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The Curious Case Of A.J. Derby

From the moment he signed with Iowa (if not before), the same question has dogged A.J. Derby: when will he switch positions? The pressure on him to make a move only got ratcheted up after Iowa added a highly-touted signal-caller like Jake Rudock in last year's recruiting class. In part, it's a credit to Derby's abilities (or, rather, his talent and theoretical abilities; let's not forget that he's still yet to do anything in a college football game) that Iowa fans are so anxious to see him get on the field. Even the fans that acknowledge the possibility that, given enough time, he may develop into a good option at quarterback are loathe to let him do that, knowing that doing so means that he'll likely be spending 1-2 years on the bench.

It's that "spend 1-2 years on the bench" part that seems untenable to so many Iowa fans. Derby arrived at Iowa with a reputation as a high-level athlete -- he didn't earn a 4* recruiting ranking and offers from the likes of Florida and Michigan for nothing. He is (theoretically) the type of blue-chip athlete that Iowa doesn't often get -- which exacerbates the need to get him on the field, in the eyes of some fans. Iowa isn't Texas or Ohio State or Florida, where the roster is stacked with blue-chip athletes; they can ill afford to have a potential difference-maker cooling his jets on the sidelines. Or so the thinking goes.

But there's also the question of just where Derby would play if he swapped positions. Some have theorized TE, but Iowa added three tight ends in their most recent recruiting class (including highly-regarded Ray Hamilton), and added interwebs legend C.J. Fiedorowicz a year ago. Never mind the fact that Derby has, to the best of my knowledge, never played a snap at tight end, meaning he'd have to learn to catch the ball and pick up blocking schemes. And as we saw with the Polish Hat last year, all the freakish athletic ability in the world doesn't mean a thing to the coaches who dictate playing time if you can't block a dude. (We can argue until we're blue in the face if this is the most sensible approach, but that's not really the issue here.)

The other popular option has him moving to the other side of the ball, likely at linebacker. Derby did play some linebacker in high school at Iowa City High and was, by most accounts, very good at it. Iowa's depth at linebacker is also a bit more precarious -- outside of Tyler Nielsen and James Morris, there aren't any surefire starters in Iowa's rotation. On the other hand, there's also a lot of potential in the linebacking ranks that hasn't yet had much of a chance to shine: there's a quarter of sophomores (Shane DiBona, Dakota Getz, Anthony Hitchens, and Christian Kirksey) fighting to get a starting spot this year, redshirt freshman Jim Poggi (son of our beloved BIFF), and a quintet of incoming freshmen, too (headlined by Marcus Spears and Quinton Alston). It's not exactly fair to them -- or Derby -- to expect him to move in and be instantly better than all (or any) of them, which means you're still looking at a situation where he's not getting on the field immediately.

Alternatively, he could try and convert his considerable athleticism into a spot at defensive end; it probably still wouldn't get him on the field this year (Broderick Binns and Lebron Daniel are the heavy favorites to start there this fall), but it might be the quickest way to see action -- after Binns and Daniel, the options at defensive end drop off a cliff. Still, that would be a massive change for a guy who's played quarterback for the last half-dozen years (along with a few stints at linebacker and defensive back) -- getting him to buy into that change could be a challenge. Not to mention the fact that while he's fairly big for a quarterback (6'4", 232 lbs), he'd still be a (very) small defensive end.

If Derby wants to play and play now there are probably only two surefire position switches that would accomplish that: RB and S. As we well know, Iowa always needs running backs and even if the usual plague of ailments from AIRBHG doesn't afflict the Iowa RB corps this fall, there's always opportunity for running backs other than the starter to see a solid amount of playing time. Still, Derby would be one big -- and probably ungainly-- running back. He has good wheels -- for a quarterback. He has a listed 40 time of 4.8, which is certainly not on par with most running backs. The depth chart at safety is utterly wide-open, but the same physical issues (namely, speed -- does he have enough?) that make running back a fanciful idea probably do the same to safety. He would be one gigantic, fearsome presence in the defensive backfield, though -- especially if he can hit.

The spring game-type substance in April added another wrinkle to the debate because it -- as well as statements from Ferentz discussing Derby's progress during spring practice -- suggested that Derby may very well be Iowa's QB2 right now. Which means that he's one blindside hit on Vandenberg from getting to display his considerable athletic potential at quarterback. Over the last decade, Iowa's seemed to lead a farily charmed existence when it comes to quarterback health -- off the top of my head, the only instances of an Iowa starting quarterback missing time due to injury were Drew Tate in 2006 (when lingering injuries gave starting opportunities to Jason Manson and, later, Jake Christensen) and Ricky Stanzi in 2009 (when the WOOTENOCALYPSE destroyed Iowa's perfect season). But that fortuitous history simply means Iowa's been lucky in the past -- it says nothing about their potential luck going forward.

The other wrinkle to this debate is the presence of Jake Rudock. The next six months could be very telling for the future of the quarterback position at Iowa (or the post-Vandenberg future, at least; barring injury, it would be a surprise if anyone but the Mandenberg started a game at quarterback in 2011 or 2012). If Rudock arrives on campus and dazzles the coaches, it could set the wheels in motion for a prospective position switch for Derby. Mind you, even if Rudock does prove to be very good from the get-go, I'd still expect Derby or John Wienke (the sadly forgotten man in this drama) to get the actual in-game QB2 snaps in 2011, if only to conserve Rudock's eligibility. But not many people thought Drew Tate would grab the back-up quarterback spot and play as a true freshman, either, so there is some precedent there. In any event, if Rudock enters next spring as the presumptive quarterback of the future, then we can revisit this whole position change debate with Derby. In the meantime, as far as 2011 goes, A.J. Derby is a quarterback.