Four Downs -- The Quarterbacks (spring edition)

Expect Rudock to be QB 1, but Beathard's upside worth a look

Published: February 25 2014 | 11:48 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:06 am in

QUICK LOOK BACK: Year 2 of offensive coordinator Greg Davis' offense was much more palatable.

First, quarterback Jake Rudock threw 18 TD passes. In '12, the Hawkeyes had seven. Yards per attempt -- the stat that basically tells you if it's worth it for your team to throw the ball -- was up dramatically in 2013. Rudock checked in with a 6.9 yards per attempt, a full yard better than James Vandenberg's 5.8 in '12, which is the low YPA for a QB in the Kirk Ferentz era.

The difference? Rudock was steadier in the pocket. Rudock hung with pass plays longer and climbed the pocket well for a first-year starter. Iowa ran the ball better (and more) in '13, that didn't hurt. Iowa ran more plays in 2013 than it ever had during the Ferentz era (913).

The biggest difference was wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy. He spent seven seasons serving as wide receivers coach when Davis was the offensive coordinator at Texas. Iowa receivers were asked to make post-snap reads. In 2012, those were unplugged. Iowa's receivers were closer to reacting than thinking last season.

Individually, Rudock, now a junior, showed toughness and leadership, completing 204 of 346 (59 percent) for 2,383 yards, 18 TDs and 13 interceptions. He couldn't finish three games because of knee sprains. Sophomore C.J. Beathard finished when Rudock couldn't. Beathard's numbers weren't great (he completed just nine passes), but his playmaking and upside are worth exploring.

FOURTH DOWN — CRITICAL QUESTIONS: Did Iowa get enough out of the quarterback position?

That's always going to be a question, but in '14 it comes to the fore when you take a look at what Rudock will have to work with. Left tackle Brandon Scherff is a probably first-round NFL draft pick. Iowa returns its top three running backs and eight of its top 10 pass catchers. This season sets up well for Iowa as far as returning starters and favorable schedule go.

Is there a competition? In the postgame of the Outback Bowl, Beathard said he was told by coaches that it was a competition.

On signing day, Ferentz said, "C.J. still has some catching up to do. Jake has really accelerated. The one thing we didn't know about either of the guys was their physical toughness. Jake certainly proved that. . . ." And, "Every position on our football team will be open when we get going in the spring [March 26] . The guys know that. They've been told that. That's just how it works. This is a competitive exercise."

Let's not go as far to say that it's "open." Maybe the position is "ajar."

Rudock's health? Your last '13 snapshot of Rudock is him on a stationary bike trying to loosen a sprained knee in the Outback Bowl. It was just a sprain, the same knee he sprained in the season finale at Nebraska. He sprained the other knee against Wisconsin. Rudock said after the bowl he didn't think he needed surgery. Ferentz confirmed that on signing day. Rudock should be good to go for spring.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Redshirt freshman Nic Shimonek is in this year. He might not see the field. Let's assume he begins No. 4 on the depth chart this spring, behind Rudock, Beathard and senior Cody Sokol. It's a healthy depth chart that probably leaves a redshirt freshman running scout team. (Who knows how repetitions will go, you would think a No. 4 might pull a couple with the first team.)

Let's not take Shimonek's prospects for '14 any farther than that. He's likely not seeing the field.

Tyler Wiegers will round out Iowa's collection of five scholarship quarterbacks. Is that the most at a given time in the Ferentz era? Yes, it is. Last season, Iowa had four (Rudock, Beathard, Sokol and Shimonek).

Here's Wiegers on the outlook for the pro-style quarterback (Iowa has stockpiled five on scholarship and one commitment for 2015, all pro-style QBs):  “I don’t think it means ‘unathletic,’” said Wiegers, who completed 122 of 192 pass attempts for 2,093 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. “I guess a lot of that is associated with it, a guy not being able to run.

“It’s been a stereotype that’s undeserving, because there are a lot of guys who can still be athletic. I don’t see me busting a 50-yard run, but I think a pro-style guy is more of a guy who’s going to be in the pocket, managing the game and getting the ball to his playmakers, looking more to distribute the ball, get it out to the playmakers and let them make the plays than try to make a big play.”

Wiegers is not a candidate for playing time in '14. Well, unless Rudock, Beathard, Sokol and Shimonek get hurt. If that happens, we'll have quite a story on our hands and let me beat you to the punch: Angry Iowa Quarterback Hating God (AIQHG).

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: I'm not going nuts over Rudock v. Beathard (well, except for this particular post). I don't think there's much if anything to it. That doesn't mean I'm going to ignore it.

Yes, Beathard said there would be competition after the Outback.

“From what I hear it is,” said Beathard, when asked about the prospect of an open QB competition this spring. “We’ll see.”

