Iowa turned to James Vandenberg in desperation to save its special run through the 2009 season. That had mixed results. But the dividends from that move might start to become apparent soon.
Vandenberg memorably was thrust into the spotlight as a redshirt freshman quarterback when Ricky Stanzi went down with an ankle injury late in the season against Northwestern. The Hawkeyes were undefeated at the time, and Vandenberg had only appeared in one game that year. He couldn't lead his team on a comeback, and Northwestern handed Iowa its first loss.
A week later, Vandenberg made his first career start -- at Ohio State, with the Big Ten title on the line. Iowa lost in overtime, but Vandenberg impressed a lot of people with the poise he showed in that pressurized situation, throwing for 233 yards and two scores.
"I still threw three picks, which stinks," he said. "But the experience I got in that game, you can't really put a price on it. I know I can do it."
Vandenberg made one more start, mostly staying out of the way in a 12-0 win over Minnesota that cemented Iowa's BCS bid. And that was pretty much the last anyone saw of him on the field in important moments, as his three appearances last year came in mop-up duty behind Stanzi.
Now that Stanzi is bound for the Kansas City Chiefs, the quarterback job belongs to Vandenberg. He's no longer the fresh-faced rookie. He's the man.
"As soon as Rick graduated, things became a little different," he said. "It's something I've been looking forward to for a long time. Like I've been telling people, if I'm not ready now, I'm never going to be ready."
All signs point to him being ready. He has the physical tools at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds. He's got the brains, as a former academic All-Big Ten selection who will finish his degree requirements this fall before focusing on credits that will allow him to either study physical therapy or go to chiropractic school.
"He is respected by his teammates and is a good leader," head coach Kirk Ferentz said after the spring game. "Everyone respects him. Now, he has to go out there this fall and have some success in game conditions and I think he will. He will have some ups and downs, too, like any young player does."
Vandenberg got a pretty good internship in learning behind the rock-solid Stanzi each of the past two seasons.
"Two things come to mind about Rick," Vandenberg said. "One was how much he prepared. He prepared as much as anybody did on our team and as much as probably any quarterback in the country. The second thing was just his cool-headedness. He had his ups and downs throughout his three years, but the way he was always able to bounce back and move onto the next play is kind of an attitude that rubbed off on me. Because it doesn't always go your way."
Vandenberg has tried to step up his leadership this preseason. A couple of times a week he organizes the other quarterbacks, the receivers and tight ends for extra throwing sessions on their own. He developed great chemistry with star receiver Marvin McNutt, as the two arrived on campus together as quarterbacks and "hit it off immediately." He says he also has a tight bond with wideout Keenan Davis, because the two played together with the second unit each of the past two years.
"Even though I was the No. 2 quarterback, I feel like I had just as good a relationship with the receivers as Rick did, if not more," he said. "I try to go out of my way to talk to those guys every day lifting and get them out there throwing with me.
He's no longer talking to them as the desperation, late-year fill-in. They know he's the guy who will lead them into the season.