Quarterback has always been popularly viewed as the position with the greatest impact on the success of a college football offense. This belief, reductive as it may be, rings remarkably true when examining the Iowa Hawkeye offense on the eve of the 2018 season. Starting quarterback Nate Stanley returns for his junior year after a sophomore campaign filled with personal highs (an excellent 26:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, five-touchdown performances against both Ohio State and Iowa State) and lows (a middling 55.8% completion percentage, abysmal showings against Wisconsin and Purdue in consecutive games).
Stanley has deservedly received great praise during the offseason for his promising performance as a first-year starter and his NFL potential, with ESPN draft guru Todd McShay ranking Stanley as his second quarterback prospect for the 2019 NFL draft. However, a pessimist could easily project a significant regression in Stanley’s play in 2018. For one, do-everything running back Akrum Wadley is currently fighting for a roster spot with the Tennessee Titans after carrying the offensive load last year and accounting for 1462 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage (for compassion, the Hawkeye who produced the second most yards from scrimmage was Nick Easley with 541). Not only was Wadley capable of taking any play to the house, but his skill as both a runner and receiver forced defenses to make him their primary focus, creating more single coverage for Stanley to exploit down the field in the play-action game. Additionally, Iowa lost its two best linemen to the NFL in James Daniels and Sean Welsh from a unit that already struggled in pass protection and ranked 76th in adjusted sack rate. Iowa fans saw how CJ Beathard’s play regressed behind porous pass protection in 2016, and Stanley could be in for a similar fate this season.
With Wadley, Daniels, and Welsh in the NFL, Stanley will be relied on to generate even greater production for Iowa’s offense to have success in 2018. For Stanley to accomplish this and take the next step in his maturation as a starting quarterback, there are a few key areas in which his performance must improve from his sophomore season:
1. More success throwing the deep ball
This one should be obvious to anyone who watched the Hawkeyes consistently in 2017, and Stanley himself has talked about his desire to improve this aspect of his game. Stanley left a number of deep completions and probable touchdowns on the field in 2017, including two missed shots to Matt VandeBerg against North Texas and a handful of misses to Noah Fant and Ihmir Smith-Marsette against Iowa State. Stanley certainly has the physical tools to make these throws; he has a cannon for an arm, and most of his missed deep passes last seasons were overthrows, such as this play against Michigan State:
Improved accuracy on the deep ball is largely a question of timing between a quarterback and his receivers. With nearly 70% of Iowa’s 2017 receptions returning this season, it will be interesting to see whether Stanley’s enhanced rapport with his receiving corps results in an improvement in the accuracy of Iowa’s deep passing game.
2. Starting faster
The disparity between Nate Stanley’s 2017 performance in the first quarter of games compared to the remainder of the contest was stark. While his completion percentage hovered around 55% in each quarter, Stanley’s first quarter touchdown-to-interception ratio was only 3:2, he completed only three passes of 25 yards or more, and his quarterback rating was a dismal 113.84, a number lower than the season averages of Jake Christensen in both 2007 and 2008.
However, Stanley regularly transformed into a completely different quarterback by halftime. During the second quarter of games, he posted an eye-popping 11:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, completed twice as many passes of 25 yards or more than he did during the first quarter, and compiled a quarterback rating of 145.55, a number only slightly below the season averages of Lamar Jackson (146.6), Josh Rosen (147.0), and Sam Darnold (148.1). No slight against Jake Christensen, but Iowa fans would much prefer for Stanley’s first quarter passing numbers to mirror those quarterbacks instead. Such consistently slow starts by Stanley point to him requiring time to adjust to the defense, which is often indicative of a young, relatively inexperienced quarterback. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ data (see below) shows that Iowa’s offense was significantly worse during the first quarter than it was during the remainder of the game, and an improvement in Stanley’s ability to quickly adjust to defenses and elevate his first quarter performances would go a long way towards rectifying this issue.
2017 Iowa Hawkeyes Offensive S&P+
3. Improving on 3rd down
Stanley’s performance on 3rd and short was excellent during 2017, as the sophomore quarterback completed 63% of his passes with a quarterback rating of 162.57 in these scenarios. However, as Stanley’s distance from the first down marker increased, his efficiency dramatically decreased. Stanley completed only 32.4% of his passes on 3rd down plays in which the offense needed between 4-6 yards for the first down, and half of his interceptions on the season came on plays that were 3rd and 7 or longer.
A drop-off in accuracy on obvious 3rd down passing plays is to be expected, but certainly should not be this significant. For reference, during his senior year, Ricky Stanzi had a completion percentage on 3rd and 4-6 that was nearly double that of Stanley’s (63.3% > 32.4%) and completed over 50% of his passes on 3rd and long. There are certainly signs that Stanley could improve in this area; despite a small sample size, Stanley did complete an impressive 62.5% of his passes on fourth down plays, while also tossing three touchdowns. However, to really see improvement on this front, Stanley will need to make strides on the fourth and final entry to this list.
4. Improving against the pass rush
Stanley’s performance against the blitz in 2017 left much to be desired. Stanley took four sacks against Wisconsin and a whopping six sacks against Purdue, and frequently failed to sense backside pressure coming from opposing edge rushers.
These struggles contributed to Stanley’s poor performance on 3rd down and medium-to-long plays, as the lack of a credible run threat allowed defenses to ramp up their pressure on the quarterback. Stanley saw a thirty point decrease in his passer rating on plays in which he was pressured in the pocket, according to Pro Football Focus. Stanley could be tested early on this front in 2018, as the suspensions of tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs will make it easier for Northern Illinois’ vaunted pass rusher Sutton Smith to find his way into the Hawkeye backfield. If Stanley can improve his ability to diagnose the blitz pre-snap, increase his mobility within the pocket, and utilize running backs and the short passing game as a safety valve to beat the pressure of the blitz (he did this effectively against Penn State in the clip below, but too infrequently throughout the season, with Wadley recording only three total catches against Wisconsin and Purdue), Iowa can help compensate for the struggles in may have with pass protection in 2018.
Nate Stanley’s sophomore campaign opened a lot of eyes among fans and pundits alike, and his dismantling of Ohio State’s defense certainly caused defensive coordinators to take note. Stanley will face much greater pressure to perform at a higher level in 2018, and his ability to improve on his areas of weakness from 2017 will go far to determine the success of Iowa’s offense this season.