Quarterback Uncertainty Is Biggest Issue Facing Big Ten West Division

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IFebruary 20, 2014

Nebraska quarterback Johnny Stanton (5) throws during warmups as Michigan State and Nebraska prepare to square off in an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nati Harnik/Associated Press

As the Big Ten turns its attention away from "competitive balance" and toward geography in its new division set up, the East and West divisions couldn't be more different. Whether its in perception of depth or competitiveness. 

However, the biggest difference heading into 2014 could be the fact that the Big Ten West is nearly completely unsettled at quarterback. Only one school, Iowa, goes into spring football without a battle for the starting job.

Out East, there are settled starters at all but two schools, and even one of those with a perceived battle (Michigan) could be doubtful as to the nature of the actual battle that will happen. 

With so many question marks at quarterback entering 2014, it's clear that what takes place at quarterback at Western schools will have a major impact on who emerges as the division representative in Indianapolis. 

Each school has a unique situation going on with its quarterbacks as well, including Iowa, where Jake Rudock is an entrenched starter. So, lets break down what is about to take place in the newly minted Big Ten West. 



With Nathan Scheelhaase graduating, a new era is going to begin in Champaign, no matter who starts. However, there wasn't an heir to the starting job being readied last season, and that means a battle for the job in the spring and fall. 

Oct 19, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA;  Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Aaron Bailey (15) is tackled by Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Marcus Trotter (59) during the third quarter at Memorial Stadium. Wisconsin wins 56-32 over Illinois. Mandatory Credit: Tr
Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Spor

Illinois attempted to get the feet of Aaron Bailey wet last year, and he was thought to be the heir apparent to Scheelhaase until Wes Lunt became available. Bailey saw action in eight games but was mostly used in rushing situations and as a change of pace from Scheelhaase. 

He threw all of five passes in his freshman season, and it remains to be seen if he has the passing game to match his skill in the run game as well. Given the way the Illini lit up the passing game last year, Bailey needs to show he's got the arm and accuracy this spring and fall to earn the job. 

Bailey will also have to prove that his arm, decision-making and accuracy are better than transfer Lunt. Lunt returned to his native state after a freshman campaign that was as up and down as any in 2012. 

He finished his freshman season in Mike Gundy's offense by completing 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns to seven interceptions. It's that last bit that worried OSU, and it needs to be corrected for him to be the Illini starter in 2014. 

The two quarterbacks are a contrast in styles, and it will be an interesting battle throughout spring at the very least. 



Jan 1, 2014; Tampa, Fl, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Jake Rudock (15)  throws the ball during the second half against the LSU Tigers at Raymond James Stadium. LSU Tigers defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes 21-14. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There shouldn't be a quarterback battle at all in Iowa City, and that's because Jake Rudock was one of the more solid quarterbacks in the Big Ten in 2013. That's not to say he was perfect by any stretch, but it was Rudock's first year as a starter. 

Rudock ended the year completing 59 percent of his passes for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. 

The question in Iowa City has been Rudock's durability, as he wound up on the bench a lot down the stretch. His replacement, C.J. Beathard, saw action in five games on the year, but he didn't inspire a lot of confidence in his own passing game in limited action. 

He completed just 33.3 percent of his passes, with just one touchdown and two interceptions in those five games. 

Unless something crazy happens to Rudock, expect him to be the clear starter. Also, expect him to do a lot of growing with all the experience he got in his sophomore season. 



Philip Nelson surprised a few with his announcement of transferring, and then he did it again by choosing to attend Rutgers. For many, that left a clear starter in Mitch Leidner, but a closer look suggests this isn't as closed a case as one would think.

Sure Leidner saw time in 10 games in 2013, but he also struggled to be an accurate passer at times as well. He completed just over 55 percent of his passes and threw just three touchdown passes.

Yes, it was just his freshman season, but there needs to be more consistency from him in order to be the guy starting on August 28 against Eastern Illinois.

He'll have some unknown competition as well, at least in terms of the general public not knowing who or what these guys are capable of.

Look to redshirt freshman Chris Streveler and true freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy to provide tests for Leidner this spring.

There's no question the overwhelming favorite in terms of experience is Leidner, but let's also remember how inconsistent he was in his first year. If that continues in this spring, then the door really opens for Streveler and Roden-McKinzy. 



Nati Harnik/Associated Press

The Huskers are in a very unique situation, one they didn't anticipate when 2013 got underway. That's because one of the quarterbacks involved in the 2014 quarterback battle got significant time under center in 2013. 

