Power Ranking Big Ten QBs Pre 2014 Spring Practice
Spring practices are now just days away from opening up around some of the Big Ten, and that means a focus on position battles and players with things to prove or hype to live up to.
In addition, it means that it's time to start sorting out the best of the best at each position heading into the spring. We begin that focus with a look at one of the most intriguing position groups in the Big Ten—quarterback.
Was 2013 a sign of things to come for players like Connor Cook and Jake Rudock, or were they flash in the pans? This spring will help provide the answers to those questions and more. We'll also get the first in-depth looks at quarterbacks at Maryland and Rutgers as well.
Where do they stack up to the rest of the conference? Let's take a look at the quarterbacks of the Big Ten to find out.
*All stats courtesy of CFBstats.com.
14. Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner
Nothing is completely set in stone at quarterback in Minneapolis, but it is hard to see how Mitch Leidner isn't the starting quarterback when the season opens on August 28 against Eastern Illinois.
His numbers from 2013 aren't spell-binding, but he showed some promise as a leader and in the run game for the Gophers. He finished the year with 407 yards on 102 rushing attempts in 10 games of action.
As for the passing game, he was Minnesota's best option last season, completing 55.1 percent of his passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns to one interception.
While the passing numbers don't jump off the page, a lot of that had to do with a lack of receivers to throw to and Leidner's overall inexperience in that part of the game.
One of the things that will help the passing game is a more experienced wide receiver group, and that's exactly what the Gophers will have in 2014.
Leidner is far from reaching his potential, and that's the key word with him: potential. He will show glimpses of being a very good dual-threat quarterback by the time he is done in Minneapolis.
He will be challenged heading in to the spring by two inexperienced QBs in redshirt freshman Chris Streveler and early enrollee Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, but expect him to emerge as the winner when spring ball is over.
13. Rutgers QB Gary Nova
Poor Gary Nova and the rest of the Rutgers quarterbacks in 2013—they never had a chance. Seriously—35 sacks later and you can see why Nova and Chas Dodd struggled to impress at all last season.
Nova, who appeared in 10 games last season, took the brunt of the opposing defenses' wrath—being sacked 25 of the 35 times on the season. Some of that is on the offensive line, but Nova was also responsible for a part of it.
While he was running for his life a lot, Nova unsurprisingly completed a lowly 54.5 percent of his passes for 2,159 yards and 18 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. Those mediocre numbers led to his benching for the final three games of the season.
Clearly he has room to improve, but he has the tools to work with in his final season in Piscataway, NJ. The question is whether he will respond positively to the benching to end the season, which is something head coach Kyle Flood isn't sure of yet, according to Tom Luicci of The Star-Ledger:
The off-season right now, they’re doing most of their work with the strength coaches. As we get a little bit closer to spring break we’ll start doing some workouts where the coaches are involved. And as we get into spring practice, it’s really I think the way everybody on the team is going to be judged – not just Gary. All the quarterbacks and every player.
Like much of the Big Ten this spring, nothing is guaranteed at quarterback, and Nova will see a challenge from redshirt sophomore Blake Rankin, redshirt freshman Chris Laviano and junior Mike Bimonte.
Nova is a heavy favorite, given his experience level versus the rest of the contenders, but spring will be vitally important to the senior's chances of staying the starter.
12. Illinois QB Wes Lunt
Yes, there will be a quarterback battle in Champaign this spring, but based on pure talent, Wes Lunt seems like the right fit for what Illinois wants to do offensively.
After an up-and-down freshman season at Oklahoma State, he decided to transfer rather than be buried on the depth chart. He came home to the state of Illinois, and after a year learning the system, he could be a great quarterback for the Illini.
Lunt didn't take long to win over his teammates, as fellow quarterback Chase Haslett noticed his natural talent from the moment he walked onto campus.
“My dad (Jim Haslett) asked me about him, and I just tell the same thing to him that I tell everyone else,” Chase Haslett said, via Matt Daniels of The News-Gazette. “He has all the features of Tom Brady. He’s smart, tall and has a great arm.”
