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So A.J. Derby Is A Linebacker Now

It was the message board topic du jour last week and confirmed by Saturday's activities, where Derby (1) did pre-game workouts with the linebackers rather than the quarterbacks, (2) played on special teams (and recorded a tackle), and (3) talked about the move after the game.  So yeah: A.J. Derby, who started the year as Iowa's QB2, is now a linebacker.  Does this make sense?  Is this a good idea?  Are any more bus windows in danger?  ("DON'T HEADBUTT ME, BRO!")  Let's try to break it down.

Position changes are not exactly uncommon at Iowa, but in-season position changes are relatively rare (at least significant position changes; we're not talking about stuff like "oh hey I was a cornerback last week and now I'm a free safety" or "golly, I was a slot receiver but then AIRBHG did his wicked thing and now I'm a running back... shit").  The last ones that readily spring to mind are A.J. Edds (who moved from tight end to linebacker in 2007 during one of AILBHG's early streaks of terrormongering), Adam Robinson (who bounced between running back and defensive back for part of 2008), and Marvin McNutt (who saw the writing on the wall at QB when the Heismanzi emerged in '08 and made a move to WR that's turned out better than anyone could have ever dreamed).  The McNutt move was permanent from the moment it happened -- Stanzi was establishing himself as a nice option at QB and Iowa had some depth there, both for the immediate future (Christensen was still around, after all) and the distant future (both James Vandenberg and John Wienke were redshirting that fall).  It made little sense for an athlete of Marvin's caliber to idle on the bench. 

The moves made by Edds and Robinson were made out of necessity and didn't have the same sense of permanence that McNutt's move had.  Edds' move did become permanent, mainly because he proved to be an absolute natural at linebacker with uncommon pass coverage skills.  (And it didn't hurt that Iowa's tight end depth wasn't lacking, between Tony Moeaki, Brandon Myers, and Allen Reisner.)  Robinson's move, on the other hand, was very temporary, and he was back at running back before too long (where he proved to be pretty successful in '09 and '10).

So is Derby's move more like Robinson (temporary and purely to fill an emergency void) or more like Edds (permanent)?  According to Derby, it sounds like the latter:

Derby indicated the change is intended to be permanent. He was unsure how long before he’d get a chance to play defense.

"Technique," Derby said. "It’s hard to go from quarterback to linebacker."

And Ferentz gave it the ol' "definitely maybe:"

Ferentz said the position switch will be permanent for the time being.

But also said this:

Ferentz said the move was made in large part to the need of depth in the linebacking corps, which has been dealt with injury issues all season dating back to the start of fall camp.

"The propensity we’ve had for having a need for linebackers over the last two years, it just seemed like a logical move," Ferentz said. "The nice thing about it is he has still got three years in the program."

The reality is that while a temporary condition (the ongoing disaster zone that is the linebacker unit) may have been the tipping point for the move, it was almost certainly made with a more long-term view in mind.  It's probably expecting too much for a guy who's been solely focused on quarterback over the last 18 or so months to immediately become a decent linebacker; unless he's a really quick study or the injury situation gets even more precarious, Derby's primary contribution to the team for the rest of the year will probably be from the same spot he made an impact on Saturday: special teams.  So if that's the case and you assume that the battered linebacker corps will be healed up by the time Derby is ready to contribute as a linebacker, why move the guy who two months ago seemed like the future of the quarterback position?  For one, because he's no longer the future of the quarterback position.

In the wake of Derby's move, Pat Harty put on his crack investigative journalism hat and concluded that, clearly, this meant that true freshman Jake Rudock is now the heir apparent to James Vandenberg at quarterback.  Which is not exactly a hard conclusion to draw when you notice that Rudock is now the only scholarship quarterback on the roster younger than a redshirt junior.  Mind you, this is also not exactly a shocking development: anyone who saw videos of both could tell that even though he was a year younger, Rudock was (and is) a far more refined passer than Derby with better passing mechanics.  He was also more highly regarded as a quarterback (Derby was higher-rated as a recruit, but as an athlete, not a quarterback) and torched some quality competition at St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida.

From the moment Rudock verbaled to Iowa, the question always seemed to be not if he would surpass Derby, but when.  By most accounts (and by the timing of this move), it happened pretty quickly.  Rudock wowed observers at the open practice earlier this fall and Ye Olde Interwebs Scuttlebutt has had plenty of good things to say about his performance in practice.  Ferentz has tried to downplay it in public ("Aw, he hasn't even played in a game yet"), but don't kid yourself: the coaches like Rudock and they like him a lot.  In many ways, he represents a continuation of Vandenberg at the quarterback spot: he's 6'3", 185 (about the same size Vandy was as a freshman; since then JVB has packed on about 30 lbs. of muscle), very comfortable in the pocket (and out of the shotgun), and renowned for his accuracy*.   Derby would have been a different breed of quarterback, and while having a more athletic option back there, particularly someone who was a real threat to run with the ball, would have been undeniably exciting and intriguing, it's not hard to see why they wouldn't want to mess with the current approach too much. 

