There is no tenure when you play football for the University of Iowa or any other major college football program.
You get no free ride based on longevity. In order to win that starting position, you have to earn it and in order to keep it, you have to stay ahead of others competing for the same starting job.
From the sound bites emanating from spring drills in Iowa City, James Vandenberg has won that race to become the starting quarterback replacing Ricky Stanzi, who hopes to begin a career in the NFL.
But being the new leader of the Iowa offense has inherent risks.
It is not that James Vandenberg hasn’t been tested under fire—he has. When Ricky Stanzi went down with a high ankle sprain in the second quarter of the Northwestern game in November of 2009, Vandenberg, as a redshirt freshman, stepped into the pocket.
His first pass was picked off. That had to sting a bit.
Iowa lost that game against Northwestern in 2009, their first loss of the season.
But Vandenberg learned from his early miscues about what it takes to be a success as the Iowa quarterback.
Although there will be many new faces populating Iowa’s starting offense, you cannot overlook the fact that Vandenberg will also stand behind an experienced offensive line, which is a key to his success.
It may take a game or two, but Vandenberg’s ability to succeed is greatly enhanced by the Iowa guys up front who spent 2010 learning how it was done.
The offensive line will give Vandenberg time to settle in the pocket and find his receivers downfield.
Also aiding him in the backfield are experienced receivers Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis.
After completing another stellar year, there was no doubt that McNutt would be the Iowa starter in 2011 at wide receiver.
McNutt's shoulder surgery during the offseason, however, meant that the senior missed spring practice. He is expected to fully recover and be ready to roll in September.
In 2010, McNutt hauled in 53 receptions for 861 yards and eight touchdowns. His average reception was 16.2 yards last year.
There are definitely some holes to fill in the receiving corps. Keenan Davis will undoubtedly step up in 2011.
Allen Reisner—the Hawkeyes starting tight end in 2010—has departed, leaving Brad Hermanas as Iowa's probable starting tight end.
While Herman did not see a lot of action in 2010, he managed nine receptions for 154 yards.
The experience of the receiving corps will be a great advantage in 2011 for new QB Vandenberg.
While it felt like Iowa lost valuable personnel in the backfield in terms of running backs, it is a great positive to announce that the Iowa starting running back slot will be filled by Marcus Coker.
As a true freshman, Coker was finally pushed into the limelight, starting with the Michigan State game when Adam Robinson was injured and could not play.
Coker proved right away that he had the strength and stamina to do the job.
For the season, Coker ended with 622 rushing yards and 23 receiving yards, scoring three touchdowns during the 2010 campaign.
The freshman saw plenty of action during Iowa's victory at the Insight Bowl, running for 219 yards in 33 carries. He was named the MVP on offense at the Insight Bowl.
Coker offers Iowa much promise for the 2011 season.
If Vandenberg is very lucky, Coker will prove to be the kind of running back that Shonn Greene was for new starter Ricky Stanzi back in 2008.
In the aftermath following the injury to Iowa's quarterback in the Northwestern game in 2009, Stanzi was out for the rest of the regular season. That meant that Vandenberg would lead the Hawkeyes into Columbus to face the Ohio State Buckeyes for a piece of the Big Ten championship.
Iowa lost that game in overtime to the Buckeyes, who came away with a 27-24 win over the Hawkeyes and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
But Vandenberg delivered the goods when necessary with Iowa trailing 24-10 with just 11 minutes left on the clock. He brought the Hawkeyes back to level the score.
In overtime, Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes could not move the ball and on a fourth-down pass, Vandenberg was picked off to end the game.
The Hawkeyes, however, won their last regular-season game by defeating the Gophers 12-0 under Vandenberg’s leadership. Vandenberg gained valuable playing experience and earned the respect of his teammates.
In all, Vandenberg completed 31 of 57 passes for 350 yards, including two touchdowns during those last two games.
The 2010 season, on the other hand, allowed Vandenberg few opportunities to build his quarterbacking resume with five of eight passes for 45 yards in the three games where Vandenberg saw action.
So just what will it take for this junior quarterback to come in and ensure success for the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2011 beyond his playing experience?
