Leistikow: As spring ends, C.J. Beathard keeps getting better

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s a sign that hangs over the Iowa football locker room:

“ 'The road to Indianapolis goes through these doors.'” tight end George Kittle said, reciting the quotation he passes by daily. “… It’s been a major driving force for me.”

It’s been more than 4½ months since the Hawkeyes came within a yard (you could argue less) of winning the Big Ten Conference championship. The 16-13 title-game loss to Michigan State at Lucas Oil Stadium, at least for Kittle, is what has fueled his offseason fire.

“I want to get back to Indianapolis. That’s my goal,” the Hawkeyes’ top returning touchdown-catcher said. “That’s something that stung and sat with me — not very well — for the past four or five months.”

Well, George, there’s good news:

You can get there again. No. 16 knows the way.

As spring practice closes with Saturday’s 1 p.m. open scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa’s quarterback situation is as promising as it’s been in more than a decade: For the first time since Drew Tate in 2005, the Hawkeyes return an all-Big Ten QB.

C.J. Beathard is ready to lead the 2016 Hawkeyes. He is the first returning all-Big Ten quarterback at Iowa in 11 years.

C.J. Beathard, the stage is yours. So is this team.

He knows that; embraces that.

“Now having more playing time under my belt — more experience under my belt — there’s more that’s going to be asked of me," Beathard said. "... You can’t watch the same amount of film you watched last year."

Who knows how much the 22-year-old senior will play Saturday. He’s still healing from a January sports-hernia surgery, and there’s no sense risking a re-tweak by overdoing it. Plus, it would be nice to see what backup Tyler Wiegers can do with the first unit and what Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook can do with the second.

Going by what Greg Davis says, we don’t need to see Beathard go 20-for-24 on Saturday to confirm he’s still the real deal.

“C.J. has had a heck of a spring,” Iowa’s fifth-year offensive coordinator said this week. “You can tell he's totally in charge, in terms of what's going on, decisions that he has to make.”

A year ago at this time, Beathard was “Sunshine” — the long-haired fresh face of the program who had started one college game. Most, including Kirk Ferentz, were willing to move past Jake Rudock to tap into the big-armed Tennessean’s upside.

Now, he’s the veteran with a crew cut. And he’s no longer green. He’s fine-tuning.

Beathard mostly made the right decisions a year ago; now, Davis wants them quicker.

He made the right throws; now, Davis wants more precision to maximize yards after catches.

He hit some deep balls (80-plus-yard touchdowns — twice — to Tevaun Smith), but Davis wants more of them.

“All of the intermediate things, he's doing a pretty good job of,” Davis said, “but if you get a chance for the home run, you don't want to miss it.”

What held Beathard behind Rudock in the past was that coaches didn’t trust him.

Now, trust is off the charts to the point where Beathard is free to make more on-field play calls.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard gives the play to his teammates during Friday's Valley Stadium practice.

Hawkeyes Breakdown: Analyzing what matters in Iowa's spring game

“We've opened some things up to give him even more flexibility at the line of scrimmage,” Davis said. “Before, he had a package of things they can go to. He has a little bit more variety of things now that he can go to, if he sees something that he would like to try to take advantage of.”

More evidence that this is his team.

Almost always, championship runs are led by a star quarterback; it’s the most important position in American sports for a reason. And Beathard's potential is no longer a secret. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and a big arm and mobile feet, he was rated the No. 2 quarterback prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft, according to a February list at CBSSports.com.

Now, let’s acknowledge that it’s possible Beathard will regress like Drew Tate did after his gun-slinging first-team all-Big Ten season of 2004.

To avoid that, Beathard will need protection provided by five offensive linemen with starting experience, chain-moving runs (and good health) from LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley, and big numbers from senior pass-catchers Kittle and Matt VandeBerg.

So as you watch Saturday’s spring game, be comforted that the pieces are in place for something exciting in 2016.

Including the most important one.


When, where: 1 p.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium; Gates A and G open at Noon.

Admission, parking: Free; all surface lots surrounding the stadium will be open. Fans are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items to donate for the Johnson County Crisis Center. Collection bins will be located in Lot 43 and the Krause Family Plaza.

Autographs: An autograph session with Hawkeye players will begin at 12:35 p.m. in front of the west and south stands.

Forecast: Sunny with a high temperature of 71 degrees; 10-15 mph winds.

Television: BTN2GO (subscription) will live-stream the practice.

Radio: From 1-2 p.m., Gary Dolphin and Rob Brooks will discuss Iowa football on many stations on the Hawkeye network, including WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines and KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City. The broadcast will also air on satellite radio (Sirius Ch. 93, XM Ch. 196).

Offense vs. Defense scoring system: Offense — Touchdown (6 points), Explosive play; run of 12-plus yards or pass of 16-plus (1 point), 3 consecutive first downs (1 point), PAT (1 point), Field goal (3 points). Defense — Touchdown (7 points), Turnover (3 points, unless on TD), 3-and-out (1 point), Sack (2 points), Sudden change; when offense starts inside the 35 and is held to FG or less (4 points).