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What Brendan Sullivan’s arrival means for Iowa’s quarterback position

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Addition of ex-Northwestern QB via transfer portal gives Hawkeyes some insurance at valuable position

Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Brendan Sullivan (6) throws a pass during a game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Iowa Hawkeyes at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois on Saturday, November 4, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats 10-7.  (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Brendan Sullivan (6) throws a pass during a game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Iowa Hawkeyes at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois on Saturday, November 4, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats 10-7. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY – Brendan Sullivan wasn’t necessarily a lock to be QB1 at Northwestern when he entered the transfer portal.

“The depth chart hasn’t been set yet,” Northwestern Coach David Braun later told Rivals-affiliated outlet Wildcat Report, referring to Sullivan’s status as a presumptive starter.

However, the alternatives weren’t great. One quarterback struggled mightily when given opportunities in 2021 and 2022, and another two options lacked significant game experience.

Braun mentioned the importance of “being honest about our search for a prospect in the transfer portal” on the Rivals-affiliated recruiting website in that same interview. However, Sullivan’s resume certainly appears to be better than that of Northwestern’s portal addition, Mike Wright, who completed 55.2 percent of his passes during his time at Vanderbilt and then Mississippi State.

However, the Wildcats’ loss is the Hawkeyes’ gain, as Sullivan committed to Iowa through the transfer portal last week. The addition of Sullivan addresses a major need in the Tim Lester-led offense at quarterback.

Insurance policy considering Cade McNamara’s injury history

Cade McNamara is still clearly the Hawkeyes’ best option at quarterback entering the 2024 season, although Sullivan could create some competition at the position in fall camp.

“If (Cade) is healthy, he’s our starter,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday night. ‘There is no delusion. … There’s no reason to think he won’t be healthy in August, so that’s how we’ll start. That’s about the way it is. And then someone can beat him, great, that means someone is doing well.

Given McNamara’s injury history — back-to-back years of season-ending injuries — Sullivan will at least be a valuable insurance policy for the Hawkeyes.

The last time McNamara had an unscathed season was in 2021 – three years ago and while working behind a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line.

Even when McNamara was healthy enough to be on the field, he had a career-high 51.1 percent completion percentage and four touchdowns versus three interceptions. A quad injury in the preseason “thrown things into disarray,” as Ferentz put it, but the numbers were uninspiring nonetheless.

If Iowa hadn’t acquired a quarterback commitment through the transfer portal, the most experienced alternative to McNamara would be Marco Lainez — the freshman with 12 career dropbacks at the collegiate level.

Sullivan, on the other hand, has 283 career dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

It’s a level of experience that’s rare for someone who could be Iowa’s second-string quarterback in the fall. Iowa’s 2023 backup quarterbacks Joe Labas and Deacon Hill had a career-high 26 dropbacks at this time last year. At this point two years ago, Alex Padilla had 125 career dropbacks as the presumed No. 2 quarterback entering the 2022 season.

Sullivan’s skills

Combined with Sullivan’s experience (he’s started eight games and played as a reserve in another four), he’s been more efficient than what Iowa has seen at the QB position in recent years.

Sullivan completed 68.4 percent of his career passes at Northwestern while throwing 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Iowa, on the other hand, has completed just 51.9 percent of its passes since the start of the 2022 season while throwing more interceptions than touchdowns.

In his two games against Iowa, Sullivan went a combined 35-for-49 (71.4 percent) while throwing three touchdowns versus one interception. During those same two seasons, opposing quarterbacks completed just 57.3 percent of passes against Iowa’s vaunted defense.

Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of Sullivan’s game is his ability to extend play with his feet. Sullivan’s 160 official rushing yards last season were lopsided by the 24 sacks he took behind an offensive line that had just lost NFL freshman Peter Skoronski.

Sullivan gained 203 yards on 27 attempts last season, per PFF. All of Iowa’s quarterbacks rushed for a total of 112 yards in 2023, and nearly half of that came from Lainez when the Citrus Bowl was well out of reach.

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