IOWA CITY — The key to James Vandenberg’s future is letting go of the past.
But that’s not a problem for the former Iowa quarterback. He graduated last year with a degree in integrated physiology. He eyes a possible career in medicine, like his father, Toby, a doctor in West Burlington. But the medical field is his second option. His first begins this weekend.
Vandenberg, who stands 6-foot-2 1/2 and weighs 225 pounds, hopes to extend his football career. The NFL conducts its seven-round draft through Saturday, and Vandenberg likely won’t see his name attached to any team. But afterward, each club inks around 20 players as undrafted free agents. That’s where Vandenberg expects to earn his opportunity.
“You just want somebody to like you and give you a chance,” Vandenberg said this week. “I feel like if I’m given that chance, I’ll be just fine. That’s all you can ask for.
“What I’m looking for is just a little bit of finality in this process. It’s such a game of poker where you don’t know what’s going on and so to finally figure what the cards are this Friday, Saturday, will be nice.”
A year ago, nobody thought they’d write that Vandenberg hopes for a free-agent opportunity. It seemed an easy bet he’d earn at least mid-round consideration. But that was before an unrivaled collapse his senior season.
Vandenberg, 23, entered his senior year as the Big Ten’s best pro prospect at quarterback. And why not? Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards as a junior, fourth-most in Iowa history. His 25 touchdowns rank third, and 13 of the scores surpassed 20 yards.
He engineered the greatest comeback in Iowa history, bringing the Hawkeyes back from a 21-point, second-half deficit to beat Pittsburgh 31-27. He completed 14 of 17 passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one of the best 15-minute performances by a college football quarterback. He finished with 399 yards and earned Big Ten offensive player of the week honors.
But those days seem etched in a record book under some other player’s name in a different era. Iowa’s offense took a dramatic and horrific step backward. Iowa ranked 102nd or worse nationally in four primary categories – yards per game (102nd, 187.4), touchdowns (121st, 7), passer rating (115th, 107.72) and yards per attempt (116th, 5.8). Iowa rated anywhere from 34th to 59th in any of those categories his junior season.
Iowa changed offensive coordinators between Vandenberg’s junior and senior seasons. Greg Davis’ new scheme featured shorter routes designed for athletes on the perimeter to make plays in space. Vandenberg’s assets include arm strength and accuracy, neither of which was on display.
Vandenberg’s numbers, inexplicably, faltered. He became the fall guy for fans with both his decision-making and the fall in production. Iowa fell to 4-8, the school’s worst record since 2000. He passed for 2,249 yards and seven touchdowns while taking every snap.
“Certainly the season didn’t go the way any of us wanted,” Vandenberg said. “I take as much responsibility as anybody else. As a whole we didn’t do enough to win games. Obviously people are going to look at the quarterback, the head coach, the new offensive coordinator. That just comes with the territory.
“I won’t sugar-coat it. Obviously I’m very disappointed. I have a pretty high standard. It was tough as times.”
It wasn’t all Vandenberg’s fault, offensive coordinator Greg Davis said.
“It’s as much my fault as any player’s,” Davis admitted this week. “I’m sure I could have done a better job. I’m sure I could have done a better job with James. He is a better player than he played last year.”
Vandenberg took all the bullets in media interviews. He accepted almost all the blame. He didn’t discuss the improper route adjustments or any calls that he didn’t like. Often he repeated his answers to multiple reporters but never displayed fatigue or anger. To his teammates, that showed leadership.
“He didn’t let anything bother him,” former Iowa wide receiver Keenan Davis said. “Anytime he got down, he was the first person to go fix it. Every time during practice and we’d miss something, he’d be the first person to say, ‘Hey let’s get this after practice.’ He’s a leader, and I really commend him for taking a lot of scrutiny from fans and sometimes the hard times with coaches and he took it like a man. He tried to make it better. All of us still consider him a leader. We all trust him.”
