The April 2023 issue of Hail Varsity is out now. This month you’ll find a deeply reported story on the state of NIL at Nebraska from staff writer Brady Oltmans, commentary on spring football and Frank Solich’s return for the spring game, a Q&A with infielder Brice Matthews, a special photo essay from staff photographer Eric Francis and more. To preview the issue, here’s one of this month’s features looking at the state of quarterback races in the Big Ten.
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The saying goes, a team is only as good as its quarterback. Take it with a grain of salt, but if there’s even some truth to it, 2023 is going to be an interesting year in the Big Ten.
Last year, 15 quarterbacks qualified for the conference’s individual leaders lists by appearing in at least 75% of their teams’ games. Only seven are back this season, and of those seven just three appeared to have their starting jobs locked down for another year.
The transfer portal is both the cause for some of that upheaval and the potential solution. It’s a two-way street, and an increasingly busy one. Wisconsin, for example, lost its three-year starter to the SEC, but brought in transfers from Mississippi State, Oklahoma and SMU. That might be an extreme example, but barely.
It’s a lot to keep up with, so here’s something of a guide to the quarterback situations throughout the Big Ten this spring. We’ve taken the liberty of putting them in order from the best-looking scenario to the worst, with experience and certainty typically trumping promise, though not always.
Absorb this information now as more change is likely. The NCAA’s second transfer window opens April 15 and remains open for two weeks. Big Ten schools will inevitably lose some of the quarterbacks mentioned here, and they’ll gain others. After April, only graduate transfers can still make a move.
Here’s where things stood with spring games right around the corner.
Michigan: The Wolverines, back-to-back conference champs, are the most experienced team in the Big Ten based on returning production, and that includes quarterback J.J. McCarthy. After beating out incumbent Cade McNamara for the job last year, McCarthy ranked second in the Big Ten in passer rating while throwing 22 touchdowns to five interceptions. With the embarrassment of riches around him, it’s fair to expect more from the junior in 2023.
Maryland: The biggest boost of the Terrapins’ offseason came when Taulia Tagovailoa opted to return for a fifth season. He already owns 10 passing records at Maryland and earned second-team all-conference in 2022 despite posting lower numbers than the previous season, Tagovailoa’s first full year as the Terps’ starter. There’s no mystery to who will be taking snaps at Maryland, and no qualms about Tagovailoa’s ability.
Ohio State: Given the recent run of quarterbacks in Columbus, there’s only so far the Buckeyes can fall based solely on needing a new starter. (Remember, this is the place where Joe Burrow couldn’t get on the field.) C.J. Stroud is off to the NFL, which should pave the way for junior Kyle McCord to take over, though he was battling with sophomore Devin Brown in the spring. McCord has the experience edge, appearing in 12 games the past two seasons. Whoever gets the job will throw to an elite fleet of receivers, where all the starters return. One-time Nebraska quarterback, Tristan Gebbia, joined Ohio State as a graduate transfer after two seasons at Oregon State.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions will show up in the top 10 of the preseason polls, maybe even the top five, such is the state of things in State College. One of the few things Penn State doesn’t have back from last year’s 11-2, Rose Bowl-winning team is the quarterback, but there’s no sign of panic. Sophomore Drew Allar, a 5-star prospect and the top-rated QB in the 2022 class, will take the reins. He appeared in 10 games as a true freshman backup, throwing for four touchdowns and rushing for one.
Wisconsin: When Graham Mertz, the highest-rated recruit in program history, left for Florida this offseason after three so-so years as the starter, Luke Fickell took the shotgun approach to finding his first quarterback in Madison. The Badgers welcomed three transfers. Redshirt freshmen Nick Evers (Oklahoma) and Braedyn Locke (Mississippi State) are still defined by promise at this early stage, but Tanner Mordecai is a proven commodity. A blue-chip signee for Oklahoma in 2018, Mordecai started the past two seasons at SMU, throwing for more than 7,000 yards and 72 touchdowns. He’s good enough to rank among the Big Ten’s best based on those numbers, but he is learning a new offense in a league that can offer a steep learning curve.
Michigan State: Continuity matters, particularly in the passing game, and Payton Thorne should start for the Spartans for a third consecutive season. That’s a luxury few teams have in the Big Ten in 2023, but which Thorne will Michigan State get this time? After throwing for 3,200 yards and 27 touchdowns during an 11-2 season in 2021, Thorne’s numbers fell to 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns as the Spartans fell to 5-7 in 2022 without Doak Walker Award-winner Kenneth Walker III in the backfield. Thorne is a solid quarterback, but he needs help from the Michigan State’s skill players.
