2019 Big Ten Quarterback Rankings
Quarterback is arguably the most important position in college football. If you have a great quarterback, there is a feeling your team has a chance. Without a good one, winning becomes incredibly difficult. The Big Ten is in a very interesting spot at the position and the following list is a ranking of the quarterback rooms for each team in the conference. The starting quarterback gets the bulk of the consideration but the backups and depth of the position is taken into account as well.
- Illinois Fighting Illini
I anticipated selecting Rutgers for the cellar but Illinois is dealing with as much uncertainty as you can possibly have in a major conference at the quarterback position. MJ Rivers II was expected to be the starter when the season began but he transferred after spring practice, leaving basically no experience on the roster. The Illini has a bunch of athleticism in the QB room but there’s not much in the way of proven passing. 4-star freshman Isaiah Williams enrolled as an athlete that is being given a crack at quarterback. He is slight of frame but his speed and running ability make him a terrific fit for offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s attack. Illinois fans are very high on Williams but he is such an unknown that I feel obligated to slot them in 14th. Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor are similar in that they are both athletic and raw with no experience to lean on. I think they’ll back Williams up and it seems likely more than one quarterback will be forced into action this season in the run-heavy Illini attack. The skill players and line are better for the Illini than they are for Rutgers but with so little experience, I’ll need to see it to believe it will be a success this season.
- Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The transfer of MJ Rivers moves Rutgers from the basement. Artur Sitkowski is the presumptive starter and he struggled mightily in 2018. While the season can certainly not be blamed entirely on the sophomore, he completed less than 50% of his passes, threw only four touchdowns to 18 interceptions and had the lowest quarterback rating in the conference since 2010 at just 76.35 (stat courtesy Off Tackle Empire). Rutgers provided very little support to the young quarterback. The line was a mess and the receiving corps had no explosiveness and no discernible difference makers. There is a bit of hope behind Sitkowski as early-enrollee Cole Snyder had an impressive spring game and the Scarlet Knights added a late transfer from Texas Tech in McLane Carter. Carter does not have a huge arm and he was injured often in Lubbock (which played a part in eventually losing his job) but he does give Rutgers some depth at the position. I anticipate Sitkowski getting the first crack and if he can’t get anything going, I imagine they’ll turn to Carter and hope to maintain the redshirt for the undersized freshman Cole Snyder. If the offensive line does not significantly improve, it won’t matter who is playing quarterback for the Scarlet Knights.
- Wisconsin Badgers
I think spots 12 through 7 are legitimate toss-ups and it was difficult to rank them. Eventually, I had to place teams into rankings and someone had to be 12th while someone had to be 7th. The explanations on these teams are much more important than the rankings and your personal preferences will certainly vary. Alex Hornibrook transferred, leaving little experience in the quarterback room. I don’t view Hornibrook as a big loss and it’s very possible he wouldn’t be starting in 2019 anyway but still, his departure does create some uncertainty and a lack of experience. Jack Coan received the bulk of the snaps with the first team in spring and he did start four of the final six games for the Badgers in 2018, throwing for 515 yards. The Badgers need their quarterback to be able to effectively stretch the field so that defenses cannot crowd the line and stuff the running game. Coan showed an ability to hit the deep ball so I think he gets the nod. 4-star freshman Graham Mertz and fellow freshman Chase Wolf plus sophomore Danny Vanden Boom provide quality depth. Of the three, Mertz has the best pedigree and reports from camp indicate Wolf is the best athlete.
- Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota has a pair of returning contributors plus two early-enrollee freshmen that could factor into the equation at quarterback. I think there is quality depth but I am not sure they have one real difference-maker at the position. Zack Annexstad was the starter for the first half of 2018, completing only 52 percent of his passes for 1,277 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. He suffered both an ankle injury and a midsection injury that took him out after seven games of the season and Tanner Morgan entered. Morgan was expected to be the starter for 2018 but Annexstad outperformed him in practice. However, Morgan was probably the better quarterback in the games. He led the Gophers to a 4-2 finish and completed just less than 59 percent of his passes. Again, both were fine but neither were really difference makers. Minnesota’s surge was largely led by the ground game and the play of Mohamed Ibrahim. Jacob Clark is 6’5” with a big arm while Kramer doesn’t possess the size but is more of a mobile threat. I would anticipate Annexstad getting the first shot as the starter and if he fails to progress, Morgan will get his shot.
