Leistikow: The importance of Arland Bruce IV, Keagan Johnson to Iowa football in 2022
IOWA CITY — On a recent afternoon inside the Hansen Performance Center, Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson stood just a few feet apart as they conducted interviews about the Iowa football season ahead, close enough that they could hear what one another was saying to reporters.
Their proximity was notable … and par for the course. Because it seems like their journeys have been intertwined since enrolling in January 2021 as University of Iowa students and wide receivers for the Hawkeyes.
Their impressive work habits got them onto the field as true freshmen last fall.
And after offseason attrition that included the transfers of Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Charlie Jones to Purdue, these 19-year-old sophomores — born just 13 days apart — are suddenly being relied upon to carry a bulk of the receiver position for the 2022 Hawkeyes.
“Our time is now,” Johnson said. “Both of us, this is kind of what we asked for coming into college, to make an impact. That opportunity is here, and we both need to maximize (it).”
The opportunity is exciting to them individually, but … it could be a precarious situation going forward for the Hawkeyes. Bruce and Johnson comprise 33% of Iowa’s scholarship receivers. That Johnson was sidelined for all of spring practice with an abdominal issue that cropped up on the eve of the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl shows how fragile it can be to rely heavily on a small group of players.
With that in mind and the importance of every set of hands, let’s buzz through Iowa’s six scholarship receivers … and the wild-card walk-ons that might be pitching in.
Arland Bruce IV (5-foot-10, 198 pounds), sophomore
While almost everyone was surprised about Jones’ May departure, Bruce was among the few that wasn’t. He and Jones lived together, and Bruce was aware that the Big Ten return specialist of the year might be leaving. But he kept that information private.
Bruce now becomes one of the top candidates to replace Jones as Iowa’s lead punt returner and will see his snaps go up at receiver, as well. To prepare for a bigger role, Bruce has added more bulk. He took a couple big pops last year — including a whopper vs. Penn State — while playing slot receiver. That role requires players to operate in the middle of the field, where the bigger players roam.
“I’m close to 200 right now but I feel like I’ve maintained or even gained speed,” Bruce said.
Where Bruce feels he has grown the most, though, is in understanding how defenses are trying to slow him down.
“Last year, I was just kind of out there running routes,” Bruce said. “Now I can adjust to what the corners are doing, what the safeties are doing. Timing is everything; timing with (quarterback) Spencer (Petras), timing with Alex (Padilla), it’s a lot better than it was last year.”
Bruce will be used as a weapon in the jet-sweep game (three of his four touchdowns as a freshman were rushing) and is clearly one of the top playmakers on the team with short-area quickness.
Keagan Johnson (6-1, 194), sophomore
Learning how to process mental reps was one of the most difficult challenges for Johnson in the spring, as he could only watch practices from the sideline. He was held out of any contact activity as he recovered from a non-specified issue in his abdomen. In one interview, Johnson said he was 90% healthy. In another, he said 100%. He's getting there.
“It was tough being out because I had never dealt with a major injury before,” Johnson said. “You’re just so used to running around and playing football.”
Johnson became a big-moment receiver for the Hawkeyes last season. He averaged 19.6 yards on his 18 receptions; one was a game-changing, 42-yard catch-and-run against then-No. 3 Penn State in the fourth quarter. Another was a sniffed-out wide receiver screen against Minnesota that Johnson turned into a 27-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown. The trouble last year was consistency for Johnson, who had some rough games as well (including at Wisconsin and Nebraska).
Johnson is one of Iowa’s fastest players and runs smooth-looking routes. The Hawkeyes need him to not only stay healthy but to have a breakout sophomore campaign as a chunk-yardage threat.
Nico Ragaini (6-0, 196), senior
Ragaini’s numbers and snap count suffered toward the end of the season. He had some bad drops against Illinois. And despite Iowa missing Johnson in the Citrus Bowl, Ragaini had no catches despite increased playing time. In a recent interview, Ragaini admitted last season he took his “head off the game because maybe I'm not getting the ball that much.”
Iowa needs him to regain the 46-catch form of his 2019 campaign, and Petras (the No. 1 quarterback and one of his roommates) sees signs of a resurgence.
“I love what I’m seeing from Nico and just the leadership he’s putting out, making sure the young guys are growing,” Petras said.
Brody Brecht (6-4, 217), freshman; Diante Vines (6-0, 198), sophomore; Jacob Bostick (6-2, 171) freshman
Most of Brecht’s spring headlines were surrounding his 101 mph fastball for Rick Heller’s baseball team. Vines remains a mystery, as we’ve barely seen him to date. Bostic (from Palatine, Illinois) has been on campus for barely a month but is turning heads.
“Jacob Bostick is a freshman to watch. Quote me on that,” Bruce said. “He’s lengthy, he’s fast, he has good speed. He just got here, and I think he’s already impressed a lot of people.”
Bostick uncorked a 23-foot, 6-inch long jump in May as a high school senior. If he can grasp the offense quickly, Iowa won't be afraid to play him ... as it did with Ihmir Smith-Marsette in 2017. Bostick and Brecht give Iowa its best chance of a traditional “X” receiver that would allow offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to move Johnson into the “Z” role vacated by Jones.
This is certainly the time for an unheralded receiver to make his mark, much like Nick Easley did for a decimated receivers room in 2017. We saw Jackson Ritter (6-3, 209) become a fifth or sixth option on occasion last season. He’s still in the mix. Three other names surfaced during spring practice: sophomore Jack Johnson (6-0, 194) from West Des Moines Valley; redshirt freshman Alec Wick (6-1, 196) from Iowa City Regina; and sophomore Kaden Wetjen (5-10, 191) from Williamsburg, by way of Iowa Western Community College.
Bruce and cornerback Riley Moss said Wetjen might be the fastest player on the team. While playing with the backups, Wetjen was arguably the most impressive receiver in the Iowa spring game.
“He might be top two. He’s fast,” Moss said. “We’ve got some fast dudes now."
Even though quarterbacks and receivers have started 7-on-7 drills, they're being careful about workloads because of the thin numbers.
"We’re trying to toe the line between getting the work we need and running them too much," Petras said. "The worst thing would be for a guy to pull a (hamstring) right before camp."
This is a very young, unproven position group.
With question marks in performance at quarterback and offensive line already in the spotlight, Iowa football needs both Bruce and Johnson to have dependable, productive years.
“I’m not too worried,” Johnson said. “ I’m confident in the guys we have in our room.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.