Rarely is there anything flashy about a spring football game. These days at Iowa, spring is about development and experimentation. Players adjust to new roles and as they learn the results are frequently not so pretty. Today's spring scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium was that type of performance. The offense found the end zone once and the Hawkeyes were exposed for being the work in progress that they are. One thing, though, was crystal clear. C.J. Beathard is settling in as the unquestionable leader of the Hawkeye offense. Iowa's new starting quarterback is, as coach Kirk Ferentz put it, embracing his chance to lead. He isn't afraid to correct a teammate and he's not shy about admitting his own shortcomings. Beathard expects to learn from his lone interception during an 18-of-32 passing performance, a poorly thrown ball intended for Tevaun Smith that ended up providing redshirt freshman defensive back Brandon Snyder with something to build on. It was one example of the work that remains for an offense that moved the ball at times and sputtered on more than one occasion. Beathard figures it was a real-world experience. "You have to keep pounding away and eventually, something will break,'' Beathard said. Receivers Jacob Hillyer and Tevaun Smith are looking for that breakthrough moment as well, that time when pitcher and catcher are comfortable working together. The long ball remains a work in progress. "I know I can make the throws,'' he said. The Hawkeyes aren't quite there yet. But, it's April, and Illinois State won't show up at Kinnick Stadium until Sept. 5. "He can put it out there,'' Smith said. "We need to be in a position to be ready to catch it when he sends it our way.'' Confidence is not an issue. Iowa receivers are comfortable working with Beathard, who ascended into the sole possession of the starting role after a January depth chart flip led two-year starter Jake Rudock to take his game to Michigan. "It's been easier for us to work with one guy, getting comfortable with the way he throws the ball,'' Hillyer said. "Every quarterback has his own style, and it takes some time to adjust. We're getting it down. We feel good about the way things are headed.'' Even if things looked a little rough around the edges on a March-like April afternoon. "C.J. has the confidence,'' Hillyer said. "He is the guy now. Last year, it was kind of 50-50, and I don't think that was easy for anybody.'' Now, Beathard's the guy. "We get to work with him and there's not two quarterbacks flipping in and out,'' Hillyer said. Beathard is anxious to see where that can lead. "It's exciting, getting all of the reps,'' he said. "You get a better feel for the game, get a rhythm going.'' That rhythm will develop over time. Beathard counts on that. "We'll get it down. We've got plenty of room to improve, but we're committed to making that happen,'' he said. "This spring was a starting point.'' Nothing more. Nothing less. At least not with a group of players who are catching on to what their new leader behind center is all about.
The spring edition of four-down territory: OFFENSE Four things to keep an eye on as you watch the Hawkeye offense in Saturday's 1 p.m. Iowa spring scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium: 1. Quarterback play. C.J. Beathard is the starter, but back-up Tyler Wiegers is being brought along quickly as the only other scholarship quarterback in camp this spring. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis likes the growth he has seen in Beathard's game and his ability to get Iowa into the right play at the right time. He'll have a chance to put that to work against a defense that knows him well. 2. Catching on. Beathard's quick release is something Iowa expects to help its passing game. It starts with the ability to gain more yards after the catch because in theory the ball is being delivered faster and leaving the defense with less time to react. Iowa receivers, a group led by Tevaun Smith, Matt VandeBerg and Jacob Hillyer, see that happening as they continue to get used to the balls being thrown by Beathard. Andre Harris and converted running back Jonathan Parker are making strides as well. Hawkeye tight ends, a group led by Jake Duzey, Henry Krieger Coble and George Kittle, are also working to become more of a factor in the passing game. Hawkeye receivers and tight ends are moving around a little more than they have been in the past, looking to create match-up issues. 