After covering the Big Ten for 30 years, I can’t remember a scenario quite like this involving the conference’s 2-deep at the quarterback position.
Before I get into the rankings of this year’s QB’s, let’s consider these facts and developments. The starting QB for Illinois this year had four starts at Iowa during the 2000 season. Purdue’s No. 1 QB in 2001 is now competing for that spot at USC in the Pac Ten.
The San Diego State starter in 1997 is now the backup at Michigan and the kid from Notre Dame who led the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl during the 2000 season and was 7-1 as a starter is now the signal caller at Indiana. Plus, Michigan State suspended its starter halfway through last season and Michigan’s QB was often booed off the field his sophomore year.
There are probably five future NFL-quality QBs in the Big Ten, a running league! Here are my 2-deep rankings for each team and there will probably be a few surprises when the smoke clears in late November.
1. Michigan: Senior John Navarre was much maligned two years ago, but came back last season to throw for 2,905 yards. Navarre dropped 25 pounds and it paid dividends. The 6-foot-6, 228-pounder hit 55 percent of his throws, had a 21-7 TD to INT ratio and passed for 319 yards in Michigan’s bowl win last year. Navarre could be this year’s Carson Palmer. Spencer Brinton, his backup, started several games at San Diego State in 1997 before injuries and a two-year church mission extended his career.
2. Purdue: Brandon Hance started in 2001 and is now with USC. The door opened for 6-foot-4 junior Kyle Orton, now a second-year starter. Sophomore Brandon Kirsch played extensively last year as a freshman and will challenge. Purdue has the luxury of Orton’s strong arm and the quick mobility of Kirsch. Orton was highly recruited out of high school and will start against Bowling Green. However, I suspect Joe Tiller will use Kirsch in certain situations. This is a solid unit that will put up numbers.
3. Penn St: Last year people forgot about sophomore Zack Mills with RB Larry Johnson gaining over 2000 yds. I believe Mills is a winner and tough competitor much like Brooks Bollinger was at Wisconsin. Mills threw for 2417 yards his freshmen year at Happy Valley, so look for more this year. He’s very mobile, a leader, can run some option and is smart. The question is how to get more snaps for backup QB Mike Robinson. The 6-2, 225-pound soph. backup has 4.4 speed and scored two touchdowns against Nebraska. Robinson probably has the stronger arm.
4. Illinois: Coach Ron Turner announced this spring that senior Jon Beutjer was his guy. Beutjer shared the QB role with Dustin Ward last year. Beutjer threw for 2511 yards and had an excellent 21-11 TD/INT ratio. He had four starts at Iowa in 2000 before transferring to Michigan. At 6-5, 211-pounds, Beutjer has the size for the NFL and should do well knowing it’s his job. The drawback is Illinois lost its top 4 receivers. Ward also returns for his senior year.
5. Ohio State: Craig Krenzel led the Buckeyes to a 14-0 record and the national championship. Krenzel returns for his final season. Jim Tressel has a conservative philosophy with defense first and field position a key. Krenzel majors in molecular genetics, so you know he won’t make many mistakes. He just wins, though not blessed with a strong arm or great athleticism. Behind him is redshirt frosh Justin Zwick, a prep standout who threw for over 10,000 yards. Zwick is State’s star of the future.
6. Michigan St: New head coach John L. Smith announced that senior Jeff Smoker has been reinstated after being suspended last year. Smoker had some off the field problems but, given a second chance, could deliver. He is the No. 3 all-time leading passer in MSU history (5,537 yds). For his career, Smoker has hit 64 percent of his throws with a 40-25 TD/INT ratio. Redshirt-freshman Drew Stanton will battle junior Damon Dowdell for the backup spot. Dowdell started the last five games last year.
7. Minnesota: Senior Asad Abdul Khaliq has shown flashes of creativity and at times has been very erratic. Khaliq started four times in 2000, had eight starts in 2001 and 12 starts last year. He is very dangerous inside the red zone, running options and keeping defenses off balance. Senior Benji Kamrath, who started last year against Northwestern, will again be the backup. If Khaliq stays healthy the Gophers will be in the mix.
8. Wisconsin: Brooks Bollinger, a four-year starter, departed for the New York Jets as the all-time career leader in wins (31) in 44 games for the Badgers. A very experienced senior Jim Sorgi finally takes over the starting job. Sorgi played in 27 games the past three years, including five starts. The 6-5, 202-pounder has gotten stronger in the offseason, but if he goes down to injury there is virtually no experience behind him. Junior Matt Schabert has taken a few snaps, but look for redshirt freshman John Stocco to play a role. Sorgi has perhaps the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. I expect big numbers from him.
9. Indiana: In 2000 Matt LoVecchio led Notre Dame to the Fiesta Bowl and had a 7-1 record as a starter. Now, he’s a Hoosier. LoVecchio is very accurate, mobile and was impressive running the scout team last year. The receiving corps is much more experienced than last year. Freshman Graeme McFarland looks like the No. 2 guy.
10. Northwestern: The Wildcats had to replace Zak Kustok last year who was masterful running the spread offense. Tony Stauss started the opener against Air Force and struggled. Brett Basanez took over and ended up throwing for 2204 yards despite missing action in several games. Stauss transferred to N Dakota St, so Basanez has the job. He did throw for 368 yards against Illinois in last season’s finale. Sophomore Derell Jenkins, a 4.5 speedster, saw some action last year and is the backup.
11. Iowa: Brad Banks will be a tough act to follow. Nathan Chandler (6-7, 250, sr) saw some action in mop up duty. Chandler is a pure drop back passer, which will be a change for Hawkeye fans. Losing a tight end the caliber of Dallas Clark will impact this team’s ability thru the air. There is no experience behind Chandler. Redshirt freshman Jason Manson looks like the backup.