Ranking the Big Ten Quarterbacks — Legends Division
By Tony Gerdeman
Last year we took a look at each of the individual units in the Big Ten and ranked them, hoping to get a working prediction for how the conference would shake out.
After being tallied up, the system actually proved fairly accurate, save for picking Ohio State first in the Leaders and Michigan fourth in the Legends. Of course, I can't be blamed for getting Ohio State wrong because the rankings were done before Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor "retired". Similarly, I can't be blamed for getting Michigan wrong because nobody could have logically predicted that their back seven wouldn't be terrible.
This year we're going to do things a little bit differently, as we're going to split these rankings into divisions, but the rankings will incorporate the entire conference.
Per usual, we'll start with the quarterbacks.
Starter: Denard Robinson (2,173 yards passing (55.0%) 20 TDs and 15 INTs, 1,176 yards rushing and 16 TDs)
Backups: Devin Gardner (176 yards passing (47.8%) 1 TD and 1 INT, 53 yards rushing and 1 TD), Russell Bellomy
Despite offensive coordinator Al Borges' desire for more of a power football look, as long as Denard Robinson is around, the Wolverines' offensive attack will more resemble Robinson than Borges. The plan is still to have Robinson carry the ball fifteen times per game, but they'll need him to be a more accurate passer in 2012. He closed excellently against Nebraska and Ohio State, but the fact remains that Michigan was 3-2 when Robinson threw the ball 20 or more times, and two of those wins were by three and four points respectively. They finished 8-0 when he threw the ball less than 20 times. How much he misses Junior Hemingway will go a long way in determining how Robinson does this season. The jump ball was a very important piece to Michigan's puzzle last season. That's not exactly something that great quarterbacks tend to rely on. The backup situation is semi-interesting in that Borges shoehorned Devin Gardner onto the field last year, and may try it again this year, though at wide receiver. The race between Gardner and the redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy is apparently a close one. Gardner really hasn't shown much in his first two seasons on campus despite high regard as a high school prospect.
Starter: James Vandenberg (3,022 yards passing (58.7%) 25 TDs and 7 INTs, 61 yards rushing and 3 TDs)
Backups: John Wienke (0-1 passing with 1 INT), Jake Rudock, C.J. Beathard*, Cody Sokol (JC)
(* Indicates true freshman)
If there was one quarterback in the conference that you want to throw the ball 40 times per game, it would be Vandenberg. He led the league in pass attempts per game last year, averaging 31.1 and completed 58.7% of them. His 3,022 yards passing finished third in the Big Ten and his 25 touchdown passes were good for second. With new offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who formerly coordinated the offense at Texas with both Vince Young and Colt McCoy, Vandenberg's numbers this season could go in a few different directions. Losing three-fifths of the offensive line, as well as running back Marcus Coker and receiver Marcus McNutt, who caught 82 passes for 1,315 yards, will do Vandenberg no favors. However, losing Coker may force the Hawkeyes to throw the ball more than they would have done with him, which could boost Vandenberg's numbers beyond last year's. He loses McNutt but returns a pair of receivers in Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley that combined for 80 receptions last year. Add in a prototype tight end like C.J. Fiedorowics, and maybe Kirk Ferentz decides to ride or die with his quarterback. The backup quarterback would appear to be Jake Rudock, a redshirt freshman from St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida. He is the likely starter in 2013.
Starter: Taylor Martinez (2,089 yards passing (56.2%) 13 TDs and 8 INTs, 874 yards rushing and 9 TDs)
Backups: Brion Carnes (2-2 passing for 26 yards, -6 yards rushing), Ron Kellogg, Tommy Armstrong*
In each of Nebraska's first seven games last year, Taylor Martinez finished with exactly 21 or 22 pass attempts. All told, he did it eight times last season, and the Huskers finished 7-1 in those games. In the games where he threw more than 22 passes, Nebraska was 1-2, and their lone win came against Penn State, who was playing their first game without Joe Paterno since November 19, 1949. Obviously, there is more to Martinez than just his passing game, but when a team is worse off the more its quarterback throws the ball, there's an issue. Basically, Martinez needs to become Joe Hamilton and stop being Reggie Ball. But it's not just his passing game that could be a problem, as his running game may remain an issue as well. In Nebraska's four non-conference games, Martinez rushed for 105 yards per game. In their eight conference games, his average dropped in half, to 52 yards per game. The Huskers and Martinez will benefit from having the same offensive coordinator (Tim Beck) for a second year in a row, but until the questions about Martinez's ability to throw the ball are answered, they will remain. Brion Carnes is a promising sophomore prospect who is still working out what he can provide. With two more years of Martinez ahead of us, it may be a while before we truly see what Carnes can do.
