August 1, 2008

Countdown to Camp: Position Battle #1

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Hawkeye Football in the last year that quarterback is the top spot in our position battles heading into the start of fall camp next week. Even the most casual observer of Iowa Football seems to have a strong opinion on who should be under center in 2008. We take an in-depth look at the position and try to figure out who will be the starter when the season gets underway.

Quarterback Depth Chart

Jake Christensen (6-foot-1 and 215 pound junior) or Ricky Stanzi (6-foot-4 and 225 pound sophomore), Marvin McNutt (6-foot-4 and 210 pound redshirt freshman)

A Look Back

In his first season as the starting quarterback at Iowa, Jake Christensen took his lumps and the Hawkeye offense struggled most of the way. Depending on your viewpoint, it was either all Christensen's fault or it was a combination of issues on the offensive side of the ball that led to the issues with consistency.

Last year, Christensen completed was 198-370 in the passing game, which is a completion rate of 53.5%, and he threw for 2,269 yards. While his completion percentage wasn't outstanding, Christensen threw only six interceptions and connected on 17 touchdown passes. He was also sacked 46 times. Some of those can be attributed to his decision-making, but the vast majority were due to poor pass blocking by the offensive line.

Ricky Stanzi saw action in two games last year, Syracuse and Purdue. He did not complete a pass in four attempts, but he did have one interception.

A Look Ahead

Since the awful loss to Western Michigan, which denied Iowa a bowl game opportunity, the hottest on the field type topic among Iowa fans has been the quarterback position.

This spring, Coach Ferentz made it clear that it was an open competition and that meant Christensen would be pushed and Stanzi and McNutt would get their opportunity with plenty of reps in practice. Coming out of spring drills, it appeared to be pretty even between Christensen and Stanzi and that is reflected in the depth chart as fall drills get underway.

But, Stanzi's appearance on the field may be slightly delayed due to an injury to his throwing shoulder, which could keep him on the sidelines for the first week or two of camp. While some might assume that means Christensen will get the starting nod essentially by default, that doesn't place enough value on Stanzi's ability. When he gets healthy enough to return to a full workload, he will get a fair shot to impress the coaching staff.

While some fans have already made up their minds, it is too early to throw Christensen overboard and simply look for the next man in. Clearly he was rattled at times in games and it was reflected in his numbers this past season. However, he was playing behind an offensive line that struggled and he was missing the leading receiver from the previous year (Dominique Douglas) and he lost two of his main targets, Andy Brodell and Tony Moeaki, in the 4th game of the season. While Christensen missed the mark on some passes, he probably saw an equal amount of them dropped by young receivers during the year.

Regardless of who lines up under center to start against Maine and the rest of the opponents during the 2008 campaign, that person will have a chance to improve if they get better protection, fewer dropped passes, and improved route running.

Will McNutt be a factor in the quarterback sweepstakes? Based on this spring, he is still a work in progress and he would have had to make a pretty big leap to be considered a serious contender.

A Prediction

It is a time honored tradition in football that the most popular person on campus every year is the backup quarterback and Iowa fans are no different. There is certainly room to debate who will start the season under center, but it appears that quite a few fans have already made up their mind about Christensen and his future. Some are taking a wait and see approach, while other have already decided that they have seen enough and simply have the desire to see someone else at quarterback.

Barring injury, the conventional wisdom is that Christensen will get the first chance against Maine. That may not be what some fans want to read or hear, but he deserves a shot behind what is hopefully an improved offensive line. Before some get too upset with that prediction, the feeling is that Stanzi will get snaps early on to show what he can do when the bullets are flying, so to speak.

From there, it will be up to Christensen to show more consistency in his throws. He has a terrific grasp of the game and understands how to read defenses, but he simply had to connect on more throws this year and in turn lead the team on more sustained drives. Last season, Iowa only converted 32% of the time on 3rd down and that rate is not going to win your team many games.

Last year, Coach Ferentz indicated that Stanzi was not ready, but this year he is. If Christensen falters early on and the other factors, offensive line specifically, have shown improvement, then look for Stanzi to get his shot.

A Wildcard

The buzz this summer has been that two true freshman quarterbacks, James Vandenberg and John Wienke, have hit the ground running. It should be noted that informal summer workouts with quarterbacks and receivers are nothing like official practices, so there is a hill yet to climb.

Both rookie signal callers spent a good deal of time in Iowa City this summer learning the playbook and getting comfortable with the receiving targets. While Coach Ferentz has indicated several times that he just doesn't see a true freshman quarterback coming in and winning the job in camp, one or both could make a serious run at the back-up position. That scenario played out in 2003, when Drew Tate emerged as the back-up to Nathan Chandler out of camp, so it in not without precedent.

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