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No. 29 ... Iowa made two public appearances this spring. There’s no denying redshirt freshman Derrick Willies (6-4, 210) had the flashiest showing among the wide receivers.
In the Des Moines practice, Willies had seven catches for 148 yards and a TD. At Kinnick Stadium, Willies had five receptions for 142 yards, including a 42-yard TD. The TD was a pass from sophomore QB C.J. Beathard. Willies rushed past defensive backs Anthony Gair and Greg Mabin. Willies also made a couple of sideline catches and bounced off a defender and turned another catch into a 52-yard gain.
Ferentz said Willies saved his best spring performance for Kinnick Stadium.
“Now, we’ve got to try and corral him,” coach Kirk Ferentz said after the Kinnick practice. “He’ll be the spring game sensation, but he did some good things today.”
Ferentz noticed, fans noticed and the other wide receivers noticed. And not in a jealous manner, mind you. Iowa wide receiver has been a position group that’s needed a boost since 2012. Any help is welcomed.
“Derrick is very talented,” senior wide receiver Damond Powell said. “And I’m pretty sure you’re going to see a lot of him this season.”
Subtle impressions ... Willies has had a journey in his young life. He grew up in California. He lived for three years in Burlington. Before Burlington, he lived with his mom in Las Vegas. He lived with his aunt in Burlington and led the Mississippi Athletic Conference in receiving as a junior. A family fallout sent him to Rock Island.
According to the Quad City Times, his mom made Rock Island, Ill., native Nic Gieselman his legal guardian so he could compete in sports. A week after Willies moved in, Gieselman and his fiancée, Cassie Davis, had a baby boy.
“I feel like I’m a part of their family,” Willies told the Quad City Times. “They’ve really made me feel welcome, and they help me with everything I need.”
Ferentz picked up on the vibe during his home visit.
“I had an image of him before I met him, boy this guy has been here and here,” Ferentz said, “and I’ll never forget the first time he came to our offices, how impressed all of us were with him.
“To watch him interact with Nick and Cassie and his family, it’s very impressive. He’s a really humble young guy. He’s got a great attitude. He came to camp after that. We had already made our minds up, but he came to camp and did a nice job there, too, and had a good demeanor out there on the field.
“And our home visit, you know, I thought maybe he was trying to fake me out but he was looking at some of his class work stuff during the visit. That’s how exciting our talks are, when we talk to these guys. He turned out a nice grade-point average this last semester. Great attitude, tremendous young guy. I think he’s really appreciative of the opportunities he’s been presented with and I think what’s in front of him.”
Bountiful reviews ... Right now, Iowa has a few NFL skill players with spots in the league. RB Shonn Greene is holding on with the Tennessee Titans. Same for quarterback Ricky Stanzi and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wide receiver Marvin McNutt is hanging with the Carolina Panthers and still has yet to catch a pass in the league. Tight ends are another story (Scott Chandler, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Tony Moeaki, Allen Reisner and Brandon Myers).
It’s too much to put a breakthrough for Iowa in NFL skill players sticking in the league on a redshirt freshman’s shoulders. So, let’s not even go there. Let’s take in more of what teammates said about Willies after the spring game.
“He’s got a good body (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), he’s got a good size,” quarterback Jake Rudock said. “He can run. He catches the ball, he can run when he’s in space.”
“He has great size and he’s great at catching the ball,” said Hawkeye free safety Jordan Lomax. “He goes up at the highest point. He’s a hard receiver to defend and he has tremendous speed. I think he’s going to be pretty great here.”
Outlook ... Right now, it’s all upside and potential with Willies. I’m sure even he’s to the point where he wants to tell everyone shhh and show what he can do in August.
But hey, it’s July. We’re closing in on real football, we’re not there yet.
“He obviously has a tremendous upside with his size and speed,” receivers coach Bobby Kennedy said. “Not fully developed. Now, just add a little sweetener and shake it up and then they just kind of develop. He still has a lot of work to do, but the thing that encourages me about Derrick is I have seen him make great strides from when he stepped on campus to where he is now.
“You can tell just his overall comfort level, like I said before, the understanding what’s going on in the offense, his mind freeing him up. He’s made some really good plays and some really big plays this spring, and so it excites us because here’s this kid who’s big, fast, can run and he has a really good demeanor about him.
“So, I see really good improvement out of him, and I see him being a key player for us in the future.”
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