Leistikow's spring 'game' observations on the Hawkeyes' offense

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A year ago, Nate Stanley came into Iowa’s spring-finishing practice battling for the starting quarterback job.

He completed 6 of 16 passes on that night for 17 yards. Yet he would go on to the win the job and, that fall, nearly set the Hawkeyes’ single-season record for touchdown passes.

That’s the backdrop to say that to attempt to evaluate what transpired Friday night at Kinnick Stadium takes digging deeper than the numbers.

Nick Niemann tackles Max Cooper during open practice at Kinnick Stadium Friday, April 20, 2018.

Let’s look at what stuck out on the offensive side of the football in front of an estimated 9,300 fans on a pleasant night.

6 possessions, 0 touchdowns for the first-team offense.

A bad sign? Well, like I said ... let’s not look too hard at the numbers. But here were Stanley’s anyway in his six possessions of 11-on-11 time: 12-for-24, 120 yards with two interceptions — one an all-star read by Amani Hooker on a throwback to T.J. Hockenson that head coach Kirk Ferentz said hadn't been covered all spring; the other by Jake Gervase on a tipped ball (also by Hooker) over the middle.

Beyond those miscues, though, Stanley showed confidence; his throws showed his usual zip, but with more precision. On the offense’s second possession, Stanley whirled a dart to Ihmir Smith-Marsette for 13 yards along the right sideline. He looked especially comfortable in the two-minute drill.

Again, behind the numbers … it's clear this junior quarterback has taken control of this team.

“He’s more stern in the huddle. He’s saying things with more authority,” senior center Keegan Render said, acknowledging the growth. “… Just maturity-wise, he’s stepped up and really embraced the leadership role he’s been put into.”

Defensive lineman Anthony Nelson added that Stanley has had far fewer tipped balls at the line of scrimmage this spring than even in the fall.

That’s a sign of Stanley being more comfortable, more precise.

After Friday’s action, Stanley said the one thing he’s been working on is completion percentage. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz wants it above 60; it was only 50 on Friday, but two balls were dropped (by Fant and Smith-Marsette).

Plus, Stanley clammed up and grinned when asked how much of the Brian Ferentz offense was shown tonight.

“Umm …,” he said. “I think that’s something you can ask the coaches.”

Translation: Not much.

Welcome, Max Cooper, latest spring sensation.

The line of spring receiving stars is long ... and often become fall flame-outs at Iowa. Don Nordmann was mentioned in my timeline; there’s been Derrick Willies, Cam Wilson, Jay Scheel. None of them panned out as Hawkeyes.

Cooper has the next shot to buck that trend. A slick-looking 6-foot, 185-pound true sophomore, he caught eight balls (including at least one from all four quarterbacks) for 82 yards Friday.

Kirk Ferentz snickered at the spring-"game" sensation jinx question.

“The good news is it wasn’t just today. But it wasn’t much more than today. That’s the bad news,” Ferentz quipped of Cooper, noting his non-descript first four weeks of spring ball. But…

“The last couple days, he’s come alive. It’s, like, ‘There is a guy wearing Number 19 out there,’ ” Ferentz added. “Hopefully, that’s the start of a trend and not just a blip on the radar screen.”

With Nick Easley and Kyle Groeneweg out while nursing minor soft-tissue injuries, Cooper was given an opportunity to shine — and he certainly did. For one night. For now.

The other quarterbacks … Hey, they might be OK.

Behind Stanley, Iowa might have something. That was one of the night’s notable takeaways, as redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell showed a nice skill set and comfort in the pocket.

Mansell was running the scout team in the fall. Now, he’s the No. 2 quarterback — mostly by default — after the transfers of Tyler Wiegers and Ryan Boyle. And the 6-2, 210-pound Texan looked like another former Hawkeye quarterbacking Texan back there (Drew Tate).

With more scrambling ability than Stanley, Mansell moved around to complete 8 of 9 passes for 75 yards. (His only incompletion was a certain touchdown if he had thrown it on target to Nico Ragaini.)

Mansell even scrambled for a 9-yard gain with a shifty dance in the red zone on third-and-long.

Ferentz was complimentary of both Mansell and true freshman Spencer Petras, who early-enrolled in January but showed poise in the pocket.

"(Mansell) was really struggling in August. Really struggling ... but he's really progressed," Ferentz said. "I think he's a lot closer to being able to go into a game than he was.

"And Petras has surprised us a little bit. He's caught onto things a little quicker than you might imagine. We'll see what happens there."

At football's most important position, progress is a good thing.

And lastly ... What about the run game?

Iowa spent most of the open practice working on the passing game. But, obviously, the Hawkeyes are going to want to pound the football come September.

I continue to be very impressed with what Toren Young brings to the table. The redshirt sophomore has the kind of power that a churning running game needs. I had him gaining 25 yards on his three carries. The Hawkeye coaches, understandably, didn't want to add mileage to their listed No. 1 back at a thin position.

The offensive line was surprisingly stout, even with two listed starters (Ross Reynolds and Levi Paulsen) out. It only allowed one sack of Stanley, not a bad performance."

The O-line, Ferentz said, is "kind of like our football team. We have a chance, but we’re not very deep. And we have a lot of work to do. But I think we’ve made progress.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.