Leistikow: Hawkeyes leave spring with star power in place. Now, about injuries and QB play ...
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ask Kirk Ferentz about the positive things he’s seen in any football game or practice, and his answer will inevitably start with the negative. That’s just how the longtime Iowa head coach is wired, and he’ll freely admit that.
So, when asked what boxes were checked after the Hawkeyes completed 15 spring practices, Ferentz first pointed to all the players who weren’t on the field Saturday.
Among those who did not participate in the public practice at Kinnick Stadium because of injury: offensive linemen Justin Britt, David Davidkov, Luke Empen, Tyler Endres and Cody Ince; defensive linemen Yahya Black, Logan Jones, Jake Karchinski, Logan Lee and Chris Reames; the team’s top two wide receivers, Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Nico Ragaini, plus Quavon Matthews; running back Ivory Kelly-Martin; linebackers Jay Higgins and Zach Twedt; and defensive backs Dane Belton, Matt Hankins, Terry Roberts and Xavior Williams.
And that might not have been everyone; Iowa doesn’t exactly advertise its injury report. But it gives you an idea of the amount of lineup juggling that went on Saturday … and all spring.
“An inordinate amount of injuries,” Ferentz said. "We’ve not been lucky in that way; we’ve had some guys with freakish, fluke stuff.
“The good news is it gives other guys more opportunity to work.”
And there actually is plenty of good news, the more we were able hear from coaches and see the players perform in recent weeks.
The top spring takeaway for me: Iowa’s got some top-shelf players to be excited about, as it now starts looking to summer conditioning, August camp and the Sept. 5 season opener vs. Indiana.
Ferentz, in about 30 minutes of questions, touched on most of his best players.
Tyler Linderbaum: Could have been a second-round pick in the NFL Draft. Instead, Ferentz said the all-American center has continued to improve.
Tyler Goodson: Looks the part in every way, with added bulk on his frame and all of the speed we’ve seen over two years. Ferentz said Goodson hasn’t missed a practice. Afterward, the first-team all-Big Ten running back was happy to share his individual goal for 2021.
“Let’s just say I want to be the (Doak) Walker Award winner,” Goodson said. “That’s what I want. And I feel like the O-line in front of me will help me get there.”
Tyrone Tracy Jr.: Though a twisted ankle kept him out Saturday, he was the star of the April 17 open practice, and there's no debating he is the Hawkeyes’ go-to wideout. Iowa offensive coaches would be foolish if they don’t scheme ways to get Tracy the ball eight to 10 times a game. “That’s where it all starts for us” at wide receiver, Ferentz correctly noted.
Zach VanValkenburg: Ferentz compared the sixth-year senior defensive end's year-to-year jump to that of Daviyon Nixon's a year ago. Nixon went from backup defensive tackle in 2019 to consensus all-American in 2020. VanValkenburg is the leader of this year's defensive line.
“Zach has continued to accelerate. He’s on that pace,” Ferentz said.
Jack Campbell: Campbell looks ready to be a thumping force in the middle of Iowa’s defense, after his post-mononucleosis introduction in the middle of last season. He reported Saturday he’s up to 245 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame.
“I feel like I made the most progress mentally,” Campbell said. “Just seeing things quicker, communicating quicker.”
Riley Moss: He was probably Iowa’s MVP Saturday, knocking down passes, showing blanket coverage and intercepting starting quarterback Spencer Petras once in 11-on-11 scrimmage action. Ferentz said the fourth-year cornerback’s spring reminded him of a past spring by Jovon Johnson, in that it's rare that a defensive back gets his hand on so many footballs. Yet Moss did that seemingly every day this spring.
"We know he can play winning football for us," Ferentz said, "and he’s taken the leap we thought he would.”
Caleb Shudak: Iowa is loaded in all areas of its special teams, with Tory Taylor at punter and Charlie Jones at punt returner. Sixth-year senior Shudak's strong right leg was consistently true from 40-to-50 yards on a windy day at Kinnick.
“I don’t feel great about a lot of things,” Ferentz quipped. “I feel great about that one (Shudak).”
But … and this is a big but …
What about quarterback?
Ferentz had to know Saturday’s visual performance was uninspiring to the 7,000 or so fans at Kinnick. Sure, it deserves an asterisk without Tracy and Ragaini on the field. That forced a lot of underneath and challenged throws. And, as Ferentz pointed out, the defense knows all the offense’s plays by this point in spring practice.
Ferentz also added that backup Alex Padilla has closed the gap on Petras late in spring practice. That's notable. Padilla is solidly on the No. 2 line, with Deuce Hogan at No. 3.
Ferentz said: “I think he’s improving.”
“He’s on that upward trajectory right now.”
“Still trying to figure some things out.”
The QB discussion will continue into August. Padilla, who had nice zip on the ball Saturday but bumbled some snaps, has kept his hat in the ring.
There were some strong performances from backups Saturday. One that stood out was running back Gavin Williams. And with Ferentz saying Kelly-Martin (ACL surgery in December) was on track to return this summer, the Hawkeyes have to feel really good about running back — which was a question mark entering the spring.
Freshman wide receiver Arland Bruce IV absolutely looks like a tool Iowa needs to use this fall. He is dangerous in space and broke off a few long-gainers with the second-team offense Saturday.
Backup defensive linemen Lukas Van Ness and Ethan Hurkett were extremely active.
Ferentz noted linebacker Jestin Jacobs has gone from good prospect to good player this spring.
Sebastian Castro was running with the No. 1 unit at the cash (fifth defensive back) spot in Iowa’s 4-2-5, with Hankins and Belton down. Ferentz said he feels Iowa has six starting defensive backs at the moment.
How will Iowa fare in the fall? More depth needs to emerge. The team needs to get healthier. The quarterback play needs to be better.
But it seems safe to say the Hawkeyes will have some star power come September.
“The guys we think are really quality players have proven themselves as quality players,” Ferentz said. “They’ve had a really good attitude all the way through spring.
"That sounds mundane, but … you don’t always see that, especially with older guys. They sometimes think it’s spring break instead of spring practice. They’ve gone out and shown the other guys that this is the time you’re supposed to work, and the other guys are chasing them.”
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.