Michigan Wolverines: Austin Appleby

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 2, 2014
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Chris from Bellport, N.Y., writes: Adam, I saw a projection for Michigan this year of 8-4, which seems reasonable at this point based on the unanswered questions remaining for the team. My question is everyone looks at the three tough road games as three potential losses. I think if they can win one of Ohio or MSU they could go 2-1 in those, but what about the fact that they don't have Wisconsin, Iowa, or Nebraska on the schedule this year? Is that cause for a little more optimism, not having the potential top three in the west on the schedule?

Adam Rittenberg: It could be, Chris, but Michigan shouldn't look past anyone on its schedule. I know Michigan owns Minnesota, but the Gophers should give the Wolverines a better game Sept. 27 when they visit Ann Arbor. Michigan needed miracle plays to beat Northwestern the past two seasons. Indiana gave the Wolverines' defense all sorts of problems last season at the Big House. Don't get me wrong: Michigan's season likely hinges on those three road games. But just because Michigan beats Michigan State or Ohio State doesn't mean it's guaranteed to sweep the other nine contests. Fifteen years ago? Sure. But those days are over.


Jack from Champaign, Ill., writes: In your last mailbag, you answered a question about [Tim] Beckman's latest recruit and talked how he needs to end his bowl drought with Illinois. However, what if this ends up being a surprisingly stellar recruiting year in which the Illini go 5-7? Obviously I know we're not talking about a top-10 recruiting class, but in general a very strong one, above the ones in recent years. Would that be enough to buy Beckman an extra year, or is that all that matters for him at this point?

Adam Rittenberg: This scenario would put athletic director Mike Thomas in a tough spot. Some Illini fans have wanted Tim Beckman gone from the middle of his first season. Attendance has been poor and enthusiasm remains tepid. It's really not that hard to make bowl games in this environment, and three consecutive seasons without a bowl would make it tough for Beckman to return. Remember that Ron Zook's teams still made bowls -- and won them -- in his final two years. Recruiting definitely plays a part and Thomas wants to see his hire work out, but there could be too much external pressure for a change.


Tom from Fort Worth, Texas, writes: Hypothetical question or pipe dream, but nonetheless I will ask: Say Rutgers comes into the Big Ten and surprises a few teams and wins more than expected this coming season. Does the perception of the Big Ten go down or does Rutgers gain more respect?

Adam Rittenberg: Tom, not to dodge your question, but it really depends on what happens around the league. Conference perception really depends on what's happening at the top, not the middle, where Rutgers would presumably be if it surprises some teams. Are the Big Ten's elite teams beating top teams from other leagues in nonconference play or in bowls? Is a Big Ten team reaching the playoff or winning the national title? Those are more important factors. So if Rutgers prevents Michigan State or Ohio State from reaching the playoff, some will say it points to a weak Big Ten. But if the Big Ten performs well in nonleague games and bowls, and if Rutgers happens to finish 8-4 with a nice win or two, it enhances the perception of both the conference and Rutgers.


PurdueMan from Chicago writes: Adam, Mitch Sherman's Purdue spring wrap article states that Purdue will win a Big Ten game. I'm not so sure. The team I saw at the spring game was essentially the same team I saw the second half of the season with the exception that the defense did tackle better, but they were playing the Purdue offense, so ... Did you see Purdue's spring game and enough other teams to make a good comparison to how far my Boilers are still behind? I saw a little MSU, not that I expect Purdue to be as good as them, and was reminded at what football can look like.

