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Big Ten Football: Early 2022 QB Preview and Rankings

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State Buckeyes in 2022 Rose Bowl vs. Utah Utes

College football's 2022 season is still months away, but spring practice is just around the corner, and it’s time to take a look at quarterback play in the Big Ten. With the bulk of the transfer movement and National Signing Day in the books, most of the 131 programs at the FBS level have a good idea of how their roster is going to look this season. The quarterback position is always under the spotlight, but the transfer portal has added another avenue for teams to quickly improve a struggling signal-caller or find the right option.

Quarterback play in the Big Ten features one of the nation’s best in Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, along with proven arms in Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell, Michigan State’s Payton Thorne, and the talented duo at Michigan of Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy. This spring features intriguing battles at Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Penn State.

With spring practice quickly approaching, Athlon Sports will examine the quarterback situations for the Power 5 conferences and how the outlook has changed from '21. Here's a look at the Big Ten for '22:

Big Ten Football: Early 2022 QB Preview and Rankings

East Division

Indiana

Projected 2022 Starter: Connor Bazelak
Injuries wreaked havoc on Indiana’s quarterback room last season. Four quarterbacks attempted at least 58 passes, and those signal-callers combined for just nine touchdown tosses to 15 picks. Bazelak transferred to Bloomington after three seasons at Missouri. During that stint, he threw for 5,084 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Key Spring Storylines: Bazelak is listed here, but Jack Tuttle and Donaven McCulley are also in the mix to start. This spring will provide better insight into the quarterback battle.

Maryland

Projected 2022 Starter: Taulia Tagovailoa
Tagovailoa should rank among the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks once again after throwing for 3,860 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. The Hawaii native set a new single-season school record for completion percentage (69.2), and his 151.1 QB rating ranked third in the Big Ten.
Key Spring Storylines: With receivers Dontay Demus and Rakim Jarrett returning, Tagovailoa is poised for an even better ’22. Finding a capable backup is a priority this offseason.

Michigan

Projected 2022 Starter: Cade McNamara
McNamara is listed as the starter, but Michigan will use two quarterbacks thanks to the continued development of rising star J.J. McCarthy. McNamara paced the offense with 2,576 yards and 15 touchdowns to six picks, while McCarthy accounted for 640 total yards (7.4 per play) last fall.
Key Spring Storylines: Michigan has new play-callers (co-offensive coordinators Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore) after Josh Gattis left for Miami. Will McNamara hold off McCarthy or will the sophomore earn his way into more playing time?

Related: Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches from 2021

Michigan State

Projected 2022 Starter: Payton Thorne
Running back Kenneth Walker III's prolific season overshadowed Thorne a bit, but the Illinois native threw for 3,233 yards and 27 touchdowns in his first year as the starter. Those numbers were good enough for Thorne to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
Key Spring Storylines: Thorne is entrenched as the starter, but Walker III must be replaced at running back, and Michigan State has to continue to improve up front to help their passing game grow.

Ohio State

Projected 2022 Starter: C.J. Stroud
No questions here. Stroud is one of the top returning quarterbacks in college football after throwing for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns in 2021.
Key Spring Storylines: Not much. Kyle McCord and incoming freshman Devin Brown will battle for the No. 2 job.

Penn State

Projected 2022 Starter: Sean Clifford
After an uneven 2020 season, Clifford rebounded a bit by throwing for 3,107 yards and 21 touchdowns to eight picks last year. A lack of a running game and iffy play up front hindered Clifford, but he also averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt in Big Ten games.
Key Spring Storylines: Clifford heads into spring ball as the starter, but two freshmen Drew Allar (true) and Christian Veilleux (redshirt) will push him for the job.

Related: College Football's Top Impact Freshman QBs for 2022

Rutgers

Projected 2022 Starter: Gavin Wimsatt
Listing Wimsatt at No. 1 is a bit of a gamble, as Noah Vedral (2,110 total yards in 2021) returns after starting all 13 games in 2021. Wimsatt – a four-star recruit – reclassified from the ’22 signing class to arrive on campus in September. He played in four games and completed nine of 21 throws for 45 yards and added 68 yards on the ground.
Key Spring Storylines: Wimsatt’s time is coming. Can Vedral hold off the talented redshirt freshman?

West Division

Illinois

Projected 2022 Starter: Tommy DeVito
Odds favor a transfer – either DeVito or Artur Sitkowski – starting for the Fighting Illini in 2022. Sitkowski played in five games in relief of Brandon Peters last fall, throwing for 704 yards and six scores. DeVito lost his starting job in ’21 but threw for 3,866 yards and 28 touchdowns in 26 appearances at Syracuse.
Key Spring Storylines: Bret Bielema’s offense is going to lean on the ground game, but DeVito or Sitkowski have to provide a spark for a passing attack that managed only 156.2 yards a game in ’21.

