Published Monday, July 15, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:50 am
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McKewon: Ranking the Huskers' opponent QBs
Ranking teams by quarterback test
1. UCLA
2. Northwestern
3. Wyoming
4. Michigan
5. Penn State
6. Illinois
7. Michigan State
8. Purdue
9. South Dakota State
10. Minnesota
11. Iowa
12. Southern Mississippi

Ready for a respite?

Nebraska's young defense — get used to the phrase — is about to get one in the form of a relatively inexperienced, unproven group of opposing quarterbacks.

Unlike the 2011 or 2012 regular seasons, you won't find Braxton Miller or Denard Robinson to play their big-play nightmares in Husker brains. No Russell Wilson to riddle the Big Red. The best of this group is a sophomore — UCLA's Brett Hundley. Four teams haven't decided on their signal-caller for 2013, and several more lack consistent confidence in their returning starters.

The best proof of this group's relative mediocrity? One of the stiffest tests is Northwestern, which can't settle on just one quarterback. The Wildcats are one of three top tests for the Huskers this year from a quarterback perspective. Hundley and Wyoming's Brett Smith join them. All three visit Lincoln.

The rest of the teams have considerable promise — especially Penn State, which could start five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg — but average-to-no production. Still, we've made it a tradition to scout the quarterbacks Nebraska will face in a given year. Here they are.


TOP TESTS


UCLA

Quarterback: Brett Hundley, sophomore

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

When: 11 a.m. Sept. 14 (ABC)

Last year: 36-30 UCLA

The redshirt freshman quarterback you remember from 2012 might be Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, but Hundley's the better long-term NFL prospect. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, he threw for 3,790 yards and 29 TDs last year, playing big in the Bruins' biggest wins — victories over Nebraska, Arizona State and USC (813 yards, 9-1 TD-INT ratio). His height allows him to locate and hit short timing routes with precision, he's mobile enough to buy time, and he's smart, a double major in African-American studies and economics on track to graduate in 3Ĺ years. Though Hundley benefited from a terrific running game in 2012, he has one of the Pac-12's best offensive coordinators in Noel Mazzone. He's the best NU will face in the regular season.

* * *

Wyoming

QB: Brett Smith, junior

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

When: 7 p.m. Aug. 31 (BTN)

Last year: Didn't play

In Nebraska's season opener, this two-year starter will give NU's young defense all it can handle from a dual-threat perspective. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder threw for 5,459 yards and 47 touchdowns and ran for 958 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2011 and 2012. Because the Cowboys return four of their top five receivers — plus all three top rushers — this is one of the better offenses the Huskers will face all year. Smith doesn't often make bad decisions, either, as evidenced by just 17 interceptions in two seasons. Pretty good for a guy who gets no help from a defense that allowed 470 yards and 34 points per game last year. Though he misses open receivers when he's outside of the pocket, Smith could start for several Big Ten teams on the Huskers' schedule.

* * *

Northwestern

QBs: Kain Colter, senior, and Trevor Siemian, junior

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

When: Nov. 2 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Huskers 29-28

Coach Pat Fitzgerald committed to the two-headed QB plan in the second half of Northwestern's thrilling season-opening win over Syracuse, and however unwieldy it seems, the system won 10 games. Colter is a terrific triple threat — 1,935 total yards and 20 total touchdowns as a thrower, runner and receiver. He's the Wildcats' most valuable athlete. But he's not a pure passer, so Siemian (1,312 yards passing) chucks it downfield. In a perfect world, Siemian would be more accurate — he's completed 18 of 39 passes in two years vs. the Huskers — or Colter would be two inches taller. But Northwestern's zone-read ground attack helps save the defense, and Colter is a threat to break a big play wherever he lines up. Nebraska knew that last year and bottled him up for just 41 total yards.


MORE TO PROVE


Michigan

QB: Devin Gardner, junior

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.

When: Nov. 9 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Nebraska 23-9

The former five-star recruit appeared headed for a wide receiver career at Michigan until Denard Robinson wrenched his arm late in the second quarter of a loss to Nebraska. After Russell Bellomy had a nightmarish showing in relief against NU, Gardner got the starting job and played well enough that he's one of the top quarterbacks on NU's schedule this year. He still has room to grow. He has to take fewer bad sacks and make the routine timing throws with more consistency. UM's offense is bound to be less explosive without Robinson — pundits who think otherwise have forgotten how predictable offensive coordinator Al Borges can be — but Gardner should steadily improve. Since Bellomy tore his ACL in the spring, the only other scholarship quarterback available is Shane Morris, a 6-foot-5 lefty true freshman. Borges has been touting him since the kid signed.

* * *

Minnesota

QB: Philip Nelson, sophomore

Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

When: Oct. 26 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Nebraska 38-14

In Jerry Kill's two years as coach, the Golden Gophers have been hideous on offense. Hideous. Just 310 yards and 18.4 points per game in 2011 and 321 yards and 22.1 points per game in 2012. One reason: He won't settle on a quarterback. Nelson, who took over halfway through last year, is a dual-threat player suited to run Kill's zone-read offense. He hit the wall with remarkable ferocity in regular season-ending losses to Nebraska and Michigan State (rushing for minus-7 yards and completing 18 of 46 passes with five interceptions), but Nelson's bound to improve. That is, if Kill sticks with him. With Minnesota's entire offensive line returning, Nelson can start to build a profile as a run-first/pass-smart quarterback who helps the Gophers eat clock and rely on a better-than-average defense.