Having a series of injuries to star Taylor Martinez wasn't in the game plan last year, but it may be the biggest thing that helps this team going forward. It allowed Tommy Armstrong Jr. to get some significant minutes, which resulted in a trial by fire. 

Armstrong finished the year leading the team in passing yards with 966, but he completed just 51.9 percent of his passes and threw nine touchdowns to eight interceptions. 

However, he wasn't supposed to be the one people were looking at this spring, and that's because Nebraska will get its first look at phenom Johnny Stanton. The ex-Elite 11 finalist comes with a lot of hype, and most assumed he'd be the heir apparent in Lincoln. 

There will be a true battle at quarterback this spring, but the question is just how long will the battle go on? 

If neither quarterback can provide consistency by the end of the spring, this battle could linger well in to fall camp. 



Conventional wisdom says the quarterback with two years of experience and a multi-game starter should have the job wrapped up. However, that's not the case at Northwestern. 

That's because when Trevor Siemian was given the reigns to himself, the results weren't all that great. Siemian's numbers were much better when Kain Colter was around to worry opposing defenses as well. 

Siemian finished the season completing 59.8 percent of his passes for 2,143 yards and 11 touchdowns to nine interceptions. It was the lack of touchdowns in 12 games that worried a lot of people, and rightfully so. 

Northwestern loves to mix up the run and pass, but Siemian is not your prototypical running quarterback, and it provided problems for how the Wildcats wanted to attack opponents. 

It means that Siemian, while a favorite to win the job, is by no means just going to be given the keys to the car without a challenge. However, the challenge coming from redshirt freshman Matt Alviti may not be all that serious. 

If indeed there won't be a challenge this spring, expect one to come from incoming freshman Clayton Thorson. 

We all know when things are going wrong with a quarterback, the next guy in line becomes the favorite player on the team, but in Northwestern's case, no one knows just what Alviti or Thorson can offer that will challenge the established Siemian. 

Don't expect to see anyone besides Siemian behind center to open the season, barring injury of course (knock on wood).



Nov 23, 2013; West Lafayette, IN, USA;  Purdue Boilermakers quarterback Danny Etling (5) passes the ball during the third quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Ross Ade Stadium. Illinois won 20-16. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

The future started early for the Boilermakers, as head coach Darrell Hazell took the redshirt off of Danny Etling in 2013, and the results were promising at the very least. However, it doesn't mean Etling is going to walk away with the job in 2014. 

While he completed 55.8 percent of his passes for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns, Etling also made freshman decisions at times, and it showed in the seven interceptions he threw. 

The Boilermakers are likely to stick with Etling, but Austin Appleby won't go down without a fight, either. Appleby has some of the same skill set that Elting does but is a bit older, and if he can prove to be more accurate and in tune with the receivers, he could overtake Etling. 

It's a long shot, so look for Etling to keep things going on a positive trajectory for a team in need of anything and everything after a rough 1-11 season last year. 



Just like Northwestern, it seems strange that a guy who's started for the better part of two years is in a battle for his job, yet that is the case in Madison. 

Joel Stave gave the Badgers some good things in 2013, but he also was a hindrance to success at other times as well. Stave finished the year sixth in passing yards in the Big Ten (2,494) and completed over 61 percent of his passes while throwing 22 touchdown passes to 13 interceptions. 

MADISON, WI - NOVEMBER 30: Joel Stave #2 of the Wisconsin Badgers runs some through some pre gamne drills before the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Gett
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Working against Stave is head coach Gary Andersen's want to add more mobility at quarterback; you have the ensuing battle for the starting quarterback job at Wisconsin.

Andersen has made it clear that Stave is the starter right now, but that the job is going to be open to competition this spring. You know, the good old "it's your job to lose" routine. 

Competing against Stave are three quarterbacks who have never attempted a pass in a collegiate game: sophomore Bart Houston, junior Tanner McEvoy and early enrollee D.J. Gillins. All three are more mobile than Stave, but all are at very different stages in the development process.

Finding equal reps to evaluate all four quarterbacks is going to be tricky this spring, but if someone can become consistently dynamic at quarterback, they are going to be a serious challenge to Stave. 

There are a lot of things working against Stave winning this job, but if we know anything about Stave, it's that when his back is against the wall, he comes back with his best work.  

The question will be if either Houston or McEvoy will show enough in the run game to give the coaches a reason to give up on Stave's strong arm and deep-pass ability. 


*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for Big Ten football. All stats courtesy of CFBstats.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens


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