Leistikow: Spencer Petras determined to show he is Iowa's best quarterback option

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — A common line of thinking in football is that the backup quarterback is always the most popular guy on the team. But at Iowa, the third-string quarterback in redshirt freshman Joe Labas — who ran the scout team last fall — is unofficially the offseason crowd favorite.

The buzz of the unknown can often be too tantalizing to dismiss.

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz finds humor in that fact and told the story recently of how he approached current second-stringer Alex Padilla and informed him the most popular Hawkeye "used to be you. But then you made the mistake of playing.”

So if Padilla, who went 3-0 as a fill-in starter last season despite completing just 49.1% of his passes, has fallen out of favor with Iowa fans, what does that make listed No. 1 quarterback Spencer Petras?

“Public Enemy No. 1” might be a stretch. But Petras, the 19-game starter who is entering his fifth-year senior season at Iowa, operates with a mature approach about his waning popularity.

Spencer Petras (7) entered spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback for the Hawkeyes, with Alex Padilla (8) and Joe Labas (5) also expect to get a look in an open competition.

“At this point in my career, it’s A) expected and B), I don’t care. I don’t do this for the fans,” Petras said Tuesday following the fourth of Iowa’s 15 spring practices. “It’s great, they allow us to have a huge advantage at home. They allow us to do what we do, and they allow me to live out my dream by their support. But I don’t do this for the fans.”

Petras began the spring as the incumbent starter in what has been categorized by 24th-year head coach Kirk Ferentz as a three-way, open competition to take the Hawkeyes’ first snap as quarterback Sept. 3 against South Dakota State. And behind a sleeker frame and a scrappy-but-steady approach, Petras is determined to keep that No. 1 job.

While the idea of a talented freshman like Labas rising up and leading the Hawkeyes to a Big Ten championship is appealing, it shouldn’t be discounted that Petras could become an equally compelling story. Perhaps it all comes together for him this fall.

After spending about 20 minutes with Petras on Tuesday, here are four reasons why it wouldn't be a surprise if he takes a signficant step forward this season.

No. 1: He’s healthier and … slimmed down.

“How do I look?” Petras said with a laugh to a question about his previously stated offseason goal to increase his mobility from his first two seasons (13-6 record) as a Hawkeye starter.

Petras played at 234 pounds in Iowa’s 20-17 Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky on Jan. 1, the last time we heard from the 6-foot-5 Californian. On Tuesday, he practiced at 226.

“My performance indicators in the weight room have all gone up. I’m faster than I ever have been,” Petras said. “It’s helped. I had a scramble a couple days ago where I didn’t hesitate to let ‘em know that I looked pretty fast. Or at least faster than I have. So I feel good. I feel really good. I feel like I’m moving better.

“It’s just moving those chains here or there, 1-2-3 times a game that can be critical.”

Don’t forget, Petras suffered a right (throwing) shoulder injury in Iowa's 27-7 loss at Wisconsin that caused him to miss most of the next 3½ games. Then, he suffered severe abdominal bruising and internal muscle bleeding that knocked him out of the 42-3 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game. That injury also limited his prep time for the bowl game. He said he was 100% by the second week of winter conditioning and is feeling great now.

(Recall, Petras when healthy helped deliver two top-10 wins last season against Iowa State and Penn State with clutch touchdown passes on the way to a 6-0 season start.)

No. 2: He’s spent more time with his personal QBs coach.

New Jersey-based Tony Racioppi, who also works with expected high NFL Draft pick Kenny Pickett, has been a big help to Petras over the last two offseasons. Petras went out East over spring break (along with receiver and friend Nico Ragaini) to work with Racioppi on his mechanics.

There were some issues that popped up for Petras that previous Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe didn't fix. Racioppi easily identified the needed corrections.

“The biggest thing for me is that when my fundamentals are correct, I don’t miss. My balls go where they are supposed to every time,” Petras said. “So for me specifically, it’s keeping my weight balanced. Not lunging too far into my throw. … It’s all in your hips. It’s staying back. Because I lunge typically. It’s keeping my shoulder closed until I throw. If your shoulder opens up, that’s when that ball can (miss).”

No. 3: He has a renewed excitement with Brian Ferentz as QBs coach.

While the position-group move for Ferentz from tight ends to quarterbacks — with O’Keefe’s transition to an off-field role — has been quickly criticized by vocal portions of the fan base, Petras believes it’s a move that will pay off. Petras is excited to be with the offensive coordinator twice a day on game weeks as opposed to twice a week in the past operation.

Ferentz is more a conceptual, big-picture teacher. He’ll identify one play and spend at least 20 minutes on it in a meeting. By contrast, as Petras described it, O’Keefe’s approach was to hit a little of everything. Neither style is necessarily better; they're just different.

“At this point in my career, I’m happy that we’re taking a lot longer on a specific concept,” Petras said, “just so that no matter what look the defense throws at me, I know how to beat it.”

Petras also said the addition of offensive analyst Jon Budmayr, a former quarterbacks coach under Paul Chryst at Wisconsin, has helped. Petras outlined a "matrix" teaching approach by Budmayr in which he will “break it down against any look I can get. It’s, 'OK, I’m getting Cover 2, my progression is this, this and this. Or if I’m getting Cover 3, my progression is this, this and this.'

"It’s a way for us to play faster and also make sure we’re playing the right routes on a concept on any given play.”

No. 4: He has an “us-against-the-world” mindset.

That’s a mentality that is often shared within the program, including by Iowa's sixth-year offensive coordinator. For four-plus decades, the Hawkeyes under Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz have fueled big seasons on disproving outside doubters.

But starting on the inside, count Petras among those who were displeased that the offense a year ago ranked No. 121 out of 130 FBS teams. Sure, it did enough to help the team finish 10-4 and win the Big Ten West but … ultimately didn’t do enough.

“We won 10 games, but no one on the offensive side of the ball is happy about how we were last year,” Petras said. “… We know we are a lot better than we played. I’m confident, because I think we have the right people in this building to make the changes we want to see, to be the team that we want (to) be.”

That’s where the best-case scenario is that the guy who knows the offense the best — Petras — plays the best this spring and takes his game and Iowa's offense to a new level this fall.

Now that would be a popular development.

“Extremely determined. It’s less about spite. It’s more about I want to play great football, and I want our team to win a (Big Ten) championship,” Petras said. “Our team deserves it. Our coach deserves it. These fans deserve it. We deserve to win a championship, and I’m going to do everything I can to try to bring that to fruition. It’s because of the people in this building that I want to do that.”

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.