It's looking to be a funny year for quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
Firstly, a substantial number of returning starters made as much of a name for themselves as runners in 2010 as they did as passers.
To begin with, there is a returning starter in Minnesota. The thing is, he was a starting receiver in 2010.
There is a maelstrom of quarterback controversy at both Penn State and Nebraska, and Purdue will have to decide between Robert Marve or Rob Henry under center.
Dan Persa should be the best returning quarterback in the conference, but he is coming off a late-season Achilles tendon tear, which brings into question his rushing abilities.
Denard Robinson ran up Techmo Bowl stats last season. The problem is he left 10 of 12 games with an injury of some sort, and he will have to learn a new offense.
And speaking of new offenses, the following teams will be employing new offensive coordinators: Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State. And new offensive coordinators mean, if not entirely new offenses, then, at the very least, a lot of new wrinkles.
Ohio State was supposed to have a returning starter at quarterback, but that didn't work out.
And then there is the Russell Wilson transfer to Wisconsin.
So, how things shape up for Big Ten signal callers is anybody's guess.
Nevertheless, here is mine.
A few notes
The players in italics are returning starters. A "returning starter," for my purposes, is any player that has started four or more games in his career.
Players in italics and bold denote multi-year starters.
Players with an asterisk next to their names were first or second team, media or coaches, all-conference last season.
No. 1: Dusty Kiel (So) OR Edward Wright-Baker (So)
No. 2: Adam Follett (Jr)
No. 3: Tre Robertson (TFr)
The combined career statistics for Indiana's top three quarterbacks are 32 attempts, 10 completions, 164 yards, 0 TD, two interceptions for a 61.80 efficiency percentage. They also have a total of 37 yards on 15 carries.
To further complicate their inexperience, new head coach Kevin Wilson will be installing a no-huddle offense. While the no-huddle aspect of it might not complicate issues for the new quarterbacks, the philosophy behind Wilson's offense will be much different than former coach Bill Lynch's offense.
In Wilson's offense, the Hoosiers will look for big plays. This is in comparison to Lynch, who ran a possession offense.
After spring practices, Kiel was still the No. 1 guy, though his hold on the position appeared decidedly tenuous.
The wildcard in this group is Robertson, who will arrive on campus in August. He is a dual-threat player, whose legs might be able to take some of the pressure off his arm and the offensive line in a way that Wright-Baker and especially the pure-pocket quarterback Kiel can't do.
Whoever winds up at quarterback, it is safe to expect a lot of bumps along the way this season.
No. 1: Braxton Miller (TrFr)
No. 2: Joe Bauserman (Sr)
No. 3: Kenny Guiton (So) OR Taylor Graham (RFr)
Last November, it looked like Ohio State would have been third on this list at worst, and first at best. Then the roof caved in.
Now, probability is they will start a true freshman not only for the first five games of next season, but for the whole year. Nevertheless, there are other options.
Joe Bauserman has served as Terrelle Pryor's backup for the last two years. He is 26 years old (that really should be illegal), a pure pocket passer and he certainly knows the ins and outs of the Ohio State offense. The problem is the offense with him under center would be decidedly different than it was with Terrelle Pryor, or than it would be with Braxton Miller.
The read option out of the shotgun would disappear from the playbook, and the off-tackle out of the I-formation would likely become much more prominent.
Taylor Graham is in much the same situation, though he is still a redshirt freshman.
Finally, Kenny Guiton is the wildcard of the already-established Buckeye quarterbacks, as he can play out of the same offense as Terrelle Pryor. The problem is, between Miller and Guiton, Miller has a much higher upside.
As for Miller, Rivals ranked him as the top dual-threat quarterback in the 2011 class. He is a much more polished passer than the top 2008 dual-threat quarterback, Terrelle Pryor was as a true freshman.
Still, Miller is a true freshman, and no matter what the offense or the situation, having a true freshman under center is less-than-ideal.
No. 1: James Vandenberg (Jr)
No. 2: John Weinke (Jr) OR A.J. Derby (RFr)
Imagine the situation. You're a redshirt freshman. It is your first start ever, and you are playing for an injured two-year starting junior who has led your team to a 9-1 record. This game is for the Big Ten title, and it is at the legendary Horseshoe in Columbus.
