Conference Quarterback Contributions Key

In welcoming back seven starting quarterbacks, including seniors Ricky Stanzi of Iowa, Adam Weber of Minnesota, Scott Tolzien of Wisconsin and Ben Chappell of Indiana, the Big Ten can expect some offensive excitement this season. Or can it?

As most college football fans can testify, the Big Ten has been fighting an image problem for the better part of the last half decade, and Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel has a pretty good idea why.

"I think a lot of national perception is built on statistics, and I don't know if in our league with our defenses you're going to see some of those gaudy statistics, and it's also built on what do you do in marquee games," Tressel said. "I thought if you looked at our December and January this past year (in bowl games), I don't think we had to take a backseat to anyone. I know we didn't win'em all, but even the ones we didn't win we played well."

With the lasting image of those marquee performances remaining fresh in the collective college football memory bank, the immediate future looks bright, too, as the conference welcomes back seven starting quarterbacks, including seniors Ricky Stanzi of Iowa, Adam Weber of Minnesota, Scott Tolzien of Wisconsin and Ben Chappell of Indiana.

Or does it?

While conventional wisdom insists signal callers get better with age, in the past three seasons having a senior quarterback with starting experience in the Big Ten rarely translated to much team success or the type of headline-grabbing statistics to which Tressel referred.

The best performance as a returning starter came from Penn State's Daryll Clark, who finished fourth in the conference in passing yards and second in passing efficiency last season, but even Clark's senior season has an asterisk.

While he was named the All-Big Ten first-team quarterback for a second time, he threw four interceptions and no touchdown passes against Iowa and Ohio State in the types of games that most mold a quarterback's legacy. Home losses to the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes prevented the Nittany Lions from defending their share of the conference championship or going to a BCS bowl for a second consecutive year.

Overall, the struggles veteran Big Ten quarterbacks have come about for a variety of reasons, some within the quarterbacks' control and some not so much. Not surprisingly there were plenty of people at the Big Ten media days in Chicago earlier this week optimistic the trend will reverse this season.

"There's really no excuse for our passing game not to grow this year," said Tolzien after noting the return of all five of his starting offensive lineman, a group of experienced receivers, talented tight end Lance Kendricks and reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay at running back. "I don't have any personal goals heading into the season - I just need to make better decisions, limit missed opportunities and make the most of each and every day."

His head coach, Bret Bielema, smiled when asked if Tolzien, who led the conference in passing efficiency last season, had what it takes to parlay a year of starting experience into a strong finish to his career.

"I think as a person he's really grown even from a year ago to where we are today so much," Bielema said. "He's got unbelievable confidence. I do believe one of the things that he really struggled with a year ago he was so successful in high school, academically and athletically he never had experienced failure. He never experienced anything that kind of was a bump in the road."

Ups and downs are inevitable in the life of a quarterback, so Bielema and others pointed out that a key factor for using experience as a stepping stone to success is how the player uses knowledge gained from those missteps.

"It's about who can grow," Bielema said.

Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber, who is getting set for his fourth season as a starter, can attest that experience is not all that matters.

He finished third in the conference in passing yards per game as a freshman in 2007 and fourth a year later, but last season was rough as the team adjusted to a new offensive scheme and his numbers dipped significantly. This year another new offensive coordinator is in place, but the change in philosophy is not expected to be so drastic as it was a year ago.

"I can't really speak for other guys, but I guess you can kind of infer that maybe you become comfortable in a system and you don't continue to push yourself to get better," Weber said when asked about the failures of his predecessors to progress from solid to stardom. "I haven't been that fortunate to be in the same system, so I have to continue to push myself even more to learn the offense.

"Every single year you have to continue to work harder, You can't fall back on, ‘I feel pretty comfortable. I feel OK out there. I know what the coach wants.' You have to continue to push yourself, watch more tape and stay after practice, do all those little things that will help push you over the edge."

Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said not to ignore what the other 10 guys on the field are doing to help the quarterback.

"Last year at times we didn't support (Weber)," Brewster said. "The quarterback and the head coach get too much credit and too much blame, right? Last year at our place a lot of people got after Adam, but if we as a team would have done a better job of supporting him, he'd have been better. It's a cumulative effort by everyone on offense."

Along those lines, some of Clark's problems last season surely are attributable to having to play behind a rebuilt offensive line with a new group of receivers. The same can be said of Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor, a second-year starter last year as a sophomore who saw his turnovers skyrocket and his passer rating plummet as more responsibility within the offense fell upon his shoulders.

At the end of the day, quarterbacks always get the most publicity for success, and the spotlight will be on the four seniors who started last year along with Pryor and fellow junior Kirk Cousins of Michigan State along with Tate Forcier of Michigan, a sophomore who may face a battle to keep his job when camp begins.

While changing depth charts are guaranteed in college football - and health never is - the Big Ten could use one or more of those players to step into the national spotlight to help continue rehabilitating the league's image.

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