TAMPA, Fla. — Nathan Stanley stands out amid Iowa’s quarterbacks, and it’s not just because of his height.
A 6-foot-5, 212-pound true freshman, Stanley has a strong arm and the ball jumps off his fingertips. It was easy to spot in quarterback drills, and it was just as noticeable when he saw action against North Dakota State in September.
When quarterback C.J. Beathard was injured during a third-down running play, Stanley stepped in. With the entire defense expecting a run on his first play, Stanley play-faked and hit tight end George Kittle down the left sideline for a 37-yard gain. Stanley guided the Hawkeyes inside the 10-yard line before Beathard returned.
“I think when Nate did go in he did a good job, especially (against North Dakota State) he went in and completed a nice pass,” Beathard said. “He didn’t play too much but when he was in there he did a nice job.”
Stanley, who hails from Menomonie, Wis., competed in six games this year. He attempted eight passes, completed five and threw for 62 yards. But the fact he even played was most surprising.
Beathard was the unquestioned starting quarterback entering 2016. His backup, sophomore Tyler Wiegers, saw action in four games in 2015. Third-team quarterback Drew Cook redshirted in 2015 and was ready to move up the ladder. There was no reason for Stanley to see action this fall.
But when training camp hit in August, Stanley outperformed his peer group — outside of Beathard, of course. The situation presented coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis with a dilemma. They were unsure whether Stanley would sit or play until the opener against Miami of Ohio. Midway through the fourth quarter, Stanley took the field ahead of Wiegers.
“When we signed (Stanley), I told him, ‘Plan on redshirting but expect to play,'” Davis said. “What I meant was, don’t take the summer off. Work hard, he’ll probably redshirt. He just kept doing things in camp that was not freshman-like. He didn’t repeat mistakes. All the pointing that we do, all has a reason. Mentally he was on top of it.
“So we had a long discussion in August. ‘If C.J. stays healthy, is this the right thing? Is it not the right thing?’ We decided, ‘Hey, he’ll be better in the spring, if he is the No. 2 guy. He’s made great progress.”
The decision to elevate Stanley surprised Beathard.
“I knew he definitely had a lot of talent,” Beathard said. “I didn’t realize that he would be the guy who’d burn his redshirt and that. But I knew one day he was going to be good. He’s got a really strong arm. He’s really smart, he’s got good footwork and he’s a big guy. He’s a good guy. That’s another thing, he’s smart guy. Guys like him. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the spring and in the fall for those guys. It’s going to be a good battle for those three.”
With Iowa burning his redshirt, Stanley is the likely favorite to replace Beathard next year. But it’s not preordained. Davis and Ferentz have said it’s an open competition for the position. Wiegers is the trusted understudy who wears headphones on the sidelines and communicates with Davis in the coaching booth. Cook, is the son of former Iowa All-America tight end Marv Cook. While playing for his father in high school, Drew Cook led Iowa City Regina to a four consecutive Class 1A state titles.
“It will be open competition in the spring,” Davis said. “C.J.’s leaving. Both (Stanley) and (Wiegers) and Drew Cook will get some reps so it will be an open competition.”
But the numbers clearly tilt in Stanley’s favor. In addition to taking the second-team practice repetitions, he’s the only backup quarterback who played this fall. Stanley ran the Wing-T offense at Menomonie so his high school numbers weren’t sensational, but he led his team to the Wisconsin playoffs four consecutive years. Stanley, who was a member of the National Honor Society, holds schools records for passing yards (3,674) and touchdowns (36).
“He’s a bright guy, he’s got a big arm,” Davis said. “He’s got to really work on the little things that big-arm guys have to work on, and that’s anticipation, trust in your feet. He hasn’t seen a ton of blitz work yet, so those are things that we have to work on in the spring and summer.
“Nate has exceeded expectations for a freshman.”