NCF Nation: John Wienke

The first Big Ten coaches teleconference of the season took place earlier Tuesday. Given all the news and nuggets of Week 1, we're compiling notebooks for both divisions. We'll try to do these as often as possible on Tuesdays during the season.

Let's get things started with the Legends division.

IOWA

  • Coach Kirk Ferentz said if the Hawkeyes played a game today, A.J. Derby would serve as James Vandenberg's backup at quarterback. Derby, a fan favorite who boasts tremendous athleticism, has clearly made strides during camp to move slightly ahead of John Wienke, who Ferentz said also is improving. After so much talk about where Derby would end up playing, it seems like his future is at quarterback.
  • Ferentz said the biggest change we'll see on Iowa's defense this fall will be a larger rotation up front. Iowa typically went with a 5-man rotation the past few seasons, but after losing three linemen to the NFL draft, the Hawkeyes will rotate 6-8 players and possibly nine up front this season.
  • Jason White will get the next shot at running back behind starter Marcus Coker. Ferentz also said Iowa will use its freshmen tailbacks early in the season to get them accustomed to games. The past two seasons have shown Iowa can't take anything for granted injury-wise at running back.
MICHIGAN
  • Brady Hoke fielded several questions about the defense and not surprisingly spoke mainly about the line. He likes the depth the Wolverines have in the front four but emphasized the need to get off blocks and maintain "gap integrity" when the games begin. Got to love that football lingo.
  • Hoke gave a shout out to his boss, athletic director Dave Brandon, for allowing the Wolverines' kickers to use Michigan Stadium often during camp. The stadium not only provided a more realistic setting for the kickers, but the wind conditions in the Big House are different than on the practice fields. Hoke also praised Brendan Gibbons, who will handle field goals, saying he's "very excited about his progress."
MICHIGAN STATE
  • I asked Spartans coach Dantonio a bit about all the co-starters on his Week 1 depth chart, and he basically said anyone listed in bold will play a lot Friday night against Youngstown State. Not only will Michigan State rotate quite a few defensive ends Friday, but the offensive line rotation also likely will be larger as the Spartans figure out spots like left tackle and center. "How they play in a game situation determines where we go from there," Dantonio said.
  • Despite four consecutive bowl appearances and a Big Ten co-championship in 2010, Michigan State remains a fairly young team. The offense boasts a mix of veterans and youth, while the defense is fairly young entering 2011. "We're a young football team with a blend of experience," Dantonio said. "We have three seniors on defense in our top 22 players, so good things should be around the corner for us."
  • Dantonio began the call by thanking everyone for their support since the passing of his father, Justin, on Sunday. He'll return home to Zanesville, Ohio, in the middle of the week for the funeral and be back for the Youngstown State game.
MINNESOTA
  • Coach Jerry Kill said he has discussed a plan for future nonconference scheduling with the university administration, although he declined to provide details. Don't expect Kill's plan to include many more openers at USC. Said Kill: "Would I like to open up with USC every year? No. I’d like to open up right here at home."
  • Kill's Week 1 depth chart is filled with true freshmen and redshirt freshmen, but he considers his entire roster freshmen because they haven't gone through a season with the coaches. The result will be a more pared down game plan for Saturday. "There's no question we have to keep things simpler," Kill said. "We can't be like we were at Northern Illinois, so we'll have to adjust."
NEBRASKA
  • Coach Bo Pelini wants to see efficiency from his offense Saturday against Chattanooga. He stressed the need to limit penalties and turnovers, and to form sustained scoring drives against the Mocs. "At the end of the day, that's what's going to determine our success, how efficient we can be," Pelini said. You can tell Nebraska's poor finish on offense at the end of the 2010 season still irks Pelini.
  • Like his brother, Carl, the Huskers defensive coordinator, Bo is excited about what the team brings back in the secondary. He singled out the preseason play of cornerback Andrew Green, who likely will start in place of the injured Alfonzo Dennard on Saturday.
NORTHWESTERN
  • Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the competition between running backs Mike Trumpy and Jacob Schmidt will continue through game week. Trumpy has come on strong as of late, while Schmidt's consistency has impressed the coaches. "Both guys are going to play," Fitzgerald said. "If one guy gets hot, he'll take over the role and be the bell cow."
  • Fitzgerald didn't say much about the status of quarterback Dan Persa for Saturday's game. He does, however, know what to expect from Boston College. "They will try to run it down your throats until you stop them," he said.
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 ...

