In 2013, Iowa was searching for James Vandenberg's replacement. The coaching staff eventually settled on sophomore Jake Rudock, the presumptive favorite out of a group of three potential quarterbacks. Over the course of a pleasant-if-not-exactly-successful season, Rudock asserted himself as the obvious starter. His backups, when given an opportunity, did little to complicate the quarterback race.
Last year was so, so, so not that. Rudock remained as starter, and remained steadfastly conservative. The coaches tried to reaffirm their commitment to Rudock while leaving the door open for the greatly-improved C.J. Beathard (the third quarterback from 2013, Cody Sokol, transferred to Louisiana Tech and set Conference USA on fire). When Beathard led Iowa to a comeback win in place of an injured Rudock against Pitt and recorded a second (admittedly unspectacular) win over Purdue, fans thought they had their answer. So when Rudock returned to the starting lineup as soon as he was healthy, the public mutiny had begun.
By the end of the season, the fury of an entire lost season -- the loss to Iowa State, the crushing November defeats against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska -- had been laid at the feet of three people: Kirk Ferentz, Greg Davis and Jake Rudock. The disappointing season, capped by an apathetic bowl performance by both the team and its fans, required a sacrifical lamb, and that lamb was not going to be Ferentz or Davis. And so we got a first: A post-bowl game depth chart that installed C.J. Beathard as quarterback. Jake Rudock, always the good soldier, would fall on his sword as the fans demanded.
That triumvirate of potential starters is now down to one. Sokol is gone. Rudock is gone. Left is C.J. Beathard, finally and unequivocally the starter, with basically nothing behind him. Kirk Ferentz and Greg Davis are coaching for their jobs in 2015, and they've pinned their livelihoods on Sunshine.
Sunshine, on His Shoulders
C.J. Beathard (#16, Junior (RS), 6'2, 210 lbs., Battle Ground Academy (Franklin, Tenn.))
In his book on modern quarterback development, The QB, Bruce Feldman spends some time with ESPN NFL analyst and Elite 11 quarterback camp head honcho Trent Dilfer. Early on, he asks Dilfer what it is he looks for in a quarterback. Dilfer quickly moves away from physical metrics and into "Dude Qualities," the intangible quality of leadership special to the position:
Guys don't lead. They don't inspire. They don't draw people to them. In coach-speak, there's a term for average players -- JAGs. As in "Just A Guy." Guys don't have presence. A Dude does.
None of us are in the locker room, and few of us have any connection to that locker room to find out just what was going on last year, but when the Hawkeye offense suddenly came to life against Pitt, when it felt a step faster at Purdue, when the buzz in Kinnick got just a bit louder as Beathard stepped onto the field, it felt like Iowa had found its Dude. And now the Dude is the starting quarterback.
Iowa's Dude is a 6'2 quarterback with a cannon for an arm and all the confidence in the world that his gun can get the job done on its own, with long hair and a bad beard and an air of confidence under center that hasn't been there since Ricky Stanzi. Iowa has opted for conservative, safe, nice guys in three of its last four quarterback decisions prior to 2015. Beathard doesn't seem like that. Does a typical Iowa quarterback chuck it deep when he finally gets a chance to play, as Beathard did against Ball State? Does he scramble around like Beathard did against Purdue? Does he go to an out-of-town paper and throw down an ultimatum to the coaches: Play me or I walk, as Beathard did before the bowl game? It's telling that no such demand came from Jake Rudock, who preferred -- completely justifiably -- to leave than be a party to Beathard's ascendancy to the throne.
When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. And with Beathard's prayers (and those of a large percentage of the fan base) answered in January, he might well see the punishment this fall. Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnall are gone at tackle, replaced by two unknowns who looked completely overwhelmed in spring. The receiver corps, hurt significantly by the departure of Derrick Willies mid-season, is going to struggle to find three capable wideouts. Iowa's best receiving tight end, Jake Duzey, tore his patella tendon during spring and will certainly miss at least some of the season. Beathard's would-be safety blanket, Iowa's running game, still hasn't found a replacement for Marcus Coker four years after he left and again looks like a carry-splitting mess of humanity.
Most terrifying of all: There is nothing different about the offensive coaching staff. Levar Woods moved to tight ends coach this year, replacing the departing D.J. Hernandez, in a position that has traditionally been recruit-first and coach-when-available, but otherwise this is the same Iowa. Greg Davis remains, like the alien warship over Houston in Independence Day, impervious to all conventional weaponry. Brian Ferentz has been "promoted" to running game coordinator, a position that, according to every spring interview, means nothing. And Kirk Ferentz is still gonna Kirk Ferentz. Beathard, like Stanzi and One Year of Drew Tate before him, might have the ability and moxie to become the positive disruptive force in that system, but the system he inherits isn't the infuriating-but-logical one of Ken O'Keefe. Rather, it's the illogic of Davis, a system without internal processes or logic or the ability to examine itself. How can one person, even one with the Dudeness of Beathard, fix that?
Which brings us to another part of Dilfer's discussion with Feldman, this one on his own career:
Dilfer described himself as a onetime "high-ceiling" guy who had all-world talent, but he said that by the time he was about thirty years old, he'd been reduced to a "game manager." Or, worse still, a guy who played to not make a mistake, instead of making a play.
"The QB position had been minimized by many of my coaches," he said, "and my aggressiveness and intuitive feel for the position had been stripped away by years of 'Don't screw it up,' negative-reinforcement coaching."
Beathard's intuitiveness and aggressiveness are essential to his success. And anyone who has watched the risk-averse, turnover-hating, first-do-no-harm approach to the game that Iowa has installed as its primary principle in the last decade knows that those qualities could well be gone after a year of first-team practice reps. If we take the Beathard out of Beathard, the sort of thing that had him making tackles in the spring game after an interception, we risk turning him into Just A Guy. And that would be bad for everyone.
While You Wait for the Others
Tyler Wiegers (#8, Freshman (RS), 6'4, 225 lbs., Detroit (Mich.) Country Day HS)
Wiegers, a borderline four-star recruit out of Michigan, initially committed to Kyle Flood's Rutgers program two years ago, but allegations of abuse by an assistant coach and the subsequent implosion of both Rutgers' season and its recruiting class, left him as a late free agent. Iowa had been in his ear for a year, and provided an easy place to land.
When he was asked about Wiegers' progress last year, Ferentz indicated that Wiegers was almost used to taking snaps under center, and if the Des Moines spring practice was any indication, he hasn't moved much past that. Wiegers is the only serious contender as Beathard's backup, which makes Beathard's health all the more important.
Ryan Boyle (Number forthcoming, Freshman, 6'2, 200 lbs., Dowling Catholic HS (Des Moines))
Iowa landed quarterback recruit Jack Beneventi very early in the 2015 recruiting cycle, and so when dual-threat quarterback Ryan Boyle later committed, it was thought he was destined for another position. Iowa dropped Beneventi a year later, making it far more likely that Boyle is, in fact, headed to quarterback. He's the most athletically gifted quarterback recruit since A.J. Derby, with many of the same accolades: Iowa high school star for a state champion team. Iowa couldn't turn Derby into a college quarterback and eventually let him go. Boyle remains to be seen.
Drew Cook (Number forthcoming, Freshman, 6'5, 205 lbs., Regina Catholic HS (Iowa City))
The size says tight end. The bloodline says tight end. The program says tight end. But Iowa insists that Drew Cook, son of Fry-era standout tight end Marv Cook, will get a chance at quarterback. They have said the same for others, and after the quarterback controversies of the past few seasons, it's doubtful that Ferentz will want to keep both Boyle and Cook at the position. But he might well get a shot, at least this year.