The Iowa spring practice open to the media, friends and family in April was filled with a lot of ho-hum moments. You could only get so revved up watching positional drills where players worked on technique.
Then, the play of the day came from a guy that left camp for a few days to attend his high school prom. James Cleveland hauled in a pass from Jake Christensen and raced 66 yards for a touchdown, outrunning cornerback Charles Godfrey, thought to be the fastest Hawkeye.
Cleveland graduated from Lee High in Baytown, Texas in December so he could start classes at Iowa in January and participate in spring football with the Hawkeyes. The move has become more prevalent nationally in recent years.
Iowa lost its two starting wide receivers from last season – Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon – and are looking for guys to win playing time. Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz believes Cleveland can be in that group.
"From the things we have seen, yes, I sure do think so, especially considering our lack of experience right now at that position," he said.
The media anxiously awaited Cleveland's arrival at the post practice press conference in April. He never showed up.
The freshman might have wanted to talk with journalists, but that's a no-no in Ferentz's rule book. Players in their first year on campus can only speak with the media following a game.
So, to find out how Cleveland showed in the spring, some rocks needed turning over. In this case, teammates and coaches played the rocks.
"It seems to be going well," Ferentz said at his final spring press conference. "The biggest caution you have is that I think he seems to be transitioning socially pretty well. You always worry about the academic part of it. He is coming in and not with the rest of the freshmen in his class. He is working at it and we have been able to keep a close finger on things.
"He seems to be going OK. He made it home for his prom, and we are happy to hear that. And he is doing a nice job on the field. The biggest thing is that we just want to make sure he makes the transition academically and gets his feet on the ground there so that he is not behind the 8-ball next fall."
Ferentz has voiced his reluctance in allowing early high school graduates to join the program in the past. However, he saw something in Cleveland that softened his stance.
"He has done great," starting receiver Herb Grigsby said. "For a young kid coming in, he's shown so much maturity."
Said tight end Scott Chandler: "He's handled himself fine out on the field. So, there is probably a pretty good maturity level there. I think it would take a pretty mature guy to come up here and not just flake out."
Despite being new to the system, Cleveland showed a flair for the dramatic play. In addition to his 66-yard scoring sprint in the final practice, the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder also broke a long scoring play in the previous week's scrimmage and snared a one-handed grab during another workout.
"(He's) has done real well with it," Chandler said of Cleveland's transition. "I'm trying to picture what it would have been like spending the second half of your senior year of high school in college. He's done a great job this spring. He's made some big plays. His consistency level as a freshman is pretty amazing. He's obviously talented. So, he's a guy that could be a big player over the years."
Cleveland brought down 73 balls for 985 yards and four touchdowns as a senior for Lee High. He was coached by Dick Olin, the stepfather of starting Iowa quarterback Drew Tate.
"James is easily one of the top wide receivers in the state of Texas," Olin said. "He has such an excellent combination of size, athleticism, and hands that he is just such a great commodity."
Tate played high school football with Cleveland's older brother – Jay'-Mond Cleveland, now a receiver at SMU. Tate took an interest in the younger Cleveland as soon as he arrived in Iowa City.
"I'm playing sort of an older brother role in a way," Tate said. "I mean, he's doing fine. He's got Charles (Godfrey) in the dorms with him right now."
Godfrey, a true junior, played for two years with James Cleveland at Lee. Godfrey finished spring camp as one of the Hawkeyes starting cornerbacks.
Tate planned on graduating early from Lee and beginning college at semester break. But he decommitted from Texas A&M late and didn't select Iowa until mid-January of his senior year, at which point it was too late for the move.
"I told (Cleveland) that it would be the best thing for him to do if he wanted to play," Tate said. "He wants to play. He doesn't care about the prom and graduation and all of that stuff. He's going to college to play football and get an education."
Cleveland takes football seriously, but he did leave spring drills for a weekend for his senior prom.
"We gave him a little bit (of ribbing), but I understand that," Grigsby said. "It's high school. It's the prom. It's a pretty big thing. But we put a little pressure on him."
Grigsby waited until the summer after his senior year at Mayflower (Ark.) High before moving to Iowa. He couldn't imagine what it would have been like to miss his last half year of high school.
"I thought I was coming out early when I came out in the summer," Grigsby said. "Now, there are guys coming in the winter. It's a good thing, though. It really helps the program. He's learned a lot more in the spring than getting the reps in the summer and in the fall. He's a step ahead of all of the other guys that are coming in with him, and that's a good thing."
Iowa's wide receiver depth chart remains relatively wide open heading into the summer. Grigsby and senior Calvin Davis enjoy the most experience and are listed as the starters, but they're being pushed by Trey Stross, Andy Brodell, Eric McCollom and Cleveland.
"I can't say for sure," Grigsby said in regards to Cleveland seeing the field much. "He's getting his reps. We've seen that when he gets his reps, he's ready. He's making plays. I've seen good things from the young guy. I really like him."
Tate seems even more upbeat about Cleveland's chances to get on the field a lot as a true freshman.
"He has made the transition great," the quarterback said. "He's doing a great job. If you ask him, he doesn't know anything so far except for the routes and the formations pretty much. When he starts getting the other stuff down, he'll find that it was the best move of his life. I've known him for a while and his family. This was the best move that he had coming up here at the right time."
Tate has aided Cleveland's learning curve by relating plays in Iowa's playbook to the ones used at Lee High.
"I know what he's thinking because the offense that he ran in high school is the same one that I ran," Tate said. "So, I try to tell him, "Hey, you want to do this like what we did there." He can pick it up and he's smart. He knows the game."