Leistikow: Petras, Iowa wide receivers working on 'everything in the playbook' during pandemic

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa football’s strength and position coaches have been driving home a consistent message to Hawkeye players scattered around the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.

With the green light given Friday by the University of Iowa for football players to return to the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City starting June 8, the Hawkeyes have been working so that they can hit the ground running. 

And from Zoom calls between three Hawkeye football seniors and media members Thursday, it’s clear that players have been creative about making up for lost time together.

Defensive tackle Austin Schulte is back in his native Pella. Battling his 190-pound younger brother, who will be a high school sophomore, isn’t exactly how he pictured preparing for his fifth and final year at Iowa.

Hearing Schulte explain his cobbled-together home setup provides a glimpse into the improvisation this pandemic has created. A garage delivery of weight bars and 45-pound plates, courtesy of strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, helped stock the new training area. Then, Schulte’s carpentry skills came into play.

“I built a weight bench and a squat rack out of 2-by-4s and put a pull-up bar in my garage,” Schulte said. “That’s what I’ve been using for the last couple of months. It was difficult to get (the rack) to stand up and hold the weight I needed it to. But I got it all braced up, and it’s doing well.”

Schulte is one of dozens of displaced Hawkeyes around the country.

Those who have remained in Iowa City have gotten more together time.

It doesn’t make up for missing spring practices, but it’s something.

Shown during 2019 spring practice, defensive end Chauncey Golston (left) and defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon (right) have been training together in Iowa City during the pandemic.

For example, defensive end Chauncey Golston lives with four football players, including defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon. Both are expected to be leaders for a D-line that must restock after losing three starters. Golston said he and Nixon have “been really getting after it” with their training.

Mutual motivation helps, but Golston noted it still doesn’t replicate the usual strength-training routine at Iowa — where 30 players at a time cycle through Doyle’s doors in two-hour shifts. It remains unclear how many players will be allowed into the football building at once, come June 8; Ohio State has said it'll allow 10 at a time.

“I was just talking to (receiver) Brandon Smith about that today. I want to get in there as soon as possible,” Golston said. “Sometimes you wake up and without having a structured day, you’re like, ‘Do I actually want to go downstairs to the garage and lift?’

“Yeah, I’m going to do it. But when I’m in a facility, there’s no asking myself if I want to do it. You have to do it. I really want to get back in there and be around my guys.”

Golston and teammates have meticulously scoured Iowa City for practice fields. They first got shooed from turf surfaces at City High, then West High. Grass fields were more accessible, but those created more injury risk with the wet conditions of late. They circled back to West and haven’t had access problems since.

Perhaps the position group that can get the most beneficial on-field practice time during this pandemic?

Ihmir Smith-Marsette appeared on a Zoom call with Iowa reporters Thursday.

The wide receivers.

And, Ihmir Smith-Marsette reported, those in Iowa City are getting together about every other day to replicate practice as much as possible. Smith-Marsette, Smith and Nico Ragaini are among the core wideouts in town, with workouts typically organized by new starting quarterback Spencer Petras.

Center Tyler Linderbaum, a Solon native, also joins the group to replicate the timing of snaps.

What specifically can they work on?

“Everything in the playbook,” Smith-Marsette said. “We make sure we’re getting that timing down. You can’t free-wheel routes. Because when you’re running routes that matter, it’s not going to be the same.”

Lost practice time is most damaging to a revamped defense that must develop chemistry, especially in the zone system based on angles and spacing that coordinator Phil Parker teaches. The offensive line needs man-on-man reps to refine technique and master schemes.

But without team practice, a quarterback and his receivers can still do much of what they could have done in spring ball.

On that note, Smith-Marsette is bullish about this Hawkeye offense, whenever games can be played. There is some mystery surrounding Petras, who takes over for three-year starter and Minnesota Vikings draft pick Nate Stanley. Smith-Marsette said that Petras’ throws arrive with less zip than Stanley’s, otherwise the skill sets are similar.

Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette scored three touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl: one rushing, one receiving and one on a kickoff return.

He also noted that the receivers group is hungry. While Ragaini (team-high 46 catches), Smith-Marsette (44), Smith (37) and Tyrone Tracy Jr. (36) had strong seasons, he points out nobody's had a 1,000-yard season or is expected to be a high NFL Draft pick. Of note, Smith-Marsette stressed tight end Sam LaPorta — who had six catches in the 49-24 Holiday Bowl rout of USC to complete his true-freshman year — is “a big addition.”

“We’ve got everything we need. Then we’ve got a quarterback that in high school broke Jared Goff’s records,” Smith-Marsette said. “… I have thought about how dangerous and explosive this offense can get when things get rolling, especially when somebody gets hot. It could get really wild.”

Quotes like that naturally can ramp up excitement for football again.

Which is a reminder of something Doyle said on a Zoom call last month: That based on player work ethic and access to weights, training during COVID-19 could be a period of “advantage Iowa” vs. other programs.

Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.