8. Michigan State
Probable Starter: Andrew Maxwell (171 yards passing (63.7%) 1 TD, -2 yards rushing)
Backups: Peter Badovinac (1-2 passing for 2 yards), Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor*
Andrew Maxwell, a rising redshirt junior, is yet another in a long line of typical Spartan quarterbacks. The recipe for Spartan quarterbacks generally is this: solid, with an occasional dash of spectacular, but can sometimes fall under pressure. Maxwell was a very good high school player who has been allowed to mature for a couple of years, rather than being thrust onto the field before he was ready. As such, expectations for Maxwell should match those of Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins before him. He completed 18-26 passes last season, so he has seen live action. He has been proclaimed the starting quarterback for a while now, so he's also had time to prepare like one. With 80% of last year's starting offensive line returning, as well as running back Le'Veon Bell, the impact of the loss of receiving targets B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Brian Linthicum should be lessened. Plus, there are weapons still on site to work with, but having protection and a running game will do Maxwell wonders in his first season as a starter. The backup quarterback is rising redshirt freshman Connor Cook, and with Maxwell nursing an injury in the Spring, Cook took all of the snaps in the Spring Game.
Starter: Kain Colter (673 yards passing (67.1%) 6 TDs and 1 INT, 654 yards rushing and 9 TDs)
Backups: Trevor Siemian, Zack Oliver
At times, Kain Colter was a star at quarterback and receiver last year, which gives great hope to Wildcat fans this coming season. However, much of what makes this Northwestern offense work is quick passing that relies on accuracy and timing. Colter specializes in mobility, which is how former quarterback Dan Persa got his start. Can Colter mold himself into the precise dinker and dunker that Persa became? If he can, he could be one of the most effective quarterbacks in the conference. If he cannot, he might find himself back at receiver full time. By most accounts, Colter had a solid Spring, though an unimpressive Spring Game. With a group of talented receivers to throw to, and three starters on the offensive line returning, if Colter isn't productive it will be his own doing. He spent the offseason strengthening his arm in preparation for the increased workload, but preparing for the mental side of this offense is just as important as the physical side. Backup Trevor Siemian is just a rising sophomore, but the staff likes him enough that he will probably see some meaningful snaps this season. Don't be surprised to see he and Colter to play together this season as the coaches look to put their best eleven on the field as often as they can.
Starter: MarQueis Gray (1,495 yards passing (50.7%) 8 TDs and 8 INTs, 966 yards rushing and 6 TDs)
Backups: Max Shortell (309 yards passing (48.1%) 2 TDs and 2 INTs, 14 yards rushing), Dexter Foreman, Philip Nelson*, Mitch Leidner*
MarQueis Gray enters his senior season having not yet lived up to his considerable billing. Of course, the first two years of that billing saw him splitting his time between receiver and backup quarterback. Last season, Gray completed just 50.7% of his passes for 1,495 yards, but he did rush for 966 yards in just eleven games. While Jerry Kill's offense lends itself to productive quarterbacks, it can sometimes take those quarterbacks a little bit of time to get comfortable. In 2007, Kill's final season at Southern Illinois, quarterback Nick Hill threw for 3,148 yards and 28 touchdowns, while rushing for an additional 357 yards. In the two years prior, he threw for just over a total of 2,000 yards. In 2010, Kill's final season at Northern Illinois, quarterback Chandler Harnish threw for 2,530 yards with 21 touchdowns and rushed for 836 yards. It was his third year as a starter, and the first that saw him eclipse 1,700 yards passing. This being just Gray's second season under Kill, history shows us that we shouldn't expect too much of an uptick in numbers. However, history also shows us that Gray's first year under Kill is pretty reminiscent of other quarterbacks' second year. There is no doubting his physical abilities, but the pieces need to begin coming together this season. Philip Nelson appears to be the future of Gopher football, that is assuming he isn't the present. A true freshman, Nelson participated, and excelled, in Spring football and Kill has already been on record saying that Nelson will either start or redshirt.
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