IOWA CITY, Iowa — Quarterback Nate Stanley appears relaxed and confident these days at Fortress Kinnick.
Stanley has every reason to feel good about himself. The 6-foot-4, 242-pound junior directs an offense that has some experienced returnees who played at a high level. Stanley is among them. So is junior tight end Noah Fant, who caught 11 touchdown passes last year. Senior receiver Nick Easley caught 50 passes last year. Sophomore receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette have developed some of their potential into practice production.
On the second day of summer workouts, Stanley speaks with more clarity than he did last fall. He adds more flavor to his conversations, and he’s unafraid to dash a little swagger into an interview — at least when it comes to his teammates.
During the team’s max-out period this spring, Fant’s vertical jump this spring would have ranked third in NFL combine history. Stanley witnessed the event and called it “crazy.”
“We’re all kind of doing our verticals at the same time, but when you hear a coach say, ‘42,’ your jaw just kind of drops,” Stanley said. “It’s pretty special to be able to do that. It’s pretty spectacular.”
The key for Fant, Stanley and the rest of that offense is how they collectively harness their athletic strides and familiarity and build on a modest step forward last season. Stanley and his fellow passers threw for 544 yards more than his 2016 predecessor, C.J. Beathard. Iowa’s yards per completion rose to 12.4 (from 11.3) and yards per attempt soared to 7.0 (from 6.4).
But that 2016 passing game collected yards by blades of grass, rather than chunks of turf. Those annual improvements are swell, but the Hawkeyes still ranked in the nation’s bottom half in most passing categories, save for touchdown passes. To take another step as a unit, this offseason is about progress and consistency, Stanley said. His 26 touchdown passes were one shy of the school record and were tied for 21st nationally. But Iowa’s 56.1 completion percentage was 92nd among NCAA teams, and it was the program’s worst number since 2009.
The numbers will rise with cohesion. Concurrent with second-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s refinement, Iowa’s players will gain experience.
But how Iowa makes strides depends significantly on how Ferentz utilizes Fant.
“Coach Brian is doing a great job of coming up with different stuff that’s unconventional,” Stanley said. “I think it plays into the confusion of the defense, too. Not necessarily knowing where he’s going to be because we showed a lot of different things that he can do. That really causes a nightmare to defensive coordinators.”
Fant (6-5, 241) finished with 30 catches for 494 yards. At 16.5 yards per catch, Fant led the nation among tight ends. His 11 TD catches tied for the national high and set a program record for tight ends.
This offseason, Fant added 10 pounds and said he feels bigger and leaner to go along with stronger and faster. Iowa’s passing attack will go through Fant, which could become a positive for Iowa’s other tight ends and receivers.
“We’ve got T.J. [Hockenson). We have Brandon Smith. We have Ihmir Smith-Marsette, even some freshmen that I’ve heard can play a little bit,” Fant said. “We have guys that can make big plays and stretch the field, so it’s going to be one of those things where pick your poison in what you’re going to try to defend the most. That’s where our offensive coordinator comes in, and he decides where he wants to go with their weakness. It’s going to be a fun game to play, and I feel like we have a lot of weapons to play that game with.”
Ferentz and other Iowa coaches visited the New England Patriots. It’s unlikely he was there just to show pictures of his growing family to his former colleagues, with whom he worked from 2008 through 2011. If Ferentz can glean anything from his visit and apply it to the offense, that’s a plus.
“I think our offense is continually growing,” Fant said. “I feel like even from when Coach Brian got moved to offensive coordinator, we’ve grown a bunch since then. With that being said, that growth won’t stop just with how our coaches push us. They won’t accept mediocrity in practice. With them doing that, we have no choice but to go up as an offense.”
Fant’s development gives Iowa’s other passing options a shot at 1-on-1 matchups. Smith (6-3, 219) has matured into the split end. Smith-Marsette (6-1, 175) showed flashes of potential last year with 18 catches for 181 yards and a pair of scores but also was inconsistent. They team with Easley to give Iowa its first experienced receiving corps in years.
“[Smith is] big, fast and strong,” Stanley said. “This spring, he realizes that and started to utilize that a lot more. He made a lot of great plays. So I think just continuing to build off of what he did in the spring, and I think he’ll have a good year this year.
“[Smith-Marsette is] just a matchup problem for a lot of people. I think anybody that tries to play him man probably won’t be able to run with him, so obviously he creates a downfield threat. He can move positions. He can play slot. He can do a lot of different stuff. For him, just being the athlete that he is, he has the ability to make a great play at any time. So you’re really just being able to utilize his assets if it is a ball thrown down the field or getting it in his hands as quick as possible, something special can happen, kind of like Akrum [Wadley]. I think he’s done a good job of just making those routine plays all the time now, too.”
With a comfortable Stanley, an even more athletic Fant and an improving group of receivers, perhaps Iowa’s passing attack actually might become a weapon for the Hawkeyes. At least it’s trending in that direction.