That was the situation that James Vandenberg stepped into in 2009, and he performed admirably. In that game, he completed over 60 percent of his passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns. He did throw three interceptions, but one of them was a throwaway at the end of the half. In the end, Iowa lost, but Iowa fans have kept the memory of that game on the back burner for two years.
Now, it is Vandenberg's time, but one has to look at Vandenberg's entire body of work. Yes, Vandenberg was as good as could have been hoped against OSU. On the other hand, he was pretty bad against Northwestern the previous week and Minnesota the following week.
In those two games, he completed less than 40 percent of his passes, threw two interceptions to no touchdowns and was sacked more times than I'd care to count.
Again, that was two seasons ago. He is now a fourth-year junior. Still, Iowa fans might want to hold their horses before anointing him the next Chuck Long.
Behind Vandenberg, Weinke has been in Iowa City a long time and knows the offense, but Derby is more versatile, and word is, the redshirt freshman is already playing as well as the junior.
No. 1: MarQueis Gray (Jr)
No. 2: Moses Alipate (So)
No. 3: Tom Parish (RFr)
New head coach Jerry Kill runs an offense that focuses on a deadly accurate dual-threat quarterback. At Northern Illinois, his junior quarterback in 2010, Chandler Harnish, ran for 836 yards.
In effect, in terms of athleticism, he has his ideal signal caller in MarQueis Gray. In fact, Gray is so athletic that he started at receiver last season, despite the fact he had never played the position in his life. And with 42 catches for 587 yards, it is safe to say the first-year wide receiver did pretty well.
However, now he is back at quarterback. It is true that he is perfectly suited athletically to run Kill's offense. The problem is the other part of the equation—the "deadly accurate" quarterback part.
On NIU, Harnish not only ran for 836 yards, but he also completed 64.7 percent of his passes. Meanwhile, in 23 career passing attempts, Gray has only completed eight throws. In short, he's got some work to do. Especially with only one experienced receiver returning and a revamped offensive line.
Behind Gray, Moses Alipate is a pure pocket quarterback that really isn't suited to Kill's offense. As for Parish, he could run Kill's O, but as a redshirt freshman, he is hardly ready.
In short, if Gray can become an adequate passer, he could be very dangerous, but there is that if. There is also the fact that if Gray goes down, the Minnesota offense will go down with him.
No. 1: Rob Henry (So) OR Robert Marve (Sr)
No. 2: Caleb TerBush (Jr) OR Sean Robinson (So)
Last season, at times, Purdue's quarterback two-deep contained two true freshman and a converted wide receiver. This season, Danny Hope must be positively ecstatic as he tries to decide between multiple quarterbacks with starting experience.
The two that have a realistic chance of winning the position are Henry and Marve.
Marve is a Miami (FL) transfer who started 11 games for the Canes in 2008. Of course, neither he nor Miami (FL) did that well, and he was subsequently benched. This led to his transfer to Purdue. He waited out the 2009 season as per NCAA regulations, and then took over the starting duties in 2010 before tearing his ACL in the fourth game of the season.
This led to true freshman Rob Henry rising to the top of the depth chart, where he stayed for the remainder of the season, except against Wisconsin. He was injured and did not play, which gave a chance to true freshman Sean Robinson.
Also, Caleb TerBush missed last season due to academic ineligibility, but he has regained his eligibility.
Looking at the PU quarterbacks, it was apparent to me that the Boiler offense wasn't that effective when Marve was healthy. When he did play, he completed an impressive 67.7 percent of his passes, but most of those passes were of the short-yardage variety. He also had four interceptions to three touchdowns. In the end, his efficiency rating was a lackluster 113.04.
On the other hand, Henry wasn't much better, completing 53.1 percent of his passes and throwing seven interceptions to eight touchdowns. His efficiency rating was 112.39. However, he was also the team's leading rusher with 547 yards, and, unlike Marve, Henry was a true freshman with no previous collegiate experience.
