The Big Ten enters 2021 with a largely unproven group of quarterbacks. Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. is recovering from his third season-ending injury but ranks as the league's No. 1 signal-caller. Provided Ohio State's C.J. Stroud holds off a couple of other talented quarterbacks in Columbus, he could finish the year atop the conference. Wisconsin's Graham Mertz, Minnesota's Tanner Morgan and Nebraska's Adrian Martinez are just a few of the other top signal-callers returning to the conference this fall.
Ranking the quarterbacks by conference or nationally is no easy task. To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2021. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks based only on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors — pure talent, supporting cast, having a clear hold on the No. 1 position, previous production, 2021 projection, and scheme changes (just to name a few) — were considered to rank the quarterbacks in the Big Ten for 2021.
Ranking the Big Ten Quarterbacks for 2021
14. Noah Vedral, Rutgers
The arrival of play-caller Sean Gleeson helped the Scarlet Knights show marked improvement on offense last fall. After averaging 13.3 a game in 2019, this offense posted 26.7 per contest in ’20 and another step forward this year is within reach. Vedral contributed to that improvement last fall, as the former UCF and Nebraska signal-caller connected on 61.5 percent of his throws for 1,219 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 193 yards and a score. With underrated playmakers returning in receiver Bo Melton and running back Isaih Pacheco, along with a full offseason to work with the supporting cast and staff, Vedral should deliver a solid senior year for the Scarlet Knights.
13. Brandon Peters, Illinois
Bret Bielema has several challenges to navigate in his first season in Champaign but having a veteran quarterback like Peters certainly eases some concerns about the transition on offense. In his first year on campus in 2019, the Michigan transfer threw for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns and helped guide the Fighting Illini to a bowl. However, Peters and the entire Illinois offense struggled last fall, as he was limited to just five games and threw for 429 yards and three scores. A fresh start under the new staff, along with better luck in the health department, should help Illinois and Peters rebound a bit on offense in ’21.
12. Ryan Hilinski, Northwestern
Hilinski was placed into a difficult spot as a true freshman at South Carolina, as he was pressed into the No. 1 job after Jake Bentley was lost for the year after the opener. But Hilinski – a former four-star recruit – was poised in his 11-game stint, throwing for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns to only five picks. Hilinski had three efforts of 300 or more yards, including 324 versus Alabama. The California native averaged only 5.8 yards per pass attempt, but it’s tough to read too much into the numbers considering the quick transition period and overall struggles of the offense. Hilinski left South Carolina after playing in two games in 2020 and is favored to start over Hunter Johnson for coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team.
11. Spencer Petras, Iowa
Iowa rebounded from an 0-2 start to finish the 2020 season with six consecutive victories. Petras’ performance played a small role in that improvement, as he tossed only two picks over Iowa’s last six contests and connected on 14 of 25 throws for 211 yards in a 28-7 victory over Wisconsin. The California native finished his first season as the starter with 1,569 passing yards and nine touchdowns but connected on just 57.1 percent of his throws and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. Petras will be under pressure to pick up his play in 2021, with Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan waiting in the wings if he stumbles.
10. Anthony Russo, Michigan State
The quarterback battle between Russo and Payton Thorne is likely to continue deep into the fall. Michigan State is desperately looking for offensive improvement after finishing last in the Big Ten in scoring (18 ppg) and averaged 4.8 yards per play in 2020. After taking a redshirt year in ’19, Thorne played in four games (with one start), throwing for 582 yards and three scores last season. Russo played in 31 games (26 starts) at Temple from 2017-20 and finished his career in Philadelphia with 6,292 passing yards and 44 scores. Interceptions (32) and yards per attempt (7.0) are two areas for Russo to improve upon with the Spartans.
9. Cade McNamara, Michigan
All eyes in Ann Arbor will be watching the development of five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy, but McNamara has the inside track on the starting job for the 2021 opener against Western Michigan. After using a redshirt year in ’19, McNamara played in four games (with one start) last fall and connected on 43 of 71 throws for 425 yards and five scores. The bulk of his production (260 yards and four touchdown passes) came against Rutgers, as he didn't eclipse 100 passing yards versus Wisconsin or Penn State. If McNamara stumbles, and McCarthy isn’t ready, Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman is a solid option for coach Jim Harbaugh.
8. Jack Plummer, Purdue
Purdue returns one of the top receiving corps in the Big Ten, but the offense won’t take off without better play under center. The Boilermakers have a couple of options vying for the job, with Plummer and Aidan O’Connell battling UCLA transfer Austin Burton and Michael Alaimo. Plummer played in three contests last season and connected on 71 percent of his passes for 938 yards and eight touchdowns. The previous year, Plummer threw for 1,603 yards and 11 touchdowns over nine appearances. O’Connell opened 2020 as Purdue’s No. 1 quarterback, but the guess here is Plummer gets the nod for ’21.
