The Iowa Hawkeyes entered the 2017 season with uncertainty at quarterback. True sophomore Nathan Stanley emerged at the top of the QB depth chart, beating out longtime backup Tyler Wiegers. At the time, the extent we knew about him was that he preferred to be referred to as Nate, and that we’d seen an extremely limited sample size of him behind center as C.J. Beathard’s primary backup in 2016.
Would Stanley make it through the first game, let alone the entire season, as Iowa’s primary starter?
A year later and a year wiser, the question has changed. The uncertainly surrounding Stanley as QB1 has all but disappeared, replaced with the question of whether Stanley can cement himself in the record books — and the hearts of Hawkeye fans — as one of the best quarterbacks in program history.
I’m hesitant to type that sentence but hear me out: Stanley, as a true sophomore, had a record-setting first season under center. Let’s take a look back at his stat lines: 2,437 passing yards with a decent 55% accuracy rate, 26 touchdowns (second most in Iowa single-season history, and good enough for 3rd overall in the Big Ten) to only 6 interceptions and two 5-touchdown games (an Iowa single-season record).
One of his 5-touchdown games might stick out in your memory:
General consensus among the Iowa fanbase is that Stanley is poised to have another successful season in 2018. As far as how people will measure his improvement, the biggest area to look at will be his improvement on landing the deep ball. Our own Jordan Hansen has an aptly named video from his Monday Rewatch series that proves my point well from last year’s Iowa State game (all the videos below are from Jordan’s series unless otherwise noted):
The long ball was hit and miss for Stanley all season, mostly on the miss side of things. You could feel the collective baited breath of the Hawkeye fandom every time the camera zoomed out to a ball spiraling toward the opposite end of the field, only to be met with sighs as it dropped to the ground with a receiver with outstretched arms right behind it. Case in point from the North Texas game:
Stanley did improve with the long ball over the course of the season, and another offseason (hopefully) spent running routes with Noah Fant, Nick Easley, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and the running backs and whoever else will inevitably show up on the ‘receiving’ tab of the box score this fall will help. It’s obvious from watching any of his overthrows that the arm strength is there — and there’s a lot of it! — but finessing those passes to drop into the waiting arms of his receivers is the next step in his development.
The other big thing for Stanley will be pocket awareness. Stanley finished the year in the red in terms of rushing yards, ending with -115. The Purdue game was a particularly difficult outing for Stanley: he was sacked six times in the upset loss to the Boilermakers.
Let’s take this sack for example, from the second quarter:
Let’s ignore the Iowa offensive line completely missing the blitz here and focus on the fact that Stanley’s head is clearly turned to the left. He doesn’t see 11 rushing toward him until he’s already wrapped up and heading to the ground.
Same here. Stanley is trying to make a play on 3rd and long and he’s oblivious to the Purdue defender coming at him from the opposite side.
According to Bill Connelly’s Iowa preview, the Hawks were 76th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Not great, Bill! But improved awareness and better line play will certainly help that.
The tools are certainly there for Stanley to have an improved season. His completion rate could improve, but like Bill says in his preview, how can you complain about his current completion rate when statistically, his completions result in good plays?
We know Iowa will focus on running the ball, even after losing Akrum Wadley and James Butler. But relative question marks in the backfield could certainly mean more passing opportunities in Brian Ferentz’s offense. I think we all look at last year’s Ohio State game as the epitome of what Ferentz’s offense can do when it’s humming, and passing was a big part of that.
I’m talking myself into thinking that if the run game doesn’t gel this season (and there’s a lot to replace on that front), we could see a pass heavier offense. I don’t think Kirk would ever let Brian turn Iowa into a Big 12 team by any means, but maybe we’ll at least see some more passes on first down, and we definitely need to see as many passes to Noah Fant as possible.
MOAR TE PASSING ACTION BRIAN
More fullback action too while we’re at it, but that’s not for this article.
I have high hopes for Stanley this year. That makes me nervous, but I’ll admit it. He exceeded every expectation I had last year, and he was a true sophomore. I’m not going to gush or anything like that, but I’ll just say that I think QB play could be a big strength for the 2018 Iowa football squad.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Stanley will be the starter for the duration of the season, and for the season after that as well, barring unforeseen injury. He’s earned that right, and I’m excited to see how he (hopefully) continues developing. But who will come in second on the first depth chart of the season? Who will be second at the end of the season?
My money is on Peyton Mansell getting the backup nod for the beginning of this season, with Spencer Petras coming in third. Will that change by November/December? It’s definitely possible. By all means, Petras seems to be the QB of the future, according to my wise co-bloggers (I’d wager that our own JPinIC knows just as much about our recruiting situation as some of the Iowa assistant coaches). Mansell will get the initial nod at backup for the same reason Wiegers did for so long: he has more experience in the program and knowledge of the playbook. We’ll hear the customary talking points about a battle for every spot on the roster, but Petras’ build and playing style ultimately seem to fit the Kirk Ferentz mold more than Mansell.
If you want the complete breakdown of Petras, check out JPinIC’s writeup from his commitment last December. I’m repeating JP here, but Petras is a 4-star QB out of California who initially committed to Oregon State but de-committed after turnover on the coaching staff. Ken O’Keefe was a big factor in him joining the black and gold. He’s 6’5, 225 lb, which is a great build for a QB, has a great arm and a great deep ball. His highlight film is below:
But let’s briefly talk about Mansell as well. A former 3-star QB from Texas who came to Iowa City as a member of the class of 2017, Mansell’s tape seems to show more of a dual-threat quarterback. Film on Mansell below:
It’s certainly interesting to imagine a backfield of Nate Stanley and or Spencer Petras along with Mansell for wildcat play possibilities, but based on play-style alone, I think Mansell might have lost his chance at starting when Petras signed his LOI. I could very well be wrong, but Mansell might become a trick-play exclusive player while he’s wearing the black and gold unless Brian Ferentz has some wrinkles of his sleeve that none of us see coming (like convincing his dad to change his entire playing style. Who knows!).
Hypothetically below Mansell on the depth chart will be walk-on Ryan Schmidt. He’s a junior out of Marion whose only highlight that I can find comes from the latest spring game:
And we’ve got a TD: Ryan Schmidt to Dominique Dafney on the last play of the scrimmage. pic.twitter.com/3f4q5bBW0o— Matthew Bain (@MatthewBain_) April 21, 2018
Hey, that’s a nice pass! That also happened to be the only offensive touchdown scored at the spring game. Maybe Schmidt will be jumping up the depth charts more than we’re giving him credit for? Unlikely, but the world is a crazy place.
Overall, barring a slump from Stanley in his second season as the starter, he’ll become even more of a cornerstone of the offense, and with Petras as the potential heir-apparent watching for two years, good things should be coming for the Hawkeyes from under center for the next four years.