Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, June 15, 2015

Quarterback questions loom at Northwestern and Purdue. And the jury is out on Iowa?s C.J. Beathard and Illinois? Wes Lunt Still, there is a lot to like about some of the backfields in the Big Ten West.

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1. Wisconsin. No program has a better tradition over the last 25 years of producing big-time backs than the Badgers. Melvin Gordon is off a year early to the NFL after running for 2,587 yards and tallying 32 touchdowns en route to a runner-up Heisman finish in 2014. Up next is Corey Clement, who ran for 949 yards and nine TDs in 2014. Taiwan Deal is the No. 2 man. Joel Stave is back under center. He is a good fit for the more conventional offense that new coach Paul Chryst runs. Stave is a fifth-year senior who has made 28 starts but is coming off an uneven season, tossing 10 picks and just nine touchdowns with a 53 percent completion percentage. Bart Houston is the backup.

2. Nebraska. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is back, but he has something to prove running a new pro-style scheme. Is he capable? Armstrong never has completed more than 53 percent of his passes. Backup A.J. Bush looked good in the spring. The Huskers will miss running back Ameer Abdullah, a heart-and-soul player who was ultra-productive. Terrell Newby, Imani Cross and Adam Taylor are top options among a committee of backs who must carry the load.

3. Minnesota. Running back David Cobb?s departure leaves a big void after he rushed for a school single-season record 1,626 yards in 2014 and left with 2,893 career yards. Slimmed-down Rodrick Williams looks like the next man up, but there are myriad competitors. Rodney Smith and Berkley Edwards also are in the fold. Time is running out for QB Mitch Leidner to become a consistent passer, as the Gophers? aerial game ranked 13th in the Big Ten in 2014. Maybe a new hurry-up offense will make Leidner better and help him find a groove; maybe not.

4. Iowa. This group has underwhelmed in recent years. For better or worse, C.J. Beathard is the unquestioned starter at quarterback with Jake Rudock transferring to Michigan. Beathard is a bit of a gunslinger with swagger and cachet. He is high-risk/high reward. The backups are a worry. Burly Mark Weisman is gone, but the staff has good options at running back in Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels. Canzeri is a bit of lightning; Daniels a bit of thunder. Iowa needs more production from its backs.

5. Illinois. QB Wes Lunt?s debut was marred by injury and inconsistency. He needs to make quicker reads and hasten his release while improving his pocket savvy. Lunt was ineffective late in 2014, as now departed Reilly O?Toole took over and guided the Illini to a bowl. Josh Ferguson is a versatile running back who has terrific hands and is a quintessential third-down back. But is he an every-down guy? JC transfer Henry Enyenihi is built to carry a big load. And keep an eye on ballyhooed true freshman Ke?Shawn Vaughn.

6. Northwestern. Questions loom at quarterback. A three-man battle between Clayton Thorson, Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti carries on in camp, as NU looks to replace Trevor Siemian. Thorson and Alviti are dual-threats; Thorson is the most-hyped of the bunch. Oliver started the finale in 2014 but did not impress. Northwestern could use a two-quarterback system. Stay tuned. The Wildcats have a star in running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 1,187 yards last year. The 2014 freshman sensation had six 100-yard rushing games. Warren Long is in reserve.

7. Purdue. A murky quarterback situation got a bit clearer when Danny Etling opted to transfer last week. He started the last seven games of 2013 and the first five of 2014 but was replaced by Austin Appleby, the presumed 2015 favorite who faded down the stretch. Is he really the answer? Appleby will have to hold off challenges from redshirt freshman David Blough and true freshman Elijah Sindelar, Mr. Football in Kentucky who is coming off a knee injury. The Boilermakers lost two speedy big-play running backs in Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt. Keyante Green, D.J. Knox and Indiana Mr. Football Markell Jones-an early enrollee-are in the hunt in what may be a running back-by-committee approach. Darrell Hazell raves about the diminutive Knox.


About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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