On Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley: Strong, silent and building for this moment

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There was no escaping sports in the Stanley household of Menomonie, Wisconsin.

Nate, the youngest of three children, picked up a basketball at age 3 and was tagging along to summer camps with his father by age 4.

“He probably took more naps in the closet of our high school gymnasium than he did at home,” said Jay Stanley, then the head coach of the basketball team and an assistant for the football team at Menomonie High School in western Wisconsin.

Nate Stanley threw for 26 touchdown passes in his first season as Iowa's starting quarterback. He's aiming to be much more efficient in his junior year, beginning Sept. 1 vs. Northern Illinois.

Nate Stanley was a team manager for both sports from the time he was in kindergarten, joining Luke, his older brother by two years. When Jay Stanley was short a varsity player or two because of illness or injury, he’d summon his sons in to practice sessions.

“One time, we had a kid who twisted his ankle, so I said, ‘Nate, you’re up,’” Jay Stanley remembered. “He went through a staggered screen and did it perfectly. I said, ‘How did you know how to do that?’ He said, ‘I should know how. I’ve been watching your practices for four years.’”

Nate Stanley was 8 at the time.

He was not only attentive when it came to athletics, but blessed with size and strength. When the Stanley children would play backyard games of “pickle,” they needed to use tennis balls instead of baseballs because Nate threw so much harder than Luke and oldest sister, Leah.

That’s why his mother, Donita, a former college basketball player at Wartburg, stopped playing catch with Nate when he was 9. Everybody was looking to avoid the welts.

“We saw that, yeah, we’ve got a gift here with that arm strength,” Jay Stanley said of his youngest child.

So it was inevitable that when Nate Stanley started playing tackle football as an eighth-grader, quarterback would be his position. And that set him on the path to Iowa City, where he enters his second season as the leader of the Hawkeye offense this fall, the fate of the team tied to his strong right arm and a quiet belief in himself.

“Growing up around sports, I was taught that you take responsibility for what happens,” Stanley told the Register this month. “I liked that pressure. I want to be that person, to have the ability to take over a game if need be.”

A young starting quarterback who can handle 'largeness' of the moment

Joe LaBuda has been the football coach at Menomonie for 30 years. He runs a multiple-set offense in which the quarterback is always under center. It features a lot of play-action passes.

He had never entrusted it to a sophomore until Stanley came along.

LaBuda is so close to the Stanley family that he was baby-sitting Leah and Luke on the day Nate was born. He coached Nate in Little League baseball, getting an up-close look at a pitching arm that generated so much velocity opposing players were sometimes afraid to step into the batter’s box and their parents would openly question the age of the big kid on the mound.

LaBuda used Stanley as his punter during his freshman season, but couldn't wait to untap that right arm.

“He’s always a real high achiever, and he’s always been ahead of the game. In fifth grade, he was on the eighth-grade basketball team,” LaBuda said. “He’s always been the guy other teams scheme against. But he’s always been able to handle the largeness of things.”

Jay Stanley said there were some murmurs of “nepotism” when his son earned the quarterback job as a 10th-grader. By the end of that season, Nate had answered any questions.

In his debut game as a starter, Nate stepped back and found his brother Luke on a wheel route. It produced Nate’s first varsity touchdown pass.

“I was just thinking, ‘Let’s complete a ball and see where it goes,’” Nate said of that play. “But that was pretty special.”

In the middle of the season, Stanley had a five-touchdown game against River Falls. Three of the scoring passes went to his brother. He was on his way.

LaBuda remembers a clutch third-down completion late in a playoff game against Marshfield. It was a dig route, about 18 yards downfield.

“It looked like he threw it 100 mph and both defensive backs thought they were going to intercept it. He really squeezed it in a window,” LaBuda said. “That’s when it was kind of apparent that he could be a Division I college quarterback.”

That first-down conversion led to a touchdown and a victory.

Stanley’s junior season got off to a bumpy start. He rallied Menomonie to a victory but had hidden an injury while doing so. After the game, LaBuda was alarmed to see Stanley’s hand swollen to the size of a softball.

It was broken. He missed five games.

By the time Stanley was cleared to play, there were only two weeks left in the season and Menomonie needed two wins just to qualify for the playoffs.

