WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Derrick Willies caught passes in traffic and caught balls with one hand Saturday during the Iowa football team’s first public practice of the spring.
He wasn’t alone. Derrick Mitchell and Andre Harris joined the receiver from Rock Island in big-gain receptions as well.
But beyond the play of a promising collection of redshirt freshmen, something else caught the eye of coach Kirk Ferentz as the Hawkeyes worked their way through a 2 1/2-hour practice in front of a crowd of around 6,500 at Valley Stadium.
“We did some good things, but we did a lot of things that would get us beat in the fall,’’ Ferentz said. “We had more negative plays, more mistakes today than we probably had in five days combined.’’
He described the overall performance of his team as sloppy, saying he was disappointed with the number of mental and physical mistakes from start to finish.
“This was our ninth practice and we have a lot of work to do,’’ said Ferentz, whose team has five more practices before its April 26 spring game at Kinnick Stadium.
Defensive tackle Carl Davis agreed with Ferentz’s assessment of the defensive performance.
“It wasn’t our best,’’ Davis said. “We made a lot of receivers look really good. They are talented, but we had too many breakdowns to walk away from this feeling good about ourselves.’’
From busted coverages and broken tackles which allowed Willies to reach the end zone on plays of 65 and 46 yards to special teams play which included a blocked kick, the Hawkeyes dealt with their share of issues.
“We’ve had better days than we had in this practice,’’ safety John Lowdermilk said. “We’ve had good days and bad and this wasn’t one of our better. All we can do is go back home and go back to work.’’
Ferentz did find a few things to like about the Hawkeyes’ work.
He labeled the effort sophomore running back Barkley Hill of Cedar Falls as some of his best of the spring.
“Barkley looked focused and I didn’t see him miss a thing,’’ Ferentz said.
The 16th-year Iowa coach was impressed with the plays he saw Willies, Mitchell and Harris make from start to finish at receiver as Jake Rudock, C.J. Beathard and Nic Shimonek rotated at quarterback.
“Some of those younger receivers are showing us flashes,’’ Ferentz said. “Some of it was blown coverages, but some of it was what they were doing.’’
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Willies, an Illinois state hurdles champion at Rock Island, blended athleticism and strength as he went up in traffic to get a short pass over the middle which turned into a 45-yard gain.
Those abilities intrigue Iowa coaches, who caution that Willies and the other rookie receivers are far from finished products.
“Willies is flashing, but then he’ll have a play where it Is like ‘What were you doing?’ That’s the way it works,’’ Ferentz said. “The challenge is to start to turn the ratio of good plays to bad in your favor. He’s shown us good things, and now we want to start to see that consistently and within the framework of the system.’’
Senior Kevonte Martin-Manley said all of Iowa’s young receivers are creating a competitive atmosphere at their positions, making solid progress this spring.
“Those guys, they come in every day, they put the work in,’’ Martin-Manley said. “When they ask questions, I help them out, tell them what to do here, what to do there, but at the same time those guys are talented.’’
Running back Jordan Canzeri said the growth of the younger players on Iowa’s roster is pushing the veterans.
“That’s what they are supposed to do and they have us all working,’’ Canzeri said. “We have a lot of people on this team making plays. You see those young guys, they are getting better every day. We will have a lot of guys who can line up and make things happen. That’s one of the exciting things about this offense. We’re getting better but the work isn’t done.’’