* Which, yeah, is not totally reflected by Vandy's completion percentage numbers, but work with me here. 

As I noted last week, the overall running game has left something to be desired over the last few years, but the flipside of that is that Iowa has, somewhat quietly, become a pretty damn good passing team.  Stanzi threw for 3000 yards and 25 TDs last year, some of the best numbers an Iowa quarterback has had in ages -- and Vandenberg is, amazingly, on pace to equal or surpass those numbers this year.  Erik Campbell's presence as wide receivers coach has coincided with a dramatic uptick in wide receiver play at Iowa and while it won't be easy to replace guys like DJK or Marvin McNutt, you wouldn't exactly bet against Campbell developing the new wide receiver prospects into highly productive players in their own right.

So yeah, Rudock as quarterback of the future: full speed ahead.  The downside of that is, as noted above, that it leaves Iowa's depth situation a bit precarious once Vandenberg and Wienke graduate.  Right now, Rudock would be Iowa's only scholarship quarterback when Fall 2013 rolls around.  Now chances are that won't actually be the case: Iowa will almost certainly grab at least one quarterback in this year and next year's recruiting classes, so there will be bodies back there beyond a random walk-on or two.  They just (probably) won't be terribly experienced or physically mature, which isn't an ideal situation.  It's also not exactly a new situation for Iowa -- in fact, it's somewhat uncommon for Iowa to have an experienced or older back-up hanging around.  In 2003, Nathan Chandler's backups were true freshman Drew Tate and redshirt freshman Jason Manson.  In 2004, Drew Tate's backups were redshirt sophomore Jason Manson and sophomore Eric McCollom.  In 2005, Drew Tate's backups was redshirt junior Jason Manson.  In 2006, Tate's backups were redshirt senior Manson and redshirt freshman Jake Christensen.  In 2007, Jake Christensen's backups were redshirt freshmen Arvell Nelson and Ricky Stanzi and true freshman Marvin McNutt.  In 2008, Ricky Stanzi's backups were redshirt junior Jake Christensen and true freshmen James Vandenberg and John Wienke.  In 2009, Stanzi's backups were redshirt freshmen Vandenberg and Wienke.  In 2010, Stanzi's backups were redshirt sophomores Vandenberg and Wienke.  Unless you have a guy like Manson or Wienke willing to stick it out despite not being the starter, you tend to wind up with younger, inexperienced guys as backup quarterbacks.  Having an experienced, mature backup is nice... but it's more of a luxury than a necessity.

This seems especially true when the quarterback in question is Derby; can Iowa really afford to have a player with his potential not on the field, simply to have a more experienced backup at quarterback?  Probably not and it's an issue of resource optimization, which is critical at a developmental program like Iowa.  The situation at linebacker is interesting too because the problem is not just the recent spate of injuries that has the coaches trying to plug true freshmen and former walk-on strong safeties into the starting lineup.  Some of the injuries are long-term in nature -- Shane DiBona tore his Achilles and isn't likely to be 100% for quite some time and Dakota Getz tore an ACL, which is also going to sideline him for a good while.  And for all the recruiting Iowa has done at the linebacker position over the last few years, it's unclear what impact those guys will be able to make.  For instance, Jim Poggi has had an unbelievable run of misfortune at Iowa (knee injuries, shoulder injuries, the rhabdo) and while the hope is that his story mirrors Angerer's and that after a hard luck start to his Iowa career, he ends it by developing into a star player... that's far from guaranteed. 

Likewise, for all the players Iowa has brought in at linebacker over the past few years -- James Morris, Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens, Quinton Alston, Marcus Collins, DiBona, Cole Fisher, Getz, John Lowedermilk, and Poggi -- the best thing we can say about any of them is that they have potential.  Morris and Kirksey, in particular, have emerged as solid, promising options (when healthy, at least), but you could hardly say that the future of the position is locked down.  Certainly, it's far too soon to call any of them busts, but... there's definitely opportunity to be had at linebacker.  If Derby can pick up the position quickly (and/or if AILBHG continues to wreak havoc on players there), there's definitely a path for him to get onto the field and potentially make an impact.  And that, as much as anything, is the reason the switch is happening.  Now let's hope it works out for both Derby and Iowa as well as the Edds and McNutt switches did.