Hawkeyes air it out in Des Moines

Willies puts on a show, and the secondary didn't love it

Iowa's Derrick Willies runs with the ball during an open practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines on Saturday  April 12, 2014. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Iowa's Derrick Willies runs with the ball during an open practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines on Saturday April 12, 2014. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

WEST DES MOINES – There was palpable heat on the turf of Valley Stadium. Some of it was generated by the Hawkeyes. And some of that was on purpose.

Mostly, Saturday’s open practice, Iowa’s ninth this spring, before around 7,000 fans was unsatisfying for Coach Kirk Ferentz. During the post-practice interview, you could see some of the things his team did during the two-plus hours already running in his head. Maybe running the wrong way, too.

“Practice today was just OK,” Ferentz said. “There were some good things out there, there were some things that were encouraging. But there were a lot of things that would really get us beat in the fall. That’s part of spring ball, but we had more negative-type plays today than we did in any five days combined, so we’ll have some coaching to do.”

The passing game, powered by some new faces, ran the right way.

Red-shirt freshman wide receiver Derrick Willies had a terrific practice. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder showed soft hands, found openings in the defense’s coverage and burst after the catch. He had a 37-yard reception from quarterback Jake Rudock to set up a 3-yard TD run by running back Mark Weisman. He caught two TD passes from quarterback C.J. Beathard, a 10-yarder and a 51-yarder, when he ran wide open right down the heart of the secondary.

“He’s doing some good things,” Ferentz said. “He’s flashing. He’ll have some plays where it’s ‘What are you doing?’ So, that’s the challenge, to get the balance to go this way rather than one for one.”

The wide receiver position is changing. Four red-shirt freshmen are meshing with upperclassmen. Willies jumped off the page Saturday. Freshman Andre Harris also had two long TD receptions (54 and 51 yards).

“He’s (Willies) got some talent and Harris shows some talent,” Ferentz said. “We’ve got some guys doing things, but now can they do it within the framework of the system, can they do it when things are moving quicker and when they’re getting hit?”

You’ll note all these big plays in the passing game. Some of that was actually because of the quarterbacks and receivers, but some of it also was because of blown coverages. Willies and Harris were left wide open for uncontested scores.

That’s the kind of stuff that will have a coach grind his teeth in the spring and a team losing a game in the fall.

“I’d say we had a pretty bad day,” strong safety John Lowdermilk said. “We had too many balls go over our heads. We didn’t communicate. We have to talk to the corners out there and make sure we’re on the same page. If we’re on different pages and running different coverages, we’re screwed.”

If there’s a quarterback competition, it’s a quiet one. Rudock took all of his snaps with the first team. Beathard filled in when Rudock sat out late with a sore leg. That’s the way it’s been all spring, Rudock with the 1s and Beathard running No. 2 with limited time with the starters.

Rudock showed touch and arm strength Saturday on a few deep passes. Beathard showed some patience.

Beathard isn’t pressing, but he is pushing. There is a difference.

“The competition isn’t as . . . cutthroat isn’t the right word, but he’s [Beathard] just relaxing and playing,” Ferentz said. “He’s pushing. He’s matured a lot. He’s letting the game come to him a little more rather than forcing it.”

Still, everyone has a biological football clock in their heads. Beathard seems to have a handle on this, but it remains the No. 1 question he gets.

“You don’t want to be the backup quarterback,” Beathard said. “. . . It’s crazy. When you’re coming out of high school you’re the big guy. When you get here, you have to work your way back up. It’s humbling.”

On the running back front, where there will be intense competition in the fall, there wasn’t a ton to evaluate. The offense didn’t break any big runs, but it also didn’t run a lot. Defensive tackle Carl Davis said the defense has been strong against the run all spring. (Defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat attended a family event and was excused from practice.)

Running backs Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock combined for maybe a dozen carries. Ferentz said sophomore Barkley Hill had a solid day. Coaches wanted to get better looks as redshirt freshmen Akrum Wadley and Jonathan Parker, but Wadley was limited (wrist) and Parker attended a funeral.

Sophomore LeShun Daniels is also in the spotlight this spring.

“He’s a better player now than he was in the fall,” Ferentz said. “He’s climbing the ladder.”

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