B1G QB Power Rankings, Week 1: Who is about to make the leap? Who will regress?
It seems like common sense to assume that a quarterback will improve with greater playing time and especially in a 2nd season as a starter. Practice makes perfect, right?
In the case of the current crop of Big Ten QBs, that has been true often but not always. Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey are examples of the “not always.” A poor sophomore season eventually cost Ramsey his job at Indiana, which is gambling on Michael Penix Jr. staying healthy in 2020. Martinez is hanging on to his starting spot for now. Ramsey parlayed a 3rd-year breakthrough while Penix missed time into his current opportunity at Northwestern.
Tanner Morgan is the more typical case, as his numbers shot up in his sophomore season after he appeared in 9 games as a freshman. Brandon Peters also fared reasonably well at Illinois after beginning his career at Michigan.
It’s through that lens that we should examine the Big Ten quarterbacks who are starting their 2nd seasons receiving legitimate playing time. That includes Justin Fields, Sean Clifford, Penix, Jack Plummer/Aidan O’Connell, Rocky Lombardi and Artur Sitkowski. Who will ascend to superstar status like Morgan? Who will regress like Martinez?
Here are the power rankings of B1G QBs heading into Week 1:
14. Artur Sitkowski or Noah Vedral, Rutgers
Sitkowski opted out of last season before opt-outs were the thing to do. Of course, his opt-out was to preserve his eligibility and possibly transfer (he pulled his name from the transfer portal after Greg Schiano was hired) rather than for COVID-19 concerns. He had a rough freshman season in throwing 18 INT with just 4 TD passes and is now up to 20 INT and 5 TD passes in 14 games. Some of his struggles are because of the lack of talent around him. He threw 273 passes as a true freshman — not an ideal timeline for development. But at the same time, the numbers are the numbers, and that’s going to be the perception until there is some sign of improvement. It would be surprising if Vedral, a Nebraska transfer, didn’t push Sitkowski for the starting job at some point.
13. Rocky Lombardi or Theo Day, Michigan State
Mel Tucker hasn’t named a starting QB yet, and can you blame him? It has to be tough when you don’t exactly know what you have yet. This is reportedly a 3-man race between the redshirt junior Lombardi, the redshirt sophomore Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne, though it’s hard to imagine Thorne making a serious push this early in the season. It’s also hard to imagine that the starter this week retains that role the entire season.
Lombardi, quite frankly, hasn’t been very good in the 11 games he has appeared in over the last 2 seasons. He has completed only 42.9 percent of his passes with 3 TDs and 5 INT. And this isn’t a small sample size, this is over the course of 175 career passes. Day is the guy to watch, as he was ranked ahead of Rutgers starter Art Sitkowski, Indiana starter Michael Penix Jr., Iowa starter Spencer Petras and likely Purdue starter Jack Plummer in the 2018 recruiting class. He has only 3 career pass attempts, though.
12. Lance LeGendre or Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
There has been a shortage of quality QB play in Maryland in recent years. In fact, Perry Hills throwing for 1,464 yards in 2016 (133 yards per game) is the most yardage a Maryland QB has thrown for in the last 5 years. So the bar isn’t high for either Lance LeGendre or Taulia Tagovailoa, the only 2 scholarship QBs on the roster after last year’s starter Josh Jackson opted out and last year’s backup Tyrell Pigrome transferred to Western Kentucky.
Tagovailoa, the younger brother of former Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa, comes in with high expectations but also plenty of question marks. He transferred from Alabama, but was he only at Alabama because his brother was, too? How legit of a prospect is he independent of Tua? LeGendre, who was committed to Kansas and Florida State in high school, attempted 3 passes last season. Both are unproven commodities, to put it mildly, but the hope is one emerges as the QB of the future.
