Leistikow: Iowa's Nate Stanley opens up about his critics, his thumb and the NFL

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Of the seven Iowa football players brought into the team’s practice facility to discuss their invitation to the Outback Bowl with reporters, Nate Stanley is the last one still hanging around.

As the minutes pass in the emptying room, the introverted junior quarterback smiles more. He even laughs. He becomes increasingly conversational — perhaps sensing the spotlight is waning for the night.

Or, perhaps, he’s just not feeling as much pressure anymore.

Nate Stanley carries a 16-9 record as an Iowa starter and 49 career touchdown passes into the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl.

With his next game still four weeks out — Jan. 1 vs. 18th-ranked Mississippi State in Tampa, Florida — Stanley feels free to reflect on his second season as the Hawkeyes’ starting quarterback. He speaks candidly about how he’s dealt with criticism that cracked his social-media firewall. He even talks about his NFL plans — and reticently divulges the real impact of his somewhat mysterious thumb injury.

Oh, and there’s some satisfaction he’d like to mention, too. Maybe that’s another reason he’s smiling on this Sunday night.

When it’s about the quarterback, everyone’s an expert.

Stanley would be the first to tell you that he didn’t throw perfect passes for 48 straight quarters in 2018. Overthrows of T.J. Hockenson against Wisconsin and Penn State, two crushing losses that helped define Iowa’s 8-4 season, immediately come to mind as missed opportunities.

But to read some chatter on social media, message boards — even in my inbox on game-days — you’d think Stanley was barely capable of executing a forward pass. Stanley understands such scrutiny comes with the territory of playing a high-profile position at a Big Ten Conference school.

“If you don’t know that’s going to come, you’re a little naïve, I think,” Stanley says. “You have an idea what people might say about you, especially after a game.”

But still … the negativity was over the top for a 21-year-old college student.

A sampling of e-mails about Stanley sent to my inbox this season:

“A highly erratic, and marginally average, overall quarterback.”

“I just don't see that he has ‘it’ when it comes to leadership.”

“A nice kid, but not a Big Ten QB. He’ll never win the big game.”

“Must be someone better sitting on the bench.”

(Those were the tame ones.)

So, I ask Stanley: What was the worst thing you heard about yourself this year?

“Ooh. I don’t know if I really want to talk about that,” he says.

I sense he'd really like to vent about it. Then he does ... with carefully chosen words.

“Sometimes, there’s things that you know that the public doesn’t know,” Stanley says. “They’re stating what they think. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. At the same time, a lot of people don’t realize everything that goes into a decision or a play. It’s always kind of funny to read something when somebody says something that’s totally wrong.”

Stanley isn’t mad at his critics.

“You have to know that our fans care about us as much as we care about winning, too,” he says. “Just realize that not all the information is there for them."

Even J.T. Barrett, one of the most successful quarterbacks in Big Ten Conference history, faced haters within his fan base in the tail end of his Ohio State career. Another level up, two Super Bowl wins hasn’t stopped years of bashing of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

In today's world, firing off 280-character hot takes is easier than finding perspective.

Entering the bowl season, all Stanley has done is throw for 2,639 yards. He ranks third in the Big Ten Conference with 23 touchdown passes — seven more than Penn State's Trace McSorley, eight more than Northwestern's Clayton Thorson.

His four 300-yard games in 25 starts as a Hawkeye are four more than C.J. Beathard, a third-round NFL Draft pick in 2017, had in 28 starts at Iowa. His career 49-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio dwarfs that of revered Kirk Ferentz-era quarterbacks Drew Tate (61-to-34) and Ricky Stanzi (56-to-31).

With one touchdown pass in the Outback Bowl, Stanley will break a tie with the great Chuck Long for most TD passes in a two-year span (49) by a Hawkeye quarterback. With one more year, Stanley could surpass Long's 74 career TD passes, an Iowa record once thought untouchable. (And by the way: Long, the 1985 Heisman Trophy runner-up, threw 52 interceptions as a Hawkeye.)

“It’s a special place to be up there with someone like Chuck Long,” Stanley says. “I know I’ve missed a lot of opportunities for more, but you learn from it. And do everything you can to make that throw the next time.”

So now that the season’s over: How bad was the thumb?

“Uhh, season’s not over yet,” he grins in response.

(Well-played, Nate.)

The right (throwing) thumb injury Stanley suffered during the 30-24 loss at Penn State — his roughest outing of the season — took on a life of its own. First, it was nothing. Ferentz later divulged it was a sprain. Stanley played with a taped-up thumb throughout November as fans wondered just how bad the injury was.

While Stanley's numbers were solid in the final four games (79 of 121 for 824 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception), the frequency of downfield plays declined. 

“It’s a nuisance. It happens. People play (less than) 100 percent all the time,” Stanley says, finally relenting on the thumb question. “… Obviously, made some things tougher than I would have liked it to be. But that goes with the territory of being a competitor.”

Signs are good that Stanley will return in 2019.

As a draft-eligible quarterback with prototypical size (6-foot-4, 242 pounds), a powerful arm (he can throw a fastball 90-plus mph) and training within a respected pro-style system, Stanley plans to get feedback from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee. What they say will help determine whether he’ll return to college for his fourth and final year of eligibility.

When I ask Stanley what he predicts from the feedback, he answers almost immediately. He knows his weaknesses.

“Mobility in the pocket,” he says first. (Nobody will mistake him for Cam Newton.)

“Maybe quicker decisions; get through your reads quicker,” he continues. “And then just accuracy. Consistency on ball placement.”

Even if Stanley receives a second-round grade, he should return to Iowa. He’s got the mental capacity and the physical skill set to shoot up the 2020 NFL Draft boards with an impressive senior season. NFL franchises are always clamoring to uncover the next great quarterback.

A devoted student of the game, the feedback is something Stanley craves.

“Just see what they have to say,” he says, “and do everything I can to make sure I improve on those things.”

Sounds exactly like the approach you’d want from your QB1.

Stanley’s shoulders have carried a lot.

The Hawkeyes place trust in their quarterback to make complicated reads on the field. One thing coaches love about Stanley is how often he gets them out of a bad play call. That’s the kind of stuff fans and media don’t easily see.

He's always got a lot to process. Ferentz thought Stanley was pressing early in the year. Iowa also played in a lot of poor-weather games (Penn State, Maryland and Nebraska especially) that further limited what he could do.

Stanley knows the season didn't pan out perfectly. He’d love to have a do-over on that goal-line interception at Penn State, for example.

But when it came time to throw his very last pass of the regular season … it was a thing of beauty.

Fourth-and-8 from Nebraska’s 37-yard line. Tie score, 28-28. Under a minute to go.

Coaches put the game on Stanley's shoulders.

If we get the right read, they told him, we're going for it.

And with a steady rain coming down, Stanley stepped into a shotgun formation and perfectly executed the defensive read, the timing and the ball placement. He whipped a crisp 10-yard completion to Hockenson, his most reliable target.

First down.

Two plays later, Miguel Recinos curled in the game-winning field goal.

Triumph. Relief.

Thinking about that play makes Stanley smile again.

“A lot of talk from people saying that I’m not good in big games. Or can’t get a two-minute drive,” Stanley says, that pressure being released as we speak. “It’s awesome to finally have it punch through.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.