By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nate Stanley is on course to be a three-year starting quarterback for the Iowa football team, which would put him in select company.
Only Drew Tate has managed to last three full seasons as Iowa’s starting quarterback in nearly two decades under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Ricky Stanzi came close over a three-year span from 2008 to 2010, but he didn’t become the full-time starter over Jake Christensen until five games into the 2008 season.
Jake Rudock started for two seasons in 2013 and 2014 before losing the job to C.J. Beathard just days after Iowa’s 45-28 loss to Tennessee in the 2015 TaxSlayer bowl.
Rudock then transferred to Michigan where he started as a graduate student in 2015 and led the Wolverines to a 10-3 record, while Beathard started in back-to-back seasons for Iowa in 2015 and 2016, leading Iowa to the 2016 Rose Bowl and to 20 victories.
James Vandenberg was a two-year starter for the Hawkeyes in 2011 and 2012, while Kyle McCann, Brad Banks and Nathan Chandler all started for one full season in 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively.
Stanley, meanwhile, has one full season as a starter under his belt with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
The 6-foot-4, 242-pound Wisconsin native is coming off a season in which he threw 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, and is the only quarterback on the current roster with game experience.
Backup quarterback Peyton Mansell was redshirted as a true freshman last season, while Spencer Petras signed with Iowa in December as a high school senior before enrolling for the spring semester.
They both have potential, but are young, naïve and unproven at the collegiate level.
So barring injury or an unexpected collapse in terms of performance, Stanley is firmly entrenched as the starter.
His current situation is different than last spring when Stanley battled Tyler Wiegers for the starting position in a competition that was too close to call until about a week before the season opener when Stanley finally got the nod.
Wiegers served as Stanley's backup throughout last season, but has since graduated from Iowa and will play for Eastern Michigan as a graduate student next season.
Stanley was asked on Tuesday if it feels different than a year ago just knowing that he has the starting job and is a little more comfortable.
“A little more comfortable, but I try not to think that way,” Stanley said. “That’s when people get complacent. So I just try to continue to push myself every single day.”
Stanley could always use history to guard against complacency.
The situation seemed pretty comfortable for Rudock after his first season as a starter, but the circumstances changed over the next year. Rudock struggled with injuries and with inconsistent play in 2014, while Beathard continued to narrow the gap in practice.
Christensen started for the entire 2007 season, but couldn't withstand Stanzi's push the next season. Christensen finished his career at Eastern Illinois.
A lot of words could be used to describe Stanley’s performance last season, words like encouraging, productive, surprising and inconsistent.
The same quarterback who completed 27-of-41 passes for 333 yards and five touchdowns during a 44-41 overtime victory over Iowa State on Sept. 9th in Ames completed just 16-of-33 passes for 176 yards during a 24-15 loss to Purdue on Nov. 18 at Kinnick Stadium.
The same quarterback who shredded mighty Ohio State for 226 passing yards and five touchdowns during a stunning 55-24 victory on Nov. 4 at Kinnick Stadium only completed 8-of-24 passes for 41 yards and one interception during a 38-14 loss at Wisconsin a week later.
Stanley‘s performance was similar to his team’s performance in that both were filled with incredible highs and humiliating lows.
Stanley’s touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26-to-six was nothing short of spectacular. He only threw for one fewer touchdown than Chuck Long completed during his Heisman Trophy runner-up season in 1985.
But Long had an 860-yard advantage in passing yards and completed 67 percent of his passes while Stanley only completed 55.8 percent of his passes.
Stanley had a tendency to hang on to the football for too long in the pocket without moving and he struggled with overthrowing receivers on deep routes.
But his receivers also had numerous drops that weren't Stanley's fault.
“He did a pretty good job with ball security, but it could have been better,” Ferentz said of Stanley. “More so in the pocket, just awareness in the pocket. But hopefully, the touchdown number goes up. I hope. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.”
Stanley was reluctant to run or to scramble from the pocket last season. He often chose to throw the ball away, but is working this spring to change that.
“I think just being able to realize those opportunities when there is nobody open, instead of throwing the ball away, try to get a couple yards if possible,” Stanley said. “It’s kind of hard to simulate in practice, but we do our best to make the most of those opportunities.”
Ferentz also would like for Stanley to be more mobile in the pocket.
“Maybe at times,” Ferentz said. “To get the first down. I don't think he's going to break unless they're just in man coverage and never look back. But probably third-and-five, just pull it down and get the first down, keep the chains moving. That's not a bad thing.”
The previous Iowa quarterbacks under Ferentz, with exception to Tate, either took too long to become the starter or failed to hold on to the job for three seasons.
Tate's sophomore season in 2004 was arguably his best as he led Iowa to a share of the Big Ten title while being named the conference's Offensive Player of the Year. He capped the season by throwing one of the most famous touchdown passes in program history – a 56-yard bomb to Warren Holloway as time expired to defeat Louisiana State 30-25 in the 2005 Capital One Bowl.
Tate would go on to throw for 2,828 yards in 2005 and 2,623 yards in 2006, but he struggled with injuries and Iowa combined to lose 12 games in the two seasons, finishing 6-7 in 2006.
Stanley ultimately will be judged partly by how well Iowa performs as a team because the quarterback often gets too much credit during good times and too much blame during bad times.
He obviously has the respect of his teammates, considering they vote Stanley as a captain.
"That means you've just got to come every day and prove why you were voted a captain or to maintain that spot," Stanley said. "Nothing is permanent. So you have to be able to come back every single day and earn it, and be a great teammate to the younger guys that might be struggling. Help everybody the best that you can, not only to make yourself better, but elevate everybody else's games as well."
Stanley has the luxury of having a full-time quarterback coach with former Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe entering his second season in that job. Stanley also has had a year to adjust to Brian Ferentz being the offensive coordinator.
And he has one of the Big Ten's top tight ends as a target in junior Noah Fant, who caught 11 touchdown passes last season. That is the most touchdown catches by an Iowa tight end in a single season.
"You don't have to re-learn the language or learn something new," Stanley said. "It's all familiar stuff. So the install has been a lot easier for a lot of guys, and just continuing to understand the concepts of why we're doing what we're doing has come a lot easier, too."