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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Ranking the Big Ten’s Class of Quarterbacks

Another Wisconsin-themed hypothetical question: Where would you have ranked the Badgers’ quarterbacks against the rest of the Big Ten if Danny O’Brien had instead opted for, say, Penn State? If Wisconsin had gone into 2012 with options like Joe Brennan and Jon Budmayr, it would have joined Michigan State as the only two teams in the conference to not return a quarterback with at least one career start under his belt. So consider the toppling dominoes: O’Brien should start, which should push Brennan into a more fitting role as his backup, which will allow Budmayr to heal and former walk-on Joel Stave to develop.

With O’Brien in the fold, completing each Big Ten team’s depth chart at quarterback, it’s a fair time to take stock of the conference’s power rankings at the position. When discussing each team’s quarterback strengths and weaknesses, it’s important to take into account not only the starter but also his backup — Northwestern, Purdue and Ohio State learned the value of a good backup in 2011.

1. Michigan (Starter: Denard Robinson, Backup: Devin Gardner) The Wolverines are the only team in the Big Ten with a legitimate Heisman contender under center; Michigan is also one of only two teams with a quarterback with two years of undisturbed starting experience. Robinson slowly began reeling in the interceptions over the second half of last season while retaining his all-hands-on-deck running style, which bodes well for his second season in Al Borges’ less frenetic offense. Like any quarterback in his situation, it’s natural to expect Robinson to have an even greater comfort level with this offense in 2012. His backup, Gardner, would start for at least a third of the teams in the Big Ten.

2. Iowa (Starter: James Vandenberg; Backup: Jake Rudock) With the departure of Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson, Vandenberg becomes the best passing quarterback in the Big Ten. He might have ranked second in the league last fall — behind Wilson — when he threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns, the latter total tied with Cousins for second-most in the conference. An interesting battle is brewing behind Vandenberg. Iowa could go with Rudock, a redshirt freshman, or JUCO transfer Cody Sokol, a midyear arrival. It depends on how Iowa views the future at the position: Sokol has three years to play two, so he could redshirt this fall and battle Rudock for the starting job in 2013. Would-be reserve A.J. Derby left the program over the winter, though he may have changed positions anyway.

3. Ohio State (Starter: Braxton Miller; Backup: Kenny Guiton) There’s a chance that by the conclusion of his sophomore season, Miller is looked at as the best quarterback in the Big Ten. That sort of development hinges greatly on two factors: one, his ability to grasp Urban Meyer’s new system on the fly; and two, whether the Buckeyes have the sort of supporting cast needed to run Meyer’s offense at full capacity. Guiton was a contender for the starting role last fall, when the Buckeyes opened auditions for Terrelle Pryor’s old spot, but twice missed his shot — first to Joe Bauserman, then to Miller. I’m not sure if O.S.U. plans to work him into certain packages, but Guiton does have some game experience.

4. Nebraska (Starter: Taylor Martinez; Backup: Brion Carnes) Martinez spent his spring break enjoying the sun, but not in the way you think: He was in California, where he worked alongside Washington’s Keith Price and Nevada’s Cody Fajardo with quarterback guru Steve Calhoun in an effort to fix his poor footwork and mechanics. Martinez needs this work, needs it in a major way, as Tim Beck’s offense won’t take off until it can add a consistent passing game to the Rex Burkhead-led running game. Carnes, the cousin of former Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier, may provide Martinez with a healthy dose of competition during the spring and summer.

5. Wisconsin (Starter: Danny O’Brien; Backup: Joe Brennan) Forget what you saw from O’Brien in 2011. Instead, look back to 2010, when as a redshirt freshman he threw for 2,438 yards and 22 touchdowns in helping lead Maryland to nine wins. That’s the O’Brien that so enticed Wisconsin and others, and that’s the O’Brien the Badgers will see once they combine him with Montee Ball, James White and a bruising offensive line. Bielema has had positive things to say about Brennan over the last few days, lending some credence to the idea that it push came to shove, the sophomore would have landed the starting nod in 2012. If Budmayr does return, Wisconsin should feel good about its depth under center.

6. Illinois (Starter: Nathan Scheelhaase; Backup: Reilly O’Toole) Like Illinois at large, Scheelhaase took a step back last fall. Like O’Brien, there’s every reason to think that a change of scenery — or a coaching change, in this case — will allow Scheelhaase to regain his freshman form. Or exceed that: Scheelhaase has the talent and athletic ability to earn all-Big Ten honors, and might only need a steadier hand and a push in the right direction. Tim Beckman showed a willingness to alternate quarterbacks at Toledo, which would mean a little more of O’Toole this fall. Seeing that O’Toole is the better passer, I’d expect both to see the field in tandem in 2012.

