Any conversation this year about the best Big Ten quarterbacks must start with Ohio State Heisman Trophy hopeful Braxton Miller. The rising junior as the skills, system, schedule and team to bring home the sport’s most coveted award.
That means everyone else will play to close the preseason gap.
Here is our countdown of the top QBs in the Big Ten:
1. Braxton Miller – Ohio State
There is room for Miller to improve as a passer. He threw for 2,038 yards and 15 TDs last year against 6 INTs. However, he also completed just 58 percent of his passes. Any minor deficiencies Miller had in his passing game were more than masked with his considerable running ability. He ran for 1,271 yards and 13 TDs. Perhaps the biggest question about Miller is how durable will he be this season? He got nicked up a couple times during Big Ten play last year and part of what makes coach Urban Meyer’s system work is his willingness to call the quarterback’s number as a rusher. That means the Buckeyes will not hesitate to rely on the legs of Miller – on a very short list of the nation’s most dynamic players. Miller attempted at least 11 rushes in every game last season and ran 20-plus times six times.
2. Taylor Martinez – Nebraska
Though Martinez is still more likely to beat you with his legs than with his arm, he proved more capable of beating teams through the air in 2012. Northwestern can attest to that after watching Martinez carve up its defense on the way to two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to lead a comeback victory. Martinez does still have room to grow as a passer, though he improved his completion percentage by nearly five points a year ago. He finished the season with a career-high 2,871 passing yards and could easily crack the 3,000-yard mark this year. Martinez also notched his first 1,000-yard rushing season a year ago as well. How far Nebraska goes this year will largely hinge on Martinez’ success.
3. Devin Gardner – Michigan
Last year’s starter, Denard Robinson, was a long-odds Heisman Trophy candidate until a nerve issue in his right elbow effectively ended his season as a passer. In stepped Gardner, who played receiver because his athleticism forced the Michigan staff to find ways to get him onto the field. Gardner, who caught four TD passes in 2012, stepped in and accounted for 18 TDs over the final five games. That’s not to say Gardner is infallible. He threw exactly one interception in each of his five games as quarterback. Detractors will point out that Gardner struggled in the final two games – the regular-season finale at Ohio State and a bowl loss to South Carolina. He completed just 51 percent of his passes against those two teams, though he threw for 3 TDs against the Gamecocks and accounted for two more against the Buckeyes. The Wolverines lost both games by five points each. With a full spring under his belt, Gardner’s playmaking ability will make him among the best quarterbacks in the conference this season.
4. Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian – Northwestern
No matter who takes snaps, the Wildcats offense finds ways to move the ball and light up the scoreboard. And coach Pat Fitzgerald couldn’t care less who starts at quarterback. Siemian is the better passer of the two. He threw for 1,312 yards last season with 6 TDs and 3 INTs. When Northwestern is going to throw the ball consistently in a game, Siemian sees the bulk of the snaps. He attempted 30-plus passes in three of eight conference games. Conversely, Colter is a dynamic threat who can throw the ball efficiently and run at will. Colter’s value as a passer comes in his accuracy. He completed 67 percent of his attempts in each of the last two seasons. That only tells half the story. Colter gives the Wildcats a score-on-any-play, explosive weapon who can line up all over the field. Last year Colter threw for 872 yards (8 TDs, 4 INTs), rushed for 894 yards (and 12 TDs) and has 667 career receiving yards. Stopping one of Northwestern’s two-headed monsters is tough enough. Fitzgerald doesn’t hesitate, though, to put both of them on the field at the same time.
5. Tre Roberson/Cameron Coffman/Nate Sudfeld – Indiana
This is perhaps the most interesting quarterback situation in the Big Ten. That’s partly because of the indecision on the part of coach Kevin Wilson and partly because the position is one of the greatest strengths for the Hoosiers. All three quarterbacks played in 2012, helping Indiana boast the best passing offense in the league. Roberson, easily the most athletic option of the bunch, opened the season as the starter before breaking his leg in Week 2. He posted strong stats in his first two games, but it’s difficult knowing how much to read into strong numbers against UMass and FCS Indiana State. Coffman stepped in to replace Roberson and played well at times – particularly in a near-upset against Michigan State and a win over Iowa. The junior-college transfer completed 60 percent of his passes on his way to 2,734 yards. Turnovers were a problem, though. Coffman threw 15 TDs, but also 11 INTs. The limited action Sudfeld received as a true freshman showed promise. He looked especially good in trying to lead a comeback against Ball State (in which Sudfeld gave the Hoosiers the lead before they allowed a game-winning field goal as time expired) and in relief of Coffman in a win at Illinois.
6. Nathan Scheelhaase – Illinois
How you look at Scheelhaase depends on which sample size you utilize. Those who choose to work strictly based on 2012 will have Scheelhaase much lower on this list. The offense first-year coach Tim Beckman installed didn’t mesh with Scheelhaase’s skill set, causing a significant regression. His 4 TDs against 8 INTs are especially alarming. If you decide to look at his entire body of work, however, Scheelhaase is among the more proven quarterbacks in the league. In 2010-11 under Ron Zook, Scheelhaase threw for 3,935 yards and 30 TDs while throwing 16 INTs. Beckman made sweeping changes on the offense this year, including a change at the offensive coordinator post. Bill Cubit has been tasked with leading an up-tempo attack and best utilizing Scheelhaase.
