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When thinking of Big Ten quarterbacks over the last two years, the first player who usually comes to mind is Justin Fields. He’s been a top college signal-caller ever since he stepped on Ohio State’s campus, but he’s now off to the NFL after the Chicago Bears drafted him No. 11 overall back in April.
So who does that leave sitting at No. 1 on any list for top returning quarterbacks in the conference? At this point, that’s difficult to say. There are some good players at that position in the Big Ten, but are there any elite players? No, at least not right now.
Could that change in the near future? Absolutely. There are a couple of candidates who have the potential to be elite college quarterbacks. But as we wait to see who emerges from that group of candidates, we’ll take our best guess determining the top returning quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
Honorable mention: Sean Clifford, Penn State; Aidan O’Connell, Purdue
5. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
Admittedly, I might be higher on Taulia Tagovailoa than some. He played in just four games last season, but in those games, we saw the good and the bad from the former Alabama quarterback. Here are the splits, which is a perfect representation for what I mean:
In two wins: 338.0 passing ypg, 72.1%, 6 TD, 1 INT + 2 rushing TD
In two losses: 167.5 passing ypg, 50.8%, 1 TD, 6 INT
Quite the stark contrast, right? To be fair, those two losses were to Northwestern and Indiana, two of the Big Ten’s best teams not named Ohio State.
We should also take the circumstances surrounding Tagovailoa’s season into consideration.
First off, he didn’t get to Maryland until last summer. The NCAA then took until mid-August to grant him immediate eligibility, so the coaching staff wasn’t even sure if he’d be available. He didn’t have a normal spring or fall camp, and we weren’t even sure the Big Ten would have a season.
Then in Week 1, he was immediately thrown into the fire against a top-20 pass defense. Brutal ask. In that first performance, he completed only 56% of his passes for 94 yards, no touchdowns and three rough interceptions.
Now that he’s had the opportunity to go through a normal offseason, expect more consistency and growth in his second season as the team’s starter. And with Dontay Demus Jr. and former five-star Rakim Jarrett both returning at receiver, he’ll have quality options in the passing game.
4. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
What a difference a year can make. Back in 2019, Tanner Morgan led the Big Ten in passing yards per game with 250.2. His 10.2 yards per attempt marked fourth-best in college football, and he threw for 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
Fast forward to 2020, and Morgan’s numbers dropped significantly across the board. His completion percentage went from 66% down to 57.9. His yards per game dropped below 200, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio was only 7-to-5.
He threw almost as many interceptions in half the games, while not even reaching 25% of his total total from the season before.
Morgan’s decline in play was reflected in the team’s record, too. After going 11-2 in 2019, the Golden Gophers dipped to 3-4 in 2020. That’s obviously not going to get it done, and I’m sure he already knows that. The fact that he’s still sitting at No. 4 on this list is simple: I believe he can recapture some of his 2019 form.
If he does, he’ll have to do it without his two stud receivers from that season, Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. The two are now in the NFL after combining for almost 150 catches, over 2,500 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2019. We saw the dip after just losing Johnson, but hopefully things don’t get even worse with both now gone.
3. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
If Wisconsin could somehow figure out how to play Illinois for 12 straight weeks in the regular season, Graham Mertz will be your Heisman Trophy winner for 2021. The man completed a staggering 95.2% of his passes against the Fighting Illini in Week 1 while also tossing five touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The only problem? He was very pedestrian, even subpar at times, for the remainder of the season.
In the other six games, he completed 57% of his passes, averaged 165 yards per game and threw five interceptions to only four touchdowns. Wisconsin also went 3-4 during that six-game stretch, falling well short of preseason expectations.
Granted, we have to provide full context here.
After that game against Illinois, the Badgers went three straight weeks without playing a game due to COVID issues. Mertz even contracted the virus himself, which can sometimes have lingering effects. As if that wasn’t enough, the team had another two-week layoff just a couple of weeks later.
That type of inconsistency with the schedule can be problematic. I still believe Mertz has the tools to be a successful Big Ten quarterback, but he’s not the sure-thing he looked like back on Oct. 23 of 2020.
2. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
With Justin Fields off to the NFL, Ohio State now has an opening at quarterback for the first time in two years. The position hasn’t been locked up yet, but all signs seem to be pointing towards former blue-chip prospect C.J. Stroud.
Sure, there’s an awful lot of projection going on here, but who doesn’t expect the Ohio State quarterback to be one of the best players at his position in the Big Ten? Considering Stroud’s raw ability and surrounding talent, he — or whoever ends up starting for the Buckeyes — is going to have success.
We’re all projecting Ryan Day’s squad to once again be a national title contending team, right? Simply put, that won’t happen without quality quarterback play.
With Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson back at wide receiver, Stroud is going to have one of the nation’s top receiving duos to go along with Jeremy Ruckert at tight end and the Master Teague-TreVeyon Henderson combination in the backfield.
Looking really good shouldn’t be difficult in Columbus.
1. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
Look, I’m not completely sold on Michael Penix Jr. just yet, but he has to be the top returning quarterback in the Big Ten right now. I couldn’t justify putting Stroud in the No. 1 spot considering we haven’t seen him play yet, and that left the Indiana starter as the only viable option.
Everyone remembers the game-winning pylon dive against Penn State to win in overtime. And of course they also remember the five-touchdown, 491-yard passing performance in a 42-35 loss to Ohio State. But Penix was really good outside of just those two games.
In the five full games he started, he averaged 312.2 yards passing with 14 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He also added another two touchdowns on the ground and was a huge reason the Hoosiers were 5-1 with him as their starter.
A struggling performance against Maryland in late November did end with a torn ACL, which has created at least some cause for concern. But as long as Penix Jr. returns fully healthy, he should recapture his spot at — or at least near — the top of this list.
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Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.