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College football: Who's the QB? Big Ten teams have questions following spring of uncertainty

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    Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey throws during the first half against Purdue in Bloomington, Ind., on Nov. 24. Seven of the 14 Big Ten teams are coming out of spring practices planning to continue quarterback auditions in August. Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey is competing against redshirt freshmen Michael Penix Jr.

    AP

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The week started with nine of the 14 Big Ten teams coming out of spring practices planning to continue quarterback auditions in August. The number was down to seven Friday.

First-year coach Ryan Day of defending conference champion Ohio State insisted after the Buckeyes’ spring game last Saturday he hadn’t decided between Georgia transfer Justin Fields and redshirt freshman Matthew Baldwin, who spent much of last season rehabbing a knee injury.

Then Baldwin announced Thursday he would transfer, erasing any doubt that Fields, the biggest acquisition of the offseason, would be the starter.

Penn State appears set to go with junior Sean Clifford after fifth-year senior Tommy Stevens entered the NCAA transfer portal. His father told the Centre Daily Times his son is “certainly leaving.”

Two incumbents in the East Division face challenges. Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey is competing against redshirt freshmen Michael Penix Jr. and Utah transfer Jack Tuttle. Rutgers’ Artur Sitkowski will try to hold off challenges from freshman Cole Snyder and possibly Boston College transfer Johnny Langan, who is applying for a waiver to become eligible immediately.

At Maryland, new coach Mike Locksley looked at Tyrrell Pigrome, Max Bortenschlager and Tyler DeSue this spring before Virginia Tech graduate transfer Josh Jackson arrives this summer.

Defending West Division champion Northwestern must replace four-year starter Clayton Thorson, and former Clemson backup Hunter Johnson is expected to have the inside track against fifth-year senior TJ Green.

Wisconsin freshman Graham Mertz has come on strong and is in position to beat out Jack Coan. The junior started four games in place of an injured Alex Hornibrook, who left for Florida State as a graduate transfer.

Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, who split the job as freshmen, will continue their competition at Minnesota, and MJ Rivers, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor are in a battle at Illinois with four-star freshman Isaiah Williams arriving in the fall.

Sindelar shut down

Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar, set to take over for David Blough, put a scare into the Boilermakers when he hyperextended his left knee. He was hurt when defensive lineman Grant Hermanns stepped on his left foot during a drill.

Sindelar won the starting job in preseason camp last year but kept it only two games because of knee tendinitis and an injured oblique muscle. He didn’t take another snap the rest of the season. He said last week he would be ready for summer conditioning.

Ohio state O-line

Offensive line is Ohio State’s biggest concern entering fall. Only one starter returns — left tackle Thayer Munford — and he didn’t participate in spring practice because of injury. Five-star recruit Harry Miller and graduate transfer Jonah Jackson from Rutgers are among the offensive linemen who will join the team this summer.

“We’ve got the cavalry coming,” Day told reporters.

Speed up, slow down

Michigan’s offense, often criticized for being stodgy, is being revamped. New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is putting in the no-huddle, spread system featuring lots of run-pass options.

“It’s night and day,” quarterback Shea Patterson said. “As far as the similarities, I think there are very few of them.”

At Indiana, new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer may slow things down. Whoever wins the QB job — Ramsey or one of his two challengers — will take snaps from under center at times instead of out of the shotgun.

Ramsey said he likes having the freedom to audible out of bad plays, something he had less ability to do the previous two seasons. Slowing down also should help the Hoosiers control the clock, which could help keep the defense fresher late in games.

Keeping it in the family

Nebraska’s defensive line has two sets of brothers in major roles. Twins Carlos and Khalil Davis are going into their third seasons and Darrion Daniels, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State, joins Damion this year. Darrion Daniels started 10 games two years ago but was limited to four games last season because of a pinky injury that required surgery.

“It’s just a good feeling to see my brother with the same color of jersey again, being on the sideline with him, coaching him up, him coaching me up, giving each other tips, calming each other down when we get heated,” Darrion said. “It’s something special.”

New coordinators

The Big Ten has four new offensive coordinators and six new defensive coordinators.

Offense, with previous job: Michigan, Gattis, co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach at Alabama; Michigan State, Brad Salem, Spartans’ quarterbacks coach; Maryland, Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina head coach; and Indiana, DeBoer, offensive coordinator at Fresno State.