3. O-line growth. Replacing two starting tackles has been a work in progress this spring. Ike Boettger and Boone Myers, a pair of sophomores, filled the positions during a public practice in West Des Moines two weeks ago but with Sean Welsh currently not practicing beside returning starters Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh, there is fluidity to what is taking place up front. Boettger and Myers struggled at times in the West Des Moines outing against veteran defensive ends, although coach Kirk Ferentz said he has seen improvement since the start of spring camp five weeks ago. 4. Ground game gains. LeShun Daniels has taken 10 pounds off his body, gaining quickness to go with his ability to deliver inside the tackles as part of a deep group of running backs. Jordan Canzeri has enjoyed a healthy spring and provides senior leadership to a group that also has seen growth from Akrum Wadley, C.J. Hilliard and converted receiver Derrick Mitchell. They're working along with two healthy fullbacks in Adam Cox and Macon Plewa, whose absence a year ago impacted Iowa's ground game. DEFENSE Four things to watch on the Hawkeye defense at Saturday's spring scrimmage 1. The safety dance. Iowa has a hole to fill in the secondary at strong safety where sophomore Miles Taylor and redshirt freshman Brandon Snyder top the depth chart, but junior Anthony Gair also figures into the mix as Phil Parker works to figure out the best combination to put beside free safety Jordan Lomax. Iowa returns cornerbacks Greg Mabin and Desmond King along with a veteran in Maurice Fleming. 2. Linebacker shuffle. After being thrown into action a year ago, sophomores Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann are currently topping the depth chart at the linebacker spots for Iowa. Jewell has moved inside since last season, replacing Quinton Alston, while Bower has shifted to the weakside and Niemann is lining up at outside. There is some fluidity here, too, and players are being prepared to move around a bit based on the defensive look they'll see. 3. Tackle twosome. Much like on offense, Iowa has to starters at tackle on the defensive line. The difference is that Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata have some experience as does Faith Ekakitie, currently backing up Johnson. Unlike a year ago when Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat combined to start the final 64 games of their college careers, the interior of the Hawkeye defensive front will be young and will likely be tested more frequently. Iowa does have experience on the ends, where seniors Drew Ott and Nate Meier return. Redshirt freshman Matt Nelson, a 6-foot-8, 270-pounder from Cedar Rapids Xavier, has impressed coaches so far this spring and may be in position to become the third end as Iowa rotates. 4. Playing with an edge. Fundamentals have been the focus of Iowa's defense this spring. Coordinator Phil Parker believes the Hawkeyes lacked the attention to detail which led to an inability to finish plays a year ago. He's looking for crisper tackling and sharper execution. "A lot of it has to do with making sure you've got your eyes where they need to be and read your keys,'' Parker said. "I think that needs to be the goal of everybody on the field. It's hard to play without your eyes if you don't really use them and the information they are giving you.''
Adam Cox has savored every snap he has received as a fullback in an Iowa offense which still values the position. A three-game starter who saw action in 13 games in 2013 as a sophomore, Cox was rewarded with a scholarship during the Hawkeyes' fall camp last season. The next day, he got tangled up with Carl Davis and suffered an ACL injury that forced him to watch the season from the sidelines. It was as frustrating as frustrating can get for the former walk-on who prepped at Stillman Valley High School in north-central Illinois. "I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, just like that,'' Cox said. "It was an incredible disappointment.'' And now, it's payback time. "I feel like I owe it to the program to give it everything I have right now. They showed a lot of faith in me, giving me a scholarship and I haven't done a thing since to earn it,'' Cox said. "That's the tough part. I feel like I owe them big time.'' Cox began running again shortly after Iowa's appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl and he is now returning to form, doing the things he did to earn a scholarship. Along with Macon Plewa, who also missed significant time because of injury last season, Iowa has plenty of experience at the fullback position as it works toward Saturday's final spring practice. Cox is simply glad to be back in the mix. "It feels good to be out there competing again. I feel like I'm making up for lost time,'' he said. "This team is going to get everything that I have.''