But it wasn’t easy. Iowa finished the year with six straight losses. A play that symbolized Iowa’s season came against Purdue. With the score tied at 24-24 and only 21 seconds left, the Hawkeyes faced fourth-and-3 at the Purdue 35. Four Iowa receivers ran patterns, none farther than five yards. Three were covered. The only open option was tight end Zach Derby in the right flat. Vandenberg found him at the 35, but Derby couldn’t extend past the 34. Purdue stormed down the field and kicked a last-second field goal to win the game.
In the season finale against Nebraska, the Hawkeyes focused on the perimeter throughout the second half. There were few dig, post or slant routes, all of which Vandenberg threw with authority as a junior. Often those intermediate passes were to record-setting receiver Marvin McNutt.
“I never even thought about that,” Vandenberg said. “Obviously philosophies changed a little bit from one system to the other. We changed the way we did things a little bit. I never really thought about that. I bought in fully and I was going to do as Coach Davis coached, and I really enjoyed his offense. It was different. It wasn’t the same. We also didn’t have Marv this year.”
He finished seventh in career yards (5,786) and touchdowns (35) at Iowa. But it always seemed he was capable of more. His first start sent his stock soaring with a performance of the ages. As a freshman, he replaced an injured Ricky Stanzi at Ohio State in a game to decide the outright Big Ten champion. Vandenberg completed 20 of 33 passes for 233 yards and a pair of scores, but the Hawkeyes fell short 27-24 in overtime.
Then with the Pittsburgh comeback, a Michigan upset and a high-caliber junior season, everything seemed set for a solid senior season. But the offense fell apart, and Vandenberg felt the criticism.
“That was something that never really bothered me,” he said. “I had five great years at Iowa. Certainly the last year didn’t go as planned, but it certainly doesn’t change at all the way I think about my career, Coach (Kirk) Ferentz or the program in general.”
Vandenberg used the off-season to unwind and then prepare for the next level. He spent time in his hometown of Keokuk and trained with Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle. He received a warm welcome from the Polk County I-Club this week, but he’s mostly stayed out of the limelight.
“I guess it’s totally different not being a player anymore,” Vandenberg said. “I already feel out of the loop. I don’t know what’s going on in spring ball. Maybe it’s better that way.”
“It’s almost surreal how much extra time I’ve had.”
Now it’s about redemption. Or maybe it’s resurrection. He’s no longer a student and has focused on football since Iowa’s season ended. He’s bulked up to 225 pounds. He’s spent the off-season working on fundamentals, speed and strength. He competed in the Raycom All-Star Classic in Montgomery, Ala., and was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, where he fired passes at 57 m.p.h., third fastest among quarterbacks.
Vandenberg met with several teams in Indianapolis where he spent several days throwing to running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. Many of the conversations with NFL officials centered on how he processes information.
“I feel very fortunate,” he said. “I come from two completely different offenses. Whether people in the NFL were a number system or people in the NFL use a verbage system, I’ve had both of them. So going from team to team, I was comfortable with those systems because I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to both of them.”
It might be enough to get him a shot.
“He’s got the arm strength, he’s got the size, he’s got the intellect …,” said Dan Shonka, national scout and general manager of Ourlads Scouting Services. “Somebody will bring him into camp for sure for his arm.”
He’s also got spunk. He’s got fire. He’s got toughness, durability, a live arm, size and tenacity. He remains the same player who talked often smack to Colts linebacker and former Iowa teammate Pat Angerer, who then promptly locked him up in a choke hold. It’s the same player who laughed as former Iowa teammate Tyler Sash sobbed when Vandenberg’s high school squad ended Sash’s prep football career. Vandenberg even rubbed it in by showing Sash a newspaper clipping that displayed Sash in tears.
He killed a bear with a bow and arrow, for crying out loud. Do you think he’s going to fold after a bad season? Not yet, not now.
“I think I’m natural leader,” he said. “I think I’m pretty intelligent. I really think I can learn as fast as anybody. I think I’m an accurate passer.
“Whenever it does end — which who knows when it will — I’ll be able to move on.”
“I’m ready to shock some people.”