Big Ten Spring Preview: Quarterbacks

Big Ten Spring Preview: Quarterbacks

This article is part of our Conference Preview series.


SPRING PRACTICE PREVIEW:

BIG TEN QUARTERBACKS

Spring practices are getting started all across the country, which means Rotowire will be kicking off a series of previews for some of the nation's top positional battles. For this article, we'll be looking at the quarterback picture for each Big Ten team heading into spring and forecasting a starter for the 2018 season. A large chunk of schools from this conference could challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, but some of its leading candidates -- namely Ohio State and Michigan -- have competitions brewing at quarterback. That's a common theme across the Big Ten, with arguably as few as four unchallenged for the starting role.

ILLINOIS

The Incumbent:Cam Thomas (So.)

The Challenger(s):M.J. Rivers (Fr.), Coran Taylor (Fr.), Matt Robinson (Fr.)

The Skinny: Thomas took over the starting gig for the Illini midway through the 2017 campaign but completed just 42.4 percent of his passes and posted a 0:5 TD:INT ratio over parts of four games. While it's a limited sample size, it's also an uninspiring sample. A dual-threat option under center, Thomas did produce on the ground to the tune of 233 yards and a touchdown. With Chayce Crouch retiring from football and Jeff George Jr. transferring from Illinois, Thomas may have a leg up on the competition as the only scholarship signal-caller on campus for spring ball. However, this competition could remain open deep into fall camp with three freshmen set to join the mix.


SPRING PRACTICE PREVIEW:

BIG TEN QUARTERBACKS

Spring practices are getting started all across the country, which means Rotowire will be kicking off a series of previews for some of the nation's top positional battles. For this article, we'll be looking at the quarterback picture for each Big Ten team heading into spring and forecasting a starter for the 2018 season. A large chunk of schools from this conference could challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, but some of its leading candidates -- namely Ohio State and Michigan -- have competitions brewing at quarterback. That's a common theme across the Big Ten, with arguably as few as four unchallenged for the starting role.

ILLINOIS

The Incumbent:Cam Thomas (So.)

The Challenger(s):M.J. Rivers (Fr.), Coran Taylor (Fr.), Matt Robinson (Fr.)

The Skinny: Thomas took over the starting gig for the Illini midway through the 2017 campaign but completed just 42.4 percent of his passes and posted a 0:5 TD:INT ratio over parts of four games. While it's a limited sample size, it's also an uninspiring sample. A dual-threat option under center, Thomas did produce on the ground to the tune of 233 yards and a touchdown. With Chayce Crouch retiring from football and Jeff George Jr. transferring from Illinois, Thomas may have a leg up on the competition as the only scholarship signal-caller on campus for spring ball. However, this competition could remain open deep into fall camp with three freshmen set to join the mix. I'd still give Thomas the nod based on his experience and extra time this spring but wouldn't count anyone out of this race.

INDIANA

The Incumbent:Peyton Ramsey (R-So.)

The Challenger(s):Michael Penix Jr. (Fr. - Early Enrollee), Nick Tronti (R-Fr.)

The Skinny: Ramsey split quarterbacking duties with Richard Lagow during the 2017 campaign. The redshirt sophomore wasn't benched during his first campaign under center, but a knee injury led to Lagow finishing out the final four games. Ramsey finished the season with a 65.4 percent completion percentage, posting a 10:5 TD:INT ratio. However, he ranked 100th in the country in yards per attempt (6.1), suggesting he didn't push the ball down the field frequently. Experience likely positions Ramsey as the starter to begin spring camp, but Penix has made a good impression early in camp, according to Mike Miller of the Bloomington Herald Times. Ramsey likely earns the "favorite" designation and would be my pick to start 2018, with Penix looking to unseat him and Tronti on the periphery.

IOWA

The Incumbent:Nathan Stanley (Jr.)

The Challenger(s):Peyton Mansell (R-Fr.), Spencer Petras (Fr.)

The Skinny: Stanley is one of the few established returning starters in the Big Ten for the 2018 season. He was an unknown commodity entering 2017, but he passed his first season with flying colors, ranking third in the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (26) while limiting his interceptions to just six. He does lose a reliable target out of the backfield in Akrum Wadley and wideout Matt Vandeberg, but his top two targets in 2017 -- receiver Nick Easley and tight end Noah Fant -- both return to Iowa City in 2018. Tyler Wiegers transferred to Eastern Michigan in the offseason, leaving a couple of freshmen and a walk-on Junior (Ryan Schmidt) to battle for the backup job.

MARYLAND

The Incumbent: More than they'd like to admit

The Challenger(s):Tyrrell Pigrome (R-So.), Kasim Hill (R-Fr.), Max Bortenschlager (Jr.)