In short, Marve is the safer option, but Henry, who was voted a team captain in the offseason, is more versatile, has the confidence of his teammates and has a much higher upside.
No. 1: Taylor Martinez (So)
No. 2: Brion Carnes (RFr)
No. 3: Jamal Turner (TrFr)
And speaking of controversy, there is Taylor Martinez.
Martinez, along with that quarterback from Michigan, were the talk of the football world the first three weeks of the 2010 season. In that time, Martinez compiled an efficiency rating of 144.72, and 10.53 YPC (on 40 carries) in leading the Huskers over Western Kentucky, Idaho and Washington.
This was followed by a lackluster showing against South Dakota State, but he came back big time against Kansas State. This was followed by a bomb against Texas, and the rest of season was up-and-down (more down than up), which may have been a byproduct of nagging injuries, but then again, it may not have been.
This led up to a Bo Pelini scream-a-thon during the Texas A&M game, which was followed by a Taylor Martinez non-appearance the following week. This, in turn, led to rumors that Martinez had quit the team. Those rumors proved unfounded, and though Martinez was mediocre in his last two games of the season, he is still with the team, and, to the best of anybody's knowledge, is still the starter.
Cody Green, the former No. 2 quarterback, has since transferred, and the Huskers have a new offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.
What can we draw from all of this hullabaloo?
Beats me. I have no idea if Taylor Martinez will start for Nebraska, though Bo Pelini has given every indication that Martinez is his man.
I also have no idea which Taylor Martinez will show up, and I have no idea if new O-coordinator Tim Beck will have his 205-lb. string bean of a quarterback do less running.
I do know that Martinez was a redshirt freshman last season, and odds are he will only get better. I also know that right now, his inconsistency and the lack of proven depth behind him are concerns.
No. 1: Rob Bolden (So) OR Matt McGloin (Jr)
No. 2: Paul Jones (RFr) OR Kevin Newsome (Jr)
Penn State began 2010 fall camp with a quarterback competition, but when the season started, it appeared that true freshman Rob Bolden had securely taken hold of the starting job. Bolden wasn't great, but he was a true freshman. For a true freshman playing behind an average-at-best offensive line, Bolden did fairly well.
Then he was injured against Minnesota and was scratched for the next game against Michigan.
Enter former walk-on Matt McGloin. McGloin took over the starting position and held onto it for the remainder of the season. Bolden saw a few snaps against Northwestern, Ohio State and Indiana, but that was it.
Fast forward to the Outback Bowl. McGloin played every snap, and he wasn't pretty, completing 41.5 percent of his passes and throwing five interceptions to one touchdown.
Following the bowl, Bolden announced his intention to transfer, but Joe Paterno would not grant his request. Since then, things have been fairly quiet.
Both McGloin and Bolden participated in the spring game, with neither distinguishing himself that much.
So, we are left with a quarterback controversy in State College as we head into 2011.
In my opinion, McGloin has a limited ceiling, while Bolden could be a superstar by the end of 2011. Nonetheless, one still has to question Bolden's character. After all, wouldn't all of that transfer stuff have been better handled behind-the-scenes? Then again, I'm sure there are a million things I have no idea about.
Either way, Joe Paterno will have to decide, as the issues at quarterback (and offensive line) could be the only things that keep Penn State from winning the inaugural Big Ten East title.
No. 1: Russell Wilson (Sr)
No. 2: Jon Budmayr (So) OR Curt Phillips (Jr)
Shortly after Wisconsin's spring practice concluded—the spring practice in which the offense never put the ball in the end zone and the quarterbacks were horrible—news began to surface that North Carolina State's Russell Wilson was considering transferring to UW to play one final year of football.
As Wilson had completed his course work in four years but had not played his full four years of football, this was perfectly legal. Still, it was just rumor. Then, in late June, it became official, and Badger fans began to feel like their road to the Rose Bowl was paved in gold.
Count me as one that thinks the addition of Wilson to the Badger's lineup is a big boost, but I stop short at declaring the three-year ACC starter as the best quarterback—or even one of the best three quarterbacks—in the conference.
