For the first time in years, Iowa has an honest-to-god quarterback competition on its hands. And honestly? That's pretty damn exciting. For years, Iowa has had a succession plan at the quarterback spot that would make the British Royal Family envious. Brad Banks begat Nathan Chandler who begat Drew Tate who begat Jake Christensen who begat* Ricky Stanzi who begat James Vandenberg. But for the first time in a long time -- a very long time -- Iowa has no incumbent starting quarterback and no obvious successor lined up. That lack of knowledge about who's going to be playing at the most important position on the field is terrifying -- but it's also kind of liberating. For the first time in ages, we won't enter the season with any real pre-conceived notions about our quarterback (beyond what conclusions get drawn from the open practices this month and again in August and I would caution anyone against making any definitive judgments based on those brief glimpses).
* Obviously, the succession from Christensen to Stanzi was anything but smooth so it stands out in some ways as a notable exception to the unruffled succession plan Iowa has enjoyed at quarterback for the last decade. More on that later.
The last time Iowa broke in a new quarterback was two years ago, after Ricky Stanzi took his America-loving arm to the NFL. There was a nominal competition between Vandenberg and former Elite 11 quarterback John Wienke, but the outcome of that battle was preordained. Vandenberg had already served as Stanzi's primary back-up for two seasons, playing in almost three full games at the end of the 2009 season when Stanzi's ankle was viciously Wooten'd. They went through the motions of a quarterback battle, but the result was obvious: it was going to be Vandenberg's show.
Stanzi, of course, was not the chosen one -- not at first. He had to fight and scratch his way into the starting job, becoming one of the few Iowa quarterbacks to ever displace a returning starter at the position along the way. Stanzi seemed fated to spend most of his career behind another "chosen one" at quarterback, but the failure of Jake Christensen in 2007 opened the door to competition for the job in 2008. That year was the last time Iowa had a quarterback battle of any sort on its hands, although the dynamic was much different then than it is now -- for one thing, there's no returning starter with 13 games of experience as a starter. That considerable experience advantage helped the QB battle rage on for a long time in 2008 -- probably far longer than it should have. Stanzi eventually wrested the job away from Christensen, but it took a full third of the 2008 season for it to happen.
Christensen's reign as Iowa's starting quarterback lasted just one season (give or take a few starts in 2006 and 2008), but it wasn't supposed to be that way. He arrived at Iowa as one of the most-decorated recruits of Ferentz Era and the expectation was that he (and the rest of the celebrated 2005 recruiting class) would not only duplicate the success Iowa had enjoyed from 2002-2004, but catapult them to new heights. At the very least, Christensen would be a three-year starter at Iowa. The awful 2007 campaign destroyed that vision, but it's worth remembering that few (if any) Iowa fans saw that coming in 2005 or 2006 -- the expectation then was that Christensen would be a very successful three-year starter at Iowa. (In fact, given the injury-induced struggles Drew Tate endured in 2006**, I remember several Iowa fans who wanted to see RS freshman Jake Christensen get more opportunities that season.)
** Damn you, Solon Beef Days.
Christensen was groomed from the beginning to replace Tate, still the most successful quarterback at Iowa under Ferentz, statistically speaking. I don't remember quite as much certainty around Tate's future in his early days at Iowa, but it seemed clear that he was being groomed as the quarterback of the future when he became the #2 quarterback as a true freshman in 2003 (when he saw some meaningless action in a few blowout wins), supplanting RS freshman Jason Manson on the depth chart almost immediately. Similarly, I don't recall much of a quarterback competition between Tate and Manson before the 2004 season -- Tate was widely tipped to be the starter and he quickly became entrenched at the QB1 spot. In hindsight, his immediate success in 2004 (as well as Manson's less-than-inspiring performances against Iowa State in 2005 and Syracuse in 2006) makes it pretty obvious that there wasn't much of a decision to make.
In 2003, Nathan Chandler, aka The Statue That Walked Like a Man, had to fend off competition from true freshmen Eric McCollom, Drew Tate, and Jason Manson (Manson ended up redshirting, while McCollom saw action at WR and Tate got mop-up snaps at QB) and Cy Phillips. Which is not exactly a sterling roster of contenders to fend off, you know?
So over the last decade of Iowa football, there's really never been a true-blue, all hands on deck, anyone-could-win quarterback derby*** to follow. There was a heated quarterback battle between Christensen and Stanzi in 2008, but it only came about because Christensen's poor performance in 2007 opened the door for a challenger to emerge. In every other off-season over the last decade, Iowa's either had a pretty solid returning starter at quarterback or a clear successor. There's obviously no returning starter this year and there doesn't appear to be any clear successor.
*** Of course we would finally have a quarterback derby after losing our Derby.
Jake Rudock is the nominal favorite, by virtue of his additional experience -- he's been in the Iowa program for two years versus the one year that Beathard and Sokol have been around and did take the practice snaps as QB2 in 2012 -- and the fact that he has top billing on the first depth chart of the spring. Depth charts at Iowa don't always mean much -- and depth charts in March probably mean even less -- but at least it's a starting point, you know?
Cody Sokol is the oldest quarterback of the trio, and has the most non-high school playing experience -- he spent the 2011 season at Scottsdale Community College, racking up 3807 yards (on 253/424 passing) and 43 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for the Fighting Artichokes. (No, really -- that's their honest-to-God nickname.) Sokol also earned second-team All-America honors for his efforts. Sokol is also the most physically stout of the three contenders, measuring in at 6-2, 215.
C.J. Beathard (pronounced beth-herd) led the Tennessee prep ranks in passing yards and touchdowns as a junior and a senior. He threw for 2406 yards and 15 TDs as a junior and 2146 yards and 20 TDs as a senior. Per Mas Casa, Beathard might have the most raw talent, as well as the strongest arm, but he's a smaller guy (6-2, 195) and he's obviously the least experienced of the threesome. He also looks an awful lot like Sunshine from Remember the Titans and the last time we had a QB with long, flowing locks, things worked out pretty well...
So who's going to win this three-man race? I have no idea. If you put a gun to my head****, I'd probably go with Rudock right now, since he's the most known quantity (which isn't saying much) of the trio and because he seems like the slight favorite. But I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Sokol or Beathard moved past him this spring or this fall. I also have a strong suspicion that whoever emerges as the QB atop the depth chart in August won't be the only QB we see in action in September. I definitely think that multiple QBs will get opportunities to strut their stuff in live game action this fall. But for now, why not just embrace the uncertainty and see how the competition unfolds? For the first time in years, the succession plan is non-existent and Iowa has a genuine QB race -- that's kind of exciting.
**** Why would you do that? That seems very aggressive. Let's all just chill.