Adam Rittenberg: Chin up, PurdueMan. The Boilers will be better in 2014. I watched a practice this spring and take more from those workouts than spring games, which are often misleading and overblown by fans. Don't get me wrong; there are concerns, from depth along the offensive line to linebacker to certain spots in the secondary. Purdue was a mess last season, and it's hard to fix all those problems in one offseason. But I see more cohesion on offense and multiple options at running back (Raheem Mostert, Akeem Hunt) and wide receiver. The defensive line could be a strength, as tackle Ra'Zahn Howard has a chance to be one of the league's surprise players. I also get the sense Purdue had no team chemistry last season. Things have changed. As quarterback Austin Appleby told me, "The guys that aren't all about it are getting suffocated by us. Those guys eliminate themselves."


rtXC from Denison, Texas, writes: After the SEC's "groundbreaking" announcement to stay at eight conference games and have each of its teams play one team from the Power 5, would you like to see the other conferences band together and make a stand? Other than certain SEC-ACC rivalries and current contracts for future games, how about the four conferences band together and abstain from scheduling SEC teams in the future?

Adam Rittenberg: It would be interesting to see this, rtXC, after the current contracts expire. Several playoffs would be competed by then, so we would have a better idea if the SEC's model helped, hurt or didn't impact itself or other leagues. It comes down to how united these other leagues would be in their opposition to the SEC's model. The Pac-12 coaches seem pretty ticked, but I don't know if other leagues would care enough to band together in this way. Maybe if one of their champions is shut out of the playoff in favor of a SEC division runner-up, things would change.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Tags:

Maryland Terrapins, Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Football Recruiting, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Robert Wheelwright, Jehu Chesson, Jalin Marshall, Adam Breneman, Amara Darboh, Drew Dileo, Stefon Diggs, Jeremy Gallon, Corey Brown, Jon Davis, Kenny Bell, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tony Lippett, Devin Smith, Devin Funchess, Drake Harris, Dominique Booth, Jared Abbrederis, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Christian Jones, Cody Latimer, Duwyce Wilson, Isaac Fruechte, Jacob Pedersen, Jamal Turner, Keith Mumphery, Kofi Hughes, Michael Thomas, Quincy Enunwa, Shane Wynn, Ted Bolser, Tony Jones, Evan Spencer, james clark, Aaron Burbridge, Josh Ferguson, Kenzel Doe, Allen Robinson, Jesse James, Kyle Carter, Dan Vitale, Danny Etling, Dontre Wilson, Saeed Blacknall, Chris Godwin, Garrett Dickerson, Cameron Dickerson, Danny Anthrop, Johnnie Dixon, Martize Barr, Gabe Holmes, Alex Erickson, Jordan Fredrick, Austin Appleby, Geronimo Allison, Justin Sinz, Nick Stoner, Steve Hull, Cameron Posey, Damond Powell, MacGarrett Kings, Jake Duzey, Maxx Williams, Richy Anderson, Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Burtch, DeAngelo Yancey, Josiah Price, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Brandon Coleman, Deon Long, B1G spring positions 14, Amba Etta-Tawo, Andre Patton, Brandon Felder, Carlton Agudosi, Cethan Carter, Dave Stinebaugh, Geno Lewis, Isaiah Roundtree, Jordan Fuchs, Leonte Carroo, Levern Jacobs, Marcus Leak, Matt LaCosse, Miles Shuler, Nigel King, Quron Pratt, Ruhann Peele, Sam Arneson, Taariq Allen, Tevaun Smith, Tyler Kroft

The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.
The games are finally here, and every Thursday during the season at this time, we'll bring you 10 items to track around the Big Ten.

Let's get to it …


1. Quarterback mysteries solved: We might not get all the answers in Week 1 about the Big Ten's many quarterback competitions, but a few clues should emerge. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- have yet to announce starting quarterbacks heading into the openers. Expect sophomore Joel Stave to lead the Badgers and freshman Christian Hackenberg to take the first snap for Penn State. Indiana's quarterback race has been extremely even, and coach Kevin Wilson isn't afraid to let the starter decision go down to the wire.

2. Coaching debuts: Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Wisconsin's Gary Andersen both have enjoyed honeymoon periods at their respective schools, but they both know the mood can change once the games begin. Hazell faces an uphill climb as Purdue plays the Big Ten's toughest schedule, beginning Saturday on the road against a Cincinnati team that won 10 games last season. Andersen embarks on the unique challenge of blending his philosophy with a veteran team that has won the past three Big Ten championships. Wisconsin will have no trouble with Massachusetts, but keep an eye on how the Badgers' new 3-4 defense performs.

