QB Klassroom: Iowa QB Nate Stanley

Derrik Klassen
Iowa QB Nate Stanley vs Iowa State (9/14/2019)
  Left Outside Left Middle Right Middle Right Outside Total
20+   1/3 1/1   2/4
16-20     0/1 1/2 1/3
11-15 1/2 1/3 0/1 1/1 3/7
6-10   1/1 0/1 1/1 2/3
1-5 2/2 3/6 3/3 1/1 9/12
0 1/1 3/3 2/2   6/6
Total 4/5 9/16 6/9 4/5 23/35

Outside the Pocket: 3/6

Under Pressure: 2/5

Red Zone: 1/1

3rd/4th Down: 7/10 (5 conversions)

Forced Adjustments: 1

Nate Stanley was always going to be an NFL favorite. Tall, solid arm strength, multiple-year starter in the Big Ten — almost everyone who checks these boxes gets serious NFL attention whether they deserve it or not. Clayton Thorson and Tanner Lee are the most recent examples, but it’s a voluminous group. 

Set to be Iowa’s second consecutive QB drafted to the NFL, Stanley was tasked with maintaining the school’s current win streak over their chief rival, Iowa State. Since Matt Campbell took over the head coaching job in 2016, Iowa State have not won this game despite the program being in the best spot they’ve been in since the early 2000’s. 

Rivalry success or not, Campbell has turned around the Iowa State program in part because of his unique, forward-thinking defense. Campbell’s Cyclones run a three-down linemen defense that employs five or six defensive backs, depending on the offensive opponent. The Cyclones almost exclusively rush three defenders or send a pressure/blitz package. Rarely do they send standard four-man rushes like many teams do. In this game, Iowa State brought three pass-rushers on 18 of 35 pass attempts and brought five-or-more pass-rushers on 11 of 35 attempts. Just six of Iowa State’s plays featured a standard four-man rush against Stanley. 

Additionally, Iowa State like to come out with three safeties lined up eight-plus yards off the line of scrimmage to flood or disguise coverages in the pass-happy Big 12. TCU’s Gary Patterson does something similar, though because of how he likes to fit his fronts, one of TCU’s “safeties” often just ends up being a nickel corner. 

Between the hot/cold pass-rush sequencing and unique coverage sets, Stanley was held in check for most of the contest even though Iowa came out with the win. 

Stanley posted a milquetoast performance fit for a milquetoast rivalry. He threw no touchdowns and no interceptions, all while throwing at a 5.7 yards-per-attempt clip that barely set him over 200 yards on the day. His accuracy came in waves and his decision making reeked of someone trying to throw the game away. 

And yet, through the muck, Stanley flashed a few brilliant moments, particularly on third down, that NFL evaluators will cling to come April. It was the perfect showcase a quarterback who may not be competent at the pro level, but has just enough talent and intangible strength to earn a chance. 

As far as Stanley’s standing off the field and on the whiteboard, there is no reliable way to make a judgement from an outside position. Insights into intangibles just aren’t accessible to those outside the NFL circle. From what Stanley shows on film, though, there is an aura of confidence and serenity that showers over him on third down. 

Third down is the money down and NFL QBs must have the poise, unbridled aggression, and arm strength to convert on long third downs. It’s hard to find many winning QBs who can’t get it done when they are behind the chains on third down. Call it the “it factor,” call it moxie, call it stubbornness put to good use — Stanley isn’t afraid to go all-in when the drive is on the line. 

The following two third-down conversions shed light on Stanley’s ability to convert when it isn’t easy to, both in a common setting and uncommon setting. 

On the first play, Stanley sees Iowa State drop two of their edge players into coverage at the snap. He peeks to his right upon receiving the snap, but only to confirm that the Cyclones have three defenders over two receivers. Before even finishing his drop, Stanley works back to the left side where he knows the slant is the only option past the sticks. Stanley is a tick late getting the ball out, as is commonplace for him, but slings it to his receiver just past the sticks. With a little help from the receiver, Iowa convert on third-and-nine while backed up in their own territory. 

The second play isn’t as conventional. Third-and-22 isn’t a common situation, nor is it one any quarterback should ever be expected to convert. The handful of QBs who are a threat to do it are a headache for defensive coordinators, though. Defenses are typically playing prevent defense at the sticks, but because there is so much ground to cover, there is often a window or two that slides open for a brief moment that strong-armed passers can take advantage of. Stanley does just that on this throw, rifling the ball between three defenders and over a linebacker to give his guy a good chance for a catch past the sticks. 

