Howe: Ranking the 2020 Big Ten Quarterbacks from 14 to 1
IOWA CITY, Iowa – In 2019, Washington selected Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins with the 15th pick of the NFL Draft. He became the first Big Ten quarterback chosen in the opening round since Penn State’s Kerry Collins went fifth to Carolina in 1995.
Four signal callers heard their names called in April’s first round. None of them came from the Big Ten.
Don’t expect another extended drought, however. Buckeye junior Justin Fields is projected as a high first-rounder in ’21.
Fields leads a strong group of quarterbacks in the league for this coming season. It’s a mix of old and new faces that should make for another exciting campaign in the competitive conference. As usual, these guys will play big role in determining the outcomes.
Here are my rankings of the projected starters:
14. Art Sitkowski, Rutgers, RS SO – The homegrown kid appeared ready to get out of Dodge this offseason, entering into the transfer portal. He revered course when the program hired back Greg Schiano as head coach. Sitkowski has started 14 games in his first two years with the Scarlet Knights, completing 178 of 341 passes for 1587 yards and five touchdowns with 20 interceptions.
13. Rocky Lombardi, Michigan State, RS JR – The former West Des Moines (IA) Valley High star could finally get his shot at running the Spartan offense after seeing spot duty the last few seasons. He and the other signal callers in East Lansing are learning a new offense via Zoom thanks to the pandemic. That’s challenging. While Lombardi could be pushed for the No. 1 spot, he’s far and away the most experienced in the room.
12. Josh Jackson, Maryland, RS SR – The former Virginia Tech starter struggled with injuries and inconsistency during his first campaign in College Park. In 10 games (nine starts) last season, Jackson completed just 98 of 207 passes for 1,274 yards and 12 touchdowns with six interceptions. It should be noted that he played without two of his top targets, who expected back in ’20, that being dangerous slot man DJ Turner, who played in just three games before a suspension, and deep-threat Jeshaun Jones, who missed the whole year after tearing his ACL.
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11. Spencer Petras, Iowa, RS SO – The first-year starter from Northern California could push himself way up this list should his performance match his promise. As it stands, he has little in the way of college experience after sitting behind Nate Stanley the last two seasons, having played in just five games and thrown only 11 passes in mop-up duty. We’ll see if the pandemic stunts his development but he does have an extra spring practice under his belt after enrolling early. And he has one of the league’s top receiver corps at his disposal.
10. Dylan McCaffery, Michigan, RS JR – Like Petras, while the hype for McCaffery is strong, the experience is very limited. McCaffery’s bloodlines are solid, but he has just 20 career passing attempts after backing up Shea Patterson the last two seasons. He is a dual-threat as evidenced by his 166 rushing yards on 23 attempts (7.2 YPC). McCaffery needs to hold off Joe Milton in competing to replace Patterson, but whomever wins the gig will be playing behind a line with four new starters and a young group of receivers.
9. Jack Plummer, Purdue, RS SO – Plummer started half of the Boilermakers games in ’19 with mixed results. The Arizona native completed 144 of 241 passes for 1,603 yards and 11 touchdowns against eight picks. He missed the team’s final three contests with an injury. Former walk-on Aidan O’Connell stepped in and could push him in camp. Purdue’s offense suffered a major blow when dynamic receiver and return man Rondale Moore missed all but four games with an injury. He was expected to return in ’20 to form a powerful 1-2 punch with David Bell.
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8. Brandon Peters, Illinois, RS SR – The Michigan transfer provided Illini coach Lovie Smith with his first consistent performer behind center. Peters connected on 152 of 275 pass attempts for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns with eight interceptions in leading the program to its first bowl game since ’14. He added 213 rushing yards and three scores on 74 carries. Four of five offensive line starters return, which could be big for Peters, who’s dealt with concussions. Josh Imatorbhebhe showed last fall that he’s one of the conference’s best receivers.
7. Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern, RS SR – Ramsey graduating, moving from Indiana to Evanston and being inserted as coach Pat Fitzgerald’s starter on Day 1 greatly changed the outlook for the Wildcats. They suffered through atrocious quarterback play in ’19, falling to 3-9 a season a year after winning the West Division. The roster boasted more talent than the record reflected and much of it returned this spring. Ramsey completed 204 of 300 passes (68.0 percent) for 2,454 yards with 13 touchdowns against five interceptions last fall and was named a team captain for the Hoosiers, who reached a bowl.
6. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana, RS SO – The dynamic Penix Jr. could shoot up to No. 2 on this list with a healthy ’20 campaign. He’s that talented. This issue is avoiding injuries, which limited him in ’19 to six games, all of which he started. His potential led to Ramsey leaving Bloomington. If the talent from Tampa reaches his ceiling, look out. He is coming off a season that saw him complete 110 of 160 (68.8 percent) of his passing attempts for 1,394 yards and 10 touchdowns with only four picks. He can run as evidenced by the 118 yards (5.4 average) and two scores on the ground last fall.
5. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska, TR JR – Martinez’s preseason hype for the Heisman Trophy fell flat as did the Huskers’ hopes of returning to a bowl game in ’19. The California native suffered a leg injury midway through the campaign that cost him two games and affected his play in the others with his mobility being compromised. The performance that saw him throw 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions lowered outside expectations, but he still rushed for 626 yards and seven scores, and when healthy showed the skill set that makes a bounce-back season a reasonable expectation.
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4. Sean Clifford, Penn State, RS JR – Clifford took over for a fan favorite in Trace McSorley and found out what being under the Nittany Lion microscope can be like after a loss at Minnesota. Despite dealing with that unfortunate set of circumstances, the Cincinnati native enjoyed a strong first year as a starter. He completed 189 of 319 passes for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He added 405 yards and five scores rushing. PSU finished 11-2 overall, 7-2 in the conference and routed Memphis in the Cotton Bowl with a program-record 53 postseason points.
3. Jack Coan, Wisconsin, TR SR – Some folks wondered if Coan was just keeping the position warm until star ’19 recruit Graham Mertz settled in last season. Instead, Coan took the job and ran with it. The native New Yorker connected on 236 of 339 pass attempts (69.6 percent) for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns with five picks. He added four scores on the ground. Coan managed games, complementing the outstanding running of Jonathan Taylor as the Badgers won another West Division title and reached the Rose Bowl. Mertz red shirted and has his sights on the starting job but likely will be waiting another year for his turn unless the veteran is hurt or his play falls off dramatically.
2. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota, RS JR – Dirt was thrown on Minnesota’s grave after ’18 starter Zack Annexstad suffered a season-ending injury during last summer’s training camp. All Morgan accomplished as the replacement was leading the Golden Gophers to an 11-2 season and a win against Auburn in the Outback Bowl. The Kentucky native was named a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien and Manning Awards, handed to the country’s best at the position. He completed 210 of 318 passes for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns against only seven interceptions in earning second-team all-Big Ten honors.
1. Justin Fields, Ohio State, TR JR – After spending his true freshman season at Georgie, Fields came to Columbus and turned into a Heisman Trophy Finalist. He likely would have been the second quarterback off the board had he been draft eligible this spring and, barring injury, will be No. 2 after Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence in ’21. The Georgia native earned first-team all-conference honors after 238 of 354 passing attempts for 3,273 yards and 41 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He added 484 yards and 10 scores on the ground. He became the first quarterback in Big Ten history with at least 40 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns in the same season.