Big Ten: B1G spring QB race 14

Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Wisconsin.

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig doesn't mince words when sizing up the team's quarterback situation.

"I look forward to a very competitive spring," Ludwig told ESPN.com, "and look for major improvement out of the position."

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin quarterback Joel Stave will be limited this spring with a shoulder injury.
Such a statement appears to put Joel Stave on notice when Wisconsin opens spring practice Wednesday. Stave started every game in 2013 and six games the previous season before suffering a broken collarbone.

He's 13-6 as Wisconsin's starter, a record that could be better if he didn't leave two games (Michigan State in 2012, the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 against South Carolina) with injuries. Although Stave struggled at times last season with his accuracy, he still completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.

Stave has 455 career pass attempts and 3,598 career pass yards. The other quarterbacks on the roster? One career pass attempt for eight yards, supplied by Bart Houston last season.

Ludwig might be candid about the competition and his expectations, but he also makes it clear where Stave stands.

"It's Joel's position, he's the returning starter," Ludwig said. "But like every position on the field, we're going to let the guys compete. Let the best man win."

Houston, junior Tanner McEvoy and early enrollee freshman D.J. Gillins will have an opportunity to push Stave this spring, especially early on, as Stave will be limited by a right (throwing) shoulder injury sustained in the bowl game. Stave, who started light passing several weeks ago but hasn't thrown deep passes yet, won't work as much with the first-team unit during the six practices before spring break.

Ludwig plans to initially divide reps equally between Houston, McEvoy and Gillins, and then distribute them based on performance. He will reduce the candidate pool from four to three by the end of the spring, setting up more competition in fall camp.

The situation is hardly new at Wisconsin, which has had quarterback races in five of the past six offseasons.

"Joel, he has the experience, he's confirmed it for two years," McEvoy said. "He's going in as the No. 1 guy. But just like any other position, there's going to be competition."

Houston boasts the strongest arm of the group, and both McEvoy and Gillins bring intriguing dual-threat skills not typically seen at Wisconsin. But Stave remains the frontrunner to lead the offense Aug. 30 against LSU.

"Joel did so many good things last year, but we've got to complete two or three more passes a game," Ludwig said. "Those are the ones that jump out at you, the ones that are the pitch-and-catch type of plays. Just looking for a higher level of repetitive accuracy."

Those passes, according to Stave, separated a good season from being a great one. He'll have to make up the difference this season without top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who had twice as many receptions (78) as any Badger in 2013.

But the fourth-year junior has both a massive edge experience and the benefit of playing in the same system for the second season -- a first in his career.

"It's not starting from ground zero again, "Stave said. "I really like the offense that Coach Ludwig has brought. The terminology and everything, it's something that I've run and I'm comfortable with, and I'll continue to get more comfortable."

If Stave or Houston wins the starting job, Wisconsin's offensive structure will look much like it has in previous years, heavy on tailback runs and play-action passes. But both McEvoy, who competed for the quarterback job last summer before eventually moving to safety, and Gillins add dimensions with their speed.

Some think Wisconsin's second-year coaching staff is more inclined to use an offense featuring mobility at quarterback. Ludwig said the "nuts and bolts" of Wisconsin's offense aren't changing, but he recognizes the benefits of mobility.

"The ability to throw the forward pass is absolute first and foremost in our priorities," he said. "The athleticism dimension is just a huge plus, to extend plays, to make plays with your feet. I always say if you can throw it, the better athlete you have throwing it, the better chances you have for a play to be successful."

It's Joel's position, he's the returning starter. But like every position on the field, we're going to let the guys compete. Let the best man win.

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig on the Badgers' QB competition.
McEvoy's athleticism could help his case, although he'll have to display better accuracy than he did last summer. To be fair, he entered the competition well behind the others and will benefit from a full year in the program.

The 6-6, 223-pound McEvoy spent most of the season at safety, recording 27 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups, but he regularly communicated with the quarterbacks.

"It's always nice to have another year under your belt," McEvoy said. "I'll know more going into this season. It will definitely be different than last [summer]."

Ludwig has seen significant changes in McEvoy since he first arrived on campus.

"He's a completely different person," Ludwig said. "He knows the inner workings of Badger football, he knows his teammates, he’s grown up significantly, so he's got a little different demeanor about him.

"He wants to be a quarterback, so we're going to give him that chance."

