IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley barely played in the team’s final spring practice Friday.
It wasn’t because the senior’s starting spot is in jeopardy. Stanley just has little left to prove to his coaches as he enters his third year of running the Hawkeye offense.
And that changed his mindset a bit this April, Stanley acknowledged afterward. The focus wasn’t so much inward.
“(The goal was) not only elevate myself, but elevate the offense as a whole,” Stanley said. “If I can play my best and help my teammates play their best, you can’t ask for anything more.”
Those teammates certainly noticed a difference.
“We have a lot more chemistry together. He tells us what he sees and we relay the message back to him, what we’re seeing,” junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “We take his tools and we use them out there and in the game it makes us play faster. And it helps every receiver out there evolve.”
“He’s definitely more comfortable,” senior offensive lineman Levi Paulsen concurred, speaking of Stanley. “(It’s) seeing how much the game slows down and once you know the playbook, being able to understand football in its whole.”
Stanley threw for 2,852 yards and 26 touchdowns as Iowa finished 9-4 a year ago. But he’ll be without his top three receivers this fall. Tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant left school early and were first-round NFL Draft picks Thursday. Slot receiver Nick Easley graduated.
Stanley said the focus in the pass game has turned more toward the wide receivers as a result. That’s Brandon Smith and Smith-Marsette, both juniors.
“We’ve definitely practiced different personnel groupings,” Stanley said. “It’s something you need to do if you have strengths in one area. You want to take advantage of it.”
But don’t discount the potential impact of a pair of second-year players who will be asked to step in for two athletes Stanley has relied on greatly in his two seasons as a starter.
Nico Ragaini has been drawing raves all spring as the heir apparent to Easley in the slot. And it was easy to see why Friday. Ragaini was the quick-footed star of the offense, catching pass after pass from each of the top four quarterbacks, including a touchdown. He did have a fumble, but it was recovered by the offense and Ragaini spent no time on the sideline as a result. The coaches threw him right back into the fray.
“He busts his butt every single day, and you always know what you’re going to get. He’s going to give you his best,” Stanley said of the burgeoning pass-catcher who has been through two spring practice sessions.
“He’s always had that mentality. (He has) similar speed, similar quickness (as Easley) and they both just have a knack for getting open.”
Then there’s Tyler Linderbaum, who was a defensive lineman when he arrived at Iowa last summer. He was switched to center in December in an attempt to find someone to replace the graduated Keegan Render. Linderbaum apparently is that someone. He took every snap with the first-stringers Friday.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said longtime assistant Reese Morgan, who recruited Linderbaum, was certain that the Solon product could excel on either side of the line of scrimmage. Morgan retired this winter. But his opinion has apparently been validated.
Ferentz said Linderbaum is almost certainly going to be the starting center when Iowa lines up against Miami of Ohio on Aug. 31.
“It’s going to be tough to beat him out,” Ferentz said.
“I wish we had three of them right now, because we’d have three of them probably starting. He’s that good of a player.”
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.