One of the toughest positional races in the Big Ten in 2013 will also be the most important: quarterback. Four teams lost their primary starter from 2012 to graduation, and more have interesting scenarios where the incumbents may not keep their jobs through next season.
Not all quarterback controversies are created the same, of course; Michigan QB Devin Gardner is technically not a "returning starter," but he's in pretty decent shape, and there's no controversy whatsoever as to whether Braxton Miller's going to get benched at Ohio State.
So here's a look at each race in the Big Ten—even the boring ones—and where we think teams like Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State will end up in Week 1, just seven short months away.
This did not end well.
Incumbent: Nathan Scheelhaase (SR)
Challengers: Reilly O'Toole (JR), Miles Osei (SR)
Here's a complete list of everything that went right for Illinois' offense in 2012: [NULL SET]. The Illini were next to dead last in the nation in both yards and points, and significant uncertainty at the quarterback position played a large role in that season-long offensive meltdown.
Still, Nathan Scheelhaase is poised to be a four-year starter at quarterback, and those are rare jewels indeed. He's still got the same tantalizing dual-threat skill set, but he struggled mightily running Tim Beckman's new offense and Scheelhaase's lingering injuries didn't help matters any. Illinois needs Scheelhaase to stay confident and healthy in 2013, or his leash could be even shorter than in 2012, when O'Toole saw significant action.
Incumbent: Cameron Coffman (JR)
Challengers: Tre Roberson (SO), Nate Sudfeld (SO)
It seems hard to believe, but the Big Ten's most prolific returning QB may not start for his team in 2013. Coffman was outpaced by only Matt McGloin in passing yards per game with 249 in 2012 (McGloin had 273), and he's still got two years of eligibility. So the starting role ought to be his, right?
Well, Coffman was only on the field because of a gruesome broken leg that felled sophomore Tre Roberson in the second game of the season, an otherwise sweat-free demolition of Massachusetts. Roberson took a medical redshirt and still has three years to complete his eligibility, and if he makes a full recovery (which he ought to), he's one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
Coffman's also hindered by surprisingly low passing efficiency. He threw 15 touchdowns, yes, but it took him over 400 attempts to get there, and his passer efficiency for 2012 as a whole was 123.87, good enough for 78th in the nation (and eight spots below noted passing liability Denard Robinson). That's not good for a quarterback with no rushing ability to speak of to help balance out the attack. Nate Sudfeld at least threw seven touchdowns to only one interception in limited action, but he was a true freshman in 2012 and he's got a lot of room to grow as a passer still.
Roberson looked great against remarkably poor competition before his injury, and as a true freshman playing against almost exclusively Big Ten competition in 2011, Roberson's QB rating was 123.6, nearly identical to Coffman's in 2012 but with a stellar set of wheels attached. This will be his third season in Kevin Wilson's offense and only the health of his rebuilt left leg should stand in the way of his return to the starting lineup.
Challengers: C.J. Beathard (rFR), Jake Rudock (SO), Nic Shimonek (FR), Cody Sokol (JR)
Probably the most wide-open QB race in the Big Ten is the situation at Iowa, where James Vanderberg departs after throwing every single pass for the Hawkeyes in his senior season. Yes, a 4-8 team is the only one where only one quarterback accounted for all the team's passes, and that QB was the sensationally underwhelming Vanderberg. Wrap your head around that one.
As a redshirt sophomore in his third year in the program, Rudock appears to be groomed as the heir apparent to Vandenberg, and his skill set is similar—he's a dropback passer without a cannon for an arm, but he can zip it in. Sokol was a prolific passer at Scottsdale Community College (the Fighting Artichokes!) in 2011 and he's got a bit more size than Rudock, and he's firmly in the mix.
C.J. Beathard was a former Ole Miss commit who ended up at Iowa after Houston Nutt got axed; he won a "team leader" award while redshirting in 2012, though the other winners were buried on their respective depth charts as well. Then there's Nic Shimonek, and if there's ever a situation where a 3-star true freshman pro-style QB can step into a starting role, it would probably mirror this. Nobody else on the team has thrown a pass in a D-I game either, he was personally recruited by offensive coordinator Greg Davis and he was offered early enough that Iowa clearly sees something there. He's also the tallest of the mix at 6'4" and he rushed for 16 TDs as a senior, though that usage is unlikely to continue at Iowa. He'll probably redshirt, but if he doesn't, don't act surprised.
