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Big Ten Legends: The Quarterbacks

On Wednesday, we unveiled this look at the quarterback situation at the six schools in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division.

Returning Legends Division quarterbacks include Iowa's James Vandenberg, Michigan's Denard Robinson and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez

Today, we are back with the same analysis for the six schools in the Big Ten’s Legends Division.

Two schools in the Legends Division must replace starting quarterbacks. Gone are Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins and Northwestern’s Dan Persa. They were each mentioned on the All-Big Ten team and were among the league’s top three rated passers last year.

Below, we look at the quarterback situation at the six Big Ten Legends Division schools looking toward the fall. We also share our rank of these units within the division.

LEGENDS DIVISION

Iowa (7-6 overall, 4-4 Big Ten)

* Quarterback In 2011: James Vandenberg took over as the fulltime starter last year. He started all 13 games and has 15 starts in his career. Last year, he was 237 of 404 passing (58.7 percent) for 3,022 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

A. J. Derby, who opened last year at No. 2 before switching to linebacker, has transferred to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.

* Bowl Game: Vandenberg was 23 of 44 passing for 216 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in Iowa’s 31-14 loss to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl. John Wienke also threw one pass, an interception, in that loss.

* On Deck For 2012: Vandenberg is back for his senior season with the Hawkeyes and is the clear No. 1. Wienke, also a senior, and redshirt freshmen Kyle Anderson and Jake Rudock are also on the spring roster. Coach Kirk Ferentz has hired Greg Davis as his new offensive coordinator.

* Spring Game: Because Iowa will host the Olympic trials wrestling meet this Saturday, the football team held its public scrimmage last Saturday. That was the team’s 12th practice with three more this week. Vandenberg was reportedly 12 of 30 passing during the team’s controlled scrimmage. Reports indicated that Rudock was next in line behind Vandenberg.

* On The Way: Iowa signed two quarterbacks in C.J. Beathard and Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College product Cody Sokol.

* Coach Ferentz Comment: ““It’s spring, and I think everybody saw that we have a lot of work to do. The guys have been attentive and are doing a great job learning a lot new things that have been thrown at them in a short time.”

* Vandenberg Comment: "Even though it probably didn't look like it sometimes, we were a lot faster," Vandenberg said after the scrimmage. "We just got everything installed so we're starting to understand and detail things. There are a lot of things we can continue to detail and from here on out, it's detailing everything. We know all the plays, the calls aren't totally foreign."

* Steve’s Take: I like Vandenberg a lot. He has almost ideal size at 6-3, 212 pounds. He is coming back with a full year under his belt after throwing for 3,000 yards last season. He loses Marvin McNutt, though, and he was quite a safety blanket for the quarterback. He needs Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley (what is it with Iowa and the receivers with the hyphenated names, by the way?) to step up. Vandenberg was fifth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and figures to move up this year.

It may be troubling that Iowa doesn’t have anybody else who has ever really played much at the position at the college level. So if something happens to Vandenberg, it could be disastrous. They need to get Rudock, presumably, ready to take over in 2013.

* Our Iowa Site: Click here for complete coverage of Iowa football and recruiting.

Michigan (11-2 overall, 6-2 Big Ten)

* Quarterback In 2011: Denard Robinson has enjoyed two amazing seasons as the starter for the Wolverines. He was a novelty as a freshman, splitting time with Tate Forcier (remember him?). He then put up gigantic numbers primarily as a runner as a sophomore. Brady Hoke and new coordinator Al Borges brought in a new offense last year and Robinson became more of a distributor and even a decoy in some sets.

For the year, he completed 142 of 258 passes (55.0 percent) for 2,173 yards with 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He led UM in rushing for the second year in a row with 1,176 yards and 16 touchdowns on 221 carries (5.3 average).

Backup Devin Gardner saw time in nine games. He completed 11 of 23 passes for 176 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

* Bowl Game: Robinson was 9 of 21 passing for 117 yards and two touchdowns with an interception as Michigan defeated Virginia Tech 23-20 in overtime in the Sugar Bowl. It was Michigan’s first BCS bowl win in 12 years.

* On Deck For 2012: Robinson returns for his senior season. Gardner, a junior, and redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy round out the likely rotation.

* Spring Game: Michigan’s spring game was an offense vs. defense scrimmage last Saturday. Robinson played one series and completed 2 of 3 passes before going to the sideline. Gardner had an interception. Bellomy was 6 of 9 passing for 40 yards.

