Brown: C.J. Beathard goes under the microscope as the Iowa starter

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa was not C.J. Beathard’s first choice. The quarterback had decided to go to Ole Miss, but a coaching change made him cast his lot elsewhere. He traded the SEC for the Big Ten.

“After I came on my visit to Iowa, I just had a feeling in my heart,” Beathard said. “I’d been praying about it with my dad (Casey). It just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

As things worked out, Beathard wasn’t Iowa’s first choice for a long time, either. He finished second in a three-way quarterback competition heading into the 2013 season and spent the past two seasons in Jake Rudock’s shadow.

That all changed the second week of January, when Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced that Beathard would be the starter moving forward.

So here he is, the No. 1 guy. A polite, pleasant and energized redshirt junior with a strong arm, mobility and the Iowa football team on his shoulders.

Is that fair? No really. Not when there’s 11 guys out there on each snap. But a starting quarterback is always in the bullseye. It comes with the territory.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Beathard said. “I just think we’re all excited to get out there and show people what we can do as a team.”

The turning of the page, from Rudock to Beathard, broke a Ferentz stereotype. Rudock was always perceived as a Ferentz guy. Beathard was the wildcard. Ferentz has clearly rolled the dice on this one.

“There was a consensus that we thought it was the best thing to do, and I think there’s a stronger consensus right now that we did the right thing,” Ferentz said when fall camp started.

Last week, Ferentz hadn’t changed his tune.

“He can do some things that are really hard to teach,” Ferentz said. “Really good players sometimes have an ability to do something you’d love to take credit for but you really didn’t have anything to do with. He’s got a little of that ability. It’s a matter of balancing things. That’s maturation, and we’ve witnessed that over the last 10 months or so.”

Rudock was the safe play, someone who knew how to check out of a bad play and go to a better option. A guy who got by with brains, more than bombs.

“He’s going to be a doctor,” said Greg Davis, Iowa’s offensive coordinator. “Extremely bright. And he’s extremely bright on the football field. But that doesn’t mean C.J.’s not extremely bright, too.”

Beathard’s improvement at changing plays at the line of scrimmage is one example of the maturation Ferentz sees. His decision making in the pocket is another. His live arm has never been questioned.

“And he’s always been willing to throw the ball,” Ferentz said. “Sometimes willing to throw the ball where we wouldn’t want him to. That’s what we’ve seen, the maturity, the growing up. Using better judgment.”

“He’s always had good skills, and I think right now he’s probably in a better position to really use those in a good and productive way to where he can help our team be an offense that can function the way we want it to,” Ferentz said.And he’s ready, more than ever, to have a positive impact on an offense that could use a jolt.

Instead of sharing the No. 1 practice reps with Rudock, now in a quarterback battle at Michigan, Beathard gets them all.

“Honestly, it just feels more comfortable to me,” Beathard said. “I think it’s more comfortable for our entire offense now. It’s a lot easier to get a rhythm and get on the same page with my receivers. Getting more reps helps me progress as a quarterback.”

Iowa’s 2015 season will swing on a number of factors on both sides of the ball, as well as a special teams unit that has to be better. But no one will have the microscope on them like Beathard. And this goes beyond his accuracy at throwing the ball or using his legs to take advantage of what the defense gives him.

This is also about his leadership in the huddle. And his health. One play, in particular, tells a precautionary tale of the season ahead. Against Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, Beathard got high-lowed by Vols Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt. He lived to take another snap, but he can’t be reckless as a runner.

“I can’t try to run people over,” Beathard said. “I’ve got to learn and get out of bounds.”

When he came to Iowa in the fall of 2012, Beathard had raw talent and potential. Now he’s the man. The guy that everyone will be watching as the 2015 season unfolds. He’s ready, but not satisfied.

 “I’m going to continue to push and get better in every aspect of my game,” Beathard said. “There’s no letting off the gas.”

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.