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Leistikow: Wide receivers join quarterbacks in spotlight ahead of Iowa's open football practice


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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Saturday will mark the first time in more than 20 months — dating to Aug. 10, 2019 — that an Iowa football practice has been open to the public. That’ll be a long-awaited treat for fans, but also for the players.

Considering the pandemic-shortened 2020 season was played just in front of family members, many of the 108 on Iowa's spring roster haven’t played a snap of football as Hawkeyes in front of fans.

The Kinnick Stadium gates open at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, with practice set to kick off around 9:30. As you’ll see, Iowa practices are organized, fast-paced and methodical.

Don’t expect a ton of flash. But it’ll be football at Kinnick, a good enough reason to watch ... just because it’s been so long.

Fans and media no doubt will have their eyes on the quarterbacks. How much of a lead does Spencer Petras have on Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan? Perhaps we’ll get some visual evidence Saturday.

Maybe second on the list of curiosities is who is catching their passes. The wide receiver position was in the spotlight this week, with three wideouts plus position coach Kelton Copeland meeting the Iowa media. Here are the most interesting things I heard from Copeland, special teams coordinator LeVar Woods and assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann on Wednesday.

Copeland: A bevy of options, but the freshmen are turning heads.

There are 16 wide receivers on the spring roster, no doubt keeping Copeland and offensive coaches busy. They need to identify their top four or five options by the Sept. 5 opener vs. Indiana. Listening to Copeland, these 16 guys are in different tiers.

First, there are the veterans. Tyrone Tracy Jr. is undoubtedly the No. 1 playmaking option and could be a primary kick returner, too. Fourth-year player Nico Ragaini (65 career catches) has been hurt, but he’ll be in the fall plans. And then there are fifth-year guys Charlie Jones and Max Cooper, who can’t be forgotten. Jones was a training-camp star who wound up leading the Big Ten in punt returns. Cooper has been oft-injured but spoke Tuesday of enjoying a healthy and productive fifth year.

Second, there are younger guys who have been around and are hungry to make their mark. Walk-on Jackson Ritter's name has come up (6-foot-3, 208 pounds) a few times. Desmond Hutson (6-3, 210) is another one to watch. The Raytown, Missouri, native's second year in the program was essentially a wash. Copeland said Hutson was placed into quarantine on three different occasions with essentially bad luck — where a teammate or lifting partner tested positive for COVID-19 — and then suffered a minor injury early in fall camp.

“Now here we go, 2021, it’s a fresh start for everybody,” Copeland said. “And (Hutson) has taken advantage of the opportunities.”

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Third, there are the true freshmen. Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson enrolled in January after graduating early from high school. Their names keep coming up in interviews, and Copeland explained why.

“We recruited Arland specifically for a role and Keegan specifically for a role,” Copeland said. “And we’ve been putting them in situations to see if they’re ready. What can they handle and what can’t they handle? To be honest with you, there’s not much they can’t handle at this point.

“They’re learning at a fast rate. I give them credit. I don’t think I could’ve done it at their age. And they’re doing it ... at a high level.”

It’ll be fun to see that duo in action Saturday. Bruce wears No. 10; Johnson wears No. 6.

Woods: Very comfortable at kicker and punter.

While losing an all-time program great and personality in kicker Keith Duncan, a consensus all-American in 2019 after booting a Big Ten-record 29 field goals, Woods feels blessed to have former walk-on Caleb Shudak coming back for a sixth year.

“I told him, I would cry literal tears if he left. That’s what I feel about Caleb and how much I feel strongly about him as a person and a member of this team,” Woods said. “He’s going to have all the opportunities now."

While it would be hard to match Duncan’s production (52-of-63 on field goals, 82.5%, with a school-record 20 from 40-plus yards), Shudak was nearly as accurate as Duncan in practices over the last few years and has a slightly stronger leg.

Iowa football: Hawkeyes' secondary loaded with experience, ready to embrace defensive spotlight

Between Shudak and Tory Taylor returning as the Big Ten punter of the year, Woods has to feel good about things. Taylor met with the media this week and said he was actually disappointed with some aspects of his first year playing American football (the Australia import averaged 44.1 yards per punt but wanted to exceed 45). Taylor has been working on traditional spiral punts, after booting 39 of his 40 attempts last season in his more familiar rugby style.

“Especially to take my game to the next level and progress career-wise,” Taylor said. “That’s one thing I know I need to do a lot better.”

Woods and the Hawkeyes are thrilled to have a punter with an NFL leg for at least the next two seasons before Taylor would be draft-eligible.

Niemann: Presiding over a prime position of Hawkeye interest.

The Hawkeyes’ defensive line will be hard-pressed to repeat the production it enjoyed a year ago, when Daviyon Nixon was a consensus all-American tackle and Chauncey Golston was a first-team all-Big Ten defensive end. Those guys will be playing on Sundays in the fall. Niemann, a former Division I defensive coordinator who coaches the D-line along with Kelvin Bell, is taking a methodical approach as the Hawkeyes develop and reload.

“The main challenge is to get their fundamental base brought up to speed," Niemann said, "so they’re able to take their physical tools and use them to their ability."

That may sound like coach-speak, but it’s an important insight into how Iowa seems to magically replenish on the D-line year after year.

“We don’t really recruit defensive tackles or defensive ends, we just recruit defensive linemen. We look for the skill set we’re trying to find,” Niemann said. “ … What determines whether they become ends or tackles really is based on the kind of growth and maturity they go through physically.”

Leistikow: Observations on Iowa's first football depth chart of 2021

A few young names that have come up a lot this spring are redshirt freshmen Yahya Black and Logan Jones.

Black is 6-6 and approaching 300 pounds. He played a small sample of snaps at end last year, but has made the move inside. And Jones (6-3, 267) is a smaller package but with immense strength at tackle that saw him set weight-room records at his position during winter conditioning.

While Zach VanValkenburg and John Waggoner are the leaders at defensive end, Niemann mentioned freshmen Ethan Hurkett (6-3, 245) and Deontae Craig (6-3, 249) as names to watch.

“Once they get into the system, they continue to hear the same types of things, the same coaching points, a lot of the same fundamentals, techniques and responsibilities," Niemann said, "year after year after year.”

And that's how Iowa develops defensive-line talent. It'll be interesting to see where things stand with this unproven group come August and September.

Leistikow: 5 spring storylines facing Iowa football, Kirk Ferentz

What to know about Saturday’s open practice

When, where: Gates open at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium; two-hour practice begins at 9:30 a.m. Fans may enter at Gates A (south end zone), B (southwest) or H (northeast). Fans may sit in the north, south or west stands.

Parking: Free, on hard-surface lots around Kinnick. Tailgating won’t be permitted.

Stadium entry: Masks are required. Normal game-day security measures will be in place.

Of note: Select concession stands will be open. Fans who ordered cardboard cutouts for last season may pick them up on the concourse, starting at 9 a.m.

Wrestling celebration: The Iowa wrestling team will be honored for its 2021 NCAA championship around noon, following the football practice.