- Penn State Nittany Lions
The Trace McSorley era is over. After a few very successful and prolific seasons in State College, McSorley is now a Baltimore Raven. It was expected that Tommy Stevens would move from offensive weapon to full-time starting quarterback for a season in 2019 but Stevens, still struggling with an injury and unable to fully participate in spring practice, surprisingly transferred. That leaves Sean Clifford as the starting quarterback and the leader of an offense with a ton of questions. Let me make this clear, I think the Penn State defense could be tremendous and I still have faith in the Nittany Lions running back corps. However, this offense is going to take a step back and replacing McSorley is a huge task. Sean Clifford has shown to be a very good deep ball passer, something that will be used quite a bit with the speed Penn State has at wide receiver. The biggest issue that jumps out is the lack of mobility. McSorley was often deployed in quarterback draws and he used his legs when plays broke down. The quarterback run game was a huge part of the offense. How will the Nittany Lions adjust their attack to compensate for that? Clifford drew rave reviews from spring practice and the offseason for his leadership skills and intangibles and people in State College are not expecting a major struggle this season. They have absolutely zero proven players behind him and they’d be relying on a freshman if he goes down.
- Maryland Terrapins
New head coach Mike Locksley is a terrific recruiter. If his results from his past stints as a head coach are to be believed, he is not a good head coach and things do not end well when he is in charge. That could certainly change after his time at Alabama but I’m skeptical for the time being. Locksley was able to reel in Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson and four-star true freshman Lance Legendre and those additions boost the quarterback room. Those two will compete with returning scrambler Tyrell Pigrome for the starting job. I like Pigrome and he has impressed me in the times he has been on the field. While definitely not a great passer and his accuracy definitely must improve, he can be a difficult task for defenses to stop because of his athleticism. Josh Jackson was a standout performer for the Virginia Tech Hokies in 2017, accounting for nearly 3,000 yards passing with 20 touchdowns and adding six rushing touchdowns. However, he started better than he finished and he suffered a season-ending injury in 2018 before transferring from Blacksburg. Four-star Lance Legendre will probably see some snaps but they’ll probably try to keep that to only four games and redshirt him. Whoever starts will be dealing with a new system and a re-tooled offensive line.
- Indiana Hoosiers
Peyton Ramsey has nearly two seasons of starting experience, was tied for second in completion percentage in the Big Ten at 66 percent in 2018 and he has pretty good mobility. On top of that, he is a respected leader and the son of a long-time high school coach. However, there is very much a quarterback competition in Bloomington and the returning starter could end up third on the depth chart. Ramsey doesn’t have the arm strength that you want in a high-level starting quarterback and new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer has options. The Hoosiers are very high on redshirt freshman Michael Penix, an impressive prospect from Florida with a laser arm and good mobility. He tore his ACL in the middle of last season but is expected to be 100% for fall camp. IU also added a four-star recruit as Jack Tuttle transferred from Utah. Much like Penix, Tuttle has a big arm and he moves well for his size. Ramsey is the safe choice because of his experience but DeBoer is implementing a new offensive system so the experience factor likely won’t hold as much weight as it normally would. The Hoosiers return most of their offensive weapons from 2018 and the ceiling for the offense is higher if Penix or Tuttle win the job. I think if Michael Penix is healthy in August, he’ll unseat the incumbent in Ramsey.
- Purdue Boilermakers
I am tempted to rank Purdue in a little bit higher because of the prowess of Jeff Brohm and the unbelievable talent of receiver/nuclear weapon Rondale Moore but we are ranking quarterback rooms only so Purdue slots here and it might be a bit generous. Leader David Blough is gone and Elijah Sindelar is the expected starter. He’s talented and has a big arm but there are questions and concerns. Sindelar has knee problems that likely won’t go away and it would not be a surprise to see him miss time with a knee injury or knee pain. Sindelar also made too many poor decisions and forced too many things during his time in the lineup in 2018. That will need to change this season. Jack Plummer is the most likely backup entering the season with Nick Sipe probably slightly behind him. They were both mid-3 star recruits and neither has much experience.
- Michigan State Spartans
I placed Michigan State and my fifth-place team just a notch higher than the previous crop. I am likely giving Brian Lewerke way too much benefit of the doubt by placing the Spartans sixth on this list after a disastrous offensive season in 2018. However, I remember 2017 and I believe a return to something resembling that campaign is possible for Lewerke. I struggled with this one and at times had MSU as far down as number nine on this list but they settle in at sixth. Focusing on 2017, Lewerke looked like a future NFL starter, amassing 2,793 yards with 20 touchdowns as MSU won ten games. The attack struggled mightily last season and Lewerke was banged up. That meant Rocky Lombardi got some action and they have Theo Day as a redshirt freshman. Can Brian Lewerke regain the magic he had in 2017 or was that a fluke and the form we saw last season is who he really is?
