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Ranking the Big Ten quarterbacks

The 2011 position rankings continue with the most important spot on the field.

After several down years, quarterback became a strength in the Big Ten last season as six signal-callers ranked among the top 20 nationally in pass efficiency. Three of those quarterbacks return along with promising young players like Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez.

But the Big Ten quarterback landscape is shrouded in mystery. Reigning offensive player of the year Denard Robinson is transitioning to a new offense. All-Big Ten selection Dan Persa is coming off of a serious injury. Two teams that shared the league title in 2010 -- Wisconsin and Ohio State -- have very shaky situations at quarterback. One quarterback who could transfer into the league, Russell Wilson, would change the rankings quite a bit.

These rankings take into account both past performance and potential for the 2011 season.

Here are the top 10 quarterbacks entering 2011:

1. Denard Robinson, Michigan, junior: Robinson will have an adjustment period and likely some growing pains along with it. He won't run the ball as much as he did in 2010. But when it comes to pure playmaking skills and pure athleticism, Robinson is unmatched in the league. His record-settling accomplishments in 2010 shouldn't be overlooked and neither should the strides he made as a passer. He must show greater overall consistency and the ability to attack upper-tier defenses, but he'll be working with a good crop of receivers and behind a solid offensive line.

2. Dan Persa, Northwestern, senior: How Persa bounces back from a ruptured Achilles' tendon could determine Northwestern's season, but his progress so far has been encouraging. He has been well ahead of schedule throughout the rehab process. If Persa is indeed 100 percent, Northwestern should have one of the Big Ten's most dangerous offenses. Arguably no Big Ten player meant more to his team than Persa did to Northwestern in 2010. He has a deep and talented receiving corps at his disposal and will operate behind the nation's second-most experienced offensive line. Northwestern must find ways to take some of the running burden off of Persa.

3. Kirk Cousins, Michigan State, senior: Cousins is the most-experienced Big Ten quarterback and, unlike Robinson and Persa, doesn't have major question marks lurking over him. The Spartans' signal-caller had a terrific 2010 campaign, passing for 2,825 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and ranking 18th nationally in efficiency (150.7 rating). He fought through injuries during the second half of the season to lead Michigan State to a share of the league title. Cousins must eliminate performances like Iowa and Alabama, and he'll be operating behind a new-look offensive line this fall. The senior has a good group of receivers and tight ends, led by B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.

4. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois, sophomore: If you can't tell, I'm pretty excited about Scheelhaase's prospects for 2011. He finished a very solid freshman season by making major strides in bowl practice and showcasing improved passing skills in the Texas Bowl against Baylor. Scheelhaase is a dynamic athlete who rushed for 868 yards and five touchdowns last season and will work behind a solid offensive line in 2011. He must continue to take steps as a passer, especially since Illinois doesn't have much proven depth at receiver other than A.J. Jenkins. Scheelhaase also has displayed good leadership and maturity, two areas where he should continue to thrive.

5. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, sophomore: Martinez looked like two different players during and up-and-down freshman season. When healthy, he was just as dangerous as Michigan's Robinson with the ball in his hands. Martinez racked up 112 or more rushing yards in five of Nebraska's first seven contests, and had 435 yards of offense in a win against Oklahoma State. But injuries and a loss of confidence derailed the second half of his season. Martinez must show he can stay healthy and, if not, that he can play through pain in a physical conference. His receiving corps should be decent despite few proven players, but Nebraska's offensive line is a question mark.

6. James Vandenberg, Iowa, junior: Vandenberg played sparingly in 2010, but his impressive performance in relief of Ricky Stanzi in 2009 shouldn't be overlooked. He held his own against a talented Ohio State defense at The Shoe in a game that could have sent Iowa to the Rose Bowl. While he hasn't been on the big stage in a while, Vandenberg continues to make strides behind the scenes and emerged this spring as Iowa's clear-cut leader on offense. This ranking is clearly based heavily on how Vandenberg projects for 2011, but he has the tools and the makeup to be a good one for the Hawkeyes. He'll benefit from a strong No. 1 receiver in Marvin McNutt and a talented offensive line.

7. Rob Bolden, Penn State, sophomore: The big unknown is whether Bolden stays with Penn State for the season after keeping the door open for a possible departure even after spring practice. If he does, he has a chance to take a big step forward in his development. His experience in 2010 as a true freshman should pay off, and he drew good reviews from both his coaches and his teammates this spring, not only from a technical standpoint but perhaps more importantly as a leader. The talent is there, and Bolden will be surrounded by some good receivers and running backs.

8. Rob Henry, Purdue, sophomore: This is another projection pick, but Henry has taken the steps to be a more complete and consistent quarterback in 2011. He battled a nasty hand injury for much of the Big Ten season last fall and became one-dimensional, but he looked better throwing the ball this spring. Coach Danny Hope called Henry the team's most-improved player during the offseason, and Henry clearly has his teammates' support. The big question is if and when he'll be named Purdue's starter as Robert Marve returns from a knee injury.

9. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, junior: The most encouraging part of Minnesota's spring session was Gray's ability to grasp the new offense. It's a system where dual-threat quarterbacks can thrive, and Gray fits the description after transitioning back from wide receiver. Some growing pains should be expected, but Gray can make things happen with his size and athleticism. He also has an excellent No. 1 target in Da'Jon McKnight. Gray must continue to lead the way and help his teammates get up to speed, but he has been taking the right steps so far.

10. Matt McGloin, Penn State, junior: It was a tough call between McGloin and Purdue's Marve for the final spot, but there are too many questions about Marve following two ACL tears. McGloin had a miserable end to the 2010 season, but he did some good things along the way and instilled some fire in a seemingly lifeless Penn State offense. He turned in impressive performances against both Michigan and Northwestern, rallying Penn State past the Wildcats to give coach Joe Paterno his 400th career victory. McGloin must increase his completion percentage and trim his interceptions total, but like Bolden, he can build off of the 2010 season.