As Hawkeye fans, the last 24 years of the Kirk Ferentz experience has taught most of us to manage expectations. For season results, that means looking for 7-9 wins every year, a bowl game and a push for a chance at the Big Ten title every five years or so. When it comes to media availability, we don’t expect to learn much beyond some form of a history lesson that may or may not related to Iowa. And when it comes to open practices, we know to expect very few takeaways other than the defense is ahead of the offense.
On Saturday, Iowa hosted their only open practice of fall camp when they hosted Kids’ Day at Kinnick. As promised, there were few takeaways. The defense was ahead of the offense. The line had its issues. But this year and this practice were a bit outside the ordinary when it comes to the quarterback.
Unlike in recent history, there is absolutely no question about who Iowa’s starter will be week one. Cade McNamara transferred from Michigan two years after torching Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game to be the starter for the Hawkeyes. Kirk Ferentz has been firm that McNamara is the guy really since the moment he signed with Iowa.
So when QB12 took to the field on Saturday, we weren’t looking to see if he looked better than the #2 (who has been reported as firmly being Wisconsin transfer Deacon Hill, and that was the case before Joe Labas went down to injury). We were looking much more to see how much upside he provided vs what we endured with Spencer Petras under center.
We got a glimpse of that and the answer was meaningful upside. Everything with a grain of salt, of course, but we saw more pocket presence in one open scrimmage than we’ve seen in the last three years. The offensive line has issues, to be sure, but having a QB who is able to sense where pressure is coming from and evade it for a second or two to keep his eyes downfield and make a reasonably accurate throw is the difference between 3 and out from your own 20 to a new set of chains and another opportunity to build some offensive momentum and give the defense a breather.
More than pocket presence, though, we saw throws down the field and largely on target. We saw receivers running routes at depths of 15, 20 or 25+ yards with some hope of a pass coming their way. And McNamara connected on a handful of them. That alone is enough to take a man out of the box and finally relieve some pressure for an offensive line that struggled as much as any Iowa line in recent memory last season.
On the surface, remembering it is one open practice without live hitting on the QB, the highlights should give Hawkeye fans reason to believe this team can in fact improve on last year’s record and surpass the oh-so-low threshold of 25 points per game and 7 wins this year. With this defense, the glimpses we got should provide even the pessimists some inkling that this group could take advantage of a soft schedule and push for a West title before new coaches in Wisconsin or Nebraska get their feet under them or the boat-rower figures out how to finally beat Ferentz.
But in an instant on Saturday, Hawkeye fans had flashbacks to 2009 and Ricky Stanzi’s naked bootleg. After all the positive, the 2023 season flashed before our very eyes as McNamara evaded pressure, scrambled to his right and then pulled up limp before collapsing to the ground untouched.
Here's the play on which Cade McNamara was injured today— Rob Howe (@RobHoweHN) August 12, 2023
Looks like he pulled something or hurt himself when he fell
Non-contact injury by the looks of it pic.twitter.com/WMOaXE8Ssi
A look at Cade McNamara's apparent injury, and reaction from Kirk Ferentz.— Jack Lido (@JackLido) August 12, 2023
"Soft tissue... it's not structural... I'm not alarmed right now it's not 'oh boy he broke his leg.' It's one of those things where we take it day by day." pic.twitter.com/KRvA6XLeEq
On initial inspection, it sure looks like McNamara re-injured his surgically repaired knee. Setting aside the question of where his knee brace is, the initial reports are that this was less severe than that initial inspection would lead you to conclude. As noted above, Kirk Ferentz was quoted as saying they don’t believe the injury is serious. There has been speculation both on social media and on various message boards that the issue may have been scar tissue popping and more of a scare than anything for the quarterback.
But there are also rumors that McNamara will have an MRI on Monday and the injury may be a strain rather than simply scar tissue-related. While clearly better than a tear or structural damage, a knee strain likely means at the very least the new QB is going to lose live practice reps with his new WRs. Those reps are critical in building timing and report.
At worst, the MRI could reveal something more serious. Be it an injury that causes McNamara to miss a few weeks or an entire season, Hawkeye fans saw what could be without their new QB1 on Saturday. While Joe Labas has been sidelined in camp, Wisconsin transfer Deacon Hill has taken all the second team reps. He reportedly won the job in spring, but if there was any question the gig is undoubtedly his now.
His showing on Saturday, however, left a lot to be desired. Iowa’s defense is no doubt one of the best in the nation. The secondary is expected to be top-3 nationally. Again. But Hill struggled with snaps, fumbling multiple, was statuesque in the Petras sense and threw a trio of interceptions, including a pair of pick-sixes.
In a word, Deacon Hill looked BAD on Saturday. He was the anti-McNamara in terms of breathing fresh air into the offense. It was only one day and surely there will be improvement the longer each of these QBs is in the system and facing off against a top-notch defense. But if Iowa fans endure a season with Hill under center instead of McNamara, the ceiling comes crashing lower while the floor drops out.
In an strange twist of fate, Kirk Ferentz has tried to build a system where the quarterback position is nearly meaningless and interchangeable, but is now faced with a scenario where his son’s employment future appears to be in the hands of a transfer QB. A transfer QB who is coming off a knee injury and went down untouched on Saturday, two weeks before the season kicks off.
Hawkeye fans will now sit on pins and needles waiting for word on McNamara’s MRI. We’ll wait, hoping for word from Kirk Ferentz. If McNamara is fine, this season appears poised for success. The defense will be great and the offense appeared better than miserable on Saturday. If McNamara in fact re-injured his knee and Hill is QB1 this year, well, we may see a Groundhog Day of last season.
Nobody wants to see a repeat of that movie.