In his only season in Stillwater in 2012, Lunt had a completion rate of 61.8 percent for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns to seven interceptions.
His arm strength has never been questioned, but his decision-making was in Stillwater. A year under his belt and three more years of eligibility make him an intriguing talent to watch.
As long as he holds off the more multi-dimensional Aaron Bailey, Lunt could be a long-term answer to the Illini QB conundrum.
11. Indiana QB Tre Roberson
If you look at who has the strongest quarterback group in the Big Ten, there is but one answer for the No. 1 ranking—Indiana. That's because they have the unenviable task of having two starting quarterbacks who perform different roles equally well.
After a promising freshman season, it appeared Tre Roberson was going to be the starter in his sophomore year. Then he broke his leg against UMass in the second game of the 2012 season.
Roberson redshirted, and in the meantime, Nate Sudfeld got reps that made him the starter after a few weeks into the 2013 season. However, it wasn't long before Roberson's talents forced him into game action.
Entering the 2014 spring practice season, the Hoosiers have a difficult task, and counting Roberson out of the race isn't going to be easy.
10. Maryland QB C.J. Brown
The fate of head coach Randy Edsall at Maryland could be tied to the performance of senior-to-be C.J. Brown, and that may not be the best of options. Brown finished last year completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes, and he had only 13 passing touchdowns.
Those are not exactly earth-shattering numbers, especially when you consider he nearly had as many rushing TDs (12) as he had passing TDs.
However, the good news in College Park is that Brown made a significant jump in his second year as the starter. He upped his completion percentage from under 50 percent (49.4) to 58.9 percent this season.
He also managed to put his TD to INT ratio in the right direction, after throwing seven touchdowns to six interceptions in his sophomore year in 2011.
The question is: Can Brown and the Terrapins make bigger strides heading into a new conference that is famous for physical football? He needs to show he has a better command of the passing game, but his job is not in jeopardy.
If he can remain healthy, he may end up being one of the better quarterbacks in his new home, but history tells us that may be a big if.
9. Purdue QB Danny Etling
It didn't take new head coach Darrell Hazell long to figure out that there was no time like the present to look to the future. Not even halfway through the season, he made the switch at quarterback and handed the keys to the offense to freshman Danny Etling.
There were bumps along the road to be sure, but despite those bumps, we got glimpses of a quarterback who is more than capable of being what Purdue needs in Hazell and John Shoops' offense.
After being thrown into the deep end without swimming lessons, Etling finished his freshman season completing 55.8 percent of his passes for 1,690 yards with 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions.
No doubt those numbers indicated things to work on, but they were a huge improvement over Rob Henry, who had four touchdowns and six interceptions in five games as the starter.
This spring is a key moment for Etling, as he needs to be a leader for this team who sparks change from within.
Having the tools and putting them together on a consistent basis are two different things; however, he showed enough to be positive about where he is heading into the 2014 season.
8. Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian
Northwestern got a glimpse of life without Kain Colter at quarterback earlier than expected, and it wasn't what it was expecting either. Junior Trevor Siemian was a bit disappointing on his own, completing 59.8 percent of his passes for 2,143 yards and 11 touchdowns to nine interceptions.
Those are not bad numbers, but they're also not the dynamic numbers the Wildcats desire out of their quarterback, especially one who was supposed to be a passing specialist.
It wasn't a lack of weapons either, as Northwestern proved to be stacked at wide receiver throughout the year. The Joneses combined for 109 receptions, 1,298 yards and eight touchdowns on the year.
Siemian enters 2014 spring practice with some questioning his ability to be the go-to quarterback in Evanston, Ill., and it is a fair question to be asking, considering his 2013 output.
A closer examination of his first year doesn't inspire more confidence either. He completed just 59 percent of his passes for 1,312 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
He needs a strong spring to hold off a challenge from the likes of Matt Alviti or junior Zack Oliver. Like much of the Big Ten, nothing will be guaranteed for the senior signal-caller, but with his two years of experience, he has a big advantage in his favor.