Defense: Ohio State co-coordinators, Greg Mattison, Michigan defensive line coach, and Jeff Hafley, San Francisco 49ers defensive backs coach; Maryland, Jon Hoke, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs coach; Indiana, Kane Wommack, Hoosiers’ linebackers coach; Rutgers, Andy Buh, Maryland defensive coordinator; and Minnesota, Joe Rossi, defensive line coach and interim coordinator.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

EAST DIVISION

INDIANA: WRs Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale, seniors. Westbrook, who missed 2017 with an ACL tear, showed glimpses of his pre-injury talent last season but not the gaudy numbers. Hale emerged as a legitimate go-to receiver. Together, the 6-foot-3 Westbrook and 6-4 Hale should give Indiana one of the Big Ten’s most physical receiving tandems.

MARYLAND: RB Anthony McFarland, sophomore. He started five games as a freshman yet still managed to top the 1,000-yard mark. He raised eyebrows around the Big Ten after running for 298 yards against Ohio State. Now he’s poised to become one of the league’s dominant backs.

MICHIGAN: CB Ambry Thomas, junior. His career highlight is returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Notre Dame. Now he gets his opportunity at corner, where he was a four-star recruit and one of the nation’s top prospects in 2016. He’ll play opposite high school teammate Lavert Hill.

MICHIGAN STATE: S Xavier Henderson, sophomore. He’s the heir apparent to the starting strong safety job. Henderson was the Spartans’ only true freshman to play in all 13 games, mostly at nickelback on third downs. He’s looking to build on a season in which he made 15 tackles, recovered a fumble and excelled on special teams.

OHIO STATE: WR Garrett Wilson, freshman. The early enrollee impressed with his maturity and appears to have the makings of a star. Wilson created buzz in the spring game when he outjumped a defensive back for a long touchdown catch.

PENN STATE: S Lamont Wade, junior. The Nittany Lions need to find a replacement for Nick Scott, and Wade is among the top candidates after playing a reserve role his first two years. He showed up in Happy Valley as a four-star recruit at cornerback but was moved to safety before his sophomore year.

RUTGERS: RB Isaih Pacheco, sophomore. Playing in Raheem Blackshear’s shadow, Pacheco had 551 yards on 111 carries and scored three touchdowns. If Blackshear splits time in the slot and at running back, Pacheco will see increasing opportunities for an offense looking to improve its No. 106 ranking in rushing.

WEST DIVISION

ILLINOIS: OL Verdis Brown, redshirt freshman. The 6-foot-4, 325-pounder is switching to the offensive line after spending his first season as a redshirt on the defensive line. The Chicago native was a four-star offensive line recruit, and he had offers from a bevy of major programs.

IOWA: LB Dillon Doyle, redshirt freshman. The Iowa City native performed well enough this spring to challenge for a spot in the linebacker rotation. He appeared in four games last season, preserving his redshirt, and had two tackles while playing mostly on special teams.

MINNESOTA: LB Thomas Rush, sophomore. He played running back in high school, so it has taken him some time to get a feel for playing on the other side of the ball. He saw spot duty backing up MLB Thomas Barber last season, but there’s a starting spot open on the outside with the departures of Blake Cashman and Julian Huff.

NEBRASKA: WR Andre Hunt, redshirt freshman. The Huskers are looking for a complement to JD Spielman in the wake of Stanley Morgan Jr.’s departure, and Hunt could be the guy. He struggled with focus and was prone to drops last season. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters says Hunt was the most consistent pass-catcher this spring.

NORTHWESTERN: CB Cam Ruiz, sophomore. Ruiz was a solid backup to Montre Hartage last season and is ready to take a leadership role. He got a good amount of experience because of injuries in the secondary and made 26 tackles, broke up four passes, forced a fumble and recovered one.

PURDUE: DT Lorenzo Neal, senior. Yes, Markus Bailey led the Boilermakers in tackles last season. And, yes, Purdue will still have a wide-open offense. If the Boilermakers want to contend for a title, they can’t continue to give up 450 yards and 30 points a game. That means they need more out of the 315-pound Neal.

WISCONSIN: LB Leo Chenal, freshman. The 2018 Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year has been a playmaker all spring, meriting his promotion to No. 2 inside linebacker. At 6-2, 239 pounds, he appears physically ready. In three open practices, he picked off two passes and returned one for a touchdown.

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