“He really couldn’t grip the ball super well,” LaBuda said.

Still, Stanley helped Menomonie get those two victories.

“He was physical and tough,” said LaBuda, who would even use Stanley as a safety in crucial situations or against pass-happy teams.

In Stanley’s senior season, he had an interception that turned the tide in a playoff victory.

“He was a great leader, and he’s so intelligent,” LaBuda said.

Stanley's high school career ended with 3,674 passing yards and 36 touchdowns.

Quietly making a college decision: Stanley becomes a Hawkeye

Colleges took notice of Stanley after his sophomore season. Pitt, led by current Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, was the first to offer a scholarship. Iowa was interested, as was Michigan State.

Stanley said he had grown up assuming he would play basketball in college. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard is still the all-time leading scorer in his high school’s history.

But Jay Stanley knew from experience how difficult it is to secure a basketball scholarship to a major university. He’d once coached a terrific player who couldn’t get any traction on that front.

Major-college football teams have 85 scholarships. For Stanley, who’d grown up dreaming of using his athletic gifts to get his college paid for, this was the surer path.

The Stanleys sought college teams they felt would fit Nate’s skills. He is not a dual-threat quarterback. He is comfortable under center, using his powerful arm to beat defenders.

They visited Pitt, Michigan State, Wisconsin.

And Iowa.

“I’ve always loved Coach (Kirk) Ferentz, just being an offensive line guy,” Jay Stanley said of the Hawkeye head coach who made his name as an offensive line guru, the position Stanley still coaches at Menomonie. “I love the character side of him, too.”

Stanley kept his recruitment quiet. It was not a process he enjoyed. He does not have Twitter or Facebook accounts. He kept his Hudl highlights private, only granting access to people he wanted to see them. He set up a filing cabinet to store all the letters he was receiving, then discarded them all as soon as he made his choice.

It was during his convalescence from his broken hand that Stanley had time to ponder everything, and he called then-Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis to say he was interested in being a Hawkeye. There was no public announcement. Most people didn’t become aware until Iowa’s coaching staff revealed the commitment at the next signing day.

Iowa tight end Peter Pekar (86) and quarterback Nate Stanley (4) celebrate with tight end Noah Fant after Fant pulled in a touchdown in the second quarter against Boston College during the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017.

Stanley was happy to have the distraction behind him. It felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, he said.

Stanley arrived on campus in the summer of 2016 and quickly got to work learning Iowa’s formations and pass protection schemes. By August, he was elevated to No. 2 on the depth chart behind C.J. Beathard, surpassing the more experienced Tyler Wiegers.

Stanley was a little surprised by that. He called his father.

“I know that you’re going to work hard and you’re going to do your best, and your best was good enough to get that news,” Jay Stanley counseled him.

Stanley prepared each week as if he was going to start, but rarely played as Beathard led Iowa to an 8-5 record.

Iowa quarterbacks C.J. Beathard, left, and Nate Stanley run drills at the indoor practice facility on Dec. 22, 2016.

But there was one sequence early in the fall that was pivotal for the young quarterback.

Beathard had to leave a Week 3 game versus North Dakota State with an injury. Stanley was hustled onto the field at Kinnick Stadium so quickly that he didn’t even have time to be nervous.

Davis called for a pass on Stanley’s first play, a sign of the faith coaches had in him already. He connected with tight end George Kittle for a 37-yard gain.

“There’s always that question, ‘Is this where I’m supposed to be?’” Stanley said. “It just kind of solidified in my mind that I could play at this level.”

Stanley's Iowa starting debut includes 26 TD passes, and a desire to improve

Stanley and Wiegers battled for the starting quarterback job throughout the spring and summer of 2017. It wasn’t until the season opener neared that Ferentz revealed his decision: Stanley.

“You have to have the mindset that you’re going to go in and take control of the huddle,” said Stanley, who quickly did just that.

He completed only eight passes in his starting debut, against Wyoming. But three of them went for touchdowns. He followed that with a five-TD, 333-yard showing in an overtime win at Iowa State. He had five more touchdown passes in a shockingly one-sided upset of Ohio State.

But there were humbling moments as well. A costly fumble in a loss at Michigan State. A mere 41 yards passing in a staggering defeat at Wisconsin.