Houston, who has the most experience behind Stave, also has an opportunity to "demonstrate mastery of the offense," Ludwig said. Gillins, meanwhile, is a decorated recruit who has generated buzz among Wisconsin fans.

"He shouldn't have to worry about trying to become the No. 1 quarterback in the spring," Ludwig said. "He's just got to learn what to do, and it will be pedal to the metal into fall camp. He's come in with a tremendous work ethic and attitude.

"He wants to be the guy."

For now, Stave is the guy, and he enters the spring believing the starting job belongs to him. Because of his throwing restrictions, he'll focus more on footwork and getting rid of the ball quicker.

"I know there's improvement to be made, not just with me but the entire offense," Stave said. "We can be better, and a lot of that runs through the quarterback.

"I've taken a lot of pride to continue to get better."
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Minnesota.

During a practice two years ago, while running the scout team, Mitch Leidner got popped pretty good by massive defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.

[+] EnlargeMitch Leidner
AP Photo/Tony DingMitch Leidner has shown the leadership skills of a QB, but his passing numbers need to improve.
As Jerry Kill tells it, Leidner then picked himself off the turf and went right into Hageman's grill.

"I think he gained the respect of his teammates that day," Kill told ESPN.com. "He wasn't going to back down. I think that's kind of why the kids rally around him."

Heading into spring practice this week, Minnesota is rallying around Leidner more than ever. Philip Nelson's offseason transfer to Rutgers left the redshirt sophomore as the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience. Leidner started four games in 2013, but his passing numbers didn't wow anyone.

So he might not necessarily have had a firm grasp on the starting job this year, especially since some talented options such as redshirt freshman Chris Streveler and freshman early enrollee Dimonic Roden-McKinzy are around. But Leidner has used the same mental toughness and leadership qualities he displayed two years ago to his benefit.

After the Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, Leidner took charge of the team. He has coordinated voluntary winter workouts and made sure his teammates are going all out in the weight room.

"I wanted to step in anyway and take over," Leidner said. "But now that [Nelson] is gone, I see it as my team."

Kill said Leidner has shown the best leadership from the quarterback position that he's had at Minnesota.

"He's a kid on a mission," Kill said. "He's the No. 1 guy, no question."

The Gophers have gone to back-to-back bowl games and made a steady climb during Kill's first three seasons despite not getting consistent play from their quarterbacks. Only Kansas and Georgia Tech had worse passing offenses than Minnesota among major conference teams last season.

Kill hopes Leidner can begin to change that. He describes the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder as a cross between the two star quarterbacks he helped develop at Northern Illinois, Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. At least from a mental standpoint.

Leidner has watched film of both Harnish and Lynch and spent time talking to each on the phone in January to learn what a Kill-coached quarterback needs to do to succeed.

"I definitely see a lot of similarities between us," he said. "But both those guys put up some really good numbers and won a lot of games. So I can't quite place myself in the same category as those two. But I definitely want to get to their level."

In his debut season, Leidner established himself as a force in the running game. He rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start against San Jose State. He ended up running the ball more times (105) than he threw it (78) in 2013 while completing 55 percent of his passes. Seeing his first extended action in weeks against Syracuse in the bowl game, Leidner threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns but connected on only half of his 22 attempts.

Given his frame, arm strength should never be an issue for Leidner. Accuracy is another story. Kill compares Leidner to former Kansas State star Collin Klein, another big, bruising runner at quarterback "who found a way to throw it and win."

Remember, too, that by the second half of last season, Minnesota's top three receiving threats -- wideouts Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky and tight end Maxx Williams -- were all in their first year of playing. Jones and Wolitarsky were true freshmen who didn't go through spring practice. Leidner believes the passing game will improve now that the group will get an entire offseason to build timing, chemistry and confidence together. Kill had coaches from other programs visit Minneapolis this winter to share tips on the passing game.

"We've proved we can run the ball," Kill said. "Now, we've got to throw it better."

If nothing else, Leidner -- whom some dubbed "the Tundra Tebow" early last season -- can always take off and run. But Kill wants his quarterback to chill on his pile-pushing, bulldozing style and avoid contact so he can stay on the field.

"It's just knowing when to lower your shoulder and being smarter about it," Leidner said. "It's going to take some getting used to, but I know I if I want to play for a long time, it's got to happen."

