The B1G 10: Ranking every QB room from contender to pretender
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G Story
Michigan finally became elite under Jim Harbaugh when it got better at quarterback.
Ohio State hasn’t missed a step under Ryan Day because the quarterback position gets better every season.
And Penn State will be a legitimate threat for the Playoff in 2023 because it now has an elite thrower at the most important position on the field.
“It’s the critical question that has to be solved by everyone, every year,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said.
Because no matter how important team, chemistry and culture are to winning, nothing good happens without having the quarterback position figured out.
While things could change when the transfer portal reopens on May 1 for 15 days — and more quarterbacks hit the portal — Big Ten teams have an idea of what the position will look like in the fall.
Or at least the parameters of competition.
Here’s our annual pre-spring ranking of the Big Ten quarterback rooms: 4 tiers, 4 distinct levels of play and expected performance
Level 1, Championship
The room: JJ McCarthy (Jr.), Jack Tuttle (R-Sr.), Brandon Mann (R-Fr.), Alex Orji (R-Fr.), Jayden Denegal (R-Fr.)
The skinny: McCarthy is primed for a breakout season. Don’t be surprised if he’s in New York City in December as a Heisman Trophy finalist. An overlooked move from coach Jim Harbaugh gained some valuable insurance: Jack Tuttle transferred from Indiana and is a solid experienced backup while Brandon Mann develops.
The room: Kyle McCord (R-So.), Devin Brown (R-Fr.), Tristan Gebbia (R-Sr.).
The skinny: McCord, who started 1 game in 2021, should win the job and should play well. What starting Ohio State quarterback over the past decade hasn’t?
The best thing that could happen for the Buckeyes: Devin Brown stays at Ohio State and pushes McCord all spring and through the summer and fall camp. Gebbia, an Oregon State transfer, provides experience.
2. The now, and the future
Level 2, Elite Potential
The room: Drew Allar (So.), Beau Pribula (R-Fr.), Jaxon Smolik (Fr.).
The skinny: The arm talent, the athletic ability, the potential. It’s all there. Can Allar put it all together and pull a talented Penn State team with him?
The problem: Any injury leaves Penn State with 2 young guys who have never played — unless Franklin adds a veteran from the portal.
The room: Tanner Mordecai (R-Sr.), Chase Wolf (Sr.), Myles Burkett (R-Fr.), Nick Evers (R-Fr.), Braedyn Locke (R-Fr.).
The skinny: Mordecai was fantastic over the past 2 seasons at SMU and looks like a dream setup with new OC Phil Longo. Remember, it’s a new staff — and that means all of those quarterbacks the previous staff recruited will compete with the 2 players Longo brought with him (including Oklahoma transfer Evers).
The room: Taulia Tagovailoa (R-Sr.), Billy Edwards Jr. (R-So.), Cameron Edge (R-Fr.), Jayden Sauray (R-Fr.).
The skinny: The last chance for Tagovailoa to play big in big games. He has made incremental strides over the past 2 seasons as the Maryland offense (and program) has been built around him.
Now he has to play at a high level in games that matter and get the Terps a signature win under Locksley.
The room: Cade McNamara (Sr.), QB Spencer Petras (R-Sr.), Deacon Hill (So.), Joe Labas (R-So.), Carson May (R-Fr.).
The skinny: Imagine that, the Iowa quarterback room a strength. Check that, a potential strength — because an offensive line coach (Brian Ferentz) is still coaching the quarterbacks.
McNamara has won important games in the Big Ten at Michigan, and Wisconsin transfer Deacon Hill has a ton of talent. Even Petras, who has been uneven for 3 years, will be good to have around in a semi-coaching role while he recovers from shoulder surgery.
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3. Too much uncertainty
Level 3, Game Managers
The room: Payton Thorne (Sr.), Noah Kim (R-Jr.), Katin Houser (R-Fr.), Sam Leavitt (Fr.).
The skinny: The Spartans couldn’t protect Thorne in 2022, and he regressed from a breakout season in 2021. Kim got some valuable snaps in 2022, but a rebound in 2023 for Michigan State revolves around Thorne.
The room: Luke Altmyer (Jr.), Artur Sitkowski (Sr.), Donovan Leary (R-Fr.), Jake Huber (R-So.), Kirkland Michaux (R-Fr.), Jameson Sheehan (R-Fr.), John Paddock (R-Fr.).
The skinny: The room will be thinned out by the end of spring practice, and don’t expect anyone to beat out Altmyer, the Ole Miss transfer. Sitkowski is a solid backup.
The room: Hudson Card (R-Jr.), Brady Allen (So.), Ryan Browne (Fr.).
The skinny: Card never got enough credit for his toughness and accurate throws at Texas. He battled injuries, and was eventually outplayed the past 2 years by Casey Thompson and Quinn Ewers.
If he can stay healthy, Purdue has a strong starter who will take care of the ball. If he doesn’t stay healthy, the Boilers may have to go Browne, the true freshman who stayed with his Purdue commitment instead of following former Purdue coach Jeff Brohm to Louisville.
The room: Jeff Sims (Sr.), Casey Thompson (R-Sr.), Logan Smothers (Jr.), Chubba Purdy (So.), Heinrich Haarberg (So.).
The skinny: Thompson didn’t play that poorly last season, especially considering the circumstances. But it’s going to be hard for a new staff to start the same quarterback from a team that lost 8 games — especially after landing one of the top prizes from the portal (Sims).
Sims gives the Huskers a run option, as well as a guy who can make every throw. He’ll stress defenses in ways Thompson can’t.
4. This could get ugly
Level 4, Disaster Avoidance
The room: Athan Kaliakmanis (R-So.), Jacob Knuth (R-Fr.), Cole Kramer (R-Sr.).
