By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley just finished a sophomore season in which his statistics would suggest that he achieved greatness.
But his statistics, which included 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, were sort of deceiving.
Stanley was great at times, most notably in victories over Iowa State and Ohio State in which he threw five touchdown passes in both games and combined for 559 passing yards in the two games.
But he also was average at times, and sometimes worse than average.
And probably by no coincidence, his up-and-down team was the same way as Iowa finished 8-5 overall, but just 4-5 in the Big Ten.
The same Nate Stanley who shredded Iowa State and Ohio State for 10 touchdown passes only threw three touchdown passes combined against Michigan State, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue, and was intercepted four time in those games.
Iowa, by no coincidence, lost four of the five games, the lone victory coming against Minnesota by the all-too-familiar score of 17-10. That was also the final score of Iowa’s losses to Michigan State and Northwestern.
Iowa combined to score 99 points in the victories over Iowa State and Ohio State, but was held to a grand total of 66 points against Michigan State, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue. And the defense, more specifically Josh Jackson’s two pick sixes, scored both touchdowns in the 38-14 loss to Wisconsin.
The Iowa offense was inconsistent this past season partly because Stanley was inconsistent. But Stanley was inconsistent because the running game was inconsistent, because the receivers were average at best and because the offensive line under-performed, due partly to injuries.
Probably the best thing to emerge from the offense under first-year coordinator Brian Ferentz was Stanley’s connection and chemistry with his tight ends.
Junior-to-be Noah Fant caught 11 touchdown passes, which is the most by an Iowa tight end for a single season. He and sophomore T. J. Hockenson also combined for 814 receiving yards.
They owe much of their success to Stanley’s willingness to throw to his tight ends, especially on third down.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Stanley still is very much a work in progress, but has plenty to work with in terms of arm strength, composure and time, with two years of eligibility remaining.
His accuracy improved throughout the season, but he struggled with pocket awareness and was reluctant to run. There were too many times when Stanley became a statue in the pocket, and that sometimes led to either a sack or a turnover.
A lack of pass protection was certainly an issue at times this past season, but some of it falls on the quarterback as Kirk Ferentz noted at a press conference last Wednesday.
“Certainly, if you don't block consistently enough, yeah, that's a big part of it,” Ferentz said. “We had a first-year quarterback playing, too. But I thought he did a lot of good things. Kodak moment for me is the ball coming out of his hand against Wyoming and Michigan State, and those are things that he'll have to clean up.
“I think another step he's got to make is learning when to pull it down and run. It's not something he did very well this year. But that's something experience will teach you. And it's probably part of the reason I'm really excited about next year.”
Ferentz has reason to be excited about next season because unlike a year ago at this time, he has a starting quarterback returning who threw the second most touchdown passes in school history for a single season.
Chuck Long set the school record with 27 touchdown passes as a senior in 1985 when he finished runner-up to Bo Jackson in the closest vote ever for the Heisman Trophy.
Stanley was as productive this past fall as he was inconsistent, if that makes any sense.
“He could be top echelon easily for quarterbacks here,” Long said of Stanley shortly after Stanley had shredded Ohio State for five touchdown passes during a stunning 55-24 victory on Nov. 4 at Kinnick Stadium. “I mean the way’s he playing and now he has confidence. It’s all about confidence in a player. And he certainly has the tools. He’s big, strong and can throw the ball.”
Stanley also maintained a level of composure that you want in a quarterback. Not once did Stanley make excuses or point fingers during a season in which both very easily could’ve happened. The Wisconsin native also never showed frustration when a receiver a dropped a pass, which happened far too much this past season.
Ferentz made reference to the two plays this season in which Stanley lost the ball while attempting to pass. Against Michigan State, it appeared that Stanley couldn’t decide whether to run or throw and his indecisiveness cost him as the ball slipped from his grasp and was recovered by the Spartans.
What Ferentz described as a Kodak moment had to be embarrassing for Stanley, but Stanley didn’t let it affect him. He just moved on, which is what you want from a team leader.
“I think we've got a lot of good young guys that played pretty well for the most part this year against good competition,” Ferentz said. “But they've got a lot of room for improvement. And if we're doing our job and they're doing their job it will happen.”
The offensive line suffered a blow when center James Daniels recently declared for the 2018 NFL draft as a junior. Daniels leaves behind an offensive line in which some unproven players will have to step up.
Receiver was considered suspect heading into last season and nothing really has changed. Nick Easley had his moments last season, as did Ihmir Smith-Marsette as a true freshman. There just weren't enough big moments by the receivers last season, and that has been an ongoing problem for Iowa.
Stanley sort of mirrors his team in that both have potential and concerns heading into the 2018 season.
One concern is that Stanley is the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience with Tyler Wiegers having transferred to Eastern Michigan as a graduate student. But Wiegers only played briefly in mop-up duty as a Hawkeye.
Junior Ryan Boyle, redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell and incoming freshman Spencer Petrus are the other quarterbacks currently on scholarship. Petrus, who is from northern California, signed with Iowa in December and has enrolled for the spring semester.
It won’t be easy getting past Stanley, though, because Stanley has earned the trust and the respect of the coaches with his performance this past season.
He wasn’t as good as the numbers would suggest, but he was good enough to inspire hope and optimism.