I’ll be honest. I haven’t put much outside research into this, but I feel like the B1G West could claim this title and nobody would question it.
No division in America next year will have more starting quarterbacks that trigger the ‘He’s still in college?’ question more than the B1G West.
Tommy Armstrong, Mitch Leidner and Wes Lunt all feel like they’ve been in school for a solid nine years. C.J. Beathard is technically only a second-year starter, but he’s been dominating headlines since the second half of his sophomore year when he battled with Jake Rudock for the starting job. David Blough and Clayton Thorson are also returning as starters after up and down redshirt freshman seasons.
In fact, the only B1G West team that won’t return its starting quarterback is Wisconsin, which could likely turn to redshirt senior Bart Houston to take the place of Joel Stave. Redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook might have something to say about that, but either way, the division is loaded with veteran QBs.
Having said that, each one of them has some significant improvements to make if they want to lead their teams to a division title, even Beathard.
Here are the areas to improve for each B1G West returning QB this offseason:
Wes Lunt, Illinois — Lunt might be a third-year starter, but working with new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee could make him feel like a freshman at times. The Oklahoma State transfer is no stranger to taking on a new offense. McGee will likely want to run a pro-style offense that will center around Lunt.
Repeated drops led to a 56-percent passing clip, which more importantly stalled Illinois drives. He’ll lose go-to target Geronimo Allison and underrated safety valve Josh Ferguson, but he’ll gain a healthy Mikey Dudek. The pieces will be in place for Lunt’s best season yet.
C.J. Beathard, Iowa — Every time I watch Beathard, I can’t help but think of Jim McMahon. I’m not saying the Iowa signal-caller is in the same stratosphere as the Bears quarterback yet, but their styles are eerily similar, for better or for worse.
Beathard’s reckless abandon makes him who he is as a player. Like McMahon, it’s what makes him a fan favorite and a key piece of a winning team. But also like McMahon, Beathard often extends too many plays with his legs and takes the punishment for it. That can’t happen again if he hopes to make it through a full season. He gutted his way through a groin injury in the second half of 2015, which is what will sideline him for the first part of spring ball. A healthy Beathard makes Iowa a dangerous team again.
Mitch Leidner, Minnesota — Leidner frustrates Gopher fans because of his inconsistency and inability to stretch the field. With Tracy Claeys running the show, it should lead to more opportunities for Leidner to get into the flow of a game. We saw what he did against three of the B1G’s top teams and in the Quick Lane Bowl.
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Under Claeys, he has the ability to engineer drives and move the chains. After he returns from offseason foot surgery, the biggest thing for Leidner will be perfecting those intermediate route throws and getting comfortable moving around in the pocket.
Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska — The B1G’s only fourth-year starter still has plenty to improve upon, mainly his accuracy. Nobody in the B1G had more ill-advised throws than Armstrong, who was often his own worst enemy last year. Nobody questions the arm strength or the intangibles.
The decision-making after his first year in Danny Langsdorf’s offense has to improve, much like it did in the Foster Farms Bowl. That game should’ve provided the offseason blue print for Nebraska’s offense. When Armstrong uses his legs instead of making head-scratching throws, Nebraska is a dangerous team.
Clayton Thorson, Northwestern — Thorson had a lot of the struggles you’d expect from a redshirt freshman starter. He wasn’t able to work through his progressions, he didn’t operate very much outside of the hashes and he was indecisive. When Northwestern fell behind against Power Five teams, defenses knew how to shut him down with the run unavailable.
Thorson will will spend most of his Saturdays handing the ball off to Justin Jackson, as he should. But this is a crucial offseason for him to mature. He needs to develop with a young group of receivers and handle the speed of the game better as a sophomore. If he can do that, Northwestern finally won’t be a one-dimensional offense.
David Blough, Purdue — It’s tough to expect much out of a redshirt freshman who takes over midseason. He showed flashes of greatness (Nebraska) and flashes of not-so-greatness (Minnesota). The foundation for the big-armed signal-caller is there. He’ll work with an experienced offensive line, a deep threat in DeAngelo Yancey and an attention-drawing back in Markell Jones.
Plus, Blough will have an entire offseason as the starter. The game should slow down in his second year. Decision-making will be a major point of emphasis, which should help Blough develop the confidence he needs after getting thrown into the fire last year.