When Ricky Stanzi stepped into the pocket for the Iowa Hawkeyes, no one on the team doubted that the quarterback knew what he was doing at all times.
The quarterback is, after all, the leader on any football team.
Even though it is a team sport with 11 guys on the field at all times, if you had to choose the guy who is responsible for his team’s success week after week, it would be the quarterback.
This is mainly because he is the only player on offense—other than the center—who touches the ball on every down or offensive play.
Secondly, the quarterback calls the shots. He is the one making the instantaneous decisions on the field.
It is true that these days, the coaching staff generally decides the next play. The quarterback, however, has to use his judgment and make a quick assessment about whether that play will actually work with the current defensive alignment. Or, he makes a last-second adjustment with an audible if he makes a different call.
As a former Mr. Football in the State of Iowa, Vandenberg was the most prolific passer in the history of Iowa high school football.
Add that to Vandenberg's early experience being thrust into the starting role when Stanzi went down in 2009.
Moreover, Vandenberg was on hand to observe Stanzi’s development as a Big Ten quarterback firsthand from the sidelines.
Vandenberg understands his role and realizes that he must continue to grow into the leadership role of starting quarterback, continuing to earn the respect and trust of his teammates.
Quarterbacking is all about technique and the ability to lead the team.
As any athlete knows, it takes practice—and especially repetition—to build the necessary technical skills you need.
Iowa’s pro-style offense means the quarterback stays in the pocket for the most part—hopefully without too much scrambling required.
Consider the skills needed to run Iowa's offense. Iowa’s particular pro-style offense utilizes mainly ace, pro and I-formations.
They require perfect timing and accuracy on the part of the quarterback and his offensive line. These ingredients come together only with perfect technique built by repetition.
Vandenberg must work hard constantly until the routes are ingrained and the ability to sidestep and throw are automatic.
So far in his career, Vandenberg has hit 47-of-95 passes for 515 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions.
Quarterback Vandenberg will get the chance to add to these numbers considerably as the season gets underway.
Some quarterbacking skills can only be gained on the playing field. Among these are the ability to look across the line and gauge formations on defense.
Once you learn to recognize clues of what is coming at you sitting in the pocket, then you need to know what to do automatically to counter. Speed is of the essence.
Although Vandenberg has some real-game experience, none of it has been lately.
Luckily, Iowa’s non-conference schedule will allow Vandenberg the opportunity to ease into the season without the pressure of must-win Big Ten games.
Iowa starts its season at home against Tennessee Tech, followed by a challenging road trip to Ames to face Iowa State.
The two games against the University of Pittsburgh and Louisiana-Monroe take place in Iowa City.
These four games will allow Vandenberg, the backfield and Iowa’s offensive line time to gel together as a unit.
The bulk of the learning curve, however, must fall upon the quarterback.
Iowa must start the season strong and build on early success.
A quarterback who makes consistently good, solid decisions gives his team a decided advantage in winning a football game.
Vandenberg must see the entire field and know exactly where his receivers will be depending on the play called. With the opposing team closing in on him, the quarterback must make instantaneous decisions.
Vandenberg must also develop that necessary pinpoint accuracy that allows him to turn an average play turn into a game-altering play.
Ask yourself how many times you have seen a quarterback throw behind a receiver that ultimately forced an incompletion or an immediate tackle.
Accuracy and timing are the essential keys to becoming an outstanding quarterback in the Big Ten and elsewhere. Once your receivers trust you to throw the ball on the money, they will hustle to make sure they run all-out to get to the right spot on the field.
Perhaps the most difficult attribute to develop is toughness––both physical and mental. Vandenberg will have to accept both bad days and good days.
The good days are easy.
It is those times when the timing is off a little or the feet get tangled that bring out the measure of the quarterback.
On the football field, quarterbacks are a different breed. A quarterback who does not have the mental capacity or self-confidence to keep firing the football—even after three-straight incompletions or interceptions—will not be an asset to his football team.
The toughness factor is an intangible that leads to respect from teammates and higher forms of leadership.
For Iowa to find success in 2011, the starting quarterback, Vandenberg, must step into the role and produce from the first play on the field to the last.