Big Ten Football: Updating Every Team's Quarterback Situation
It might seem as if college football is the sport farthest removed from springtime, but the most dedicated college football fans know that a team's fortunes can be won or lost during spring football practices, especially when it comes to the quarterbacking situation.
Quarterbacks are often the difference between winning and losing in today's game. Even in April, coaches, fans and the media keenly watch for any signs of instability or change at the position.
With quarterbacks being so critical to the success of college football teams, it might be a good idea to get an idea about where each Big Ten team stands as we begin 2014 spring football in earnest.
Class years reflect the player's 2014 status.
2013 Starter: Nathan Sheelhaase (Graduated)
2014 Front-runner: Wes Lunt (So.)
2014 Options: Reilly O'Toole (Sr.), Aaron Bailey (So.)
It's always difficult to replace a quarterback like Nathan Sheelhaase, but it's just how the college game works. If you took a peek down Illinois' passing stats from last season, you might start to wonder if the Illini would have any shot at developing a passing attack in 2014.
Every pass thrown by a quarterback last season for Illinois was thrown by Sheelhaase, except for 21 late-game passes between returning senior Reilly O'Toole (12-of-16, 141 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT) and returning sophomore Aaron Bailey (2-of-5, 4 yds, 1 TD).
But Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt will be ready to finally suit up in a game for head coach Tim Beckman in 2014.
How confident are we that Lunt can perform well enough at Illinois to secure the starting position? Apparently his former coach Mike Gundy thought highly enough of him to forbid his transfer to 40 different schools, including the entire SEC and Big 12.
Gundy clearly doesn't want his Cowboys to have to face Lunt on the field one day. That speaks volumes.
2013 Starter: Nate Sudfled (Jr.) and Tre Roberson (Jr.)
2014 Front-runner: Nate Sudfeld (Jr.)
2014 Options: Tre Roberson (Jr.), Cameron Coffman (Sr.)
Indiana had one of the nation's most exciting offenses in 2013. The Hoosiers' 508.5 yards per game was tied (with Clemson) for ninth in the FBS in total offense. Unfortunately, the horrendous defense in Bloomington kept Indiana from winning more than five games last season.
The good news is that most of Indiana's offensive weaponry returns in 2014, including both "starting" quarterbacks.
Head coach Kevin Wilson flip-flopped all though last season between Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson, opting to go with whoever seemed hottest at the moment. Moving forward, we expect Wilson to make a choice and stick with one quarterback: Sudfeld.
Last season, Sudfeld completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns—all while splitting time with Roberson. That being said, Roberson completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,128 yards and 15 touchdowns.
When you have two really great quarterbacks on your depth charts, it's ever so tempting to use them both. Wilson might again mix things up in 2014, going with the hot hand or subbing based on opponent strengths or game situations.
Roberson rushed for 423 yards and five touchdowns on 85 carries last season.
Still, we expect Sudfeld to be the primary signal caller in passing situations, but it's nice to know that the Hoosiers have Roberson waiting in the wings when a dual-threat option is needed.
2013 Starter: Jake Rudock (Jr.)
2014 Front-runner: Jake Rudock (Jr.)
2014 Options: C.J. Beathard (So.)
If you look at Jake Rudock's stat line from 2013, there isn't a whole lot that jumps out at the eye. He was 204-of-346 for 2,383 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He also added 218 yards and five touchdowns on 67 carries.
Okay. Not bad. Pretty good, in fact. But certainly not spectacular when it comes to quarterbacks. But does Iowa really need stellar quarterback play? Sure, it's always nice to have, but it doesn't seem to fit into Kirk Ferentz's m.o. as head coach.
Iowa is, like most Big Ten teams, build around the run. Last season, the Hawkeyes' passing offense was tied for ninth (with Wisconsin) in the Big Ten while the run game was sixth-best. Given those numbers, Iowa's 5-3 record in Big Ten play might have been as good as could be expected.
If, however, Rudock can improve his accuracy north of 60 percent and become more of a passing threat, Iowa could be ripe for a run at the new West Division in 2014.
2013 Starter: C.J. Brown (Sr.)
2014 Front-runner: C.J. Brown (6th-year Sr.)
2014 Options: Caleb Rowe (Jr.)
First things first: C.J. Brown was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will be back taking the snaps for Maryland in 2014. Now we have to determine whether or not that's going to make much of a difference for the Terps in 2014.