7. Joel Stave/Curt Phillips – Wisconsin
Injuries and ineffectiveness meant the Badgers ultimately started three quarterbacks in 2012. One, Danny O’Brien, decided to leave the program after spring practice. That leaves Stave and Phillips to compete for the QB1 spot. First-year coach Gary Andersen knows he needs more production from a passing attack that finished 115th nationally in passing yards. The run game will be there for Wisconsin, meaning whoever wins the spot should see safeties creeping up to the line of scrimmage. Stave is considered the more competent passer. He got the first chance after O’Brien played himself out of a spot and played reasonably well before breaking his collarbone. Stave could certainly improve on accuracy, but gives the Badgers their best downfield opportunities. Phillips looked like a prototypical game manager in 2012, though he manned the position while Wisconsin steamrolled over Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game and kept it close in the Rose Bowl. This is the first of many races on this countdown that won’t be settled until August.
8. Andrew Maxwell/Connor Cook – Michigan State
So inconsistent was Maxwell’s play in 2012 that coach Mark Dantonio opened the competition during spring despite Maxwell being the incumbent. More telling? Maxwell still hasn’t emerged as the starter. Instead, Dantonio will continue monitoring the situation in August. As a junior, Maxwell completed just 52 percent of his passes and topped the 60-percent mark just four times. His performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl was so bad that Dantonio turned to Cook – a more athletic option. Cook led a modest comeback to lift the Spartans to a win over TCU. Since neither player did enough to clinch the position, redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor and true freshman Damion Terry will get shots at the position. This should be a strong Michigan State team overall, though the quarterback position could sink the Spartans into the middle of the pack.
9. Rob Henry/Danny Etling/Austin Appleby – Purdue
Henry will enter August practice as No. 1 on the depth chart. True freshman Danny Etling, a four-star prospect according to Rivals who enrolled early for spring practice, is charging hard and will make a play for the top spot. Etling moved ahead of Appleby by the end of spring practice. If the coaching staff doesn’t love Henry or Appleby, this would be a great time to go with a true freshman because – even in today’s culture of zero patience – coaches generally get at least a one-year pass. Henry started part of the 2010 season before a knee injury derailed his career. Since then he has bided his team. Henry has experience on his side but won’t leave anyone thinking they’re watching the second coming of Drew Brees.
10. Tyler Ferguson/Christian Hackenberg – Penn State
With Steven Bench deciding to transfer to South Florida, the Nittany Lions have exactly zero career NCAA passing attempts from their two competitors for the starting position. Ferguson is a junior-college transfer who, one can speculate, did enough to make Bench think he wasn’t going to be the guy. Penn State coach Bill O’Brien – a title that still doesn’t come naturally – signed Ferguson after missing on high-profile JUCO QB Jake Waters, who instead chose Kansas State. Though Ferguson earned just two-star ratings from Scout and Rivals, 247 listed him as a five-star prospect. Ferguson’s only competition for the job comes from highly regarded true freshman Christian Hackenberg. Unlike Ferguson, Hackenberg did not enroll in school in time for spring practice, meaning Ferguson has a leg up in terms of experience in O’Brien’s system. Hackenberg’s talent is undeniable. His big arm made him a five-star prospect and the second-rated quarterback according to Rivals. If O’Brien thinks the race is close in August, he might well turn to the youngster and let him endure the growing pains this year.
11. Philip Nelson – Minnesota
After taking over last year at midseason, Nelson did just enough to lead the Gophers to a bowl game. Well, lead might be a bit strong. Nelson, a true freshman last season, didn’t exactly excel. He completed less than half his passes and – over his last three regular-season starts – went 27 of 61 for 198 yards with 0 TDs and 5 INTs. That’s hardly “unquestioned leader” material. Coach Jerry Kill officially left the quarterback competition open during the spring, but Nelson emerged as the leader. Nelson has the escapability and ability to be a playmaker with his legs, though he never had a breakout rushing game in 2012. His best performance came in a 15-of-22, 246-yard, 3-TD performance in a win over Purdue. How much better will a year of experience and seasoning make Nelson?
12. Jake Rudock/Cody Sokol/C.J. Beathard – Iowa
Please, Iowa fans beg, tell me things can’t get any worse. Such are the wishes after the Hawkeyes faithful watched consecutive years of James Vandenburg. Still, Iowa has no proven options – and none of the three unseated Vandenburg, who threw just 7 TDs during an abysmal 2012. Rudock and Beathard at least had the excuse of being freshmen. Rudock and Sokol have reportedly left Beathard behind, but any hunch coach Kirk Ferentz has will remain unvoiced until August. Whoever gets the nod will face the uphill battle of having to operate Greg Davis’ unimaginative offense and often stupefying play calls. Hopefully, for the sake of college football, someone plays at least well enough to avoid leaving Iowa fans longing for the days of Vandenburg.
Topics: Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers