CHICAGO – The Gophers have a 19-year-old starting quarterback (Philip Nelson) with seven games of experience and a 19-year-old backup (Mitch Leidner) who has yet to take a collegiate snap. By current Big Ten standards, however, this hardly qualifies as uncertainty.
There’s some star power at quarterback this year with Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Michigan’s Devin Gardner.
But with preseason camps set to open this week, five teams have open quarterback competitions: Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue. Meanwhile, Michigan State (Andrew Maxwell) and Illinois (Nathan Scheelhaase) have senior quarterbacks who could lose their jobs quickly if they sputter like last season.
The uncertainty was obvious last week at Big Ten media days, where each team could showcase three players, and only five teams brought quarterbacks.
“The reason I don’t have a quarterback here is because I’m not sure which one it is,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said.
The Gophers brought defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, running back Donnell Kirkwood and safety Brock Vereen to Chicago. When asked if the quarterback job is open, coach Jerry Kill said, “I think if you ask Mitch [Leidner], he would tell you so. And I think if you watched the spring game, he would tell you so.”
It’ll be Nelson’s job as long as he stays healthy and performs, but the Gophers like the way Leidner has developed, adding surprising speed to go with his strong arm.
“I think it’s very similar to our situation at Northern Illinois when I was there with Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch,” Kill said. “I think it’s healthy. [Nelson and Leidner] get along well, and we’ll need both of them to be productive before it’s all over.”
Joel Stave and Curt Phillips helped lead Wisconsin to a third consecutive Big Ten title last year, but it wouldn’t be shocking if new coach Gary Andersen picked junior-college transfer Tanner McEvoy as the starter.
The decision will say a lot about Wisconsin’s new offensive philosophy. Stave is a pocket passer, and Phillips runs pretty well when healthy, but McEvoy is a dual-threat quarterback who would have fit well in Andersen’s system at Utah State.
“It will be a three-man race,” Andersen said. “I have no timeline on it. And we may jog out there the first play of the game with two quarterbacks on the field and see what happens.”
Andersen was joking, but Northwestern actually does this effectively at times. Kain Colter, a good quarterback in his own right, moves to receiver, allowing Trevor Siemian to take shots down the field.
Indiana has multiple options for its fast-paced offense now that Tre Roberson is healthy again. He won the job last fall and looked terrific against Indiana State and Massachusetts before breaking his leg. Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld filled in admirably, with each completing more than 60 percent of his passes.
“We’ve got three guys in a dead heat,” said Wilson, whose team quietly averaged 30.8 points per game last year, ranking fourth in the conference. “We’ve got three guys that are all very unique and can manage us.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sounded similar about his quarterback battle among sophomore Jake Rudock, junior Cody Sokol and freshman C.J. Beathard.
“We’re comfortable with all three guys,” Ferentz said. “It’s kind of like when we had [Ricky] Stanzi and James [Vandenberg] in the room together. You felt if either one of these guys take the ball, you’re going to be OK because they act like Big Ten quarterbacks.”
Hawkeyes fans will have to take Ferentz’s word for it, because none of the candidates has taken a collegiate snap. Last year, Iowa finished 4-8, and let outgoing senior Vandenberg play every down, even as the team finished with a six-game slide.
And then there’s Penn State and Purdue, whose fans are clamoring to see two highly touted freshmen. Christian Hackenberg, a five-star recruit from Virginia, will battle junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson for Penn State’s starting job.
And Danny Etling, a four-star recruit from Terre Haute, Ind., will challenge senior Rob Henry at Purdue.
Kill took heat for pulling Nelson’s redshirt in the middle of last season, but it left the Gophers with fewer questions, with camp set to open Friday.
“It was a great growing process for him,” Kill said. “I think it leads us into this season where we’re not trying to break somebody in.”