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Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Big Ten position rankings: Quarterbacks

By Brian Bennett

It's time to hop back into our preseason position rankings, and today brings a look at the most visible position on the field: quarterback.

These are our rankings for the entire position group on each team, so depth is usually very important. With quarterback, it's a little different. There's no substitute for an experienced/accomplished starter. So the teams that have one of those plus some backups who have seen some time will get the highest rankings here, while those with unsettled or untested signal-callers will bring up the rear. Later on, we'll rank the individual quarterbacks in the league.

The envelope please ...

Denard Robinson
Denard Robinson is the most dangerous returning starter in the Big Ten.
1. Michigan: If there were such a thing as a half-season Heisman, Denard Robinson would have won it last year. It will be fascinating to see how he adjusts to a new offensive scheme and whether his running will be reined in, but there's no more electric player in college football than "Shoelace" when he's doing his thing. (And he's an underrated passer.) Tate Forcier left town, but Devin Gardner is talented enough to prevent much of a drop-off if Robinson leaves the game. Both must stay healthy, however.

2. Michigan State: Senior Kirk Cousins enters his third year of starting and ranks first all time among Spartans quarterbacks in passing efficiency and completion percentage. He's as steady as it gets. Andrew Maxwell got his feet wet last year as a redshirt freshman and will back up Cousins again. Joe Boisture retired from football for medical reasons, which hurts the depth. But that looks like more of a problem for next year.

3. Northwestern: Dan Persa was the coaches' first-team All-Big Ten quarterback after completing an FBS-best 73.5 percent of his passes and accounting for more than 3,000 yards of offense. Assuming he comes back healthy from his ruptured Achilles' tendon, he'll again stake a claim to being the Big Ten's best quarterback. Backup Evan Watkins gained valuable experience by starting the final three games, including the TicketCity Bowl vs. Texas Tech. But Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian competed with Watkins this spring, and Colter may have the edge for the No. 2 spot.

4. Nebraska: When healthy, sophomore Taylor Martinez is an exciting dual-threat player with game-breaking speed. He set virtually every Nebraska freshman quarterback record last season despite being hobbled down the stretch. Cody Green's transfer dealt a blow to the Cornhuskers' depth and means that if Martinez goes down, redshirt freshman Brion Carnes will have to take over. But Carnes was impressive at times this spring.

5. Illinois: Depth? Not so much here. But starter Nathan Scheelhaase gives the Illini a great place to start. As a freshman, he compiled 22 touchdowns on the ground and through the air, improving greatly as the season went on and had a huge bowl game against Baylor. Another year in Paul Petrino's system should mean big things in 2011. Illinois would be very green if Scheelhaase gets hurt.

6. Iowa: Junior James Vandenberg takes over for the reliable Ricky Stanzi. Vandenberg threw only eight passes in 2010 but started the final two games for an injured Stanzi in the pressure-packed 2009 season. It looks like this is his time. Backups John Wienke and A.J. Derby lack game experience, however.

7. Purdue: The Boilermakers have two quarterbacks who have each played in plenty of games, with incumbent starter Rob Henry and former Miami transfer Robert Marve, who suffered a torn ACL at the beginning of last season. Both players need to improve and find more consistency, though; Henry completed just 53.1 percent of his passes in 2010. Caleb TerBush is back after being ruled academically ineligible in 2010 and adds depth.

8. Penn State: Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden? That has been the question hanging over the Nittany Lions for a while, and transfer rumors followed Bolden after spring practice. The competition and another year in the system should help both guys, but a potential quarterback controversy could hurt the team. Bolden has more natural talent, but can he harness it?

9. Minnesota: MarQueis Gray takes over as the full-time starter after splitting time as a receiver and quarterback last season. The junior has the potential to be a dangerous dual-threat playmaker. He's learning a new system, but coaches liked what they saw from Gray this spring. There's no experience behind him.

10. Ohio State: The Buckeyes would have ranked much closer to the top of the list with Terrelle Pryor, even for half a season. As it stands, they have a muddled quarterback picture, with four candidates vying to take the reins. Senior Joe Bauserman backed up Pryor the past two years and can give the team a steady if unspectacular hand under center. Or Ohio State could go for potential and talent with true freshman Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes are likely to climb these rankings, but for now there's too much uncertainty at the position.

11. Wisconsin: The Badgers must replace rock solid two-year starter Scott Tolzien, and the leading candidate for now is redshirt sophomore Jon Budmayr. Though slight of stature, Budmayr has a big arm. He has played in only three career games, however. Wisconsin could rocket up this list if former NC State star Russell Wilson decided to transfer to Madison.

12. Indiana: Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker competed for the starting job this spring, but no clear winner emerged. Between them, they've thrown 29 career passes. New coach Kevin Wilson knows how to teach the quarterback position, and this offense will be friendly for passing stats. But the Hoosiers still have a long way to go.