'You don't always get instant results': Inside the world of Iowa's backup quarterbacks
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The coaching cliché "prepare like you're the starter" carries more weight than ever when referencing the backup quarterback position.
Weeks can pass with little action — some garbage-time snaps here, a late-game handoff there — until, boom, unforeseen circumstances put a little-used player in football's most important spot. Whether it's an injury or poor performance that ultimately forces a shift, the jarring nature of a quarterback change offers little time for a trial run.
Welcome to the worlds of Alex Padilla, Deuce Hogan and Joey Labas.
This Iowa trio forms the signal-calling relief behind Hawkeyes starter Spencer Petras, who enters his second season as Kirk Ferentz's top quarterback with a decent stranglehold on the job. It wasn't a flawless 2020 for the 6-foot-5 Californian, but there's no clear quarterback controversy with the Hawkeyes' Sept. 4 season-opener looming.
All that to say: If Padilla, Hogan or Labas start a game in 2021 for any reason, then Iowa has certainly moved past quarterback Plan A. However, demands won't decrease if such a move occurs. Plan B, and beyond, will be expected to work just as smoothly as Petras under center.
Therein lies the challenge of preparing while hardly playing.
"The biggest thing when it comes to the quarterback position is getting reps," Padilla said during Friday's media day. "It just takes time to develop that. So I feel a lot closer to my teammates, a lot more sure of myself (than last year). Creating that dynamic with receivers and all the talent around us, that makes my job easy. It's just important to get reps with them and continue moving forward."
When examining Iowa's recent run of quarterbacks, the durability and reliability has been astounding. Since the start of the 2015 season, there have only been a combined 47 passing attempts from players who weren't the clear-cut starter that year. C.J. Beathard (2015-16), Nate Stanley (2017-19) and now Petras (2020-present) have started every game during their respective years leading the Hawkeyes offense.
The last time Iowa had multiple quarterbacks start in the same season was 2014, when Beathard replaced the injured Jake Rudock at Purdue in Week 5. Beathard also filled in during other stretches of that year — the Hawkeyes' last campaign with an in-season quarterback controversy — most significantly replacing Rudock in the Taxslayer Bowl loss to Tennessee.
There are plenty of football reasons for that lack of shuffling. But luck shouldn't be discounted either. To go six consecutive seasons without a severe quarterback injury is a college football rarity. Even if it doesn't happen this year, that luck is bound to run out at some point.
"Our overall goal as Hawkeye football players is to make the team better. So, first of all, being prepared as best as I can be — so that when opportunity arises, I can take advantage of it — that's doing my part to help make the team better," Hogan said. "It would be a slight to the Hawkeyes to not do my best in whatever it is.
"You don't always get instant results, and that's OK. As long as I'm doing my part to make this organization better, then I'm OK with it."
As with most backup quarterback units, there isn't much on-the-field production to go off with this Iowa trio. Padilla is entering his third year in the program but has just two passes to his name. Hogan has never suited up in front of fans. Labas is a true freshman still soaking in the collegiate scene.
"The experience that Alex has already is the biggest thing," quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe said. "Deuce comes in last year and he would run with the third group. Because of the circumstances at practice, we hardly had enough people to run with the 3s.
"So he didn’t get as many reps as a young guy would normally get. You miss out on a bunch of stuff … even though we were trying to train him to get him ready to be at least the third guy.”
In such a scenario, getting one or multiple up to starting speed could be a daunting task. But it's a situation these backups say they're ready for if needed.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.