Streveler, McKinzy and walk-on Conor Rhoda will see a lot of reps this spring, too, and Kill wants to figure out which of those three is the best option behind Leidner. The Gophers have played more than one quarterback in each of the past three seasons and still have very little separation in the classes because two former starting signal-callers -- Nelson and Max Shortell -- have transferred since 2012.

But Kill hopes Leidner is the guy to finally bring some stability and consistency to the most important position on the field.

"He's got all the tools," he said. "Mentally, he's very tough. That's what you need at quarterback."
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Michigan.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There’s a new offensive coordinator and scheme this spring for the Michigan offense.

The big question remains: Will the Wolverines have a new starting quarterback?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsWith far more experience than his competitors, senior Devin Gardner is the favorite to start at quarterback for the Wolverines.
It looks to be a two-man race between fifth-year senior Devin Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris. Junior Russell Bellomy and early enrollee Wilton Speight are also on campus and will get reps.

Gardner, who injured his toe during the Ohio State-Michigan game in November, rehabbed quickly and practiced on Tuesday for the first day of spring practice. Michigan coach Brady Hoke was surprised to see how soon Gardner got back but said he “looked great."

Gardner, up a healthy 13 pounds from the end of the 2013 season, is excited to be back and compete.

And then there’s the young gun Morris, who, in his lone start of the season, showed plenty of poise -- something that Gardner certainly lacked at points last season. Morris stepped in for Gardner in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and had a solid showing. For new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, however, the 24 completions and 196 passing yards weren't the most impressive thing about Morris' performance.

“The thing you’re looking for, in my opinion, when you play a young player in a game like that is: is the game too big? Is the moment too big?” Nussmeier said. “And it wasn’t for him. He performed.”

It was the kind of performance many expected out of Morris. The highly publicized recruit was the player whom many fans called for when Gardner suffered tough stretches during 2013.

Through the first four games of the season Gardner accounted for eight interceptions -- the most of any FBS quarterback at that point -- as well as two fumbles. During that same stretch Michigan almost lost to Akron and Connecticut.

But during another four-game stretch -- the final four games of the regular season -- it was a completely different story. Gardner threw for 971 yards and eight touchdowns while not throwing a single interception. With the Michigan offensive line finally showing some chemistry, Gardner displayed that he could be a reliable QB.

Obviously last season’s performances are only a portion of the equation for next season's starting QB spot, but they can’t completely be overlooked because experience is so crucial when asking a QB to step in and lead an offense. Gardner will have the advantage when it comes to experience, but Morris is likely still confident after coming off such a good showing in Arizona.

In the past, Hoke has seemed to be loyal to his upperclassmen in certain position battles. But with a new coordinator coming in, Morris and Gardner begin on the same level and those relationships that most coaches have with their oldest players vs. their younger players just don’t exist.

Nussmeier said that he did watch more game film than practice film from last season so he has certainly seen more of Gardner than Morris, but now with spring practices started, he’s getting to see them in person.

Michigan won’t go full contact until after the Wolverines return from spring break on March 11. But even without going full contact, the evaluation process has begun. Nussmeier is able to see how quickly both Gardner and Morris have picked up the offense and verbiage, how they lead their teammates, their touch on passes and more.

“We’re going to evaluate it just like every other position on our offense,” Nussmeier said. “We’re going to create competition. We want guys to go out and compete. … It’s a new system for everybody.”

It’s hard to say how much of this quarterback controversy is completely true, however. The Wolverines start next season with two highly visible and highly anticipated games with Appalachian State (which beat Michigan in the season opener in 2007) and Notre Dame (the final schedule matchup between the two rivals).

Those are the kinds of games that most would want to see a veteran quarterback start in because those are the kinds of games where emotions could trump play. Gardner has been in those situations and helped to control his team’s emotions. And while Morris was certainly on a big stage in the bowl game, he wasn’t asked to throw many passes down the field. Most of his passing yardage was picked up by receivers after the catch.

At this point, with the ability Gardner has displayed in picking up new offenses and aspects of offenses -- moving from Rich Rodriguez’s spread to Al Borges’ quasi-spread, as well as a position move from quarterback to wide receiver and then back to quarterback -- the starting position seems to be Gardner’s to lose.

Now, Morris could have a breakout spring and make enough strides to really push Gardner for the job, but at this point as long as Gardner can compete fully in the live sessions after spring break he’ll likely be the starter when the Wolverines spring game rolls around on April 5.

And he thinks so, too.

