Which B1G teams could handle starting QB testing positive for COVID-19?
Imagine this scenario. Your favorite team is gearing up to play its rival, and the day before the game, your starting quarterback tests positive for COVID-19 and cannot play in the game.
Tough luck, right? Well, that’s a possibility in a pandemic.
So, now what? I guess you better hope your team has a competent backup QB. It’s only the most important position in all of sports.
Such is a situation is not just a possibility this season, but it’s probably likely to happen to a few Big Ten teams. As if staying out of the training room for the normal nicks and bruises wasn’t challenging enough during a season, but now there’s a contagious virus discreetly making its way through the world.
Teams are definitely cognizant of this. In fact, some are treating the starting QB and the backup like the President and Vice President — never in the same room!
Other staffs have assigned back-up play callers to the OC and DC in case one is out. And picked who'd be the interim coach in case the head coach is out. https://t.co/UeIN6nQOAR
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) July 22, 2020
That means having a competent backup QB who is ready to play will be critical. So, let’s examine which teams could perhaps transition smoothly (think 2014 Ohio State and 2019 Indiana) and which teams might be in some trouble (think 2017 Michigan). Here’s who is well-suited, ill-suited and somewhere in between:
If there’s a benefit of having a quarterback battle in preseason camp, it’s that both should theoretically be prepared to play. We don’t know yet if it will be Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton, but both were highly-rated recruits and should be capable of leading the Wolverines. McCaffrey was the No. 5 pro-style QB in the 2017, while Milton was the No. 9 pro-style QB in the 2018 class.
It’s obviously preferential to have experience at QB, but at least McCaffrey and Milton should be getting plenty of practice reps with the starting offense. I don’t think Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Penn State’s Sean Clifford are ceding too many practice reps to their respective backups.
Tanner Morgan enters 2020 as 1 of the top quarterbacks in the country after his incredible sophomore season. What’s strange to think about is that at this time last season, Morgan wasn’t even the presumed starter; he was in a preseason battle with Zack Annexstad and wound up winning by default when Annexstad suffered a foot injury and missed the entire season.
While there will be no QB battle this time around, Annexstad is a serviceable backup. Annexstad beat out Morgan in 2018 as a true freshman and played in 7 games. He is probably a little rusty after missing a season and not getting spring practice to get some reps, but a lot of teams would love to have a backup with that sort of experience.
The Hoosiers showed us all the way last year with the way they juggled Michael Penix Jr. and Peyton Ramsey. Ramsey transferred to Northwestern so he could start there, but Indiana at the bare minimum should be prepared for this sort of situation. They know how to handle shuffling at the quarterback spot in a way that other teams will have to figure out on the fly.
Aside from that, backup QB Jack Tuttle is a 4-star recruit who signed with Utah before transferring. He hasn’t gotten a chance yet at the collegiate level, but he was rated higher in high schools than guys like Milton, Penix, Rutgers starter Art Sitkowski, Iowa starter Spencer Petras and Purdue starter Jack Plummer.
Jack Coan will begin the season at the starter, but keep an eye on Graham Mertz. He is a 4-star QB who was ranked 5th in the 2019 QB class — ahead of the likes of North Carolina starter Sam Howell, Ole Miss starter John Rhys Plumlee and USC starter Kedon Slovis. Mertz is Wisconsin’s 2nd-highest ranked recruit. He is the QB of the future. He only appeared in 2 games last season, but he should be much more equipped to challenge Coan. Or step in if Coan isn’t available.
Purdue certainly got a taste of the QB shuffling last season, with Elijah Sindelar, Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell all drawing starts. Plummer is the front-runner, but he’s no guarantee to start. O’Connell is a former walk-on who performed above expectations and is probably ready to step in. Austin Burton, a graduate transfer from UCLA, is also in the mix. While Jeff Brohm does not want a repeat of 2019, at least he’s already gone through it and could potentially handle the adversity that is sure to come in this wacky season.
Rutgers might not be set up for success in 2020, but it does have 3 QBs with starting experience. That means the 2 who wind up as the backups will be ready to step in. Artur Sitkowski was the starter last season and elected to redshirt, which allowed Johnny Langan to get experience. Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral did a good job filling in for Adrian Martinez last season and is comfortable coming off the bench if he doesn’t win the job.
