What'll it be, coach? Beckman keeps quiet on QB
CHICAGO — Sean Robinson didn’t have a throng of reporters surrounding him at the time while sitting in a third-floor Chicago Hilton banquet room.
The Purdue linebacker, though, is a go-to source when it pertains to the question asked the most surrounding Illinois this fall.
The starting quarterback.
Nathan Scheelhaase wasn’t there to provide ample sound bites this week during the Big Ten’s 43rd annual Media Days extravaganza. Scheelhaase won’t find himself at Memorial Stadium or any other venue throwing passes this season, either, for the Illini. The school’s all-time leader in total offense is out of eligibility, living and working in Louisville, Ky.
The responsibility of replacing Scheelhaase — who last month said he is “missing the heck out of football” — falls to one of Wes Lunt, Reilly O’Toole or Aaron Bailey.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman didn’t tip his hand this week and say who the starter was ahead of the Aug. 30 season opener against Youngstown State.
Without Lunt, O’Toole or Bailey attending the two-day media circus in Chicago, they couldn’t answer for themselves. Leave it to Robinson, The News-Gazette All-State quarterback Lunt — the quarterback many think Beckman will name his starter — replaced at Rochester High School once the 2010 season started.
“He’s special,” Robinson said. “He has all the athletic ability in the world at his position. He has a big-time arm. He gets it mentally. The tools are there.”
Of the 14 Big Ten teams bracing for the season, the quarterback seems settled at 12 of them.
Illinois and Wisconsin are the lone exceptions. Proven hands Ohio State will go with Braxton Miller. Michigan has Devin Gardner. Michigan State will look for more production out of Rose Bowl offensive MVP Connor Cook.
“When you have a quarterback coming back with experience, with a lot of game experience, when he has been successful, that’s going to pay dividends,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It gives him a lot of experience, a lot of confidence moving forward, and I think it’s a major factor in where we’re at as a football team.”
Sixth-year senior C.J. Brown will guide Maryland’s offense, with former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley calling the plays. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg is poised to throw for even more yards than he did as a true freshman.
“The thing that I’m most impressed (by) is how humble and how hungry and how open he is to coaching,” first-year Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I think he’s a much better athlete, (and) I think he runs a lot better than people give him credit for, but he’s going to have to continue to develop.”
Danny Etling firmly won the job with his second-half performance at Purdue. The job is Nate Sudfeld’s to lose at Indiana after Tre Roberson transferred this offseason to Illinois State. Kirk Ferentz will put Iowa’s offense squarely in the hands of Jake Rudock for the second consecutive season. Minnesota’s Jerry Kill is placing the same responsibility with Mitch Leidner, and Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian won’t have to worry about Kain Colter, except for answering questions about unionization that Colter helped spearhead.
“My role has transformed over the years, and that’s where it’s at now,” said Siemian, who split time with Colter each of the last three seasons. “I’m excited. I’m ready to embrace it and take it and run with it. For me, it was always worry about myself and be the best Trevor I can be. I’m sure all those quarterbacks at Illinois all have different skill sets. You can’t worry about the other guys because it’s so easy to look over and say, ‘Shoot, this guy is throwing balls all over the place.’ ”
Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to get the nod for Nebraska. New Rutgers offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen likely will have embattled Gary Nova calling the plays for the Scarlet Knights. A bit of uncertainty Gary Andersen didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement of incumbent Joel Stave.
The second-year coach at Wisconsin is playing coy about who will start for the Badgers when they open the season Aug. 30 against LSU in Houston. He said Stave — who started all 13 games last season but suffered a shoulder injury in Wisconsin’s loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl — and Tanner McEvoy are in the fray for the job. McEvoy, a junior college transfer prior to the 2013 season, initially came to Wisconsin to play quarterback but wound up playing 11 games at safety last season before moving back to quarterback in spring practice.
Andersen didn’t disclose when he would name a starter.
“I’ve been through this a few times in my career, and it will all settle out just like every position battle does,” he said. “It’s just the highlight of the quarterback position. Everyone wants to talk about it. I get that. (When we name a starter) we’ll make a statement. It may not be until we jog off the sidelines for the first snap at the LSU game, though.”
