Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Spencer Petras ready for the spotlight, Iowa vaccination rate shoots up

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa held its first in-person, game-week media interviews Tuesday since November 2019. Player interviews were moved outdoors and with greater social distancing than past, but it was good for everyone to be back in a mostly familiar ritual again for the first time in 21 months.

And while the players available will vary from one Tuesday to the next during the season, one tradition is typical under Kirk Ferentz: The first-team quarterback always talks on Tuesdays. C.J. Beathard did it for two years, even as he battled a sports-hernia injury in 2015. Nate Stanley did it politely and generously for three years.

Now, it’s Spencer Petras’ turn for face-to-face, weekly media interaction — sometimes to answer in greater detail why the offense struggled three days earlier. The starting quarterback's voice is always impactful and important to the story of Iowa's season.

After a year as Iowa’s QB1 during the Zoom era of the COVID-19 pandemic, Petras sounds ready for what's ahead. On Saturday, he'll make his first start in front of a full crowd of fans since leading Marin Catholic High School in a playoff game against Shasta in Redding, California, in 2017.

Last fall, Petras had some regrettable throws in Iowa's 0-2 start but followed with improved ball security and six straight wins.

"There were obviously some growing pains that happened as a first-year starter," Petras said Tuesday, four days ahead of the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes’ season opener against No. 17 Indiana (2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network). "Having last year under my belt, this is the year I take the next step." 

Petras’ interviews were in the spotlight Tuesday. His performance will be on Saturday.

The redshirt junior seems confident that he’s made significant growth over the last year. While Petras didn’t say this explicitly, there’s no doubt he would love to win over fans who may doubt him with a stirring Week 1 performance (and a win) against a very good Indiana defense.

A statistic that Petras doesn’t get enough credit for: Iowa’s average of 32.3 points per game in 2020 was the most in the program since the historic 2002 season (36.5) led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Brad Banks. Considering the Hawkeyes played a Big Ten-only schedule in 2020, the points production was even more notable.

More:Iowa QB Spencer Petras doesn't care what anyone outside the Hawkeyes facility has to say

Petras is excited to lead Iowa in its quest of a seventh straight Big Ten win.

“I feel really good about how I’m throwing the ball right now,” Petras said. “And really, I’d say, my processing — how fast I can do it. Getting us into the right play as fast as I can and making the right decisions faster. I feel really good about both those things."

Fourth-year cornerback Riley Moss is the quarterback's roommate. Moss was on the other side of the ball when Petras had a strong Kids Day scrimmage, solidifying his grip on the starting job over Alex Padilla. A precise short passing game has been an area of focus for Petras that played out well that day.

“You can tell he’s a lot more comfortable," Moss said. "My favorite thing is he’s slinging the ball. He’s not overthinking. … He’s more laid-back (than a year ago). I’m excited to see what the offense does."

Spencer Petras, Iowa's starting quarterback, is looking to win his seventh consecutive Big Ten game Saturday against Indiana.

The vaccination issue is becoming less of an issue for the Hawkeyes

Ferentz on Aug. 13 indicated that more Hawkeyes were getting vaccinated against COVID-19 after Iowa had unofficially the lowest (reported) percentage of vaccinated players at Big Ten Media Days in late July. That seems to have become reality, with several players Tuesday saying that the numbers have continued to grow ahead of Saturday’s opener.

Moss said “there’s only a handful of guys that aren’t. Under 10, I think. … I got vaccinated in February. Most of the dudes did. People have been slowly getting vaccinated.”

If, say, eight players were unvaccinated out of 125, that’d put Iowa’s team percentage at nearly 94% vaccinated, which would be consistent with almost every other team in the Big Ten. Ferentz said Iowa was at "not quite 70%" in July, and he confirmed Tuesday that the team was in the "upper 90s" now.

Team leaders like Petras and wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. have been vocal about the importance of being vaccinated. Petras didn't want to say much on the issue Tuesday except, "I hope everyone has correct information and listens to doctors and medical experts."

The Big Ten last week said that if a team was unable to play due to COVID-19, that team would be charged a loss. Unless they’re symptomatic of COVID-19, vaccinated players are also not subject to the same rigorous testing as unvaccinated personnel.