7. Wisconsin QB Joel Stave
Stave is a classic example of a quarterback who is improving but just not fast enough for fans or coaches.
A bare look at the numbers suggests he was actually one of the more efficient passers in the Big Ten in 2013. He completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards and had more than 20 touchdowns. He finished third in completion percentage, tied for second in passing touchdowns and sixth in passing average amongst Big Ten QBs.
For a quarterback at Wisconsin, it's hard to argue that those numbers don't work, especially given the emphasis on the passing game as a complementary element on offense.
However, he also had issues with accuracy on the one thing needed out of a Badgers QB—the deep ball. He missed star receiver Jared Abbrederis at least a half-dozen times for sure deep touchdowns, and that needs to improve.
Stave's story is an impressive one, as he went from walk-on to starter in his redshirt freshman year and then became the full-time starter last season. Yet, the question in Madison is: Did Wisconsin see his ceiling in 2013?
If so, it could be time to look for a more dynamic option at QB—something head coach Gary Andersen has been upfront about wanting since Day 1 in Madison.
6. Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld
Usually the saying goes, "If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any."
While that may be true in most places, it wasn't true in Bloomington, Ind. in 2013. The two quarterbacks combined to help form one of the most dynamic offenses the B1G saw in 2013. The Hoosiers finished first in passing offense and second in scoring and total offense in the conference.
Earlier we featured quarterback Tre Roberson, but the better passing quarterback on the roster happens to be Nate Sudfeld.
Both bring good pedigree to the table, but the offense had vastly different characteristics based on who was under center.
Sudfeld's 2013 numbers suggest he is one of the best passing quarterbacks in the Big Ten entering 2014. He completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns to nine interceptions.
The sophomore finished 2012 fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game, averaging 210.2 yards while also ranking fifth in completion percentage.
However, in the biggest situations, he struggled at times with his accuracy. It's the one thing that he needs to improve upon to stay the starting quarterback, because he doesn't have the extra gear in the run game that Roberson possesses.
One thing that became clear in 2013 for the Hoosiers is that they have a difficult QB situation on hand. In 2014, that situation needs to be figured out, or it could mean bye-bye for head coach Kevin Wilson.
5. Iowa QB Jake Rudock
There were two big surprises in the Big Ten last year, and Iowa was one of them. The Hawkeyes went from 4-8 to 8-4 overnight, and a lot of their success can be directly related to the introduction of Jake Rudock at quarterback.
Iowa's redshirt sophomore battled hard all season long and managed to add a dynamic element at quarterback that didn't exist the season before.
He finished 2013 with a 59 percent completion rate, 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns. In addition to those numbers, he also added a small running dimension with 218 yards and five touchdowns.
He was far from perfect, throwing 13 interceptions; however, he took the offense from boring to interesting in just one offseason.
He has the "It factor," and with all the changes going on around the Big Ten, he has the ability to be one of the leaders in the conference.
If more than 2,300 yards was a jumping-off point for the soon-to-be junior QB, the Big Ten West could be a three-team race in 2014 after all.
4. Michigan QB Devin Gardner
There isn't a more polarizing quarterback in the Big Ten than Michigan's Devin Gardner, and after watching his 2013 season, you can see why. He had glimpses of greatness (Notre Dame and Ohio State) followed up by utterly disappointing results.
He threw for more than 200 yards in eight of his 12 games, twice going over the 400-yard mark and even throwing for a school record 503 yards against Indiana. However, he also mustered up just 98 yards at Iowa and 97 yards against UConn on the road.
It was that Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of his 2012 season that holds him back from being higher on the list.
Overall, the numbers are far from bad, as Gardner completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He added 483 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground as well.
Most schools would take those numbers, but then again, most schools also don't have a quarterback who can be so dynamic and so bad on a week-to-week basis either.
