Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.
Not since 2004 has Iowa started a quarterback in the season opener who didn't start a game the year before. For his career, he's thrown 95 passes for 515 yards. His backups are a junior who has been perpetually buried on the depth chart and a redshirt freshman who is the subject of constant position change rumors. And this is the most certain position on the depth chart.
It's going to be an interesting season.
You'll See What You Want
James Vandenberg (#16, Junior (RS), 6'3", 215, Keokuk (IA) HS)
Taste test these three QB stat lines:
Those are the first Big Ten road starts of Iowa's last four starting quarterbacks. Obviously, Player B is the outlier; the completion percentage is low, the yards per attempt are unsustainable, and touchdown production is virtually nonexistent. You can guess who that is.
The other three, though, are quite comparable. Players A and C are virtually identical, save for the slight decrease in yardage and one fewer interception from A. Player D had fewer attempts, but completed those attempts at a similar percentage for equivalent yards per attempt. So in retrospect, James Vandenberg's first career road start (Player C) ranks favorably with those of Drew Tate (Player A) and Ricky Stanzi (Player D).* All four players lost these games, by the way.
Now let's look at what those players did in their next game:
Take it away, Big Bird.
Tate built on the defeat at Michigan by incinerating Michigan State and setting off a string of eight consecutive wins to finish out his sophomore season. Stanzi beat Indiana with efficiency in play action and reliance on GREENE/HAMPTON BEASTMODE. Even Jake Christensen improved from his first conference road start, even if James Hardy killed Iowa on the other side of the ball. Vandenberg looked like mush against Minnesota in his follow-up, though, and left Ferentz to rely on typical Ferentz things (punting, turnovers, and an epic goalline stand) to shut out Brewster's Gophers in a 12-0 win. That was our last data point on young Vandenberg; since that game, he has attempted exactly eight passes against Ball State, Iowa State, and Eastern Illinois. He didn't play in the last nine games of 2010.
The question, then, is how much faith can we put in the Ohio State game? The consensus appears to be that his performance against the Buckeyes is the norm, with that egg against Minnesota (and the similar offense killer he put up against Northwestern the week before OSU, though that can likely be chalked up to reserve duty rust) as the exception to the rule. The coaching staff and players are clearly behind him, but when was the last time you heard any coach question the ability of a newly-minted starting quarterback? He has high school accolades (Iowa high school player of the year as a senior at Keokuk), but doesn't have a commensurate recruiting profile (3* Rivals, 3* Scout) or offer sheet (Bill Callahan Nebraska, Purdue, Northern Illinois). He has the arm, but not the experience. We are heading into Superunknown here. Let's hope the optimists are right.
* -- Before you say it, Vandenberg did not play against markedly different opposition than Tate, whose game came in the Big House against a buzzsaw Michigan team that eventually made the Rose Bowl. While Michigan Stadium might be quieter than your local public library, there is no difference in opposition.
Not Tim Tebow. Maybe Brad Banks.
A.J. Derby (#17, Freshman (RS), 6'4", 225, Iowa City HS)
Stop when this sounds familiar: Iowa enters the season with a clear-cut but relatively inexperienced pocket passer at the top of the depth chart, but also has a promising youngster waiting in the wings whose pure athletic talent mandates he get on the field in some capacity. Iowa installs its standard offense -- pro style, zone read running, heavy on play action -- but in a bit of pure desperation, includes a basic read-and-run set of plays to utilize the young guy. They send the youngster out there from time to time, put the ball in his hands, and have him make his run-pass decision on one receiver. The youngster throws for 580 yards and a handful of touchdowns, and runs for another 150 yards and a pair of scores. Iowa's offense leads the Big Ten in scoring, and the team exceeds all expectations.
That was the story of 2001 in a nutshell. That scenario hasn't really presented itself since, at least until now. So the question is this: Does this coaching staff, apparently desperate to get its new toy in the game somehow but so set in its ways and no longer with the services of Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, have the creativity to make A.J. Derby the new Brad Banks?