Previously:Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Why Iowa football's vaccination rate is a concern; Ferentz's last word on timeouts

"I've definitely been encouraging anyone that I can to get vaccinated,” said defensive end John Waggoner, whose parents are pediatricians in central Iowa. “I think it's important just for protection of the community and the team. We're trying to treat COVID just as we did last year, really trying to be diligent with who we hang out with in our social circles."

Added Moss: “It’s seen as if you want to be able to be on the field and help out the team, it’s hard to do that when you pose a challenge of maybe getting taken out with COVID because you don’t have the vaccine."

As you might expect, Ferentz was less revealing on expected personnel for Saturday’s game.

The head coach acknowledged there have been some injuries in recent weeks, but the only specific update was that right guard Kyler Schott will miss at least a few more weeks — which would include the Iowa State game, too — with that fractured foot after jumping off hay bales at his family farm.

The rest “have a chance,” as Ferentz often says to stay coy on health updates.

When asked about the offensive-line rotation, he said, “I’m not sure,” but did add that Tyler Linderbaum is the starting center and we’ll see six to eight guys out there Saturday. It’s been common to see an O-line rotation early in the season as coaches try to evaluate who performs well in games.

The youth at defensive tackle has been a big offseason talking point and, again, Ferentz was light on specifics other than saying starter Noah Shannon (who didn't play on Kids Day) would be available.

Ferentz did clarify that true freshmen Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson made it into the gameday rotation of wide receivers that is now six deep and includes a new name: Jackson Ritter, a 6-foot-3, 214-pound walk-on from Frankfort, Illinois, who wears No. 29. That trio joins Iowa's trio of veteran receivers in Tracy, Nico Ragaini and Charlie Jones to form the top six. It’ll be interesting to count how many reps each guy gets Saturday.

Ferentz did confirm that Luke Lachey has “firmly” won the battle to be Sam LaPorta’s backup tight end over Josiah Miamen and Elijah Yelverton. Considering how often Iowa uses two tight-end sets, that’s notable.

Iowa's cash defender faces a familiar quarterback Saturday

When Dane Belton looks across the line of scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium, he’ll see a former teammate of sorts. Like Belton, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is from Tampa, Florida. Though Penix is older, the two played on the same seven-on-seven team a few times back home.

“That’s my boy. He’s a good player. Back home, we’ve hung out a couple times,” Belton said. “It’ll definitely be good going against him.”

Belton is Iowa’s primary cash player in the Hawkeyes’ base 4-2-5 defense. Iowa will show that formation any time the Hoosiers go with their “11” personnel — one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers. If the Hoosiers are in heavier packages, we'll likely see Iowa go with a 4-3 alignment. That would bring sophomore Jestin Jacobs onto the field at outside linebacker; Belton would slide back to strong safety in that case.

Previously:Leistikow: The impressive rise of Dane Belton, a versatile chess piece in Iowa's defense

So, Belton will more than likely have his eyes on Penix from multiple spots. It’d be a cool side story if he could pick off his Tampa buddy. It won’t be easy; Penix is 10-2 as Indiana’s starter and has four 300-yard games plus the ability to run. He is probably the early favorite to be the first-team all-Big Ten quarterback.

“We have to be disciplined, just like every other game. With a versatile quarterback in the backfield, it’s even more so,” Belton said. “… If everyone’s doing our job, we’ll be in a good position."

Why does Jack Campbell joke that dentists won't like him?

Because the Iowa middle linebacker doesn’t wear a mouthguard on the field. The junior from Cedar Falls carries a softer, somewhat raspy voice during interviews. That’s just how Campbell talks, so it makes yelling signals to his Hawkeye teammate — like defensive calls and front adjustments — a little bit more of a challenge.

Taking the mouthguard out of the equation (and chugging more water) has helped make his voice ring loud and clear on the field.

“The dentists are going to be mad at me," Campbell said, "but I can’t talk with one in."

It may not have been as big of an issue in a 2020 football season without fans, but with nearly a full house expected Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, the Hawkeye faithful will be loud when Indiana has the ball.

And Campbell is clear: Bring the noise. It helps the Hawkeye defense to throw off the Hoosiers. He’ll figure out the on-field communication defensively.

“I would never tell the fans to quiet down,” Campbell said. “But my communication is going to have to be a lot louder and a lot earlier."

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.