[+] EnlargeJordan Lynch
AP Photo/Alan DiazIowa again starts the season facing Northern Illinois and QB Jordan Lynch.
3. Pivotal game at Kinnick: Iowa's victory in the 2012 opener against a Northern Illinois team that went on to the Orange Bowl proved to be one of few highlights in a highly disappointing season. The Hawkeyes once again kick things off against an NIU squad led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch, who wants to avenge last year's setback. It's hard to call a season opener a must-win, but Iowa needs to generate some positive momentum early before a very challenging Big Ten schedule.

4. Speed trap in Berkeley: Still glowing from a 10-win season in 2012, Northwestern faces several unique challenges in its opener Saturday night at Cal. The Wildcats must contain the "Bear Raid" offense orchestrated by new Cal coach Sonny Dykes. The Bears are a mystery team with a ton of youth led by a freshman quarterback (Jared Goff). Northwestern also must contend with a late kickoff and moved its practices this week from the afternoon to the evening. The Wildcats are even taking naps to prepare.

5. Dontre's inferno: Aside from Christian Hackenberg, no Big Ten incoming freshman has generated more buzz in camp than Ohio State's multipurpose speedster Dontre Wilson. The onetime Oregon commit could be a transformative player for Urban Meyer's offense, filling the so-called Percy position at wide receiver/running back. Wilson should get some opportunities for explosive plays as Ohio State opens the season Saturday against Buffalo.

6. Juco hello: The Big Ten doesn't bring in as many junior college transfers as other leagues, but several juco arrivals could be impact players this season. Nebraska fans are anxious to see if Randy Gregory can be the pass -rushing force they've been waiting for. Wisconsin's Tanner McEvoy fell out of the mix at quarterback but will see time at other positions like wide receiver. Illinois wide receiver Martize Barr provides a much-needed weapon in the pass game for Nathan Scheelhaase. Minnesota linebackers Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell could solidify the defensive midsection. It'll also be interesting whether quarterback Tyler Ferguson logs some field time for Penn State.

7. Oh, Henry: Purdue senior Rob Henry will make his first start at quarterback since the 2010 season (yes, you read that right) on Saturday against Cincinnati. An ACL injury sustained in late August prevented Henry from starting in 2011, and the versatile Boiler wore several hats for the offense in 2012. After beating out Danny Etling and Austin Appleby in camp, Henry guides coordinator John Shoop's pro-style offense into Nippert Stadium, where Purdue aims for a win that would provide "instant gratification," according to Hazell.

8. To the Max: Senior Andrew Maxwell emerged from Michigan State's quarterback morass to claim the starting job, at least for now. But after struggling for much of his first season as the starter, Maxwell needs a strong start Friday night against Western Michigan. Head coach Mark Dantonio is committed to playing multiple quarterbacks early in the season, so Connor Cook should see time against the Broncos. Maxwell must prove he's the top option by showing better command and rhythm with his oft-criticized receiving corps.

9. Let's be Frank: Few Michigan players not named Devin Gardner have generated more positive ink in the offseason than defensive end Frank Clark. The 6-foot-2, 273-pound junior had a strong finish to the 2012 season and could be the pass-rusher Michigan needs to turn a corner defensively this fall. Then again, we've seen certain Michigan defenders hyped up (cough, Will Campbell, cough) and never do much. It'll be interesting to see if Clark sets the tone for a big year Saturday against Central Michigan.

10. APB for playmakers: Other than Penn State and Iowa, the Big Ten actually returns a decent amount of experience at quarterback for the 2013 season. But the league lacks offensive playmakers, especially at wide receiver. Teams like Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois are hoping to surround their quarterbacks with more options. It will be interesting to see who establishes himself in Week 1 as a go-to option.

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