Iowa junior quarterback James Vandenberg has no idea who Opie Taylor is.
The “aw shucks” small-town kid from Keokuk may not have grown up watching “The Andy Griffith Show” to identify with Opie, played by a young Ron Howard.
“I’ve heard coach (Reese) Morgan has told the linemen he calls me that,” Vandenberg said. “I have no idea what that means. It’s a very weird name, that’s all I know.”
Vandenberg is polite and courteous. He probably would identify with Opie, who once killed a mama bird and felt so guilty he raised her babies.
But the same no-frills guy was taking a helmet to the chin and then being body-slammed by defensive end Ryan Russell on Saturday while completing a touchdown pass to Marvin McNutt to help Iowa ice Purdue 31-21.
“Yeah, looks a bit like Opie and acts like him,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think it’s all an act.
“He’s a nitty-gritty, tough guy. There’s no question in my mind. I think all his teammates have always seen him that way.”
Vadenberg goes into the regular season finale at No. 22 Nebraska on Friday leading the Big Ten in passing yards per game (238.5) and second in passing efficiency (149.0).
He may get overlooked in the year-end honors in the Big Ten for the more modern, dual-threat quarterbacks like Denard Robinson of Michigan, Taylor Martinez of Nebraska and Russell Wilson of Wisconsin, but “Opie” has the vote of his teammates.
“When he’s in the huddle, he’s a great natural leader,” Iowa junior center James Ferentz said. “As the season has gone on, he’s gotten more comfortable commanding the offense.”
Most of the other leading Big Ten quarterbacks had a year or more of starting experience under their belt. Vandenberg had two emergency starts as a redshirt freshman.
“I hope I’ve been able to grow,” Vandenberg said. “I’ve seen a lot more now after these 11 games of preparing.”
With 2,624 yards and 23 touchdowns, Vandenberg is putting together one of the top passing campaigns in Iowa history. His yardage total ranks him eighth all-time with two games to play. He has a chance to become just the fourth Iowa quarterback to top 3,000 yards.
His touchdowns rank him fourth behind just Chuck Long (27 in 1985), Brad Banks (26 in 2002) and Ricky Stanzi (25 in 2010).
“I think James is learning every week. He’s doing a lot of good things,” coach Ferentz said. “Like every week, there are a handful of plays he’d love to have back from Saturday. You don’t get those back. But he learns from them. It’s really fun to watch him grow and develop.”
Vandenberg has come a long ways since nearly picking Nebraska over Iowa during his senior year at Keokuk.
Nebraska was the first big school to offer Vadnenberg a scholarship.
“It was great to get that offer,” Vandenberg said. “Shortly after that offer was when they started going through their coaching change. That made me wait a little longer. That’s when Iowa came through and that’s what I was looking for.”
Vandenberg got the offer from coach Bill Callahan, who was fired Nov. 24, 2007. Vandenberg never talked to Bo Pelini, but was told by athletic director Tom Osborne his scholarship still was available.
“I was fortunate to grow up near here and watch the Hawkeyes play,” Vandenberg said. “I’m not from a big town. It’s great to be able to play in my home state.”
Vandenberg has come a long ways from that first summer on campus when he was making twist cones at an Iowa City Dairy Queen.
“It was an opportunity to have a job, and I got to meet some cool people there,” Vandenberg said. “When I’m not in football, I’m not a football player.”
It was before Vandenberg became a Big Ten starting quarterback. But he still showed good leadership.
“I think he did a good job of keeping most of the offensive linemen out of there,” James Ferentz said.
All he needed was a malt-shop apron and paper hat. And maybe a few more freckles.
Opie went on to have a second career as an Oscar-winning director. What does the future hold for Vandenberg?
“There’s a lot of things we can clean up on offense,” Vandenberg said. “Striving for that perfection. You’re never going to be perfect, but you want to be as close as you can. That’s our goal on offense.”
Iowa at Nebraska
When, Where: 11 a.m. Friday in Lincoln, Neb.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football