Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Today's installment: Indiana.
By all conventional wisdom, what Indiana did with its quarterback position in 2013 shouldn't have worked.
The Hoosiers juggled two guys there all season, with Nate Sudfeld starting eight games and Tre Roberson getting the call four times. Coach Kevin Wilson almost never tipped his hand about who would start each week, and the quarterbacks themselves often didn't know until Saturday morning who would go in first. And each one was liable to get pulled for the other during a game.
Yet in many ways it did work, as Indiana finished first in the Big Ten and No. 17 nationally in passing yards per game. The timeshare situation never appeared to cause a major controversy or distraction for the team.
"I wouldn't say either of us was exactly happy or content with splitting time," Sudfeld told ESPN.com, "but we're working together and we're OK with it."
That's a good attitude to have, because there's a very good chance the Hoosiers go through a similar situation again this season. Roberson and Sudfeld both return for their junior seasons, and while Wilson would ultimately like one guy to separate himself as the obvious No. 1 option, the odds are against it.
"That would be nice, but at the same time, I think both those guys are clear-cut, Division I starting quarterbacks," new Indiana offensive coordinator Kevin Johns told ESPN.com. "So I think it's going to be very tough, to be honest with you. I think both are going to look pretty good this spring. The good thing is we don't have to make a decision for a long time."
The musical chairs under center began two years ago, when Roberson broke his leg early in the season. Junior college transfer Cam Coffman took over as the starter, but Sudfeld played a lot as a true freshman. The Hoosiers held a three-man competition last offseason, with Sudfeld and Roberson pulling ahead of Coffman, who has since transferred.
Roberson said he spent much of last year rebuilding his confidence to play quarterback after his injury. Still, he found it tough to stand on the sidelines as Sudfeld got the majority of the reps in the first half of 2013.
"It was hard because it was the first time it had ever happened to me," he said. "At the end of the day, though, I had to do what's best for the team and adjust. I didn't want to be the one who was all negative. If Nate was in there, I wanted to support him to the death and give him encouragement."
Sudfeld, who threw for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, said he had to work to make sure he was exuding the proper body language when he came out of games. He began the season with the hot hand, throwing for at least 320 yards in three of the first five games. But Roberson finished the year by starting against Purdue, passing for 273 yards and six touchdowns and running for 154 yards in a victory.
"Each week we tried to open it up," Johns said of the staff's quarterback decisions. "It would be, 'OK, this guy is going into the game because he has had a great week of practice,' or it would be based on the game plan and who we thought gave us the best chance to win."
Roberson has often been viewed as an excellent running quarterback who needed to improve his accuracy as a thrower, while Sudfeld was seen as a pocket guy with limited mobility. Both have worked to complete their skill set this offseason. Sudfeld has focused on his footwork, even watching film of Russell Wilson to learn how to make plays on the move. Meanwhile, Roberson has spent time with a private coach, concentrating on his mechanics with Lavar Johnson of Quarterback University in Indianapolis.
If both improve their weak areas, Johns said, it's going to be even harder to decide which one to start. They will split reps evenly this spring. The good news is both players say they're friends off the field who support each other. And it's not exactly a bad thing for either that they have to constantly compete.
"I think that makes us way better," Roberson said. "Every day, there's pressure on you to take things to another level. That always keeps you on your toes."
Perhaps one quarterback will outplay the other this spring and summer, leading to an easy choice of who should start in 2014. But the more likely scenario is that the Hoosiers will try to defy conventional wisdom once again.
"We're used to it by now," Sudfeld said. "I think it might weird us both out to just be the guy. We just try to be good teammates and good leaders."