First of all, Wilson is a good quarterback. He proved that at NC State. The thing is this is a foreign offense to him, and one that is decidedly different than the one he ran in Raleigh.
In 2010, his offense ran just under 46 percent of the time. The 2010 Badgers rushed on just under 68 percent of their plays. The Wolfpack had 11 players with 10 or more receptions. The Badgers had seven, which was an abnormally large amount for them (usually there are six or even five players in that category).
North Carolina State led the ACC in passing plays of 20 yards or longer. Wisconsin came in ninth in the Big Ten.
I am not in any way saying that Wilson is going to disappoint a lot of cheeseheads. I am simply saying that he is unlikely to walk right into Madison and continue where Scott Tolzien left off.
Overall, the Badgers have a solid starter who has the maturity to quickly grasp his role in the offense and perform appropriately.
But he will not match Tolzien's 2010 performance.
As for depth, there was a reason that Wisconsin actively sought out Wilson's services.
Finally, in Wilson's three years as a starter, he traveled to Boston College once, and that was in mid-October, when the average temperature is in the mid-50's. He also once traveled to Maryland in late November, when the average is in the low-50's. Wilson is originally from Virginia and those games were the coldest climates in which he's played in college.
The average November temperature in Madison is 35 degrees. Welcome to the Big Ten, Mr. Wilson.
No. 1: Nathan Scheelhaase (So)
No. 2: Miles Osei (So)
No. 3: Reilly O'Toole (TrFr)
Nathan Scheelhaase surprised a lot of people by winning the starting quarterback job last season. After all, the redshirt freshman beat out a senior in Eddie McGee and a sophomore in Jacob Charest (who has since transferred), both of who had a decent amount of experience.
When the 2010 season began, Scheelhaase's inexperience was evident. In his first six games, he had an efficiency rating of 110.24 (93.84 against FBS teams). He threw seven interceptions to four touchdowns.
Then he, and the Illinois offense, turned a corner. In his final seven games, he boasted a rating of 151.51 with 13 touchdowns to one interception. He was also the second leading rusher on the team, logging 854 yards.
There is the question of how much the competition affected his output, as all of the ranked teams on Illinois' schedule—Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State—came in the first half of the season.
Also, he had lackluster performances late in the season against Minnesota, Northwestern and Fresno State. Illinois wound up losing two of those games.
On the other hand, he had a stellar bowl game, completing his first 13 passes, and finishing with 78.3 percent of his passes completed for 242 yards. Of course, that was against Baylor, who ranked 89th in the country in scoring defense, 104th in total defense and 114th in passing defense.
Last year, Scheelhaase had the benefit of playing in the same backfield with Mikel Leshoure, who racked up the sixth-most yards-from-scrimmage in the country. This year, Scheelhaase will have the weight of the offense entirely on his shoulders.
For the offense to be successful, he will have to be more consistent, and prove that he can be effective against strong defenses.
As with many other teams in the conference, if Scheelhaase gets injured, the Illinois offense will flounder.
No. 1: Denard Robinson (Jr)*
No. 2: Devin Gardner (So)
No. 3: Russell Bellomy (TrFr)
Denard Robinson came in second in the country in individual total offense with 4,272 yards. Of course, unlike most of the other top players on that list (with the exceptions of Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick), Robinson did it with a mix of passing and rushing.
After the first four games of the season, it seemed like Robinson was going to top 5,000 yards, and maybe he could have. The problem was, it wasn't and isn't sustainable for a 6'0" tall, 195-lb. player to take on the physical punishment generally required of a running back.
Consequently, at some point in 10 of Michigan's 12 regular season contests, Robinson left the game with an injury of some sort.
Unlike Rich Rodriguez, who did not seem to realize or care about this sustainability issue, Brady Hoke will not have his quarterback carry the ball over 20 times per game.
The question is can Robinson be the passing quarterback that Hoke requires to run his offense?