Nebraska: The Huskers don’t lack for depth, but they might for certainty. Returning starter Casey Thompson put up passing numbers in 2022 that didn’t belong on a 4-8 team, but spent most of spring practice in a yellow non-contact jersey after offseason surgery. So did Logan Smothers. Nebraska’s new staff got longer looks at Chubba Purdy, Heinrich Haarberg, Richard Torres and newcomers Jeff Sims (Georgia Tech) and Jack Woche (Mississippi). Sims, a junior, started 23 games over three seasons for the Yellow Jackets. Along with Thompson, the Huskers have two quarterbacks who have started many games, though Haarberg, a sophomore who did not see the field in his first two seasons, drew plenty of praise this spring. It’s a battle that will likely continue in fall camp.
Purdue: Jeff Brohm took his pass-first offense back to his alma mater, Louisville, and the Boilermakers also must replace Aidan O’Connell, the Big Ten’s leading passer, but there should still be plenty of balls in the air in West Lafayette. New head coach Ryan Walters hired Graham Harrell, an Air Raid disciple, as offensive coordinator, and Purdue imported transfer quarterback Hudson Card from Texas. Card won a QB battle to start as a redshirt freshman in 2021, but lost the job to current Husker quarterback Casey Thompson after two games. In 2022, he backed up Quinn Ewers in Austin. Card has shown some promise when he has played, completing 66% of his passes with 11 touchdowns to two interceptions.
Minnesota: After five seasons of steady quarterback play from Tanner Morgan, the Gophers enter a new era behind center. Sophomore Athan Kaliakmanis should smooth the transition. He started five games as a redshirt freshman in place of an injured Morgan last year, and finished the season on an upward trajectory. He helped Minnesota erase a 10-0 halftime deficit to beat Nebraska in November, and, three weeks later, went 19-for-29 for a career-high 319 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-16 road win over rival Wisconsin. Kaliakmanis gives the Gophers a run threat that wasn’t really there with Morgan.
Illinois: The Illini rode one of the nation’s best defenses, a punishing run game and strong quarterback play from Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito to a 7-1 start before fading down the stretch to finish 8-5 in 2022. DeVito is gone as are his top two backups. Enter Luke Altmyer, a Mississippi transfer and former 4-star recruit who chose the Rebels over offers from LSU, Florida State and others. Altmyer has a blue-chip pedigree, but he’ll be a first-time starter if he wins the job. His primary competition is graduate transfer John Paddock. Ball State’s starter last season, Paddock threw for 2,700 yards and 18 touchdowns. Illini football runs deep in his family. Paddock’s great grandfather, grandfather and uncle lettered at Illinois.
Iowa: Michigan transfer Cade McNamara led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title in 2021, but was beat out by J.J. McCarthy last year, prompting his move to Iowa City this offseason. McNamara was solid in his lone season as the starter, completing 64% of his passes with 15 touchdowns to six interceptions. Solid might be enough, but McNamara enters one of the stranger situations in college football. Embattled offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz took a pay cut after Iowa averaged 17.7 points (123rd) in 2022, and the Hawkeyes must average 25 points and win seven games for his contract to revert to its original terms. No pressure, McNamara, there’s only a family legacy on the line.
Northwestern: There’s continuity in Evanston, now the Wildcats need progress. Junior Ryan Hilinski, Northwestern’s primary starter last year, returns, but he only completed 55.8% of his passes and threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six). Sophomore Brendan Sullivan might be the favorite to start here. He filled in for an injured Hilinski during a five-game, mid-season stretch, completing 74% of his passes with four touchdowns to three interceptions. The Wildcats, didn’t win any of the games featuring Sullivan, but he helped Northwestern stay in closer-than-expected losses to Maryland and Ohio State. For a team that went 1-11, that’s a start.
Rutgers: Injuries limited starter, and former Husker, Noah Vedral to four games last season, but that bad break might provide a benefit this year. Rutgers had extended looks at the top two contenders to start in 2023. Junior Evan Simon played in nine games, completing 57.7% of his passes with four touchdowns and six interceptions. Junior Gavin Wimsatt, a former Elite 11 QB, saw action in eight games, completing 44.8% with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Both quarterbacks need those numbers to improve, but Wimsatt might have the leg up in this race. Rutgers has been patient and willing to live with growing pains for the highest-rated quarterback the program has ever signed.
Indiana: Connor Bazelak was expected to be the answer for the Hoosiers in 2022, and he was at least the starter, though his 106.13 passer rating was last in the Big Ten and it came on a conference-leading 42.6 attempts per game. Bazelak departed for Bowling Green this offseason, leaving Indiana with a two-horse race between two redshirt freshman this spring. Brendan Sorsby, a 2022 signee, appeared in one game last fall, going 3-for-6 with an interception. Tennessee transfer Tayven Jackson, a former 4-star recruit, got a handful of snaps for the Volunteers last season. Indiana’s top two candidates have combined to throw 10 passes, hence the Hoosiers are here