With spring practices in the rear view, we’ve reached the long, agonizing part of college football’s offseason. Instead of counting down the weekends until Week 1 of the 2017 season, let’s get prepared by breaking down the best of the Big Ten, from players to coaches to games. Up first: The quarterbacks.
The 2016 season was a strong one for Big Ten teams, with four of them finishing inside final Associated Press top 10. It was not as strong a season for Big Ten quarterback play, however.
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett was a Heisman Trophy candidate for a while, but his play fizzled near the end of the season. The Penn State offense became one of the biggest surprises in the country, but after Trace McSorley took a few weeks to settle in.
Picking out the third-best quarterback in the league was a struggle at times, with depth a problem. There was only one Big Ten quarterback selected in the 2017 NFL Draft: Iowa’s C.J. Beathard at No. 104 overall, late in the third round — a surprisingly early spot for him.
Will the Big Ten have better quarterback play in 2017? The answer is almost certainly yes.
Ohio State and Purdue made coaching changes that should help their returning quarterbacks. Wisconsin and Michigan State should have more clarity at the position. Nebraska and Maryland are turning to talented transfers who should provide better quarterback play than what those teams had in 2016.
Here’s a look at the top 10 quarterbacks in the Big Ten for the 2017 season at this point in the offseason:
10. Caleb Henderson, Maryland
Caleb Henderson was ranked ahead of McSorley among quarterbacks in the state of Virginia during their senior seasons of high school, but he spent two seasons sitting behind Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky at North Carolina.
He transferred to Maryland before last season and should take over for the graduated Perry Hills. The Terps have an excellent wide receiver in D.J. Moore and potentially one of the most potent set of running backs in the league. Henderson could be one of the top breakout players in the Big Ten next season, piloting coordinator Walt Bell’s offense.
9. Richard Lagow, Indiana
2016: 3,362 passing yards, 19 TDs, 17 INTs, 7.7 yards/attempt
Richard Lagow had some impressive games in his first season with the Hoosiers, but decision-making was an issue at times. Indiana also experimented with other options, bringing in backup Zander Diamont or TB Tyler Natee in run-heavy packages.
It should be Lagow’s show in 2017. He’ll be working with a new coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and quarterbacks coach Nick Sheridan. Both came from Tennessee. Lagow has a big arm, but the offense will be missing some key contributors from 2016. Lagow will have Nick Westbrook, who had nearly 1,000 receiving yards last season and could be the best wideout in the Big Ten.
8. Brian Lewerke, Michigan State
2016: 381 passing yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 6.7 yards/attempt, 149 rushing yards
Brian Lewerke was in the process of wrestling the starting job away from Tyler O’Connor in the middle of last season before sustaining a broken left leg. He looks like the clear front-runner to start in 2017 for the Spartans.
This has been an awful offseason for the program, with a sexual-assault investigation and a couple of other disciplinary problems dominating the coverage in East Lansing. This comes after a 3-9 season that brought an incredible run of success for Michigan State to a crashing halt. Lewerke is going to be tasked with trying to help steer the program back to success, on the field, at least.
7. Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin
2016: 1,262 passing yards, 9 TDs, 7 INTs, 7.0 yards/attempt
Alex Hornibrook split time last season with Bart Houston, but he’ll be in charge of the offense in 2017 with Houston having run out of eligibility. The Badgers were last in the Big Ten in passing attempts per game (23.1) last season but fourth in passer rating.
The Badgers lost their top two tailbacks, but Bradrick Shaw and Chris James should keep the assembly line rolling. That would keep Hornibrook from needing to carry the offense — though it will be interesting to see if the Badgers open up the passing game a little more in his second season.
6. Tanner Lee, Nebraska
Tanner Lee threw for 3,601 yards, 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in two seasons at Tulane before transferring to Nebraska. The Cornhuskers don’t have a player on the roster who attempted a pass in 2016, but Lee impressed during spring practice, and coach Mike Riley named him the starter.
This is a big year for Riley and the Cornhuskers. They need Lee to play well, and he’s got a chance to be one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
5. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
2016: 3,182 passing yards, 22 TDs, 9 INTs, 6.7 yards/attempt
Clayton Thorson took a huge step forward in his second season as the starter for the Wildcats. His first few games in 2016 looked a lot like his freshman season (49.0-percent completion percentage), but after that, he became one of the three best quarterbacks in the league (61.1 percent, 18 touchdowns, 7 interceptions in the final 10 games).
He’ll have to prove he can be that productive in 2017 without Austin Carr, the best receiver in the Big Ten last season. Carr’s 90 catches were the second-most in the league since 2009.
4. David Blough, Purdue
2016: 3,352 passing yards, 25 TDs, 21 INTs, 6.5 yards/attempt
David Blough led the Big Ten in passing yards per game but threw too many interceptions for an undermanned club. The bad news: four of Blough’s top five wideouts have exhausted their eligibility.
The good news: Purdue made one of the top coaching hires of the offseason, landing Jeff Brohm from Western Kentucky. Brohm’s offenses were dynamic with the Hilltoppers. It will be fascinating to see what he can do with Blough.
3. Wilton Speight, Michigan
2016: 2,538 passing yards, 18 TDs, 7 INTs, 7.7 yards/attempt
Wilton Speight had three strong games in a row in the middle of last season, but then he got hurt in the Iowa loss and missed the Indiana game. He was OK against Ohio State and Florida State, but it seemed as if there were an opening for talented redshirt freshman Brandon Peters.
Assuming Speight can hold off Peters during camp, he’ll be the first multiyear starter for coach Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. There are questions everywhere else on offense, but there’s lots of exciting young talent, as well. Speight’s ability to make plays when the pocket breaks down could be important with some inexperience in front of him and in the receiving corps.
2. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
2016: 2,555 passing yards, 24 TDs, 7 INTs, 6.7 yards/attempt, 845 rushing yards, 9 touchdowns
J.T. Barrett had 14 touchdown passes in the first four games of 2016, but Ohio State’s passing attack was broken by the end of the season. His final three games: 44 of 87 passing, 337 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs.
New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has been tasked with helping to fix that. The biggest issue was not being able to throw downfield; there were problems up front with the protection and with wide receivers who struggled to get open. The Buckeyes need new targets for Barrett to emerge, but the offense should be explosive again.
1. Trace McSorley, Penn State
2016: 3,614 passing yards, 29 TDs, 8 INTs, 9.3 yards/attempt, 365 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns
Trace McSorley morphed into one of the best quarterbacks in the country in the second half of the season. He had 20 touchdown passes in the final seven games, including 12 in the final three against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Southern Cal.
He will have one of the nation’s best running backs in Saquon Barkley and tight ends in Mike Gesicki, along with an improved offensive line and an interesting collection of wide receivers to work with. Barkley is the obvious Heisman Trophy candidate in Penn State’s backfield, but McSorley could end up in that conversation, as well.