Finding the right QB is the B1G issue
Last spring, new coaches dominated the spotlight around the Big Ten. This spring, quarterback competitions took center stage.
The contrast between teams with signal-caller stability -- Nebraska, Ohio State, Northwestern and even Michigan -- and those without it 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 his 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 men 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 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 year 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.
What we learned this spring
1. Big Ten offenses will emphasize the pass more in 2013: Indiana was the only Big Ten team to finish in the top 30 nationally in pass offense last season, and seven league squads finished 94th or worse. Greater balance is the goal around much of the conference, and teams emphasized the pass more this spring. Iowa is trying to ramp up its vertical passing game after a season of throws and routes short of the first-down marker. Michigan will also look to stretch the field more with Devin Gardner at quarterback and a pro-style system in place. Spread teams like Ohio State, Northwestern and Nebraska also are looking for better offensive balance and have the receivers to achieve it. New Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit sent a clear message about the unit's direction in the spring game, as the Illini threw 87 passes and racked up 601 yards.
2. The new coaches are blending in well: The Big Ten's two newcomers, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell, took proactive steps to establish themselves with their new programs. Andersen put his imprint on practices with a steady stream of music and sprinkled in team-building activities, but he also showed respect for Wisconsin's track record of success and a large and decorated senior class. "He's really in tune with the pulse of the team," star linebacker Chris Borland said. The same can be said of Hazell, who got the Boilers' attention this winter with 6 a.m. workouts and kept the focus strong during crisp, efficient practices this spring. "Players who maybe thought they'd plateaued are learning and still developing," Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell said.
3. Ohio State and Nebraska have remarkably similar profiles: The Buckeyes and Huskers will be popular picks to meet in the Big Ten championship game, and the teams are somewhat mirror images coming out of the spring. They have dynamic offenses capable of piling up points and yards in bunches. They have dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez. They have multiple weapons at running back and some improving receivers. And they have major questions in the defensive front seven. Ohio State must replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012, and Nebraska is on the lookout for linebackers. Filling gaps on defense will undoubtedly be the focus for both teams when preseason camp rolls around.
Best of the Big Ten
Best moment: This one's a no-brainer. Nebraska created the best moment in the Big Ten -- and maybe anywhere, ever, during spring practice -- by allowing 7-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman to run for a touchdown before a roaring crowd at the Huskers' spring game. It has been quite a month for Hoffman, who got his own trading card and even met President Obama.
Best use of time: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had the number 5:03 plastered on his players' workout shirts this spring, a reminder of how close the 10-3 Wildcats came to going undefeated in 2012. The goal? "Find a way to make that up in the offseason," Fitzgerald said.
Best use of color: Michigan needed non-contact jerseys for quarterback Devin Gardner during the spring game, especially after backup Russell Bellomy went down with a torn ACL. But the Wolverines weren't about to wear red, which is the color of top rival Ohio State. Instead, they chose orange and got an assist from Oregon State, which sent along a top for Gardner to wear. "This is Michigan," Gardner said. "Orange is the only other color that stands out."
Best breakout combo: Ohio State's defensive line entered the spring as a concern and ended it as a potential strength. That's thanks to sophomore defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence, who combined for seven sacks in the spring game and wreaked havoc on one of the Big Ten's top offensive lines all spring. Offensive tackle Jack Mewhort told ESPN.com he'd "be surprised if Spence didn't lead the Big Ten in sacks this year," while Washington might even be the better player of the two.
Best two-way player: Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough jumped to the other side of the ball to try running back late in spring practice and quickly became the team's main ball carrier. He even threw a pass to older brother Max, the Spartans' star middle linebacker, in the spring game. The younger Bullough could play offense or defense or even both this fall.
Best hit on a mascot: It looked like a funny bit of spring practice hijinks when Brutus Buckeye lined up to run the ball during an Ohio State practice. But linebacker David Perkins approached the play as if the Rose Bowl depended upon it. He delivered a punishing hit on the mascot, leveling Brutus -- and the student inside it. "I think he lost his mind," teammate Curtis Grant said.
Best debut by a player: Penn State brought in junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson this offseason because it desperately needed depth at quarterback. Ferguson played so well that he ended the spring as No. 1 on the depth chart, prompting presumed starter Steven Bench to transfer. Now, Ferguson has to hold off hotshot incoming recruit Christian Hackenberg this summer.
Best debut by a coordinator: Illinois has a long way to go, but at least the Illini should be more fun to watch this year under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's spread attack. Illinois quarterbacks threw the ball 87 times for 601 yards in the spring game. The Illini threw for a Big Ten-worst 2,026 yards in all of 2012.
Best moves: This is a tough call, as Bo Pelini's rowboat in the Huskers "Harlem Shake" spring kickoff video was unforgettable. But we have to give the award to Wisconsin defensive lineman Warren Herring during the team's post-practice dance competition. Any 6-foot-3, 286-pounder who can pull off the splits and spin his helmet like a basketball deserves our admiration and awe.
Best quote by a player: Never one to mince words, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby had this to say about the Buckeyes' attempt to follow up last year's 12-0 season: "Last year was the commercial. This year is the movie."
Best quote by a coach: Longtime assistant and current Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis put the proper perspective on spring optimism: "Everybody always has a great spring. This is my 40th one, and I've never heard anybody say they've had a bad spring."