This starting spot could go to anybody, but of the four candidates, the only one who was both on campus and not under redshirt in 2012 was Rudock, and he couldn't wrest a single snap from the woeful Vandenberg. That doesn't bode well for his chances. Shimonek is a long shot, being that he's not even on campus yet.
So assuming Iowa coaches weren't keen on burning a redshirt for Beathard or Sokol in what was essentially a lost season anyway, the race looks like it's between those two—and Sokol has the benefit of experience at the JUCO level and about 30 pounds of bulk (Beathard is only about 180 pounds). Sokol gets the edge here, but by the thinnest of margins. Long way to go here.
Semi-incumbent: Devin Gardner (JR)
Challengers: Russell Bellomy (SO), Shane Morris (FR)
As QB races go, this one's not over, but it's basically a 100-meter dash that Gardner gets to start four seconds before anyone else. Gardner started at quarterback in the Wolverines' last five games and he would have led the conference in passer rating and yards per attempt if he would have qualified for recognition. Oh, and he's lethal as a scrambler. Not bad for a guy who looked miserable at the 2012 spring game and got moved to wide receiver before the first game of the season.
If there was any lingering doubt whatsoever as to Michigan's high esteem of Gardner, the fact that he went ahead and got a medical redshirt and thus an extra year of eligibility to stick around means the Wolverines have zero interest in letting him off campus earlier than he has to be.
Still though, Shane Morris is one of the best quarterbacks in this recruiting class, and he looks like a star in the making. If grades, injuries or just a crushing case of nihilism betray Gardner, Morris has the skill set to contribute right away. Just... don't count on it. Michigan would much rather redshirt Morris and give him three years to start without Gardner in the way.
Incumbent: Andrew Maxwell (SR)
Challenger: Connor Cook (SO)
The 2012 Big Ten football season had more than its fair share of unpleasant moments, but perhaps none were as awkward as the last drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl between Michigan State and TCU. After a back-and-forth affair that featured the most playing time for Connor Cook of the entire year, yearlong starter Andrew Maxwell was on the sidelines, trying to rally his offense in the huddle for one last game-winning drive.
The coaches then informed Maxwell that, no, Cook would be in for this drive—which he turned into the game-winning field goal as time expired.
So now there's a full-blown QB controversy to be settled in East Lansing, and it's one that's likely to continue into fall practices (and maybe into the season as well). Maxwell is still a fifth-year senior with the most experience under Dantonio and he spent most of the 2012 season beating out Cook, so he's got the edge for now, but it's safe to assume Cook's going to be getting a much bigger share of the first team snaps in practice this spring and summer.
Incumbent: Philip Nelson (SO)
Challengers: Dexter Foreman (SO), Chris Streveler (FR)
This job is Nelson's for the foreseeable future, as he took the starting role as a true freshman in 2012 from senior MarQueis Gray and sophomore Max Shortell and hung on for the rest of the season. Gray graduated and Shortell decided to transfer, so there are no serious contenders for Nelson's role at this point. Nelson can throw and run with ease (and he's surprisingly good running between the tackles), and it looks like he'll be Jerry Kill's workhorse for the next three years.
Minnesota does need a backup plan though, and Dexter Foreman brings some youth and athleticism to the table while incoming QB recruit Chris Streveler is a dropback passer with some life in his arm. He'll be one to watch in the coming years.
Incumbent: Taylor Martinez (SR)
Challenger: Ryker Fyfe (rFR)
OK, this isn't a battle at all, and even if Nebraska needs to replace Martinez for whatever reason it'll probably go with Ron Kellogg III, a senior-to-be who was Martinez's primary backup last season. Incoming freshman Johnny Stanton is one to watch too.
We just chose that "challenger" because we wanted—nay, needed to point out that there is a quarterback on Nebraska's roster named RYKER FYFE. This guy has the most "hair metal guitarist" name of all time! You think he can shred? I bet he can.