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireDenard 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.

Notes from Hawkeye Country

April, 8, 2011
4/08/11
6:00
PM ET
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Greetings from the press box at Kinnick Stadium. Am I early for kickoff?

Unfortunately, football season is about five months away, but Iowa is gearing up for the 2011 campaign in spring practice. I had a chance to visit with head coach Kirk Ferentz and several players earlier today. Most of my Iowa coverage will appear early next week, but there were several interesting nuggets from today.

QUARTERBACK SITUATION


No surprise here, but James Vandenberg has established himself as Iowa's No. 1 option. The junior's experience filling in for Ricky Stanzi in 2009 certainly helps, but he has continued to make progress this spring after a strong pre-bowl session.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
Reese Strickland/US PresswireAs expected, James Vandenberg has taken the lead in the race to replace quarterback Ricky Stanzi.
"James has separated himself from the other two guys," Ferentz said. "And after that, it's a pretty good competition between John [Wienke] and A.J. [Derby]."

Vandenberg's teammates expressed complete confidence in him at the start of the spring, and nothing has changed. Barring a significant change between now and Sept. 3, Vandenberg will start the season for the Hawkeyes.

"James is one of those guys, he's not not going to leave the door open too much," Ferentz said. "He really gives himself a chance to be a good player."

LATEST ON RHABDO FALLOUT

Ferentz confirmed that defensive back Willie Lowe, one of 13 Iowa players hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis in January, is not with the team. Lowe and Ferentz last spoke in March before Iowa's spring break, and Lowe's situation with the team is "clearly unresolved," Ferentz said.

Although the school has granted Lowe his release, Ferentz echoed AD Gary Barta in saying he hopes Lowe remains with the team.

The other 12 players remain with the team. There have been non-rhabdo-related injuries within the group that have limited players, but the expectation is all will remain on the squad.

"Everybody's out working, and nobody else has asked for a release," Ferentz said.

Ferentz reiterated his support for head strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle and Iowa's strength program, which drew criticism after the rhabdo situation.

"Chris Doyle is the top guy I've been around in that realm, and he's widely recognized," Ferentz said. "Chris' name is very highly regarded in the NFL circles, he's had a lot of opportunities to go that route. Fortunately, he's stayed here and I'm very appreciative of that. ... There's no question in my mind he's a huge part of any success we've experienced."

INJURIES

Ferentz mentioned Iowa has 6-8 players who would normally be in the two-deep who aren't practicing this spring because of injuries. Defensive lineman Steve Bigach is out following offseason surgery, and defensive lineman Tom Nardo has been out with a foot injury.

"Those are two older guys we'll have back in the fall," Ferentz said.

Wide receiver Marvin McNutt, linebacker Shane DiBona and safety Tanner Miller all are missing the spring with injuries. McNutt looked good walking around the complex Friday and should be fine for preseason camp.

