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Bryce Miller: Same location, much different feeling

[ 0 ] April 12, 2014 |
A Hawkeye helmet sits on the sideline after practice on Saturday during the Iowa Hawkeyes football team practice at Valley High Stadium in West Des Moines. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Register)

A Hawkeye helmet sits on the sideline after practice on Saturday during the Iowa Hawkeyes football team practice at Valley High Stadium in West Des Moines. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Register)

To understand how long ago Iowa football’s last spring football practice at Valley Stadium felt, you’d need lab coats and carbon dating.

The days were separated by a single year on the calendar, but enough mental and emotional distance to make April 2013 seem like a hazy, barely visible afterthought.

A year ago, Iowa practiced under a dingy, threatening sky as it came off a four-win, six-straight-losses season that mirrored the conditions.

On Saturday in West Des Moines, the temperature cracked 80 degrees as 8,000 or so fans soaked up the weather and a rosier outlook. See ya, sub-.500 record. Adios, losing streak. Hello, eight-win season. Hello, Florida bowl game. Hello, possibilities.

Related: Willies and the Hawkeyes show good, bad in Saturday practice

“Last year, it was kind of gloomy, like the weather,” Frank Aldridge of Des Moines said of his thoughts about the team. “I was kind of worried. Was it just a blip, or would they come around? My feeling today is like the weather: sunny and bright.”

For an Iowa fan, 2014 started off as one of those loyalty-testing years: Was the blender-of-a-season before it a troubling sign of things to come or one of those stumbles that trip up even the sturdiest of programs now and again?

Capping last season with a fist-fight at the Outback Bowl against LSU, a 10-win team that chalked up three top-20 victories during the season, provided a short-term answer and shifted expectations.

Now, with a little gas in the feel-good tank, the road suddenly seems smoother than freshly poured concrete.

“I think overall, the attitude’s been upbeat with the team,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

What reasons for concern could a reasonable person cling to as drills creep ahead? Start with departed linebackers, as in James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens, the best group sideline to sideline in the country. The stars were season-changers, particularly against Michigan and Nebraska.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Ferentz said. “That’s one of the races we’re running right now, filling that void. Because those three linebackers aren’t coming back, (defensive back) B.J. Lowery, (offensive lineman Brett) Van Sloten, those guys aren’t going to be back next year.”

The glass-half-full whispers about Reggie Spearman and Quintin Alston, however, are holding pessimist worries at bay.

There’s plenty of reason for Hawkeye optimism, beginning with the schedule. When there’s not an Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State in sight, the climb ahead feels less taxing.

Plus, bulldozing running back Mark Weisman — banged up in ways discussed and not discussed a season ago — is operating on two good wheels. Plus, offensive lineman Brandon Scherff decided to hold off on the NFL for a season. Plus, quarterback Jake Rudock, offensive coordinator Greg Davis and speedy route-running mystery Damond Powell all own another season’s worth of polish.

When someone is a fan and it’s April, the “plus” thoughts prove miles easier to find.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum,” said Leon’s Shaun Schaff, who attended with his daughters Kristin and Elsa and wife Samantha. “There are expectations.”

Momentum and expectations were a pair of words noticeably AWOL at the practice a year ago.

Cheers arrived Saturday when budding 6-foot-4 receiver Derrick Willies of Rock Island, Ill., hauled in deep throws. Position-mates Tevaun Smith, Kevonte Martin-Manley and Andre Harris offered promise in the open field, too. Tight ends Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey showed glimpses of the depth that will reside there.

Then again, it’s April. How much of it is promising pass-catchers and how much of it should be, “Uh, where’s the safety?” Ferentz, tempering hopes in the healthy ways that savvy coaches do, saw the blemishes before the report-card stickers.

“Practice today was just OK,” Ferentz said after the team’s ninth workout of the spring. “There were some good some things going on out there and some things that are encouraging, but a lot of things that would really get us beat in the fall. … We probably had more negative plays than any five days combined.”

Put a fork in any conspiracy theory, though, about Iowa intentionally scheduling its workout to steal some thunder from Iowa State’s spring game in Ames. There’s a small window of weekends to schedule drills such as these, and with the Easter holiday and a spring practice at Kinnick Stadium looming, the options became nearly nil.

The thought that anyone is robbing spotlight from the other — beyond a few seconds of TV time on the local, 10 o’clock newscast — makes no sense. But what the heck: Makes for good chatter when the spring flowers start blooming, right?

After all, there’s enough football hope in the spring for two teams and two counties.

Iowa’s crowd failed to “ooh” and “aah” when the public-address announcer explained that the team would jump into “a period of stretching and loosening up.” But the sun was shining again for Hawkeye fans — above the field and on it.

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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