The encouraging part of his game was his ability to cut down on the interceptions. He had 11 through eight games but didn't throw a single INT over the final four games of the regular season.
He never saw action in the bowl game thanks to a foot injury, but it appears like he will be a limited participant throughout spring. As long as he is healthy, it could take a lot to unseat him as the starter in Ann Arbor.
With a new offensive coordinator, Gardner could be in for a huge season, or he will get passed over for a more prototypical pro-style guy in Shane Morris. Gardner may not be able to prove a lot this spring with his injury, but look for him to put in the mental reps needed to impressive the new coach.
3. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Rarely has there been a more can't-miss prospect than Christian Hackenberg, and he didn't disappoint in his freshman season at Penn State.
In one season, he proved he had the skill, moxie and leadership to be one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks going forward. His performance in the final minutes and overtime in the win over Michigan made him a household name around the Big Ten, and it was just a start of the big things that happened the rest of the season.
Let's not forget he also went into Wisconsin and threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns to end the season. However, he had a freshman moment or two, including a 112-yard, one touchdown and two-interception day against Ohio State as well.
With so many quarterbacks out of the conference and so many teams with position battles on their hands, Hackenberg stands out amongst the crowd. In his freshman season, he completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
That's as a freshman, and now he has a new challenge in dealing with a new coaching staff. James Franklin has a history of working with great passing quarterbacks and making them even better.
For Hackenberg, this spring will be about focusing on the little things and just parlaying his freshman experiences into bigger and better things going forward.
The thought of Franklin and Hackenberg together for a few more years could be a frightening one for the rest of the Big Ten.
2. Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Michigan State's rise from barely .500 to Rose Bowl champions may have surprised some (including me), but equally surprising is how it happened—from the arm of a quarterback along with a stingy defense.
It was surprising, given the lackluster offensive start to 2013, along with the weekly and sometimes series-by-series game of musical chairs at quarterback in East Lansing. However, when the dust settled, sophomore Connor Cook arose as the clear-cut starter.
He proved Mark Dantonio's decision correct by becoming arguably the Big Ten's best passing quarterback last season. Cook completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
Nothing screamed potential to be great like a career-high 304-yard performance in the Big Ten Championship Game win over Ohio State. However, he topped that with a new career high of 332 yards in a win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
If there was a better way to end one season, you'd be hard-pressed to find it. Now, Cook faces a new challenge—expectations.
As long as he keeps progressing, he could become the Big Ten's best quarterback by the time 2014 ends.
He has the skill set and confidence to do whatever he wants. Given the growth of the passing game from Day 1 to the end of the 2013 season, the completion percentage could easily grow to the 63-65 percent range.
If that happens, look for him to be talked about as the best QB in the Big Ten.
1. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Heading into spring, we don't know how much of Braxton Miller we will see, but we've seen enough over the last three years of action to know he is the best quarterback in the Big Ten.
He may not be the best passing quarterback, but that part of his game has taken huge leaps from Day 1 to today. He completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 1,159 yards in his freshman year and improved his numbers to 63.5 completion percentage for 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns.
In the past two years, he has combined to run and throw for more than 3,000 yards, and in 2013, he set a career high with 36 total touchdowns.
Miller has a chance to hit the OSU record books this fall. He needs 13 rushing touchdowns to rank in the top three for career rushing touchdowns while sitting at 3,054 career rushing yards entering 2014 as well. If he rushes for more than 705 yards, he will rank in the top three of OSU's career rushing yards too.
He needs less than 300 yards to rank inside the top 10 of OSU's career-passing record book, while five touchdown passes will tie the Buckeyes' all-time TD pass record.
The point is, Miller has a chance to be one of the best running backs and quarterbacks in Ohio State history while playing quarterback for his entire career. About the only thing missing from his resume is a Big Ten championship.
As long as Miller remains healthy, he's the best overall quarterback in the Big Ten, and he's the most experienced as well.
Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for Big Ten football. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens