Here's where Michigan's Joe Milton, MSU's Rocky Lombardi rank among Big Ten quarterbacks

Chris Solari
Detroit Free Press

It is a transitional year under center around the Big Ten.

Several programs are breaking in new quarterbacks, with last week’s injury to Wisconsin’s Jack Coan adding another team that will have a new signal caller this fall. At Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers, graduate transfers are looking to steal the jobs from returnees with experience.

That makes for some uncertainty in the Free Press’ rankings of the 14 Big Ten QB situations.

14. Rutgers

Nebraska quarterback Noah Vedral (16) throws against the Indiana Hoosiers in the first half at Memorial Stadium during the 2019 season.

Projected starter: Noah Vedral.

Backups: Artur Sitkowski, Johnny Langan.

The buzz: Vedral left Nebraska as a heady graduate transfer to join returning Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, and word out of Piscataway is new offensive coordinator Sean Gleason plans to use a high-tempo, no-huddle offense. Sitkowski, a local product and more of a pocket passer, started twice last season after making 11 starts as a true freshman in 2018.

13. Purdue

Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer doesn't have a ton of experience, but he has more than his counterparts.

Projected starter: Jack Plummer.

Backups: Auston Burton, Aidan O’Connell.

The buzz: The big-bodied Plummer started six games for the Boilermakers last season and has the most experience with Jeff Brohm’s system, though O’Connell got three starts after Plummer got hurt. Burton is a UCLA grad transfer with mobility and arm strength who could give Plummer a push for playing time.

12. Michigan State

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi passes before the Penn State game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, October 26, 2019.

Projected starter:Rocky Lombardi.

Backups:Theo Day, Payton Thorne.

The buzz:It remains unclear who new coach Mel Tucker prefers to replace three-year starter Brian Lewerke, but the tumultuous offseason and three games of starting experience in 2018 gives junior Lombardi an edge. He has a  tough-nosed ability to run and threw the ball well in his first start, but Lombardi has been inconsistent in his other 15 career appearances.

11. Maryland

Taulia Tagovailoa left Tuscaloosa, where his brother once starred for Alabama, to join the Terrapins in Maryland.

Projected starter: Taulia Tagovailoa.

Backups: Lance Legendre.

The buzz: The Terps have been in constant flux the past few years at QB, with Josh Jackson opting out in August to train for the draft. Enter Alabama transfer Tagovailoa, a former four-star recruit. The brother of former Heisman Trophy runner-up, Tua, made four appearances with the Crimson Tide last season and shows potential to be a gunslinger with mobility to escape pressure. Legendre is pushing in preseason camp for playing time.

10. Iowa

Iowa's new starting quarterback, Spencer Petras, looks to pass during Monday's practice session. Running back Tyler Goodson is to his left. Petras only attempted 10 passes a year ago, but expectations are high that the redshirt sophomore can ignite a potent Hawkeye offense.

Projected starter: Spencer Petras.

Backups: Alex Padilla.

The buzz: Gone is three-year starter Nate Stanley, with sophomore Petras taking over after being groomed the past two years. Petras, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound California native, provides a big presence and bigger arm when setting up in the pocket but can move laterally to create options in the passing game. The former four-star recruit could ascend quickly.

9. Wisconsin

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz  eludes a sack by Central Michigan defensive lineman Keegan Cossou in the fourth quarter.

Projected starter: Graham Mertz.

Backup: Jack Coan.

The buzz: Redshirt freshman Mertz takes over as a former four-star recruit and pro-style passer who will benefit from the Badgers’ big offensive line. Mertz’s lively arm and smooth delivery could allow him to keep the job when Coan, the incumbent starter, returns from a foot injury.

8. Michigan

Michigan QB Joe Milton warms up before action against Maryland, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 at Michigan Stadium.

Projected starter:Joe Milton.

Backup:Cade McNamara.

The buzz:Dylan McCaffery left the program, all but leaving the door open for another former four-star prospect, Milton, to take over Jim Harbaugh’s offense. The 6-5, 245-pound Milton has a big arm and solid pocket presence but must show sound decision-making after throwing two interceptions on 11 attempts the past two seasons.  

7. Nebraska

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez throws the ball against Ohio State, Nov. 3, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio.

Projected starter: Adrian Martinez.

Backup: Luke McCaffery.

The buzz: Of the returning starters in the Big Ten, none will be on a hotter seat than Martinez. Now a junior, the dual-threat QB has been inconsistent, interception-prone and injured in two seasons. He has redshirt freshman McCaffery — another of former NFL star Ed’s sons — waiting to seize playing time with his speed and play-making ability.

6. Illinois

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters has a solid hold on the Illini's job as the season begins.

Projected starter: Brandon Peters.

Backups: Matt Robinson, Isaiah Williams.

The buzz: The former Michigan starter played well as a transfer last season and returns as a senior with a veteran offensive line and familiar pass-catching weapons. The 6-5, 220-pound Peters suffered two concussions in 2019 — after having one while at U-M — but threw for 1,884 yards with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

5. Indiana

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. passes against Michigan State during the second half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.

Projected starter: Michael Penix Jr.

Backups: Jack Tuttle, Dexter Williams II.

The buzz: Penix got a chance last season as a redshirt freshman to show the Big Ten what he is about, flashing an impressive arm combined with the ability to make plays in the run game. The 6-3, 218-pound left-hander from Tampa, Florida, started six games before suffering a season-ending right shoulder injury last fall. Penix will be under his third different offensive coordinator in recently promoted Nick Sheridan.

4. Northwestern

Peyton Ramsey, shown here in 2018 with Indiana, is competing for the Northwestern starting QB job as a graduate transfer this fall.

Projected starter: Peyton Ramsey.

Backups: Hunter Johnson, TJ Green.

The buzz: Johnson, a former Clemson quaterback, struggled last season, so Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald again went into the portal to pluck Ramsey as a grad transfer. Ramsey passed for nearly 2,500 yards, 13 TDs and five interceptions last year for Indiana and was a three-year starter for the Hoosiers. Former five-star prospect Johnson remains an option should Ramsey’s transition fail.

3. Penn State

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford keeps the ball for a run against Michigan State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, October 26, 2019.

Projected starter: Sean Clifford.

Backup: Will Levis.

The buzz: Clifford enters his second season as the starter, and thejunior is coming off a strong performance of more than 2,600 passing yards with 23 touchdowns  and seven interceptions. His ability to scramble — 402 yards and five TDs — can betray him at times when he abandons the pocket early, but Clifford also is a threat to throw on the run when he takes off.

2. Minnesota

Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan should helm one of the Big Ten's most potent passing attacks in 2020.

Projected starter: Tanner Morgan.

Backups: Seth Green, Daniel Jackson.

The buzz: Morgan, in 19 career starts, helped P.J. Fleck put his offensive stamp on the Gophers the past two seasons. The 6-2, 215-pound junior set school records with 3,253 passing yards, 30 scores and a 66% completion rate and has maybe the Big Ten’s best downfield threat to throw to in Rashod Bateman.

1. Ohio State

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is an early Heisman candidate for Buckeyes.

Projected starter: Justin Fields

Backups: Gunnar Hoak, C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III

The buzz: Fields — strong arm, good decision-maker, powerful runner — easily could have opted out and began preparing for the NFL draft but the one-time Georgia transfer is eying big things with the Buckeyes after throwing 41 TDs and just three interceptions as a sophomore last fall. The potential first-round pick threw for more than 3,200 yards and ran for nearly 500 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

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