Incumbent: Kain Colter (SR)
Challenger: Trevor Siemian (JR)
This is less of an incumbent/challenger system and more of a platoon, as Pat Fitzgerald has no qualms with bringing in the strong-armed Siemian in for obvious passing situations and even fooling around with putting Colter at running back or receiver.
Still, Colter usually sees the lion's share of the snaps, and it worked out quite nicely for the Wildcats in 2012 as Northwestern logged a 10-3 season and firmly established itself as a legitimate Big Ten program.
Don't expect the QB system in Evanston to change much in 2013. The 'Cats had a good thing going in 2012 and as long as everyone stays healthy and in town, more of the same is in store for Northwestern (and opposing defenses).
Incumbent: Braxton Miller (JR)
Challenger: Kenny Guiton (SR)
There's not a lot of drama here. Guiton was heroic in leading a rally victory against Purdue when Miller was hurt for the rest of the game on a nasty tackle, and he's exactly what a great team needs at backup quarterback.
But come on. Braxton Miller's the best quarterback in the Big Ten and on a very short list of the best quarterbacks in the nation in 2013. No need to belabor this one.
Challengers: Steven Bench (SO), Christian Hackenberg (FR)
Penn State doesn't have a lot of depth here, but it does have a lot of potential. Bench was the primary backup for departing senior Matt McGloin in 2012, but he didn't see much time on the field as the vast majority of Penn State's games were highly competitive to the end. He also went just 2-of-8, though we're willing to chalk that up to youth and small sample sizes.
While the Penn State coaches would love to be able to redshirt Hackenberg and give him as much time as possible with TE Adam Breneman, who is redshirting as part of his ACL reconstruction surgery, Hackenberg may force his way onto the field right off the bat. He's a 5-star QB prospect who is expected to sign with Penn State on national signing day next week, and he is the complete package.
But learning an offense from a guy like Bill O'Brien is not an overnight process, and Bench holds a significant advantage here. Hackenberg may well start by the end of the year, but he's going to need Bench to struggle first, as Bench is the overwhelming favorite to start in Week 1 at this point.
Incumbent: Rob Henry (SR)
Challenger: Bilal Marshall (rFR)
Rob Henry is back for his senior year at Purdue after a knee injury forced him out of his 2011 season and he was crowded out of the picture at times by Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush at times in 2012. He's the only quarterback with significant experience on the roster, and he's still got dual-threat abilities even after sustaining a knee injury. He's your likely starter.
Keep an eye on former 3-star prospect Bilal Marshall, though; Marshall redshirted last year and was athletic enough to play as Denard Robinson on the Purdue scout team in game prep. Robinson incinerated the Purdue defense, so perhaps Marshall's not quite athletic enough to make teams think he's Robinson (but who is?), but he's the most intriguing of the myriad backups Purdue's got on roster.
Incumbent: Joel Stave (SO)
Challengers: Curt Phillips (SR), Danny O'Brien (SR), Bart Houston (rFR)
It's tough to call Stave an "incumbent" over a sixth-year senior like Curt Phillips will be, but lo and behold here we are. Stave and Phillips both saw decent action over the course of 2012, but Stave threw more passes and at a much better clip, so even though Phillips maintained the starting role in the 2013 Rose Bowl after Stave came back healthy, we're calling Stave the incumbent starter.
This QB situation could go in any number of directions. Stave was by far the most productive of the Badger passers in 2013, and the only thing that took him off the field once he earned his starting role was a broken collarbone, and that's not an injury that's likely to haunt him long-term.
Still, Phillips is athletic, and if he stays healthy and gets more reps in with the offense, he could improve well enough as a passer that new head coach Gary Andersen gives him the nod. Also, keep an eye on Bart Houston, a 4-star QB prospect who redshirted last season as he rehabbed a knee injury. Houston's perhaps the best passer of anyone on this list, but whether he can develop enough of a rapport with his seniors is another matter entirely.
For now, count on Stave to win this one, but Phillips worked through too many injuries to just roll over without a fight on this one.