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Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Year of the (backup) quarterback in the Big Ten


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three weeks ago, Justin Siller was practicing as a running back at Purdue, having made the move from quarterback in an effort to spark a sputtering offense.

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Mike Kafka set a Big Ten quarterback record with 217 rushing yards.

Mike Kafka hadn't switched positions at Northwestern, although some thought he'd be better served as a running back or a wide receiver. Two weeks ago, Kafka went through another round of workouts as Northwestern's backup quarterback, his on-field work limited to 14 pass attempts in the last two seasons.

Then Saturday arrived, and the scripts changed for both players.

Siller accounted for four touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush) and threw no interceptions in leading Purdue to a 48-42 win against Michigan, which snapped the Boilermakers' five-game losing streak. Kafka set a Big Ten quarterback record with 217 rushing yards and also fired two touchdown passes as Northwestern upset then-No. 17 Minnesota at the Metrodome.

Two reserve quarterbacks, a backup (Kafka) and a third-stringer (Siller), shared Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors for Week 10. Given the quarterback landscape this season in the Big Ten, it comes as no surprise.

If this is the year of the quarterback in the Big 12, it's the year of the backup quarterback in the Big Ten. Backups have played prominent roles for seven of the 11 teams, either because of injury or performance.

"A change at Wisconsin, a change at Iowa, in our own case, in Northwestern's case, changes because of injuries," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "Same in [Indiana's] case. So circumstantially, there's a greater opportunity for guys to step up. And fortunately for all of us, we've had some guys that, when the season began, were relegated to a backup role that have come through."

Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Dustin Sherer have claimed starting jobs after beginning the season as backups. Indiana's Ben Chappell has shared time with incumbent Kellen Lewis, and Michigan rotated Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan for much of the fall.

Only four opening day starters -- Illinois' Juice Williams, Michigan State's Brian Hoyer, Penn State's Daryll Clark and Minnesota's Adam Weber -- have started every game for their teams.

"Typically, your second quarterback doesn't get the reps that he necessarily needs to be prepared to go into a game in the middle of a game," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "but when he gets the whole week to prepare and he gets an opportunity to take the reps with the 1s, there's a reason why you recruited him. If they're doing the right things, they're prepared for the opportunity."

The boom of Big Ten backups doesn't necessarily reveal greater depth at the position. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said high school players are extremely aware of quarterback recruiting: who is going where, who is already in place, how long the wait might be.

Many opt to change positions, giving them a better chance to play sooner.

"It seems like there's a little bit more change, which then lends to less depth, a little bit harder to keep as many quarterbacks in the program as there used to be," Tressel said. "But again, the kids are coming in so well prepared. ... The analysis on television has made them smarter football players, and their coaches have much greater tools to teach the game with all the video setups and so forth.

"The kids are really, really talented and much more knowledgeable when they arrive."

Pryor fit that description and took over for senior Todd Boeckman in Week 5.

Boeckman and several other veteran Big Ten quarterbacks struggled this season, continuing a national trend. Stanzi replaced incumbent Jake Christensen in Week 5, and Sherer took over for fifth-year senior Allan Evridge in Week 8.

Injuries also have played a role. Chappell replaced Lewis against Northwestern and led Indiana to its only league victory. When Clark suffered a mild concussion at Ohio State, backup Pat Devlin helped Penn State rally for a 13-6 victory.

Purdue's Curtis Painter and Northwestern's C.J. Bacher both sustained injuries and remain the clear starters in the minds of their coaches, but both players also have struggled at times this season, increasing the clamor for Siller and Kafka to play.

"It shows there's a lot of really good quarterbacks out there, and we all spend a lot of time in recruiting them," Indiana coach Bill Lynch said. "At the college level and throughout the course of the year, we don't spend all our time with starters, like maybe they do in the NFL. We spend as much as time with our backups, and as a result, they're well prepared, and when they get their opportunity, they take advantage of it."