Funny how the biggest debates wind up getting settled off the field, in the loopiest ways possible. It took a transfer to finally bring clarity to Ohio State’s quarterback derby. It took a transfer and an NCAA ruling for Michigan to find the same.
Joe Burrow is out. Shea Patterson is in. Welcome to 2018, and why we say we couldn’t make this stuff up if we tried.
When you break down the landscape of quarterbacks in the Big Ten coming out of spring ball, questions outpace answers by a couple of furlongs. Is Dwayne Haskins ready for his Columbus close-up? Can Patterson possibly live up to all that hype?
Will Scott Frost really roll the dice with a teen as his starter? How will Trace McSorley look without No. 26 by his side? What’s the next step for Brian Lewerke, Alex Hornibrook and Nate Stanley?
And which program has the best situation behind center right now, anyway?
Even though the football gods keep throwing us curveballs, Land of 10 stepped into the cage and decided to take a swing …
TOP 10 BIG TEN QUARTERBACKS AFTER 2018 SPRING BALL
1. Trace McSorley, Penn State
What will Gladys Knight’s act look like without the rest of the Pips? Unlike a year ago, the narrative for the Virginia native — who led Penn State to a combined 22-5 mark the last two autumns — is about who isn’t here rather than who is. With no Saquon Barkley at his side, no Mike Gesicki in the red zone and no DaeSean Hamilton or Saeed Blacknall flying open over the top, this is the season No. 9 shows he can steer Penn State through the brutal Big Ten East without proven superstars riding shotgun. After throwing for a personal-best 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2016, McSorley nearly matched those numbers last fall (3,570 yards, 28 touchdowns). Can McSorley elevate as well as he navigates? The ceiling is Baker Mayfield, scrambling and scrapping the Nittany Lions all the way to College Football Playoff contention. The floor is the mystery.
2. Brian Lewerke, Michigan State
We’re suckers for last impressions — blame the attention span — and few Big Ten quarterbacks were as impressive in the postseason as the Spartans’ Lewerke, who tossed 3 touchdown passes and ran for 73 yards in a 42-17 romp of Washington State at the Holiday Bowl.
December 28, 2017: Brian Lewerke rolls out and extends the play to find Cody White in the back of the endzone giving the Spartans an early lead in the 2017 Holiday Bowl. pic.twitter.com/39sHMg64rA
— Sparty Moments (@SpartyMoments) February 4, 2018
He’s not quite the mad bomber McSorley is, but in just his first year as the primary starter last fall, the sophomore from Arizona threw for 2,580 yards and accounted for 22 total touchdowns. Efficiency matters, too: Sparty was 7-0 in 2017 when Lewerke wasn’t intercepted; Gang Green went 3-3 when he was. But he’s young, and with 6-foot-4 wideout Felton Davis III patrolling one boundary and 6-3 receiver Cody White roaming the other, Lewerke has the tools — and toys — to pile up points in a hurry.
3. Shea Patterson, Michigan
If the Wolverines had received even average quarterback play position last fall, an 8-5 season probably would’ve looked a lot more like 10-3 or 11-2. Patterson, the former Ole Miss quarterback and 247Sports’ top-ranked pro-style passer for the Class of 2016, is a hell of a lot better than average. With the NCAA granting him immediate eligibility, the 5-star prep prospect becomes the first superstar behind center in the Jim Harbaugh Era and the prohibitive favorite, barring injury or alien abduction, to run out with the No. 1 offense at Notre Dame during prime time on Sept. 1.
I think Shea Patterson is the most talented passer Harbaugh has had since Andrew Luck. Counter RPO with a pre-snap back shoulder versus man. No defense versus throws like this. Really impressive. pic.twitter.com/iK0M8wCoMX
— James Light (@JamesALight) April 29, 2018
With a skill set pitched as somewhere between Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Manziel, Patterson has the arm to attack vertically and the legs to move the chains or extend the action when the pocket breaks down. If Michigan’s pocket looks anything like it did last year — the Wolverines allowed 2.77 sacks per contest, third-most in the league — Patterson will be afforded plenty of chances to run. The Toledo native threw for 2,259 yards and 17 scores in just 7 contests with the Rebels last fall; three Wolverines quarterbacks combined for 2,023 passing yards and 9 scores in 13 games in 2017. His eligibility is a massive offseason victory, on paper, and a shot in the arm at a position that most needed that shot. If you’d wondered what this bunch would look like with a consistent passing attack, well, here ya go. The missing piece has been cleared for takeoff. The only question is where Patterson lands this bad boy.
4. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State
You wanted him. You got him. Buckeyes fans have been enamored with the Maryland native’s arm since he first started slinging it at The Shoe, and if we read between the lines of Burrow’s decision to transfer out, Urban Meyer and the coaching staff share that fascination.
Dwayne Haskins 👀🔥 pic.twitter.com/xr2yymb0rp
— Buckeye Moments (@BuckeyeMoments) April 14, 2018
It’s not just the touch. Or the ability to drop the rock into the tiniest of windows and make it look easy. It’s not just that Haskins rocked garbage time, which was expected. It’s that when No. 7 took the reins after getting tossed from the frying pan into the hottest fire imaginable — a third-quarter injury replacement for J.T. Barrett at Michigan Stadium as Ohio State trailed by 6 — he didn’t bat an eyelid. Haskins piloted a 78-yard touchdown drive. Then a 47-yard drive that ended in a field goal, and a 34-yard drive that should have. He completed 6 of 7 passes on the afternoon, and the offense accounted for 2 touchdowns, a field goal make and a field goal miss on the four drives he led. That’s a clip of 4.25 points per possession. Against Michigan. At the Big House.
(2017) Dwayne Haskins enters in relief of injured J.T. Barrett and completes a clutch 3rd and 13 to Austin Mack. Buckeyes beat Michigan! pic.twitter.com/RDxMxAsjPt
— Buckeye Moments (@BuckeyeMoments) November 25, 2017
And no, we can’t wait for Nov. 24, either.
5. Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin
There are times it feels like the kid can do it all. Whup Miami at the Orange Bowl? Check. Sweep the Badgers’ trophy games against Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota? Check. Dominate the Big Ten West? Check. Carry a country tune? Oh, hell, yeah:
QB of @BadgerFootball
Orange Bowl MVP
…oh, and the guy can sing too
— Wisconsin Badgers (@UWBadgers) April 25, 2018
See, now we’re jealous.
The left-hander out of Philly flipped an impressive freshman year into an even better sophomore one in 2017, upping his completion percentage (58.6 to 62.3), his yards per attempt (6.97 to 8.30) and his passing touchdowns (9 to 25). And after torching Team Turnover Chain with 258 passing yards and 4 touchdowns in Miami Gardens on Dec. 30, you wonder just how hard the next corner has been turned. We probably won’t know until Sept. 22, when Bucky opens league play at rival Iowa. The knocks on Hornibrook’s ascent have come on two fronts: too many turnovers — he threw 15 picks last fall, 14 against Big Ten foes — and a lack of signature victories against quality East Division dance partners. The Badgers visit Michigan on Oct. 13 and Penn State on Nov. 10, so big No. 12 will have ample opportunity to lay those fears to rest. The only major memento yet to grace Hornibrook’s shelf is a Big Ten championship trophy, and with tailback Jonathan Taylor and a mammoth offensive line returning, odds are he’ll get another crack at the thing in December.
6. Nate Stanley, Iowa
Stanley already has one thing on his résumé Hornibrook doesn’t: A win, and a dominating one, over Meyer & Co. The 6-5 passer forever burned himself into Hawkeyes lore — and into Buckeyes fans’ souls — by throwing for 226 yards and 5 scores last Nov. 4 in Iowa’s 55-24 curb-stomping of Ohio State, the eventual Big Ten champion. The Wisconsin native returns his top 2 targets in wideout Nick Easley (51 catches, 4 touchdown receptions) and tight end Noah Fant (30 catches, 11 touchdowns) but won’t have the safety blanket that the tailback tandem of Akrum Wadley and James Butler (14 total touchdowns rushing and receiving) provided him as a first-year starter in 2017. The Hawkeyes will find new hammers in the backfield — it’s what they do — but Stanley already has raised the bar for fan expectations after throwing for 26 scores and just 6 interceptions in 2017. The next step for No. 4 is consistency: In the eight games Stanley produced passer ratings of 120.0 or better, Iowa was 7-1. In the five contests he was below 120, the Hawkeyes went 1-4.
7. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
He could be fourth on this list. He could be 10th. Heck, he might wind up not taking a snap at all. The trouble with projecting Thorson is that everything comes with one giant caveat: how quickly and successfully the 6-4 senior recovers from a right ACL tear sustained in the Music City Bowl.
— Land of 10 NU (@Landof10Wildcat) December 29, 2017
When No. 18 is right, he checks a lot of the NFL boxes. He’s tall. He can tuck it and run, or throw on the run. He’s tough to rattle in hostile road environments and bowl games. His legs are strong enough to push the rock over the line for a first down or for 6 on short down-and-distance situations. His arm is accurate enough to punish sleeping safeties over the top. If his lower body is close to 100 percent, he makes the Wildcats more dangerous than they should be, on paper, again. Thorson is arguably the toughest guy to peg on what might be the toughest team to peg, all things considered.
8. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
Like the Wildcats, the Cornhuskers’ story could unfold any number of ways. Nebraska is more or less a blank slate, and all we have to go on is one Big Red spring game and Frost’s two seasons at Central Florida. From that, basically, here’s what we can glean:
- Mobile quarterbacks are preferable, and Martinez — who sat out his senior prep football season in 2017 while recovering from shoulder surgery — was by far the most mobile of the guys who took the snaps at Memorial Stadium in April.
- Frost isn’t afraid to play a true freshman (if that freshman is the best and most athletic fit) and coach them up as they go, warts and all. Injuries forced a young McKenzie Milton into the Knights’ lineup by mid-September 2016. A month later, the starting job was his to lose, and y’all know the rest of that story.
- It might come down to whether the Huskers’ staff feels that Tristan Gebbia, the most polished passer of the bunch, sells the run-pass option (RPO) better than Martinez (who looks like an RPO natural) executes the throws they want in the passing game.
- The situation, at least in Year 1, is fluid now and will remain fluid until somebody — or something — forces Frost’s hand. For the time being, Nebraska fans figure to be forgiving, even if the 2018 schedule is anything but.
9. Kasim Hill, Maryland
We’re waist-deep into the hypothetical portion of the program now. Hill was the second of what felt like seven or eight quarterbacks DJ Durkin was forced to cycle through last fall, and arguably the most impressive. What we’ve seen of the 6-2 sophomore to be, we’ve loved — we just haven’t seen a lot of it.
— Jake Brodsky (@brodskysauce) September 2, 2017
No. 11 came off the pine to seal a massive win at Texas to open the 2017 season, then followed that up by throwing for 2 scores while averaging 8.2 yards per carry against Towson. Hill was driving Maryland to a 3-0 lead against a crazy-good UCF bunch in Week 3 before a hit on a first-quarter scramble ended both his day and his season. If the guy from early September 2017 is back and feeling frisky this autumn, the Terrapins could well be feeling the same.
10. Elijah Sindelar, Purdue
More hedging here: Sindelar split snaps with David Blough last year, both guys got hurt, and both could wind up splitting snaps again this fall, too. Even while playing with a bum leg during the final third of the season, Sindelar impressed, throwing for 1,703 yards and 14 scores, then torching Arizona at the Foster Farms Bowl for 4 passing touchdowns. Blough ran for a touchdown and threw for another in a big win at Missouri; Sindelar saw the Boilers through for a bowl victory and orchestrated season-changing wins at Iowa (3 passing scores) and at home vs. Indiana (2 touchdown passes). Even if you don’t trust Sindelar’s ACL, trust the upside: coach Jeff Brohm is a lifetime quarterback guru who’s already brought the mojo — and the fun — back to The Cradle of Quarterbacks.