IOWA CITY, Ia. — Think back to Iowa’s home-opener last year, when a highly touted freshman named Nate Stanley immediately burned his redshirt against Miami of Ohio. The future was now, you might have thought.
Think back to the following spring game, when Stanley underwhelmed and let veteran Tyler Wiegers stake his claim for the starting job.
Think back to the weeks preceding Iowa’s 2017 opener against Wyoming, when Kirk Ferentz waited until just about last minute to name Stanley his starter.
OK. Now, raise your hand if, at that point, you honestly thought Stanley would outplay NFL Draft cover-boy Josh Allen in Week 1. (Put your hands down, everyone except Stanley’s parents.)
Truth is, we didn’t know what to expect from the true sophomore. He oozed potential, but he only showed it once publicly, at the Kids Day open practice.
Now, halfway through his first season behind center, it’s clear that while the "rookie" Stanley has plenty of room to grow, Iowa should be pleased with its present and future at quarterback. Stanley has completed 97 of 168 passes for 1,290 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s just 709 yards short of last year’s 13-game total of 1,991 and two scores short of last year’s 17 under C.J. Beathard.
The sophomore is also on pace to break Iowa’s single-season passing touchdowns record of 26. His 15 scores are tied for eighth in the country and second in the Big Ten behind Ohio Sate’s J.T. Barrett, who has 16.
"He's doing an awful lot of good things, and I've felt like that for six weeks now," Ferentz said Saturday when asked to assess his quarterback halfway through the season. "There's some things that we have to get ironed out, but he's really worked hard."
So, what are those good things Stanley’s doing? And the things that have to be ironed out? Let’s discuss.
Composure beyond his years
Very rarely does Stanley make a mistake — the opposite of what you’d expect from a young gunslinger with a new offensive coordinator who vowed to spice up a bland offense.
He threw his first interception on his third pass of the season. Then he tossed 147 more passes before his second interception finally came against Illinois.
"With every experience, he's doing some good things, he's making good throws. He had one he'd like to have back today and the ball just got away from him, but he had the right idea on it," Ferentz said of Saturday's pick. "It wasn't like it was a bad idea or trying to force it or anything like that. The ball just took off. We're really enthused about him."
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has done a good job making the smart choices easy for Stanley. His plays usually involve straightforward reads that get Stanley high-percentage looks at his favorite targets, especially Noah Fant and Akrum Wadley.
Still, Stanley's got to make the throws. And more often than not, he does.
"I think the main thing that sticks out to me, personally, and I think us, as an offense, is how composed (Stanley) is," senior receiver Matt VandeBerg said, "regardless of whether or not we just had a good play or a bad play. Being able to come back and get ready for what's next — I think that’s the biggest thing that he’s been able to do."
The elephant (overthrow) in the room
Overthrows, especially on deep passes, have become Stanley’s biggest bugaboo early on. It makes sense, given his arm. Usually overthrows boil down to any combination of three things: too much oomph, pocket pressure or iffy timing with receivers.
Stanley said it’s a timing issue.
"It’s something that we worked on in practice," he said after the Illinois game, when he had only one really significant overthrow (that got intercepted). "Obviously, we rep all those deep balls and stuff for a reason, so being able to just get a little better timing with those receivers is something we worked on."
Some of Stanley's overthrows have come at critical moments. His third-and-8 overthrow to Fant during Iowa's opening second-half drive against Michigan State, for example, cost the Hawkeyes seven crucial points. (So did his bizarre fumble-interception thing later in the drive.)
Steps up his game late
Iowa is a fourth quarter team, outscoring opponents, 67-20, in that period.
Stanley's a fourth-quarter quarterback, too.
He entered Week 6 with a 175.2 passer rating in fourth quarters and overtime. And after Week 6, he's up to 402 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions on 25-of-41 passing in fourth quarters and overtime.
His best closeout performance came against Iowa State. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 148 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime of Iowa's 44-41, instant-classic win in Ames.
"We’re excited to have him back there, for sure," VandeBerg said with a smile.
Quarterback of the offense, not above the offense
Probably Stanley’s biggest hindrance is that his level of play depends on the rest of his offense. In other words, if the offensive line can’t block well for Akrum Wadley, and Wadley can’t force the defense to respect him, Stanley struggles. As well as he played to close out the Iowa State game, Wadley and the rest of Iowa's offense played just as well.
Stanley is a vital cog in Iowa's offensive machine, but he hasn't forced defenses to respect him on his own yet. He’s not very mobile. He doesn’t freelance. He relies heavily on play-action. He's a system quarterback at this point.
His worst game came against Michigan State, when he completed 16 of 31 passes for 192 yards and no scores. Wadley gained only 30 yards on 17 carries that day.
Stanley’s second-worst game was against Penn State, when a strong fourth quarter cleaned up his final numbers: 13-for-22, 191 yards and two touchdowns. And, surprise: Wadley was bottled up until the fourth quarter, too, before finishing with 80 yards on 19 carries.
It's also interesting to look at Stanley's passer rating versus his quarterback rating.
A player’s passer rating is a pure measure of his touchdowns, passing attempts, completions, yards and interceptions. A player's quarterback rating takes into account things like game situation, third-down vs. first-down passes, etc. It's got its flaws, but QBR is thought to be a better measure of a quarterback's impact on the game.
So, Stanley’s 149.3 passer rating makes sense. He’s efficient. He puts up solid numbers. He doesn’t make mistakes.
But his 64.1 raw quarterback rating (out of 100) also makes sense. Compare that 64.1 to Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield’s 92.1 or Ohio State's Barrett’s 79.3, and you can get the picture.
Strong in the pocket
When Stanley's line provides a clean pocket, he’s among the country’s elite.
According to Pro Football Focus, Stanley entered Week 6 with 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions when throwing from a clean pocket. The only guys with better numbers? Mayfield and Barrett, who both had 15.
Also, according to Pro Football Focus, Stanley boasted a 128.7 passer rating from a clean pocket against Illinois (15-for-25, 222 yards, three touchdowns, no picks).
A collapsing pocket was a big reason why Stanley struggled against Penn State. The Nittany Lions threw blitzes at him nearly half the time. First of all, that threw off Iowa’s running game. Second, it kept Stanley uncomfortable.
When he’s comfortable, he’s pretty dang good.
And while his efficiency drops a good amount when there is pressure, rarely does Stanley go down. He’s been sacked nine times through six games — tied for the 40th-fewest in the country. Twice against Illinois, defenders should have gotten him for an easy sack, and twice he evaded pressure.
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBain_.