* On The Way: Michigan did not sign a quarterback in 2012. The Wolverines have a verbal from instate standout Shane Morris (ranked as the nation’s No. 2 pro style QB for 2013 by 247Sports.com).

* Coach Hoke Comment: “I think Al did a tremendous job of getting out of his own comfort zone offensively and doing some things to cater to a guy like Denard, who has some special ability. I think there was still enough two-back stuff as well. And I think Denard has also adjusted well.”

* Robinson Comment: “I’ve learned how to get into the fight as Coach Borges says. That means pushing up into the pocket and still looking downfield and getting under the rush. That’s the biggest stride I’ve made. I feel like I am making the right reads and I’m not throwing off my back foot.

“As a quarterback, you can’t have any turnovers. That was a big factor last year. That kept a lot of teams in the game last year. We want to decrease the turnovers.”

* Steve’s Take: Everything just kind of came together for Michigan in 2011. Robinson had put up big numbers in 2010, but the bottom line wasn’t good enough as coach Rich Rodriguez was fired after a 7-6 finish and an embarrassing bowl loss to Mississippi State.

The defense improved, Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher and some of the weight was lifted off of Robinson’s shoulders. The result was a breakthrough 11-win season in Hoke’s first year in charge. Now they want Robinson to take the next step and cut down on the costly picks. If he can do that, the sky will be the limit for both Robinson and the Wolverines.

Gardner is a nice change-up quarterback and Bellomy also has the look of a winner. This is a strong group to go into battle with in 2012.

* Our Michigan Site: Click here for complete coverage of Michigan football and recruiting.

Michigan State (11-3 overall, 7-1 Big Ten)

* Quarterback In 2011: Kirk Cousins wrapped up his MSU career by leading the Spartans to the Legends Division title and a win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl. For the year, Cousins was 267 of 419 passing (63.7 percent) for 3,316 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Backup Andrew Maxwell saw action in four games. He completed 18 of 26 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions.

* Bowl Game: MSU defeated Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl. Cousins completed 27 of 50 passes for 300 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.

* On Deck For 2012: Maxwell, now a fourth-year junior, is set to take over as the starter. He has good size at 6-3, 212 pounds. He was an Elite 11 quarterback coming out of high school in Midland, Mich., and a great athlete (he boasted a 6-7 mark in the high jump). The coaches like his pocket presence. He is listed as doubtful for the April 28 spring game, though, after spraining his right knee during last Saturday’s scrimmage.

Redshirt freshman Connor Cook has moved up to the first unit this week in Maxwell’s absence. Cook was 9 of 14 passing for 76 yards and one interception in last Saturday’s scrimmage.

* Spring Game: MSU’s spring game is set for Sat., April 28, at 1 p.m. at Spartan Stadium. It will be televised live by Big Ten Network.

* On The Way: MSU signed Tyler O’Connor (rated as the nation’s No. 13 pro style quarterback by 247Sports.com) in its 2012 class. O’Connor will be on display in the Ohio North-South Classic Friday night in Columbus. MSU also has a verbal for 2013 in Damion Terry (ranked as the nation’s No. 23 dual threat QB in that class by 247Sports.com).

* Coach Dantonio Comment: “We recruited Andrew Maxwell in the 2009 class, so he has been here three years. He’s got good athletic ability and he is an excellent student. He studies the game extensively. He got put in a situation where he was behind Kirk Cousins and Cousins was our guy for three years.

“He has played for us and he has experience. He has a very live arm. He is an outstanding leader. He’s very calm and I think great things are around the corner for him.”

* Cook Comment: “You don't want to see any of your teammates go down, especially a guy like Andrew, but you've got to embrace it, put your best foot forward and just attack it. If I'd say there's one thing that can really prepare you for a game, it's working against our No. 1 defense. You saw last year how good our defense was, ranked with the top defenses in the country. Working against them will really make you better.”

* Steve’s Take: I have heard a lot of great things about Maxwell. It is unfortunate that he has gone down with a knee injury. This spring was critical for him to make that last push toward becoming the starter. The knee injury does not sound serious, though, and he should be full-go in time for the start of the season.

That’s important because MSU hits the ground running with games against Boise State, Notre Dame and Ohio State (all at home) in the first five weeks. Maxwell has at least played some, however. It will help him to have four returning starters on the offensive line and RB Le’Veon Bell still in the fold, although MSU must replace top receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.

Cook will get a tremendous opportunity working against the MSU defense these last two weeks of spring ball.

