Leistikow: With a desire to be great, Iowa's Spencer Petras hires QB guru in New Jersey

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

A private coach who is working with Spencer Petras over the next week on the East Coast thinks Iowa’s presumed starting quarterback is poised to take a big step forward this season for the Hawkeyes.

“I see big things coming for him,” Tony Racioppi said Thursday.

Racioppi is in his eighth year as a quarterback guru at the TEST Football Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey — not far from the campus at Rutgers. A former Division III passing star at Rowan College, Racioppi also is a primary counselor at the famous Manning Passing Academy every summer and said he’s had 25 of his quarterbacks sign in the NFL.

One of those quarterbacks is three-year Iowa starter Nate Stanley, who Racioppi worked with ahead of the 2020 NFL Draft. Stanley’s connection to Racioppi led to Petras’ trip out East. 

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras, left, holds the No. 1 job coming out of spring practice but Kirk Ferentz said backup Alex Padilla has closed the gap.

Another half-dozen or so FBS quarterbacks are also being trained by Racioppi this week, as spring practices have wrapped up nationwide. And now hungry signal callers like Petras are soaking up supplemental training.

In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Racioppi said he wanted to make clear that Petras' hiring him shouldn't be seen as a knock on the Iowa coaching staff. In fact, Racioppi said he and Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe are in regular contact. Racioppi also coaches a Class of 2023 quarterback, Marco Lainez, that Iowa has offered.

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“(Petras) is trying to find ways to make himself better,” Racioppi said. “Coach O’Keefe lets me know what stuff he wants him to get better at, and that’s what we’ll do.”

By NCAA rule, Iowa position coaches can’t work with players on the field from now until fall training camp. Even with the valuable 15 spring practices Iowa completed on May 1, Racioppi noted, there’s not much daily time devoted to fundamentals.

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Practice time is consumed by a lot of team drills, throwing balls to receivers, and learning the offense.

Petras might be lucky to get 12 or 15 minutes of fundamental work in one Iowa practice. On Wednesday, in his first workout ever with Racioppi, Petras got 1 hour, 40 minutes of one-on-one training. Racioppi posted several videos on Twitter of Petras working on certain throws.

What is Petras working on with Racioppi?

While not delving into painstaking specifics, Racioppi pointed out some areas that Petras is working on that are common problem spots for most quarterbacks: Consistency and footwork.

“It’s how to make balanced, straight throws. How to be more consistent. Adding accuracy,” Racioppi said. “A lot of times there’s untapped velocity in their bodies; they’re either a little forward in their body weight or they’ve relied too much on their arms as younger kids. It’s figuring out ways to use their body to make throws, and let the arm be a byproduct of that.”

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Certainly, inconsistency was one of Petras’ biggest knocks in his first season as a Hawkeyes starter. Among 108 qualifying FBS quarterbacks last season, Petras’ 57.1% completion rate ranked 84th. Petras in April expressed his desire to up that rate to 65% as a junior. Still, Petras won his final six Iowa starts of 2020 after an 0-2 start, an encouraging sign of his resiliency and ability to improve.

Petras could just as well be enjoying this rare break from the college football calendar. But the fact that he’s out East, on Iowa’s final-exams week, underscores his dedication to improvement.

“They’re little tweaks. He’s not way off," Racioppi said. "I’m just showing him things that I think can take his game to another level."

Petras has more work to do to retain the Hawkeyes’ starting job; head coach Kirk Ferentz noted on May 1 that backup Alex Padilla had closed the gap in the quarterback competition. But with a daunting first two games of the season against opponents that finished in the national top 12 a year ago — home against Indiana on Sept. 5, then at Iowa State on Sept. 12 — there is urgency for Iowa’s quarterback to hit the ground running when fall camp begins.

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'I think you're going to see a big jump this year'

Racioppi said the tentative plan is for Petras to return to New Jersey in mid-July for more personal training.  

“I think you’re going to see a big jump this year, just because he had a spring practice with the staff and his teammates,” Racioppi said. “Obviously, he’s putting the time in over the summer to get better fundamentally. I think you’re going to see a kid who’s just going to keep progressing and get better, because he wants to be. He’s got the ability. He’s got a great arm. He’s got pretty good feet for a big kid, too.

“Whatever we fix, it’s going to be a muscle memory thing now.”

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As a side note, Racioppi has remained in close contact with Stanley, who was a seventh-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2020. After one season in Minneapolis, his backup job could be in jeopardy after the Vikings drafted Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond in the third round. Racioppi said Stanley’s body weight has remained in the high 220s, a sleeker representation of his Iowa days when he was 240-plus.

“He looks great. He looks fit. He’s moving around great,” Racioppi said of Stanley. “The fundamentals he’s worked on here, he’s been able to maintain. I hope he gets a shot.”

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.