WEST DES MOINES - Iowa's coaching staff has at times raved about its crop of redshirt freshman wide receivers.
Hawkeyes fans in central Iowa on Saturday got to see why the unit appears to have such a bright future.
Newcomer Andre Harris caught a pair of long touchdown passes at an open workout at Valley High in West Des Moines, about 120 miles from campus. Derrick Willies added another TD following broken coverage, and A.J. Jones and Derrick Mitchell Jr. certainly looked ready to compete for playing time next fall.
AP PHOTO BY BRYON HOULGRAVE
Iowa receiver Derrick Willies pulls down a pass during the team’s spring practice at Valley High Stadium in West Des Moines.
The Hawkeyes have plenty of depth at wide receiver. But senior Kevonte Martin-Manley is the only one who's proven he can be a consistent threat - and even he had just 388 yards last season.
"They're a talented group. All those guys, they're young, a lot of them haven't had much game experience," Martin-Manley said. "But these guys are making plays out here. They're going to come along as the season goes on."
The work of Iowa's wide receivers was just one of the key components to Saturday's workout, which was held just outside of Iowa's capital as a nod to the program's strong fan base in that part of the state.
Here are five of the takeaways from Iowa's second annual spring trip to central Iowa.
BEATHARD & SHIMONEK
Jake Rudock will likely head into the fall as Iowa's starting quarterback after throwing 18 touchdowns passes as a sophomore in 2013. But the coaching staff has given significant reps this spring to backup C.J. Beathard, who played in five games last season as Rudock struggled with knee issues. Beathard has shown a strong arm and quick feet in limited action, but he was just 9 of 27 passing as a freshman last season. "You can literally build off of everything. So, the mental aspect of the game with the defenses, understanding coverages and all that kind of stuff and just timing up routes better," Beathard said when asked what's he focused on improving. Redshirt freshman quarterback Nic Shimonek moved up to third-string after Cody Sokol transferred out of the program, but he's got a ways to go before pushing Beathard for the No. 2 job. "He's getting bigger. He's got enough tools. It's just a matter of moving him forward," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Shimonek.
RUNNING BACK ROTATION
Converted fullback Mark Weisman and rising junior Jordan Canzeri are in line to split the majority of Iowa's carries next season, with Damon Bullock and 230-pound sophomore LeShun Daniels Jr. working to earn snaps behind them. The coaches have taken it easy with Weisman, Canzeri and Bullock this spring to keep them healthy and get a longer look at their younger backs. Ferentz said that sophomore Barkley Hill has progressed this spring after a somewhat rocky start to his career, and he had some promising moments on Saturday. But Daniels is the young back most likely to push for serious playing time next fall. "He's a better player now than he was in the fall," Ferentz said of Daniels. "He's climbing the ladder. He's really done a great job. He's got a great demeanor."
If the strength of Iowa's defense last year was at linebacker, it's likely to be at defensive line this fall. The Hawkeyes return a veteran group led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat and junior end Drew Ott, and they'll need a strong season out of that unit with three new starters behind them at linebacker. "We've got all the guys we need. We've got all the talent we need. We'll definitely be able to make plays," Davis said.
DOWN WITH THE KING
Iowa cornerback Desmond King came on strong toward the end of last season and appears to be on track for stardom with the Hawkeyes. But King also isn't made available to the media yet because he's still a freshman, so it was up to safety John Lowdermilk to describe how King has been able to make such an immediate impact. "He's a smart kid. He picked up the defense really fast, and that's hard for a freshman," Lowdermilk said. "His footwork is unbelievable. He's got extremely quick feet, and he's always got a good base."
Linebacker Reggie Spearman won't turn 18 until August, but he's already penciled in as a starter. Spearman, who had an interception during Saturday's workout, had 10 tackles as a 17-year-old freshman in 2013.