Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, April 5, 2016
So, in an attempt to be fair, it's time to share my Big Ten West predictions–even if most of the starting situations are settled.
Wes Lunt. Tumult has been the order of the day in Champaign, where there have been three head coaches since August. But the arrival of Lovie Smith brings the prospect of better days. Smith had to be pleased to find Wes Lunt, a veteran hand who looks like an NFL quarterback. But Lunt needs to improve as a leader and decision maker. And offensive coordinator Garrick McGee needs to play to Lunt?s strengths as a passer. If Lunt struggles-or the season careens out of control-maybe the new staff won?t hesitate to try something different and play the athletic Chayce Crouch.
Others: Sophomore Chayce Crouch, freshman Eli Peters
C.J. Beathard. The staff put all of its eggs in C.J. Beathard?s basket after 2014, as Jake Rudock scurried off to Michigan to leave the No. 1 job in Iowa City to Beathard. And, he didn?t disappoint. Beathard should be one of the top signal-callers in the conference this fall. Like last year, the backup situation belongs 100 percent to Tyler Wiegers. But he remains the ultimate unproven commodity. Behind him? Ryan Boyle has a slight edge over Drew Cook.
Others: Sophomore Tyler Wiegers, redshirt freshman Ryan Boyle, redshirt freshman Drew Cook
Mitch Leidner. Burly Mitch Leidner is a veteran hand who has made 29 starts and is looking to go out in a blaze of glory. The two-year starter has been limited this spring as he comes off left foot surgery. This job is his. Keep an eye on the battle to backup Leidner. Demry Croft and early enrollee Seth Green are getting plenty of chances to impress. Croft got his feet last year and drips with potential. Green is a ballyhooed recruit from Texas who originally committed Oregon. This offense needs to improve under new coordinator Jay Johnson. Last year, the Gophers ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten in scoring (22.5 ppg), 11th in rushing (144.1 ypg) and 12th overall (358.9 ypg).
Others: Sophomore Demry Croft, freshman Seth Green
Tommy Armstrong. Like him or not, this is Armstrong?s job. Can he improve as a passer and decision maker? Yes. Regardless, Armstrong has started 34 games and is No. 2 on the career passing charts (6,691 yards) in Lincoln. Armstrong is the guy. Period. End of story. Armstrong may not be sexy for fans, but he?s the best option for success for a program that needs a strong season coming off a dubious 6-7 debut for Mike Riley. Ryker Fyfe isn?t a legit alternative, and AJ Bush is a work in progress. All eyes are on Patrick O?Brien, the guy who many hail as the ?next big thing.? We shall see.
Others: Sophomore AJ Bush; senior Ryker Fyfe; freshman Patrick O?Brien
Clayton Thorson. Last year, Thorson won the job and helped lead NU to 10 wins. But he needs to improve and to take the proverbial next step in his development. His lack of progress raised eye brows and limited the Wildcat attack. Check out these numbers: 50.8 completion percentage, 1,522 yards passing, seven touchdowns, nine interceptions. Not gonna do it–even if one could make the argument that his receivers didn't help him out. Defenses will stack the line in an attempt to stuff a good fleet of running backs unless Thorson can make foes respect the pass. If Thorson continues to flat-line-or god forbid regresses–is Matt Alviti a legit alternative?
Others: Junior Matt Alviti, redshirt freshman T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Lloyd Yates, freshman Aidan Smith
David Blough. The quarterback situation has been a sore spot under Darrell Hazell, who has switched signal-callers during the season in each of his three years. This can?t continue. Austin Appleby began 2015 No. 1 but lost his job and subsequently transferred to Florida. Another dynamic: There is a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Blough replaced Appleby last season and was met with mixed reviews. Is he really the answer? Blough is getting most of the first-team reps this spring. Elijah Sindelar is tantalizing, a highly touted prospect and former Mr. Football in Kentucky who redshirted in 2015. But facing such a critical season, can Hazell really afford to turn over the reins to a guy who never has taken a snap? Of course not. Third-stringer Aaron Banks is a walk-on. Nuff said.
Others: Redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar, sophomore Aaron Banks
Bart Houston. Only three scholarship signal-callers are on the roster as the Badgers look to replace Joel Stave. Houston is the only one to throw a pass. Alex Hornibrook drips with potential, while Kare? Lyles is an early enrollee. Basically, it?s a two-man battle. Houston played a lot vs. Illinois last year, while Hornibrook is a talented lefty passer who committed to Paul Chryst when he was at Pitt and followed him to Madison. But Hornibrook has really struggled of late in the spring.
Others: Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook; freshman Kare? Lyles
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