IOWA CITY — On the first play of a controlled scrimmage Saturday, Tyrone Tracy Jr. welcomed fans back to Kinnick Stadium.
With a defensive back draped on each side of him, the Iowa receiver shot up from the turf and wrapped his arms around a pass Spencer Petras had thrown with pinpoint precision.
Two snaps later, Kaevon Merriweather reminded everyone that the Hawkeyes are just past the midpoint of spring practices and that defenders are working on their games as well.
A safety in a veteran Iowa secondary, Merriweather picked off a Petras pass in the Hawkeyes’ first public appearance at their home stadium since the 2019 home finale.
It had been 17 months since Iowa had last taken the field in front of fans at Kinnick Stadium, and the noise made by a crowd of around 4,000 was welcomed as Iowa worked through the ninth of its 15 spring practices.
"It was great to be back in Kinnick, even better to be there with fans for the first time since a year ago November," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Just great to have live people in the stands. That provided a little bit of electricity for everybody."
They are far from a finished product — it is April after all and Indiana doesn’t show up for the 2021 season opener at Kinnick Stadium until Sept. 4 — but the Hawkeyes provided a little juice of their own during a practice session that lasted a little over two hours on a sun-kissed morning.
"We’re all hopeful it’s a sign we’re moving in the right direction now as a country. It seems like things are getting a little better," Ferentz said, a comment that not only mirrored his view on the COVID-19 pandemic but also covered the progress his 22nd Iowa football team is making.
After the onset of the coronavirus situation ended Iowa’s spring practices before they began in 2020, the return to a somewhat normal routine is a good situation for the Hawkeyes.
"I think just being in a routine has been good for us," Ferentz said. "From having an uninterrupted winter program to finishing up week three now, it has been good. We still have a lot of work to do, but just to be in some semblance of a routine was badly needed."
While the product on the field remains a work in progress annually in the spring as players adjust to new roles and embrace the opportunities provided by the start of a new season, Ferentz said things have been a little rougher around the edges this spring than usual.
He believes that is a likely byproduct of the cancellation of spring practices a year ago.
"We missed a lot of fundamentals work, and that does show on the field," Ferentz said. "There are some fundamental mistakes happening that we don’t usually see. We’re starting to see hints of improvement, guys flashing here and there, but the consistency isn’t there yet."
Ferentz is anxious to see where things stand two weeks from now when Iowa has completed its spring work.
He isn’t necessarily concerned with putting everything together this spring but wants to see position groups make progress to give Iowa a solid starting point when preseason camp starts.
"We need our most experienced guys to play that way, to lead and to make progress if we are going to put ourselves in a good position this fall," Ferentz said.
Tracy and Merriweather were among players providing hints of potential on Saturday.
Preparing for his junior season, Tracy made several electric plays on connections with Petras in the passing game.
At one point, he offered a bit of a dance after noticing his likeness on the stadium’s video board.
Ferentz said Tracy continues to emerge as the leader in a receiving corps he described as "a land of opportunity," adding that the entire group including true freshmen Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce are in the mix for roles in the rotation at this point.
Petras, who thrived during a two-minute drill segment that concluded the scrimmage, turned in a solid performance that illustrated why the Hawkeyes’ returning starting quarterback remains ahead of what Ferentz describes as a "wide open" race for back-up duties.
All four of the quarterbacks in Iowa’s camp rotated snaps by drive during the scrimmage, with Alex Padilla, walk-on Connor Kapisak and Deuce Hogan following Petras in that order throughout the practice.
They were working against a defense which had a number of players sidelined Saturday by what Ferentz described as minor injuries.
Starting defensive tackle Yahya Black and second-team defensive linemen Logan Lee and Chris Reames did not practice Saturday, starting tackle Noah Shannon left with an injury and back-up tackle Logan Jones saw only minimal work.
On the back end, starting cornerback Matt Hankins, free safety Jack Koerner and back-up cornerback Terry Roberts did not participate Saturday.
Receiver Nico Ragaini, tackle Cody Ince and running back Ivory Kelly-Martin from the offensive two-deep roster were also out of action in the first of Iowa’s two public practices.