Take Two: Big Ten's top passer in 2013

June, 14, 2013
6/14/13
9:00
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Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

We're in the process of projecting the Big Ten's statistical leaders for the 2013 season. After forecasting the league's top rusher, today's Take Two topic is: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing this year?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten hasn't been loaded with premier passers and loses its only 3,000-yard performer from 2012 in Penn State's Matt McGloin. Although the league's next three top passers return, two of them, Indiana's Cameron Coffman and Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell, are fighting to retain their starting jobs for the season. Although there's no shortage of quarterbacks with starting experience or significant playing time around the league, few have shown the ability to consistently put up big passing totals.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Taylor Martinez passed for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
My pick comes down to three quarterbacks: Michigan's Devin Gardner, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller. If I knew Indiana's or Penn State's starting quarterback, I might include them in the race because of those teams' strength at wide receiver and tight end. But that's too risky right now. Gardner started just five games for Michigan, but averaged 243.8 pass yards in those contests. His numbers could go up as Michigan moves away from the spread and into a pro-style system. Gardner had a strong spring, and Michigan wants to keep him in the pocket more often than not. Miller also should up bigger passing totals as he enters his second year in Ohio State's offense and should have more help at the wide receiver spot. He's such a talented runner, but the Buckeyes don't want to take too many chances with his health, and the coaches see good potential for his growth as a passer.

Gardner and Miller are solid choices, but I'm going with Martinez here. His passing numbers soared from 2011 to 2012, as he completed nearly 6 percent more passes, nearly 800 more yards and threw 10 more touchdowns. He's fully comfortable with the offense under coordinator Tim Beck and should enter the season at 100 percent, health-wise. Nebraska also returns top wide receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. The Huskers need some help at tight end but have recruited well at tight end and have warmed up more and more to the pass under Beck. Martinez will finish his career with every significant Nebraska passing record, and he'll also top the Big Ten's passing yards chart as a senior.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

If I were confident Indiana would go with one quarterback all season, my pick would be the Hoosiers' starter. Don't forget that Coffman is the leading returning passer in the league (in terms of yards per game), or that IU led the conference in passing yards this season. But I suspect Kevin Wilson will end up juggling quarterbacks and using some combination of Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson. Can I say my choice is Cam Roberfeld?

I guess not. So I'll go with the next best option: Michigan's Devin Gardner. As Adam mentioned, Gardner posted big passing numbers last year after taking over for Denard Robinson down the stretch, and that was without a lot of practice during the year at quarterback (he split time there and at receiver). By all accounts, Gardner has had a fantastic offseason, and Al Borges must be foaming at the mouth at the prospect of finally unleashing a true pro-style offense.

Gardner's five-game numbers last year project to more than 3,000 yards passing over a full 13-game season. I don't know if he'll get all the way there, and losing veteran receiver Roy Roundtree doesn't help. But he's still got big-play man Jeremy Gallon to target, as well as promising young receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, plus talented tight end Devin Funchess. Gardner completed 59.5 percent of his passes last year, a rate I expect to go way up with a full offseason as the starting quarterback under his belt. Michigan will look to run the ball a lot as well. But the Wolverines won't have to accommodate the talents of Robinson, and Gardner won't run as much as Nebraska's Martinez.

Plus, Michigan doesn't have any other experienced options, so Gardner will likely take just about every snap. That makes him a safe pick to lead the league in passing yards.

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