7. Michigan State (Starter: Andrew Maxwell; Backup: Connor Cook or Peter Badovinac) You have to start somewhere. Yes, Maxwell is the only projected starter in the Big Ten who doesn’t bring any starting experience into the season. What Maxwell does have is a suitable amount of game snaps — 51 attempts over the last two years — for a first-year starter. And a very firm grasp of how to run the Spartans’ offense. Perhaps most of all, Maxwell was able to spend the last three years learning the trade under Kirk Cousins. What should worry Michigan State is the backup position, where Cook enters the spring as the frontrunner. Badovinac is an option, but the former Drake transfer has only played in two games for the Spartans.

8. Penn State (Starter: Matt McGloin; Backup: Rob Bolden or Paul Jones) Or Bolden the starter, McGloin in reserve. Or a depth chart the reads Paul Jones, McGloin, Bolden. Or McGloin and Jones. It would be easier to guess Penn State’s thinking if there wasn’t a new staff in Happy Valley; all we can guess now is that Bill O’Brien is starting each of his quarterbacks from square one, making the spring and August a battleground for the starting role. Given his offensive background, O’Brien might be leaning towards McGloin, the more prototypical pocket passer. The slate is clean for all involved, including Jones, who has yet to play a down for the Nittany Lions.

Given how poorly Penn State’s quarterbacks have played over the last two years, what’s the justification for putting them in this slot, especially with Northwestern and Purdue still to come? Two reasons: one, O’Brien will absolutely get better production out of the position; and two, the Nittany Lions do have two experienced options to choose from.

9. Purdue (Starter: Rob Henry; Backup: Caleb TerBush or Robert Marve) The Boilermakers would be higher on this if we could safely assume that Henry would return to 100 percent — and stay there — after missing all of last season with a knee injury. When healthy, Henry is the most underrated dual-threat quarterback in the Big Ten. When he went down, Purdue turned the offense over to TerBush and Marve, with the former earning the starting nod while Marve worked in and out of the lineup in certain situations. Danny Hope has criticized Marve’s penchant for going outside the lines when under center, so the odds are that TerBush earns the backup nod. If Henry’s back at full strength, Purdue might warrant a higher spot on this list.

10. Northwestern (Starter: Kain Colter; Backup: Trevor Siemian) We know Colter can run, and we know that as a change-of-pace quarterback, he can be a difference maker. We saw this early last fall, when he rushed for 180 yards in wins over Boston College and Eastern Illinois, and again later in the year, when he paced the Wildcats to a win at Nebraska. What’s the issue? Whether Colter can be an adept enough passer to keep the opposition honest. Northwestern will go with more of a spread look with Colter under center, but he needs to add some balance to his game. Siemian is a pretty strong option as a reserve; he threw for 256 yards and 3 scores last fall.

11. Minnesota (Starter: Marqueis Gray; Backup: Max Shortell) Gray’s the starter if the season started today. Tomorrow? Well, it may be a different story in 24 hours. You get the impression that Jerry Kill would love one of Minnesota’s other options — Shortell and a trio of freshmen — to really push Gray for the starting role. You also get the impression that Gray needs this push, as a little motivation might help him carry his late-season improvement over to 2012. One thing we know: Minnesota has landed disappointing quarterback play in each of the last three years. Barring a step up from Gray, it’ll be four years and counting at the end of 2012.

12. Indiana (Starter: Tre Roberson; Backup: Cameron Coffman) How many quarterback are currently on the roster? Two. See them above. Indiana has lost than many quarterbacks with starting experience since the end of last season — not to say that either of those two departures hurt the Hoosiers in any way, shape or form. Roberson can make plays with his feet, but that’s not a requirement in Kevin Wilson’s offense; pocket presence is, as well as the ability to deliver the football, and Roberson seems at least a year away from becoming the passing quarterback Wilson covets. Perhaps Coffman, a midyear JUCO addition, can be the passer Indiana’s offense was lacking last fall.

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  1. Burnt Orange says:

    You are selling Colter short. Yes he looks to run first but with over 80 pass attempts last year, he completed 67%. Six td’s, one pick. Plus the kid has a little something when it comes to intangibles.

  2. wildcat6 says:

    I agree with Burnt Orange. Once the teams hit the field, Colter’s value will emerge now that he’s fully out of Persa’s shadow. Also, his arm will be healthier, since he’s still recovering from a torn labrum and biceps injury he suffered in high school.

    The only question is whether Colter will be a full-time QB, or whether he will split time with Siemian while moonlighting as a receiver the way he did last year. Coach Fitz seems to indicate that Colter is spending spring practice as a “QB only.” Also, Evan Watkins has transitioned to superback, thank goodness.

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