Quarterback may be the single most-written about position in all of sports. If you have a quality player running your team’s offense, wins will come. If you’re inconsistent at that spot, or incredibly young, or have multiple rotating pieces, you’re in a little bit of trouble.
The best teams in the sport for the last however many years have had the best quarterbacks. Even if you have one of the best defenses in the country, it means nothing without a competent quarterback — think Florida in the post-Tim Tebow and Will Muschamp years.
The Big Ten might not have the best collection of quarterbacks in the country — there’s probably no need to use “might” there, though ranking the conference’s on the strength of quarterback play is an interesting topic for another day — but it isn’t bereft of talent. So, in keeping with the debate-y, preseason outlook-y theme of the past week here at Hail Varsity dot com, let’s power rank the league’s ‘cubes.
Methodology: Existing production matters, though it isn’t the end-all, be-all. Statistical importance is placed on efficiency. In terms of the harder-to-quantify parts of the equation, fit within a scheme, surrounding talent and coaching track record all matter.
No. 14: Artur Sitkowski, Rutgers
Sitkowski, a big 6-foot-5 pro-style quarterback and former 3-star prospect, was a pretty nice win for the Scarlet Knights in the 2018 recruiting cycle. There were very few wins to be had after that. Rutgers went 1-11 last year while its freshman quarterback averaged 4.2 yards per play (pass attempts, 273, and runs, 10), completed 49 percent of his throws and had 18 interceptions (most in the B1G) to only four touchdowns.
Rutgers had one of the worst rushing attacks as a “complement,” a running back was Sitkowski’s leading target-getter through the air and he just lost his favorite tight end to transfer.
No. 13: Whoever Illinois Picks
Lovie Smith’s beard is awesome. Lovie Smith’s quarterback, whoever it may be, is not awesome. There was no reason there to reference The Beard, but I feel it’s important to do so any time Illinois is mentioned; you know, out of respect.
Illinois has four quarterbacks on the roster. AJ Bush, last year’s starter, graduated. MJ Rivers — Bush’s backup last year and presumed starter this year — transferred after the spring. What’s left is 5-foot-10 true freshman Isaiah Williams, redshirt freshman Coran Taylor (former 3-star), redshirt freshman Matt Robinson (former 2-star), junior Cam Miller and a total of 10 Division I pass attempts. It’s going to be tough sledding for the Illini this season unless Williams turns out to be the next Kyler Murray.
No. 12: Sean Clifford, Penn State
A former 4-star quarterback, Clifford is a redshirt sophomore with seven pass attempts for 195 yards and two scores in his career. He’s nowhere near the runner Trace McSorley was and he won’t have the luxury of an established running back partnering with him in the backfield after the departure of Miles Sanders. The Nittany Lions lost four receivers to transfer and two starters on the right side of the offensive line. This was supposed to be Tommy Stevens’ year, not Clifford’s. He could for sure rise as the season progresses — the potential is there — but in terms of what we have to look at right now, there are more questions than answers.
No. 11: Whoever Minnesota Picks
It’s really hard to place the duo of Gopher quarterbacks, for several reasons. For one, Zack Annexsted started the season last year as a true freshman walk-on, but redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan finished it after Annexsted got hurt. After spring ball, head coach PJ Fleck still doesn’t have a clear starter. For another, the pair combined to throw for 2,678 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing 55 percent of their passes. Annexsted was at 6.7 yards a play and Morgan was at 8.3. But, they tossed a combined 13 picks and fumbled five times (losing two).
The Gophers return a wideout in Tyler Johnson that was one of the best in the conference last season and a running back in Mohamed Ibrahim who was one of the most explosive runners in the league.
No. 10: Hunter Johnson, Northwestern
Johnson is a former 5-star Clemson signee, but he sat out 2018 after transferring and he’s coming into an offense that has to replace three starters on offensive line and the top receiver from a season ago, and has to find a way to improve a ground game that produced the third-worst per-carry average in the country last season (3.86). Clayton Thorson, for all the flak he got, took Northwestern to a Big Ten Championship in his final season at the helm. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of the Northwestern faithful won’t be too keen on taking a step back this season with the division seemingly more wide open, so there’s a lot on Johnson’s shoulders. This feels low, but Johnson’s got some proving to do, just like another high-profile transfer that will show up in a bit.
No. 9: Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
Alex Hornibrook, going into what might have been his third full year as the Badgers’ starter, transferred to Florida State. That’s a step down. Why would you leave Wisconsin for a Florida State team in complete and utter disarray? Why would you give up the offensive line factory that makes the loss of four starters from last year seem like not as big a deal as it should be? Why would you leave the best running back in the game in Jonathan Taylor? I think you leave all those things if you know you’re going to lose your job.
Graham Mertz, a four-star pocket passer, Gatorade Player of the Year and All-American Bowl MVP, is the biggest quarterback prospect the Badgers have signed in… how long? He lit the internet on fire in the All-American Bowl and comes into a pretty ideal situation. The youth/inexperience piece of the equation added to the replacements needed up front keeps his starting point pretty low, but Mertz has all the makings of the next great freshman quarterback.
