Iowa Football

Checking in with Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe

The veteran Hawkeyes coach talks about getting to know 15-year-old prospects, why you probably won't see a dual-threat QB at Iowa anytime soon

Iowa Hawkeyes quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe (from left), quarterback Nate Stanley (4), and wide receiver Nick Easley (84) walk out before their NCAA football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe (from left), quarterback Nate Stanley (4), and wide receiver Nick Easley (84) walk out before their NCAA football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Sure, age is just a number, but it’s also some birthdays. Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe has had 65 of those. One of the biggest changes in the game since he returned to Iowa after five years with the Miami Dolphins has been the recruiting cycle.

With rules speeding recruiting up to hyperspeed, college football programs are forced to recruit younger and younger players. This is especially true at quarterback, where your place in line with the school you see as the best fit is crucial. In the last year, O’Keefe has landed commitments from Alex Padilla (a 6-2, 195-pounder from Colorado) and Deuce Hogan (6-4, 191 pounds from Grapevine, Texas).

These are kids born in the 2000s.

Yes, O’Keefe has free college and an opportunity to play football on the Big Ten stage to sell, but so does everyone else. Give O’Keefe credit for still being able to speak “teenager” and connect with prospects in meaningful ways that make them want to be Hawkeyes.

That’s not an easy thing.

“15-year-olds and 14-year-olds, holy moly,” O’Keefe said Wednesday after the Hawkeyes finished a practice in preparation for the Outback Bowl. “Try to think back when you were 14-years-old. Think about it.”

Everyone now has some version of 14 in their minds. For some, it’s Star Wars. For others, it’s “Friends.” And, of course, video games.

“The stuff you’re thinking about when you’re 14- or 15-years-old and now you’ve got to be thinking about where you’re going for college? Good lord,” O’Keefe said. “It’s unreasonable really, right? It is unreasonable. That’s how I look at it.

“For us to expect a 14- or 15-year-old to be mature mentally, we can probably project some of the physical stuff but that is tougher for guys than it is for women’s sports. Those things are really hard to do. Never mind the maturation level mentally.”

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Of course, it’s up to the college programs to do the due diligence on whether or not a teen recruit can handle it, especially at the QB position. O’Keefe talked about the qualifiers. He started with “smart, tough, physical,” which has become the mission statement for Iowa football in recent years.

You’ve got to ask a lot of questions.

“No. 1, do they have the physical skills you’re looking for?” O’Keefe said. “Do they have the mental, philosophical and character we’re looking for? We talked about the characteristics of leadership, so you’re always looking for those things.

“But how much do they really love football? If you ask a guy who his favorite player in the NFL or college football is and they can’t tell you anything, how much football do you think he watches? How much does he love football then? Probably not much.

“There are a series of questions you ask that define those types of things. Smart, tough, physical. Our guys better be tough around here and you better find out whether or not they can be tough. Mentally, when things start going to crap. Mentally, when things are riding high, too.

“You can tell a lot by being in a kids house and watching him interact with parents and siblings. How he treats his mom and dad. How he greets you and how he works with introductions.”

Other stuff O’Keefe touched on:

— On the prospect of quarterback Nate Stanley entering the NFL Draft, O’Keefe asked “Is anybody ever NFL ready when they get started?”

He didn’t take the answer any further, but did offer this bit of advice, “Just keep trying to improve every day. The rest of it is going to take care of itself. None of this is in your hands.”

Stanley, a junior, said earlier this month that he will explore the possibility of an early entry into the NFL.

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— As far as Stanley 2018, he finished the regular season 214 of 365 for 2,638 yards, 23 TDs and nine interceptions. He finished 2017 with a 55.8 completion percentage. He improved that by nearly three points this year, hitting 58.6 percent of his passes.

Stanley was the best quarterback in the Big Ten on third-and-7 to 9 yards to go, with a passer rating of 188.6.

Moments of indecision plagued Stanley. O’Keefe talked about that hurdle.

“Really, the only time he got himself into trouble was when he tried to push through something that he wasn’t seeing quite right and maybe put a ball where he really didn’t want it to go,” O’Keefe said. “That’s the thing you’ve got to fight. You have to resist the urge to try to do something that you know isn’t quite correct and just keep moving on from there.”

— Iowa doesn’t appear to be in the market for a dual-threat quarterback. Padilla, who’ll sign with Iowa next week and report to campus for spring semester 2019, is rated as a 3-star prostyle QB by Rivals. Same with Hogan, who’s in the 2020 class.

Stanley and true freshman Spencer Petras are 6-5 big bodies, quintessential prostyle QBs. Redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell does have some dual skill in his game, O’Keefe said.

First, Iowa does ask its QBs to be athletic, with naked bootlegs, sprintouts (stuff outside of the pocket) and the occasional scramble for a first down. Second, Mansell is one QB with some dual skills, but you need three because running the ball takes a toll.

A QB who’s able to make something happen with his feet “matters,” O’Keefe said, but “The system we have matters more.”

“If you’re going to start moving your quarterback around and make that part of the run game, then you have to make sure you have guys come in and do the same thing,” O’Keefe said. “Once you start doing that, it really throws your playcaller off from where he’s going next if someone gets injured. That’s been the biggest problem with pro football trying to go all the way in with that kind of offense, because you better have three guys a la Cam Newton who can take the punishment on a game-to-game basis.”

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

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