Leistikow: How Alex Padilla's football journey prepared him for Iowa quarterback shot

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — During Iowa football games, the backup quarterbacks wear bright red hats on the sidelines. That’s one way the starter, on the field, can find them easily and look for the next play call.

Those red hats come in handy for the parents of backup quarterbacks, too. It’s a slick strategy to spot their son.

So, when Mike and Alison Padilla were having trouble seeing the action from their assigned second-row seats early in Iowa’s Nov. 6 football game at Northwestern, they decided to move up about 20 rows. (Plenty of seats were available that night at Ryan Field.)

As Alison took a bird’s eye view, she naturally scanned for the red hats. She saw the one donned by third-stringer Deuce Hogan. But her second-string son's? Gone.

“I was like, ‘Where’s Alex? Where’s Alex? Where's Alex?’” she recalled. “And then I see this ball being thrown behind the bench.”

Alex Padilla’s red hat was off. His black-and-gold helmet was on.

He was getting ready to enter the game in relief of starter Spencer Petras, whose shoulder was in pain after three failed possessions. This was it; the moment Alex had worked and waited for after nearly three years in the Iowa program.

Emotions flowed in the stands.

“I was so thrilled. I was shaking,” Alex's mom said. “You want the best when you get the opportunity. But his demeanor is always calm.”

Mike interjected: “Yeah, it’s been that way since he started playing. Never too high, never too low.”

Alex Padilla says getting all the No. 1 reps for a second straight week has really helped his feel for the offense as the Hawkeyes prepare for Illinois on Saturday.

Their redshirt sophomore son has taken every Iowa snap at quarterback since. He’s calmly and effectively led the 8-2 Hawkeyes to back-to-back Big Ten Conference wins — one in relief at Northwestern, one last week in a thriller vs. Minnesota — and is expected to get his second career start in Saturday’s home finale against Illinois (1 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

It feels like a good time to get to know the new leader of the Hawkeye football offense, who has now played 1¾ games as the No. 1 quarterback.

Turns out, he’s always been ready.

From a young age, Alex Padilla was absorbing Football 101.

Mike, a Los Angeles native, played football at Colorado State. It was there he met Alison, a life-long Coloradoan, in 1989. They've been together and in the Denver area ever since.

Mike was a college center. The center needs to understand opposing defenses as well as anyone, as he barks out assignments for the offensive line.

Alison chuckled as she thinks back to Mike sharing his X’s and O’s with Alex, whose football fix started at age 5. Father and son would talk strategy as they watched Colorado State or their beloved Denver Broncos on TV.

“It was just part of their world,” Alison said.

By sixth grade, Alex's passion for the game led him to working with Tim Jenkins, a respected quarterbacks coach in Colorado. Studying the game is as much a part of Jenkins' regiment as on-field mechanics. As a result, Alex quickly picked up the pro-style system and language used by renowned coach Dave Logan (a former NFL player who is the longtime radio play-by-play voice of the Broncos) at Cherry Creek High School.

So when Cherry Creek’s starter got hurt late in the 2015 season, Logan didn't hesitate to give 14-year-old freshman Alex the call for his first varsity start, in a Class 5A quarterfinal playoff game. It was a night he’ll never forget.

The game against ThunderRidge took place in blizzard-like conditions, with three inches of snow covering the playing surface. Shovels were used to scoop makeshift lines on the field.

"Couldn't hardly see anything in front of you," Alex said.

More jarring than the weather? The Cherry Creek game plan.

“I was definitely nervous for that one,” Alex said. “… We threw the ball a bunch that day, which was very surprising to me. We ended up winning the game.

“That’s a great memory of mine.”

The way Logan figured, Alex and his receivers knew where the throws were going — the defensive backs trying to change directions in snow didn’t. Alex completed 9 of 15 passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-7 win.

Alex would go on to set Cherry Creek's passing records and become the first three-year captain ever under Logan. That blizzard game served as a launching point and an example of the fast trust he earned from coaches.

Flash forward six Novembers later, to Padilla’s first career start at Iowa. Not a blizzard, but a familiar cold (mid-30s temperatures) with windy conditions inside Kinnick Stadium. Padilla looked unfazed, throwing for 206 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota in a 27-22 win.

“I’m just glad it wasn’t snowing,” Mike said.

Why Iowa? There's always a recruiting story. (Or three.)

Iowa doesn’t normally hunt for players in shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Upon joining the Iowa program in January of 2019, Alex Padilla became the first Colorado native on the Hawkeye roster since offensive lineman Adam Densmore of Boulder in 2002.

