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Bryce Miller: Vandenberg gives himself NFL chance

[ 0 ] March 30, 2013 |

If someone had hinted after last season that Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg could earn an NFL roster spot, most people would think the person was, well, more than a fair shake nuts.

The Hawkeyes limped to a 4-8 record, right? Iowa’s offense spun its wheels in historic, modern-day futility, right?

Vandenberg seemed too immobile, too likely to connect on a 3-yard out route than a 50-yard game-changer down the sideline, right?

Well, those people likely were sitting in Kinnick Stadium or perched over remote controls. The people who matter most stood in Indianapolis late last month, stop watches in hand, as Vandenberg turned heads with an NFL Combine performance few saw coming.

Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg had a strong performance in February at the NFL Combine. (USA TODAY Sports)

Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg had a strong performance in February at the NFL Combine. (USA TODAY Sports)

In a scoring system created by the Wall Street Journal, Vandenberg tied for fourth among the 16 elite quarterbacks at professional football’s most intense and evaluated tryout.

Among the names Vandenberg outscored: USC’s Matt Barkley, Kansas State’s Collin Klein, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray and Tennessee’s Tyler Bray.

“I knew he could throw, but you never know about the other athletic things they measure,” said Toby Vandenberg, James’ father. “He came in at 6-3, 226 (pounds) — the biggest he’s ever been. (Iowa strength and conditioning) coach (Chris) Doyle has worked with James and the other guys trying to make the pros.”

Among the knocks on Vandenberg, Version 2012: He seemed unable to operate efficiently in the new system of offensive coordinator Greg Davis, and struggled to improvise with his feet when pass options unraveled.

What about Vandenberg, Version 2011 though? Can that season — the fourth-best yardage total in one season (3,022) in program history, and third-most touchdowns (25) — be so quickly and easily tossed aside as someone considers the resume?

As a junior, Vandenberg thrived with supreme playmaker Marvin McNutt, who routinely worked himself open and transformed 7-yard passes into touchdowns. As a senior, Iowa receivers dropped loads of passes and often failed to find the kind of breathing room that increases odds of completions and big plays.

Add in a running game derailed by bumps and bruises most of the season, and a pair of devastating injuries on the offensive line. The result: Defenses could pin ears back, along with any other body parts, and attack like a tiger on a T-bone.

All of it fed into the most confounding question surrounding Iowa’s 2012 football season: Is Vandenberg the quarterback who nearly toppled Ohio State for the Big Ten Conference title and later assembled one of the program’s brightest statistical seasons in history, the one who struggled as a senior — or someone in between?

Part of the question might have been answered in Indianapolis.

And now, Vandenberg’s father said, some of the self-assured swagger that ebbed last season has returned.

“Oh, yeah,” Toby Vandenberg said when asked if James’ displays more confidence. “He knows he can compete with any of them now. You don’t know, when you’re in Iowa, how you’d stack up against guys in the SEC or Pac-12, or wherever. How hard do they throw? How do they do all the other things?”

To no small degree, that’s the heart of a father speaking. In the NFL, though, the numbers do much of the talking — and Vandenberg left Indianapolis with a miles-better chance of carving out a roster spot than when he arrived.

According to the Wall Street Journal system used by reporter Jonathan Clegg, a point system based on finishes in all events determined that E.J. Manuel (Florida State) and Matt Scott (Arizona) tied for first with 44 points. Colby Cameron (Louisiana Tech) finished third with 32 and Vandenberg and Geno Smith (West Virginia) followed at 29.

Smith competed in fewer events than other quarterbacks, so definitely would have moved up. Vandenberg fell in a drill, his father said, meaning he easily could have finished as high as third with an average result.

“He scored better than some of the guys who are highly thought of, like Mike Glennon (N.C. State) and Ryan Nassib (Syracuse),” Clegg said. “Both of those guys are seen as top 50 picks, potentially, and he finished higher.

“It surprised me that you had someone like Collin Klein, who’s supposed to be an athletic kid, who might play tight end (in the NFL) — he scored much better than him, too. Klein got 19 points in our system.”

Vandenberg also fared well in a couple other areas teams value: His father said he threw out routes at 57 mph, second only to Tennessee’s Bray (58) — and was measured with the third biggest hands among the combine’s signal-caller crowd.

One other thing to bank on: NFL decision-makers will like the head on his shoulders as much as his arm. That leadership, even during one of the most difficult seasons under Ferentz, has remained rock-steady.

“Any time you get invited to the combine, that’s a good thing,” Ferentz said. “And James … he’s totally invested. He’s smart, works hard, has talent and ability. You never know what’s going to happen.”

And back to Vandenberg’s head-scratching senior season: Did you know he finished with just 14 fewer completions than his big junior season, in one fewer game? Would it surprise you that his completion percentage was almost identical those two seasons (57.3 as a senior, 58.7 the season before)?

The playmakers vanished, clear and simple. Vandenberg’s touchdown production nose-dived from 25 to seven.

To read between the lines on how Ferentz felt about wide receiver production, look no farther than the coaching change at that position in the offseason.

Will we see Vandenberg on an NFL sideline this fall? That’s hard to know.

One thing’s certain, though: The performance at the combine has given him a chance few thought possible.

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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