Four Downs: Iowa's 2017 Quarterbacks

The Hawkeyes will probably head into August without knowing who QB-1 is

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Taking a look at the 2017 Hawkeyes. Today it’s the quarterback position. There will be a new employee here. Or a relatively new one.

Returning scholarship quarterbacks — Nathan Stanley (6-5, 235, so.), Tyler Wiegers (6-4, 225, jr.), Ryan Boyle (6-1, 208, so.)

Returning walk-ons — Ryan Schmidt (6-5, 235, so.)

Incoming freshman — Peyton Mansell (6-3, 210, fr.)

Key losses — C.J. Beathard, Drew Cook

Quick Look Back

OK, one more time. It’s about all any of you can stand, right?

Iowa’s passing game didn’t work in 2016. It turned out that losing wide receiver Tevaun Smith (who made the Colts active roster last year), tight end Henry Krieger Coble (a Denver Bronco last year) and then losing wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and tight end George Kittle for large chunks of last season was too much to overcome for the Hawkeyes’ passing offense.

The lack of production triggered some backlash from a percentage of Iowa fans toward quarterback C.J. Beathard, who did guide the Hawkeyes to 21 victories in his three seasons as a QB in Iowa City. Beathard’s performance in the Outback Bowl, which included a pulled hamstring near the end of the first half, left a mark, in some minds, on what was a terrific two seasons as starter.

Against a formidable Florida defense (seven draft picks, yes, seven), Beathard completed just seven passes for 55 yards and three interceptions. The hamstring clearly affected his game. During the broadcast, ESPN analyst Ed Cunningham poured hot lava on the deal and by the end of the game, pockets of Hawkeye fandom blamed head coach Kirk Ferentz for allowing Beathard to finish the game when he clearly wasn’t 100 percent. Beathard said in the postgame he wasn’t leaving. The Iowa staff didn’t take him out. The second half was listless for the Hawkeyes.

Some four months later, the San Francisco 49ers made a surprise move and traded up to the third round to pick Beathard. Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan liked what he saw on pro day, on film and in whatever subsequent meetings.

Beathard has signed his contract and it’ll be interesting to see how he develops. Shanahan made it clear during the draft that Beathard was a developmental pick.

No matter what happens, between Beathard, Jake Rudock and Ricky Stanzi, the Hawkeyes have now had three of their last four QBs picked in the draft. Now, Iowa still hasn’t had a QB throw a pass in the NFL since Dan McGwire in 1995, but you could argue the program is putting QBs in the NFL and on a regular basis. That’s a good thing.

Iowa had 1,991 passing yards, the fewest since 1982, in 2016. The Hawkeyes have to be better if they have their sights set on anything north of eight wins. And remember, you can’t wish away Greg Davis anymore.

4th Down — Critical Questions

OK, 1,991 yards isn’t an optimum output for Iowa’s passing offense. What is a good number, for yardage?

In 2015, Beathard threw for 2,809 yards and Iowa won 12 games. In 2009, Iowa threw for 2,887 yards and won 11 games. But then Rudock and Beathard threw for 3,081 yards in 2014 and Iowa won just seven games.

While 2,800 seems like at least a foot in the door, there are no guarantees. Iowa’s offense has options and becomes more interesting the closer this number is to 2,800.

No matter what happens, there’s going to be a new starter in 2017. How have first-year starters fared for the Hawkeyes recently?

Let’s go back to 2002. If you go earlier than that in the Kirk Ferentz era, you find a lot of fits and starts at QBs. Give Kyle McCann credit for finally nailing down the job in 2001 (after basically three seasons of hanging on and/or around the job) and riding that wave to an Alamo Bowl victory.

This reveals nothing, really, but does show that Ken O’Keefe won with every shape and size of QB and that the right QB in the right situation could drive this offense to double-digit victories.

2002 Brad Banks 11-2
2003 Nathan Chandler 10-3
2004 Drew Tate 10-2
2007 Jake Christensen 6-6
2008 Ricky Stanzi 8-5
2011 James Vandenberg 7-6
2013 Jake Rudock 8-5
2015 C.J. Beathard 12-2

One thing that just simply was true about Greg Davis and how the passing offense attacked the field was the lack of taking chances in the middle. It is where the most interceptions happen, and that clearly was a directive, even as Iowa’s passing offense froze in cement last year, Beathard generally didn’t take chances with the ball.

Some reality to the middle numbers:

In 2015 (you know, when Iowa had a healthy and vital group of receivers/TEs), Beathard threw 219 passes between the hashes, with 117 of those happening from 9 yards to behind the line of scrimmage. Last year, Iowa passed between the hashes 182 times. In 2015, Beathard posted passer ratings of high 80s and beyond in the middle of the field (including 22 of 36 from 10 to 19 yards, a 92.7 passer rating. Last year, seven of Beathard’s 10 interceptions came over the middle (compared to just three in 2015).