- Northwestern Wildcats
The Wildcats, the reigning Big Ten West champions, have to replace Clayton Thorson but the offense struggled mightily at times in 2018. They finished 108th in total offense and were last in the Big Ten in rushing. It appeared the Wildcats would be turning to redshirt senior TJ Green, a guy that got some snaps in 2018 while Thorson was being worked back in. They then landed former 5-star prospect and Clemson Tiger Hunter Johnson. Johnson is from Brownsburg, Indiana and he saw that he was not going to beat out generational player Trevor Lawrence so he returned to the Midwest and will be eligible this season for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats. He played sparingly in 2017, completing 21 of 27 passes for 234 yards but I am putting him here because I believe in his talent and think he is a great fit for Northwestern’s attack. The offensive line is a major concern and there is not much room behind Green depth-wise but I think Johnson is a difference-maker and Fitzgerald will put him in position to succeed.
- Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes lost a lot to the NFL but Nate Stanley turned down the pros to return for his final season at Kinnick Stadium. He’s a very solid quarterback, with 52 touchdowns to only 16 interceptions and he will be among the most experienced quarterbacks in the country in 2019. Stanley does have some drawbacks as he is not tremendously accurate (less than 60%) and did not extend the field all that often (only 7.2 yards per attempt). He’s a quality quarterback though and with the changes in personnel on offense, he’ll need to prove his worth to keep the Hawkeyes afloat in the improving West division.
- Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State is entering a new era after Urban Meyer stepped away from coaching (I will not say retired with him). Ryan Day takes over as the head coach of one of the premier programs in the nation and his first year in charge will have a new quarterback under center. Former five-star prospect and Georgia Bulldog Justin Fields opted not to have another year of spot duty behind Jake Fromm and transferred to Ohio State. His transfer caused Tate Martell to flee to Miami and Matthew Baldwin exited as well. Fields played in 12 games for the Bulldogs, completing 27 of 39 passes and rushing for 266 yards. The reviews on Fields from the spring were not particularly glowing but I would not go overboard with that. He has oodles of talent and the Buckeyes have plenty of offensive weapons for Ryan Day to surround him with. I would anticipate he’ll have some growing pains but will have a very nice season. The transfers have left the Buckeyes very thin at the position and Fields figures to be a guy that scrambles some. Gunnar Hoak transferred in after spending three years as a backup at Kentucky and he’ll likely be the backup. Chris Chugunov is depth after being the third-string QB for West Virginia.
- Nebraska Cornhuskers
Adrian Martinez is my favorite quarterback in the conference and I think he’ll have the best season of all Big Ten quarterbacks in 2019 (and then get major Heisman hype in 2020). He does not have a bunch of talent behind him as Andrew Bunch and Noah Vedral return. Incoming freshman Luke McCaffrey could see action in four games while redshirting. Martinez showed promise early and then started to look like a star toward the tail end of his freshman season in 2018. Despite learning a new system and dealing with his first season of college football, Martinez completed 64.6% of his passes, threw for 2,617 yards and had 17 passing touchdowns. He also ran for 629 yards with eight rushing touchdowns. Scott Frost is a proven difference maker as a head coach and I trust the progression of Martinez will continue this season. Their three crossover games are Ohio State and Indiana at home and at Maryland so the schedule is favorable for a big year for the Cornhuskers.
- Michigan Wolverines
The top team on the list is the Michigan Wolverines. They have a new offensive coordinator in Josh Gattis and will reportedly open up the offense and play more to the strengths of quarterback Shea Patterson. That is a long time coming but we have heard it before so it will be important for Jim Harbaugh to follow through on that plan. Patterson has yet to be the savior he was billed as by some but he has been quite good in his time in Ann Arbor. He trails only Nate Stanley in career touchdown passes in the conference and he has the highest passer rating among returning QBs. I placed the Wolverines ahead of Nebraska and Ohio State because of the depth at the position. If Patterson gets hurt or unexpectedly falls apart, Michigan can turn to Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton. Both are very talented and waiting for their turn. Despite the transfer of Brandon Peters, the Wolverines still have good depth and a clear NFL-caliber player as their starter.