IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nathan Stanley poses for photos at Iowa football media day looking the part of a Big Ten quarterback. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder with a cannon for an arm and surprising athleticism for a guy his size can make all the throws and keep plays alive with his feet.
It appeared the second-year sophomore from Wisconsin would take the reins once C.J. Beathard exhausted his eligibility last fall. He’d won the backup job ahead of Tyler Wiegers, who was the No. 2 in ’15.
That didn’t happened, at least not yet. Coach Kirk Ferentz announced in January that Stanley and Wiegers, a junior, would compete for the starting gig. Into the second week of camp, the race remained too close for the coaches to call.
“I knew there was going to be competition between Tyler and I and even the other quarterbacks,” Stanley said. “I just kind of realized that it could go one of two ways. I either win the starting job or I don’t. You just have to continue to take the right path and do all you can to try to win it. But I knew there would definitely be competition.”
While position coach Ken O’Keefe still tutors him on improving his footwork and in other technical aspects of quarterback, it could be something else keeping Stanley from separating himself from the group. He’s pushing himself out of his comfort zone of being a quiet guy into a place where he can lead vocally.
“It does not really come natural to me. I’m kind of a shy guy and not really that outspoken,” he said. “But I guess if you continue to come to work everyday, your teammates will see that and respect you and respect your opinion and then at that point you can become more of a vocal leader. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
O’Keefe is encouraging growth in the area. The veteran coach knows from experience that it’s necessary for success at the position.
“He’s really good at having us pick out one thing each day to work on. Most of time for me that’s just trying to be a better leader overall for the team. A big part of being a quarterback is just trying to be a great leader for the team. He’s really big on trying to get us to grow in that aspect as well,” Stanley said.
Stanley can lean on his experience as Beathard’s backup as an example of where he needs to be. Beathard is a tough guy, capable of taking a hit (a lot of them, actually), but he also commands a huddle. His ability to do so, at least in part, comes from human connection.
“He was a great leader on and off the field because of building a relationships with his teammates off the field. Again, I’m a quiet guy, kind of a shy guy, so just really building a relationship with my teammates off the field really helps carry over to on-the-field success,” Stanley said.
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Stanley said he’s coming out of his shell. He’s encouraging teammates vocally during practice, complimenting them for good plays and helping when they have questions.
“I’m just trying to build everybody up,” he said.
The coaches believed in Stanley’s leadership ability while recruiting him from Menomonie (WI) High. A member of the National Honor Society, he started for four years on the school’s football, basketball and baseball teams. As a senior on the gridiron, he passed for 1,728 yards and 16 touchdowns against just four interceptions and averaged 44.9 yards per punt.
Stanley credits his coaches in all three sports for preparing him to play as a true freshman. He also acknowledged the strong values instilled in him by his parents, Donita and Jay Stanley. Jay coached the offensive line for Menomonie High.
“He was pretty tough on me and my siblings growing up. My parents really helped me realize that anything can happen if you come in and work as hard as you can so just be ready for anything and do the best you can with it,” Stanley said.
He received his first significant chance when Beathard took a hit that forced him off the field during the third quarter of the team’s Week 3 game against North Dakota State. It was tied at 14-14 with the Hawkeyes on their own 37.
Stanley calmly entered the contest and threw a 37-yard strike to George Kittle on the first play. After Akrum Wadley was held without a gain on the second play, Stanley connected with Kittle again for eight yards. Beathard recovered to finish the drive with a nine-yard scoring pass to Matt VandeBerg.
“It was kind of crazy. I was expecting coach (Greg) Davis to call a run play and they called a play-action play,” Stanley said of his first snap in the game. “It was a great play call and all the credit to him for making that call. We practiced it and just came out and executed it.”
The situation prepared Stanley for his future. Even if he doesn’t win the quarterback competition this month, he learned the story doesn’t end there.
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“Anything can happen at any point. You have to be ready to play at any point. Hopefully everybody on the team has that same mindset that they’re maybe one play away, one injury away from playing and that everybody just continues to push themselves in practice like that,” he said.
Stanley said he was surprised to win the backup job last August, but he’s taken that same approach into trying to win the starting job this summer.
He likes that he has to compete for the job and it wasn’t handed to him after last season.
“Competition breeds success. Maybe for some people it’s a wake-up call,” he said.
It helps that he enjoys going against Wiegers. They’re trying to push each other in hopes of giving the Hawkeyes the best chance to win.
“It’s definitely a friendly competition. We’re great friends on and off the field. We definitely help each other. That’s all you can ask for is to have somebody that’s a friend that you can compete with and get better,” Stanley said.