Big Ten training camps: all the quarterback battles to watch

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Ohio State junior J.T. Barrett is the school’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, with 69. (AP/Mel Evans)

Connor Cook won a school-record 34 games, one of them a Rose Bowl, as a starting quarterback at Michigan State.

Joel Stave won a Wisconsin-record 31 games. Christian Hackenberg broke nearly every passing record at Penn State, while Nate Sudfeld did likewise at Indiana. And though Jake Rudock played only one year at Michigan, his time as a Big Ten starter — including two full seasons at Iowa — was extensive.

In all, those five players started 182 games in the Big Ten. Each is giving it a go in the NFL now, making quarterback competitions one of the central themes as the league’s teams open their training camps this week.

“We’re going to keep the pressure on our quarterback position. I think that’s the thing to do,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans, who were a sparkling 34-5 with Cook at the helm of the offense, have an official front-runner in fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor. That doesn’t mean a whole lot at the start of August, though. Junior Damion Terry is still in it.

Meanwhile, if Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh knows who’ll be stepping into Rudock’s shoes, he’s a heck of an actor. Heading into spring ball, the reputed favorite to land the job was John O’Korn, a former standout at Houston. Yet Wilton Speight stole much of O’Korn’s thunder during spring ball. Shane Morris also has a foot — or maybe a toe — in the door.

Sophomore Trace McSorley has a leg up at Penn State. Richard Lagow appears to be in good shape at Indiana. Wisconsin fifth-year senior Bart Houston has redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook to contend with. Take your pick — Badgers coach Paul Chryst is far from having this one figured out.

“I think our job as coaches is to make sure both of them are ready to play, and play well in the first game,” Chryst said.

Yet only one of them can take that first snap. It’s a big month.

Fights of Columbus

No team in the conference has an easier call at quarterback than Ohio State. It’s returning star J.T. Barrett eight days a week.

On the other hand, no team in America has more starters to replace — 16 — than Ohio State. There will be position battles galore throughout Buckeyes camp.

“Where we are as a team in 2016,” said coach Urban Meyer, “is we have to find a way to replace arguably one of the best groups of players ever to come through college football.”

Geez, is that all?

Who’ll be the designated game-breaker at H-back, Dontre Wilson or Curtis Samuel? Is it Chris Worley or Jerome Baker at the linebacker spot where Darron Lee shined? How best to plug all the holes along the offensive and defensive lines? Are there enough guys on the team to field a full secondary?

Of course there are — the Buckeyes always overflow with talent. Still, there’s much work to be done.

Lines to gain

Three units capable of reaching another level with a good training camp:

  1. Ohio State’s offensive line was supposed to the best in college football last season, but it underperformed. Minus three of those starters, the Buckeyes’ wall of beef has a chance to be better overall. Pat Elflein and Billy Price are proven studs. New left tackle Jamarco Jones is a monster. The battles at the other two spots are raging — in this case, a good thing.
  2. Michigan’s offensive line play still needs to get a lot better. With a well-spent August, it’ll do just that. Mason Cole is in a new spot at center, but he’s a huge talent; no one is worrying about him in Ann Arbor. Erik Magnuson, Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis are experienced and, Harbaugh hopes, ready to come together. Michigan could win the Big Ten if they do.
  3. Let’s turn it down a notch and spend a moment on Illinois’ defensive line. It was going to be pretty good no matter who coached it, but the pairing of Lovie Smith and defensive line coach Mike Phair should enable the front wall to blossom into the Illini’s greatest strength. Pass rusher Dawuane Smoot is the team’s best player, but tackles Rob Bain and Chunky Clement are thriving.

Who’s the man?

You know what’s going to be fun? Finding out which local star is better, Smoot or Northwestern inside linebacker Anthony Walker.

If you didn’t know their names before now, please set your Bears obsession aside for one little minute. Each guy has a shot to be first-team all-conference. For that matter, each guy has been projected as a potential NFL first-round draft pick.

Emphasis on “potential,” but Smoot and Walker — or, if you prefer, Walker and Smoot — are tremendous. With good health, they’ll set the bars for their teammates from the first day of camp to the last.

Walker’s coach, Pat Fitzgerald, is a former two-time national defensive player of the year at Northwestern. Fitzgerald believes Walker can be an even better middle linebacker.

“Let’s not even insult Anthony’s athleticism by comparing him to me,” Fitzgerald said.

Walker’s goal: to win the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker.

Smoot’s? No big deal — merely to break the Illini record of 16 sacks in a season set by Simeon Rice in 1994 and tied by Whitney Mercilus in 2011. Both Rice and Mercilus became first-round draft picks.

“I’m setting the bar pretty high,” Smoot said.

And why not? That’s why the football gods invented August.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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