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Ranking the 2018 Big Ten Quarterbacks

Trace McSorley, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

Trace McSorley, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

The Big Ten is home to some of college football's top signal-callers for 2018. Penn State's Trace McSorley has been instrumental in the program's improvement over the last two years and is one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy this fall. Michigan State's Brian Lewerke is back after a breakout 2017 season, with Michigan's Shea Patterson checking in at No. 3 after being granted immediate eligibility following a transfer from Ole Miss. Iowa's Nate Stanley, Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins and Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook round out the next tier.

Michigan State Spartans QB Brian Lewerke

To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2018. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors - pure talent, supporting cast, having a clear hold on the No. 1 position, previous production, 2018 projection and scheme changes (just to name a few) - were considered and projected to rank the quarterbacks in the Big Ten for 2018.

Ranking the Big Ten's Quarterbacks for 2018

14. AJ Bush, Illinois

After finishing last in the Big Ten by averaging 13.1 points in league games last fall, Illinois coach Lovie Smith decided a change was needed on offense. Former Arizona co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith was hired to call plays and develop the quarterback position. Cam Thomas was considered the frontrunner exiting spring practice, but three true freshmen and graduate transfer AJ Bush are in the mix and pushing for the starting job this fall. Bush started his career at Nebraska (2014-15) and spent the 2016 season at Iowa Western. The Georgia native spent 2017 at Virginia Tech and played in five games under coach Justin Fuente. The development of freshman Matt Robinson is a storyline to watch this season.

College Football Rankings: Illinois

13. Artur Sitkowski, Rutgers

Chris Ash has the Scarlet Knights on track after this program doubled its win total from 2016 to ’17. Improvement on offense is essential in order to contend for a bowl in 2018, and new play-caller John McNulty has to generate more production out of a passing attack that managed only seven scores last fall. Sitkowski – a three-star freshman – enrolled in time to compete this spring and made a strong impression in the Scarlet-White game by throwing for 280 yards and three scores. However, this battle is far from settled, as Giovanni Rescigno and Johnathan Lewis are pushing the freshman for the No. 1 spot this fall.

College football rankings: Rutgers

12. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota

Minnesota’s quarterbacks managed only seven passing scores in Big Ten matchups last fall. Coach P.J. Fleck knows the Golden Gophers need more out of this position, and it's up to two freshmen - redshirt Tanner Morgan and incoming freshman Zack Annexstad - to provide a spark in 2018. Morgan ranked as a three-star recruit in the 2017 signing class and used a redshirt in his first year on campus. During Minnesota’s spring game, Morgan completed 18 of 28 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns. Assuming Morgan holds onto the starting job, Annexstad is likely to be the No. 2 after Vic Viramontes left the team following the end of spring practice.

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11. Brandon Dawkins, Indiana

Dawkins arrives in Bloomington after spending the last four seasons at Arizona. With Khalil Tate entrenched as the starter, the California native decided to depart Tucson for a chance to start elsewhere. Dawkins isn’t guaranteed the starting job, however. Peyton Ramsey is in mix after throwing for 1,252 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Ramsey showed potential in his first opportunity for snaps but averaged only 6.1 yards per attempt. As evidenced by his 2016 rushing totals at Arizona (944 yards), Dawkins can be a difference maker on the ground. However, just like Ramsey, Dawkins has room to improve as a passer (53.6 completion percentage in 2016). This battle is likely to go down to the wire in fall practice and could extend into the season.

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10. Kasim Hill, Maryland

Injuries wreaked havoc on Maryland’s quarterbacks last fall. Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome both suffered torn ACLs, which left Max Bortenschlager and Ryan Brand as the team’s top options under center. If healthy, Hill should have the edge to start for new coordinator and interim head coach Matt Canada. Hill doesn’t have much in the way of tape to evaluate, as he played in three games and completed 18 of 21 throws for 230 yards and two touchdowns in three games last fall. He also showcased his mobility by rushing for 60 yards and a score on just 12 attempts. Hill has a lot of upside. 

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9. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

It’s only a matter of time before Scott Frost builds one of the Big Ten’s top offenses in Lincoln. However, with the switch to an up-tempo, spread offense, 2018 is likely to be a transition year for this unit. The Cornhuskers have a couple of candidates vying for the starting job, with Martinez or redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia neck-and-neck entering the fall. Martinez did not play as a high school senior due to injury but accumulated 2,562 passing yards and 25 touchdowns and added 1,462 rushing yards and 14 scores as a junior in 2016. He ranked as a four-star prospect in the 2018 signing class and enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. Martinez is a great fit for Frost’s high-powered offense and showcased his talent with an impressive performance in the spring game.