Maryland could be the great unknown in the East Division come this fall. Maryland hasn't really been all that spectacular in the ACC lately (7-6, 3-5 in the ACC in 2013) and the defensive schemes the Terrapins will encounter this season are sure to cause some growing pains.
After recovering from a torn ACL suffered during fall practice in 2012, Brown was able to amass 2,242 passing yards in 2013, along with 13 touchdowns. That would have put him eighth in passing yards and 12th in passing touchdowns last season in the Big Ten.
Perhaps of more concern was Brown's pretty poor 13-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The ball-hawking secondaries of the Big Ten could make those numbers look like the "good old days."
Maryland also suffers from a relative lack of rushing prowess—not something you want in Big Ten football. The Terps averaged just 148.4 rushing yards per game last season, 10th in the ACC. With four of the nation's top ten rush defenses from 2013 competing in the Big Ten this season, Brown is going to face a ton of pressure in the pocket.
The only other viable option for Maryland is Caleb Rowe. He saw limited action as a sophomore last season, completing just 48.5 percent of his 130 attempts for 984 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.
2013 Starter: Devin Gardner (Sr.)
2014 Front-runner: Devin Gardner (Sr.)
2014 Options: Shane Morris (So.), Russell Bellomy (Jr.)
The last time we saw Devin Gardner, he was on the sideline, on crutches, nursing a broken foot suffered against Ohio State at the end of the 2013 regular season. But any lingering effects of his injury—or perceived lack of consistency when healthy—don't seem to be swaying head coach Brady Hoke. Yet.
Hoke recently told the Ann Arbor News that Devin Gardner would be Michigan's starter "if we played today." But Michigan isn't playing today. Does that open the door for young Shane Morris, who performed pretty well in limited action last season (including a start against Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)?
That's a tough question. Probably not, given Gardner's experience and dual-threat abilities. Morris is more of a pro-style quarterback that fits the old-fashioned Michigan mold. Think Tom Brady or Chad Henne.
But Morris is still very, very young. Although he did complete 61.7 percent of his throws last season, Morris averaged under six yards per attempt. That's not good enough to move Michigan much past last season's fifth-place finish in the six-team Legends Division.
There's also Russell Bellomy, who missed last season with a torn ACL. He's sure to find his way onto the depth chart, but where exactly he'll end up—ahead of or behind true sophomore Morris—remains to be seen.
Gardner already has a leg up on his quarterback competition at Michigan. Coaches didn't expect him to fully participate this spring, but his recovery has progressed faster than anticipated.
Regardless of who ends up on top, the Michigan quarterback competition is bound to pay dividends come September.
2013 Starter: Connor Cook (Jr.)
2014 Front-runner: Connor Cook (Jr.)
2014 Options: Tyler O'Connor (So.)
At this point last season, the Michigan State quarterback situation seemed murky, at best. But even after a slow start, returning junior Connor Cook developed into one of the best quarterbacks int he Big Ten, if not the nation.
Despite being completely unheralded, Cook won MVP honors of both the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl Game, and has his team focused on the future.
Even with some of the defensive losses at MSU raising legitimate questions about whether or not the Spartans can tear through the Big Ten again in 2014, the offense looks pretty solid moving forward.
Cook's maturation during last season has him guaranteed to be the starter this fall, lest something unfortunate befall him before then.
2013 Starter: Philip Nelson (Jr., transferred)
2014 Front-runner: Mitch Leidner (So.)
2014 Options: Surprisingly few
Minnesota finally took that long awaited step forward last season. The Gophers returned to a bowl game, making it back-to-back bowl seasons for the first time since 2008 and 2009. In the interim, Minnesota was better known for losing to the likes of New Mexico State, North Dakota State and South Dakota.
Soon-to-be junior quarterback Philip Nelson figured to be in a quarterback battle heading into 2014 spring ball, but that all ended suddenly when Nelson announced he wanted to transfer to a school that was more focused on throwing the football.
Nelson finished 2013 with 108.8 passing yards per game—10th in the Big Ten. Even though Nelson added 364 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, his passing numbers, including his alarmingly high interception ratio of six picks to his nine touchdowns passes and a 50.5 percent completion rate, were mediocre, at best.
So where does Jerry Kill go in 2014? There's only one other player on the Minnesota depth chart with any collegiate experience, and that's returning sophomore Mitch Leidner—now the undisputed starting quarterback.
Despite throwing just 78 passes in 2013, Leidner completed three for touchdowns and averaged nearly a full yard better per attempt than Nelson. Leidner also added an impressive 407 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last season.
