Iowa football columnist Chad Leistikow and reporter Chris Cuellar break down Iowa's challenges this week. Rodney White/The Register
IOWA CITY — How did Nathan Stanley do it?
How did he figure out one of college football’s most complex positions — Hawkeye quarterback — so quickly?
I wanted to find out, considering he’s next in line to direct 11th-ranked Iowa’s Big Ten Championship hopes if something happens to C.J. Beathard.
Since first-year players under coach Kirk Ferentz are off limits for media interview, I started with Joe LaBuda, Stanley’s coach at Menomonie High School in Western Wisconsin.
People laughed at LaBuda in the spring when he predicted that Stanley would play as a true freshman — something no Iowa quarterback had done for 13 years until Stanley took five snaps against Miami of Ohio.
“I’m not shocked at all, to be honest with you,” he says.
LaBuda can tell you about how Stanley was his football team’s manager at age 5; how he was Menomonie’s varsity punter as a freshman before becoming a three-year starting quarterback; how he started for the varsity basketball team as a freshman and became the school’s all-time leading scorer; and how he could’ve gone Division I in baseball with his 91 mph fastball.
Stanley’s always been ahead of the athletic curve — playing on older brother Luke’s fifth-grade basketball team as a third-grader.
“I don’t think playing up is something that’s ever bothered him. He’s used to it,” his father and Menomonie offensive line coach, Jay, says. “And he always knew he had to work hard for things, no matter how talented he was.”
A mental edge
Being athletic and hard-working provide a solid base.
But being a college quarterback also takes an ability to process lots information very quickly — “especially the way we do it,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz adds.
Stanley carried a 3.98 GPA in high school. He brought that, plus humility, to Iowa City. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis raves about how Stanley arrived in June with “a great understanding that he didn’t understand” how the Hawkeyes approach playing QB.
“Very humble,” LaBuda says. “About as classy a kid as you’re ever going to find.”
There’s one last piece to the QB puzzle.
Can the guy play? Obviously being elevated to co-No. 2 is a positive indicator.
The Hawkeyes will face the North Dakota State Bison on Saturday. Here are three things to watch during the game. Kelsey Kremer/The Register
I’ve heard good things about third-year sophomore Tyler Wiegers, the undisputed backup last fall and spring. Heck, Iowa coaches were confident they could’ve beaten 10-win Northwestern last year if Wiegers had been pressed into action, as he almost was.
Has Wiegers dropped off? The better explanation is that Stanley’s been on a steady rise. Not that he’d ever tell you about it.
“He doesn’t talk much at all,” left guard Boone Myers says. “You’ll be at practice, and you’ll see a perfect ball going down the field and (ask), ‘Who was that?’ ‘Well, that was Nate.’ ‘All right.’”
Stanley’s recruitment to Iowa was part stroke of genius, part stroke of fate.
“The stars aligned,” LaBuda says, “for Iowa.”
It helped that his parents were Hawkeye fans who met at Wartburg College in Waverly. Jay grew up in Rock Falls, Ill., not far from the Iowa border; mom Donita in Wellsburg, near Waterloo.
Stanley attended Iowa’s summer camp before his junior season. He was sold on the coaching staff and school's physical therapy program and committed to Iowa two days after the Hawkeyes’ 51-14 loss at Minnesota. That was nearly 15 months before the Class of 2016’s signing day — and before further word got out about a 6-foot-5 athlete with a cannon for an arm.
Stanley was comfortable skipping hype- and star-building camps. He kept recruiting videos private. That worked in Iowa’s favor, too.
“That’s probably why he was only a three-star recruit,” LaBuda says, “even though he was probably one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
Iowa was fortunate that Gary Andersen, then the coach at Wisconsin, failed to make recruiting in-state talent a top priority. Hawkeye coaches, behind lead recruiter Seth Wallace, capitalized before Andersen’s replacement, Wisconsin native Paul Chryst, was hired.
“If Paul had been here in Wisconsin three months earlier,” LaBuda says, “it might’ve been a real tough thing for Iowa to do.”
Chryst urged Stanley to change his mind. Other successful programs, like Stanford and Michigan State, came in late, too.
But Stanley, raised in a Christian home, was always going to honor his Iowa commitment.
“Your word is your bond type of thing,” Jay Stanley says. “That’s very important to us.”
Getting him ready
When Stanley arrived on campus in June, he was around his listed weight of 212 pounds. Dad says he’s now at 232.
“Coach (Chris) Doyle did a really good job with him over the summer,” Jay says of Iowa’s strength and conditioning coach. “Let’s put it that way.”
When practice started Aug. 3, Stanley took advantage of the three football-only weeks before the fall semester to study the playbook. He roomed with Drew Cook and picked the then-No. 3 quarterback’s brain. During the Kids Day open practice, he looked surprisingly polished.
The decision soon followed: Iowa would burn Stanley’s redshirt year.
A surprising move, but not unprecedented. Going from No. 4 to No. 2 as a true freshman has happened once before under Ferentz. Drew Tate made the jump in 2003, and after backing up Nathan Chandler for one season became a three-year starter.
Being No. 2, Tate recalls during a recent “Iowa Huddlecast” podcast on Hawkeye football, is “huge” because the top backup gets the majority of practice repetitions — something that gave Tate a head start the following spring, when it became his job to lose.
“Especially in Iowa’s offense, because there’s so much you have to learn.” Tate says. “So much about X’s and O’s, and understanding safeties and why you want to run this way, and why you want to set protections that way.
“I took huge steps once we hit October (2003). … I’m telling you: You get all the reps, and you just get into your zone.”
And who better for Stanley to learn from than Beathard, who in his fifth year has become a master of Iowa’s offense?
“Someday,” Beathard says, “he’s going to be good.”
Stanley’s Iowa career is in the infant stages — 12 snaps, including 1-for-3 passing for 2 yards. In an interview posted on the university’s website, Stanley, 19, sounds confident if anything were to happen to Beathard.
“I feel like I’ve got quite a bit of it down,” he says. “There’s still some little things, with checks and coverages that I still need to work on; the schemes of everything. As of right now, I feel like I’m well-enough prepared to play.”
Is he the Hawkeyes’ quarterback for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons?
Time will tell.
But the answer to the opening question — how did he get to this point so quickly — sure seems like an encouraging start.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Matchup: FBS No. 11 Iowa (2-0) vs. FCS No. 1 North Dakota State (2-0)
When, where: 11 a.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
The line: Iowa is favored by 16.5 points