Camp Storylines from Iowa City

The Hawkeyes reported to the facilities last Thursday and hit the practice fields to begin the 2021 football season. With the first game right around the corner, there are several Fall camp storylines emerging from Iowa City. Iowa has a handful of highly-touted true freshmen looking to make an early statement during camp. There are also some big question marks at key positions on the field. Will Spencer Petras make a jump in his second year under center? How will veteran Zach VanValkenburg lead a group of young defensive linemen? Can Luke Lachey step into the key role of the backup tight end? These questions all need to be answered over the next four weeks for the Hawks to meet their potential.

True Freshmen to Watch

Cooper DeJean

One of the new guys receiving a lot of hype is the four-star, multi-position athlete Cooper DeJean. Out of Ida Grove, Iowa, DeJean enters Fall camp as a former quarterback, safety, and punt returner in high school. He has elite speed and a keen ability to make defenders miss. His athleticism at quarterback when scrambling translates to punt returning as well. DeJean signed with Iowa to be a football player, and it will be interesting to follow what the coaches decide to do with him throughout camp. He’ll likely see time at safety and on special teams, and Hawk fans would love for him to get some touches in the wildcat offense. Overall, there is tremendous upside potential in DeJean. Don’t be surprised if he lands some snaps during the regular season. 

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Keagan Johnson

As one of only two true freshmen to appear on the preseason two-deep depth chart, Keagan Johnson will line up at wide receiver at Fall camp. Johnson entered Iowa as a four-star, early-enrollee in January and immediately turned heads during spring practice. He has talented hands and solid speed giving him the ability to break away from defenders after the catch. The Hawkeye receiver room lost a couple of playmakers after last season and will need some new depth. The last time a true freshman started at receiver was Ihmir Smith-Marsette back in 2017. At 6’-1” and 180 pounds, Johnson has an almost identical build to Smith-Marsette and could seamlessly fill his departure. Johnson brings a huge upside to this Iowa offense. He’ll likely see some substantial playing time and maybe some touches in the wildcat. 

Can Spencer Petras Make the Jump?

After a season beginning with limited preseason practice, Iowa’s first-year starting quarterback Spencer Petras opened the year with two losses. He looked inconsistent at times, and couldn’t quite finish the two games. However, Petras followed that up with a six-game win streak and capped it off by reclaiming the Heartland Trophy from Wisconsin. Petras showed immense growth in just eight games last season. Now, he has had a full-length Spring and is in the midst of Fall camp in his second year as starting quarterback. 

The big question is if Petras can sharpen up his game and show a little more consistency week by week. During the final six games of the year, Petras demonstrated his ability to come back from a slow first half, get the ball to his playmakers, and win games. However, there were still bouts of inconsistency in his game. At Illinois, he played one of his worst halves of football. Against Nebraska, Petras had an interception and inconsistent flow on offense. His strong arm sometimes got away from him and led to unnecessary incompletions.

For Iowa to take big strides this year in the Big Ten, it starts with Spencer Petras’ ability to elevate the offense. He has been working with a private quarterback coach this Summer and knows he needs to fine-tune his game. If he can get a little bit tighter with the football and finish out those close games, the rest will fall into place. Fall camp will be his chance to prove he’s made those adjustments and instill more confidence in his role. The coaches are positive that with his ability, and a true offseason, he can take that next step and lead the Iowa offense to greater heights.

Depth at Defensive Line

One of the biggest areas of uncertainty for the Hawkeyes this season is at the defensive line. Iowa lost a couple of playmakers at the position, most notably the Consensus All-American Daviyon Nixon. However, the veteran edge rusher Zach VanValkenburg is back for his super-senior year. At Big Ten Media Days, VanValkenburg discussed being the leader at the defensive line and how he is helping the younger guys get ready to play a big part upfront. At the other defensive end spot, junior John Waggoner will presumably be the starter. He saw action in four games last season and 10 the year before. Waggoner has good playing experience, but becoming the starter, he’ll take on a much bigger role in the defense. 

The depth at the interior defensive line is where it starts to get a little thin. Redshirt freshman Yahya Black is shown as the preseason starter, and he brings only four games of playing experience to the table. At 6’-5” and 275 pounds, Black is a big presence in the middle and hopes to solidify his role during camp. Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker has commented on Black’s skill level this offseason and anticipates a lot of positive growth from him this year. He’ll get a chance to prove to the coaches during camp that he has what it takes to start as a redshirt freshman.

The Backup Tight End

Sam LaPorta will be the starter in his third consecutive season with Iowa at tight end. He started twice as a true freshman in 2019 and did all the heavy lifting last season. With LaPorta’s experience, Iowa will be in great hands with their starter. However, the question mark is with the backup. At Iowa, the tight end position is known for getting a lot of touches. Oftentimes, it’s multiple guys.

Redshirt freshman Luke Lachey is listed as the backup following Spring practice. Lachey lines up at 6’-6” and 248 pounds and can be a big-time presence on the line and as a pass-catcher. He saw action in only one game as a true freshman, but the coaches were confident enough in his performance this Spring to put him in the two-deeps. With not a lot of playing experience at backup, there’s some question regarding his ability. Luckily, his size speaks for itself. Iowa can learn a lot about Lachey during fall camp, and he’ll likely solidify his spot as number two. 

Camp Outlook

The Hawkeyes have a high level of production returning to the field this season. There are a couple of question marks with depth in some areas, but based on the early reports from camp, things are looking good. Spencer Petras is a true leader with a great mentality, he proved it last season. He’ll continue to bring it every Saturday and his teammates rally behind that energy. If Petras takes that next step, the team will follow. Those question marks and younger guys will turn into answers and household names.