Perhaps Leidner will be able to take the Gophers to the next level, challenging for a West Division title and a possible bowl victory this season—something that hasn't happened since the 2004 Music City Bowl against Alabama.
2013 Starter: Taylor Martinez (Graduated), Tommy Armstrong Jr. (So.), Ron Kellogg III (Graduated)
2014 Front-runner: Tommy Armstrong Jr. (So.)
2014 Options: Ryker Frye (So.)
When you have an undisputed returning star like running back Ameer Abdullah voicing his confidence in Tommy Armstrong's abilities, it's clear that the team is determined to rally around its quarterback.
Armstrong struggled as a freshman, completing just 51.9 percent of his passes while tossing eight interceptions on just nine touchdowns. Given the pressure-cooker the young freshman was unexpectedly thrown into, perhaps that isn't a galloping shock.
Nebraska has been slowly, but surely adjusting to life in the Big Ten, and the emergency of Abdullah is a great example of how even Bo Pelini understands that the old Big 12 way of building an offense might not work in the long term. Where Armstrong fits into this puzzle is still anyone's guess—again, given the rough performance he had in 2013.
As Armstrong matures as a full-time starter, perhaps we'll begin to understand the overall direction the Cornhuskers will be taking.
2013 Starter: Kain Colter (Graduated), Trevor Siemian (Sr.)
2014 Front-runner: Trevor Siemian (Sr.)
2014 Options: Zach Oliver (So.) , Matt Alviti (Fr.)
Northwestern has relied on the two-quarterback system for the past several seasons, and it has worked well most of the time. The rest of the time could also be called the 2013 Big Ten conference schedule.
Last season, injuries and a complete lack of rhythm derailed any shot Northwestern had at making yet another bowl trip; for the first time in six years, the Wildcats failed to make a bowl game.
It didn't help that Northwestern quarterbacks actually threw more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight) against Big Ten opponents in 2013. There was little consistency and even less growth at the position, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald is faced with revamping his offense for 2014 with the departure of Kain Coulter.
If the 2014 season began today, we would expect Siemian to lead the Wildcats' offense. But with some impressive youngsters like sophomore Zach Oliver and freshman Matt Alviti biting at his heels, anything is possible between now and late August.
Still, Siemian is apparently completely healthy (something we couldn't say last year after suffering through a bone bruise in his hand through most of the season) and he has the game experience that his competitors for the starting job lack.
If Siemian continues to develop and Northwestern can successfully pull off the switch to a one quarterback system, don't be surprised to see the Wildcats back in a bowl game next winter.
2013 Starter: Braxton Miller (Sr.)
2014 Front-runner: Braxton Miller (Sr.)
2014 Options: Cardale Jones (So.), J.T. Barrett (Fr.), Stephen Collier (Fr.)
Despite undergoing "minor" shoulder surgery and missing the meaty part of spring practice, no one should expect Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller to miss a single beat come kickoff time this fall. Not only is Miller returning as the Ohio State starter, he's also Ohio State's best hope of a Heisman winner.
Because we don't seriously expect anyone to truly challenge Miller for the starting role, the only thing that could derail Ohio State's usual lofty expectations now is an injury or some other off-the-field issue that might keep Miller out of uniform.
Barring those unlikely scenarios, we'll be treated to another season of the one the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks next fall.
The question now is how Ohio State can reground from its recent losing streak (gasp) with a very inexperienced O-line. With the Big Ten's divisional realignment, the Buckeyes will have to face Michigan and Michigan State in the regular season.
2013 Starter: Christian Hackenberg (So.)
2014 Front-runner: Christian Hackenberg (So.)
2014 Options: D.J. Crook (Fr.), Michael O'Connor (Fr.)
After the kind of freshman performance Christian Hackenberg displayed in 2013, it's hard to imagine new head coach James Franklin doing anything that could jeopardize Hackenberg's status as starter heading into 2014.
Hackenberg connected on 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. He also finished third in the Big Ten last season with 246.3 passing yards per game—again, as a true freshman.
With junior Tyler Ferguson—the only other Penn State quarterback on the roster to have ever taken a collegiate snap—transferring, it's becomes nearly impossible to see Penn State ditching a now-proven sophomore for any unproven youngster, such as redshirt freshman D.J. Crook or true freshman and early enrollee Michael O'Connor.
