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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has 26 starts under his belt. He talks ahead of the 2019 season opener against Miami of Ohio. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — I began doing some rough math in my head Tuesday afternoon, wondering: Just how many hours of interviews has Nate Stanley conducted as Iowa’s starting quarterback?

At least 26 Tuesdays before each of his 26 college starts — and he usually stays for 30 minutes or longer.

Plus ... I can’t think of a postgame press conference he’s missed — another 26 sessions of about 10 minutes each.

Plus ... spring and summer availability. Occasional one-on-ones. Two Big Ten Media Days. Three Iowa media days.

Conservatively speaking, he’s probably spent 25 to 30 hours answering questions from Iowa media in the past 25 months. I’ve probably been there for the majority of his answers.

And I can count the times on my hand when the Hawkeyes’ starter has been smiling and laughing with reporters.

Tuesday, though, was one of those times.

The very serious and very straight-laced Hawkeye quarterback grinned and even began to chuckle as he described his disdain of facing Phil Parker’s defense during Iowa practices.

“Sometimes we’ll check (to) a play,” Stanley said, “then they’ll bring a blitz just to match it.”

Even when Stanley makes the perfect read, he can get foiled by a familiar defensive back who knows what’s coming.

“Sometimes the DBs know our signals or our calls and jump something,” Stanley said. “They’re playing one coverage, and then they do something that’s not really for that coverage. Just to mess with us."

Those may not sound like knee-slappers to us, but in Stanley’s pressurized world, it’s a little gallows humor after surviving the dog days of summer.

A defensive back playfully cheating may cause some frustration, but he also knows the big-picture reality: He’s the unquestioned leader of this 2019 Hawkeye football team.

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And, like the rest of us, he's ready for some games. Finally, for the first time since the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, he gets one — to kick off his senior year — at 6:40 p.m. Saturday against Miami of Ohio at Kinnick Stadium.

That’s something Stanley can smile about.

“Excited to get back out on the field,” Stanley said. “It’s been nice to be able to game-prep for an opponent, rather than going against our own guys.”

And now, head coach Kirk Ferentz has made clear, he wants Stanley to let loose entering his senior season. Speaking on the Big Ten Network’s bus tour last week, Ferentz asserted that Stanley's biggest challenge is "to relax a little bit and just be the best Nate Stanley he can be, and not worry about what anybody else says or what anybody else’s expectations are."

Hawkeye coaches have believed in Stanley’s talent and mental acumen since he stepped on campus three summers ago and won the backup job as a true freshman. They’ve always held high expectations for Stanley, and they've thrown a lot at him.

But it’s also fair to say that nobody has higher expectations for Stanley than the guy he sees in the mirror.

“I definitely feel a lot of responsibility,” he said. “I also know if something doesn’t go right, my teammates aren’t going to shut me out.”

He’s got that right.

Players were singing Stanley’s praises Tuesday, and that respect is measured beyond words. He’ll soon join Josey Jewell as the only three-time captains in program history.

“I’m confident in Nate Stanley. Our offense is confident in Nate Stanley. Our team is confident in Nate Stanley,” senior tight end Nate Wieting said. “Go across the board, he’s our guy. We know he can play at a high level. It’s all about going out there and executing.”

Stanley acknowledged he is hard on himself after a bad throw or a shaky practice; the BTN guys were less than enthused about his performance last week.

But, again, it’s not always the quarterback, even though on the surface he’s the easiest one to blame.

It could be the defense cheating a little bit. It could be a missed protection. It could be a receiver whose route was off the mark

“In my opinion, he’s ‘on’ more than 90% of the time,” junior running back Mekhi Sargent said. “It’s just, everyone has to be clicking at once. Nate is a tremendous leader.”

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This is Stanley’s team for a reason.

He’s got the big arm. He’s become more vocal about things that he likes and doesn’t like; about bringing along teammates. He’s extremely confident in his ability to read defenses, now 5,000-plus yards, 52 touchdowns and 17 wins into his career as a Hawkeye starter.

But his head coach is right.

It’s time for Stanley to trust his talent ... and trust all the work he's put in to get to this point ... and turn his game loose.

Stanley has displayed that gunslinger mentality, dating to the second start of his career his sophomore year with a comeback win at Iowa State. He was a gamer that year against Ohio State, too, firing five touchdown passes in an unfathomable rout.

That scrambling touchdown pass last year at Indiana, in which he bounced out of a sack and found Nick Easley in the back of the end zone, revealed his playmaking ability.

Now’s the time to put it all together. Now's Nate's time.

He only gets one senior year.

The Hawkeyes’ Big Ten West title hopes ride on his shoulders.

(But Nate, if you’re reading this, your coach doesn’t want you thinking about that right now. Just play loose, and you'll be smiling all the way to Indianapolis.)

“He doesn't have to be John Elway,” Ferentz reiterated Tuesday. “… He just has to go out and play his best. And if he does that, it'll be plenty good enough. I really believe that."

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.

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