IOWA CITY, Ia. — You remember the old taste-test commercials, where there’s a few unmarked aluminum cans on the table.
One might have been Coke, the other Pepsi. The unsuspecting person takes a sip of each, and tries to reach an unbiased verdict.
That seems to be the basic concept of Iowa’s ongoing quarterback competition between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers.
Tight end Noah Fant said thrown balls come toward his hands the same way with each guy; that he wouldn’t know the difference without knowing a jersey number.
Offensive lineman Keegan Render said half the time, he doesn’t even know if it’s No. 4 (Stanley) or No. 8 (Wiegers) calling out signals behind him.
Even head coach Kirk Ferentz, when talking about that competition, got their names mixed up, before quipping, “No. 4 and No. 8, OK?”
At Saturday’s “Kids Day at Kinnick” open practice, though, it was easy to notice a distinction at quarterback.
Stanley, the young sophomore with the big arm, had the better day.
Better zip on the ball, better touch, better stats.
Unofficially, I had Stanley 13-for-23 for 153 yards with three touchdowns, compared to redshirt junior Wiegers’ 6-for-14 for 31 yards and no scores.
(Neither was intercepted, an improvement of a combined three from the spring game.)
It’s just one day, as Ferentz was quick to point out, of 12 fall-camp practices so far.
“This is one exposure out of 12,” Ferentz said, careful not to anoint a QB. “We’re trying to measure the whole body of work.”
It happened to be the one public day, though, and Stanley seemed to take more command of the team in more than 90 minutes of 11-on-11 action — the first time this camp that Iowa has tackled — spanning around 110 scrimmage plays:
Wiegers, as he did in the spring game while putting together better numbers than Stanley, got the day’s first snaps.
He had a rough start. Of his first six pass drop-backs, he had three throws batted down by a defensive lineman, he was sacked (i.e., touched by a hand) once and he completed his other two tosses for two total yards.
Stanley had the day’s two most gorgeous tosses — both touchdown passes to sophomore Devonte Young. The second, a 21-yarder, was perfectly dropped into Young's arms to beat top corner Manny Rugamba.
In a story I wrote recently, former Hawkeye quarterback Chuck Hartlieb emphasized the importance of a young quarterback being able to convert third downs. Stanley was superior Saturday on third-down drills.
He hit Young for a 53-yard TD on third-and-3 — to "oohs" and "aahs" from the few-thousand fans inside Kinnick Stadium — and on the next snap zipped a ball to Noah Fant for seven yards on third-and-4.
Nathan Stanley connects with Noah Fant during Iowa's Kids Day open practice.
When Wiegers, got his turn, he threw a 2-yard pass to Adrian Falconer on third-and-5; then missed an open Falconer while waiting too long in the pocket for a sack; and then short-hopped a throw to an open receiver on third-and-6.
Stanley missed his share of throws, too. But he performed well with fans in the stands. That reminded me of a year ago on Kids Day when Stanley, then a true freshman, was the best quarterback not named C.J. Beathard on the field. Shortly thereafter, he jumped from No. 4 to No. 2 on Iowa's depth chart.
“Stanley’s more of a chill kind of guy, then when it’s time to play, he’s ready to play,” running back Akrum Wadley said. “They’ve both got similar games and they’re both leaders, and that’s what we need.”
Ferentz continued to say this would remain a competition.
“It’d be nice at some point, in a perfect world, when we start preparing for our first game (Sept. 2 vs. Wyoming) to have a 1 and a 2,” Ferentz said. “I think that’s better for the team overall. We’ll handle it however we have to handle it. Usually time exposes things. I doubt it’s going to be clear-cut.”
There’s another big scrimmage Friday night, where both guys’ performances will be scrutinized. Maybe we’ll see one take official control of the job then.
But perhaps if Stanley becomes the starter, we’ll look back on this as Separation Saturday in the quarterback race.
Some other observations on Iowa’s offense:
Wadley looks like he's the lead kickoff-returner. I like it. He likes it.
“I definitely do,” he said Saturday. “So far so good.”
We saw what a difference Desmond King made in the return game the past two years. And there’s not better home-run threat on Iowa’s team than Wadley. Get him the ball in space — and on kickoff returns, there’s space to create something special.
And with Iowa’s growing stable of running backs, Wadley doesn’t necessarily need to be a workhorse. Good for the coaches for giving him a strong look …
Grad transfer James Butler looks like the real deal. He carried 11 times for 56 yards and seemed to provide a physical between-the-tackles presence. He also was the primary red-zone back — a good move with his power.
He scored from seven yards out on third-and-2, slicing through the left side of the line like he's done this before. (And he has, with 30 touchdowns over three years at Nevada.)
“He made it look easy,” Wadley marveled.
James Butler runs for 7-yard touchwon at Iowa's Kids Day open practice. Matt Bain/HawkCentral
Added Ferentz: “When we went to a live period, he looked even more impressive. He’s definitely going to help our football team.”
Count me concerned with what receiver Matt VandeBerg is going to be able to do this fall, even though he said he’s fine after a limited day of action. But I’m encouraged by all the playmakers that seem to be emerging.
Falconer and Young have taken clear steps forward from spring; freshman Brandon Smith looks like a capable third-down and red-zone target (he had a game-high four catches); and Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Max Cooper have impressive speed, though their stats didn’t reflect it.
What a day for Miguel Recinos in his place-kicking battle with last year's starter, Keith Duncan.
In fact, Ferentz called it Recinos' "best day as a Hawkeye. I don’t think he missed any. You guys counted ‘em like I do, and I didn’t see a miss.”
He’s right. When they went “live” — just before 11-on-11 and during — Recinos was perfect and booming on all 12 attempts, from 40, 46, 49, 42, 34, 30, 27, 24, 30, 36, 51 and 48 yards. It almost looked like Nate Kaeding out there. (Almost.)
“And the ones he hit, they were true,” Ferentz said. “They weren’t limping over the goal post.”
And lastly, the penalties. Seven false starts by the offense. Seven. A lot of them were committed by young guys, but tackle Ike Boettger was visibly upset with his teammates' mistakes. So was Ferentz. He knows that needs to be cleaned up.
At least there's still three weeks to game day.
“It’s still disappointing," Ferentz said. "... If I go back and look at last year’s notes, it’s probably pretty similar. But that’s the challenge we’re running right now. First-and-15s are really hard, third-and-15s are impossible. So, (the) self-inflicted wounds, that’s the race we’re running right now.”
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.