Big Ten quarterback situations becoming clearer as spring closes

Hawkeyes among 4 Big Ten teams without a definitive starter; rest firm in their signal callers

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IOWA CITY — Many college football coaches will tell you competition breeds quality. Still, there’s an undeniable advantage to having an established player at every position — but especially at quarterback.

Around the Big Ten this spring, there are a handful of teams without a definitive starter at quarterback — including Iowa — while the majority of teams have their signal callers from last season returning. The viewpoint on how that helps a football team depends on who you ask.

Coach Kirk Ferentz was somewhere in the middle. He said on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference Wednesday that there’s benefit to Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers competing for the job, but that he’s seen in the past — citing the QB race in 1987 after Mark Vlasic graduated following the 1986 season — it can go wrong if coaches aren’t on top of it.

“To me, (quarterback) like any position, if you’ve got two or even three guys competing for the same spot, it makes all of them better,” Ferentz said. “One downside of it is sometimes they press. … It seemed like (in 1987) they were all hurting themselves rather than helping themselves because they were trying to make the big play all the time.

“I think that’s what our quarterbacks are going through right now; learn how to play the position, making the reads they have to make and take the throws that are available.”

Recently-returned Ken O’Keefe met with media Wednesday at the Hansen Performance Center, and said Stanley vs. Wiegers is “neck and neck,” and that with a slightly tweaked offensive system under new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, “everything is new for these guys right now.”

O’Keefe added that the coaching staff isn’t sure how far the competition will extend, but that it’s certain more reps are needed with a little more than a week left in spring practice, all summer and fall camp still to go.

A few other teams can relate.

Quarterback competitions are ongoing at Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska as well.

The Hawkeyes’ northern rival welcomed P.J. Fleck and his rowboat into Minneapolis this offseason. The Gophers have a four-person race on their hands with Connor Rhoda, Demry Croft, Tanner Morgan and Seth Green all in the mix. Rhoda played in three games last year with Mitch Leidner injured and went 8 of 16 for 88 yards and one touchdown.

Maryland has a trio of guys fighting for the job as well after the Terrapins lost Perry Hills to graduation. Tyrell Pigrome, Max Bortenschlager and North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson are in the mix according to Coach D.J. Durkin. Durkin said “there’s not a ton of difference with those guys,” at this point.

Nebraska has a quarterback race as well, which is something the Huskers haven’t often experienced in the program’s history. Coach Mike Riley said they have a duo that hasn’t played a down for Nebraska. Junior Tanner Lee is eligible now after transferring from Tulane and is up against highly-touted redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Riley said the two have taken equal reps so far and “both know they have the chance or opportunity to be the starter.”

In all four cases, there were consistent (and probably obvious) traits each coach mentioned in one way or another.

“We’re looking for the decisive decision-making within the system; who can control the ball,” Fleck said. “We’re looking for a guy who can do that; not only manage the game but lead the team in terms of the ball; in terms of making decisive decisions.”

For the majority of the Big Ten, quarterback is locked up.

There are the high-profile guys like Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Michigan’s Wilton Speight, Penn State’s Trace McSorley, and Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, who represent a collective 11,889 yards and 93 touchdown passes. Their roles are in some cases vaulted into a national discussion. Barrett could factor into the Heisman Trophy discussion depending on how exactly the Buckeyes’ offense comes out under Kevin Wilson at offensive coordinator, but Coach Urban Meyer touched on Barrett’s accuracy being a key component. The Hawkeyes will see Barrett on Nov. 4 at Kinnick Stadium.

Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois and Rutgers all have their quarterbacks set as well.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Wednesday Brian Lewerke is “clearly the starter heading into the offseason.” Badgers Coach Paul Chryst has Alex Hornibrook back as a sophomore after splitting time with Bart Houston last season.

New Hoosiers coach Tom Allen said returning starter Richard Lagow has “increased his poise and confidence,” as well as his understanding of the offense. The other new coach, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, has David Blough back, but his greater concern is to whom Blough will throw.

At Illinois, Coach Lovie Smith said Chayce Crouch still is recovering from shoulder surgery and was non-contact this spring, but channeled his Chicago Bears days in saying, “he’s our quarterback; undisputed leader of our football team and can’t wait to get him back out there.” As for Rutgers, Coach Chris Ash brought in former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill to be his offensive coordinator, and Ash said he’s been “very impressed” with starter Giovanni Rescigno under that new direction.

While it depends on roster makeup — and every coach is going to find a way to have hope and confidence when discussing it this time of year — sometimes having turnover at that spot takes longer to overcome mentally as a collective unit.

“It’s amazing how confident a young man gets in that position when he’s had on-field success,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s able to affect everyone else on the offense and everyone else on the team because they believe we can move the ball, score points and win because of the quarterback position. It really hurts your confidence when you flip that over; when the offense doesn’t have great belief in what the quarterback can do for moving the ball and scoring points.

“There’s that old saying: ‘When you have a quarterback, you have a chance.’ Without a doubt, we’ve got a chance.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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