Will Iowa attack the middle of the field more in 2017? Maybe. Whatever ends up playing to the strengths of personnel is what Iowa will do. Right now, that doesn’t position itself for a ton of deep passes. But would that be a bad thing? Would you rather Iowa’s rookie QB throw something deep or midrange to a relatively untested WR or short to RB Akrum Wadley? Probably Wadley, no?

Oh yeah, Wadley. He’ll be a big part of whatever the 2017 passing game becomes.

3rd Down — Additions/Subtractions

Drew Cook switching to TE isn’t a subtraction if you go by the strict definition, but QB is always going to be a more interesting position than TE. It just is.

Cook, a 6-5, 235-pound sophomore from Iowa City, moved from quarterback to tight end near the end of spring practice. Drew’s dad, Marv, was an all-American tight end for the Hawkeyes in 1988. Marv Cook also holds Iowa’s reception record for tight ends (126) and had 1,825 career receiving yards.

“I think he can help our football team win sooner at that position than the other (quarterback),” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s just a decision we kind of came to as a staff. He was really excited about it and engaged in it. He’s done a really good job out there learning right now four practices into it. I think he’s got tremendous upside.”

Ferentz said this was a staff decision, so that means Iowa coaches didn’t see Cook contributing at QB. He’ll be a redshirt sophomore this year and probably near the bottom of the TE depth chart, which is considerable. Also, this might say that the Iowa staff feels good about Wiegers sticking around through at least the end of this year and that they feel OK/maybe good about incoming freshman Peyton Mansell serving as the No. 3 this season.

Cook’s outlook for playing time probably improves in 2018. He’s never been asked to block in his career. That’s going to take some time.

Can Mansell impact the 2017 QB race?

Probably not, but if there’s one takeaway from spring practice, it’s that the QB race is open. So ... why not Mansell? Let’s entertain that thought here.

What kind of quarterback is Mansell? In addition to 33 TD passes last season, he also had 1,132 yards and 15 touchdowns on 166 carries. He’s self-deprecating when it comes to “dual threat” talk.

“My dad and I have always joked that I’m a ‘dual-threat-ish’ quarterback,” Mansell said. “This year I kind of showed I could run a little bit and not just pick up a couple of yards. If I can extend plays, I think that will be really helpful on the next level.”

Iowa missed that Beathard last year, the one who did stuff with the ball when nothing was there. Yes, you could probably argue Iowa lost that guy after the short TD run vs. Pitt in 2015 and then again by design in 2016 (because imagine that passing offense without a senior QB trying to spackle it all together).

Here’s what dual threat-ish or dual threat-like looks to coaches:

“He’s not Michael Vick,” Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell said. “He’s not that type of guy, but he’s not a guy who’s going to be where you think he’s going to be every time he drops back. He’s going to have to maneuver around, find some windows and throw the football. Let me tell you, that wreaks havoc on a defense. You always have the threat to run. Not necessarily the home run, but those 6-yard runs on third-and-5, those move chains. That’s what he adds.”

It also looks like this: Mansell was excellent on his Hudl film about changing angles and finding late windows. When the walls close in, Mansell has a feel for slithering around and, hey, if he has to throw sidearm, so be it.

Can those attributes give Mansell something the other QBs don’t offer? Sure. Will it be enough to launch him as a true freshman? Well, it kind of did for Stanley last year.

Realistically, Mansell’s first year likely will be a redshirt. But let’s say he impresses new QB coach Ken O’Keefe. Like O’Keefe can’t stop thinking about him. He turns off the film and then goes home and sneaks a few peaks on the iPad. In this rhetorical situation, obviously Stanley falters and KOK can’t quite talk himself into Tyler Wiegers.

Is that far fetched? Probably.

2nd Down — Battles Brewing

This is the part where you just have to accept that you don’t know (probably don’t) who your quarterback will be for another two months, at least two months. Maybe by the end of August and fall camp, Stanley will have beaten back the challenge from Wiegers. Or Wiegers will have battled back to win the job he lost to Stanley last fall.

No guarantees on that, either. It would be the nice, neat and clean springboard for the new QB and the fan base, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work out that way. Seldom are these “neat and clean.” If it felt like Rudock-Beathard never went away it’s because it didn’t. It festered and played out in — oddly enough — the best way possible for all parties involved. For the most part.

Video: Tyler Wiegers, post-spring game
 

 

We watched Stanley-Wiegers play out some in the spring. Here are a few reviews from the head coach:

Ferentz was asked post-spring the “if there was a game tomorrow” question about quarterback. There’s 60 something days until Sept. 2 and Wyoming, but the answer still was kind of fun.

“Oh, man,” he said. “We’d be in trouble, period. I haven’t seen Wyoming, either, so they may be in the same situation we are.

“We’d probably do a coin toss, literally do a coin toss, but luckily we’re going to have at least 15, 18 practices before we make that decision.”

Spring didn’t offer a lot differentiation.