PERSONNEL NUGGETS

  • It will take some time for Iowa to figure out the secondary for 2011. Micah Hyde, who has played the past two seasons at cornerback, is seeing time at safety this spring, and Jordan Bernstine is being used at both safety and cornerback. Shaun Prater has the left cornerback spot essentially locked down. "If he gets beat out, there's something wrong," Ferentz said. "He's practicing well and performing well." Up to eight players are in the mix for the other three spots.
  • Ferentz has been pleased with sophomore running back Marcus Coker, who is building off of his superb performance in the Insight Bowl. You never know how success affects young players, but Coker seems to be approaching it the right way. Ferentz noted that if Coker hadn't fractured his collarbone in preseason camp, he could have played a much bigger role in the run game last season. "He showed us a lot about his mental makeup, just how he caught up," Ferentz said. "He did remarkably well from a mental standpoint for all the time that he missed. He's got the potential to be a lot better football player as he moves along."
  • Ferentz also seems pleased with the spring progress of older defenders like linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns, linebacker Tyler Nielsen and Prater. The offensive line returns three starters and Ferentz noted that Adam Gettis, who would have been a starter if not for injuries last season, has had a good spring.
  • A final thought from Ferentz on the team: "We're a young team, but we have a good core of seniors that are good players, good leaders and good team guys. We've been pretty enthusiastic about the last couple groups of recruits we've brought on campus. Some of those guys have played and other guys have not played but we feel good about [them]. But I like what I see about the way guys are working. We're not a real good team right now, but I like what I see with the potential they have."
It's unfair to say James Vandenberg won Iowa's starting quarterback job on Nov. 14, 2009.

[+] EnlargeIowa QBs
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireIowa quarterbacks, from left, A.J. Derby, John Wienke and James Vandenberg are competing for the starting job vacated by Ricky Stanzi.
To earn the title, Vandenberg still must perform well this spring and distance himself from fellow Hawkeyes signal callers John Wienke and A.J. Derby. A non-factor for most of the 2010 season, Vandenberg, who completed 5 of 8 passes for 45 yards and a touchdown in three games last fall, must keep the pedal down in spring ball.

But his impressive performance a year and a half ago at Ohio Stadium still resonates with his teammates. Vandenberg, then a redshirt freshman, made his first career start in relief of the injured Ricky Stanzi and nearly led Iowa to an upset of Ohio State in what was essentially the Big Ten championship game.

"To go into Ohio State and do what he did as a redshirt freshman is nothing short of exceptional," Hawkeyes senior tight end Brad Herman told me Wednesday. "Right now, everybody sees him as being the guy."

Before Iowa kicked off spring practice, coach Kirk Ferentz singled out Vandenberg for his work, particularly during practices before the Insight Bowl. But Ferentz added, "He’s going to get good competition. John Wienke has improved a lot, A.J. Derby is set on winning the job, too. That will make all three of the guys better."

Herman has seen good things from both Wienke and Derby this spring, but there's no doubt about who should take the first snaps this fall.

"I'm just glad Vandenberg's our guy," Herman said. "So many times you see teams struggle, and it's because they don't have stability at quarterback. I'm just relieved that Vandenberg is that No. 1 quarterback. I'm confident in his ability to perform at a high level."

A quarterback has to win over the locker room, and Vandenberg took the first step toward doing so against Ohio State in The Shoe.

"It built confidence in him," Herman said. "Especially when you're a quarterback, when you have the confidence of your teammates and they trust that you know what's going on back there and you know what you're doing, that's huge for an offense."

Opening spring ball: Iowa

March, 23, 2011
3/23/11
9:30
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Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes hit the practice field Wednesday for the first of 15 spring workouts.

Here's a snapshot of the Hawkeyes in spring ball:

The big story: Football mercifully resumes as Iowa tries to turn the page on a rough offseason and start fresh. Aside from the dramatic Insight Bowl win against Missouri, Iowa hasn't enjoyed much good news in the past four months. There were off-field problems and player discipline, followed by the hospitalization of 13 players with rhabdomyolysis in January and a subsequent internal investigation. The football field will be a welcome sight for Ferentz and his players as they try to regain their mojo from 2009. Iowa loses a large senior class but returns a group of promising young players and a very solid offensive line. Ferentz's teams typically fare better when outside expectations aren't as high, but the growth process must begin right away this spring.

Position in the spotlight: Quarterback jumps to mind as Iowa begins the task of replacing three-year starter Ricky Stanzi. Remember James Vandenberg? The plucky freshman who nearly led Iowa to a Big Ten title-clinching win at Ohio State in 2009? He now sets his sights on the starting job but could be pushed by junior John Wienke and redshirt freshman A.J. Derby, a fascinating player who could see time at other positions. I'd also include safety here as the Hawkeyes must replace both starters (Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood).