Robinson did complete 62.5 percent of his passes in 2010. Nonetheless, a closer look at his numbers reveal that in the red zone, where great passing quarterbacks shine, he only completed 44.1 percent of his passes to go with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
By comparison, Terrelle Pryor completed 69.1 percent of his red zone passes and had 18 touchdowns to three picks. Ricky Stanzi completed 56 percent with 16 touchdowns to no interceptions. Scott Tolzien completed 82.4 percent with a 15:1 ratio.
Certainly, Hoke is not a moron. He will tweak his offense to suit Robinson's particular talents. However, a coach can only do so much tweaking. In the end, Robinson is going to have to learn how to be a traditional passing quarterback. He will have to learn how to avoid turnovers. And he will have to learn how to beat teams solely with his arm.
That said, there is no more potentially dangerous quarterback in the conference. If Robinson can become the passer he needs to be, the Wolverine offense will be unstoppable.
No. 1: Kirk Cousins (Sr)
No. 2: Andrew Maxwell (So)
No. 3: Peter Badovinac (Jr) OR Connor Cook (TrFr)
In my opinion, Kirk Cousins is not a great quarterback. Furthermore, at least five of the quarterbacks ranked below him on this list have higher upsides.
Nonetheless, Kirk Cousins is steady and solid, and he is probably the safest bet of any quarterback in the Big Ten this season. Unlike every other quarterback in the top half of this list (except for arguably Nathan Scheelhaase), Cousins isn't entering this season with any big question marks.
Yes, he'll have a new offensive coordinator and that could make a difference. But overall, Kirk Cousins should be the same signal caller he's been for the past two years.
The good news in that statement is that in his career, Cousins has posted a very strong 146.65 quarterback efficiency rating. That is none-too-shabby.
The bad news is he has the habit of making ill-timed mistakes against good defenses in big games. Against the four best defenses MSU faced last season—Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Iowa and Alabama—Cousins threw seven interceptions to four touchdowns. Two of those four games were losses, and the Spartans would have arguably squashed Wisconsin if not for the two interceptions Cousins threw against the Badgers (both in the red zone).
In 2009, Cousins barely completed 50 percent of his passes against the top four defenses he faced—Central Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State. All four of those games ended in a loss.
Next season, Cousins will face likely top 30 defenses in road games at Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska, as well as a potential top 30 defense in a home game against Wisconsin.
If Cousins can become a big game quarterback in his senior year, he can elevate his status from good to great, and give Michigan State a chance at a second double-digit win season in a row.
Behind Cousins, Maxwell could win the cupcakes, but is probably not ready to go into Lincoln or South Bend and come away with a win.
No. 1: Dan Persa (Sr)*
No. 2: Kain Colter (So) OR Evan Watkins (So)
If not for one little problem, Dan Persa would be the unquestioned best quarterback in the Big Ten next season.
That problem is the torn Achilles tendon that ended his season prematurely.
Before the injury, Persa had completed 73.5 percent of his passes and had a 159.04 passer efficiency rating. He was also the Wildcats' leading rusher, and had a total of 24 touchdowns (both rushing and passing). This was along with only four interceptions.
On top of that, as the above video attests, he had that "it" factor. He made plays happen when it looked like all was lost. And remember, Persa is a Northwestern Wildcat. He is not surrounded by blue-chip talent, such as Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State quarterbacks are used to. He's not even surrounded by Iowa or Wisconsin-level talent.
Getting back to that Achilles tendon problem, he will have had nine months to recover, which is plenty for the average person, but Persa is not only an athlete, but a rushing quarterback.
Unlike many other rushing quarterbacks, his greatest asset is his arm, and that will not be affected. His second greatest asset is his "escabability," and that also shouldn't suffer.
The problem is the Northwestern running game starts with Persa's ability to be a threat, and that could be an issue. If Persa's rushing ability is hindered, the NU rushing game will be even worse than it was last season (ninth in the conference), and that might place too much of a burden on the passing game.
Of course, if any quarterback in the conference could handle that burden, it would be Persa.
Behind Persa are the sophomores, Colter and Watkins. Colter is a rushing quarterback while Watkins is a pocket quarterback. Both are battle-tested, as they came in for Persa after his injury. Still, there is no getting around the fact that as goes Persa, so will go the Wildcats.