Iowa's Nate Stanley is sacked by Wisconsin's Olive Sagapolu in the second quarter of their 2017 matchup. Stanley was ruled just outside the end zone to avoid a safety.

That one really stung for Stanley. In the postgame news conference, Stanley looked up to see a TV crew from his local station, there to document his first game as a starter against his homestate school.

“I had a lot of people that I knew at the game. And then to see familiar faces in that (interview) room, too, was a little hard,” he said. “Just knowing that we had our opportunities to win.”

Stanley finished the season with 26 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Iowa went 8-5 again, but this time capped it with an elusive bowl-game victory.

Stanley views it as a so-so debut. There were things he did well, but much more he needs to work on. Ferentz has said Stanley needs to run away from pressure a little more and not just throw the ball out of bounds.

Stanley said he’s been working hard this summer on his footwork, going into a detailed explanation of why that is the key to increasing a pass-completion rate that was at only 55.8 percent a year ago. How you move your feet affects how you move your shoulders. And that determines whether the football is placed precisely where your receiver needs it, or a few inches off.

It’s those nuances that Stanley wants to perfect now, he said, sounding much more comfortable than a year ago.

An introvert with an unusual hobby, intent on coming out of his shell

There are other aspects of being a quarterback that Stanley wants to master as well. The ones that aren’t necessarily exhibited on the field. He knows he needs to be more of a “verbal leader.” He recognizes that the starting quarterback is always the face of a football team, so he is intent on becoming “more comfortable with the media stuff, too.”

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley calls a play against Wyoming at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.

He'll get a big test Tuesday in Chicago, where Stanley will be one of three Hawkeye players speaking to reporters at the annual Big Ten Conference media days. He is only the second junior in Ferentz's 20 years as head coach selected for the honor (middle linebacker Josey Jewell attended in 2016).

Stanley is naturally quiet, almost disarmingly so to those first meeting him. He said it goes back to his childhood, when he attended St. Paul’s Lutheran School from kindergarten through eighth grade.

It’s the school run by the church his family attends. Stanley is so grounded in that faith that he still watches Sunday services online from Iowa City, or at least listens to the sermons on tape.

Enrollment in the school is quite low, however. Stanley said there were only four children in his eighth-grade class. It’s why he’s more on the introverted side, Stanley said, why he doesn’t like a lot of attention and doesn’t conform to his generation’s fixation with social media.

A 2018 illustration of Hawkeyes' rising-junior quarterback Nate Stanley.

Stanley prefers solitary pursuits. He was back home ice-fishing with a friend, with a lone perch to show for his efforts, when Davis called in January 2017 to tell him he was retiring. Stanley and Davis were close and the news came as a surprise. At the tender age of 19, Stanley suddenly had to contemplate a new twist on his journey to college starting quarterback.

“It was a little weird, just not knowing who was going to be my coach,” Stanley said. “I knew Coach Ferentz would find somebody well-qualified for it.”

Ferentz brought back Ken O’Keefe to coach quarterbacks and promoted his son, Brian Ferentz, to be offensive coordinator. Stanley said he’s since become tight with O’Keefe, admiring his work ethic and ability to strike a light-hearted mood when it’s needed.

Stanley’s most unusual hobby is woodworking. It’s a great stress-reliever. He found an appreciation for it while taking a couple of classes in high school.

Soon, he was spending three and four months constructing end tables, coffee tables, even an entertainment center. The end results are good enough to sell, Stanley said with satisfaction, though he would never dream of doing so. But if he makes enough money playing football, a wood shop would be high on Stanley’s list of things to own.

“You have to have the patience to do everything right, then being able to step back when you’re done and know that you accomplished something is pretty special,” Stanley said. “The process takes a long time. There’s a lot more delicacy that goes along with it.”

Then the kid who grew up napping in a gymnasium pivoted back to sports.

“Just like we’re doing all of our training, all of our summer workouts and conditioning, but we won’t see the results of it until we start playing,” Stanley said.

Footwork. Woodwork. Nate Stanley won’t be outworked.

Hawkeye fans will have to wait to Sept. 1 to see, and hear, the progress their quarterback has made.