Coaching changes: Ferentz's staff stability continued as Iowa was one of only two Big Ten squads to avoid any coaching changes during the offseason. The only potential uncertainty is veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who missed most of last season following foot amputation surgery. Parker is a battler, though, and will be helping the Hawkeyes as long as his health holds up.

Keep an eye on: Keenan Davis. Iowa needs a No. 2 receiver to emerge alongside Marvin McNutt, and Davis will get every chance to fill the role this spring. A heralded recruit, Davis has just 15 receptions in his first two seasons and needs to take the next step at a position of need.

Spring game: April 16
Our Big Ten spring preview continues with a look at the Legends Division.

IOWA

Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Succession plan for Stanzi: Remember James Vandenberg? The plucky young quarterback who nearly led Iowa to a milestone win at Ohio State in 2009 returns to the spotlight as Iowa looks to replace three-year starter Ricky Stanzi. Vandenberg had only eight pass attempts in 2010, so it'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to a potential featured role. John Wienke and A.J. Derby also will be in the mix.
  • A new-look defensive front: Iowa loses three multiyear starters along the defensive line, all of whom likely will go onto the NFL. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns return, but Iowa must begin building depth around them after not playing a large rotation of linemen in 2010. It'll be a big spring for reserve defensive linemen like Lebron Daniel and Steve Bigach.
  • Rhabdo fallout: Iowa expects the 13 players hospitalized last month with rhabdomyolysis to be ready for spring ball, but there are questions about how the group responds to the rigors of practice. Expect the staff to take every precaution to make sure the players are ready to go. Iowa's internal investigation into what happened could reach its conclusion during the spring practice session.
MICHIGAN

Start of spring practice: March 19
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Hoke springs eternal: All eyes will be on new coach Brady Hoke as he oversees his first 15 practice sessions as the leading man in Ann Arbor. Hoke and his staff introduce new offensive and defensive systems, and Hoke likely will spend much of his time with a defense that reached historic lows during former coach Rich Rodriguez's tenure. An adjustment period can be expected, but Hoke wants to get things rolling as soon as he can.
  • Denard Robinson: The 2010 Big Ten offensive player of the year thrived in Rodriguez's spread offense. How will he be used in coordinator Al Borges' system? Will Robinson's unique talents still be maximized? After making major strides last offseason, Robinson must continue to grow as he adjusts to a new offense. This is also a big spring for backup quarterback Devin Gardner.
  • The move to the 4-3: Michigan is going back to a 4-3 defensive alignment under coordinator Greg Mattison, and the transition begins this spring. The defensive front has to lead the way, and the personnel is there to get it done. The Wolverines are a little thinner at linebacker, but saw some encouraging signs from Kenny Demens this past fall. Others must emerge at the position this spring.
MICHIGAN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Familiar face, new leadership: Dan Roushar takes over as Spartans offensive coordinator, and while you shouldn't expect many dramatic changes, the veteran assistant will put his personal touch on the system. Roushar wants to fully re-establish the run game Michigan State displayed in the early part of the 2010 season. It'll also be interesting to see how he works with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
  • Reloading at linebacker: Michigan State loses two of the more productive linebackers in recent team history in Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Returning starter Chris Norman will take on an enhanced role, and the spring will be big for younger linebackers like Max Bullough, Steve Gardiner and Denicos Allen.
  • Elevating the O-line play: You can bet Roushar will have an eye on his old position group, the offensive line, as it replaces starters at both tackle spots and at center. If Michigan State can get its offensive line play where competitors like Iowa and Wisconsin have it, the Spartans will be Big Ten title contenders for years to come. Michigan State has some nice pieces like veteran guard Joel Foreman, but it must build depth this spring.
MINNESOTA

