Iowa assistant Ken O'Keefe breaks down part of the quarterback competition.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In the few months since his return to the Iowa football program, Ken O’Keefe has re-familiarized himself with Pancheros Mexican Grill, a local standby for mammoth burritos.
“Thank God that’s still here,” O’Keefe, 63, quipped Wednesday. “Otherwise, I would be dead.”
More seriously, though, the Hawkeye quarterbacks coach's time has been spent looking for the next Drew Tate.
He’s still searching.
With five spring practices remaining, the race between true sophomore Nathan Stanley and redshirt junior Tyler Wiegers to become Iowa’s 2017 starter remains too close to call.
“It's neck and neck,” O’Keefe said. “And they're going at it like it is at this point, too.”
What O’Keefe needs to see: production. And that doesn’t mean the best completion percentage or yardage totals.
This is where Tate, whose free-wheeling style led Iowa to a Big Ten Conference co-championship as a first-year starter in 2004, enters the conversation.
The decision, O’Keefe said, will come down to “who moves the team. Who is making first downs. You know, Drew Tate … separated himself years ago when he would jump in. He could move the second team during two-minute (drill). He separated himself right there.”
O’Keefe, who was Tate’s position coach and offensive coordinator back in the day, continued.
“Now, I wasn't as worried about how many passes were completed … but who moved the team into scoring position, or scored in those situations,” O’Keefe said. “Who wanted to do the job factored into that as well, because nobody wanted to do the job more than (Tate).”
The Tate comparison is especially notable in the 2017 derby, because he had been the most recent Hawkeye true freshman to take snaps at quarterback until Stanley did last fall as C.J. Beathard’s backup.
Entering camp in 2004, Tate had gained a clear edge over Jason Manson as Iowa’s quarterback and eventually secured the job.
The best scenario for the 2017 Hawkeyes is that the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Stanley, described as a big-armed, cerebral quarterback, takes the starting reins — not only now, but for the next three years, as Tate did.
But there is no such edge, at least not from the ear test — or the eye test.
At last week’s Valley Stadium open practice, neither player stood out.
The more accurate passer? To be determined.
“To answer the accuracy question,” O’Keefe said. “I would rate us right now somewhat average overall.”
Can they use their feet to gain yardage? Stay tuned. Even the coaches are curious with a few scrimmages ahead, including the April 21 spring game at Kinnick Stadium.
“I don't see anybody taking off and running for 60 yards on the first play in a two-minute drill like Brad Banks did (in 2002) against Purdue,” O’Keefe said. “… But they can move well enough to get out of the pocket and get the first down. That's really what you want.”
Right now, they’re sharing first-team reps.
The last time Iowa finished up spring practice with a clear toss-up at quarterback was 2013. It took until Aug. 23 for Ferentz to name sophomore Jake Rudock the starter over then-freshman Beathard.
Is Wiegers the next Rudock? The more-established program guy getting the nod over the younger, high-upside guy?
“He's an intelligent guy. Understands everything,” O’Keefe said of the 6-4, 225 Wiegers. That's something Ferentz might have said about Rudock. “Knows the protections and how to work within the protections. And can make the decisions that you have to make in that position. That’s what I’ve seen so far.”
That’s no knock on Stanley, whose intelligence and quick absorption of Greg Davis’ system a year ago was highly praised. Both he and Wiegers need time to learn a new offense with first-year coordinator Brian Ferentz.
Their timing is off. But don’t forget, they’re operating with a skeleton crew at wide receiver. That’ll change in August.
Iowa's coaches say the competition is good. But it isn’t always.
Check out the quarterbacks during the Iowa Hawkeyes spring football practice at Valley Stadium in Des Moines.
Even Kirk Ferentz cited an example from 30 seasons ago that might have slowed the 1987 Hawkeyes’ progress.
Back then, when Ferentz was a seventh-year offensive line coach, Hayden Fry had a three-horse quarterback race to replace graduated Marc Vlasic. The battle between Dan McGwire, Chuck Hartlieb and Tom Poholsky spilled into the regular season.
“We had three guys competing for it, and it seemed like they were all hurting themselves more than helping themselves,” Ferentz brought up, “because they were all trying to make the big play all the time. And out of that stack of guys, Chuck Hartlieb was the guy that emerged, and he kind of just took what was there.”
There’s no urgency to name a starter this spring.
Come late August, there will be.
Until then, O’Keefe will continue to search for the type of separation he saw in 2004.
“Competition is never bad. It will only help us,” O’Keefe said. “They're both sharp guys. The ability to learn and process is pretty good. It's just a matter of getting reps and being able to react to how you process that is probably going to be the thing that separates people in the end.”
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.