The Skinny: The Terrapins boasted a couple of stud quarterback options under center entering the 2017 campaign in Pigrome and Hill. Pigrome ultimately won the starting job out of fall camp and got Maryland off and racing against Texas before suffering a season-ending ACL injury late in the third quarter of the upset win in the opener. No matter, Hill took over and kept the offense churning against Towson before he too suffered a torn ACL early in Week 3 against UCF. Quarterback quickly went from a position of depth to desperation mode. Bortenschlager led the team the majority of the way, but the Terps managed just two wins in Big Ten play. The offense will operate under the direction of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada in 2018. Bortenschlager will get the first crack at Canada's offense in spring with both Pigrome and Hill still rehabbing, but the duo will likely be ready to compete in the fall and should be the favorites for the gig to begin 2018. Hill flashed why he was a composite four-star per 247Sports Composite in his short time under center and I think he bests Piggy this time around.

MICHIGAN

The Incumbent:Brandon Peters (R-So.) (kinda)

The Challenger(s):Shea Patterson (Ole Miss transfer, awaiting clearance for 2018), Dylan McCaffrey (R-Fr.), Joe Milton (Fr. - Early Enrollee)

The Skinny: Michigan wins the award for the most complicated quarterback situation in the Big Ten entering spring practice. To be fair, clarity should arrive near the end of March, and it all surrounds the eligibility of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson. If Patterson is cleared by the NCAA, he would likely emerge as the heavy favorite to secure the starting role after completing 63.8 percent of his passes at 8.89 yards per attempt and posting a 17:9 TD:INT ratio last season for the controversy-ridden Rebels. If not, things could get a little murky. Peters would likely emerge as the favorite in that scenario with Wilton Speight gone via transfer, but he wouldn't necessarily be a lock following some questionable showings as a redshirt freshman. With a new coordinator (Jim McElwain) directing the offense, it's possible Dylan McCaffrey and early enrollee Joe Milton could enter the conversation with a strong camp and the battle could carry into the fall. Pick if Patterson is cleared: Patterson If not: Peters

MICHIGAN STATE

The Incumbent:Brian Lewerke (Jr.)

The Challenger(s):Rocky Lombardi (RS Fr.), Theo Day (Fr. - Early Enrollee)

The Skinny: On the opposite end of the spectrum from their in-state rivals, the Spartans have a pretty clear-cut situation at the helm heading into the spring. Lewerke emerged from the woodwork after a disastrous 2016 campaign to lead Michigan State to a 10-3 record last season. With an abundance of talent at the skill positions, he should improve on those number in his second year as the starter. Backup Damion Terry did graduate and leave some unrest at the backup spot. Rocky Lombardi likely enters spring as the favorite, with Theo Day and Mickey Macius also on hand to compete.

MINNESOTA

The Incumbent: Probably don't want to talk about it

The Challenger(s):Vic Viramontes (JUCO transfer), Tanner Morgan (R-Fr.), Seth Green (So.), Zack Annexstad (Fr. - Early Enrollee)

The Skinny: Minnesota had such a bad season under center during the 2017 campaign that they don't have a returning quarterback in 2018 despite only one -- Conor Rhoda -- of the two graduating. Demry Croft took over the starting job midway through last season but completed only 41.5 percent of his passes for 674 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions in parts of nine games. He transferred to Tennessee State following the season. The departures have left the Gophers' starting job wide open for some newcomers on the scene. Viramontes -- the top-ranked dual-threat JUCO quarterback per 247Sports Composite -- has received the most fanfare of the candidates. He started his career at California before transferring to a junior college and will have three years of eligibility remaining for the Gophers. Coach P.J. Fleck named him along with redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan, sophomore Seth Green and early enrollee Zack Annexstad as the four candidates competing for starting duties. Viramontes seems the best bet to start Week 1, but this battle should carry into fall camp.

NEBRASKA

The Incumbent: Pro-bound QB (iffy decision)

The Challenger(s): Patrick O'Brien (So.), Tristan Gebbia (R-Fr.), Adrian Martinez (Fr. - Early Enrollee)

The Skinny: Much like Minnesota, but for different reasons, Nebraska will hold an open competition following the departure of NFL-bound Tanner Lee. O'Brien has the most experience under center, though that amounts to just 30 total pass attempts. He and Tristan Gebbia have both been on campus for a season, but the real dark horse here is Martinez. The early enrollee is the only one of the three quarterbacks new coach Scott Frost recruited and may be a better fit the system Frost wants to implement in Lincoln. This is another competition that could carry over into the fall if nobody separates himself in March and April. I'm going to go out on a limb and run with Martinez as the Week 1 starter.

NORTHWESTERN

The Incumbent:Clayton Thorson (Sr.)

The Challenger(s):TJ Green (Jr.), Andrew Marty, (R-Fr.), Aidan Smith, (So.)