As an avid football follower, Alex knew of the Hawkeye program. But he didn’t think of it as a college possibility until he heard from a then-graduate assistant coach named Josh Sinagoga in the spring of 2018. Sinagoga (now at Youngstown State) had recently arrived at Iowa from Central Michigan, which was the first Division I program to offer Alex a scholarship.

Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe liked Alex’s tape. The Sinagoga connection helped. Soon, Alex was invited to camp in Iowa City. The story goes that during that June visit, Alex dazzled coaches with his white-board knowledge of X's and O's. Iowa was so impressed that it quickly extended Alex his first Power Five scholarship offer.

Two days later, he excitedly accepted.

“The system at Iowa was very similar to what he ran in high school,” Mike said. “Pro-style offense. A lot of the same verbiage in terms of protections.”

Alex said this week he vividly remembered the white-board session. He was quick to credit his parents, Jenkins (who attended the Minnesota game and has helped with film study this week) and Logan for providing him a strong base of football knowledge. 

“They taught me from a really young age all the intricacies of defense and offense,” he said, “and what they’re trying to do.”

Beyond the football fit, Alex loved the feel he got in Iowa City. It reminded him of Fort Collins, home of his parents’ alma mater.

But soon after Alex's commitment, other college programs began sniffing around. The biggest one? Georgia.

Alex was honored by the Bulldogs' interest and took a visit to Athens in September of 2018. He received a scholarship offer from Georgia shortly thereafter.

“It might have been flattering, but I don’t think he was considering it at all,” his father said. “It was more validation that he was worthy of a Power Five offer. It gave him confidence going into the remainder of his (high school) season.”

The Padilla family, from left, is shown at the 2019 Holiday Bowl in San Diego: Mike, Madison (age 23), Alex (age 20) and Alison.

The suitors kept coming, most hilariously during Alex’s official in-home visit with Iowa coaches just before signing day.

Here's the scene of his family’s Greenwood Village home in December of 2018: O'Keefe, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and then-offensive line coach Tim Polasek were at the dinner table surrounded by a holiday feast of baked ziti, sausage and peppers and chicken piccata. As they ate, Alex’s phone kept buzzing. Finally, he looked at the barrage of text messages.

They were from the University of Colorado, his home state’s only Power Five program. As Mike tells it, Colorado was set to offer his son an 11th-hour scholarship to play for the Buffaloes. Alex saw the messages, quietly showed it to his father and slid the phone back in his pocket.

(Talk about pocket presence.)

Alex was all-in with the Hawkeyes. The only question for family-centered Alex, the youngest of two children (he has a sister, Madison), was making sure that Iowa wasn’t too far away.

No, his mom assured him. Iowa would be perfect.

"He is very happy. That’s one thing as the mom, you always check in," Alison said. "From Day 1, he has felt at home. That’s all I can ask for."

Alex Padilla accounted for three touchdowns and didn't commit a turnover in his starting debut against Minnesota.

What does Iowa's QB future hold?

Near Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, you can find the Padilla, Petras and Nico Ragaini families tailgating together.

Alex said this week that his close friendship with Petras has “gotten even stronger” as he has received starter’s reps ahead of Saturday’s Illinois matchup. The families have remained close, too.

“It’s not easy for (the Petrases), it’s not easy as parents,” Mike said. “We support each other, absolutely.”

The future of Iowa’s quarterback position is unknown as Petras (13-4 as a starter) continues to work back from the shoulder injury.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said this week, “We feel really confident with both guys. It’s a good problem to have right now.”

But it’s clear that Alex is ready for the next opportunity in front of him. Kirk Ferentz was especially impressed with Alex’s poise through two games and added, “He's worked hard and paid his dues, and it's showing up with good, solid play out there.”

Skill-wise, Alex’s mobility is an obvious asset for a Hawkeye team that has had offensive-line struggles. His arm strength popped against Minnesota, with six deep shots on 24 pass attempts. (Alex's 72-yard touchdown to Charlie Jones was Iowa’s longest pass play in more than two years.) He's got potential that has fans excited and that coaches seem ready to explore in Iowa's final two regular-season games.

“Alex moves a little better. Can make some plays with his feet. (He's) definitely pretty comfortable throwing on the run and moving in the pocket,” Brian Ferentz said. “… Then eventually, hopefully, if I have any creativity, maybe we’ll get him running the ball a little bit.”

Alex understands that he cannot win Iowa's 2022 starting spot on one or two Saturdays in November.

“Your job is never solidified. You have to come in and work every day,” he said. “Spencer and I have both been doing that. We’re going to be supportive of each other, no matter who’s on the field."

So, on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, Alex Padilla will do what he's always done: Trust his preparation, keep a level head and take his absolute best shot.

“He’s dedicated himself, and he’s worked extremely hard,” Mike said, “to put himself in a position to do well.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.