IOWA CITY, Iowa - Spencer Petras' spiked red hair makes him look even taller than the 6-foot-5 at which he's listed on the Iowa Football roster. The 10-15 pounds of muscle he's added since arriving from California in the 2018 recruiting class tells the tale of physical maturity. He's ready for Big Ten contact.
However, it's when he speaks that you realize he understands his position. While he's still capable of light-hearted humor that led to he and receiver Nico Ragaini dressing up as characters from the movie Step Brothers at Halloween a few years ago, there's a seriousness that prevails when talking to the fourth-year junior quarterback now.
Petras knows it's his time to create a legacy. The window of opportunity stays open for a short period and can close quickly due to ineffectiveness.
He experienced bumps during '20, his first year as the Hawkeye starter. Some hiccups could be attributed to stunted development caused by the pandemic. A relatively normal offseason heading into this fall's campaign created a now-or-never scenario for Petras.
A pair of younger signal callers are seeking an opportunity should he slip up. Sophomore Alex Padilla, his good friend, looks ready to play. Redshirt freshman Deuce Hogan has backers following a tremendous Texas prep career.
It's not an unfamiliar position around here. The backup quarterbacks frequently are perceived by fans to be better than the starter.
That was the case in '08 when Ricky Stanzi replaced Jake Christensen during the season. C.J. Beathard led the program to an undefeated regular-season in '15 after supplanting two-year starter Jake Rudock.
Those examples and others across the sport have critics questioning Petras. The doubters remain despite him winning his final six starts last fall, one of only seven Iowa signal callers to do it since '71 when teams began playing 11 games a year.
Was he the only reason for the winning streak? No. But he performed well enough to claim victory. And he improved with time.
He hears the noise from inside his own fanbase and from outside of it. A few national media outlets recently ranked him among the worst starting FBS quarterbacks heading into this season.
"He handles it really well," tight end Sam LaPorta said of criticism aimed at Petras. "He has the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality where it fuels him. Sometimes you don't want to look at the things people say about you, but you still catch wind of them, and I think it fuels a lot of us, but him especially."
The key is not letting it affect you negatively. That's how the guys who have succeeded in this spot during my 24 seasons around the program approach it.
There were calls for Brad Banks' benching after the second-half collapse against Iowa State in '02, when he ended up second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Stanzi's propensity to toss interceptions, including four Pick-6s, led some folks to wonder if he was a liability during the Orange Bowl run in '09.
Most Iowa starting quarterbacks have heard calls for the backup. Put in Christensen for the ineffective Drew Tate in '06. Rudock should replace James Vandenberg in '12. Put Petras in for Nate Stanley, they said.
Petras won't admit to the the naysayers fueling his fire. He'll leave that for LaPorta to reveal. He focuses on reviews from people that matter most to him - his teammates and coaches. During the season, he removes social media from his phone.
"As the quarterback, it's my job to ride the wave and not let anything get me too high or too low," he said. "Looking at criticism or praise is a net negative. It's not going to help me even if someone thinks I'm the best."
With no pro sports teams in the state, most fans will hold an opinion of the Iowa quarterback's performance. And Petras is right. Getting wrapped up in that discussion does no good.
He must help the Hawkeyes win games. Ultimately, that's how he'll be judged. Anything short of a Big Ten West Division title for the first time since '15 is not good enough.
For Petras, that means processing plays faster. That can help in leading to better accuracy and putting receivers in position to make big plays.
The degree of difficulty starts at a high level with meetings against fellow Top 25 programs Indiana and Iowa State to start the season. How he and the team performs in those contests will go a long way in forming opinions about Petras, fair or not.
He can squash serious talk of a quarterback controversy by playing well in wins. A loss or two kicks off an uncomfortable dissection by fans and media, but more importantly, perhaps, in his own locker room.
With a big arm, a strong grasp on the playbook and dedication to work, Petras is capable of guiding a championship team. He just needs to focus on preparing for that and not the outside noise. He gets that.