- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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When it comes to passing statistics in college football, 3,000 yards is a pretty good benchmark.
If you've reached that milestone as a quarterback, you're in pretty elite company. There were only 39 quarterbacks to do so in the FBS last season, and just three in the Big Ten: Michigan State's Kirk Cousins (3,316), Wisconsin's Russell Wilson (3,175) and Iowa's James Vandenberg (3,022). Northwestern's Dan Persa (2,376) missed three games and was limited in others, or else he might have made a run at it, too. No one else from the league surpassed 2,200 yards passing.
Of that group, only Vandenberg returns. The Big Ten isn't known as a huge passing league, so how many quarterbacks can reach 3,000 in 2012? Here's a breakdown of the top contenders in order of their chances of making it to 3K:
Vandenberg: On the plus side, Iowa will likely look to pass a lot this season without a proven running back, and new coordinator Greg Davis is a quarterback guru. On the downside, Vandenberg won't have favorite target Marvin McNutt, and he struggled on the road last season. Still, I think he'll get there and be better as a second-year full-time starter and senior.
Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois: Taking a flyer here. Scheelhaase threw for 2,110 in an offense that ran into the ground for the final six games. He won't have A.J. Jenkins around, and he'll have to learn an entirely new offense. But new coach Tim Beckman's spread attack could allow Scheelhaase to put up big numbers if the Illini can find enough weapons.
Danny O'Brien, Wisconsin: Assuming, as most do, that Maryland transfer O'Brien will beat out Joel Stave for the starting job, he has a chance to follow in Russell Wilson's footsteps. A tremendous running game means receivers often will be open. O'Brien threw for more than 2,400 yards as a freshman at Maryland. Then again, Wilson was the first quarterback in Wisconsin history to amass 3,000 passing yards, and he played about as flawlessly as you can play.
Braxton Miller, Ohio State: Miller threw for only 1,159 yards last season, but it took several games for him to become the starter, and the Buckeyes often decided not to pass much. He showed his potential by throwing for 235 yards against Michigan, and the Buckeyes were slinging it all over the place in the spring game. Miller's passing numbers should go way up under Urban Meyer, but 3,000 still seems like quite a reach.
Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State: Maxwell is stepping into the same offense that produced the passing yards leader last season in the Big Ten. But B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin are gone, and Maxwell has never started a game. I think he'll be good, but given the youth at receiver and strength on the offensive line, the Spartans likely will run the ball more in 2012.
Denard Robinson, Michigan: Don't laugh. Shoelace threw for more than 2,500 yards in 2010, after all. He looked much better with his fundamentals this spring, and if he can get some of last season's 15 interceptions to go for catches by his teammates, that will help. It's unlikely, but never say never when it comes to Robinson.
Taylor Martinez, Nebraska: Martinez's 2,089 yards were a career high last season. He worked hard on his technique this offseason, and the Nebraska passing game should be much improved. The Huskers probably run it too well to have a 3,000 yard passer, but I do see Martinez's passing stats improving significantly.
Marqueis Gray, Minnesota: Gray threw for only 1,495 yards last season, but did have some big games, like against Michigan State (366 yards). I'd be stunned if he doesn't at least eclipse 2,000 yards. But does he have enough weapons around him, and will his running prowess hold down the passing numbers?
Unnamed Purdue quarterback: Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve combined to throw for 2,500 yards last season, and that was with TerBush as a newbie starter and Marve coming back from injury. If one of them seized the job and played full time, then 3,000 could be reachable. But it's more likely that Danny Hope will continue to rotate snaps between those two and Rob Henry.
Kain Colter, Northwestern: The Wildcats will have a deep and talented receiving corps, and they're not afraid to throw it around. The question is whether the athletic Colter can become more of a true passer, and how much Pat Fitzgerald will utilize Colter's ability to run.
Tre Roberson, Indiana: Roberson threw for less than 1,000 yards last season, but only played in nine games. He is improving as a passer, and the Hoosiers figure to open things up more in the passing game. Ben Chappell led the league in passing yards just two years ago. But 3,000 still seems like too much of a leap, and the probable lack of a bowl game hurts Roberson's chances.
Matt McGloin, Penn State: Whether it's McGloin or Paul Jones or Rob Bolden starting, they'll have a chance to post some good statistics under the guy who used to coach Tom Brady. But we've seen nothing from the Nittany Lions' quarterback options to suggest they can have that kind of season.
In closing, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw only one quarterback pass for 3,000 yards this season in the Big Ten. How many do you think will reach that milestone?
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