Iowa

Projected 2022 Starter: Spencer Petras
Petras is listed here, but Alex Padilla and Joey Labas are expected to battle for the starting job this spring. Iowa quarterbacks completed only 51.5 percent of their throws and seven passing scores in Big Ten games last year.
Key Spring Storylines: Iowa needs more production out of its passing game. Will a clear starter emerge in the spring? Or could this battle extend into the fall?

Minnesota

Projected 2022 Starter: Tanner Morgan
Morgan is set to return for his fifth year as Minnesota’s No. 1 quarterback in 2022. And in good news for the senior, Kirk Ciarrocca is back as the play-caller. Ciarrocca guided Morgan to his best season in Minneapolis in ’19, as the Kentucky native threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
Key Spring Storylines: Minnesota connected on just four completions of 40-plus yards last season, so Ciarrocca needs to find ways to spark the downfield connections again.

Nebraska

Projected 2022 Starter: Casey Thompson
Major changes are in store for Nebraska’s offense in 2022. A new play-caller was hired (Mark Whipple), along with a couple of other assistant changes, including offensive line (Donovan Raiola), receivers (Mickey Joseph) and running backs (Bryan Applewhite). Although Logan Smothers showed promise in a start against Iowa last season, the Cornhuskers needed to dip into the portal for help in replacing Adrian Martinez at quarterback. Thompson (Texas) and Chubba Purdy (Florida State) are key additions for coach Scott Frost, with both possessing upside to help this offense get back on track. Despite suffering a major thumb injury in October, Thompson threw for 2,113 yards and 24 touchdowns at Texas last year.
Key Spring Storylines: Thompson, Smothers and Purdy are the front-runners in the quarterback battle, and this spring is a good first glimpse into how things may shake out in Lincoln. Is there any separation by the end of practice?

Related: Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2022

Northwestern

Projected 2022 Starter: Ryan Hilinski
The 2021 season was a struggle for Northwestern’s offense. The Wildcats managed only 13 points a game in Big Ten contests and failed to score more than 14 points in seven out of their last eight matchups. Hilinski played in nine games last year, connecting on 54 percent of his throws for 978 yards and three scores.
Key Spring Storylines: Can Hilinski take a significant step forward in his second year with the Wildcats? If not, is there another capable option on the roster?

Purdue

Projected 2022 Starter: Aidan O’Connell
No concerns here for Purdue coach Jeff Brohm. O’Connell threw for 3,708 yards and 28 scores and helped to direct one of the Big Ten’s top offenses last season. The Illinois native ranked second among conference signal-callers by averaging 309 passing yards a game.
Key Spring Storylines: O’Connell is set as the starter, so the backup spot should get the bulk of the attention this offseason. Freshman Brady Allen’s development (No. 10 QB in the 2022 signing class) is worth watching.

Wisconsin

Projected 2022 Starter: Graham Mertz
Mertz has showed flashes of potential but finished 2021 near the bottom of the Big Ten in yards per attempt (6.9) and quarterback rating (121.3). Wisconsin was reportedly in the mix for transfer quarterback Caleb Williams, and with Mertz’s up-and-down play, another addition can’t be ruled out here.
Key Spring Storylines: Can coach Paul Chryst and new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram help Mertz put it all together in 2022? If not, will the Badgers consider a change at quarterback?

Pre-Spring, Way-too-Early Big Ten QB Rankings for 2022

1. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
There’s no debate on which QB ranks atop the Big Ten in ’22.

2. Aidan O’Connell, Purdue
O’Connell will put up big numbers under coach Jeff Brohm, although wide receiver David Bell will be missed.

3. Cade McNamara/J.J. McCarthy, Michigan
No matter how the playing time breaks down, Michigan’s offense is in good hands with the combo of McNamara and McCarthy.

4. Payton Thorne, Michigan State
Thorne should become more of the focal point for Michigan State’s offense with Kenneth Walker III off to the NFL.

5. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
Tagovailoa had a career season in 2021 but the pieces are in place for an even better ’22.

6. Casey Thompson, Nebraska
A healthy Thompson, along with the addition of Mark Whipple as play-caller, could equal good things for Nebraska’s offense in 2022.

7. Sean Clifford, Penn State
Clifford needs more help from his supporting cast, but Drew Allar and Christian Veilleux will push for snaps.

8. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
The return of coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca should provide a boost for Minnesota’s offense.

9. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
The Badgers need Mertz to take a big step forward in 2022.

10. Connor Bazelak, Indiana
Bazelak’s production dipped after a good start in 2021, but he still threw for 2,548 yards and 16 scores for the Tigers last fall.

11. Spencer Petras, Iowa
A wide-open competition is set to unfold this spring for Iowa’s quarterbacks.

12. Tommy DeVito, Illinois
Could a fresh start at Illinois help DeVito get back on track?

13. Ryan Hilinski, Northwestern
Hilinski’s quarterback rating (101.7) was the lowest among qualified passers in the Big Ten last year.

14. Gavin Wimsatt, Rutgers
Very talented, just lacking experience at this point.