With five teams likely to start in the top 15 of most preseason polls in 2018, the Big Ten won’t be short on intrigue this fall. Standout defenses are a big reason why the top of the Big Ten is deep this year, but the league also returns a handful of talented signal-callers to push the top contenders into CFB Playoff contention. Penn State’s Trace McSorley takes the top spot in Athlon’s rankings, with Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and Michigan’s Shea Patterson in the next tier. Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook and Iowa’s Nate Stanley round out the top five, with Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins checking in at No. 6.
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. Cam Thomas, 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 solidifying the quarterback spot is the top priority this offseason. The Fighting Illini will have options to choose from under center, as A.J. Bush is set to join the team as a graduate transfer, and Lovie Smith added three quarterbacks in the freshman class. But for now, the edge to start in 2018 goes to Thomas. As a true freshman last fall, he completed 28 of 66 throws for 375 yards and five picks but rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown. Thomas should benefit from a full offseason to develop with the No. 1 offense.
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 will compete for the job again in the fall.
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, which is why the staff added junior college recruit Vic Viramontes to compete with Morgan and incoming freshman Zack Annexstad. 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. He’s ahead of Annexstad and Viramontes entering fall practice.
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).
10. 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 likely to start. 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.
9. 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 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. How quickly can Canada help Hill reach his potential?
8. David Blough, Purdue
Blough is listed here as Purdue’s starter, but the battle with Elijah Sindelar will continue deep into fall camp. This duo combined for 3,202 yards and 27 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions last fall. Additionally, 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. Considering Blough returned in time to compete in spring ball, the extra reps over Sindelar might give him the edge to start the opener. Whether coach Jeff Brohm turns to Blough or Sindelar, Purdue is in good shape under center.
7. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
Thorson’s spot in the quarterback rankings comes with an asterisk. 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.
6. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State
The Buckeyes closed spring practice without a No. 1 quarterback. Joe Burrow and Haskins were neck-and-neck for the starting job, but Burrow could leave Ohio State as a graduate transfer this offseason. Regardless of who starts, the Buckeyes should be in good shape at quarterback. Haskins showcased his potential in limited action as J.T. Barrett’s backup, which included 94 passing yards and 24 on the ground against Michigan. The Maryland native 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 has enough mobility to make plays on the ground.
5. Nate Stanley, Iowa
Iowa’s offense had a seamless transition from C.J. Beathard to Nate Stanley. In his first year as the starter, Stanley tossed 26 touchdowns and threw for 2,437 yards. 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.
4. 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.
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 for Michigan this fall.
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.
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.