By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The best thing about the Iowa football team’s annual Kids Day practice is, of course, the kids having a chance to interact with the Iowa players and coaches.
This feel-good event, which is called “Kids at Kinnick” is sponsored by the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital and there is no cost for admission.
It gives fans and the media their first real look at the team, and it gives Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz a chance to say thanks for the continued support and to also strengthen his personal bond with the children’s hospital.
“First of all, it’s just good to get our here and I appreciate the fans being here,” Ferentz said after Saturday’s Kid’s Day practice at Kinnick Stadium. “It’s a good opportunity, certainly, for them to get a peek at the team, the first action this year.
“And then more importantly, it’s just good for our guys. They need to be in Kinnick and have some people here. It’s might not seem like much, but especially for the younger guys, it’s a big deal just to have anybody watching outside of the normal people.”
It also is a big deal for the media because actions speak louder than words.
Media day on Friday certainly had its advantages with all of the access to the players and coaches.
From Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s bold predictions to Daviyon Nixon’s cheerful demeanor to Kaevon Merriweather’s confidence in his dunking ability, Friday’s media day event had its moments.
But there is no substitute for actually playing the game and here are 10 observations after having watched Saturday’s 2 1/2 hour practice.
1. It wouldn’t surprise me if redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini leads Iowa in receptions this season, partly because of the position he plays in the slot. He seems very comfortable running the quick slants and underneath routes, and they are among the easiest passes to catch and the easiest for a quarterback to throw.
“He’s really done well,” Ferentz said of Ragaini. “The redshirt year probably helped him a little bit. So he’s playing faster than he did a year ago. And he played well in the spring, too.”
Ferentz made sure to mention another redshirt freshman receiver, Tyrone Tracy, while praising Ragaini.
“Tyone Trace is right there with him,” Ferentz said. “He’s done a good job as well. So at least we know who are top four are.”
2. Iowa’s junior triumvirate at running back looked healthy and effective on Saturday. Ferentz also praised all three of the junior running backs for their blocking, which is a sign of maturity.
Mekhi Sargent came on strong at the end of last season and is now listed as the starter, while Toren Young also performed well down the stretch last season and is coming off a productive offseason in which he did enough good things to have been one of the three players picked to represent Iowa at Big Ten Media Day last month in Chicago.
“He runs strong,” Ferentz said of the 5-foot-11, 223-pound Young. “He doesn’t mess around. He’s pretty much north-south and that helps to move the ball forward a little bit. As elementary as that sounds, it’s important.
“He’s been practicing well and all three of the backs have been blocking well. It seems like we’re getting a lot of blitzes and pressures, but we create those situations. But all three of them have really blocked well and Toren really hit it pretty good today.”
And don’t forget about Ivory Kelly-Martin because he was Iowa's starter heading into last season for a reason. Kelly-Martin was hampered by injuries throughout last season, and in the spring. But he is now healthy and showed the same shiftiness and vision on Saturday that he showed while winning the starting job last season.
“I think they’re all a little different, but they’re all good players and they’re all really practicing well,” Ferentz said. “So chances are we’ll need all three.”
Incoming freshmen Tyler Goodson and Shadrick Byrd also flashed at times on Saturday, but it could be difficult for either one of them to supplant one of the three juniors.
3. Incoming freshman Logan Lee was recruited as a tight end, switched to defensive end and is now playing defensive tackle.
The 6-5, 251-pound Lee, who is from Orion, Ill., near the Quad Cities, has definitely made a good early impression on Ferentz, not only with his play on the field, but also with his approach to coaching and his attitude.
“First off, he’s just a really conscientious young guy, and obviously, is a good athlete and was a good football player in high school, a good wrestler,” Ferentz said. “And he’s just done a really good job. He really takes coaching very well. He’s an intent listener, and you see it show up with his play. He’s done a lot of nice things in practice. He’s scratching the surface, but he’s off to a good start.”
4. It was only one practice in front of a few thousand fans, but Iowa’s top two kickers couldn’t have performed any better on Saturday.
Juniors Caleb Shudak and Keith Duncan both made all of their field-goal attempts and that’s encouraging as Iowa tries to find a replacement for previous starter Miguel Recinos.
“That might have been the most impressive thing today,” Ferentz said of his top two kickers. I don’t think they missed one, no matter what we did or where we did it from.
“And that’s probably indicative of the way they’ve been practicing so far. They had their ups and downs in the spring, but they’ve really been focused and concentrating. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes. Maybe both of them will help.”
5. Redshirt freshman Spencer Petrus looked the best among the backup quarterbacks on Saturday. The California native made several nice throws that showed both touch and arm strength.
The 6-5, 230-pound Petrus is similar in playing style and size to Iowa starting quarterback Nate Stanley. Neither is much of a threat to run, but they compensate with size and arm strength.
Petrus is currently competing with sophomore Peyton Mansell for the backup spot, while true freshman Alex Padilla is likely to be redshirted.
6. Ihmir Smith-Marsette and fellow junior Brandon Smith give Iowa a dynamic one-two punch at receiver. Smith-Marsette is probably the fastest player on the team, and he had one play on Saturday in which he left an Iowa linebacker grabbing for air after making a short reception.
The 6-2, 218-pound Brandon Smith already looks like an NFL receiver in terms of his physique, and his play is now starting to match his appearance.
Smith is starting to make difficult catches look easy, and that is probably due to having more confidence as an upperclassmen.
Iowa faces some uncertainty at the tight end position, so it’s important that the receivers step up and have a bigger role in the passing game.
7. Neither of Iowa’s punters did much to distinguish themselves on Saturday, although, graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton did seem to improve as practice wore on.
Sleep-Dalton is trying to supplant senior Colten Rastetter as the starter. Rastetter has started in each of the past two seasons, but averaged fewer than 40 yards per punt in both seasons.
“It was interesting, Michal started out really poorly today and he’s been doing very well,” Ferentz said. “Maybe it was good for him to be in here, too. He’s been in here without a crowd.
“But we’ll just let that thing go and see where it all goes.”
8. Sophomore defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Noah Shannon are both impressive physical specimens, and they both had their moments on Saturday.
Combine them with senior starters Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff, and with Logan Lee and junior Austin Schulte, and there is a lot to like about the potential at defensive tackle.
9. Senior Kristian Welch and sophomore Djimon Colbert appear to be Iowa’s top two linebackers at this stage. They both worked as starters in the new 4-2-5 alignment, and in the traditional 4-3 set with junior Nick Niemann playing the third linebacker spot.
10. It was good to see former Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan back with the team on Saturday. Morgan spent the past 19 seasons as an Iowa assistant coach before retiring shortly after last season.
He was considered a master at identifying talent where other coaches didn’t see it and then helping to develop that talent.
Morgan was just there to observe on Saturday, but his presence was appreciated by both the players and coaches.
Morgan played a big role in helping to build the culture that exists under Ferentz, who is entering his 21st season as head coach.