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said it was an open competition among Armstrong, Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, but Armstrong will get the first opportunity once practice starts.
“He has the most experience,” Pelini said. “He kind of earned that right through the spring.”
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood — making his first appearance at Big Ten Media Days — named Nova his guy earlier this week, despite the veteran QB having some critics in Piscataway and the fact he didn’t start the Scarlet Knights’ final three games last season because of inconsistent play.
“Gary will go out with the first team when we go out there for the first practice,” Flood said. “And if we had to play a game today, Gary would be our starter, (although) I haven’t officially named a starter yet.” Kill joins Cubit fan club Minnesota has. Kill made it clear this spring after Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers — where he was subsequently dismissed from the team after he was arrested on an assault charge — that Leidner would have ample chances to showcase his dual-threat capabilities all season after he split time with Nelson last fall.
“We went through that battle last year, and I felt like, whether it was right or wrong, we needed to name one,” Kill said. “It was pretty clear-cut what we needed to do. That’s an easier thing.”
Kill coached against Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit when Kill was at Northern Illinois and Cubit was the head coach at Western Michigan. His Gophers didn’t play Illinois last season during Cubit’s first year running the Illini offense, but Kill knows the type of production Cubit gets out of his quarterbacks. He’ll have to concern his Minnesota defense with stopping the Illini for the first time since Cubit has handled the play-calling.
“Illinois shouldn’t have to worry about that too much because Coach Cubit can flat-out coach,” Kill said. “You can tell him I said that. I wish he wasn’t in the league. He’s too (darn) good of a football coach. He should be a head coach.” Beckman’s decision When Illinois opens practice Monday, split-squad practices will ensue on campus.
This gives Lunt, O’Toole and Bailey the opportunities to work with different receivers. And gives Beckman the opportunity to name the starter when he wants to. He might before the team reports to Rantoul on Aug. 10. Or he might keep the starter unannounced.
“I don’t think there’s an exact timeline,” Beckman said. “You definitely want to be able to work down the calendarwise, I guess you’d say, by the end of two-a-days.
We are going to critique it and make sure it’s exactly what we want to get done.” Beckman squashed speculation of a position switch for Bailey. Running back or wide receiver are not in the plans for the Bolingbrook product. At least not yet.
“Aaron wants to play quarterback,” Beckman said. “I’m all for that.He’s going to play quarterback for us.”
Illinois tight end Jon Davis has caught 56 passes during his collegiate career. Scheelhaase threw 44 of those passes. O’Toole delivered the other 12.
“It’s a little different just looking back there and Nate’s no longer there as the signal-caller,” Davis said. “We have three great options, honestly. We have probably one of the best quarterback situations in the country because we have three capable guys who can go in there if one goes down.”
Fourteen quarterbacks were taken in May during the NFL draft. None were from the Big Ten. For the second straight year. College football writer Matt Daniels ranks the likely 14 starters for each Big Ten school with practices starting soon.
1. Braxton Miller, Ohio State A sensational year could put him squarely in the Heisman race.
2. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State Before he leaves, safe bet to become best passer in school history.
3. Connor Cook, Michigan State Position was a big question mark before 2013 season. Not anymore.
4. Wes Lunt, Illinois Heaping pressure on but could become eighth Illini to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.
5. C.J. Brown, Maryland Dual-threat capabilities a bonus as Terrapins make conference switch.
6. Jake Rudock, Iowa Needs to cut down on his interceptions, but experience is valuable commodity.
7. Trevor Siemian, Northwestern Wishes every team he faced was Illinois after 414-yard effort last year.
8. Devin Gardner, Michigan Inconsistency issues surfaced too much in 2013. Will they this fall?
9. Joel Stave, Wisconsin Sure looks good handing off to Melvin Gordon 30 times a game.
10. Nate Sudfeld, Indiana No matter how many yards he throws for, doesn’t help Hoosiers’ defense.
11. Mitch Leidner, Minnesota Might rush for more yards than he throws for this season.
12. Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska Throwing six INTs against Purdue and Northwestern doesn’t instill much confidence.
13. Gary Nova, Rutgers Fans might need Novocaine if Nova can’t deliver against Big Ten defenses.
14. Danny Etling, Purdue Best option Darrell Hazell can turn to. Which isn’t saying much.