Long term, Ohio State’s QB situation is very promising. True freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller are in a battle to become Ohio State’s starter in 2021. Stroud is the No. 2 pro-style QB in the 2020 class and Miller is No. 13.
But without spring practice and limited preseason reps, I can’t imagine Ryan Day would turn to either in the event that Fields is unavailable — at least early on. Gunnar Hoak, a Kentucky graduate transfer, would probably get the 1st crack ahead of the true freshmen. Hoak has only thrown 32 career passes. Ohio State is so talented everywhere else that it could probably find a way to win, especially with several quality backs and 1 of the top offensive lines in the country.
But there’s no denying that it would be a significant drop-off with Hoak at QB. And hey, no shame in that — pretty much anyone is going to be a major downgrade from Fields. But Hoak doesn’t have the elite prospect background (he was the No. 40 pro-style QB in the 2016 class) or the playing experience for the Buckeyes to feel great about a potential situation with him starting. Maybe if it’s later in the season and Stroud or Miller have gotten some practice/mop-up reps, Day would feel comfortable going to 1 of them.
Assuming Spencer Petras is the starter, that leaves redshirt freshman Alex Padilla as the backup. Padilla was the No. 35 pro-style QB in the 2019 class and has no experience. He reportedly impressed running the scout team, but that’s a far cry from taking over during a game against a Big Ten team. Iowa has had remarkably continuity at QB; the last time its starter was unable to play was 2014.
Similar to Ohio State, the foundation around the QB is on solid ground. The offensive line is very good, and the weapons are there, so Iowa would hope that would ease any possible transition to a backup for a week or 2.
Matt Robinson got 2 starts last season in place of Brandon Peters and performed OK against Minnesota and Michigan, completing 31-of-54 passes for 317 yards with 1 TD and 0 INT. In his career, he has completed 54% of his 83 passes with just the 1 TD. Is highly touted QB recruit Isaiah Williams ready to go as the backup? The former 4-star recruit only attempted 10 passes last season and played wide receiver in the Red Box Bowl.
At this point, there just aren’t great options for the Spartans at QB. Theo Day, the No. 17 pro-style QB in the 2018 class, should probably win the starting job, which would make Rocky Lombardi the backup. He is experienced as the backup, which is certainly a plus, but he has completed 42.9% of his career passes in college. If Day can’t win the job outright, then what does that say about his ability at this stage of his career?
This largely depends on whether Taulia Tagovailoa is eligible this season. Tua’s brother transferred from Alabama, but he might have to redshirt unless he can get a waiver. If he isn’t eligible, Maryland has just 2 scholarship QBs. Starter Josh Jackson really fell off after the first 2 games of 2019 and is probably better suited to be the backup. If Tagovailoa is eligible, Maryland becomes much more interesting.
Somewhere in between
It’s hard to project how Penn State would fare with backup Will Levis as the starter for a game or 2. Levis got some great experience when Sean Clifford got hurt against Ohio State, stepping in to rush 18 times and attempt 11 passes. He also started the following week against Rutgers. There’s been some talk of working Levis into some sort of part-time role even when Clifford is healthy.
Does this mean Penn State would be fine with Levis instead of Clifford? Maybe, but maybe not. Levis was not a decorated recruit by any means, as he was just the No. 28 pro-style QB in the 2018 class. One thing in Levis’ favor, though is that Penn State let the QB competition drag out in 2019, suggesting he had some sort of legit chance at winning the job.
Nebraska dealt with QB issues all of 2019 as Luke McCaffrey and Noah Vedral both got time with Adrian Martinez in and out of the lineup. With Vedral transferring to Rutgers, the backup job is McCaffrey’s. He is a dynamic playmaker who will likely have some sort of a role anyways. Maybe he can be the Huskers’ version of Taysom Hill? Either way, I’m sure there are plenty of fans who would love to see what McCaffrey could do as the starter.
Northwestern was in a similar boat as Purdue with using 3 QBs last season, and they all underwhelmed. With Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey likely the starter, that puts Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith as the backups. Both got starting experience last season, but Northwestern’s QB production was among the worst in the country. Johnson is a Clemson transfer and a former 5-star recruit, so let’s see if he can figure it out in his 2nd season with the Wildcats.