- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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One thing is for certain when it comes to James Vandenberg taking over as Iowa's starting quarterback this year: he won't be afraid of any situation.
Vandenberg proved that early on in his career, when as a skinny redshirt freshman he kept challenging senior linebacker Pat Angerer to wrestling matches. The results were fairly predictable.
"He has no mercy," Vandenberg said. "It's not like I could ever tap out -- he'd put me to sleep. He taught me a thing or two about toughness."
Vandenberg also likes to talk trash to teammate and wide receiver Marvin McNutt, insisting he can beat McNutt at basketball. Problem is, McNutt was a star basketball player in high school who could have played in college, and Vandenberg admits "it doesn't work out well" when the two play.
"James is crazy," McNutt says. "But I guess you have to be kind of crazy to play quarterback when you know 300-pounders are going to hit you."
It's not that Vandenberg is some kind of fearless hero. He's just a guy who loves to compete at anything, even when the odds are stacked against him.
Blame that on his upbringing. He grew up the oldest of five children and says all his other siblings brought everything they had at the eldest.
"They're way more fearless than I am," he said. "I'm talking blood, teeth, nails and broken arms whenever we played sports. There were some tough battles. My sister was a year younger than me, but she could kick my butt in just about everything."
The Hawkeyes hope all that competition has forged Vandenberg into the kind of leader they need. They've already seen him in a pressurized situation, as he had to replace an injured Ricky Stanzi two years ago during the heat of a Big Ten race. Virtually nobody gave him a shot to succeed as a first-time starter at Ohio State, but Vandenberg managed to keep his team in the game before an eventual loss in overtime.
He earned praise for his guts in that performance, but it didn't earn him a lot more playing time. Vandenberg sat behind Stanzi all of last season, throwing only eight passes in garbage time. So he's still largely an unknown as a starter.
"We felt if James had been called upon last year, he would have played very, very well based on what we saw at the end of the '09 season," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a year better as a football player in my mind right now than he was a year ago at this time, and we all felt good a year ago.
"So we expect him to play well. That being said, it's going to be new to him. He's going to have ups and downs early. As it goes on, it's going to get better."
Vandenberg has dreamed of this chance for years. He was born in Columbia, Mo., and moved around a lot as a kid as his father used military service to pay for medical school. When he reached fifth grade, the family settled into Keokuk, Iowa, where Toby Vandenberg is the head of the emergency rooms for two hospitals. Though the family's house was in the far southeast corner of Iowa -- "three minutes from Missouri and five minutes from Illinois," Vandenberg said -- their son's loyalty lay firmly with the Hawkeyes, whose games his father would take him to attend. Vandenberg idolized Tim Dwight and Drew Tate.
In his senior year of high school, Vandenberg led Keokuk to a Class 3A state title and set state records for passing yards and touchdown passes in a season. Once he got to Iowa, he spent three years learning under Stanzi, a noted film-room rat who went 26-9 as a starter.
"His whole work ethic kind of rubbed off on me," Vandenberg said. "I've never sat down and watched like five hours of film, but I watch some every day."
The two quarterbacks have similar height and arm strength, but the 6-foot-3 Vandenberg is about 20 pounds lighter.
"James reminds me a lot of Rick," McNutt said. "The only real difference between the two is experience."
It's time now for Vandenberg to get that experience, and how he plays will have a big influence on how the Hawkeyes fare in the Legends Division this year. One thing's for certain: He won't back down from the moment.