Leistikow: High hopes for Spencer Petras, but Iowa quarterback debuts are rarely smooth
On Saturday, 6-foot-5 Californian Spencer Petras will become just the second quarterback in more than six years to make his starting debut for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
That remarkable statistic is a testament to the stability that Iowa has enjoyed at football’s most important position during the program’s 47-19 run since the 2015 season began. It’s also indicative of how the Hawkeyes methodically groom their starter before confidently summoning him to lead the offense for a two- or three-year stretch.
That is most certainly the case and plan for Petras, who has received rave reviews from coaches and teammates for his traits on and off the field.
Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr., who is a redshirt sophomore like Iowa’s new signal-caller, trumpets Petras’ command of the practice field.
“You can see that he’s a leader all the way around,” Tracy said. “He talks the talk and walks the walk. He leads the offense in such a tremendous way, and I’m really excited.”
Added right tackle Coy Cronk, a graduate transfer whose first impressions of Petras came in January: "The most impressive thing about Spencer is his knowledge of the offense. Nothing has overwhelmed him. He takes it all in stride."
Petras, like his five predecessors, could become a very good quarterback. Heck, he could become a great quarterback, considering his pedigree of breaking Marin Catholic High School records set by 2016 No. 1 NFL Draft pick Jared Goff.
“I consider myself a natural leader, comfortable around my teammates,” Petras coolly said Tuesday, ahead of Iowa's season opener Saturday at Purdue (2:40 p.m. CT kickoff, Big Ten Network). “I think it's important for the quarterback to be a leader and to be able to set the tone and make sure that we have good tempo and good energy about us at practice. That’s something that comes pretty naturally to me.”
It’s not difficult to find soaring expectations for Petras within the Hawkeye fan base.
But what is realistic to expect from Saturday’s opener?
Taking a look back at the debuts for Iowa’s five starting quarterbacks since the early stages of the 2008 season can help us keep expectations in check. Although all five would start at least 25 games during their Hawkeye careers, they faced some early choppy waters.
Ricky Stanzi (Sept. 6, 2008 vs. Florida International)
After jockeying with Jake Christensen for Iowa’s QB job, Stanzi got the first call against FIU and was sharp (8-of-10, 162 yards, three touchdowns). He and Christensen rotated on the way to a 42-0 win, but it went down as Stanzi's first win of 26 in 35 career starts. The following week against Iowa State, Stanzi was given the reins and ... threw an interception on Iowa’s second possession. He finished 5-for-14 for 95 yards with two picks, a performance that handed the job back to Christensen at Pittsburgh. After that, though, it became Stanzi's show.
James Vandenberg (Nov. 14, 2009 at Ohio State)
Thrust into near-impossible circumstances with Stanzi injured and the Big Ten regular-season title on the line, Vandenberg played valiantly in the Horseshoe. Vandenberg went 20-for-33 for 233 yards but threw three interceptions and took a costly overtime sack in a 27-24 loss. Vandenberg would throw for 3,022 yards in 2011 (the most in a season by a Kirk Ferentz-era quarterback) and went 12-15 in 27 career starts.
Jake Rudock (Aug. 31, 2013 vs. Northern Illinois)
The Hawkeyes stumbled into a 10-0 hole and failed to score points until their fifth drive. Although Rudock settled in (he went 21-for-37 for 256 yards), his second interception cost Iowa dearly in a 30-27 home loss. Jimmie Ward stepped in front of his sideline pass with 1:17 remaining and returned the ball to Iowa's 30-yard line to set up Northern Illinois' winning field goal. Rudock won 14 of 25 starts at Iowa before transferring to Michigan.
C.J. Beathard (Sept. 27, 2014 at Purdue)
Before he led Iowa to a 12-0 regular season in 2015, Beathard earned a single start in 2014 with Rudock injured. And in the first quarter at Ross-Ade Stadium, he threw a pick-six as Iowa dug a 10-0 hole. Though Beathard completed just 46% of his passes (17-for-37, 256 yards), he finished strong for a 24-10 win in the first of 28 Hawkeye starts (21-7).
Nate Stanley (Sept. 2, 2017 vs. Wyoming)
Beathard’s one-year understudy got the best of counterpart Josh Allen in a clunky-but-victorious 24-3 outcome. Stanley was intercepted on his third attempt of the game, lost two fumbles on sacks and didn’t complete a pass until midway through the second quarter. Stanley’s finishing line: 8-of-15 for 125 yards and three scores. He would start 39 straight Iowa games (27-12) and match Stanzi’s 3-0 record in bowls.
Overall, these tales portend a promising path for Petras. Four of the five (Vandenberg being the exception) became NFL Draft picks.
Petras certainly seems to have a solid head on his shoulders regarding his Hawkeye debut. Yeah, he’ll probably have a few nerves. But he watched film-obsessed Stanley carefully for two seasons to understand how he prepared for game weeks.
Although Purdue has a new defensive coordinator in ex-Hawkeye Bobby Diaco, Petras has studied Iowa’s 2017 win at Nebraska (Diaco’s last game as coordinator in Lincoln) and tape from Diaco’s 2019 defense at Louisiana Tech.
Petras sounds prepared for whatever circumstances await him in West Lafayette and beyond.
"Something we talk about here is sleeping through the storm," Petras said. "It’s like the captain of the ship who’s tied all his knots correctly. When the water gets choppy, he can sleep through (the night). Because he’s prepared to the best of his ability.
"I kind of take pride in that. As long as I prepare to the best of my ability this week … when my head hits the pillow on Friday night, I’ll be able to sleep."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.