Ranking the Big Ten’s 14 best quarterbacks of 2021
Despite the loss of studs like Justin Fields and Peyton Ramsey, the Big Ten returns some of the best collection of signal-callers in the Power Five.
The league showed its’ worth with a strong performance in last season’s bowl games. Although Rutgers is the lone program that has yet to complete spring training, quarterback play appears to be a strength for the league this fall. Underclassmen, veterans, and transfers will be looking to add to their legacies.
Regardless, great quarterbacks make others around them better, and these 14 individuals are determined to lead their respective teams to higher grounds in 2021.
14. Payton, Thorne, Michigan State: The former three-star prospect got his feet wet as a redshirt freshman last season. Thorne combined for 257 passing yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions against Indiana and Ohio State. However, he showed promise in the finale at Penn State. Thorne threw for a career-high, 325 yards, three touchdowns and an interception against the Nittany Lions. Now that Rocky Lombardi is no longer on the roster, Throne has the reigns of Michigan State’s offense. He needs to develop more as a passer and improve his subpar completion percentage. Still, Thorne’s maturation process is going to be vital for Mel Tucker’s second season in East Lansing.
13. Noah Vedral, Rutgers: He’s another Big Ten signal-caller with a long journey. Vedral started out his career under Scott Frost at UCF, and followed him to Nebraska, where he played for two seasons. Last year was his first with the Scarlet Knights and was a roller coaster. Vedral passed for 1,253 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Nebraska native threw three interceptions apiece in losses to Indiana and Illinois. However, Vedral displayed his potential and threw for a career-high, 381 yards and three scores against Michigan. Vedral suffered an ankle injury at Maryland and didn’t play against Nebraska. Artur Sitkowski transferred over the spring, so Vedral will resume his role.
12. Jack Plummer, Purdue: He started the final three games of 2020 for the Boilermakers and led the team in passing yards, completion percentage and touchdown tosses. Plummer scored three touchdowns against Nebraska, Rutgers and Minnesota. Not to mention he had three touchdown passes apiece and over 300 yards through the air against the Huskers and Golden Gophers. Aidan O’Connell, who started Purdue’s first three games last season, is in a fierce battle with Plummer for the reigns of the offense. Both quarterbacks put up similar numbers in Jeff Brohm’s scheme. Brohm is no stranger to playing multiple quarterbacks in one season either. Plummer seems to have more grasp of the offense.
11. Ryan Hilinski, Northwestern: The former South Carolina Gamecock is most known for the upset he pulled at Georgia in 2019. Hilinski threw for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns that year. However, he only played in two games and attempted six passes last season with South Carolina. Now Hilinski will try to replace Ramsey, who led Northwestern to a top-10 finish in the final AP Poll last season. The California native has major upside when healthy and hopes to keep the wheels rolling for the Wildcats this fall. This will be Pat Fitzgerald’s third-straight year of rocking with a transfer at quarterback, and Hilinski is battle-tested enough to fit right in with the physicality of the Big Ten.
10. Brandon Peters, Illinois: The Indiana native has had a long journey thus far. Peters played for Jim Harbaugh and Lovie Smith. Now he’s approaching his first season under Bret Bielema’s regime. Although Peter’s production slipped in 2020, he played his best game in the road victory at Nebraska. The six-foot-five, 220-pound Peters threw for 205 yards and scored two touchdowns. Peters also looked solid in Illinois’ spring game. The 23-year old completed 12 of his 18 passes for 291 yards and separated himself from Isaiah Williams. Peters has a ton of experience in the Big Ten, which should help ease the transition for Bielema to make and immediate impact in the league this fall.
9. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin: Last season was his first as a full time starter, and he led the Badgers to a winning campaign. Mertz threw seven of his nine touchdowns with no interceptions through Wisconsin’s first two games. However, he passed for two scores and five interceptions over the Badgers’ final five contests. The Kansas native suffered growing pains in losses to Northwestern and Iowa. Mertz did show potential in victories over Illinois, Michigan and Wake Forest. Last year was the first time the Badgers’ offense failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher since 2015. Mertz will still be operating behind a great offensive line and has a stud at tight end in Jake Ferguson.
