I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I spent all of 2017 trying to figure out Nate Stanley.

One week, the Iowa quarterback looked like an All-American (Ohio State), and the next, he looked like he shouldn’t have been on the field (Wisconsin).

It’s natural for a first-year starter to experience some highs and lows. Usually, though, they’re somewhat predictable. Stanley’s were anything but that.

For every argument in his favor as to why he was an elite B1G quarterback in 2017, there was one why he wasn’t. For instance, Iowa will take a 26-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio all day, every day. But in nearly half of Iowa’s games, Stanley failed to complete 54 percent of his passes.

Some might argue that he was an elite B1G quarterback in 2017 while others might argue he was closer to mediocre. Nobody is necessarily saying that Stanley is already an elite quarterback nationally. Well, at least they shouldn’t be. Not yet.

Will that change in 2018?

Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I’m especially intrigued to see if Stanley can, as Kirk Ferentz said, take the next step. Even the Stanley supporters can admit that there’s plenty of fine-tuning to his game that’s needed.

That was the frustrating thing about some of Iowa’s losses in 2017. Against Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue, it felt like the Hawkeyes were a good version of Stanley away from potentially picking up some nice wins to stay afloat in the B1G West. Stanley was never the “tough-luck loser” in any game for Iowa last year.

Look at his numbers in the Iowa’s eight wins vs. his numbers in Iowa’s five losses:

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The total points tell a lot. And four of those five Iowa losses were by single-digits. The swings were drastic with Stanley. Too drastic. He either had it or he didn’t.

Despite those inaccuracy issues, Stanley only threw three interceptions in Iowa losses. He might’ve been a bit fortunate there. That’s playing with fire.

Ferentz doesn’t want to play with fire. He wants Stanley to be sharper. After losing a star like Akrum Wadley, Stanley is going to be the new focal point of the Iowa offense. It sounds crazy to suggest that Brian Ferentz could be transitioning to a more pass-heavy offense (by Iowa’s standards), but considering where Iowa’s returning offensive strengths are, that appears likely.

That’s the good news for Stanley. He’ll have, in my opinion, the best tight end in the B1G and one of the best tight ends in all of college football in Noah Fant. It was Fant who set the Iowa single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end (11) and who led the nation’s tight ends in yards per catch (16.5).

Fant will be at the top of plenty of scouting reports, but Stanley will have help on the outside from Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, both of whom flashed potential as true freshmen. Couple that with the move-the-chains guy Nick Easley, who was a pleasant surprise as Iowa’s leading receiver last year, and Stanley has no shortage of capable targets.

It feels like this group is a lot different than last year when Iowa’s receiver hopes were pinned on the oft-injured Matt VandeBerg getting and staying healthy.

But talented veteran pass-catchers can’t save Stanley if he sails it 10 feet over their heads. For far too much of 2017, Stanley looked like the quarterback who got himself too amped up and didn’t know how to take some juice off his throws. You can bet that’s what Ferentz meant by wanting him to be “sharper” this season.

The potential is there. Clearly Stanley isn’t lacking arm strength, his decision-making was solid for a first-year starter and we saw what he can do against some elite defenses (that Ohio State game still blows my mind).

I’m of the belief that Stanley can become one of college football’s top 15-20 quarterbacks in 2018. Sound crazy? Consider this.

Including Stanley, only six returning Power Five quarterbacks threw for at least 2,400 yards and 26 touchdown passes last year:

  • Drew Lock, Missouri
  • Will Grier, West Virginia
  • Trace McSorley, Penn State
  • Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt
  • Malik Rosier, Miami (FL)
  • Nate Stanley, Iowa

That’s pretty good company. As to whether or not Stanley can become the first Iowa quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdown passes in the same season, that’s a different story.

But this isn’t just about raw numbers with Stanley. This is about becoming a consistent, reliable weapon who doesn’t hold his team back from winning winnable games (did I mention “win” enough?). If the game can slow down for Stanley, that’s certainly possible.

Iowa isn’t getting back to that 2015 level without an elite signal-caller. To take down a team like Wisconsin, it’ll take that and then some. But as we know, life is a whole lot easier when you have an elite quarterback running the show.

Let’s see if Stanley can become just that.