Start of spring practice: March 24
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • A time to Kill. Jerry Kill conducts his first 15 practices as Minnesota's coach and he has no shortage of challenges. He and his assistants must install new systems on both sides of the ball and, perhaps more importantly, get across their expectations for the players going forward. Kill wasn't overly thrilled with his first impression of the squad, so he has a lot of work to do.
  • Gray back at QB: After a season playing primarily wide receiver, MarQueis Gray is back at his preferred position of quarterback. Kill and his assistants made no secret of the fact that they see tremendous potential in Gray, a dual-threat signal-caller who could end up being a terrific fit for Kill's offense. It will be interesting to see how much Gray can absorb this spring as he prepares to lead the unit.
  • Kim Royston's return: Minnesota's defense got a huge boost when the NCAA somewhat surprisingly granted safety Kim Royston a sixth year of eligibility. Royston, who had a strong season in 2009 before breaking his leg last spring, is ready to go and should provide some much-needed leadership in the secondary. New defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will be on the lookout for playmakers and leaders this spring, and he'll find one in Royston.
NEBRASKA

Start of spring practice: March 12
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • New vision on offense: Nebraska likely will have a championship-level defense in 2011, but will the offense bounce back from a poor finish to last season? Tim Beck is the man pegged to get things back on track. Coach Bo Pelini promoted Beck to offensive coordinator, and Beck will begin to implement his vision for the unit this spring. Nebraska figures to stick with the spread, but what version Beck wants to use remains to be seen.
  • The quarterbacks: Taylor Martinez stiff-armed the transfer rumors, and in January said he looked forward "getting healthy and getting my strength and speed back." The big question: Will he also get his job back as Nebraska's starting quarterback? Martinez can help himself with a strong spring, but Cody Green also is in the mix and things could get very interesting if Bubba Starling decides to stick with football rather than pursue a pro baseball career.
  • New faces on staff: In addition to promoting Beck, Pelini hired three new assistants: Corey Raymond (secondary), Ross Els (linebackers) and Rich Fisher (receivers). Raymond takes over a talented group that must replace three standout players, including cornerback Prince Amukamara. It'll be interesting to watch Fisher, who most recently coached in high school and also served as a golf teacher, as he transitions back to big-time football.
NORTHWESTERN

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Rebuilding the defense: Northwestern figures to have one of the Big Ten's top offenses this fall, but there are major issues on the other side of the ball. The Wildcats' defense flat-lined in the final three games, surrendering 163 points and getting dominated at the line of scrimmage. It's a big spring for coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who must fill gaps at spots like linebacker, but more importantly must restore the aggressiveness seen in 2008 and part of 2009.
  • The backup QB race: Dan Persa is still rehabbing his surgically repaired Achilles' tendon and won't do much in spring ball. It provides an opportunity for Northwestern to hold an extensive competition to see who backs up Persa this coming season. Kain Colter provided a spark in the bowl game and could be the answer. Evan Watkins needs a bounce-back spring, and Trevor Siemian will be in the mix after redshirting this past fall.
  • Here's the kicker: Northwestern loses four-year starting specialist Stefan Demos and will look to identify a replacement this spring. Neither Jeff Budzien nor Steve Flaherty has attempted a field goal in a game -- they have combined for two PAT conversions -- so the race will be wide open. Special teams has cost Northwestern at inopportune times over the years, but it could be an area of strength in 2011 if the kicker situation is sorted out.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A team is often only as good as its backup quarterback, a fact that held true throughout the Big Ten in 2008.

Pat Devlin scored arguably the biggest touchdown of Penn State's season at Ohio State as the Nittany Lions rallied for a 13-6 win. Mike Kafka's record-setting rushing performance against Minnesota helped Northwestern to a huge win after injuries had hit several important positions. Several Big Ten squads also had backups emerge into starters, such as Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.

Several Big Ten backups haven't played a down in a college game, so it's tough to pass judgment on them. But here's my stab at ranking the league's backup signal callers coming out of spring ball.

