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Leistikow: Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras sees benefits of studying Alabama's Mac Jones


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Spencer Petras understands that he hasn’t sold every Iowa football fan that he is the best quarterback for their favorite team. 

But he also knows he doesn’t have to waste time impressing them or those of us in the media. All he needs to do is convince head coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe that he’s deserving of a second year as the Hawkeyes’ starter.

“Everyone has their own opinion, and that’s OK,” Petras said Tuesday, as Iowa players spoke with the media for the first time since December. “No offense to the fans, I could care less about what they have to say about my performance.”

Objectively speaking, it’s fair to wonder what the guys behind Petras — namely Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan, who both had Georgia scholarship offers — can do. And we should get a few glimpses of them this spring, with scheduled open practices at Kinnick Stadium on April 17 and May 1.

It’s also fair to accept Kirk Ferentz’s viewpoint of Petras’ first season as a starter: He was imperfect, sure, without the benefit of a full offseason program due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But he showed improvement as the season progressed and helped Iowa win its final six games, including a 28-7 win against rival Wisconsin, after the 0-2 start.

That’s why Ferentz said last week in his spring-opening comments of Petras: “This guy just operates how you’d want a quarterback to.”

More: Leistikow: 5 spring storylines facing Iowa football, Kirk Ferentz

I understand why fans are apprehensive about Petras; he could likely be the key factor in whether or not Iowa meets or exceeds high expectations in 2021. The Hawkeyes were tabbed No. 12 nationally in ESPN’s way-too-early rankings in January, the highest of any Big Ten West team.

Iowa had high expectations in 2014, too, but became too reliant on the incumbent starting quarterback who too often was underwhelming. It wasn’t until C.J. Beathard was handed the reins in 2015 and Jake Rudock transferred that the Hawkeyes flourished.

Petras wouldn’t say it this way, but he doesn’t want to be remembered as Jake Rudock, circa 2014. Iowa was the Big Ten West favorite that season but went 7-6 with a generous schedule that didn’t include Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State.

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

Spencer Petras' goal: A higher completion percentage

The best way for Petras to win over the fans and take the Hawkeyes to new heights, as Beathard eventually did?

To put his Tuesday words into on-field actions.

Petras outlined one thing that he’s laser-focused on improving: His completion percentage. It was at 57.1% last season, which ranked 84th of 108 qualifying quarterbacks at the FBS level.

The target he and coaches have set for this season: 65%.

“At least,” Petras said.

As Petras sees it, improvement will come from two areas of focus.

More: Leistikow's 5 Iowa football thoughts: QB competition coming, but Spencer Petras has lead

“Taking gifts more efficiently. So, if I have an easy completion, I might as well take it,” Petras said. “And the other big thing is ball placement on these timing routes. That's an area where I know I can improve. And I have the last eight weeks.”

Petras studying former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones

One of the players Petras studied intently in the offseason was Alabama’s Mac Jones, who like Petras operates mostly from the pocket. Of course, Jones had two surefire first-round NFL Draft picks at his disposal last season in Jaylen Waddle and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.

But even so, Jones was so accurate on short throws that he led FBS with a phenomenal 77.4% completion rate. One of the reasons Jones averaged 12.8 yards per attempt (Petras averaged half that, 6.4) was that he put the ball in precise spots on quick-hitting pass routes. But Jones, too, was able to air it out with Alabama's elite outside speed.

“A lot of what Mac Jones was able to do was just, ‘Oh, they want to get seven guys in the box? I’m just going to throw an out route to DeVonta Smith in stride and let him run with it,’” Petras said. “It’s a similar thing I can do in this offense and making sure the playmakers can catch the ball and run with it."

Listening to Petras on Tuesday served as a window into the Hawkeyes’ offensive philosophy for 2021. Certainly, the running game will be a focal point, with all-American center Tyler Linderbaum and first-team all-Big Ten running back Tyler Goodson returning. But the Hawkeyes think they can do damage with their receiving playmakers, like Tyrone Tracy Jr., Nico Ragaini and Charlie Jones. Some young names came up Tuesday, too, including true freshmen Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV.

Crisp routes and precise execution — the kind that Iowa hopes comes with a full complement of spring practices — is what Petras is banking on. He knows, at times, he held the football too long in the pocket last fall.

"Depending on the concept, 2.5 (seconds) or lower (from snap to release), then we’re going to be in good shape," Petras said. 

Multiple times, Petras referred to that 65% completion number. That's what he's focused on, not a quarterback competition.

More: Leistikow: How the Hawkeyes' 2020 football season will (and should be) remembered

“It's kind of silly to worry about anything except how I play,” Petras said, “and the way I do things."

This will play out over time. Tuesday marked Iowa's fourth practice out of 15 this spring.

Let’s be honest, if Petras follows through on what he’s working on, he’ll win over a lot more fans ... and maybe the Big Ten West.

“He’s one of the most genuine guys on the team. A great leader,” free safety Jack Koerner said Tuesday. “You couldn’t find a harder worker on our team. Everybody on the team has an immense amount of respect for him, including myself.

“I’m excited to see what comes from that, because he’s worked his butt off.”

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.