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Leistikow's observations from Iowa football open practice, including where the quarterbacks stand

IOWA CITY, Ia. — An estimated 7,000 fans enjoyed sunny skies, temperatures in the 50s and actual football at Kinnick Stadium. That in itself was a success worth noting from Saturday’s two-hour, open practice — the Iowa program’s first in 20 months.

Fans were treated to more than 80 minutes of 11-on-11 scrimmage action. There was a lot to take in.

The lead story was almost certainly going to be quarterback play no matter what happened Saturday, so let’s start there. It certainly looked to be an even bigger story early on, as No. 1 QB Spencer Petras limped off with what appeared to be a left knee injury after an awkward incompletion that followed a badly thrown interception to safety Kaevon Merriweather.

But perhaps indicative of where the QB race really is, Petras returned to practice and seemed to regain the form that has earned his coaches’ confidence. Unofficially, Petras finished the day 12-for-18 passing while operating the No. 1 offense against a defense that pretty much knew what was coming.

Alex Padilla got some turns with the No. 1 offense, and he was efficient to start the day. But once defensive coordinator Phil Parker started throwing some blitzes his way, inconsistency followed. After a 3-for-3 start to the day with some nice throws to the tight ends, Padilla unofficially wound up 6-for-12. Still, he has good zip and accuracy. He has the edge at No. 2 over Deuce Hogan or Connor Kapisak, who also got a fair amount of reps.

Hogan was unofficially 5-for-8 passing, with his nicest throw of the day a long completion to Quavon Mathews. Hogan’s among about six dozen players in his first spring of Iowa football, so his head is still spinning. His tendency in the pocket Saturday was to tuck and run.

More: Iowa football: What we saw from newcomers at first open spring practice

Head coach Kirk Ferentz’s summary of where things stand in the QB room?

That the competition is more at No. 2 than it is at No. 1.

“After Spencer right now, it’s wide-open,” Ferentz said. “I’d probably say Alex and Deuce are closest to each other at this point, and Connor has done a nice job, too. It’s way too early to call it. If one of them can elevate past Spencer, so be it.”

Ferentz and his staff like Petras’ leadership qualities and experience. Petras has more confidence than his challengers. That showed up in a two-minute drill at the end of practice, in which Petras went 4-for-5 and led the first-team offense to a touchdown.

As for what Padilla and Hogan need to improve, Ferentz said, "getting confident, being more decisive, being more assertive as players. That’s really what it gets down to.”

Another open practice will be here May 1. At that point, Ferentz said he would be more willing to give firmer quarterback evaluations. We can do the same.

Petras’ favorite target Saturday was understandably Tyrone Tracy Jr., who had (by my count) five receptions. One of them was a long-gainer on a catch-and-run, straight up the middle of the field. That’s the type of explosive play coaches hope Petras’ smarts can find against Big Ten defenses this fall.

Tracy looks like the No. 1 wide receiver many hope he can be. With Nico Ragaini out with an injury, senior Charlie Jones (who had two catches on the two-minute drive) and freshman Keagan Johnson joined Tracy in Iowa's three-wide receiver personnel.

“You saw it out there," Ferentz said. "(Tracy) is a potentially dynamic player.”

Padilla’s favorite targets were the tight ends, so let’s dig in there.

Luke Lachey (6-6, 237) looks to be the clear front-runner as No. 2 tight end. Elijah Yelverton, another redshirt freshman who was part of his recruiting class, was out with an injury. And Josiah Miamen was off the field altogether this week after being charged April 10 at a downtown bar with disorderly conduct and possession of a fake ID.  Ferentz said Miamen was given time away from the program for the last week but would return to practice Monday.

Unofficially, Lachey hauled in five receptions from various quarterbacks in 11-on-11. Sam LaPorta, of course, is the unquestioned No. 1. He had a long touchdown catch from Padilla over the middle early in the practice.

I was guilty of having to look up No. 50 on the Hawkeye roster. Playing with the first-team defense at defensive tackle was … Louie Stec, a walk-on from LaGrange Park, Illinois, who is listed at a size you’d equate more with fullback than defensive tackle (6 foot, 261 pounds). Stec had his hands full with Rimington Award finalist Tyler Linderbaum, as you might imagine, but had some nice moments. His presence was notable on a day that saw some young defensive tackles out with apparent injuries, including Yahya Black and Logan Lee. Logan Jones, who has gotten a lot of spring love, was also limited.

"Louie's an extremely tough guy and is taking advantage of the opportunity he's gotten," Ferentz said. "He's working hard. He's not the tallest guy in the world, but he's got good leverage. He's pretty tough to move out of there."

The linebacker tandem of Jack Campbell and Seth Benson is going to be one of those strengths that Hawkeye observers take for granted at times. Benson continued to show his knack for the ball that he did last season, on one occasion knifing through the right side of Iowa’s offensive line to stick Tyler Goodson for a big loss.

Trying to judge the offensive line is a fool’s errand from a spring practice. But we can tell you that the starting five was (from left to right) Jack Plumb, Mason Richman, Linderbaum, Kyler Schott and Nick DeJong.

Justin Britt, who was the listed starter at right guard on the spring depth chart, was on crutches Saturday. We already knew that Cody Ince was out for spring drills with an injury, and he'll be among the top five somewhere this fall.

Richman (6-6, 289) is the most notable riser here, with Ferentz mentioning on a podcast with Gary Dolphin earlier in the week that he’s contending for one of the tackle spots with DeJong. Norwalk native Tyler Endres was Saturday’s second-team left tackle, with Cedar Rapids Kennedy early-enrollee Connor Colby at No. 2 right tackle.

As we know, Iowa likes to rotate at least six and ideally eight or more defensive linemen on Saturdays. That means having four rock-solid defensive ends, and three of them stood out. On back-to-back passing attempts about midway through Saturday's practice, Zach VanValkenburg and John Waggoner darted into the backfield for touch sacks of Petras. Throw in Joe Evans, and there's your top three.

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

In the course of the scrimmage, presumed starting kicker Caleb Shudak was allowed to attempt two live-action field goals from 50-plus yards. He made his try from 51 from the right hash; missed from 53 from the left. With his leg strength, the Hawkeyes shouldn't be afraid to try deep field goals this fall. 

Ferentz counted 65 returning players who haven't previously participated in spring practices, plus another eight early enrollees who arrived in January. That rust shows up more in the second- and third-teams. That said, backups who caught my eye Saturday included safety Reggie Bracy, running back Gavin Williams and defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness. 

A glance at redshirt freshman Van Ness (6-5, 259) offers a vibe of Anthony Nelson, a long and impressive-looking player with more room to grow. Iowa had Van Ness playing as a second-team tackle Saturday, and he flashed with a sack of Kapisak in 11-on-11.

One of the easiest things to do when covering spring ball is to forget about returning stars. Saturday's final offensive play was a reminder of that. In the two-minute drill, Goodson — a reigning first-team all-Big Ten running back — showed game-breaking speed in burning the stingy Iowa defense for a 33-yard touchdown run. He saluted the fans in the north end zone upon scoring.

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.