1. Michigan State -- The competition for the starting job between Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol remains too close to call, and that's not a bad thing. Both players performed very well during spring ball and particularly during the spring game. Whoever doesn't win the top job provides head coach Mark Dantonio with a solid No. 2 option. Cousins already held the role last fall and performed well.

2. Minnesota -- Head coach Tim Brewster reiterated throughout the spring that Adam Weber is his starter, but he also acknowledged that talented freshman MarQueis Gray will get on the field a lot this fall. Gray lived up to the hype in spring ball, and the Gophers likely will use a special package of plays to feature him in games. Should Weber go down, Minnesota should be fine with Gray.

3. Illinois -- The Illini boast the Big Ten's most experienced signal caller in Juice Williams, and they also have the league's most seasoned backup in Eddie McGee. McGee appeared in 12 games in 2007 and came up big against Missouri, Wisconsin and Penn State. The coaches have even used McGee on a series or two when Williams gets into trouble. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest provides another solid option.

4. Ohio State -- Overall depth at quarterback is the only reason the Buckeyes aren't higher on the list. The coaches have confidence that Joe Bauserman can step in if Terrelle Pryor goes down with an injury. Bauserman boasts a strong arm and good knowledge of the scheme. It remains to be seen what Ohio State gets out of third-stringer Kenny Guiton, a late signee in February.

5. Wisconsin -- The starting job is not set in stone, though senior Dustin Sherer remains the frontrunner heading into the summer. Curt Phillips' push toward the end of spring should ease offensive coordinator Paul Chryst's concerns about the position. Phillips brings speed and athleticism to the backfield, and junior Scott Tolzien is a smart player who has been in the system for some time.

6. Michigan -- True freshman Tate Forcier emerged from a solid spring as the frontrunner at quarterback, though he'll still be pushed by Nick Sheridan and Denard Robinson in August. Sheridan has been in the fire and showed some good signs during spring ball before breaking his leg. But he might not be as strong of a fit as Robinson, who boasts track-star speed and, like Forcier, provides the improvisation skills needed to run this offense.

7. Northwestern -- Pat Fitzgerald and his staff are fully prepared to play a second quarterback at times this season. The nature of Northwestern's spread offense elevates the injury risk for quarterbacks, and Dan Persa likely will see the field, much like Kafka did in 2008. Persa's size (6-1, 200) is a bit of a concern, though he brings above-average mobility to the pocket. Incoming freshman Evan Watkins likely will redshirt this fall, but he's considered the team's quarterback of the future.

8. Purdue -- The Boilers would have been much better off with Justin Siller still in the fold, but the coaches liked what they saw from redshirt freshman Caleb TerBush this spring. Career backup Joey Elliott will get the first shot under center this fall, but TerBush is a big kid (6-5, 222) who can step in if things go south. The problem here is depth, as Purdue can't play Robert Marve until 2010.

9. Penn State -- Devlin's decision to transfer really stings Penn State, which can't afford to lose Daryll Clark and keep its Big Ten title hopes afloat. True freshman Kevin Newsome did some nice things this spring, but he's got a long way to go before leading the Spread HD offense in a Big Ten game. Matt McGloin provides the Nittany Lions with another option under center, but Penn State should take every precaution to keep Clark healthy.

10. Indiana -- The coaches' decision to move Kellen Lewis to wide receiver not only reaffirmed their faith in starter Ben Chappell, but also the men behind him. Teddy Schell came to Indiana as a decorated high school quarterback in Illinois and should finally get a chance to showcase himself. But Schell is unproven on the college level, and the same goes for promising redshirt freshman Adam Follett.

11. Iowa -- Nothing against James Vandenberg or John Wienke, but the college canvas is pretty blank on both redshirt freshmen right now. Despite all the Jake Christensen hatred, many level-headed Hawkeyes fans wouldn't mind having him around this season to back up Ricky Stanzi. An injury to Stanzi could derail Iowa's Big Ten title hopes, particularly with four very difficult conference road games (Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State).

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