11. Jack Plummer or Aidan O’Connell, Purdue
Jeff Brohm is playing coy for now, declining to name a starter before the opener Saturday against Iowa and hinting that he may play 2 QBs. I don’t really understand because it feels like there is less confidence in the starter when you keep it a secret, but hey, that’s Brohm’s prerogative. Neither was particularly good after Elijah Sindelar got hurt last year, as both averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, with O’Connell (8 TD, 4 INT, 62.8 completion percentage) slightly more impressive than Plummer (11 TD, 8 INT and 59.8 completion percentage). O’Connell certainly had the better story, given that he was a walk-on.
The guess here is that Plummer — the No. 22 pro-style QB in the 2018 class, just behind Rutgers starter Art Sitkowski, Indiana starter Michael Penix Jr. and Iowa starter Spencer Petras — gets the first crack at it. Whoever establishes himself could put up huge numbers throwing to Rondale Moore and David Bell.
10. Brandon Peters, Illinois
Peters is who he is at this point — good enough to win games but not a major difference-maker. The former Michigan QB found new life at Illinois as a transfer, going 6-5 as the starter. He threw 18 TDs (5th most in B1G), but his completion percentage (55.3) and yards per attempt (6.9) were among the worst in the conference. Will another season with Josh Imatorbhebhe make a difference? Yeah, maybe. But Lovie Smith isn’t exactly a quarterback whisperer, and it’s unlikely Peters makes a huge leap.
9. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
Most who follow Wisconsin figured that Jack Coan wouldn’t be able to hold off Mertz the whole season and that Mertz would get a chance eventually in 2020. No one envisioned it would be the season opener, but Coan’s foot injury thrusts Mertz into the spotlight for Friday night’s B1G kickoff.
Mertz, the No. 3 pro-style QB in the 2019 class and the No. 1 recruit in Kansas, was destined to sit the bench until his senior year of high school, so he transferred for his junior season and immediately became the starter at his new school and won a state title. He committed to Wisconsin in the middle of that season and became their highest-rated QB recruit in the modern era. Expectations are understandably high. He went 9 of 10 for 73 yards in limited action last season.
8. Spencer Petras, Iowa
Think of how good Jared Goff was in high school at Marin Catholic in California on his way to eventually becoming a 4-star recruit and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Well, while Goff was busy with the Rams in the NFL, Spencer Petras was back at Marin Catholic breaking all of Goff’s school records. Petras set single-season records in passing (4,157 yards) and touchdown passes (50). He also rushed for 9 TDs that season and threw only 2 interceptions.
While waiting his turn at Iowa, Petras served as Nate Stanley’s backup last season. He has only completed 6 of 11 passes for 25 yards in 2 seasons, but it’s not fair to evaluate during mop-up time. He has a very good receiving group and should put up solid numbers.
7. Joe Milton, Michigan
The news that Dylan McCaffrey was entering the transfer portal was somewhat surprising, but to me, it signified that Milton had won the starting job and it must not have been that close. There may be more to the story, but that’s all we have to go off of for now, so it makes sense to put a lot of stock into Milton’s performance. Even if McCaffrey was going to be the backup, situations like at Georgia happen all the time, where the starter underperforms or gets injured. Milton must have really established himself, one would think, for McCaffrey to leave.
Milton has looked good in a very small sample size. He has a cannon for an arm and can run some, too. He won’t have Michigan’s top wideout, Nico Collins, who opted out of the season and is off to the NFL. Even so, playing in a Josh Gattis offense should lead to plenty of opportunities to showcase his ability and take advantage of Michigan’s personnel.
6. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
This feels like either the highest or lowest Martinez will appear on this list all season, and I can’t decide which one is more likely. Martinez was a Heisman candidate heading into last season, but he was underwhelming as a sophomore, to say the least.
Martinez is at a fork in the road. He could take off like he did in the second half of his freshman season and lead the Huskers to an inspired season against a brutal schedule. Or he could continue the frustrating trajectory he’s been on for the last year, with inconsistent, unreliable performances that seemed to surprise the coaching staff. The coaching staff likes Luke McCaffrey, for what that’s worth. Martinez won’t have a short leash, but it definitely won’t be a long one, either.
5. Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern
If there were an MVP award in the Big Ten, a solid preseason pick would be Ramsey, because we’ll be able to see exactly what impact competent QB play has on a team. Northwestern completed only 50 percent of its passes in 2019, last in the Big Ten. Ramsey, meanwhile, has completed 66.5 percent of his 952 career passes spanning 3 seasons at Indiana. This isn’t Joe Burrow 2.0 or anything in terms of the impact, as Ramsey has a 42-23 TD-INT ratio. He’s a good, not great, QB that has a proven track record of winning games. Last season was his finest, by far, as he averaged 8.2 yards per attempt (up from 6.4 as a sophomore) and was the driving force behind Indiana’s best season since 1993. He deserved the chance to be a full-time starter again, and it’s going to be interesting to see what he can do with it.
4. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
Penix has everything you look for in terms of skill set from a QB, from his strong, accurate arm to an ability to create plays outside of the pocket. But as the old saying goes, the best ability is availability, and Penix has not been available enough in his first 2 seasons in Bloomington. He got a redshirt year in 2018 after tearing his ACL and was limited to 6 games last season due to injury. Now a redshirt sophomore, Penix has the ability to establish himself as one of the league’s best quarterbacks. There’s a reason Indiana chose him as its starter over Ramsey, so let’s just hope he gets a full season to show it.
3. Sean Clifford, Penn State
Last season, Clifford displayed many qualities that endeared him to his teammates. He was a decent passer and a tough runner. He wasn’t perfect — far from it, actually — but in most games, he did what he needed to do. The exceptions were Minnesota and Ohio State (which he left early due to injury). He got the ball in the hands of KJ Hamler and Pat Freirermuth, fed Penn State’s dynamic running backs and plowed ahead for his own rushing yardage, trailing only Martinez and Fields in rushing among QBs.
This season will be especially interesting as he’ll be playing for a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca and without Hamler, who was liable to take a quick slant to the house on any given play. Clifford will need to be a more complete passer and methodically lead the Nittany Lions down the field more without Hamler’s big-play ability. Clifford averaged 8.3 yards per attempt, behind only Morgan and Fields. That number could go down this season as Penn State works in some unproven wideouts, but Clifford could still be a better QB. We’ll see.
2. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
Morgan’s leap from decent QB as a freshman to full-blown stud as a sophomore was even more surprising when you consider this guy was supposed to be in the MAC with PJ Fleck at Western Michigan, until Fleck convinced him to come with him up to Minnesota without ever having visited the campus. Fortune favors the bold, I guess.
After such an incredible season (30 TDs, 7 INT and 10.2 YPA), it’s natural to wonder: Is regression coming? Could Morgan possible be as efficient as last season? It’s a fair question. Morgan attempted only 24.5 passes per game last season, which was 79th nationally among qualified QBs and 10th in the Big Ten. Time will tell, but until then, Morgan will remain near the top of this list.
1. Justin Fields, Ohio State
It would be surprising if Fields doesn’t stay planted at No. 1 all season. He has everything you could want in a college QB, and all that’s left to do is prove that he’s not a one-year wonder — not that anyone believes the No. 2 overall player in the 2018 class living up to his potential is fluky. NFL scouts will certainly want to make sure, which is probably partially why Fields was so adamant that this season be played in the fall. He wants to chase down Trevor Lawrence and Clemson after the way last season ended.
Fields’ efficiency as a passer last season — he threw a TD pass on 11.5 percent of his passes — was eclipsed only by Tua Tagovailoa, who threw a TD pass on 13 percent of his passes. Fields averaged 9.2 yards per attempt (7th nationally), and, who knows, that could get even better as he develops chemistry with this stud freshman wide receiver class. Fields may rush more this season too, as Ohio State has a better backup QB situation this season with two highly regarded true freshmen in CJ Stroud and Jack Miller.
There will be a ton of pressure on Fields to be perfect every single week, and that comes with the territory as the QB on a national title contender. He’s more than ready to handle it.