Howe: Not Much Wiggle Room at QB

James Vandenberg likely was the Hawkeye the team could least likely lose and be successful. That tag increased in stature last week when the Iowa coaches moved No. 2 QB A.J. Derby to linebacker.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - Perhaps it's not a big deal that Iowa moved its second-string quarterback to linebacker. Most fans called for the change two years ago when A.J. Derby joined the program.

The Iowa City product rose to back-up quarterback as a redshirt freshman. He passed fourth-year junior John Wienke to do so.

Wienke now moves to second-string with true freshman Jake Rudock as the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster. And Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz says Derby likely will be relegated to special teams this week at Minnesota as he goes though his linebacker apprenticeship.

"We gave him a crash course last week (on kickoff coverage)," Ferentz said. "That's the first place he can hit the field."

It's a risky move. Not that Derby can't be a standout defender or that Wienke can't be counted on as a reliever. And none of that matters if starting quarterback James Vandenberg stays healthy.

For the sake of argument, let's say Vandenberg does miss time with an injury. The guy you anointed as your second-best quarterback, Derby, is playing linebacker. Well, he's learning the linebacker position.

Ferentz historically leans towards playing upperclassmen ahead of young players in position battles that are tight. The coach is even more apt to fudge things on the depth chart (see Jason White at No. 2 running back all this season). That wasn't the case with Derby and Wienke.

Ferentz says that he would have been comfortable with Vandenberg under center last year but senior Ricky Stanzi was ahead of him. That would indicate that the Derby-Wienke competition probably wasn't real close, maybe like Drew Tate and Matt Bonet in 2004.

Maybe Derby and Wienke weren't two and three behind Vandenberg in terms of talent. Perhaps Rudock has shown what they hoped he would when they recruited him out of Aquinas of Fort Lauderdale.

"We've only seen him for a couple of months, but we like what we see," Ferentz said. "All that being said, he hasn't been in a game. A.J. hasn't either (except for mop-up duty). We don't know a lot about the quarterback position once you get past James."

Ferentz is playing coy. What he is saying is that the fans and media don't know much about the quarterback position after Vandenberg. This is the staff's fourth year seeing Wienke and Derby is almost a two-year vet of the program, having enrolled in January of 2010.

Ferentz wouldn't place the future crown on Rudock's head even if he felt that way. It's about earning your stripes in the Iowa program.

"One thing about quarterbacks, only one can play," Ferentz said. "It's not like a running back where you can rotate a couple guys through there. In looking at our depth chart, our needs right now, the propensity we've had for having a need for linebackers over the last two years, just seemed like a logical move."

And it's also one for the future. Based on Ferentz's comments on Tuesday, it didn't sound like Derby would be impacting linebacker much this season.

Therefore, you don't switch Derby now if Rudock looks like a bust in practice. The coaches could wait until bowl prep to see the true freshman and then move Derby if they liked what they saw.

It's a roll of the dice from a man, Ferentz, who plays everything pretty close to the vest. He's hoping that Derby becomes a quick teach on defense and that Vandenberg stays healthy.

A scenario exists that Vandenberg gets hurt and Wienke struggles to replace him. Then, the coaches have a decision. Move Derby back or rip the redshirt off of Rudock as you pursue a Big Ten Legends Division title with a suspect defense.

It would tough asking Derby to move back. The kid already took one for the team by giving up his dream of playing quarterback to strengthen linebacker and special teams.

Would it be fair to Rudock to pull the redshirt in November knowing you burn a year of eligibility and that he'd likely be Vandenberg's backup next year? Probably not seeing as the kid requested a redshirt before he arrived at Iowa.

"John is the next guy in," Ferentz said. "I'm a lot more focused on this week and this season than next year or 10 years from now. That's kind of what we're looking at."

Ferentz clearly wasn't comfortable with the line of questioning about his quarterback situation on Tuesday. That comment is at least somewhat of a contradiction in that the Derby move was executed in large part to have a replacement for senior Tyler Nielsen next year.

It's OK. Obtaining information from the Iowa football program often is a read-between-the-lines project. Protocol often gets in the way.

Reading between the lines with the Derby move and the Iowa quarterback situation as it stands today, we can draw a few conclusions:

1. Iowa is hurting at linebacker. No other reason to move your back-up quarterback there, mid-season, if you weren't.

2. As a result, Ferentz is playing the unlikely role of riverboat gambler here with his situation behind Vandenberg.

3. Rudock has shown enough to the coaches this fall for them to feel comfortable with moving Derby.

4. Iowa needs to sign at least one scholarship quarterback in the 2012 recruiting class.

Cross your fingers, Hawkeye fans.


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