There's no denying Derby's credentials: Four-star prospect at Rivals, three-star at Scout, U.S. Army All-American, with an offer list that included the likes of Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Miami, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Florida State, and (maybe) Oklahoma. Remember that adage from SEC coaches that their planes don't fly north? They broke that rule for A.J. Derby. To hear the coaches say it, he's one of the finest raw football talents they've had in thirteen years at Iowa. He made up for lack of experience -- he only played quarterback as a junior and senior at City High -- with pure athleticism. He fancied himself the next Tebow; Urban Meyer wasn't so sure, but thought he'd be one hell of a linebacker.
And therein lies the problem: Iowa didn't get a quarterback in the class of 2009, and put all their chips on Derby in 2010 as their only chance of landing the hottest commodity to come out of the state since Blake Larsen landed in the Rivals top 10. He's not quite ready to play quarterback at this level, at least not full-time, and he's behind Vandenberg all the same. Burying his athleticism for two years is counterproductive; moving him to a new position to get him on the field leaves a massive hole in the depth chart. There's been discussion of putting Derby on special teams or splitting him out as a receiver for the moment, but the natural solution might be as simple as turning the clock back a decade.
John Wienke (#14, Junior (RS), 6'5", 220, Tuscola (IL) HS)
They don't write country western songs about college football players, but if they did, John Wienke would make for a good one. One of the most sought-after quarterback recruits in the country in 2007-08 (offers from Purdue, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Colorado, Indiana, etc.), Wienke did what immobile quarterbacks from the upper Midwest had been doing for years: He committed to play for Lloyd Carr to be the eventual heir apparent to Ryan Mallet. Then came The Horror, and Carr's retirement, and Rich Rodriguez. Suddenly, there was no room at the inn for Mallet, let alone homeless man's Mallet. Iowa, who had remained in close contact, floated a life raft. Wienke gladly took it. There was just one problem: In the interim, working under the obvious assumption that Wienke was headed to Ann Arbor, the Hawkeyes had offered and received a commitment from Vandenberg, a player with a similar profile.
Wienke and Vandenberg both redshirted, thereby ensuring they would not be staggered. When Jake Christensen transferred and Marvin McNutt moved to wide receiver, the two classmates were thrust into a battle for QB2. Vandenberg eked out the spot, and then Stanzi went down injured, and Vandenberg took OSU to overtime, and the fork had been firmly planted in Wienke. This spring, the coaches left no doubt that Vandenberg had the starting job locked up, and in fact went out of their way to say that Wienke and Derby, a redshirt freshman, were neck-and-neck for the second spot on the depth chart.
The cruel irony, of course, is that if Michigan had simply followed its typical conservative philosophy instead of rolling the dice on a brief dalliance with Rodriguez, if Carr had gotten his way during that first coaching search, Wienke likely would have never left the Wolverines. He would likely be the prohibitive starter now, if he hadn't taken the reins last season. Also, his wife left him and his dog died and his pickup truck stopped working this morning. So goes The Ballad of John Wienke.
While You Wait for the Others
Jake Rudock (Number Unknown, Freshman, 6'3", 190, St. Thomas Aquinas HS (Ft. Lauderdale, FL))
How does the starting quarterback of the best high school football team in the country get overlooked for so long? Mostly by being a standard-issue pocket passer surrounded by weapons craved by every school in the SEC. As it stands, the consensus three-star Rudock committed to Iowa in early September, then set Florida on fire with 2780 yards and a 36/3 TD/INT ratio on 160/231 passing as a senior. It was good enough to draw late interest from new Miami head coach Al Golden; while Rudock's dad, a Miami season ticket holder, talked in the first person plural about his son's tough decision, Rudock himself never seriously waivered on his commitment to Iowa. He's already announced he will redshirt, which is both wholly unexpected and smart. Barring a position change for Derby and a transfer by Wienke, he won't see the field until 2013.