* * *

Michigan State

QB: Andrew Maxwell, senior

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

When: Nov. 16 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Nebraska 28-24

Coach Mark Dantonio stuck with his accuracy-challenged starter (just 52.5 percent completion rate) all season until he wanted to win some chicken wings in an otherwise disappointing season. So he called on Connor Cook to deliver the game-winning drive in a 17-16 victory over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's still Maxwell's job to lose. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder spent a whole season developing chemistry with his slow, butter-fingered receivers, throwing for 2,606 yards and 13 touchdowns; Cook can't re-create that drudgery in a week or two. Maxwell has good arm strength. He needs to throw the ball quicker and with more touch. If Cook wins the job, Dantonio is likely submitting his team to rebuilding mode. His defense is too good to do that.

* * *

Illinois

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase, senior

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

When: 11 a.m. Oct 5 (TV TBA)

Last year: Didn't play

A few years ago, Nebraska fans wondered if Bo Pelini had missed the boat by not landing Scheelhaase out of Kansas City Rockhurst, especially when he had a big redshirt freshman year in 2010. Nobody's wondering that now. Injuries and changing offensive coordinators left the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder mired in mediocrity last year. He threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns and ran for just 303 yards. But his big performance in the spring proved he still holds a lead over backup Reilly O'Toole. Former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit now coordinates the offense. When Scheelhaase was on top of his game in early 2011, he made big passing plays outside the pocket. He also had a first-round NFL draft pick in A.J. Jenkins as a target. But injuries sapped his speed and spark last year. If it's back, the Illini have a bona fide weapon again.

* * *

South Dakota State

QB: Austin Sumner, junior

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

When: Sept. 21 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Didn't play

The Jackrabbits found themselves a gem — at least for the FCS level — in this Brandon, S.D., native, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder who has arm strength to spare. He's been SDSU's starter for two straight years. In 2011, he won Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year honors, throwing for 2,382 yards and 16 touchdowns. He took a step back in quality of play as a sophomore, throwing for 2,443 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also tossed 14 interceptions, including four in a 31-17 loss to Kansas. If the Jayhawks' 114th-rated pass defense was able to rattle Sumner, it's safe to say Nebraska might do its own number. Sumner has the capability to go off, though.


UP IN THE AIR


Purdue

Where: Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, Ind.

When: Oct. 12 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Didn't play

The Boilermakers have one of the Big Ten's best quarterback factories — Drew Brees, Jim Everett, Kyle Orton and Bob Griese are among PU grads — but injuries have unsettled the position for years. New coach Darrell Hazell can rely on athletic senior Rob Henry, the main starter in 2010 before a knee injury derailed his career for two years. A more intriguing pick, especially by the time NU visits West Lafayette, is true freshman Danny Etling, a four-star recruit who enrolled early and fared well enough in the spring to get a long look this fall. Etling's the future, but Hazell may not want to expose the kid too quickly. Watch redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, too.

* * *

Iowa

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

When: 11 a.m. Nov. 29 (ABC)

Last year: Nebraska 13-7

Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz didn't get his backup quarterbacks a snap last year. So each of the three candidates to start this year — sophomore Jake Rudock, junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard — has zero Division I experience. Though Rudock has a slight experience edge in offensive coordinator Greg Davis' system, Sokol seemed more decisive in the spring game and more willing to push the ball into tight areas. Don't be surprised if Ferentz has started at least two by the time Iowa rolls into Lincoln after Thanksgiving, but Sokol is my long-term pick.

* * *

Penn State

Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.

When: Nov. 23 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Nebraska 32-23

Junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson (a sophomore) won the spring battle decisively enough to provoke a transfer by 2012 backup Stephen Bench. So that leaves Ferguson to fend off incoming five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg, whose 6-foot-4 frame and 70-yard arm could be enough to convince Bill O'Brien he's ready in week one. If so, remember: True freshmen struggle to master complex pro-style offenses. And Big Ten defensive coordinators have a year of O'Brien's excellent offensive schemes to study and counter. PSU's top seven receivers return for either quarterback to enjoy.

* * *

Southern Mississippi

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

When: 5 p.m. Sept. 7 (BTN)

Last year: Nebraska 49-20

The Golden Eagles last year stoked a quarterback grease fire. Five played; four started. The best one, Anthony Alford, transferred to Ole Miss. USM hopes to welcome Cal transfer Allan Bridgford, who'd be immediately eligible if he graduates this summer in Berkeley. Not that Bridgford, who started for the Golden Bears in losses to Oregon (59-17) and Oregon State (62-14) last year, is much of an upgrade, but he'll push Chris Campbell and Ricky Lloyd, who combined to complete 6 of 14 passes at Nebraska last year. Even a young NU defense should look forward to this matchup.

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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