IOWA CITY, Ia. – He’s no fluke.
Derrick Willies put on another pass-catching spectacle Saturday during Iowa’s spring football game, proving his performance two weeks ago in West Des Moines wasn’t a one-time wonder.
“He’s a talented player,” fellow receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “He plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of heart.”
And there should be no doubt about Willies, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound freshman, playing a significant role this fall.
“Now, we’ve got to try and corral him,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’ll be the spring game sensation, but he did some good things today.”
It remains to be seen if Willies can handle the attention that comes with being a Hawkeye on the rise, but he continues to show a knack for stealing the spotlight.
An estimated crowd of 20,400 at Kinnick Stadium roared when Willies raced past defensive backs Anthony Gair and Greg Mabin, hauled in a dart from quarterback C.J. Beathard and turned it into a 42-yard touchdown.
Willies also made nifty catches near the sideline, and didn’t seem to shy away from contact while turning another reception into a 52-yard gain.
Ferentz indicated it was Willies’ best effort to date. Others wondered what might be possible in the future.
“That’s big when you have talented guys to play with,” Martin-Manley said. “It makes it hard on a defense, and it makes it easier on you.”
Willies also drew rave reviews from Damond Powell, who showed off his deep-threat abilities last season.
“Derrick is very talented,” Powell said. “And I’m pretty sure you’re going to see a lot of him this season.”
Remember when fans were clamoring for Powell, a junior college transfer, to get more opportunities?
It wasn’t a matter of potential, but having a complete grasp of the playbook.
Powell ended up with 12 catches in 2013 for 291 yards.
“Coming here, you have guys who have been in the system, know the system, work hard and deserve to play,” Powell said. “I kind of stepped back and played my role, continued to learn the offense and trust my coaches.”
Now, the Hawkeyes appear to have a variety of downfield options, which has elevated the intensity level at practice.
“It can be hard,” Powell said, “but that’s what you want.
“You want guys to come out and compete every day, so it makes you better.”
Martin-Manley, the Hawkeyes’ leading receiver in 2012 and ’13, couldn’t remember another freshman teammate who offered this much promise.
He also can’t remember when there were so many capable wideouts and ends.
“We’re very confident in what we’re able to do,” Martin-Manley said. “We just have to keep working hard over this summer, going into camp.
“We’ve got guys who can do it all. We can mix it up here and there. We’re really excited.”
Ferentz also seems pleased with the progress of his receiving corps, especially the veterans.
Martin-Manley has made a total of 92 catches the past two seasons for 959 yards. Tevaun Smith averaged 12.9 yards on 24 receptions, include a 55-yard touchdown against Michigan. Jacob Hillyer averaged 12.3 on 11 receptions and had two touchdowns.
“Tevaun really kind of came of age and made one of the biggest plays of the season,” Ferentz said. “Kevonte continues to grow and improve. Jake did some good things.
“You go right down the list.”