Cover story: Being Ricky Stanzi


Julie Koehn/The Daily Iowan
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Ken O’Keefe came to his first press appearance of the 2010 season looking more like a golf pro than Iowa’s offensive coordinator. Wearing a gold sweater vest over a black-collar shirt, he spoke as conservatively as he dressed. His answers were precise, always making sure to never reveal too much. But when he was asked a seemingly easy question — “What is good about Stanzi?” — a bewildered look flashed across his face. The simplicity of the phrasing caught him off guard. O’Keefe began his response by repeating the question — “What’s good about Stanzi?” — as if the repetition would guide him to the right answer.

Stanzi, of course, is Iowa’s three-year starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi, and as O’Keefe went onto say, there’s a lot of good about Stanzi. His knowledge of the coverage schemes. His decision-making. His leadership. Stanzi has started 29 games for Iowa. He has won 23 of those games. I’d venture to say any quarterback who has won nearly 80 percent of his college starts could be called a good leader, a smart decision-maker, a sound reader of defenses. This much is common sense.

So what is really good about Stanzi? Why has he been able to torture defenses for a 68 percent completion rate, 16 touchdowns, and only two interceptions this season? No one should know better than head coach Kirk Ferentz — the man who promoted Stanzi to the starting job midway through the 2008 season. The man who rode his quarterback to the school’s first BCS bowl win. The man who entrusted Stanzi to turn around a program starving for a winner after three-consecutive disappointing seasons. Ferentz is asked this so often that he has a set answer.

Sept. 14: “He has worked hard. Maturation.”

Sept. 25: “I just think he’s a fifth-year quarterback. He has worked extremely hard. He has played a lot now.”

Sept. 28: “I think he’s enjoying the luxury of being an experienced player. He has always been very committed, worked extremely hard. He’s off to a real good start.”

Oct. 19: “I think it’s experience. Ricky was a great guy last year — great guy and a very good player. I think right now he’s playing at a higher level.”

More specifically, Ferentz points to the 2010 Orange Bowl as the start of Stanzi’s evolution into a complete quarterback. The senior started that game 8-of-8 for 140 yards and a touchdown. But what many of Stanzi’s doubters likely recall was his ninth pass of the game — a pick-six that brought Georgia Tech back within seven points.

And coming into the season, if you were looking for a weakness in Stanzi’s game, it was his propensity for making mistakes. In 2009, he threw 15 interceptions in 13 games, four of which were returned for touchdowns. Now through seven games, Stanzi only has two picks — and his passing efficiency rating (174.9) is second-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

When I asked offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde about Stanzi, his hands moved faster than his mind, as if he couldn’t get to the answer quickly enough. Vandervelde spoke in football lingo about over-stacks and unders and screws and foxes — terms that mean little to an outsider, but they meant everything to Iowa’s offensive execution on Oct. 16 against Michigan. By Wednesday’s practice two weeks ago, Vandervelde says Stanzi’s knowledge of Michigan’s unique 3-3-5 defense was so extensive that he physically moved scout-team defenders into the correct positions. O’Keefe noted that similar encounters have happened in practice before.

As Vandervelde said, “His moped is always there when I leave.”

Ferentz takes a far more comical approach to Stanzi’s commitment: “He’s always around. He has got a parking spot out there. I’m joking — that’s an NCAA violation.”

There’s a reason for that, Stanzi says: He doesn’t have a whole lot else to do. Being a fifth-year senior, Stanzi enjoys the luxury of a stripped-down class schedule. Having already completed a half-semester class, only Elements of Art, Alcohol and Your College Experience, and Making a Vocational-Educational Choice — a total of six semester hours — stand in the way of Stanzi graduating in December with a degree in interdepartmental studies. As the quarterback says with a sheepish smile, “Nothing too strenuous.”

When Stanzi arrives at a media gathering on Oct. 19, he’s immediately swarmed by cameras and microphones, recorders, and Flip Cams. Wearing his typical outfit — a gray Iowa-football-licensed hooded sweatshirt, black shorts, and his ever comfortable-looking Vibram Five Fingers sandals (seriously, Google them) — Stanzi is backed up against a wall of windows. Literally. He answers questions in a monotone only Ferentz can emulate, his interests seemingly elsewhere.

And really, who can blame him? He’s peppered with the same incessant inquiries every week. What do you think of Opponent X’s defense? How do you correct mistakes from last week? To what do you attribute your drop in interceptions? He never loses his composure and rarely deviates from the company line.

But I give it a try. Knowing full well that self-evaluation — perhaps more appropriately, self-criticism — is part of being a starting quarterback, I ask him if he ever takes time to think about the good he brings to this program.

“No. Not really.”

There wasn’t much of a chuckle or a shred of sarcasm in his voice — just clear unadulterated honesty. And truthfully, I didn’t expect anything different.

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