Leistikow: The complex challenge of becoming Iowa's quarterback of the future

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — We want answers from the Iowa football program, and we want them now.

We want to know who the starting quarterback will be Sept. 5, 2020, when the Hawkeyes host Northern Iowa — a week or so before Nate Stanley takes warm-up throws before his first NFL regular-season game.

More urgently, we want to know who is on track to back up third-year starter Stanley this Aug. 31, in case anything goes haywire against Miami of Ohio.

Is redshirt sophomore Peyton Mansell, in his third year in the program, throwing darts and scrambling out of trouble during spring practices?

Is tall redshirt freshman Spencer Petras, already in his second spring, thriving as a pro-style gunslinger from the pocket?

Iowa freshman quarterback Alex Padilla (8) runs a drill while Peyton Mansell (2) and Nate Stanley (4) wait their turn during an April 4 open practice in Iowa City.

Is freshman Alex Padilla, who is here taking reps as Iowa’s No. 4 QB instead of getting ready for his senior prom in Colorado, showing signs that he can compete one day for a starting job?

Well, we didn't get those answers during a press conference Tuesday with Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe. No juicy details about a competition at football’s most visible position.

Instead, the interaction with Iowa media at the Hansen Football Performance Center became an unexpected, informative 30-minute seminar. We learned the many things O’Keefe and the Iowa offensive staff need to see before trusting a quarterback to go under center (yes, still under center) for meaningful snaps for the Hawkeyes.

Now in session: QB Play 101, Spring semester, with Professor O’Keefe.

The introductory remarks centered on his star pupil.

“He can change plays. He can get himself out of trouble. He can get a receiver somewhere he wants him to be. He can fix more stuff,” O’Keefe, 65, said of Stanley. “And really, our jobs at the quarterback position, that’s what we need to do. We need to make things right.”

To demonstrate that point and the progress Stanley has made in two years as a starter (in which he’s compiled 52 touchdown passes against 16 interceptions), O’Keefe broke down some game-changing plays during Iowa’s 27-22 Outback Bowl win against Mississippi State.

First, Stanley’s 75-yard scoring pass to Nick Easley in the second quarter when the offense was sputtering badly. That was a broken coverage, sure, but Stanley had to read it — and deliver a spot-on deep throw. O’Keefe said that wasn’t something Stanley could’ve done earlier in his career.

 “The way it unfolded, the way that the coverage broke down, we had never given Nate a rep like that. Ever,” O’Keefe said. “But he was able to reset his feet and make a perfect throw. He made that right.”

Touchdown No. 2 to Ihmir Smith-Marsette, which gave Iowa another jolt and a 17-6 lead, was a beauty of a throw against the nation’s No. 1 defense on an out pattern near the goal line.

"(Marsette) got walled off from where he was trying to go and then broke outside. But he didn’t fool Nate,” O’Keefe said. “Nate again was able to reset and push the ball out to where no one else could get it, and it resulted in a touchdown.”

O’Keefe truly called that part of his lesson, "Make it Right 2.0."

To close the Stanley discussion, O’Keefe pointed to his quarterback’s rare choice to scramble out of trouble. After a play-action pass call on fourth-and-1 was well-covered — with Iowa trailing 19-17 in the fourth quarter — Stanley shuffled his way forward for three yards.

Iowa grabbed the lead for good on the next play, an 8-yard pass from Stanley to Easley.

In summation: Stanley has shown he is the leader of the room, the leader of the team.

“The other guys,” O’Keefe continued, “we’re trying to teach them command of the offense.”

And that’s what Iowa coaches are looking for out of Mansell and Petras; and eventually Padilla and 2020 commitment Deuce Hogan.

They want someone who can direct traffic and perform proper crisis management while holding a pigskin. They need a fast-thinking football handyman. 

That’s why the staff made the decision recently to scale back Stanley’s practice reps and put the backups in charge of the No. 1 offense vs. Iowa's No. 1 defense.

What were the coaches looking for?

Quick and precise feet. Plans change in a hurry when the pass rush is coming or a primary receiver is covered.

“You can’t just stand there and be a big stick,” O’Keefe said.

Timing with receivers. It’s not all about making the big throw to the sideline; it’s about beating the defender.

“If it’s the primary read most of the time, we’d like to have the ball out of our hands and about a third of the way there by the time the receiver comes out of his cut,” O’Keefe said. “… If it’s 50 percent of the way there when he comes out of his cut, it’s almost impossible to defend.”

But that’s only in zone coverage. Beating man coverage takes a different approach.

Then there’s arm strength. For O'Keefe, under-thrown deep balls are a red flag.

There’s the speed of the release. That pass rush is still coming.

Decision-making is important, but are the decisions more often good or bad?

By the time Professor O’Keefe was done explaining it all, it was easier to understand ... that playing quarterback at Iowa is more complex than most of us realize.

That’s why it doesn’t matter today that Mansell has more agility in the pocket. Or that Petras might have the bigger arm. Or that Padilla is a distant fourth.

There’s time for all these guys to figure this out.

And the coaches — Kirk Ferentz on down — are willing to let it all play out. A decision likely won’t be made until late August about this year’s top backup.

And then there will be another year of competition after that to determine the Hawkeyes’ quarterback of the future.

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.