Nebraska's college football logo

Related: College Football's Top 30 Coordinator Hires for 2018

8. Elijah Sindelar, Purdue

The battle between Sindelar and David Blough is likely to extend deep into fall practice, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see both signal-callers play significant snaps during the 2018 season. This duo combined for 3,202 yards and 27 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions last fall. Both players are recovering from significant leg injuries, as Sindelar played the end of the 2017 season on a torn ACL, while Blough missed the final four contests. Regardless of which quarterback starts for coach Jeff Brohm, Purdue is in good shape under center.

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7. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern

Thorson is the toughest quarterback to rank in the Big Ten this fall. The senior suffered a significant knee injury in the Music City Bowl win over Kentucky and did not participate in spring ball. Will Thorson return to full strength in time for the 2018 season? If he does, he should be higher on this list after throwing for 2,844 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall. However, Northwestern has yet to indicate whether or not the senior will take the first snap of the season against Purdue. Thorson is practicing this fall, which would seem to indicate he's on track to return to the lineup for the opener or at least early September.

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6. Nate Stanley, Iowa

It's evident the Big Ten is deep at quarterback when Stanley checks in at No. 6. Iowa’s offense had a seamless transition from C.J. Beathard to Stanley last season. The Wisconsin native tossed 26 touchdowns and threw for 2,437 yards over 13 contests. He completed 55.8 percent of his passes but delivered key performances against Ohio State and Iowa State to guide the Hawkeyes to victory in both contests. Coach Kirk Ferentz will be looking for Stanley to take another step forward in 2018, and the junior will have help from a solid supporting cast, which includes a likely All-American at tight end in Noah Fant. Iowa does have some turnover on its offensive line and will be looking for a few options to emerge at receiver. Assuming both groups develop, Stanley could pass Hornibrook for a spot in the top five among Big Ten quarterbacks on this list by December. 

College Football Rankings: Iowa Football

Related: Big Ten Football 2018 Predictions

5. Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin

It’s no secret Wisconsin is going to ride its offensive line and running back Jonathan Taylor in an effort to win the Big Ten’s West Division again. However, the Badgers won’t be a one-dimensional offense in 2018. Hornibrook seems poised to elevate his performance a step higher after throwing for 2,644 yards and 25 scores last fall. The Pennsylvania native has to play better against some of the top teams in the Big Ten and must eliminate the turnovers (15 INTs). However, with a standout receiving corps in place, Hornibrook should take a step forward in his development.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Wisconsin

4. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State

The Buckeyes finished spring practice with an ongoing battle between Joe Burrow and Haskins for the starting job. However, Burrow decided to transfer to LSU in May, providing a clear path for Haskins for the top spot. The Maryland native showcased his potential in limited action as J.T. Barrett’s backup last season, which included 94 passing yards and 24 on the ground against Michigan. Haskins finished 2017 by completing 40 of 57 passes for 565 yards and four scores. He’s not as dynamic of a runner as Barrett was, but Haskins is a better passer and has enough mobility to make plays on the ground.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2018

3. Shea Patterson, Michigan

Michigan’s 2018 Big Ten title hopes received a boost when Patterson was granted immediate eligibility. The Louisiana native ranked as a five-star recruit in the 2016 signing class and was pressed into action after Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending injury that year. Patterson started the final three games for the Rebels and threw for 880 yards and six scores, while adding 169 yards on 41 carries. High expectations surrounded Patterson in his first year as a full-time starter, but he was limited to seven games due to injury last fall. Despite the injury-shortened season, Patterson threw for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns and completed 63.8 percent of his passes. The junior has to do a better job of limiting the mistakes after tossing nine picks on 260 attempts in 2017. Patterson should be an impact addition and will provide a spark for an offense that averaged only 25.2 points a game last season.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan

2. Brian Lewerke, Michigan State

Lewerke’s emergence was a big reason why Michigan State improved its win total by seven games from 2016 to ’17. After playing in four games (and two starts) in 2016, Lewerke threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns and ranked second on the team with 559 rushing yards and five scores last fall. The Arizona native is the only quarterback in school history to throw for more than 400 yards in back-to-back games.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2018

1. Trace McSorley, Penn State

With Saquan Barkley off to the NFL, Penn State’s Big Ten title and CFB Playoff hopes rest with McSorley. The Virginia native has posted back-to-back prolific seasons as Penn State’s starter and is among the top candidates to win the Heisman Trophy in 2018. McSorley has accounted for 7,184 passing yards and 57 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Additionally, he’s rushed for 856 yards and 18 scores on the ground in that span. McSorley’s 77 career touchdowns are the most by any Penn State player in program history. The senior has a new play-caller after Joe Moorhead left to become the head coach at Mississippi State. However, assistant Ricky Rahne should keep this offense performing at a high level, ensuring McSorley remains among the top quarterbacks in college football.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

Podcast: Athlon's Editors Discuss QBs for the 2018 Season