Those fans who braved the unseasonably cool temperatures at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday witnessed the possible coming out party of Keenan Davis. The receiver from Cedar Rapids served as a bright spot during Iowa's open scrimmage to end spring practice for 2011.
Davis arrived at Iowa with a lot of attention after a standout career at Washington High. Critics have viewed his first two seasons with the Hawkeyes as a disappointment. In truth, he was stuck behind talented receivers with more experience and required time to develop.
Saturday, Davis set the stage for higher expectations in 2011. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder caught everything tossed his way, many of the receptions being of the circus variety.
With leading returning receiver Marvin McNutt sidelined this spring after offseason surgery, Davis looked much more aggressive, assertive and fluid on Saturday. He and new starting quarterback James Vandenberg looked to be on the same page all day.
As Coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday's practice, he needs Davis to play like a starter. He admits some of the young receivers like Kevonte Martin-Manley and Don Shumpert play inconstantly right now, something Davis could relate to during his first two seasons.
Davis heads into his true junior year with 15 career receptions for 186 yards and a pair of scores.
If Davis carries over what he's done this spring to the fall, Iowa could be scary good in the passing game. A veteran offensive line, a strong-armed quarterback, agile tight ends and a bruising back in Marcus Coker might allow twin tower receivers in Davis and McNutt to terrorize defensive backs.
Martin-Manley and Shumpert did some nice things on Saturday, but both dropped their fair share of passes. Chalk some of it up to nerves and cold weather.
Junior Steven Staggs also looked good catching the ball. The Oskaloosa product got a lot of reps with the first team and ran nice underneath and intermediate routes.
Other thoughts and observations from Saturday…
-Keeping in mind that Steve Bigach and Thomas Nardo were out this spring and could have a say at defensive tackle, Dominic Alvis played there quite a bit on Saturday. Although undersized, he showed a great motor.
Lebron Daniel looked real good Saturday going against veteran LT Riley Reiff. Although Alvis' name has been mentioned a lot by coaches as a player fighting playing time at end, he might have more of an opening at tackle.
-Ferentz echoed what his offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe said on Wednesday in saying the back-up quarterback battle is even. It did, however, seem like John Wienke received more reps than did A.J. Derby on Saturday.
I thought they looked pretty even. They both enjoyed moments of good with some struggles sprinkled in. It was crystal clear that Vandenberg is head and shoulders above his competition.
Derby looked a lot better than he did the last time I saw him at open practice back in August. The Iowa City native threw the ball with a lot more confidence and looked much more accurate.
Asked after the practice what it would take for people to stop mentioning Derby as a player destined to change positions, Ferentz said the redshirt freshman would have to be the starter.
-Jonathan Gimm impressed me at the No. 1 fullback. The Texas native has moved back and forth between blocking back and tight end several times in his career.
Gimm plays with an edge that's necessary at a position that calls for the knocking heads with linebackers on just about every rep. Ferentz mentioned him as a player that's taken a step forward this spring.
Ferentz also mentioned that projected starter, Brad Rodgers, received good news from a recent card exam. The Ohio product has been trying to get back on the field since an irregularity was uncovered during bowl prep. The coach said his sophomore still hasn't been cleared, however.
-Ferentz was critical of his offensive line's play this spring, including Saturday. He said the group has not done a very good job protecting the quarterbacks.
Iowa's front didn't look as dominating as you would think against a relatively inexperienced defensive line. However, many of the offensive plays were very basic and the D knew what was coming. I wouldn't take too much out of it.
Ferentz said that projected first-team guard Nolan MacMillan was still slowed by orthopedic issues. His replacement, Brandon Scherff, made strides this spring, but the coach said he was clearly their No. 5 offensive lineman and needed to make significant progress between now and August camp.
-Ferentz complimented DeAndre Johnson, a redshirt freshman, for his progress at running back. But the coach said his the Miami Pace alum has a lot more ground to cover to be a contributor this fall.
Ferentz reiterated what he said at the beginning of the spring. We could see a few true incoming freshmen make an impact at running back this fall.
-Ferentz was asked about the rhabdo 13 again today. He answered the questions somewhat tersely and then said it would be last he and his players would discuss it.
The coach said he exchanged voice messages with CB William Lowe this week. The senior recently told his Rhabdo story to ESPN and was critical of Iowa. He has asked for and has been given a release from his scholarship.
Ferentz said Lowe still is in school at Iowa and the door was open for him to return to the team.
-C.J. Fiedorowicz looks like a LT running at TE. The only difference is he's smooth in his routes and has soft hands.
I'll be interested to see if one of the incoming freshmen at tight end will break through and play with veterans Fiedorowicz, Brad Herman and Zach Derby looking solid at the position. I think there's still a chance we see someone like Ray Hamilton, Jake Duzey or Henry Krieger-Coble working their way into the group and contributing on special teams.
-Bruce Davis was on the field playing second-team MLB after tearing an ACL during last season. He looked pretty good, all things considered.
I like the athleticism of Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens at the WILL. The other thing that stood out was their relative "thinness" playing that position. They've got some work to do in the weight room.
-Ferentz mentioned this after the practice and it was evident during it - Eric Guthrie has improved immensely as a punter. After watching him in this event two and three years ago, I was wondering why the walk-on was wasting his time.
Redshirt freshman Jonny Mullings also looked improved from what he showed in August. That said, it was clear that Guthrie was the starter.