“I feel like I’m the leader,” Gardner said. “I’m a competitor, so I’m going to compete. ... I’m the quarterback of this team.”
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. First up: Northwestern.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern had grown accustomed to two things every season: a bowl trip and development at the quarterback position.

Neither, however, happened in 2013. The Wildcats missed the postseason for the first time in six years, largely because of an inconsistent offense that rarely found a rhythm in the passing game. A two-quarterback system that had worked well in 2012, when Northwestern won 10 games, backslid because of injuries and other factors.

The Wildcats had more interceptions (9) than touchdown passes (8) in Big Ten play, and their completion percentage, typically a strength, dipped to just 60.5 in league games. Northwestern finished 67th nationally in pass efficiency.

After a 5-7 season, competition is the overriding theme this spring, including the quarterback spot, even though Northwestern welcomes back Trevor Siemian, who has 3,461 pass yards the past two seasons.

"If we're playing this Saturday, he's our starting quarterback," coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Siemian. "He's our most experienced and successful quarterback, but I know that Zack [Oliver] and Matt [Alviti] and Christian [Salem] are going to compete. That's just the way it is."

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian is an experienced quarterback but he will face competition to be Northwestern's starter.
It appears to be a three-man race between Siemian, Oliver and Alviti, who appeared in that order during team drills Wednesday as Northwestern went through its first spring workout. Siemian clearly has the edge. If he can boost his completion percentage and show greater decisiveness after taking too many sacks in 2013, he should be the starter Aug. 30 against Cal.

The goal for Siemian?

"Total command of the offense," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Every year a guy plays in this offense, [the ball] gets quicker out of his hand, and the game slows down even more. I intend for that to happen with him, and I think it will."

Siemian also is healthy after battling a bone bruise on his heel for much of Big Ten play. He sustained the injury Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, struggled to plant on his throws and only recovered fully for the finale, when he completed 70.5 percent of his passes and threw for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns in a win at Illinois.

The 6-3, 210-pound Siemian completed 68.2 percent of his passes in five games before the injury and just 52.4 percent between the Wisconsin game and the Illinois game.

"If you look at healthy Trevor, it's [the Illinois] game, early in the season and then what you saw the previous two years," Fitzgerald said. "When he was not 100 percent, unfair to him, it wasn't as successful as any of us would have wanted."

Siemian admits he didn't handle the injury as well as he wanted, but he finished well and, according to the coaches, responded well in the winter program.

Although Northwestern has used a two-quarterback system for all or part of the past three seasons, Fitzgerald and McCall would prefer to see one player separate himself. McCall always tailors the offense around the quarterback's skill set.

If Siemian wins the job, Northwestern could employ a pass-heavy scheme like the one it used from 2007-2010 with C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa. If Oliver, a junior, or Alviti, a redshirt freshman, prevails, Northwestern likely would maintain a sizable option element, like it did when Kain Colter called signals.

Alviti hopes he can build on what Colter brought to the offense.

"With the option game, that's going to be a big role for me, doing what Kain did in the past," Alviti said. "I've got a lot more arm strength, can throw a lot better than Kain can. He's a great quarterback and he's going to have a great career in the NFL, but he's going to be playing receiver.

"I can throw on the run a little bit more."

All three quarterbacks are working on their leadership skills. Alviti attributes much of the offense's struggles in 2013 to "a lack of leadership," which Siemian doesn't dispute.

"We had no one to go to on offense," Alviti said. "Everyone would agree with that. No one really stepped up and was the guy. That's one of the main things the quarterbacks need to do."

The quarterbacks will operate behind a line that never truly clicked last year, in part because so many players sat out spring practice with injuries. The line is healthy this spring, and Fitzgerald described the competition level as "night and day" from 2013, noting that lineups could change on each play.

Northwestern returns experience at wide receiver (Christian Jones, Tony Jones), tight end (Dan Vitale) and running back, where 2012 All-Big Ten selection Venric Mark returns after missing most of last season with leg problems. Miles Shuler, a transfer from Rutgers, adds another weapon on the perimeter.

After a season of injuries, poor play and a truncated playbook, Northwestern's offense could course-correct in 2014. Siemian wants to be the one pulling the strings.

"As a quarterback, you're the guy, so it's directly on your shoulders," he said. "I'm working to be the best leader I can for this offense. Not that I didn't last year, but this year, it's even more of an emphasis."

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