Big Ten's top QBs face major challenges

Most would agree that Michigan's Denard Robinson and Northwestern's Dan Persa were the Big Ten's top two quarterbacks in 2010.

Both set Big Ten and team records (and, in Robinson's case, NCAA records). Both carried their squads at times. Both displayed leadership and made those around them better. And both are back for 2011, which is good news for Michigan and Northwestern.

Here's the twist: both also face significant challenges entering the season.

Robinson and Persa find themselves in the odd position of being proven players who have to prove themselves all over again.

The reasons are different.

Robinson will run a new offense this fall after thriving in Rich Rodriguez's spread, becoming the first player in NCAA history to record at least 2,500 pass yards and at least 1,500 rush yards in the same season. Al Borges, Michigan's new offensive coordinator, employs a West Coast style offense that will require some adjustments from the 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Robinson will be taking more snaps from center, using more play-action and throwing passes on different routes than he did in the spread.

It's worth noting that Robinson took snaps from under center throughout high school. Coach Brady Hoke said last month that the staff is "smart enough to have elements he does well from what he did ... in the spread in our offense."

But Robinson will be moving from a system where he fit seamlessly to one that will take some adjustments. He didn't look too comfortable in the spring game, but has had more time to learn the scheme. Will Robinson remain the game-changer we saw in 2010? We should find out in September.

Persa, meanwhile, doesn't have to worry about a new offense. His primary concern is a surgically repaired right Achilles' tendon.

The senior hasn't played since rupturing his Achilles' on Nov. 13 against Iowa. He didn't begin running until late spring, although he's medically cleared for preseason camp, which began Monday.

It remains to be seen whether Persa is the same player after surgery and a long rehab from an injury you don't often see in college football. Although he set a Big Ten record for completion percentage (73.5) in 2010, he was exceptional with his legs, extending plays and scrambling for first downs and touchdowns. Persa wants to release the ball faster and run less this season, but he'll need his mobility to pick up where he left off.

Northwestern fell apart after Persa's injury, dropping its final three games. While Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said last month that he'd take Persa "at 40 percent over any other quarterback in the country," Persa's health and ability to produce could make or break the season.

Robinson and Persa aren't the only Big Ten returning starters at quarterback facing some uncertainty entering the fall.

Here are a few others:

Nebraska sophomore Taylor Martinez: T-Magic is adjusting to a new offense and must show he can stay healthy after fading in the second half of 2010. Martinez also loses leading receiver Niles Paul to the NFL draft.

Illinois sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase: Scheelhaase no longer shares a backfield with first-team All-Big Ten running back Mikel Leshoure. He also needs several receivers to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins.

Michigan State senior Kirk Cousins: Cousins once again has plenty of weapons around him, but he'll play behind an offensive line replacing three starters from last season. The senior dealt with shoulder and ankle injuries during the second half of the 2010 season, and unlike the other quarterbacks on this list, he lacks top-end mobility.