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Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Spring breakout player: Iowa

By Mitch Sherman

With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

Next up, a bright spot at a position group suddenly flush with depth on the Iowa roster:

Spring breakout player: WR Derrick Willies

Midway through spring practice at Iowa last month, Willies announced his arrival with a big performance as the Hawkeyes caravanned to West Des Moines for a public scrimmage. Under-recruited out of Rock Island, Ill., the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman caught seven balls for 148 yards and a touchdown.

He did it largely against Iowa’s defensive reserves, though, so questions remained.

Was it indicative of his ability to help the Hawkeyes in 2014? Could he really challenge for meaningful playing time amid a talented corps of receivers that includes seniors Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell in addition to junior Tevaun Smith?

Yes and yes.

Willies followed with an impressive showing on April 26 in Iowa’s spring game at Kinnick Stadium. He grabbed five passes for 142 yards, including a 42-yarder touchdown from backup quarterback C.J. Beathard.

Despite two receptions that covered more than 80 yards, a short route near the sideline was what impressed coach Kirk Ferentz the most. On that play, Willies dragged a foot before falling out of bounds.

“He’s this year’s spring sensation,” the coach told reporters after the spring game, “so we’ll have to keep him in check. But he had a great catch on our sideline, and he’s doing good things.”

His emergence should help the Hawkeyes field a receiving corps as deep as any coached by Ferentz, entering his 16th season in Iowa City. With Jake Rudock back at quarterback, the passing game looks set up for success.

A former high school hurdler and state-champion sprinter, Willies sat quietly before spring practice among classmates Matt VandeBerg, Derrick Mitchell and Andre Harris. Each looked to announce his arrival.

Consider Willies arrived.

“He’s a talented player,” Martin-Manley said after the spring game. “He plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of heart.”