IOWA CITY, Iowa — Competing in their final University of Iowa spring football game, seniors Kevonte Martin-Manley and Quinton Alston saw Saturday what a sun-drenched crowd estimated at 20,400 also saw at Kinnick Stadium.
“The young guys we have on this football team can play the game,’’ said Martin-Manley, the Hawkeyes’ top returning receiver. “There’s no question about that. They bring a lot of skill to the field.’’
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Derrick Willies of Rock Island illustrated that point, catching five passes for 132 yards including a 42-yard touchdown thrown by C.J. Beathard.
Alston, stepping into the middle linebacker role filled by James Morris for the last three-plus seasons, sees the same thing.
“You saw it at linebacker in Josey Jewell and John Kenny today, they are so much more advanced than I was when I was a freshman, it’s pretty remarkable,’’ Alston said. “That’s only going to help this team.’’
If nothing else, coach Kirk Ferentz and coaches walk away from spring ball understanding that they have plenty of pieces to work with as the formulate plans for the 2014 season.
Ferentz indicated in his postgame comments that there might even be room for two quarterbacks in Iowa’s plans.
Returning starter Jake Rudock continues to top the depth chart, but Ferentz said Beathard has improved to the point where the possibility of rotating in for a series or two each game will be seriously discussed this summer.
“It’s more of a challenge to do that at quarterback than at other positions, but it is something we may look at,’’ Ferentz said. “If nothing else, we enter the fall with two quarterbacks that we feel very good about.’’
Rudock worked only the first half Saturday, completing 13-of-24 passes for 179 yards against the starting defense including a 54-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ray Hamilton who steamrolled free safety Jordan Lomax on his way to the end zone.
Beathard competed against the No. 2 defense in the first half and a blend of starters and reserves in the second half, combining to connect on 21-of-39 passes for 322 yards, including all five receptions made by Willies.
Rudock had the only interception of the day, picked off by Desmond King in the second quarter, while Ferentz counted only one exchange issue between Iowa centers and quarterbacks in the last of the Hawkeyes’ 15 spring practices.
“The team is making progress, which is what you hope for in spring, and they’ve all had their ups and downs,’’ Ferentz said. “We’re hardly ready to play a game, but we’ve made strides.’’
Iowa demonstrated increased depth at receiver, running back and on the defensive line.
“When you consider where we were two springs ago, particularly at receiver and on the defensive front, it’s significant progress,’’ Ferentz said.
When talking about receivers, Ferentz begins with the veterans Iowa will build around in the fall — Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer — before mentioning the possibilities Willies and Matt VandeBerg bring to the group.
“Willies, today was his best day,’’ Ferentz said. “He’s this year’s spring sensation, so we’ll have to keep him in check, but he had a great catch on our sideline and he’s doing good things. We’re improving there, too.’’
Fifteen players caught passes in a game which saw Iowa concentrate on the pass during the opening half with Rudock and Beathard combining for 48 pass attempts in the first two quarters.
Known commodities Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri had only a handful of carries in the game, including a 16-yard touchdown run by Canzeri in the second half, but that provided additional productive opportunities for a healthy Barkley Hill as well as redshirt freshmen Jonathan Parker and Akrum Wadley.
“We have a lot of people who can help us move the ball on this team,’’ Rudock said. “It’s going to be fun to see how it all fits together in the fall. We have a lot of room for growth, which everybody saw today, too, but there is so much potential and that has us all excited coming out of spring.’’