As our countdown to the start of Iowa football season grows tantalizingly close to its conclusion, we arrive at two Hawkeyes who share the #4 jersey; one is a senior who has become the face of Iowa’s offense, while the other is new arrival hoping to make a similar impact on the defensive side of the ball by career’s end.
Nate Stanley- Senior
Menomonie, Wisconsin (Menomonie HS)
6’4”, 243 lbs.
2019 Projection: Starting Quarterback
Dane Belton- Freshman
Tampa, Florida (Jesuit)
6’1”, 190 lbs.
2019 Projection: Reserve Safety/Cash
Let’s start with Stanley, who is entering his third season as Iowa’s starting quarterback and who has a shot to break Chuck Long’s program record for most career touchdown passes. At times Stanley has performed like an all-time great at the position. Fans are not likely to forget Stanley’s otherworldly play against Ohio State in 2017,
and his six-touchdown performance against Indiana last season could probably serve as his NFL draft highlight film.
Still, Stanley has the propensity to go ice cold at times as he did for the first two weeks of 2018 and again in consecutive games against Maryland and Penn State. You also may have noticed that nearly all of the highlights posted above were of passes to Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson, neither of whom are available to serve as Stanley’s security blanket this fall. While his cerebral performance in the Outback Bowl against a Mississippi State defense stocked full of NFL talent may well have been a sign of things to come for this season (the tight ends were a virtual non-factor against the Bulldogs, forcing Stanley to utilize his wideouts to move the ball through the air), it remains to be seen whether Stanley can channel that type of efficiency over the course of a full season.
While previewing Stanley last August, I highlighted four areas in which he would need to improve his game in order to take the next step towards becoming an elite Big Ten quarterback: deep ball accuracy, avoiding slow starts, improving on third down, and performing better when facing a strong pass rush.
Stanley seems to have improved on two of these fronts. First, while he struggled during the first quarter of games as a sophomore and posted only a 113.84 quarterback rating with a 3:2 TD:INT ratio, he improved these numbers dramatically in 2018, completing 62% of his passes for a quarterback rating of 145.43 and throwing eight touchdowns to only three interceptions. Iowa’s first quarter time of possession numbers improved considerably in 2018, as the Hawkeyes went from being ranked 88th in this metric in 2017 to finishing 28th the following season.
Stanley’s ability to keep drives alive with his arm played a major role in helping to keep Iowa’s offense on the field, as did his knack for making big time throws on third down. Pro Football Focus rated Stanley as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference on third and fourth down last season, and the numbers support that assessment. Iowa quarterbacks (so basically Stanley) finished the season with a quarterback rating of 186.68 on third down and 7-9 yards to go, an incredible improvement over the 116.86 rating posted a year earlier.
Still, Stanley has areas in which he still needs to improve in 2019. While his overall accuracy did increase from 55% to 59% last year, he still struggled with precision on his deep ball,
his mechanics were still prone to breaking down when faced with pressure, resulting in needlessly risky throws,
and he threw the occasional mind-numbingly misguided interception which made you question whether the brilliant play you’d seen only one drive ago was really just a figment of your imagination.
Still, expectations are high for Stanley entering 2019, and with good reason. Stanley’s ability to elevate his game to these expectations could well be the difference between another 7-5 or 8-4 season and a trip to Indianapolis, as well as the difference between Stanley being remembered as another solid Ferentz-era quarterback and one of the program’s best.
Also hoping to leave a lasting legacy in the program is true freshman safety Dane Belton, a four-year letterman from Tampa, Florida with ambitions of being Iowa’s next great defensive back. Belton has good size for a D back at 6’1”, and projects as a player who could slot in at either safety role as well as the Cash position down the line. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has already invoked Amani Hooker, a player who arrived in Iowa City with similar measurables, in describing Belton’s Cash potential, so it’s safe to say that expectations are high for Belton’s career in the black and gold. Coach Ferentz also spoke highly of Belton after he got meaningful reps with the first-team defense during Iowa’s Kid’s Day practice.
Belton likely won’t crack the starting lineup for Iowa this year but is likely to see the field on special teams and may even have a shot to crack the two-deeps. The competition for the starting free safety job remains unresolved, and if sophomore Kaevon Merriweather and Jack Koerner underperform or struggle with injuries, Belton might be in line for meaningful playing time. Still, while Belton’s strong fall camp makes him a nice “break in case of emergency” option at safety or cash, Iowa’s coaches would almost certainly prefer to see him to take advantage of the four-game redshirt rule and gain valuable experience while preserving all four years of his eligibility.