Kirk Ferentz went right to the point when discussing the depth Iowa currently has on its offensive line. Following the Hawkeyes' open practice in West Des Moines earlier this month, he said that Iowa's twos were truly threes at this point, a pointed remark that indicates that the Hawkeyes plenty of work to do when it comes to building a line before Illinois State shows up at Kinnick Stadium for the Sept. 5 season opener. Iowa did take the field in West Des Moines that day with three first-year starters filling spots on the offensive front, leaving a green group of reserves even greener. Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz touched on the subject last week when he met with the media, expressing the need for Iowa to have a back-up center emerge. Austin Blythe has switched back to the position he started the season at a year ago and provides the Hawkeyes with senior leadership in the middle of the line and experience. Beyond him, Iowa gets green in a hurry. Eric Simmons has been listed there at times as a back-up but hasn't taken a snap in a game and opened in West Des Moines at a guard spot with the spring absence of Sean Welsh. "I think the issue for us right now is trying to find somebody to play center if (Blythe) can't because that's a very real possibility,'' Brian Ferentz said. "You never know what is going to happen on every snap, and while I think we feel good about our depth on the inside, that's not necessarily the case at the center position.'' Beyond Simmons, Brian Ferentz said Steven Ferentz has snapped the ball some this spring and has performed well. "We've had some guys snapping a little bit that maybe haven't been on the depth chart yet trying to figure out if they can do it, and then you have some young guys coming in, James Daniels, Jake Newborg, and we just have to find somebody who can go in there and be Johnny on the spot the way Tommy (Gaul) was last year,'' Brian Ferentz said. Gaul moved into the lineup at center when an injury shifted Blythe to left guard.. "I think one of the things that got overshadowed last year -- and a lot of things get overshadowed when you have the Outland Trophy winner playing left tackle, but what Tommy Gaul did for the football team last year was really hard to measure, hard to put into words.'' Brian Ferentz likes what he has seen from James Daniels, among two of the five offensive linemen in Iowa's 2015 recruiting class who enrolled at Iowa in January. "James has done a nice job, and he's gotten a lot of reps, so now he leads the race (among Iowa's new offensive linemen to see playing time) but it's kind of by default, waiting for some other guys to jump in and join the race,'' Brian Ferentz said. He points to history as an example for why that may take some time. "It's been very difficult historically to get on the field as a true freshman here at (offensive line positions), and there's a reason for that,'' he said. "Basically the closer you are to the football, the least ready you are physically to play the game, or mentally for that matter because it's really all the same.''
Brian Ferentz didn't need any long tape sessions or sit-down discussions to evaluate how his Iowa offensive line performed last year. The Hawkeyes' offensive line coach and run game coordinator broke it all down pretty much the way most fans do. "We won seven games and we lost six. I don't think that's hard to evaluate at all,'' he said today. "Did we run the ball for X amount of yards? I think all those things can be a little overrated.'' He said the recent resurgence of the run game across the country in recent seasons has changed the nature of the beast. Ferentz said he prefers a bottom-line approach to a bottom-line segment of any football team. "We try not to get too caught up on what are the numbers, what are we doing here, what are we doing there,'' he said. "If you win the game, you're playing well enough. If you lose the game, you're not playing well enough.'' Like most fans, Ferentz wasn't overly impressed with the bottom line of the Hawkeye offensive line during a 7-6 season. "Whether it's in the run game or protection or any of those things, I think when you look at the bottom line from last year, we didn't perform to the standard that we have set around here or meet the expectations that we have,'' he said. Those expectations include winning close games, an area Iowa did not excel at last season. The Hawkeyes stomached a 7-6 record in part because they lost three games by three points or less and a fourth by seven points. Two of Iowa's wins were decided by fewer than seven points. "When we have a good football team, when we have a healthy program, we don't lose close ballgames,'' Ferentz said. He said the inability to establish the run consistently and protect the passer well enough both impacted the Hawkeyes' bottom line. "When you don't do those things very well and you don't play well in the fourth quarter of close ballgames, you're not going to be happy with the result, and that's not how we've had success around here,'' Ferentz said. "We've had success by getting into close games and winning them at the end. You look at our football team two years ago, we were able to do that. You look at our football team last year, we weren't able to do that. That, to me, is what we have to fix immediately.'' And that, Ferentz said, is the bottom line.