This throw isn’t as far or heroic as the other two, but still serves to prove Stanley’s awareness of the sticks. On a “Kelly Mesh” concept that’s become a staple of every offense over the past half-decade, Stanley recognizes man coverage and turns to look for the first open crosser. Shallow crossers are tough for man coverage because the receivers get to take off in a full sprint while defenders have to be cautious so as to not run into a teammate. Stanley takes advantage of that principle and finds the #3 receiver (innermost) from the trips side crossing from right to left, getting it to him just in time to convert for the first down. 

On 10 third-down attempts versus Iowa State, Stanley was accurate on seven passes and converted for a first down five times. Stanley finding a way to keep the chains moving in those spots, especially considering not a whole lot else was going well for the Hawkeyes offense, was critical to Iowa eking out the victory. Granted, some of it could have been avoided if Stanley were better on standard downs, but he deserves some credit for being good at bailing himself out. 

So, about not being better on standard downs. Stanley is exasperating because he has the general baseline of someone who can work through his early reads and deliver catchable passes, but sometimes the entire process breaks down without reason. Stanley’s footwork can get sloppy from time to time, while other breakdowns can occur with Stanley locking onto a target and refusing to come off of it. 

Simple misfires like this are inexcusable. The receiver did well to get open, but Stanley was a beat late on getting the ball out and didn’t recalculate his aiming point. Stanley threw where the ball should go if the pass were out on time, but it wasn’t, so the ball ended up on the receiver’s back shoulder. Stanley didn’t finish either of his first two seasons as a starter with over 60% completion and he is barely over that mark through two easy games (Miami (OH), Rutgers) and the Iowa State game. It’s not hard to figure out why when he consistently misses throws like that. 

It’s increasingly frustrating when Stanley misses a throw he just hit a drive or a few plays before. There isn't a set of routes he struggles to hit like most inaccurate QBs do. Stanley generally isn't great in the quick game, but his issue isn’t like Lamar Jackson or Daniel Jones struggling to win outside the numbers consistently. Stanley just isn’t consistent anywhere. 

Take this out route off of play-action, for instance. The misfire is bad without any context given how open the receiver is, but it’s made more perplexing by the fact that Stanley hit this exact throw two plays earlier. Same route, same play-action principle, same wide receiver, but two different results. 

Stanley nearly made a far more egregious mistake at the end of the game, though. It was not like his typical misfire or late throw on a timing route. Those smaller mistakes, while hindering to his overall game, can be stomached. It was much, much worse. 

With about five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Iowa trailed Iowa State 17-15. The Hawkeyes offense had marched down the field in their effort to grab the game-winning score and had pulled within field goal range just outside the red zone. Whether Iowa converted on their set of downs or not, they had a good chance to win on a relatively easy field goal. Stanley tried his damnedest to throw the game away instead. 

In this clip, Iowa State send a five-man pressure package with a variation of “3 Fire Zone” coverage behind it. “3 Fire Zone” is a three-deep, three underneath coverage with five pass-rushers. It is designed to force the ball out of the QB’s hands quickly while still covering enough ground down the field and at the sticks. Stanley played right into Iowa State’s hands by tensing up against the pressure and chucking an off-balance throw deep down the middle. Iowa State’s deep safety raced over to defend the pass, tipping up between himself and two other Cyclone defenders. Somehow, someway, none of the three defenders came down with the ball, allowing Iowa’s kicking unit to come out on the next play for the go-ahead field goal. 

With five minutes left in the game, maybe Iowa could have forced a stop on Iowa State’s offense and gotten the ball back to try for another score. The point is that Stanley was saved by a swing of luck from literally throwing away Iowa’s best chance to win the game. That he got away with what he did on that play is a miracle and greatly shifts the perception Stanley got to walk away from this game with. 

Stanley’s overall performance did nothing to shift his status as a potential draft pick. Heading into the season, I wrote in a mini-profile that Stanley’s best comparison at the moment was “low-end Tom Savage.” Through three games, particularly his most trying opponent in Iowa State, Stanley has not done anything to shake that comparison in 2019. Like Savage, Stanley is immobile, plays with sloppy footwork, has a good-not-elite arm, often throws late with iffy accuracy, and will probably have his talents overstated by the NFL come draft weekend. 

If Stanley wants to prove himself a legitimate top-100 prospect, he has a long road ahead of him. The goods news is Stanley surely wouldn’t be the first QB prospect to show massive improvement over the course of their senior season. Gardner Minshew showed fantastic growth, particularly with regards to pocket presence, over the course of his final year at Washington State, for instance. With Big Ten contenders such as Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin still on the schedule, Stanley has plenty of opportunities to prove himself moving forward. Assuming history is a proper guide, however, Stanley will continue to waddle in mediocrity and be rewarded for it by the NFL.