced than Deuce’s is right now,” O’Keefe said. “Deuce is really throwing the ball well. He's an accurate passer. He sees the field extremely well also. Obviously a little bigger than Alex (6-4, 213 vs. 6-1, 198), and that helps him. He's still a work in progress, but he's gaining ground.”
Petras is 1, Padilla is 2, Hogan is a distant 3. But this is far from a finalized conversation. We'll circle back on this topic April 17.
Phil Parker: Iowa's annual 'MVC' (most valuable coach) drops some encouraging clues.
And every year that passes, it continues to be a borderline miracle that another program hasn’t poached Parker, an original member of Ferentz’s staff in 1999 and defensive coordinator since 2012.
Parker raised eyebrows in early October when he expressed so much confidence in his linebackers ahead of the 2020 season. That proclamation proved correct, as three previously under-the-radar Hawkeyes — Nick Niemann, Seth Benson and Jack Campbell — burst onto the scene with tremendous years. And despite a ton of question marks, Parker put together a top-10 national defense.
Now, Parker is expressing a quiet confidence in what is viewed as the biggest question mark on the 2021 team: The defensive line.
“I'm really excited,” Parker said, “to see where this group can go.”
After losing three-fourths of the starting D-line in Chauncey Golston, Jack Heflin and consensus all-American Daviyon Nixon, Parker … is excited. He typically isn’t outwardly excited about too much. Maybe part of his confidence is that he can rely on his experienced back seven — which figures to be the strength of the team — and focus on the development of the front four.
Yahya Black and Logan Jones — redshirt freshmen who wear Nos. 94 and 95, respectively — were two of the first names that came up. Black (6-5, 279) is working inside at tackle, as is weight-room phenom Jones (6-3, 267). Black could play inside or outside, but the Minnesota giant is currently a No. 1 tackle. Parker briefly compared Jones to prominent former Hawkeye Mitch King, "as far as taking up space inside," but was careful not to hype the former U.S. Army All-American too much.
Parker likes listed No. 1 defensive ends Zach VanValkenburg and John Waggoner; redshirt freshmen Deontae Craig and Ethan Hurkett got mentions as well. And don’t forget about Joe Evans, a situational pass rusher with five career sacks. When you throw in Noah Shannon and Logan Lee at tackle, Parker's got a robust list of rotational options.
“Anytime you're going to win, you're going to win with the guys up front,” Parker said. “I think we have a good chance of getting eight to 10 of these guys ready.”
But, again, we haven’t seen most of these guys in practice, let alone a game. Stay tuned. But take note of Parker’s early optimism in the D-line.
Raimond Braithwaite: New head strength coach details a key post-Chris Doyle change.
This was the first time in the 23-year Kirk Ferentz era that someone other than Doyle has led the program’s important (and grueling) winter conditioning period. And Raimond Braithwaite reported satisfaction surrounding the strength and speed gains that were made.
“In the weight room, our guys have the raised the standard,” said Braithwaite, who went on to single out all-American center Tyler Linderbaum, linebackers Benson and Campbell and safety Kaevon Merriweather as setting “the tone with their leadership and approach to training, and that’s rubbed off on their teammates.”
While Braithwaite was a Doyle protégé and is in his 17th year at Iowa (with a stint in between at Delaware State), a big change has been made in his first full year in charge. Players no longer are required to wear sleep monitors. They’re now optional. That’s notable, considering one of the top-line takeaways in July from the Husch Blackwell investigation into racial disparities at Iowa stated that "the program over-monitored players to the point that they experienced heightened anxiety and maintained a culture that allowed a small group of coaches to demean players."
That group of coaches included Doyle, who was removed last June in a $1.1 million separation agreement after he was accused by numerous Black former players as exhibiting demeaning and racist behavior.
"Sleep is valuable, and we educate our guys on the value of sleep and how it's the most prominent performance-enhancing thing you can do in your training,” Braithwaite said. “And before, we used to mandate everybody to use a sleep monitor. Now, we use it more as a tool; a resource for guys.”
Players have access to sleep monitors, but it’s up to them whether they wear it or report the data to the strength-and-conditioning staff. First-year players are given a monitor and a primary focus of sleep education, Braithwaite said, and encouraged to talk to coaches if they have questions or feedback. But their data isn't fed into the strength coach's computer as it was before.
That may seem like a minor change, but it is a big deal to any player who felt Doyle controlled every aspect of their lives.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.