It’s rare for true freshmen to make a substantial impact on a college football team, especially a highly developed program like Iowa. True freshmen typically come in a little under-sized and need some time in the program before they are ready for Big Ten football. This process has worked well for Iowa over the years. They’ve developed several under-recruited players into NFL football stars. George Kittle and TJ Hockenson were three-star recruits who developed into solid Iowa tight ends. Both of them redshirted their first year at Iowa, and both of them are now All-Pro NFL players.
That trend is shifting in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes landed two top wide receiver recruits in 2021 and their impacts on the field have been immediate. Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV were both four-star recruits who have played a significant role in the Hawkeye offense already. Iowa’s freshman receiver duo have seen action in all five games this season, thus they can no longer redshirt. Talent-wise, that was largely anticipated. However, their fast start on the field has been eye-opening.
In week four against Colorado State, Johnson had his breakout freshman performance. He was targeted early in the second quarter on a sideline route for a 43-yard touchdown. Johnson broke away from the coverage and caught a perfectly thrown football for his first collegiate reception and touchdown. The route looked like it was run by a veteran receiver the way he gained separation. His speed was too much for the secondary as he ran by the cornerback and took it into the end zone.
Johnson was targeted again later in the quarter where he hauled in a 49-yard catch on a post route up the middle. Again, Johnson just ran by the cornerback on a stutter step and broke wide open for the catch. His impact on the Colorado State game was two-fold. Iowa got their first look at the breakaway speed and playmaking ability of Johnson, and he opened up the Iowa passing game for the first time all season. These explosive plays also gave quarterback Spencer Petras a surge of confidence in his deep-ball. Petras went on to have his best game of the year and it was largely due to the performance from the true freshman.
Arland Bruce IV
Iowa’s trip to College Park was Bruce’s turn for a breakout game. Bruce had seen action in all four games leading up to Maryland, but his impact was felt the most in Iowa’s rout of the Terrapins on Friday night. He was targeted six times and had six receptions for 43 yards and a touchdown. The first two catches were for solid gains. One of which got Iowa inside the one yard line where they ultimately scored on a quarterback sneak.
On the following Hawkeye drive, Bruce ran a long-developing cross pattern to the end zone and caught his first collegiate touchdown pass to help Iowa take a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter. That possession proved to be a turning point for the Hawkeyes and Bruce was a key piece of the production. By halftime, Bruce had recorded five receptions for 40 yards and one score. His hands were solid all game and he proved himself to be a reliable target for the Hawkeye offense.
Iowa’s Freshman Receiver Duo
The last time a true freshman wide receiver had an immediate impact on Hawks was back in 2017 with Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He went on to be one of Iowa’s best receivers in recent history. Johnson and Bruce have now solidified themselves as reliable pass catchers for Petras. Their presence out wide makes this Iowa offense even more dynamic. The Hawkeye passing game has opened up significantly over the past two weeks of play. The two freshmen are a large reason for it. If their impact can continue to be felt, Iowa’s offense can be as explosive as any in the country.