IOWA CITY, Ia. — On Friday, Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe was telling reporters that he was a long way from making a decision on who will backup Nate Stanley this fall.
“They haven’t separated,” O’Keefe said of the competition between Peyton Mansell and Spencer Petras, which is now in its second year. “They’re kind of up and down a little bit every day.”
On Saturday, it was Petras who passed the eye test during the Hawkeyes’ only open scrimmage this month. The redshirt freshman from California completed 18 of 25 passes for 208 yards and the lone touchdown through the air of the afternoon, in an unofficial statistical tally.
Mansell had some fine moments, but was shakier overall, completing 9 of 18 passes for 97 yards with one interception on a deep pass that was delivered too late and too short for an open Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Cornerback Micheal Ojemudia easily read the play and loped over to secure the football in front of Smith-Marsette.
“We worked both those guys a lot today. We’ll let them continue to compete with each other,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after the Kids Day scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium.
Ferentz didn’t want to comment on his quarterbacks’ performance before watching tape of it. He said at Friday’s Media Day that he anticipates making a decision on the backup spot by Aug. 21, 10 days before the opening game against Miami of Ohio.
Both Mansell and Petras got plenty of chances to work with the starting offense and against the starting defense Saturday. O'Keefe said that strategy is designed to let them show what they can truly do when surrounded by the top athletes on the team. Both quarterbacks also faced plenty of blitzes, another way to test them (and the blocking skills of the running backs, Ferentz said).
Petras on Friday was able to articulate exactly what he thinks O’Keefe wants to see when making the call on who would come into the game in the event something happened to Stanley, a senior who is entering his third year as the starter.
“Coach O’Keefe really stresses being able to get us in and out of the huddle, getting to the line, get us in the right play and get the ball snapped and get the ball out to the right player as soon as possible,” Petras said. “The guy that does that the best I think will separate himself.”
It was just one glimpse at Iowa’s eighth practice of the summer session. But Petras surely put himself in good position by what he did late in Saturday’s 113-minute scrimmage.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder completed 11 of 12 passes in one stretch, including a 5-yard scoring pass to tight end Nate Wieting after a play-action fake and while rolling to his right. That segment of play included a 22-yard strike to Oliver Martin in which the Iowa City native leapt near the sideline to snare a pass in heavy traffic.
Iowa’s coaches handed the ball to Petras at his 28-yard line at one point, putting 1 minute, 21 seconds on the clock and instructing him that he had one timeout to use. He methodically moved the starting offense down the field, facing frequent blitzes and showing that he recognized them in advance and knew right where to put the ball.
That included an 11-yard pass to Nico Ragaini, an 8-yarder to Martin and 4 yards to Ragaini again. The blitzing stopped and Petras found tight end Drew Cook over the middle for gains of 10 and 15 yards.
That drive ended with a 45-yard Caleb Shudak field goal. It was the clear offensive highlight on a day often dominated by the Hawkeye defense.
Mansell, a redshirt sophomore from Texas, was slow out of the gate, misfiring on his first three pass attempts Saturday. His seventh pass was picked off. He followed that with a 36-yard heave to Wieting after niftily escaping pressure. He later took off for a 32-yard run.
At 6-2, 208 pounds, Mansell knows his mobility is one of his biggest assets. But he also knows he can’t rely on it exclusively. So he’s working on being a better passer from the pocket this season.
“When you’re young, you’re just trying to run and gun. But nowadays, you get in the pocket and you see how hard these guys are working up front for you. So when you can sit in the pocket as well as these guys have been letting me, it’s really nice to be able to just rip throws,” Mansell said Friday.
“Being mobile is definitely something that’s part of my game. But at the same time, it’s not something that I need to be doing every play in practice. I’m trying to get through my reads better and better every day.”
Mansell connected on his final three throws Saturday, a line drive to Cook in traffic over the middle for 17 yards, a perfectly placed 15-yarder to Shadrick Byrd flaring out of the backfield and a 7-yard check-down to tight end Bryce Schulte.
Mansell got into five games last year in mop-up duty, completing 5 of 8 passes for 83 yards and one interception. He also rushed for 31 yards and a touchdown. He remembers the message he got from offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz before running onto the Kinnick Stadium field for the first time in a contest that counted. It was the season opener against Northern Illinois.
“He said, ‘I have no doubt that you’re going to go out and make a play,’” Mansell recalled.
Sure enough, his debut play was a 30-yard completion to Wieting. Mansell said things seemed to happen slower on the field than he was anticipating. That gave him confidence.
But that alone won’t give him the backup job over Petras. The next week is a big one for the young quarterbacks, Ferentz said. There's another scrimmage next Saturday, closed to the public, but a big opening for Petras or Mansell to prove themselves.
O’Keefe, who's seen it all when it comes to college quarterbacks at age 65, is confident one of his backups will rise up soon.
“I’ve never known it not to separate itself,” he said. “If that were to occur, then we’d have some difficult decisions to make on our own. If you can’t measure it off of production or statistical information, you’ve got to do it on your gut. That can be OK at times.
“There’s got to be a breaking point that somebody usually will take advantage of.”
No one is suggesting that that breaking point occurred Saturday. But Petras certainly didn’t hurt his chances.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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