The keys to the Iowa football team's offense are now in C.J. Beathard's hands and today, the junior quarterback had the chance to take the Hawkeyes out for a spin. Beathard has moments, and his struggles, during Iowa's public practice at Valley Stadium. A crowd of around 5,000 was reminded how strong of an arm Beathard has, and it was reminded that he still has some work to do after his postseason rise to the top of the depth chart at quarterback. Beathard threw a few nice balls and a couple he might want to have back. Even with just two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster following two-year starter Jake Rudock's exit for Michigan, Beathard even took off running a couple of times. Despite the Hawkeyes' lack of depth, coach Kirk Ferentz is fine with that. To a point, anyway. "You can't play scared. You've got to go play,'' Ferentz said. "We do need C.J. to be smart about it. That's true of any quarterback. We don't want them running smack into the linebackers.'' Ferentz likes that part of Beathard's game, but as back-up Tyler Wiegers works toward putting himself in a position to take his first college snap in a game, Iowa needs its junior quarterback focused on improvement like many of the players around him. Beathard worked behind a line that included three new starters, handed off to running backs looking to replace the program's rushing leader the past three seasons and threw to receivers looking to absorb some of the catches the Hawkeyes' career receiving leader made a year ago. This is a green Hawkeye offense. Ferentz hopes it is a green and growing offense and he likes what he has seen from Beathard through the first nine of Iowa's 15 spring practices. "Now he has free reign, if you will, and I think that has encouraged him to step forward a bit as a leader,'' Ferentz said. "That's something a quarterback has to do.'' Ferentz said he is confident Beathard will embrace the role much like Rudock did. "We had a quality quarterback the past two years and we will have a quality quarterback this year,'' he said. Rudock's transfer was officially announced by Michigan on Thursday night and Ferentz said following today's workout that he is glad things worked out. "In a perfect world, we'll play against him once,'' Ferentz said. "That would be a win-win for both of us.'' That would also mean the Hawkeyes were playing in the Big Ten championship game. Iowa didn't look like a title contender on this sunny afternoon in West Des Moines. But, it is April and Iowa still has one third of its spring practices remaining. Iowa players are seeing Beathard's confidence grow as he settles into his role. "You have to be ready when he throws it your way because his release is quick and strong,'' receiver Jacob Hillyer said. "As a receivers, you always like a guy who can throw it deep. It's on us to get to where we need to be to make it work.'' Hillyer believes it will work. "We'll get it down,'' he said. "We're all anxious to see what this offense can do and while today wasn't our best day, we are moving forward. C.J. is going to be a good quarterback for us. We're excited about the possibilities.''
Bobby Kennedy's preference today was to talk about the players who will make an impact for the Iowa football team this fall from the receiver position. But, the Hawkeyes' wide receiver coach did touch on midseason departure of Rock Island's Derrick Willies from the team last October. Willies, who caught four passes for 71 yards and one score in five games before leaving the team last fall, cited multiple reasons for choosing to walk away from Iowa midway through his redshirt freshman season with the Hawkeyes. Kennedy said he maintains a good relationship with Willies, but added that "relationships and dealing with kids and their emotions, dealing with coaches' emotions, are not the easiest things all the time.'' He didn't mention Willies by name, but said one of the biggest challenges any coach faces is trying to help players understand where they fit into a program and helping them understand when their time is. "If you ask a kid, their time is always right now,'' Kennedy said. "That's the tough thing about the business because they're really talented guys you are dealing with but they don't necessarily understand the process sometimes.'' And sometimes, that process proves to be a complicated situation. "To be frank, and I've said this before not only with (Willies), but my challenge and my charge as a coach is to try to do a good job with all my players,'' Kennedy said. "... What's fair is not always fair for the kid sometimes, but what we've got to do is be fair to Iowa, and sometimes getting a kid to see that big picture doesn't happen right away. So, what you've got to do is continually work with guys.'' Willies is currently enrolled at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas, where he plans to compete next fall as a sophomore with hopes of returning to a Division I program. He is one of four transfers from Division I programs to enroll at Trinity Valley at mid-year.
One take. That's all it took for Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith to become an offseason video sensation. Smith, who wrapped his hands around 43 catches last season for the Hawkeyes, made 41 one-handed catches in a minute. It was his own version of a feat that was part of a Visa commercial featuring New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. that drew national attention as he made 33 one-handed catches in the same timespan. "I was talking about it and the guys were like, 'You're not going to beat it,''' Smith recalled, welcoming the early February challenge. He enlisted their help to make it happen. Receiver Riley McCarron was his quarterback, kicker Marshall Koehn tossed the balls caught by Smith into a trash can and receiver Andrew Stone caught it all on tape. "I had no idea it was going to blow up the way it did,'' Smith said. "That took me by surprise. It's been a little crazy.'' Posted on YouTube, the feat has been watched more than 200,000 times. Smith, who caught 20 more passes last season than he did during his sophomore year, isn't planning any sequels soon. Instead, his focus remains on positioning himself for a strong senior season. "I felt like I could have done more last season,'' Smith said. "It wasn't everything that I hoped it would be. I can be more consistent, and that's what I'm working on now.'' With the record-setting college career of Kevonte Martin-Manley now history, Smith will likely be the primary target of quarterback C.J. Beathard in 2015. Smith believes Iowa's receiving corps will feature improved depth this season, with Jacob Hillyer, Matt VandeBerg and Stone all factoring into things. He said Andre Harris is off to a good start this spring and said converted running back Jonathan Parker is quickly fitting in as well. "I think we have the potential to do some things that might surprise people,'' Smith said. As Smith demonstrated with the camera rolling a couple of months ago, he enjoys making that happen.
