The quarterback position is without a doubt the most important on the field at any level. This is not going to change anytime soon.
The Big Ten was the best conference in college football in 2020 and there has been plenty of overhaul at the offseason. Justin Fields is gone, Rocky Lombardi and Peyton Ramsey are no longer under center, and there are some new faces for teams to rely on.
With that being said, one team that will have its quarterback returning is Rutgers. Noah Vedral will be ready for his second season under center in Piscataway. Heading into the 2021 season, where does Vedral rank on the quarterback rankings in the Big Ten?
14. Brandon Peters, Illinois
Illinois has a new head coach in Bret Bielema but will have the same quarterback. Brandn Peters announced his return to the Illini for year six just eight days after Lovie Smith was fired. Peters struggled with difficulties involving COVID-19 in 2020 and this allowed him to play just five games.
After the spring game, Peters separated himself a bit in the quarterback competition with Isaiah Williams. He is now working out as a wide receiver for the Illini. Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski will also get some reps and we could see him at some point throughout the season. Despite being one of the veteran signal callers, Peters did not see much action last season and it could be another long year for Illinois.
13. Payton Thorne/Anthony Russo, Michigan State
This is the quarterback battle on display the most in the Big Ten. Payton Thorne was able to get his feet wet last season in four games, throwing three touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 56.5% of his passes. With Lombardi gone, it seemed likely that Thorne would take over. Enter Temple transfer, Anthony Russo. He spent the last three years with the Owls and saw some success early on in his career. The Spartans are still going through a transition phase and the quarterback is still a question mark.
12. Jack Plummer, Purdue
Will it be Jack Plummer or Aidan O’Connor? Purdue got three games out of each quarterback a season ago. O’Connor started the first three games before going down with an injury. Plummer stepped in and completed 71% of his passes with 938 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Plummer should have an upper hand heading into the season. Purdue lost some explosiveness on the outside but still has one of the top receivers in the conference in David Bell.
11. Spencer Petras, Iowa
Is there a quarterback competition in Iowa? It seems unlikely as Spencer Petras is No. 1 on the depth chart with Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan behind him. Petras has not worried about this and has done some work to improve in the offseason. This is something that we will have to see on the field before having him climb up the rankings.
Petras spent two years as a backup before taking over the starting job in 2020. He finished with 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. He is looking for a bigger year in 2021 but there is a lot to prove for Petras and the Hawkeyes.
10. Noah Vedral, Rutgers
What is the ceiling for Vedral this season? Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson implemented a fast-paced offense with a mobile quarterback in Vedral under center. The offense took a huge step forward from 2019 and there is a chance for another step if Vedral can become a bit more consistent.
In 2020, Vedral struggled with injuries. On the field, he saw some highs like the Michigan performance and some lows like the loss to Illinois. This is what needs to balance out this season in Piscataway. Vedral will have weapons back such as Bo Melton, Isaih Pacheco, and Shameen Jones. There are not many more quarterbacks that Vedral could jump on this list but he could potentially make his way into the No. 8 or 9 slot with a big year.
9. Ryan Hilinski, Northwestern
Ryan Hilinski burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2019 for South Carolina. He threw for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns but played just two games a season ago. Hilinski made the decision to transfer to Northwestern in the offseason and will step in as the starting quarterback.
Hilinski has a lot to prove this season. The Wildcats will continue to play defense and make games ugly. Hilinski will take some time to acclimate to Northwestern and a return to college football. He did not start a game in 2020 and appeared in just two.
8. Cade McNamara, Michigan
Rutgers’ fans remember the three-overtime thriller against Michigan in SHI Stadium. This was the night that Cade McNamara took over the starting job for the Wolverines. He replaced Joe Milton and threw for 260 yards and four touchdowns to beat the Scarlet Knights.
In 2021, Michigan will be closely monitored as usual and McNamara will be under center. He will enter his junior year with just four games under his belt. He will have a chance to start for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines this season. It is important that he performs well to get Michigan back to where they want to be. This ranking could be higher toward the end of the season depending on how the season plays out.
7. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
Adrian Martinez is a true dual-threat in the Big Ten and he showed this in the ninth and final game of the season in 2020. Martinez threw two interceptions against the Scarlet Knights but finished 24-for-28 for 255 yards and a touchdown while rushing 23 times for 157 yards and two scores.
When is Scott Frost going to turn this Nebraska program around? It does not seem like it will be this season but they will be steady at quarterback with Martinez leading the way.
6. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
Graham Mertz started seven games for Wisconsin in 2020 and made a name for himself immediately. On Friday night in Week 1 of Big Ten play, Mertz lit up Illinois by going 20-for-21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns. He slowed down as the season went on but will lead the Badgers once again in 2021.
Mertz displayed a strong ability as a play-action passer. He seems to fit in well with what Wisconsin likes to do offensively. Mertz finished with five interceptions in 2020, with three coming against Northwestern. If he can take care of the ball, Mertz will have a big year for the Badgers.
5. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
Taulia Tagovailoa took over as the starter for Maryland a season ago and showed great promise. He picked up a 45-44 overtime victory over Minnesota where he finished with 394 yards and three touchdowns. Tagovailoa followed that up with a statement victory against Penn State when he threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns while going 18-for-26.
Tagovailoa played four games because of complications with COVID. The expectations for Maryland as a whole are up in the air but there are high hopes for Tagovailoa heading into year two as a starter.
4. Sean Clifford, Penn State
It was a tough start for Penn State in 2020 when they dropped five-straight games to begin the season. The Nittany Lions rebounded to win the final four games of the season and this is the momentum they will be looking to ride heading into the fall. Sean Clifford was a reason they were able to turn it around last season.
Clifford finished the year with seven total touchdowns and just one turnover over the final four games of the year. He has shown inconsistencies at time but he is more than good enough to lead Penn State back to where they want to be. The Nittany Lions have a chance to be a top-10 team this season and that is the reason Clifford is able to climb as high as he is on these rankings.
3. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
It was a monster year for Tanner Morgan and the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2019. He finished with 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns with just seven interceptions as Minnesota took the nation by surprise. That success did not carry over to 2020 as the league seemed to catch up to them.
In 2021, it is hard to argue against Morgan as a top-three quarterback in the conference. As a pure passer, Morgan has great talent and showed that he has big-game skills. This is an important season for P.J. Fleck and Minnesota to prove that 2019 was not a fluke year.
2. CJ Stroud, Ohio State
It will be a battle at quarterback this season for Ohio State with Fields now in Chicago with the Bears. It is looking like CJ Stroud is going to get the nod as the starter. Jack Miller is a big-time recruit bu has not attempted a pass in college while Kyle McCord is a true-freshman in the mix.
Stroud enters the 2021 season having been there since January 2020. He has had plenty of time to learn the playbook and sit behind Fields. Stroud finished with 185 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game for the Buckeyes. There is not much of a body of work here but Stroud is a sought-after prospect and that usually works out well for Ohio State. It is championship or bust once again for the Buckeyes and Stroud will have a huge hand in that.
1. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
Michael Penix Jr. will enter the year as the most-talented quarterback in the conference. He suffered a torn ACL back in November but is expected to be good to go for the season-opener. Penix Jr. is a mobile quarterback and a talented passer. He finished with 238 passing yards and three touchdowns in a Week 2 victory against Rutgers.
Penix Jr. turned in a career performance against Ohio State. Indiana fell just short of the Buckeyes 42-35 and Penix Jr. did all he could with 491 yards and five touchdowns with one interception. It is hard to argue against Penix Jr. being one of the five-best returning players under center. Indiana is in line for another big season and that will be the case as long as Penix Jr. can stay healthy.