* Our Michigan State Site: Click here for complete coverage of Michigan State football and recruiting.

Minnesota (3-9 overall, 2-6 Big Ten)

* Quarterback In 2011: After spending his first two seasons as a wide receiver, MarQueis Gray moved to quarterback fulltime last year. He started 10 of the season’s 12 games, missing two games at midseason due to injury. For the year, Gray completed 108 of 213 passes (50.7 percent) for 1,495 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also led the Gophers in rushing with 966 yards and six touchdowns.

Max Shortell, playing as a true freshman, started the two games Gray missed. He was 26 of 54 passing (48.1 percent) for 309 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

* On Deck For 2012: Gray is back as the starting quarterback in 2012. Shortell also returns.

* Spring Game: Minnesota will host its spring game on Saturday. The Gophers have had to deal with tragedy after the death of former UM linebacker Gary Tinsley on April 6.

* New This Spring: Minnesota signed a pair of quarterbacks in the 2012 class in Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson. They have both enrolled and are participating in spring drills.

* Coach Kill Comment: “There is no comparison to where he was at last spring when he started and where he’s at right now. Last spring, he had trouble getting a snap. It is a totally different young man who is pulling the trigger for us. He has thrown the ball well this spring. We all know what kind of athlete he is. I’m pleased with his progress this spring. We have to get some people around him who can help him.”

* Gray Comment: “The first few years, I was doing the switcheroo from the quarterbacks meeting room to the receivers meeting room. The last two years, I’ve stayed just in the quarterback room. Unfortunately, last year didn’t go as well as I would have hoped. But I feel like I got better every week. I want to improve on my timing with the receivers and I just want to become a better leader.”

* Steve’s Take: Gray is a tremendous talent. It was a tough first year for him, though. He would have a decent game and then come back and have a clunker the following week. He threw for 295 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan State. He ended the year by rushing for 160 yards against Northwestern and 167 against Illinois.

Like Michigan found out with Robinson, the best results will come when Gray is able to lay off the work on some other playmakers. But Minnesota has nobody coming back with more than 15 catches, so that may be easier said than done. The young quarterbacks seem to have some promise for the future.

Nebraska (9-4 overall, 5-3 Big Ten)

* Quarterback In 2011: Taylor Martinez started all 13 games in his second full year as the Huskers’ starting quarterback. He was 162 of 288 passing (56.2 percent) for 2,089 yards with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He was second on the team in rushing with 874 yards and nine touchdowns. In two years, Martinez is 19-8 as Nebraska’s starter.

Brion Carnes was his backup. He threw two passes, completing both for 26 yards.

* Bowl Game: Martinez was 10 of 16 passing for 116 yards with one touchdown and one interception in Nebraska’s 30-13 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.

* On Deck For 2012: Martinez, now a junior, returns as the starter. The Huskers could have as many as seven quarterbacks on the roster this season. Carnes, a sophomore, and junior Ron Kellogg could be next in line.

* Spring Game: Nebraska wrapped up spring drills last weekend. NU had to cancel its spring game due to inclement weather in Lincoln.

* On The Way: Nebraska signed Tommy Armstrong (rated as the nation’s No. 15 dual threat quarterback by 247Sports.com) in the 2012 class.

* Coach Pelini Comment: “Taylor has been sharp. He’s throwing the ball well. I think he has a lot better understanding of how to use the system. He’s playing good football for us and throwing the ball well for us right now. (A 50-50 run/pass balance) is where we’re heading to right now.”

* Martinez Comment: "At first, if I took the left foot back, my body would lean back," Martinez told ESPN.com regarding his mechanical issues. "That's what caused me to maybe throw an awkward way. Now if I take my right foot back, my shoulders are more even, the way they're supposed to be.

"I feel a lot different. A lot more balanced."

* Steve’s Take: Martinez is kind of a maddening case. At times, the Nebraska offense just hums right along with Martinez and Rex Burkhead churning up the yardage. But when a team can solve the NU running game, that puts a large onus on Martinez to have to make plays throwing the football. He has been hit-and-miss at that.

He worked with California QB guru Steve Calhoun over spring break on getting away from throwing off his back foot. That created some accuracy issues for him. His completion percentage actually dropped from 59 percent as a freshman to 56 percent last year. By the nature of being a running quarterback, Martinez is also subject to more contact and nagging injuries – another factor that can impact his accuracy. If he can get his completion percentage north of 60 percent, the Huskers could be hard to stop.

* Our Nebraska Site: Click here for complete coverage of Nebraska football and recruiting.