7. Sean Clifford, Penn State
The development and overall play of Clifford are both instrumental to Penn State’s 2021 season. The Nittany Lions dipped to 5.5 yards per play last season and 17 turnovers were a big problem for a team that lost three games by seven points or less. Getting Clifford to take better care of the ball (nine INTs in 2020) is a priority, and the Ohio native has room to improve overall after averaging just 7.5 yards per attempt and 209.2 passing yards a contest last fall. For the season, Clifford threw for 1,883 yards and 16 touchdowns and ran for 335 yards and three scores. After accounting for more than 3,000 total yards and scoring 28 times in ’19, most expected Clifford to take another step forward last fall. Can new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich get the junior signal-caller back on track?
6. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
Martinez appeared to be on track for stardom after his freshman season in 2018. However, he hasn’t matched that production over the last two years, and his overall performance in ’21 is crucial to Nebraska’s bowl hopes. The California native threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns and added 629 yards and eight scores on the ground in ’18 but watched his numbers dip (1,956 yards and 10 TDs) through the air as a sophomore. Martinez has maintained his rushing ability with more than 1,000 yards on the ground over the last two seasons, and his accuracy jumped to 71.5 percent last fall. However, he only averaged seven yards an attempt and tossed three interceptions to just four touchdowns. If Martinez can get back to putting up numbers along the lines of what he did as a freshman, it would be a huge plus for coach Scott Frost and the program’s hopes of posting a winning record this fall.
5. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
Maryland’s offense started the season with a sluggish performance against Northwestern but rebounded with back-to-back solid outputs against Minnesota and Penn State. Tagovailoa was a big part of that turnaround, as he torched the Golden Gophers for 394 yards and three scores and connected on 18 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns in a road win versus the Nittany Lions. The Hawaii native (and brother of Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa) finished his first season in College Park with 1,011 passing yards and seven touchdowns while averaging a solid 8.3 yards per attempt. The Terrapins return one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps, giving Tagovailoa a chance for a breakout year in 2021.
4. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
Mertz delivered a big-time performance in his anticipated first start for the Badgers last season, throwing for 248 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-7 victory over Illinois. However, Wisconsin did not play the next two weeks due to COVID-19, Mertz suffered a shoulder ailment, and injuries at receiver slowed his development and overall production. As a result, it’s hard to read too much into Mertz’s first season, but he did finish the year with 1,238 yards and nine passing scores. Also, he connected on 61.1 percent of his passes and added two rushing touchdowns. Mertz is too talented for a repeat of 2020. With better luck in the health department at receiver, along with a normal offseason to work under coach Paul Chryst, look for the sophomore to contend for all-conference honors.
3. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
The Golden Gophers are aiming for a rebound on offense after a disappointing 2020 season. Behind Morgan and receivers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, Minnesota averaged 34.1 points a contest in ’19. But the unusual offseason, a coordinator change, and limited playing time by Bateman certainly hindered the offense last fall. The disjointed, shortened schedule played a role, but it’s noteworthy Morgan’s numbers regressed in a big way in ’20. His completion percentage dropped to 57.9 percent from 66, while the yards per attempt dropped from 10.2 to 7.5. Also, Morgan tossed five picks in 183 attempts last year after throwing just seven over 318 the previous year. Approaching ’19 totals will be difficult, but Morgan should rebound in ’21.
2. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Considering the track record of Ohio State quarterbacks under coach Ryan Day, it’s not unreasonable to think Stroud finishes 2021 as the No. 1 signal-caller in the Big Ten. Of course, he has to hold off a charge from the reclassified (and very talented) Quinn Ewers, along with Kyle McCord and Jack Miller III. Stroud played eight games in 2020 and did not attempt a pass in limited action. However, the California native ranked as the No. 42 prospect out of high school and will be throwing to the nation’s no. 1 receiving corps. The talent, scheme and supporting cast are all there for a big-time debut from Stroud.
Related: Big Ten Football 2021 Predictions
1. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
Penix is on the mend from a torn ACL suffered in Indiana’s win over Maryland but is on track to return for the 2021 opener against Iowa. The Florida native has been a dynamic player for the Hoosiers but injuries have derailed each of his three seasons in Bloomington. Penix posted career highs in passing yards (1,645) and touchdowns (14) last fall before the injury, giving him 3,258 yards and 25 passing scores over 15 appearances. Throwing deep, especially to the middle and right side of the field was a major strength for Penix. In those two areas last fall, he connected on 17 of 26 throws for 679 yards and five scores. The Hoosiers need Penix to stay healthy to have any shot of pushing Ohio State in the Big Ten East this year.
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