Leistikow: The Cade McNamara era with Iowa football is off to a positive start

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − Cade McNamara has experienced a lot of eye-opening moments in his first two months in Iowa City, and the new Iowa football quarterback – and potential savior for a downtrodden offense – has loved it all.

First, the four-way stop signs. He’s already learning that in Iowa, over-politeness is rampant.

“Everyone doesn’t know what to do,” the Michigan transfer said. “I feel mean by going first. Everyone’s just super nice.”

Second, he’s gotten familiarized with the most athletic player on the Hawkeye roster: defensive back Cooper DeJean.

“An absolute freak of nature. Our first week, we all went and shot some hoops,” McNamara said. “This dude is throwing down (dunks) lightly. His head’s above the rim and I’m just like, ‘What the heck is going on?’”

(Yes, he’s already in defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s ear about letting DeJean dabble on offense.)

Third, he was in attendance for both Iowa basketball games over the weekend. Hard to top either one of those thrilling finishes amid sold-out crowds, with the Iowa men rallying from 11 down with 55 seconds left to beat Michigan State and Caitlin Clark’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to take down the No. 2 Indiana women.

Leistikow:Caitlin Clark's walk-off winner caps incredible hoops weekend

“I was there when Caitlin hit that shot. That was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever been in in terms of a college event,” McNamara said. “She’s an absolute beast.”

Around town, warm welcomes have showered the Reno, Nevada, native. Everyone's excited that he's here.

In short, things are going great for the Hawkeyes’ presumed QB1. After knee surgery in the fall, he is ahead of schedule on his recovery. McNamara expects to be 100% by the end of spring practice in late April. For now, he’s able to do almost everything physically but is intentionally taking it slow − even though as an intense competitor he’s antsy to be fully back.

New Iowa quarterback Cade McNamara brings a winner's mentality and bold goals to the Hawkeyes. He's already establishing himself as a vocal leader, teammate Nico Ragaini said.

“I’m in every lift. I’m throwing. I’m doing everything I possibly can,” McNamara said. “Everything seems to be feeling really well, and my knee’s healing good.”

He spoke highly about his relationship with Jon Budmayr, the offensive analyst last season who has been retained at an annual salary of $325,000 to assist with reshaping the Iowa offense, in part to McNamara’s strengths. While the quarterbacks coach at Wisconsin, Budmayr extended McNamara his first Division I offer. Budmayr also successfully recruited McNamara’s younger brother, Jake, while he was the offensive coordinator at Colorado State in 2021.

When McNamara speaks, it’s clear he has supreme confidence in his abilities. He doubled down on an earlier comment that he hopes people keep ragging on Iowa’s offense, which ranked No. 130 out of 131 FBS teams last year. He wants to prove people wrong.

“They can keep doubting all they want. That’s fine with me,” McNamara said. “And I think overall, not just me, but this program, I realize this is a chip-on-your-shoulder type of program. And that was also really intriguing to me.”

McNamara also spoke about high expectations – when, not if, Iowa wins a Big Ten title behind an improved offense and rock-star defense – and the desire to become a prime leader for this Hawkeye team. Considering he led the 2021 Michigan team to a Big Ten Championship Game win (against Iowa, 42-3) and was a team captain for Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, he’s already garnered respect from his new teammates.

Veteran receiver Nico Ragaini thought the room-wide respect grew for his new QB1 at a players-only meeting in January. It was an open forum, and McNamara stood up and spoke for the first time to his fellow Hawkeyes.

“We talked about our expectations not just being our goals,” Ragaini said. “We can’t just wish upon a Big Ten championship. That has to be what we want, what we expect this year. Hearing him talk about that, I feel like showed how much of a leader he is and gained our respect right then and there. That was pretty cool.”

Tight end Erick All joined McNamara by transferring from Michigan to Iowa. They are longtime friends and roommates.

All described what Iowa is getting in its new quarterback, who completed 64.3% of his passes in 2021 for 2,576 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. The knee injury sidetracked McNamara in 2022 as J.J. McCarthy took over as Michigan's quarterback.

“He’s just a huge competitor with anything,” All said. “I was (telling) coach (Abdul) Hodge, ‘Man, this dude’s a winner.’ No matter what we do, he just wants to win.

“If he doesn’t win, he’s going to work until he does. He’s just a guy that hates to lose.”

Spring practice starts in less than three weeks.

McNamara arrives with much anticipation ... and two years of eligibility. He was non-committal about whether he would use both.

“I’m focused on this year,” he said. “That decision, when to leave for college athletes, that’s not even made by themselves. Wherever I stand on some (NFL Draft) board at the end of the season, those will be in my determining factors. But I’m not in any rush to leave this place.”

For now, he’s focused on learning the offense – Ragaini has been a big help – and gaining respect among his teammates.

“Overall, I’m just super-happy with the position that I’m in,” McNamara said. “And I’m just super excited to go out and put out a good product on Saturdays.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.