IOWA CITY – At Iowa’s annual Kids at Kinnick open practice, the Hawkeye football team experienced a bit of a growth spurt Saturday.
Coach Kirk Ferentz was somewhat surprised in a good way with what transpired after his team signed a few autographs and Iowa seniors entered the field at Kinnick Stadium with this year’s Kid Captains.
“I was actually kind of pleased with what I saw overall,’’ Ferentz said following the Hawkeyes’ first public appearance of the season and the first time Iowa took the field with officials putting their whistles to work.
“I thought the guys moved around pretty well, had a good attitude, good focus. We had a good day (Friday) that way in a non-contact day and guys handled it well and today, we were relatively clean, too,’’ Ferentz said.
He suspects the tape will reveal plenty of things to work on as the Hawkeyes progress toward their Sept. 3 season opener against South Dakota State, but Ferentz also expects to see some areas he liked.
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He singled out two areas that he was particularly pleased with Saturday – the work of placekickers Aaron Blom and Drew Stevens and Iowa’s efficiency during its work on third-down situations.
Blom and Stevens, rotating from distances ranging from 28 to 53 yards as they compete to replace Caleb Shudak, were perfect in 15 attempts Saturday with sophomore Cooper DeJean serving as the holder.
The effort extended consistent work the pair have shown during nine fall camp sessions prior to Saturday and are in stark contrast to the inconsistencies both displayed during the spring and specifically in their last public appearance at Kinnick Stadium in April.
“There’s a lot of growth there since April,’’ Ferentz said. “We’re not out of the woods there, but what we saw was really encouraging.’’
Ferentz also liked the consistency he saw as Iowa moved the chains on a number of third-down snaps, rotating Spencer Petras, Alex Padilla and Joe Labas at quarterback.
“That was encouraging, too. We’ve got a lot of football ahead of us, but for the first with live contact, this is a good place to be although we have a lot of work to do in the next three weeks,’’ Ferentz said.
As Ferentz suggested during Friday’s media day, a number of Hawkeyes did not practice Saturday as they continue to deal with minor injuries.
Running back Gavin Williams, receivers Keagan Johnson and Brody Brecht, offensive linemen Nick DeJong, Mason Richman and Mason Fagan, defensive end Joe Evans, linebacker Logan Klemp and defensive back Jermari Harris were among Hawkeyes watching from the sideline.
Their absence did provide other players with a chance to take additional snaps.
Running back Leshon Williams displayed the power and solid decision-making he displayed in the Citrus Bowl and true freshmen backs Jaziun Patterson and Kaleb Johnson also had productive days carrying the football.
Williams rushed for touchdowns on a pair of 3-yard carries, the second coming during red-zone work, and Johnson carried the ball into the end zone on a 1-yard run on a score set up by an 7-yard pass from Labas to freshman tight end Addison Ostrenga.
Ferentz said what he saw from Iowa running backs Saturday continued what he has been seeing in fall camp.
“We came into camp feeling good with what we had seen from Gavin (Williams) and Leshon (Williams) but not having any additional experience,’’ Ferentz said. “But, ‘Jaz’ and Kaleb have practiced well. They’re pretty mature for young guys and for both of them, this was a positive step.’’
Ostrenga joined Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey in having productive performances as part of the passing game.
Ferentz indicated that Petras and Padilla have worked effectively this fall will the team’s deep group of tight ends.
“They’re making progress and as I’ve said, if our best guys aren’t improving we’ll be in trouble. Spencer has done a nice job, has had a good 10 days, and Alex is improving as well,’’ Ferentz said.
On defense, Lukas Van Ness started with the first group in Evans’ absence while true freshman Aaron Graves lined up as a second-team tackle and true freshmen defensive backs Xavier Nwankpa and T.J. Hall took snaps with the second team as well.
Graves, a 6-foot-4, 271-pound defensive lineman, has put himself in a position to play this fall.
Ferentz doesn’t see redshirting a possibility for Graves.
“That would be stupid on our part right now,’’ Ferentz said. “He belongs on the field with the older guys,’’ Ferentz said.
Nwankpa and Karson Sharar, a redshirt freshman linebacker from Iowa Falls, Iowa, each intercepted passes.
Ferentz likes what he has seen from some of Iowa’s less experienced defensive backs, including Nwankpa, Hall and junior Sebastian Castro.
“We talk about the experience we have on defense but we have to replace three pretty good football players on the back end, Matt Hankins, Dane Belton and Jack Koerner,’’ Ferentz said. “We’ve still got some work to do on defense and those younger guys, they’re coming along.’’