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

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Every year, Kirk Ferentz says in one way or another that all starting spots are open for competition for his Iowa football team. So, the fact that he acknowledged on Wednesday that there will be an open competition for the quarterback job in 2021 was not groundbreaking news.

“Yeah, we plan on an open competition. But the record shows that Spencer Petras has done a really good job,” Ferentz said Wednesday, in his first press conference since the Sunday after Christmas, when the Music City Bowl was abruptly canceled. “He’s our starter right now. So, somebody's got to beat him out. But it's got to be a fair competition.”

That last line is the big one to remember: It’s got to be a fair competition.

While staunchly and regularly touting the improvement that Petras made during Iowa’s 6-2, pandemic-shortened season in 2020, Ferentz consistently lamented how the lack of spring-practice repetitions forced him to learn on the job. Now, Ferentz and his staff need to take that same approach with young returning quarterbacks Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan. They need spring reps as much as Petras does.

Padilla chose Iowa despite a scholarship offer from Georgia; so did Hogan. They had other good options. They came here to play, not to be a backup. Provided they've done everything right off the field, it’s important to see what they can do running the first-team offense.

This is not a position that can be automatically given to the incumbent. To Petras’ credit, he had his best game in arguably Iowa’s best win in the season finale — 28-7 against longtime nemesis Wisconsin. He deserves praise for helping to end Iowa's six-game losing streak to Penn State with a 41-21 win in Happy Valley. But he showed plenty of inconsistency and inaccuracy, too. Petras was 11th out of 13 qualifying Big Ten Conference quarterbacks in passing efficiency and 10th in completion percentage.

His uneven performances left some fans (and media) curious if there could be someone better behind him.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz congratulates quarterback Spencer Petras (7) after the Dec. 5 win at Illinois, in which the Hawkeyes overcame a 14-0 deficit to win, 35-21.

“He’s a tremendous guy, a tremendous leader. As a starting quarterback, he won 75% of our games. That’s not shabby,” Ferentz said. “But we expect him to improve, like we expect everybody to.

“Spencer’s got a huge head start, because he’s got eight starts under his belt, and I think he’s learned from experiences. One of the things I really commend him on is learning during the course of the game.”

Assuming Iowa can get 15 spring practices in (that would be 15 more than last year), those are 15 chances for Padilla and/or Hogan to show enough to push the quarterback competition into August. At the same time, those are 15 chances for Petras to exert his control of the job and show the improvement coaches want to see. If he does that, he deserves to be named the starter, and Padilla and Hogan can compete for QB2.

The 2021 Hawkeyes should be terrific on the offensive line, at linebacker, in the secondary, on special teams. They bring back a first-team all-Big Ten Conference running back. They’ve still got playmakers at receiver. This is a team that’s built to win the Big Ten West. But it has to get quarterback right.

In 2013 and 2014, Iowa was just OK with Jake Rudock at the helm. He went 14-11 as a starter. But many wondered then what C.J. Beathard could do. Once Beathard was given a shot in 2015, he elevated the Hawkeyes to a historic 12-0 regular season. This time, the Iowa staff knows it needs to make sure it’s not overlooking a more promising backup.

Ferentz is now on the record; he understands that.

“I wouldn't be doing my job; none of us as coaches would be doing our job,” Ferentz said, “if we don't create a situation where guys have a chance to show their growth, their development.”

Alex Padilla is entering his third spring on Iowa's campus; the redshirt sophomore from Colorado has developed nicely, Kirk Ferentz says. He was Spencer Petras' backup in 2020.

Where will Iowa fit all its defensive backfield pieces?

That’s a great problem to have. The Hawkeyes are flush in the secondary, with two names on board that they might not have expected: Matt Hankins and Xavior Williams. Both are on Iowa’s spring roster, and Ferentz spoke to both situations for the first time Wednesday.

Hankins will now have a chance to be a fifth-year starting cornerback at Iowa, opting to return to school rather than turning pro. Hankins (6 feet, 180 pounds) has 27 career starts under his belt and is solid in every way — in pass coverage and as a tackler.