The Skinny: Thorson was in a position to potentially leave the Wildcats early to pursue an NFL career, but a torn ACL in the bowl game threw a wrench in those plans. Coach Pat Fitzgerald remains tight-lipped about Thorson's timeline for a return, leaving his status for the 2018 season opener against Purdue unclear. While he continues his rehab, Green, Marty and Smith figure to duke it out in the spring and fall for positioning behind Thorson and a potential starting gig if he's unready at the beginning of the season. If Thorson is ready, he's the guy. If not, I'll take Green due mainly to seniority.

OHIO STATE

The Incumbent: One of the greatest quarterbacks in school history (J.T. Barrett - grad.)

The Challenger(s):Dwayne Haskins (R-So.), Joe Burrow (R-Jr.), Tate Martell (R-Fr.)

The Skinny: Coach Urban Meyer suggested last week that each of the three quarterbacks -- Haskins, Burrow and Martell -- will receive a fair shot at winning the job. Despite that declaration, one has to assume that Haskins at least begins the spring with an advantage over his two competitors by virtue of serving as J.T. Barrett's backup last season and playing well when receiving an opportunity. While it was a limited sample size, Haskins completed 70.2 percent of his passes last season and led the Buckeyes back from a deficit to defeat Michigan at the Big House. It's an impressive resume for the redshirt sophomore, whose chief competition figures to come from Burrow. A redshirt junior, Burrow likely has one shot to earn the starting job. If he's unable to do so, it wouldn't be surprising to see him leave Columbus as a transfer in search of an opportunity to start elsewhere. The obvious seems the most likely here with Haskins, and Martell -- who enters camp likely needing a massive camp to enter the conversation -- is my pick to slot in as backup if Burrow transfers.

PENN STATE

The Incumbent:Trace McSorley (Sr.)

The Challenger(s):Tommy Stevens (Jr.)

The Skinny: You have to almost feel bad for Stevens. He's patiently waited behind McSorley for the last two seasons and will do the same in 2018. McSorley is the best returning quarterback in the conference, coming off of a season in which he completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,570 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, adding another 491 yards and 11 scores on the ground. While three of McSorley's top four pass-catchers last season are gone, the Nittany Lions still return a couple of talented receivers in Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins.

PURDUE

The Incumbent: Multiple: see below

The Challenger(s):Elijah Sindelar (Jr.), David Blough (Sr.)

The Skinny: Both Sindelar and Blough suffered injuries at different points in 2017, though Sindelar will miss all of spring practice after undergoing surgery on a torn ACL in the offseason. Blough underwent season-ending surgery for a dislocated ankle in November, but he will be available to lead the way during spring practice. Sindelar could be back in for fall practice to stoke the fire again in what could turn out to be a two-quarterback system for a second straight season. I'll hang my hat on Blough to start Week 1, but both should see the field in 2018. Redshirt freshman Nick Sipe and early enrollee Jack Plummer are the two candidates to fill in behind Sindelar and Blough on the depth chart.

RUTGERS

The Incumbent:Giovanni Rescigno (Sr.), Johnathan Lewis (So.)

The Challenger(s):Tom Flacco (R-Jr.), Artur Sitkowski (Fr.- Early Enrollee), Jalen Chatman (Fr. - Early Enrollee)

The Skinny: Meet another Big Ten team with unrest at the quarterback position. The Scarlet Knights started the 2017 season with Kyle Bolin at the helm, but that turned out disastrous, leading to Rescigno and Lewis conducting the group at various points the rest of the way. The two will likely remain in the mix for the starting gig, but the competition should extend beyond them. Redshirt junior Tom Flacco (Joe Flacco's younger brother) joins the mix after sitting out last season following his transfer from Western Michigan and true freshmen Artur Sitkowski and Jalen Chatman -- both early enrollees -- can't be counted out either. Experience may be on the side of Lewis and Rescigno, but new offensive coordinator John McNulty has not seen any of them play in person. McNulty will likely take a good look at all of the options available to him before making a final decision about his 2018 starter. Sitkowski could be a dark horse candidate but Lewis owns some elite traits and receives my endorsement.

WISCONSIN

The Incumbent:Alex Hornibrook (Jr.)

The Challenger(s):Jack Coan (So.)

The Skinny: Wisconsin enters the season in the enviable position of many teams in the Big Ten, boasting an experienced returning starter in Hornibrook. Although he had a tendency to turn the ball over too much during Big Ten play (13:14 TD:INT ratio), Hornibrook shined during the Orange Bowl en route to 258 passing yards and four touchdowns. He also ranked second in the Big Ten in passing yards per attempt (8.3), trailing only Trace McSorley in the category. With one of the best groups of wideouts the Badgers have seen in a long time at his disposal, he should be positioned for a good junior campaign. Jack Coan will likely serve as the backup once again in 2017, with freshman Chase Wolf and sophomore Kare Lyles looking to secure the third spot on the depth chart.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Benzine
Chris is a sports editor for various sports on the site and also a consistent contributor in the college sports arena.
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