No. 8: Josh Jackson, Maryland
Maryland’s quarterback situation has been a hard one to observe, even as a casual fan, over the last few years. Injuries to multiple guys have paved the way for former Virginia Tech youngster Josh Jackson.
As a redshirt freshman for the Hokies in 2017, Jackson had one of the highest efficiency ratings for a freshman quarterback in the country, completing 59.6 percent of his passes for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns to go against nine picks. He had five scores against one pick in the Hokies’ first three games last season before he went down with a leg injury. First-year coach Mike Locksley has a quarterback that fits what he wants to do, but Jackson will come into an offense needing to replace four of five starters on the offensive line, both starting receivers and a starting tight end. And he’ll have to prove he’s fully recovered from an injury that cost him most of 2018.
No. 7: Brian Lewerke, Michigan State
Which Lewerke is Michigan State getting in 2019? The one who threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns against seven picks in 2017, while averaging 6.2 yards a play as a threat to run effectively? Or the one who saw his yardage output and completion percentage drop while throwing for only eight scores and 11 picks in 2018? Lewerke played hurt last season and wasn’t anywhere near the run threat he was the year prior. He averaged 5.8 yards per play as a junior and despite not looking right after a Week 6 shoulder injury, coach Mike Dantonio continued to play him.
Why? Backup Rocky Lombardi wasn’t much better, but you have to hope there isn’t any lingering damage there. Michigan State has nine starters back from last season, including everyone on the line and both of the top receivers. The hope is that Lewerke can just shake off a bad year.
No. 6: Peyton Ramsey, Indiana
I have the junior a lot higher than probably anyone else. He’s a career 66 percent thrower (best among active quarterbacks) with 29 touchdowns against 18 picks and an average of 9.6 yards per completion. Indiana returns its top two running backs from a season ago, including record-setting second-year runner Stevie Scott. It returns five of the top seven pass catchers and three starters on the offensive line. Watch out for the Hooisers.
No. 5: Nate Stanley, Iowa
Stanley, assuming good health, could set Iowa records for career quarterback play as a senior in 2019. In the two years since assuming the starting position, Stanley has thrown for 5,284 yards and 52 touchdowns against 16 picks. He’s a sub-60 percent passer but improved his completion percentage from 55.8 in 2017 to 59.3 percent last year.
Iowa has some stuff to replace on offense — namely the top three receivers are all gone, including NFL first-rounders Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson — but Stanley is 23 scores away from becoming the program’s all-time leading touchdown thrower.
No. 4: Elijah Sindelar, Purdue
Sindelar is tasked with taking over for David Blough and not missing a beat. Purdue hopes to continue building after a 6-7 campaign, not take a step back in Year 3 under Jeff Brohm. But Blough earned All-Big Ten honors after throwing for 3,705 yards and 25 touchdowns against 10 picks.
As a sophomore in 2017, Sindelar threw for 2,099 yards and 18 touchdowns against seven interceptions in eight starts. But he tore his ACL on Nov. 11 against Northwestern and still started the final three games of the season. He threw for 396 yards and four scores in a bowl game win over Arizona on a torn ACL.
Sindelar will also have the best skill position player in the conference lining up at wide receiver for him in Rondale Moore.
No. 3: Justin Fields, Ohio State
Fields has all the talent. But Fields is still an unproven true sophomore quarterback in an offense that needs to replace four starters on the offensive line, three of the top four pass-catchers from a season ago and the more effective running partner of the two-headed backfield.
First-year head coach Ryan Day should be just fine maneuvering through a tricky campaign, considering the absolute goldmine of talent he has at his disposal, but any expectation for Fields to do this season what first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins did last season is misguided. Still, Fields’ 69 percent completion percentage and 8.1 yards per play average as a freshman is a darn good place to start.
No. 2: Shea Patterson, Michigan
The Ole Miss transfer completed 64.6 percent of his throws for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns to only seven picks in his first season in Ann Arbor. A position that had virtually no stability the year before suddenly became one of strength. Now, former Alabama assistant Josh Gattis has the keys to the offense and is bringing more spread and more tempo to the table. That should mesh perfectly with Patterson and a stable of wide receivers that returns both of Patterson’s favorite targets from a season ago.
No. 1: Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
Who in the conference could you picture winning a Heisman Trophy in the coming years? Fields perhaps, case bolstered by the helmet he wears. Maybe, maybe, Mertz at Wisconsin. But I don’t think Patterson even has a puncher’s chance at winning one this season. I think Nebraska’s sophomore quarterback does.
Martinez’s 295 yards of total offense a game last season were second in the conference, 12th nationally and best among freshmen quarterbacks. He averaged 6.7 yards a play, connected on 64.6 percent of his passes and threw 17 touchdowns to eight interceptions. The only part of Martinez’s game that anyone outside of quarterback coach Mario Verduzco will critique is the fumbles, but most of the nine he had last season were a product of inexperience. Martinez has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but he pairs that potential with immediate impact.
For more season preview stuff, check out these pieces:
- Roundtable: Taking Stock of Offseason Big Ten Storylines
- Big Ten Buy or Sell: Nebraska's Legit, the West is Better and More
- Ranking the Biggest Big Ten Games on 2019 College Football Calendar
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.