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Early quarterback looks in the Big Ten West

Clayton Thorson will return as Northwestern's starting quarterback after throwing for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2016. William Hauser/USA TODAY Sports

It's never too early to start looking ahead to next season, and quarterback play will once again be a major topic of discussion in the Big Ten. The West Division will feature a mix of veteran and inexperienced signal-callers stepping into starting roles. How much those players evolve in the coming months will drastically impact each team's fortunes.

Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin enter 2017 with a firm grasp on what player will start at quarterback. Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska likely will enter spring practice eyeing some intriguing quarterback competitions.

Here's a look at the quarterback situations for each Big Ten West team.

Illinois: Head coach Lovie Smith will have a lot on his plate in Year 2, and figuring out the quarterback pecking order will be among the most important decisions. Junior-college transfer Dwayne Lawson committed to the Illini in December and could be in the mix for playing time. He played in five games at Virginia Tech in 2015 before transferring to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. Chayce Crouch showcased his running ability when he rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue. But he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Rutgers, missed the final six games and will be out for most of the offseason. Jeff George Jr. played in four games but was inconsistent. He threw for four touchdowns and one interception against Michigan, Minnesota and Michigan State. But he was picked off four times by Wisconsin.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes will try to move on without C.J. Beathard, who helped Iowa reach consecutive January bowl games the past two seasons. The competition for the 2017 starting role likely will be between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers. Stanley served as Beathard's backup in 2016 and became the first true freshman to play quarterback at Iowa in 13 years. He completed 5 of 9 passes for 62 yards. Wiegers was Beathard's backup in 2015 before Stanley leapfrogged Wiegers on the depth chart. Both quarterbacks will have the benefit of a more experienced offensive line in front of them.

Minnesota: With Mitch Leidner using up his eligibility and backup Conor Rhoda looking to play elsewhere as a graduate transfer, there will be considerable turnover at quarterback for the Gophers. Candidates to start next season include freshman Seth Green and sophomore Demry Croft. Green is a dual-threat signal-caller who ran Minnesota's scout team this season. Croft played in three games in 2015 before taking a redshirt year in 2016. Minnesota did receive a commitment from junior-college quarterback Neil McLaurin in December. He played at Southwest Mississippi Community College and will have three years of eligibility at Minnesota. Whoever starts will have to fit offensive coordinator Jay Johnson's scheme, which utilizes a dual-threat quarterback to run the read-option.

Nebraska: The quarterback competition in Lincoln should be fun to watch, as the Cornhuskers look to replace Tommy Armstrong Jr. Redshirt junior Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien will be at the front of the pack. Lee played two seasons at Tulane before transferring to Nebraska. In those two seasons, he threw for 3,601 yards with 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Lee was granted an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA after he left Tulane because of a coaching change, which means he'll have two seasons to vie for the job at Nebraska. O'Brien is a highly rated pro-style quarterback who completed 74.3 percent of his passes for 2,895 yards and 32 touchdowns as a high school senior at San Juan Hills in California. Nebraska also will welcome Tristan Gebbia, who is expected to enroll this spring.

Northwestern: Clayton Thorson finished a highly successful sophomore season with a victory in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. He completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 3,182 yards with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions and will be the man in Evanston next season as well. Thorson won't have Austin Carr, who was the Big Ten's top receiver in 2016. But he likely will have tailback Justin Jackson, who has eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in each of the past three seasons and said he would stay at the school to earn his degree. That should take some pressure off Thorson. Matt Alviti figures to remain Thorson's backup, assuming he stays at the school for a fifth year. Alviti has appeared in 10 career games and completed 4 of 8 passes.

Purdue: David Blough was among the more entertaining young quarterbacks in the Big Ten this season because the Boilermakers aired the ball out more than any other league team. Blough led the conference in passing yards per game (279.3) and threw 25 touchdown passes. He'll have to significantly cut down on his turnovers after throwing a Big Ten-high 21 interceptions. Still, Purdue is in a good spot with Blough while it tries to rebuild the program under new head coach Jeff Brohm. Blough could thrive in Brohm's pass-heavy offense, which excelled at Western Kentucky. Elijah Sindelar returns as Blough's backup and played in five games in 2016. He completed 14 of 32 passes for 165 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

Wisconsin: Unless former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire decides this spring to transfer to Wisconsin, the Badgers' starting job likely belongs to Alex Hornibrook. As a redshirts freshman in 2016, Hornibrook was solid. He completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,262 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also started nine games for the Badgers after replacing fifth-year senior Bart Houston early in the season. Hornibrook split reps with Houston down the stretch but won't have to look over his shoulder next season. The only other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster will be redshirt freshman Kare Lyles and true freshman Jack Coan, who will arrive in time for spring practice.