State of the Big Ten: Veterans, Transfers, and Touted Freshmen Headline Conference's Quarterback Outlook in 2021

By Andrew Ellis on February 27, 2021 at 10:10 am
C.J. Stroud is hoping to take over after Justin Fields' departure.
Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It's a mix of veterans and unprovens in the Big Ten.

As the programs head into the spring, the outlook at the game's most important position is a bit uncertain. The Big Ten's top offseason storyline is going to be the quarterback situation in Columbus as C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller, and Kyle McCord battle it out. It's sure to be a long while before Ryan Day makes any sort of decision.

Elsewhere across the Midwest, it's setting up to be a mixed bag at the position. There are a handful of veterans whose careers have been far from spectacular, some new hope thanks to the transfer portal, and freshmen looking to make an early impact. A more typical offseason should be especially beneficial to the teams that will feature new starters in 2021.

The Heavy Hitters

We know the story in Columbus. The winner of Ryan Day's quarterback derby will throw his first collegiate pass when the Buckeyes face Minnesota on Sept. 2. Justin Fields' heir apparent will line up behind one of the nation's best offensive lines with a plethora of weapons at his disposal. The abbreviated 2020 season didn't help matters, but the talented quarterback room is far from the team's biggest concern even though it is without question the top storyline. 

Michael Penix Jr. is one of the biggest rising stars in the Big Ten. We all watched last November as he picked apart Ohio State's defense to the tune of 491 yards and five touchdowns. Penix played in six games before tearing his ACL against Maryland. He threw for over 1,600 yards with 14 touchdowns and four picks. The Hoosier signal-caller has the look of a potential superstar, but he just hasn't been able to avoid the injury bug.

The folks in Madison don't have many questions heading into the spring. Graham Mertz is back for year No. 2 as a starter after an up-and-down redshirt freshman season. The Kansas native was phenomenal in the season opener when he completed 20 of 21 passes for five touchdowns against Illinois. In his other six games, Mertz tossed just four touchdowns and was picked off five times. 

Uncertainty in Ann Arbor 

Jim Harbaugh came to Michigan as a supposed quarterback whisperer. Six years into his tenure, he's yet to find anyone who can lead the Wolverines to a Big Ten title berth. Joe Milton finds himself in the transfer portal less than a year after the ridiculous Cam Newton comparisons surfaced. Milton was horrendous in 2020 while sharing reps with Cade McNamara. 

McNamara appeared in four games last season and completed 60 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Now a redshirt sophomore, he'll be doing battle with heralded five-star true freshman J.J. McCarthy as the two butt heads for the starting spot. McCarthy was the country's No. 2 pro-style passer and No. 24 overall prospect in the 2021 class. At one point viewed as an Ohio State lean, Ryan Day instead focused on McCord rather than the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Illinois native. 

The Evanston Transfer Hub

It's probably fair to categorize Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats as a usual contender at this point. Northwestern has reached the Big Ten title game in two of the last three seasons and was surprisingly good in 2020. The team was 7-2 and capped things off with a win over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey led the way, but he's now gone, which means it's time for yet another transfer to take over. 

Hunter Johnson (Clemson) and Ryan Hilinski (South Carolina) are now the names to know in Evanston. Johnson has done next to nothing thus far after being a five-star prospect in the Class of 2017. Hilinski was also highly sought after when he arrived in South Carolina back in 2019. He started as a true freshman for the Gamecocks before being beaten out in 2020. While it's certainly not the typical career trajectory, Hilinski should be the favorite to lead the Wildcats in 2021. 

Ohio State C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller, Kyle McCord
Wisconsin Graham Mertz
Penn State Sean Clifford
Indiana Michael Penix Jr.
Michigan Cade McNamara, J.J. McCarthy
Northwestern Ryan Hilinski, Hunter Johnson
Iowa Spencer Petras
Maryland Taulia Tagovailoa
Nebraska Adrian Martinez
Minnesota Tanner Morgan
Purdue Aidan O’Connell, Jack Plummer, Austin Burton
Michigan State Payton Thorne, Anthony Russo
Rutgers Noah Vedral, Artur Sitkowski
Illinois Brandon Peters, Isaiah Williams

The Savvy Veterans

Behind the Buckeyes and Badgers, it's Penn State who has the league's best odds at a national title. But does anyone actually think Sean Clifford is even remotely close to a playoff-caliber quarterback? The redshirt senior is heading into his third year as a starter, and at this point, he really just is what he is.

Clifford can be a capable signal-caller but far from a game-changer. He completed 60 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2020. Dual-threat backup Will Levis will no longer be in the mix after transferring to Kentucky. The loss of Pat Freiermuth stings, but Jahan Dotson is a nice weapon at wideout. 

The West Division has a trio of veterans returning with each seeming to be the unquestioned starter. Iowa's Spencer Petras is back and will lead the offense once again. He struggled with accuracy at times last year completing 57 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Hawkeye quarterbacks aren't asked to do as much as we see in other systems, but Petras will look to improve his play in his second year as a starter.

It looked like Scott Frost could have a quarterback battle on his hands between Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey, but the latter decided to transfer to Louisville which means the Martinez show continues in Lincoln. He showed promise as a true freshman in 2018, struggled as a sophomore, and seemed to find his stride a bit in 2020. His 71.5 completion percentage was actually tops in the Big Ten. 

Heading into his third season as a starter, it still feels like Tanner Morgan is a bit of an enigma. P.J. Fleck and the Gophers had some tough times in 2020. The team went 3-4 while Morgan tossed just seven touchdowns and five interceptions. A new offensive coordinator, the loss of wideout Tyler Johnson, and the whole COVID saga certainly didn't help matters. Morgan will be under center when Minnesota hosts the Buckeyes in the season opener.

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