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B1G quarterbacks set to break NFL draft slump

5/3/2015

It took until the 250th pick of this year's NFL draft, six selections before they packed everything up and went home, but at least a Big Ten quarterback streak finally ended.

When the Denver Broncos selected Northwestern's Trevor Siemian in the seventh round on Saturday, they made him the first quarterback from the league drafted for the position since Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson both went in 2012. (Michigan's Denard Robinson was drafted in 2013 as a running back).

Other, infamous streaks remained intact for Big Ten quarterbacks. The conference still hasn't produced a first-round draft pick at quarterback since Kerry Collins in 1995, and only Wilson -- who played just one year in the Big Ten after spending most of his career at N.C. State -- has even gone in the first three rounds since 2008. Siemian was just the 10th total Big Ten quarterback drafted since 2005.

Yet 2015 should mark a turning point for the league in producing quarterbacks the NFL desires. That's because the signal-callers ready to take the reins in the Big Ten this fall looks like one of the best crops in recent years.

"I was really hoping a couple of them would have declared for the draft [this year]," joked Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "That didn't happen, so now we get to deal with them. But it's a talented group, and it should be a fun year for fans to watch."

There's even an excellent chance that a Big Ten quarterback could finally shake the commissioner's hand on opening night again next spring.

Michigan State senior Connor Cook could get there after a productive career that has already included victories in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl. Penn State junior Christian Hackenberg has been heralded as an NFL-caliber quarterback since high school, and if he can snap out of his sophomore slump, he'll be in high demand should he declare early. And then there's Ohio State's Cardale Jones, who has only three career starts under his belt but who led the Buckeyes to a national title with physical gifts that are off the charts. He nearly came out of school in January and is a safe bet to make the jump in 2016, regardless of how Ohio State's three-man race plays out this summer.

Those are the luxury-aisle prospects. Several other intriguing candidates abound, including Indiana senior Nate Sudfeld, who at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds has all the tools if he can stay healthy, and Illinois junior Wes Lunt, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder who's looking to maximize his natural passing ability. Don't forget Ohio State's Braxton Miller, a no-doubt NFL athlete who wants to prove those wrong who doubt he can play quarterback at the next level.

Then there are three-year starters at Wisconsin (Joel Stave) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner), a still emerging talent at Nebraska (Tommy Armstrong Jr.) and the cannon-armed C.J. Beathard, who takes over at Iowa. Perhaps no NFL guys are among this quartet, but they do bolster the idea that this may be the year of the quarterback in the Big Ten, at long last.

"No doubt, it's improved," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said of the league's quarterback crop. "The Big Ten is changing; it's still a physical league, still a line-of-scrimmage league. But the skill of this league in its quarterback play has picked up, and that's why the Big Ten is more competitive and has moved back into the top of college football."

Consider that only last summer we were lamenting that the lack of elite play under center was holding the league back. Then Ohio State showed that it had two guys sitting on the bench behind Miller who were just as good as anybody in the country. Jones outplayed Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota in the national title game. Cook reminded us of his special knack for coming through on the big stage.

Elite play at quarterback did exist in the Big Ten, and it certainly mattered in a resurgent year for the league.

"If you don't have one," Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said, "you're not going to win."

Look no farther than 2012, when the Big Ten had one of its worst overall seasons. The leading passers in the league that year included a former walk-on who finally blossomed his senior year at Penn State (Matt McGloin) and a junior-college import who would transfer from Indiana the following year after finishing third in a three-man battle (Cam Coffman). The league had a lot of athleticism but not much NFL quality at quarterback that season, as evidenced by Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, Michigan's Robinson and a still raw, then-sophomore Miller at Ohio State.

The conference is catching on to how important it is to develop the game's most important position. All three offseason head-coaching hires -- Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, Wisconsin's Paul Chryst and Nebraska's Mike Riley -- are known for their work with quarterbacks. Harbaugh and Chryst even played the position at the programs they now run. Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Indiana's Wilson are also noted quarterback gurus as head coaches.

Such renewed focus can only help the current and future group of signal-callers in the league. The NFL draft is by no means the last word in measuring value there -- just ask Michigan man Tom Brady -- but 20 years of data speaks for itself.

This next 12 months, however, should tell a different story.

"Sometimes, you cycle out," Kevin Wilson said. "A couple of years ago, when some guys were young, it was a little bit different deal. But now it's back to a good level, and that's fun."