Players to watch
Post-spring power rankings
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes haven't lost a game since January 2012, and nothing that happened this spring changed the reality that they're the team to beat in 2013. The defensive front was a major question mark, but sophomore defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence calmed concerns there with huge springs. A blue-chip recruiting class will only add depth to the league's top team.
2. Michigan: We put the Wolverines No. 5 in our initial 2013 rankings. That was before we knew Taylor Lewan would return and before Michigan signed stud running back prospect Derrick Green. Those developments, plus the continued progress of Devin Gardner at quarterback, should be enough to overcome the loss of star linebacker Jake Ryan to a knee injury and make the Maize and Blue a Legends Division favorite.
3. Northwestern: The Wildcats had a mostly drama-free spring, which suited Pat Fitzgerald just fine. The team was missing several projected starters because of injury, but they should all be ready by fall camp. With most important pieces back from a 10-win team, including all-American running back/returner Venric Mark, Fitzgerald is confident that Northwestern can contend for a Big Ten title.
4. Nebraska: The good news: The Cornhuskers' prolific offense, powered by senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, looked to be in midseason form this spring. The bad news: The defense definitely needs a few more months, at least, to figure things out. A favorable early schedule should help Bo Pelini's club get off to a strong start, but Nebraska will go only as far as its young, unproven defenders will take it.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers appear to be adapting well to new head coach Gary Andersen, though the loss of defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot injuries was a setback. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips played well at quarterback this spring, though neither has won the job outright. Andersen has enough returning talent to give Ohio State all it can handle in the Leaders Division race.
6. Michigan State: Remember what we said about Nebraska? Just flip first those two sentences around. The Spartans' defense looked strong as ever this spring, and maybe even a little better up front. But that defense may have to be great if the offense plays like it did in the spring game. An unsettled quarterback situation and questions over who replaces Le'Veon Bell at running back puts Michigan State a notch behind the top Big Ten teams, though the schedule is desirable.
7. Penn State: Whoever plays quarterback for Penn State will be making his major-college debut after Steven Bench surprisingly transferred shortly after spring drills. It looks like junior college import Tyler Ferguson is the man under center for head coach Bill O'Brien, whose Year 2 fortunes could revolve around that position's progress and how the Nittany Lions replace several key defensive leaders from last season.
8. Minnesota: Getting to a bowl game last season seems to have helped the Gophers' confidence this offseason. That and the comfort level for the players under third-year coach Jerry Kill and his staff have Minnesota thinking about taking the next step this fall. Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson held onto the starting job this spring and needs to lead a better downfield passing attack, while Kill is hoping some junior college transfers help fill the holes at linebacker. Don't sleep on the Gophers this year.
9. Indiana: Teams are going to have to score a lot of points to beat the Hoosiers this year. They led the Big Ten in passing last year despite having to shuffle three quarterbacks, and now all three (Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cameron Coffman) are battling for the right to throw to a loaded receiving corps. If Indiana can just reach mediocrity on defense -- that's a big if, based on recent history -- Kevin Wilson's club could make some noise in the Big Ten and get to a bowl game.
10. Purdue: This may be too low for a team coming off back-to-back bowl bids. But we're in wait-and-see mode with the Boilermakers because they're undergoing a coaching transition and have questions at quarterback and linebacker. Darrell Hazell's arrival should bring some more discipline and toughness, however. The secondary could be one of the best in the league, and running back Akeem Hunt looked like one of the league's most improved players this spring.
11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have nowhere to go but up after an uncharacteristic 4-8 season under Kirk Ferentz last year. Of course, they're also breaking in a new quarterback and haven't yet chosen between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard. There are issues on the defensive line, at receiver and in the secondary. But the running game should be a strength, with Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock leading a deep tailback group.
12. Illinois: The Illini showed in the spring game that they're not afraid to throw the ball around in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, and that should help a team that finished last in the Big Ten in scoring last year. Several junior college players, including receiver Martize Barr and linebacker/safety Eric Finney, stepped in and contributed already this spring. Yet second-year coach Tim Beckman still has several holes to fill after a 2-10 season.
Illinois: Embattled coach Tim Beckman needs a quick start. For more on the Fighting Illini, click here
Indiana: No Big Ten team returns as much offensive production. For more on the Hoosiers, click here
Iowa: The Hawkeyes look ready to get back to a powerful running game. For more on the Hawkeyes, click here
Michigan: Who runs the ball this fall is a question that wasn't answered this spring. For more on the Wolverines, click here
Michigan State: The Spartans are still looking for the man to lead their offense. For more on the Spartans, click here
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have figured out who they wanted to be on offense. For more on the Gophers, click here
Nebraska: This could be one of the top-scoring teams in the country this year. For more on the Cornhuskers, click here
Northwestern: The offensive line is undoubtedly the biggest question mark. For more on the Wildcats, click here
Ohio State: Developing QB Braxton Miller as a passer remains a key issue. For more on the Buckeyes, click here
Penn State: Versatility is at a premium for coach Bill O'Brien again this year. For more on the Nittany Lions, click here
Purdue: The team's quarterback competition is far from over. For more on the Boilermakers, click here
Wisconsin: The Badgers made some progress on their quarterback competition. For more on the Badgers, click here