And, on signing day, Ferentz said there would be competition. He also said Rudock showed proven toughness (and he did). That's gigantic praise from Ferentz, who's centered the Iowa program on the word "toughness" and its far-reaching meanings (basically, you know it when you see it).

So, Rudock will go into his junior year with eight wins on his resume and Beathard looking over his shoulder.

Rudock, who finished the season with 18 TD passes and 13 interceptions, faced a competition in August and is cool if it plays out that way. He has a list of things he wants to work on.

“Obviously turnovers, that’s a big thing,” Rudock said. “That stuff you want to clean up. Quick decision-making. A better understanding of what the defense is trying to do. Little things that could help elevate the game.”

So, at least verbally, the door is ajar. Iowa was muscled out of its skin in a few games last season and the passing game couldn't pull it out of the nosedive (Michigan State, Wisconsin, LSU). Beathard showed mental growth with a run check at Nebraska that helped set up a late TD.

So . . . you can't ignore the possibilities even though probability stares you in the face.

Beathard has an upside. You've seen the arm. He's shown some athleticism. Early in '13, Iowa defensive end Dominic Alvis said Beathard's zone-read game was among the best he's tried to defend. But I'm going to stop there. I'm not making a case for Beathard, but I do believe competition is the most efficient way players improve. Rudock needs to improve, he acknowledged that.

Rudock also helped guide the Hawkeyes to eight wins. His cerebral game is untouchable. (Could you imagine being in a competition with Rudock where intelligence was maybe 50 percent of the deciding factor? I would imagine he's vicious. I wouldn't even want to play Words with Friends against him.)

Expect Rudock to be Iowa's starter in '14. Also, you should expect Iowa's staff to honestly pursue Beathard's upside. That will be the healthiest approach for the position and the team. That's what Iowa needs.

FIRST DOWN — SPRING AND BEYOND: Let's assume Rudock and see where it goes.

It's easy to write "Rudock is smart," but what does that mean to Iowa football specifically?

“There’s sometimes book smart and football smart,” Greg Davis said. “They don’t always coincide, but in his case it did. We started the season with some easier things. As the season has gone on, he’s handled more and more and more.”

Compared to 2012, everyone seemed to be on the same page last season.

“You can’t always walk up there and run the play,” Rudock said. “I know there are a lot of offenses out there that do that and they’ve had success.

“Our offense is a little bit different. You have to see what they’re doing, see what you can possibly get them on or just get those 3 yards rather than one.”

Rudock is a triggerman in every sense of the word. He calls the checks and is given a plethora of options on most plays. Rudock has structure and tools, but he’s also handed a gameplan on a weekly basis and told to make it work.

“He does a ton at the line of scrimmage,” Davis said. “Run-to-pass, pass-to-run. Run this side, run that side. Part of that is how smart he is and then, you hate to say that without talking about how much he works at it, too. You can be smart, but watching film on his own . . .

“I tell them all the time, there’s no way because we’re not pro football players that I can watch as much [film] as I’d like to with you, so you’ve got to do that on your own. He’s done a great job of doing that.

“Quarterbacks like a lot on their plate. It’s fun to give it to them when they can handle it.”

Iowa was able to run a no-huddle tempo and increased average plays per game from 66 in ’12 to 72.

“Sometimes, it’s tougher game planning, you can’t just go, ‘On 1, here we go, let’s snap the ball,’” Rudock said. “At the same time, that’s what the pros are doing. That’s what [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady is doing. Not to compare myself to Tom Brady at all. It’s what the professional guys do. They have to walk up and make all these calls."

-- Iowa needs to be better in explosive pass plays. That is one part of Davis' vision that remains unrealized. Iowa finished 99th in the nation with 91 pass plays of 10-plus yards (tie for 85th with 34 20-plus).

"We were much close [this year], especially in big games," Davis said. "That's something we need to work on and be aware of."

In 2011 -- Ken O'Keefe's last season as Iowa's OC -- the Hawkeyes finished 48th with 124 10-plus pass plays. In 2010, Iowa was 39th with 123. This is the difference between horizontal and vertical. That's what Iowa is still working on.

"You want to give the receivers a call they can use after the catch," Davis said. "You're going to get the vertical game typically out of play-action and things like that, when you draw the defense forward and have a chance to go vertical. At the same time, you've got to be able to make explosive plays with the drop-back game.

"A lot of times, those come when the defense is dispersed and you get underneath and you get a catch-run situation."

Iowa does need more out of quarterback. And wide receiver. And running back. Iowa has loaded up on potentially explosive (but under-recruited) players in the last two classes (Andre Harris, Derrick Mitchell, Jonathan Parker, Akrum Wadley, Derrick Willies, Jalen Embry, Josh Jackson, Marcel Joly, Jay Scheel, Omar Truitt). Let's see if any of them hit and put some explosion in the passing game.

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