I tried to watch spring with simple eyes on the QB, looking for accuracy, vision, arm strength, anticipation and touch. Neither QB rang the bell on a consistent basis. Again, the sample size I get to see is minuscule. Fact remains, though, that the clock is ticking.

When I think about or discuss spring 2017 QBs, I just think of “outs” for the QBs’ performance. 1) We have one measure and it’s basically the spring game (you do get one measure a week in football, that is how this works) and it’s hard to put too much weight on that. 2) There’s a new offensive coordinator, QB coach, offense and WR Matt VandeBerg was out this spring. 3) What’s a sack in the spring? 4) And so on.

Last fall, Stanley jumped ahead of Wiegers. It was a surprise. Stanley was a true freshman driving his scooter around Iowa campus for the first time.

Last fall was last fall.

Stanley and Wiegers started spring practice in a competition. They ended spring in a competition. They’ll begin camp in August in a competition.

Video: Nathan Stanley, post-spring game
 

 

Ferentz has been through QB competitions. The one thing he definitely knows is this does have a deadline.

“One of two things is going to happen: One guy is going to pull away pretty quickly when we get it going back in August or it’s going to be back and forth and then we’ll just have to figure something out from there,” Ferentz said. “But those things have a tendency to work themselves out.”

1st Down — In Summary

Five finishing thoughts on what needs to happen for the best-case scenario.

1. Someone scores a knockout and wins the job in the first week of camp — Duh, I know.

 

Can this happen? There are always a ton of eyes on quarterback, but think how that’s changed for Iowa in the last year. Greg Davis and his years of experience with handling QBs is gone. Brian Ferentz takes over. The OC and the QB are tied to the hip. Let’s throw in Ken O’Keefe, Iowa’s first dedicated QB coach since Chuck Long in 1999.

Just to throw this thought out there: You can have all of the eyes and all of the greatest coaches in the world involved, but it’s generally the raw material that’s going to get you there. In that regard, we still don’t really know jack about Stanley or Wiegers.

2. Stoking confidence — Sometimes, it’s the little things. Part of the reason why Beathard finally surged past Rudock was he could throw that WR screen pass accurately. CJB had it going with VandeBerg in 2015 and early in 2016. It was a play most people took for granted, but it was easy and worked and gave the offense confidence.

There will probably have to be some “point A and point B” for the new QB (probably Stanley). But this works both ways, because you already know the receivers will need some of that, too.

(And if you think Iowa is the only team that throws the ball at or near the line of scrimmage, you’re wrong. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson might’ve doubled Beathard in throws behind the LOS last season — of course, Clemson and Iowa are completely different attacks with very different athletes.)

3. This shouldn’t be all that divisive — It sure felt like Rudock-Beathard had an undertone of “my guy.” Of course, Beathard was the “my guy” and some of that did trickle out. It wasn’t serious and this is part of why you love Iowa, because it generally doesn’t come with cartoonish behavior.

Stanley is in only his second year on campus. Wiegers is a fourth year, but he’s played very little. It’s not like he’s been out there running around on special teams.

Whoever wins the job will win it knowing they aren’t the savior. A lot of stuff beyond the QB is going to have to happen for Iowa’s offense to be a success in 2017. It should be a fairly clean transition.

4. What about two-QB system? — Let’s not even go there. Kirk Ferentz was like “Nah” this spring. I’m like “Nah” ever on this topic.

If Ferentz or someone is arguing the merits of a two-QB system in late August, you can run my Twitter for the week. There are going to be some “tweets to the editor.” (BTW, I’m the editor who gets the tweets.)

 

But seriously, this shouldn’t happen. Stanley and Wiegers are different QBs, but we’re not talking dual-threat guy vs. passing skills. They’re both pro style QBs.

There’s no selling a two-QB system. If you hear someone from Iowa trying to sell it in August, that’s a bad thing.

5. What a great test for a first-year offensive coordinator — No, I’m not being facetious.

Brian Ferentz has a lot of confidence. He did as a player and he certainly does as a coach. He’s a 34-year-old coordinator for a Power Five program. I don’t care that his dad is the head coach. (When it comes to football, at this level, with this amount of buy-in, I don’t put any of stock in nepotism. Pretenders tend to get exposed quickly. I think we all love that football works that way). Brian Ferentz is the offensive coordinator for the Hawkeyes, however we got here, that’s the board. This is his big break. What’s he going to do with it?

Here are the variables for his first season in the chair: 1) Pick a QB. 2) Implement an offense through a first-year QB. 3) Rebuild the wide receiver group. 4) Make tight ends a vertical target. 5) Figure out creative ways to use RB Akrum Wadley without basically telling the linebacker what the play is. 6) Protect the QB.

Of course, the answers won’t be immediate. And no matter what happens in 2017, it will take longer to conclude whether or not this works. And no matter who the QB is he’ll probably be much, much better in 2018 than 2017.

Ready or not, 2017 is the here and now and it will be measured.

More from the 2017 Four Downs series:

• Wide receivers/tight ends

• Running backs

• Offensive line

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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