“He came to the conclusion that another year of football would be good for him. He’s excited to be back here,” Ferentz said. “That’s one thing I make clear to anybody that’s thinking about staying or leaving. There’s no sense staying if your heart isn’t in it and you don’t have both feet right here, firm and committed to it. He’s enthused about it. I just saw him about two hours ago and he is doing well.”

Also joining Hankins at corner is Williams, the graduate transfer from Northern Iowa. Williams (5-11, 190) was an all-Missouri Valley Conference player and is considered an NFL prospect. He racked up nine interceptions at UNI while playing two years at cornerback, then one at safety.

“We’ll probably start him out at corner, but we think he has position flexibility,” Ferentz said. “It’s a long year, a long road ahead. We’re anxious to get him on the field and learn more about him in spring football.”

In other words: Williams will have to outplay a returning starter to earn a starting spot. Iowa returns all five starters from the back end of its salty 4-2-5 defense: Hankins and senior Riley Moss at corner; junior Dane Belton at cash; and junior Kaevon Merriweather and senior Jack Koerner at safeties. That’s a slew of experience for Phil Parker’s secondary, which should be the strength of Iowa’s 2021 defense.

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Matt Hankins started in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl as a true freshman. Thus, he will enter the 2021 season with four years of starting experience.

Before we go further, let’s note: Iowa will list players on its roster as if last season counted against their eligibility.

There is nothing to be read into that. But clerically speaking, it’s important to understand as we continue to write about the Hawkeyes’ roster from year to year. Because it can be confusing to wonder how much eligibility a guy has left, considering the 2020 season didn’t count against anyone’s eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, Petras, receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. and center Tyler Linderbaum are entering their fourth years in the Iowa program. All three have used their traditional redshirt year. And now all three have had a COVID-19 year. Iowa lists them as redshirt juniors, instead of redshirt sophomores. According to UI sports information director Steve Roe, if a player opts to eventually take advantage of his free COVID-19 year, he will just be listed as a senior in back-to-back years.

That makes sense for us, too, in reporting on the topic — to be consistent with how Iowa lists eligibility. So, going forward, I’ll describe Petras as a redshirt junior. I’ll also list running back Tyler Goodson, in his third year in the program, as a junior instead of a redshirt sophomore to be consistent with how Iowa lists him. And so on.

Spring practice has been pushed back a week, and there will be no public spring game.

Sorry, folks. As much as it would be a welcomed thought to have 10,000, socially distanced fans at Kinnick Stadium on a beautiful spring day to watch two hours of a football scrimmage, that’s not happening for the second straight year. Ferentz was adamant that working to limit the spread of COVID-19 remains the top priority this spring.

That also means media interviews will continue to be on Zoom, which isn’t our first choice, either. Hopefully, the media will be allowed into the press box for a spring scrimmage so we can get a better idea about some younger players and report back to you. Let's hope we are nearing normal by then. Iowa doesn’t have a firm spring plan yet. It’s in pencil, Ferentz noted. But look for a start date of spring practice around March 31. Iowa typically uses its 15 permitted practices over five weeks … which would mean an early-May finish. It would be a victory to get those practices in.

If another Jack Heflin comes along, Ferentz would take him. But he likes his current crop of (young) defensive linemen.

Defensive line and quarterback are probably the two biggest offseason story lines for this 2021 Iowa team. How does Iowa replace consensus all-American defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, Heflin (a perfect fit as a grad transfer tackle) and probable draft pick and first-team all-Big Ten defensive end in Chauncey Golston?

Ferentz offered encouraging comments on this topic, saying he trusts the development that's taken place with his coaching staff. Defensive line coaches Kelvin Bell and Jay Niemann certainly deserve credit for elevating last season's line, and they have a lot of young prospects (especially from the recruiting class of 2020). We just don't know much about names like Yahya Black, Isaiah Bruce, Deontae Craig, Logan Jones, Logan Lee, Lukas Van Ness yet.

"If it makes sense, yeah, we'll definitely entertain (grad transfer) offers," Ferentz said. "But we have a lot of guys on campus that we feel good about. We're eager to see them. Hopefully, we'll get that opportunity and learn more about them this spring."

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.