When Michigan holds its spring football game Saturday - the first Big Ten team do so in 2015 - there will be no shortage of interested spectators. Wolverines fans will get their first look at what new coach Jim Harbaugh has been looking at all spring. There is no shortage of returning talent in Ann Arbor, where Michigan is looking to move beyond a 5-7 season that ended with a 42-28 loss to Ohio State and the ouster of Brady Hoke. Harbaugh was greeted by a collection of 52 returning letterwinners including 10 players on each side of the ball who were at least part-time starters last season. One of the positions where Michigan doesn't list a returning starter is quarterback, where Devin Gardner threw for 1,896 yards a year ago in an offense that scored more than 16 points in just three of its last nine games. That's among the reasons Jake Rudock will be among the more interested of the interested spectators Saturday. The two-year starting quarterback at Iowa will get a chance to survey the competition before he arrives in Ann Arbor this summer as a graduate transfer. Granted the eligibility waiver he needed from the Big Ten to compete this fall one day earlier, Rudock announced his move on Twitter on Thursday night. "Excited to join the Michigan family #GoBlue,'' Rudock wrote. He also thanked all of those at Iowa for the assistance they had given him during his four seasons in Iowa City. Once as expected Rudock earns his undergraduate degree at Iowa in May and makes his move to Michigan, he'll join a sizeable group of quarterbacks who are attempting to provide the Wolverines with some stability. His arrival will give Harbaugh and his staff six scholarship quarterbacks to choose from when they pick a starter in the fall. An additional five walk-ons at the position will leave no arms shortage in Ann Arbor. Rudock, who appeared destined to become a back-up at Iowa after two seasons in the lineup, will get a chance to start his third Big Ten season albeit in a maize-and-blue uniform. In exchange, Harbaugh gets a safety net as he attempts to put the pieces of the puzzle together again. Rudock provides Michigan with a quarterback who understands the Big Ten and has dealt with the good, the bad and the ugly as a starter at Iowa. He ranked second in the conference in completion percentage last season and reduced his interceptions significantly in his second season under center at Iowa. That's a pretty good starting point for Harbaugh, and if one of the other quarterbacks already in the fold beats out Rudock for the starting job in fall camp, that isn't a bad situation for the new Michigan coach, either. He's raised the competitive bar for the current collection of five quarterbacks who struggled to seize the starting role as the Wolverines have worked toward Saturday's spring game. That's a win-win for Harbaugh, even as Rudock watches and gains knowledge of his own competition as an interested spectator this weekend.
For the first time since October when he suggested that Derrick Willies' transfer from the Iowa football program might have had something to do with playing time, C.J. Beathard had a chance to speak with the media today. He had plenty of ground to cover, from his rise to the top of the depth chart at quarterback to how seriously he considered transferring after watching most of the 2014 season from the sidelines. That won't be the case in 2015, when Beathard moves into the starting role and the player he beat out for that spot, Jake Rudock, moves on with Michigan Stadium now the all-but-certain destination. It's been enough of a soap opera to almost make Hawkeye fans forget about the string of running backs who ran away from Iowa City for various reasons in recent years. Almost. Beathard's arm strength gives him a chance to be an effective quarterback in the Big Ten. His accuracy, how well he leads and how well Iowa's offensive line comes together will determine just how effective he will be. Beathard and the only other scholarship QB in the program, Tyler Wiegers, are getting the bulk of the reps in spring drills and that work is needed. They will also need to provide Iowa with several things that will be missed as Rudock prepares to finish his degree and make the move the Michigan as a graduate transfer. Rudock, as a fifth-year senior, would have provided a perfect role model for incoming freshmen quarterbacks Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook. By all accounts, his work ethic and attention to detail as he prepared were consistent and among the reasons he initially won the starting quarterback's position in the first place. To combine that successfully with a pre-med curriculum is impressive and it speaks to the way Rudock went about his business over his four years at Iowa. To have the chance to watch Rudock prepare for competition and watch how he went about things from both an athletic and academic standpoint would have benefitted a couple of promising prospects whose biggest concern right now is picking out the right tux for prom. They'll have a chance to learn from Beathard, who is taking his new role seriously and understands that part of the job is now leading younger players at the position who will likely one day replace him as Iowa's starter behind center. Beathard said many of the right things today. His actions now, and in the fall, will determine just how well Iowa has put together any of the pieces it will miss now that Rudock has chosen to leave the program.