Friday, May 3, 2013
QB competitions rule spring in Big Ten
By Adam Rittenberg
Last spring, new coaches dominated the spotlight around the Big Ten. This spring, quarterback competitions took center stage.
The contrast between teams with stability at the position -- Nebraska, Ohio State, Northwestern, and even Michigan -- and those without stood out during spring ball.
Nebraska saw continued progress from Taylor Martinez, who enters his senior season as one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks and now must act like it by limiting turnovers. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller briefly became a blonde this spring, but he also answered coach Urban Meyer's challenge to improve his passing accuracy and scrambling skills.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald began the spring by stating his team could win a Big Ten championship with either Kain Colter or Trevor Siemian at the helm -- and he still feels that way. After providing a sneak preview of Michigan's future on offense late last season, Devin Gardner continued to evolve, gaining greater knowledge of the offense and greater responsibility as a leader.
"The Michigan quarterback is one of the largest figures in sports, honestly, and I have to be able to handle it," Gardner said. "A lot of people after practice say the guys really love me. That's really refreshing, that people can see it from the outside."
The Huskers, Buckeyes, Wildcats and Wolverines all should contend for a Big Ten championship this fall. If others intend to join them, they'll have to find solutions under center.
Eight teams enter the summer with some type of competition at quarterback, and while there aren't many definitive answers coming out of the spring, the session provided a few hints.
Wisconsin's quarterback pool is down to two as senior Curt Phillips and sophomore Joel Stave, both of whom started games last season, separated themselves this spring. Junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy will have a chance to compete in camp, but he'll need to make up ground to catch Stave, who shined in the spring game, and Phillips, the well-respected veteran who told ESPN.com, "I didn't come back for a sixth year and from all these surgeries to sit on the bench."
The Badgers have some nice options, as does Indiana, which welcomes Tre Roberson back from injury. Roberson admittedly was rusty this spring and will continue to compete with Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, the two who replaced him last season.
Several starters from 2012 are trying to keep their jobs, including Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell, who had some good moments this spring but looked a little shaky in the Green-White Game. Connor Cook will continue to push Maxwell in fall camp. Minnesota's Philip Nelson remains the team's No. 1 quarterback and helped his cause this spring, but he welcomes the competition from the versatile Mitch Leidner. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, a three-year starter, also has the inside track to remain No. 1, but he's learning another new offense under coordinator Bill Cubit and continues to be paced by Reilly O'Toole.
If you enjoy mystery and drama, keep an eye on Penn State, Purdue and Iowa. Penn State provided a surprising twist last week when Steven Bench, who competed for the starting job throughout the spring, opted to transfer after being told he wouldn't be in the mix for the top job. Junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson enters the summer as the man to beat, although Christian Hackenberg, the nation's No. 1 quarterback recruit, arrives for camp with a very real chance to win the job.
At Purdue, veteran Rob Henry, who saw limited action last season after suffering an ACL tear days before the 2011 season, must outduel talented true freshman Danny Etling, and perhaps Austin Appleby in preseason camp. Iowa's Jake Rudock exited the spring with the lead in the quarterback competitions, but Cody Sokol will continue to push him when camp rolls around.
"Eventually, we'll have to make a decision," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said after the Blue-White game. "But I'm not ready to make that right now."
A lot of Big Ten coaches feel the same way.