Which quarterbacks should you be on the lookout for in 2021?
Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
Starting this week, Gene and Josh will begin to take a look around the rest of the Big Ten to determine some of the best players Ohio State will have to face this season. In this edition, they begin with the opposing quarterbacks.
Josh’s take: Tanner Morgan (Minnesota)
Full disclosure – I believe the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten are, in no particular order, as follows: C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller, and Kyle McCord. Honorable mention to Jagger LaRoe, who just has a cool name. However, part of the reason we do “You’re Nuts” is to get a little weird, a little argumentative, a little out of our comfort zone, and express a different view. While I think whomever starts under center for Ohio State will be the best QB in the Big Ten, I am willing to concede that there are other talented guys in the conference. There are definitely more experienced players at the position, which makes the argument even more interesting.
Experience and past performance, to me, make Tanner Morgan the obvious choice for best non-OSU quarterback in the Big Ten. He may end up as the best QB in the conference, period. While not pitting his talent up against the likes of C.J. Stroud or Kyle McCord, Morgan has a track record of performing at an All-Big Ten level. If he can replicate his 2019 season and bounce back from an odd, pandemic-altered 2020, he will put himself in the conversation as one of the best players at the position nationally.
Rewind back to 2019 – you know, when life and football games were normal. P.J. Fleck was rowing the boat for Minnesota, and they finished with an 11-2 record. Their season was capped off by an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn. Tanner Morgan led that team, while his coach made rowing motions and mean faces. It was not Fleck who threw for 30 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards. Morgan was outstanding, earning All-Big Ten Second Team honors. He was without a doubt the second best QB in the conference, behind Justin Fields. He set Minnesota school records for: passing yards, touchdown passes, completion percentage, and more. Morgan will look to re-capture that magic in 2021.
Tanner Morgan undoubtedly fell off in a big way last year, but who can blame him? The 2020 season was odd for all involved. He is returning as the most experienced quarterback in the Big Ten; having started one more game than Adrian Martinez from Nebraska (if you want to make a case that experience gives Martinez a shot to win this fake award… don’t). While Morgan loses his top target in Rashod Bateman, Minnesota is getting back stud running back Mohamed Ibrahim. The AP Third-Team All American will take pressure off of the QB, and force teams to focus on the multi-dimensional Gopher offense.
Minnesota’s 2021 schedule looks like it could afford Morgan plenty of opportunity to put up big numbers. They obviously open up at home against Ohio State, a game in which he will face an inexperienced secondary. After the Big Ten cross-divisional game, the Gophers have six consecutive games against what I would consider porous defenses. Their next real challenge, on paper, is against Northwestern on October 30 – another home game for Minnesota. Iowa/Indiana/Wisconsin is a tough stretch to close the season, but Morgan and Co. will have had all season to prepare.
Tanner Morgan may be the easy choice here, but I have to go with what I know and what I’ve seen. This guy was great two seasons ago, and has enough experience that one poor game (hopefully against OSU’s new secondary) will not shake his confidence. I expect Minnesota to somewhat bounce back this year, and Morgan will be the main reason why.
Gene’s take: Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana)
Like Josh, I think that whoever wins the Ohio State starting quarterback job will instantly become the best QB in the conference, but that is not what we’re doing here. The Big Ten isn’t exactly known for its high-profile throwers, and the options outside of Columbus are quite thin. Tanner Morgan is a great option, and guys like Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz and Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell have arguments here as well, but I’m going to have to go with the obvious choice of Michael Penix Jr. — ACL injury and all.
Before injuring his knee against Maryland in November of last year, Penix was leading Indiana through one of its most impressive campaigns in program history. The redshirt sophomore played in six games, totaling over 1,600 yards passing with 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Of course, everyone will most remember his career day against Ohio State, wherein he threw for nearly 500 yards with five TDs and one INT as he nearly willed his team back from a 35-7 deficit in a game that ended 42-35.
Of course, under different circumstances, Penix would be the obvious runaway favorite for the top non-OSU quarterback in the Big Ten in 2021 — if not one of the best in the entire country — but there are some clear roadblocks in his way. The ACL is the biggest one, and while the Hoosiers expect Penix to be ready by the season opener, these types of injuries can be fickle and there is no way to assure that will be the case. However, he did post pictures on Twitter of him training with Jameis Winston about a week ago, so it does seem like the recovery is going well.
The other is the loss of one of his top wide receivers in Whop Philyor, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings. Philyor was Indiana’s second-leading receiver last season, racking up nearly 500 yards on a team-high 54 catches with three TDs. The Hoosiers do, however, returning leading receiver Ty Fryfogle, who registered a whopping 19.5 yards per catch with 721 total yards receiving and a team-high seven TDs. Fryfogle was the deep-ball threat, but Philyor was a safety blanket for Penix, and a guy that will surely be missed on Tom Allen’s offense.
Personally, I think Indiana is the biggest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten — moreso than both Penn State and Michigan. A big reason for that is having a real quarterback like Penix, something the Nits and the Wolverines haven’t threatened the Buckeyes with in quite some time. However, this is the same ACL he injured in 2018, so health will certainly be at the forefront of the conversation if he is going to live up to expectations. Allen is doing a phenomenal job building a program in Bloomington, and if Penix can return to his pre-injury form, he will be a player to watch in the B1G this season.