2013 Starter: Danny Etling (So.)
2014 Front-runner: Danny Etling (So.)
2014 Options: Austin Appleby (So.), David Blough (Fr.)
No one should envy the position in which head coach Darrell Hazell finds himself. Purdue is in the midst of an historic slump and is coming off of one of the worst seasons in Boislermakers history.
Just how bad was Purdue in 2013? Well, 1-11 is bad enough. But if you look at the one win, consider the fact that is was a victory over FCS Indiana State. Now consider that the win was by just six points. On top of that, Indiana State was itself 1-11 in 2013, and that lone win came against Division II Quincy. For the record, Quincy was 2-9 with wins against an NAIA and an 0-11 Division II program.
It should also be pointed out that Purdue finished last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, offensive yards per game and pass efficiency. Purdue was 121st of 125 FBS programs last season in both yards per game and points per game.
When Danny Etling replaced Rob Henry as starter, perhaps it could have been seen as turning the page on the past. But instead of refreshing a team badly in need of a rebirth, Purdue continued to struggle throughout 2013.
That leads us to the brewing quarterback battle that has emerged this spring between Etling, returning sophomore Austin Appleby and true freshman David Blough.
Despite the open competition, Etling performed fairly well at the end of 2013 and has been, if nothing else, consistent this spring. "Consistency" may not sound all that exciting, but for Purdue, it's something that has been missing at the quarterback spot for quite a while.
We expect Etling to hold onto his job, but it's certainly no guarantee. Etling, after all, was part of that 1-11 performance, and there's no one in the program that wants to dwell on the past.
2013 Starter: Gary Nova (Sr.)
2014 Front-runner: Gary Nova (Sr.)
2014 Options: Mike Bimonte (Sr.), Blake Rankin (Jr.), Chris Laviano (So.)
As if on cue, Rutgers has revamped its coaching staff and is flush with recent recruits ready to take on the challenge of the Big Ten in 2014. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, they're going to find their new conference a much different environment from the American Athletic Conference of 2013—in which Rutgers finished 3-5 in conference play.
While there will be plenty of room for movement across most of Rutgers' depth chart, most eyes are settling on the battle for the No. 1 quarterback slot. Returning senior quarterback Gary Nova, despite his name, has not been particularly stellar as Rutgers' signal caller. His 54.5 percent completion rating isn't overly impressive, nor is his 18-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Rutgers also returns Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano at the quarterback position while adding freshman Giovanni Rescigno. Nova, however, is the only returner with any game experience.
Last season, Nova and his since-departed teammates Chas Dodd and J.T. Tartacoff all combined for 22 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. If the Knights are going to have any success in the Big Ten, that needs to change immediately.
So what does head coach Kyle Flood do? We've mentioned Nova's experience, but that experience also tells us that Flood was so unimpressed, he benched Nova for the final three games of 2013. So can Nova recapture his job as the starter?
To do so, he'll need to prove to everyone that his days of head-scratching pass decisions are behind him. If Nova can capitalize on his flashes of brilliance and eliminate some mind-boggling mistakes, he'll likely emerge as the starter by fall camp.
2013 Starter: Joel Stave (Jr.)
2014 Front-runner: Joel Stave (Jr.)
2014 Options: Bart Houston (So.), Tanner McEvoy (Jr.), D.J. Gillins (Fr.)
Last but not least, we come to Wisconsin—a team that will likely start 2014 as one of the front-runners in the West Division. After not winning at least a share of a conference title for the first time in four years, the Badgers are sure to be fired up for another run at the Big Ten title in 2014 under second-year head coach Gary Andersen.
Lucky for Andersen, his job is made easier with the return of a solid starting quarterback like Joel Stave. Last season, Stave completed 61.9 percent of his passes (third in the Big Ten) for 2,494 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Stave isn't flashy and he hasn't been a particularly impressive quarterback. But with one of the nation's top running offenses, he doesn't need to be.
Some Wisconsin fans may want to see a little more from the passing attack, and consequently might be hoping for some shakeup at the quarterback position. But consider this: Stave has 455 career pass attempts while every other quarterback on the Wisconsin roster combine for one career pass attempt.
Early enrollee true freshman D.J. Gillins, junior Tanner McEvoy and sophomore Bart Houston may provide some positive pressure from behind on Stave this spring, but there's no reason to expect Andersen to shake things up too much at quarterback. The loss of Wisconsin's top four receivers from 2013 also points towards maintaining as much experience in the passing game as possible.
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