Iowa football: What we saw from newcomers at first open spring practice
IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the first time since Nov. 23, 2019, fans other than players' and coaches' families were present at Kinnick Stadium to watch some football.
Saturday was Iowa football's first open spring practice. This provided fans and media alike their first opportunity to see live reps from the 2020-21 Hawkeyes. And it was the first chance to see how Kirk Ferentz's spring newcomers looked.
Three true freshmen (defensive end Justice Sullivan, linebacker Zach Twedt and offensive lineman David Davidkov) didn't suit up due to minor injuries, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. But receivers Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson and offensive lineman Connor Colby, as well as Northern Iowa defensive back transfer Xavior Williams, did suit up and played.
Here's what we saw from those four Hawkeye newcomers:
Keagan Johnson, WR
If there was a freshman that most looked the part and passed the eye test, it was Johnson, the 6-foot-1 receiver out of Omaha. He's smooth with his movements and has a frame and physical stature that look older than that of a freshman.
Nico Ragaini, listed on Iowa's first spring depth chart as one of the No. 1 receivers, did not practice Saturday. But it was noteworthy how many reps Johnson got with the first team. The Hawkeyes' first team ran out three receivers on the first play of its scrimmage: Tyrone Tracy, Charlie Jones and Johnson.
Johnson continued playing most of his snaps with the first team in the scrimmage. Even with Ragaini in his No. 1 spot, Johnson's consistent first-team reps would suggest he's in the No. 4-5 overall range on Iowa's current receiver depth chart and poised for a meaningful role as a freshman.
After the scrimmage, Ferentz said Johnson's attitude has stood out, particularly for a freshman. He said Johnson is so serious it's hard to make him smile sometimes.
Obviously his talent is standing out, too, and giving him a chance for an immediate role.
"He’s given himself a chance to get some work and he's taking advantage of that," Ferentz said. "Whatever situation he's been in, he's handled in a mature way."
Ferentz said both Johnson and fellow true freshman Arland Bruce IV are in the mix for playing time at receiver this season. He said the depth chart is pretty open after Tracy and Ragaini, who have asserted themselves as Iowa's top two receivers.
"It’s a land of opportunity for everybody, including the newcomers," Ferentz said.
Johnson's best play came during 7-on-7 drills. He stopped on a dime on a curl route. Defensive back Riley Moss was slow to notice, and Johnson was wide open for a 10-yard gain.
He also got gunner reps during punting drills, pinning one punt at the 1-yard line.
Arland Bruce IV, WR
Bruce showcased the quickness he's become known for near the end of the scrimmage. The 5-10 athlete caught a 15-yard pass from quarterback Connor Kapisak along the sideline, juked by his defender and sprinted for another 20 yards.
Like Johnson, Bruce also practiced a bit at gunner, suggesting Iowa coaches are keeping their eyes open for any way the two freshmen can impact a game next fall.
Bruce also got plenty of first-team reps during the scrimmage. He split time between first- and second-team about 50/50, whereas Johnson was about 80/20 first team/second team. Saturday suggested Johnson is above Bruce on the receiver depth chart but not by much, and both are in position to compete for playing time, as Ferentz said.
This may seem obvious, but it's another thing to note: Bruce practiced exclusively with receivers during drills. That's of interest because Bruce came to Iowa as a jack-of-all-trades offensive athlete who actually looked best as a running back during his senior season at Ankeny. There's thought that Iowa could look for a number of ways to incorporate Bruce into the offense, including out of the backfield. But Saturday made it clear Iowa views him as a receiver, first and foremost.
While catching punts during warm-ups, Bruce hurled a perfect spiral pass 40 yards back to a coach manning the punting machine. It served as a reminder that Bruce was a pretty dang good quarterback at Olathe North in Kansas, and it teases the possibility of Iowa using the All-Iowa Elite Team member in the wildcat.
Connor Colby, OL
Colby, the four-star local product from Cedar Rapids Kennedy, was Iowa's second-team right tackle Saturday, playing alongside fellow Cedar Rapids product, redshirt freshman Josh Volk (Xavier), who played second-team right guard.
Something to consider: Both Cody Ince (Iowa's No. 1 right tackle on its initial depth chart) and fellow four-star freshman David Davidkov didn't practice Saturday due to minor injuries. Ince's absence, at least, affected first- and second-team personnel, so we'll see where Colby winds up on the depth chart as we get closer to the season.
Still, Colby looked the part on the second team. The 6-6, 295-pounder who turned down Ohio State for Iowa played well.
Xavior Williams, DB
It's difficult to know where Williams is on the depth chart because Terry Roberts and Matt Hankins — two of the four corners on the spring depth chart — didn't practice.
But, at least on Saturday, Williams, the 5-11, 190-pound UNI transfer appeared to be Iowa's second-team right cornerback, with Brenden Deasfernandes at left cornerback.
Ferentz said Williams brings a veteran presence and is "not overwhelmed" even though he's learning a new defense. Still, he is like a true freshman in the sense that he is learning a new defense. And he had an injury in the winter, which set back his physical offseason progression.
For those reasons, Ferentz said it's not fair to judge Williams and project his role based on Saturday's open practice.
"I don't think you saw today probably what you're going to see in August (from Williams)," Ferentz said. "I think he's got a chance to really help our football team."
Williams' receivers were rarely targeted so he wasn't very noticeable during the scrimmage. (Meaning he didn't make any big errors, either.) He left the field a little over midway through the scrimmage. He stood on the sideline with his helmet off for the rest of the scrimmage and walked with a small limp.
Matthew Bain covers recruiting and pretty much anything else under the sports sun for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.