Northwestern (6-7 overall, 3-5 Big Ten)

* Quarterback In 2011: Senior Dan Persa started Northwestern’s final 10 games last season after returning from an Achilles’ injury. Persa completed an amazing 73.4 percent of his passes (218 of 297) for 2,376 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Kain Colter filled in as the starter in the first three games and also repped at quarterback, running back and wide receiver at times after that. He nearly pulled off the rare triple of having 500 yards passing, rushing and receiving in the same season.

Colter completed 67.1 percent of his passes (55 of 82) for 673 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. He was NU’s leading rusher with 654 yards and nine touchdowns. And he caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three more scores.

* Bowl Game: Persa completed 25 of 37 passes for 213 yards in Northwestern’s 33-22 loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Colter was 2 of 3 passing for 13 yards and a touchdown. He also had 17 carries for 65 yards and a touchdown and carried the ball three times for 12 yards.

* On Deck For 2012: Colter, now a junior, moves into the fulltime role as the starter. Sophomore Trevor Siemian appears to be the backup with redshirt freshmen P.J. Carollo and Zack Oliver also on the roster.

* Spring Game: Northwestern held its spring game last Saturday. It was a rough day for Colter, who was 7 of 12 passing for 56 yards. He was sacked five times and also threw a pick-six interception. Siemiam was 8 of 14 passing for 119 yards and two touchdowns.

* On The Way: Northwestern did not sign a quarterback in 2012. NU has a 2013 verbal from Matt Alviti (ranked as the nation’s No. 6 dual threat quarterback in that class by 247Sports.com).

* Coach Fitzgerald Comment: “(Colter is) the guy now. With that comes a lot of confidence, and the same thing with Trevor (Siemian). I feel really confident with that group."

* Colter Comment: “Last year, we had Dan and everybody knew he was going to be the guy. I had to worry about whether I was going to be in there at running back or receiver. Now I can focus solely on quarterback. That has helped me and given me a chance to take a leadership role as the quarterback. I’m focusing on mechanics and getting my passing a little bit better.”

* Steve’s Take: Colter was an outstanding Jack of all trades, filling in when Persa was hurt and also making inroads as a runner and a receiver. Heck, with 43 catches last year he would be NU’s top returning receiver. Now we see whether he can handle the rigors of playing the quarterback position on an every down basis.

My guess is they will use him as a dual threat quarterback. You have to like his high completion percentage. He is not real big, though, at just 6-0 and 190 pounds. If he goes down with an injury, it could be devastating. NU needs playmakers to emerge at running back and wide receiver to help him out.

SUMMING UP

I decided to try and rate the quarterback position at the six Legends Division schools. I looked at last year’s performance by each team’s offense as well as the individual performance by the returning quarterbacks. I also tried to put a value on the potential of any new players at the position.

This is NOT a rating of the projected starters at each school is also NOT a ranking of how the teams will finish in the division this season. It is simply a look at the quarterback position as a whole at each school. Here is how I would rank them:

1. Michigan – Given everything that Robinson has accomplished in his two years, he and the collection of quarterbacks at Michigan are an easy top pick in the division. If he can cut down on his picks, that would be tremendous. Gardner and Bellomy each have a ton of promise as well.

2. Iowa – The Hawkeyes had the division’s third-best passing offense last year. Vandenberg hit the magical 3,000-yard mark last year. That may be hard to do again without McNutt, but he should have another big year.

3. Nebraska – Martinez and Nebraska did reasonably well in their first pass through the Big Ten. Now the key for him will be to become a more consistent passer. That would allow the Huskers to balance the offensive attack and could put them in the race for the division title.

4. Northwestern – Colter’s all-around ability will be stymied a bit, perhaps, now that he is supposed to take the snaps. But you have to love the lofty completion percentage he showed. If he gets some help, NU’s offensive juggernaut could roll right along.

5. Michigan State – We just don’t know enough about the emerging Maxwell yet and with him missing the last two weeks of spring practice that does hurt a bit. It’s possible when all is said and done that he could rival Robinson and Vandenberg for their playmaking ability. I expect MSU to contend in the division. The Spartans could win it if Maxwell has a huge debut season as the starter.

6. Minnesota – We did watch Gray (and really, the Gophers as a team) struggle through last season. If there was a way to lose a game, Minnesota found it. Gray may need to stand on his head in order for Minnesota to reverse some of those results this season.

Stay tuned for more Big Ten spring football coverage on 247Sports.com.

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