8. Spencer Petras, Iowa: His first season as a starter for the Hawkeyes was a rollercoaster ride in 2020. Petras was humbled after the Hawkeyes lost their first two games, including one at home to Northwestern, when he threw three interceptions. Midway through the season he became more of a game manager and let the defense lead the way. However, over Iowa’s final two games against Illinois and Wisconsin, Petras combined for 431 passing yards, five touchdown tosses and no interceptions. Not to mention the Hawkeyes ended the year on a six-game win streak. Fellow quarterback Alex Padilla pushed Petras during the spring, but Kirk Ferentz has a track record of valuing experience.
7. Cade McNamara, Michigan: The former four-star prospect scored six touchdowns through four games last season. McNamara finished with more passing yards, touchdown tosses, a better completion percentage and less turnovers than Joe Milton. So it’s no surprise Milton transferred to Tennessee before the Wolverines started spring training. The Nevada native played his best game in the road win over Rutgers. McNamara threw for 264 yards and scored five total touchdowns, including four through the air. His performance showed enough promise to Wolverine fans. Now he has generated some buzz, is riding that wave of momentum into the summer and he’s due for a breakout season in 2021.
6. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska: He’s approaching his fourth year as the Huskers’ starting quarterback, but has yet to lead the team to a winning campaign. Although Martinez showed promise as a true freshman, his last two years have been lackluster. The former four-star prospect has missed multiple games every year because of injuries. However, Martinez has persevered and outlasted Tristan Gebbia and Luke McCaffrey for the job. The California native has scored 53 career touchdowns, but needs to play with more consistency. That’ll happen once he develops a killer instinct. Still, Martinez showed better accuracy and zip on his balls during the spring, and that’s a great sign for Husker Nation.
5. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota: In 2019 he led the Big Ten in passing yards per game, was clutch and threw for 30 touchdowns. However, Morgan’s production slipped last season. He was picked off in four of the Golden Gophers’ seven games. The Kentucky native’s best performance came in the win over Purdue, when he passed for a season-high, 264 yards. Minnesota ran the ball in 2020 and tied for first in the conference, with 19 rushing touchdowns. Morgan must take advantage and use the play-action pass when defenses stack nine in the box to stop Mohamed Ibrahim. Regardless, Morgan looked up to par in Minnesota’s spring game, with 148 yards through the air and a touchdown.
4. Sean Clifford, Penn State: Last season the Nittany Lions started 0-5 in Big Ten play, and suffered their first losing campaign since 2004. Clifford threw for 1,070 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions through the first five games. However, a light bulb came on over Penn State’s final four contests, and the Cincinnati native generated 966 total yards and scored seven touchdowns, which were all victories. Clifford will be operating under his fourth Offensive Coordinator this fall. He struggled on deeps balls and missed open targets in the spring game. Still, the six-foot, 217-pound Clifford is one of the most experienced signal-callers in the league, and has 41 touchdown passes in his career.
3. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland: Last season the former four-star prospect had some ups and downs. Tagovailoa threw three touchdowns apiece in wins over Minnesota and Penn State. Not to mention his 394 passing yards and five total touchdowns were both career-highs against the Golden Gophers. However, Tagovailoa went through some growing pains, including three interceptions each in losses to Indiana and Northwestern. The Terrapins tend to feed off his energy and if Tagovailoa is in the zone, his team is feeling it also. He only earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten consideration in 2020, but Tagovailoa seems like he’s only cracking the surface of his full potential as a passer.
2. CJ Stroud, Ohio State: He’s in an intense battle with Kyle McCord to replace Fields, but has the upper hand on the starting position. Stroud completed 16 of his 22 pass attempts for 185 yards and two touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ spring game. The former four-star prospect has tremendous upside and the arm strength to keep the wheels rolling on offense. It helps that Stroud will be throwing to arguably the two best receivers in the Big Ten in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Ryan Day has been a quarterback guru thus far and Stroud appears to be ahead of schedule with his maturation process. Still, the pressure will be on Stroud from day one, considering the size of shoes he has to fill.
1. Michael Penix, Jr., Indiana: He’s the only returning quarterback in the league who earned All-Big Ten honors last season. Penix is one of the best playmakers in the conference when he’s healthy and scored 16 touchdowns through six games last year. His game-winning touchdown against Penn State is what gained him notoriety. The Florida native followed up that performance with five scores against Rutgers and he had three touchdown passes in the win over Michigan. Penix finished first in the Big Ten and 18th in the FBS, with 274.1 passing yards per game. The former four-star prospect threw for a career-high, 491 yards and scored five touchdowns against Ohio State. Penix is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered against Maryland, but is expected to resume his position by fall camp.