IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nathan Stanley has a reputation of not saying much around his Iowa teammates. But when Stanley needs to raise his voice, his high school coach said the quarterback had no problem doing so.
“On the court, on the field, on the baseball field, he’s very vocal and commands leadership and commands respect from his team,” said Joe LaBuda, football coach at Menomonie (Wis.) High School. “Off the field, he’s very humble and very quiet. You’ll never hear him brag about himself.”
Stanley, a sophomore, continues to compete with junior Tyler Wiegers for Iowa’s starting quarterback position, which should conclude by Monday. If Stanley wins the job, it’s another step in his life as a sports prodigy. He has spent his life competing and excelling against older athletes. At age 19, Stanley has a chance to do it again in the Big Ten.
LaBuda’s son, Jace, graduated a year after Stanley and the two grew up playing sports together. LaBuda coached both in youth baseball and Stanley “was so far ahead of the other kids.” That continued in basketball when Stanley would play with eighth-graders when he was in fifth grade.
But it was in high school when Stanley made his mark in Menomonie, a town of about 16,000 located an hour east of St. Paul, Minn. A good-sized high school with an enrollment around 1,000, Menomonie is a place where freshmen rarely play beyond their grade level. Stanley was different, however.
“He started as a freshman on the basketball team, which is unheard of,” LaBuda said. “He was the second-leading scorer as a freshman. He started on the varsity football team as a freshman, which is unheard of. He was our punter as a freshman. He started on the varsity baseball team and pitched as a freshman. We’ve got schools in our league up to 1,900 kids and freshmen don’t ever get on the field in varsity. As a sophomore, he was already all-conference in the three sports.”
Stanley, who is 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, excelled in all three sports. He could throw 90 mph as a pitcher. He set the Menomonie scoring record with 1,350 points in basketball and was named the Big Rivers Conference player of the year. Colleges looked at him in baseball and basketball as well as football. In fact, the other sports made him a better football player.
“I think it just helps you build confidence, in competition,” Stanley said. “Just to be a competitor the whole year really helps you when you get into tough situations. So to have that consistent competition helped a lot.”
Stanley’s father, Jay, is LaBuda’s offensive line coach and from age 5 on up, Nathan helped Menomonie in any capacity. By the time he was a freshman in high school, LaBuda brought up Stanley to varsity and he averaged 44 yards a punt. As a sophomore, Stanley started as the varsity quarterback. Menomonie ran a multiple offense but incorporated longer passing routes for Stanley’s arm. LaBuda said Stanley sometimes threw the ball 70 yards down the field.
“I’ve been doing this year for 30 years in both Florida and Wisconsin,” said LaBuda, who is 287-53 in 28 seasons at Menomonie. “I have never seen a high school kid that has a stronger arm than he does. Bar none. I coached against some really good quarterbacks in high school in Florida.
“We’ve never had a high school quarterback throw it that far before and probably won’t afterward. So we had a lot more vertical routes on the field to take a shot at things because of his arm strength.”
Nathan Stanley’s recruitment
Growing up in central Wisconsin, Stanley attracted attention from several schools after his sophomore season. Along with Iowa, Big Ten foes Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois looked at him as well as Pittsburgh, who then was led by Paul Chryst. Stanley’s 3.95 grade-point-average also led Stanford to come calling.
Both of Stanley’s parents attended Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and his mother has family in the state. So familiarity with Iowa aided the Hawkeyes. But how linebackers coach and primary recruiter Seth Wallace and coach Kirk Ferentz worked at Stanley was what convinced him to commit.
“They didn’t paint a picture that wasn’t there,” LaBuda said. “[Ferentz] didn’t promise him anything coming in. Some of the guys would tell him, ‘Hey, I see you starting after his year.’ Nate saw through some of that stuff. He was looking for a great education and [Iowa coaches] talked to him about the things that he was looking for, what was in his major, physical therapy thing. They understood that he wasn’t just a kid who was about football. He loved the game but was also thinking about the future and wasn’t going to go to a place that didn’t have his major. I think they recruited the whole person.”
Wisconsin, which was led by former coach Gary Andersen, did not recruit Stanley, who committed to Iowa in November 2014. Chryst, a former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, still was coaching at Pittsburgh. A month later, Chryst was named coach at Wisconsin. Among his first recruiting targets was Stanley, who previously traveled to Pittsburgh on an unofficial visit. Stanley wouldn’t budge on his Iowa commitment.
“Coach Chryst did his best, and he’s a great recruiter,” LaBuda said. “Had he been here when Nate was a sophomore, I think it would have been tough for Iowa to get him out of here. But the timing was right and Coach Wallace and Coach Ferentz did a great job recruiting him.”
Nathan Stanley the quarterback
By the time Stanley finished at Menomonie, he held school records for passing yards (3,674) and touchdown passes (36). He was injured for part of his junior season, but he helped the team advance to the playoffs four straight years.
At Iowa, Stanley initially thought he would redshirt. But midway through camp in 2016, he pushed Wiegers, who was the backup. Stanley didn’t repeat mistakes and made plays. By the season opener against Miami of Ohio, Stanley earned the No. 2 slot.
He played in 7 games and completed 5 of 9 passes for 62 yards. He briefly replaced injured starter C.J. Beathard against North Dakota State and on his first play, Stanley hit tight end George Kittle for a 37-yard pass. It appeared Stanley would replace Beathard as the starter for 2017, but offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Greg Davis retired in January. Iowa’s staff opted to open up the competition rather than anoint Stanley as Beathard’s successor.
Throughout the spring, summer and now fall camp, Stanley and Wiegers remain embroiled in a close competition. As of Tuesday, neither Kirk Ferentz nor offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz had an update.
“As far as what we’re looking for to manage the offense and do the things we’re going to ask them to do, both guys are extremely capable,” Brian Ferentz said. “It’s just going to come down to what’s best for the team.”
It’s also on quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe, who served as Iowa’s offensive coordinator from 1999 through 2011, to help determine the starter.
“He’s a smart guy, a sharp guy, he’s analytical from that standpoint,” O’Keefe said of Stanley. “He’s kind of a quiet guy as well. But he’s very good in what he does as far as learning what needs to be learned and takes coaching very well.”
O’Keefe focused on Stanley’s footwork and wanted him to make quicker decisions. Those traits showed up in a team scrimmage on Aug. 12, when Stanley threw 3 touchdown passes.
Stanley has other areas of which he wants to continue learning.
“Definitely grasping the offensive concepts and stuff with a new offense coming in,” Stanley said. “It was not starting from scratch but starting from day one pretty much with a lot of the passing concepts and some of the run stuff.”
Along with Stanley’s work ethic and talent, LaBuda said the quarterback’s character sets him apart.
“He is about as affable of a young man as you’ll ever find,” LaBuda said. “He’s never going to fall to peer pressure. He’s a kid that’s always going to do what’s right and not what many people think is popular. He will not budge on his ethical standards. He’s a great Christian young man. He’s a kid that you will never have to worry about getting in trouble because he has ethical standards.”