Nothing spices up preseason more than a good quarterback battle, and the Big Ten is not short on those this year.
Four Leaders division (that's the one with Ohio State, in case you tend to forget sometimes like we do) teams enter August looking for a new starter at quarterback, and the coaches at all four schools sounded optimistic about how their competitions will play out.
The one with the most familiar faces is Indiana, where Kevin Wilson has three players who have played extensively over the past two seasons.
Chase Coffman started 10 games last season and led the Hoosiers with 2,734 yards passing with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Nate Sudfeld played in five games and threw for 632 yards with seven touchdowns and an interception. Then there is Tre Roberson, a third-year sophomore who threw for 368 yards in two games before suffering a gruesome broken leg that prematurely ended his season and earned him a redshirt year.
Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson said the trio is in a dead heat on the eve of camp as all three bring something different to the table.
“Maybe the greatest arm strength is Nate Sudfeld,” Wilson said. “(He is) tall, very smart. Young player, very good. Maybe greatest moxie might be Cam Coffman. He's a little daredevil. He'll take some shots and take some chances. Great anticipation, vision.
The best athlete of the crowd is probably Tre Roberson. So they're all uniquely different.”
If he is all the way back to himself, Roberson would seem like the potential favorite in the battle because he is the most complete player. He ran for 133 yards on just 12 carries last season after picking up 426 yards on the ground in 2011 when he became a starter as a true freshman.
It remains to be seen if mobility will be a factor in the Wisconsin quarterback competition. For years the position has been known as one mostly for facilitation – head coaches Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema were looking for someone to manage the game while a powerful running game imposed its will on opposing defenses.
A notable exception came in 2011, of course, when senior transfer Russell Wilson starred as a big-play passer and runner while leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.
New head coach Gary Anderson – who came from Utah State to replace Bielema after the latter left for Arkansas last winter – is a fan of involving the quarterback in the running game, but he does not sound like he intends to do too much to upset the winning formula that has developed in Madison over the years – at least not too early in his tenure.
Anderson also has a three-man race with veterans Curt Phillips and Joel Stave looking to beat not only each other but newcomer Tanner McEvoy, a sophomore who transferred from Arizona Western College.
“He deserves that opportunity because he's a junior college player with three years left to play,” Anderson said. “Anytime we recruit a junior college player he's going to be given the opportunity to walk in fall camp and compete and get reps with the ones and twos at times just as every freshman will if he deems himself mentally and physically prepared to be able to be in those situations that he has a chance to help our team.
McEvoy, a 6-6, 215-pounder originally from New Jersey, ran for 414 yards and six touchdowns last season and threw for 1,943 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Stave, a 6-5, 219-pounder who is a strong-armed pocket passer, started five games last season and played in eight before breaking his collarbone against Michigan State. He showed promise while re-invigorating the Badger offense after a slow start to the season and threw for 1,104 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Of the two veterans, the 6-3, 214-pound Phillips is regarded as the better runner even though his career has been plagued by injuries. He took over as the starter after Stave was injured last season and threw for 540 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions while also running for 99 yards in seven games, including five starters.
“It will be a three-man race,” Anderson said. “I have no timeline on it. And we may jog out there the first play of the game with two quarterbacks on the field and see what happens from there. So who knows – it will be interesting.”
Like Wisconsin and Indiana, Purdue is the site of a quarterback derby that includes at least one player with some starting experience.
In this case, that is Rob Henry, a fifth-year senior from Ocala, Fla., who started seven games in 2010 before missing all of the 2011 season with a knee injury. He played in 11 games last season mostly as a change-of-pace or Wildcat runner.
He will compete this fall with redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, a North Canton (Ohio) Hoover product, and Danny Etling, a true freshman who enrolled early and was named the newcomer of the spring, and Austin Appleby.
“We’ll give them equal reps,” new Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell said. “One guy will run with the ones in one group, in one drill, and the next drill the other guy will run with the ones. And in about two weeks after we start practice, we'll make a decision and have that guy have ownership of our football team going into our first game.
“I think it's obviously critically important because the No. 1 component for that guy is to take care of the football. No. 2 is to get us in the right place, No. 3 to be tough enough to stand in there on third-and-5 and take a shot and we need a big play.”
Lastly there is Penn State, where second-year head coach Bill O’Brien is starting almost from scratch following the graduation of Matt McGloin.
Many view true freshman Christian Hackenberg as the favorite win the job, but he has not even had a chance to work on the field with the coaching staff yet because he did not enroll in school until June.
Hackenburg, a 6-3, 218-pounder from Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, must beat out Tyler Ferguson, a junior college transfer from California who enrolled prior to spring practice.
“One thing that’s really exciting about working with young quarterbacks is that you get a chance to really mold that quarterback,” O’Brien said. “You get a chance to really teach that quarterback.”
The head coach said he would like to make a decision on a starter about halfway through camp, early enough to allow him to get extra reps to be ready for the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31.
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