The skinny: Gophers coach PJ Fleck is averaging 8 wins a year (excluding the shortened COVID season) despite his quarterback. Just how much better could the Gophers be with a legit threat at the position?
The staff thinks Kaliakmanis can make a jump in Year 2, and points to his play down the stretch in 2022.
The room: Dexter Williams II (R-So.), Tayven Jackson (R-Fr.), Broc Lowry (Fr.), Brendan Sorsby (Fr.).
The skinny: Williams sustained a dislocated knee during the last game of the season, and there’s no telling how detailed the rehab will be.
That’s what makes the addition of Jackson so critical. The former 4-star recruit left Tennessee after he was recruited over with 5-star talent Nico Iamaleava.
The room: Gavin Wimsatt (Jr.), Evan Simon (Jr.), Raeden Oliver (R-Fr.).
The skinny: Wimsatt is the highest-ranked quarterback recruit in Rutgers history and must start playing like it in Year 3. Simon will still have an opportunity to win the job, but if Wimsatt doesn’t take control of the position, it’s a big disappointment.
The room: Brendan Sullivan (Jr.), Ryan Hilinski (Sr.), Cole Freeman (Jr.), Jack Lausch (So.).
The skinny: The worst QB room in Power 5 football in 2022 — and it’s the same group in 2023. Sullivan gave the offense energy, and Hiliniski led Northwestern to its only win of the season.
5. The Weekly 5
Wisconsin’s 2023 national championship odds and 5 things it will take to reach the Playoff.
1. Star TB Braelon Allen — a vocal proponent of keeping interim coach Jim Leonhard — buys in and builds on a 2,500 yards and 23 TDs in his first 2 seasons in Madison.
2. QB Tanner Mordecai can’t regress in a 1-shot opportunity with his 3rd program (Oklahoma, SMU).
3. Transfer WRs — Bryson Green (Oklahoma State), CJ Williams (USC), Will Paulding (Cincinnati) — are impact receivers.
4. C Jake Renfro and OT Joe Huber — All-Conference performers from Cincinnati — solidify the Badgers’ offensive line.
5. Big Ten defenses struggle to adjust to the Air Raid.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Northwestern OT Peter Skoronski, Northwestern.
“Where does he play? Some teams are adamant he can play outside, others think his arms aren’t long enough and his future is guard or center. I know this: He has great feet, he’s strong and he has heavy, quick hands. I’m not going to decide, before he gets on the field, that he can’t play outside. He’s a top-10 pick. Anyone who tells you anything else is trying to manipulate where he’s selected.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: nonconference series I want to see.
1. Michigan: LSU. Imagine Saturday Night in Baton Rouge. It’s like nothing you can imagine.
2. Ohio State: Florida. Two of college football’s biggest properties, and best home-field advantages.
3. Penn State: Texas. James Franklin is itching to get back into the state of Texas to recruit.
4. Purdue: Arizona State. Two programs that for years have underachieved but have the ability to do much more with the right coach leading the way.
5. Illinois: Missouri. A natural, border state rivalry.
6. Minnesota: Washington. Decades ago, this was a bitter and competitive rivalry (Gophers lead all-time 10-7). Haven’t played since 1997.
7. Maryland: West Virginia. Last played in 2021, they played every year from 1980-2007.
8. Iowa: Virginia Tech. Two lunch-pale programs, one punishing rivalry.
9. Wisconsin: Arkansas. They’ve played twice, including once in a bowl game.
10. Michigan State: Auburn. Two teams with similar motivation from chasing their state’s marquee programs.
11. Nebraska: Oklahoma. Seriously, what else is there? Play it every year, and never change again.
12. Rutgers: Miami. The (greater) New York-Miami connection is a natural connection.
13. Indiana: Kentucky. It works with basketball, you better believe it will work with football.
14. Northwestern: Notre Dame. Played legendary games in the 1940s and ‘50s, when Chicago was the common connection.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’m trying to understand why Purdue hired Ryan Walters. If the key to winning college football games is scoring points, why do you hire a defensive coordinator? — Ray Porter, Indianapolis.
It’s a common misconception that defensive coaches don’t know offense. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Defensive coaches know what gives them problems, and will hire offensive coordinators based on that.
So when Walters hired Graham Harrell as his OC, it was obvious what he thought could work in the Big Ten. The same thing that new Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell — also a coach with a defense background — did when he hired an OC. Both Harrell and new Wisconsin OC Phil Longo are disciples of the Mike Leach Air Raid offense.
The key to both finding success in the Big Ten is the quarterback. Find the right quarterback, and the offense will succeed no matter where it’s played.
Walters was hired because he’s a rising young coach who can reach young people and motivate them. He’s an organizer, and a proven developer of players. The two best coaches in college football — Kirby Smart and Nick Saban — are coaches whose resumes were built with defense.
Don’t get too caught up in the offense/defense argument. Just focus on player procurement and development.
-1.01: Nothing worked for Michigan State in 2022. From the quarterback, to the defense, to coach Mel Tucker’s mandate to play physical. The one defining number: The Spartans average yards per rush (3.76) was 1.01 yards less than their 2021 average (4.77).
That’s a gigantic number for a statistic that is measured in tenths of a yard. Want a more visual explanation?
Michigan State rushed for 2,283 yards in 2021. It had 1,356 in 2022 — a drop of 927 yards, or 77.3 yards per game.
10. Quote to note
Indiana coach Tom Allen:
“We had 4 games where it could’ve gone either way, and it came down to a 4th quarter, maybe the final drive even, in those games. So how do you close the gap and create a different outcome? To me, it’s mental and physical toughness.”