Big Ten QBs look to leave their mark

Quarterback questions dominated much of the offseason conversation throughout the Big Ten.

Eight of the 12 league schools at least officially had an open quarterback competition in the spring, and Northwestern continues its plan to juggle Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian based on situations. That left just three clear-cut, every-down starters in the conference, and they just happen to pilot three of the Big Ten's signature programs. In a happy coincidence, all three -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- are potential Heisman Trophy contenders in what might just be their final collegiate seasons.

These three players will in many ways be the faces of the league in 2013, and their performances could well dictate the conference race. Yet the road to this point for each hasn't always been smooth, and all three still have one major question that must be answered: Can they deliver a championship?

Miller has taken the least bumpy ride to stardom. As a sophomore last year, he won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and finished fifth in the Heisman voting while leading Ohio State to a 12-0 record.

But that came only after Miller was thrust into the starting role as a true freshman in one of the most turbulent seasons in Buckeyes history. Although he made some memorably big plays that year -- including his touchdown pass to beat Wisconsin at home -- there were also weeks when the Ohio State offense couldn't move the ball and barely tried to pass it. The team finished 6-7 for its first non-winning season in more than a decade and posted a losing Big Ten record for just the sixth time in program history.

Of that trying year, Miller said, "Man, everything just sped up ahead of time. I think it matured me and got me adjusted to the types of defenses teams run. It was just a growing-up process."

When current offensive coordinator Tom Herman arrived after that 2011 season, he saw in Miller a player who had a rocket arm and tremendous speed. But he didn't see a polished quarterback, not even by the end of 2012.

"A lot of what he did last year was based purely upon athletic ability," Herman said. "He had some understanding of what was going on. But a lot of his success was him just out there being a baller. 'The ball is snapped, it's in my hands, and I'm going to go make a play with it.'"

Herman didn't have a lot of time to fine-tune Miller's mechanics and footwork last year because he was busy installing a completely new offense. Working on that -- along with prodding quiet Miller to become more of a vocal presence -- has been a major focus of this offseason.

"Holy smokes, he's light-years ahead of where he was a year ago," Herman said. "All the intangibles have improved, and the tangibles in terms of his awareness in the pocket, his footwork and consistency in his mechanics are drastically improved. You still see some old bad habits at times, but, for the most part, he's made tremendous strides in the past year and a half."

Martinez was shopping at the mall in June when a few Nebraska fans approached him for an autograph. More fans began doing the same until mall security guards ended up forming a line to prevent chaos. Martinez spent nearly an hour and a half signing items.

That's life in the fishbowl as the Cornhuskers' starting quarterback, something he has slowly grown accustomed to now that he's entering his fourth straight season in that role.

"It's been fun," Martinez said, "but it's also been tough at times."

Martinez became an instant celebrity early in his redshirt freshman year, even garnering Heisman hype after his first five games. You don't have to think too hard to find a recent example of how such early fame can wreak havoc on a young quarterback. For Martinez, the problems included an injury that wrecked his throwing motion, controversy over how he and his family handled that injury and some critical on-the-field mistakes in key losses. He admits he could have handled things better at times.

"I probably should have talked to the media when I was a freshman," he said. "That's one thing I should have done. Maybe then they wouldn't have put a spin on my throwing motion. Maybe people wouldn't have talked bad about me.

"When you're a freshman, it's kind of hard knowing you're the main guy and you're still a young guy. You don't really know what to expect. As you start maturing and getting older, you realize you've got to go out there and have fun and know that you're a leader of the team."

Nebraska fans and Martinez have had a tense relationship at times. But the senior -- who led the Big Ten in total offense in 2012 and likely will leave Lincoln owning nearly all the school's career quarterback records -- has gradually embraced the attention, becoming a little more open in interviews and even smiling more often in public.

"He's just been through a lot," Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said. "But every step of the way, he's stayed focused, he's been hungry, his work ethic is tremendous, and it's enabled him to grow throughout all those different things. …

"He's a quiet, pretty reserved guy who all of a sudden was thrust into the spotlight. That's not easy to deal with. It's all been a process that he's persevered through and come through and done a heck of a job of continuing to stay focused and stay grounded and just trying to make himself a better player."

Of the three quarterbacks, Gardner took the most unusual route to this destination. A celebrated recruit, he lost the starting quarterback battle to Denard Robinson as a freshman and struggled to get on the field for more than a handful of plays before accepting a switch to receiver last season.

Most players with his talent in that situation would have transferred. But Gardner stayed patient.

"I believed I'd get a chance," he said. "I knew I'd have one year, at least. That was my thought: 'I'm going to have to work hard, and, when I get my opportunity, I'm going to take advantage of it.'"

A planned part-time role at receiver turned into more of a full-time gig as Gardner excelled at it. Then, in the middle of the season, Robinson and his backup, Russell Bellomy, got injured. The Wolverines had a week to switch their entire offensive philosophy from a spread to a modified pro style and get Gardner back up to speed in time for the Minnesota game. Gardner called it "kind of surreal."

He threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns that Saturday and ran for another TD. Gardner would finish the season as Michigan's starting quarterback, turning the team's passing game from a liability into a strength. Now, he finally has had an entire offseason to lead the offense as the unquestioned starter.

"He's jumped in with both feet," Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "This is his opportunity to prove he can do it, and he's taken the bull by the horns. His upside is off the charts."

Gardner could naturally feel envious of guys such as Miller and Martinez, guys who played early and often while he waited. But his willingness to sacrifice earned him respect from teammates and coaches, and he said that forced him to mature.

"I did one of the things that every quarterback would hate to do," he said. "Coach Borges says the aspect that gets overlooked in a quarterback is toughness. I feel like I've displayed a whole lot of mental toughness throughout my career."

If Martinez, Gardner and Miller share one trait, it's their athleticism. Both Miller and Martinez rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year, and Gardner finished second on the Wolverines with four touchdown catches, a fact he still uses to poke fun at his receivers.

They probably could play just about anywhere on the field. Martinez was recruited by some schools as a defensive back and played receiver on the scout team his redshirt year. When asked whether he could mirror Gardner's position switch, the Nebraska star answered, "I'm a great athlete, and I can catch the ball really well. So, that would be easy to do." Asked the same question, Miller said, "On athletic ability, yeah, I could. But I don't want to."

I did one of the things that every quarterback would hate to do. Coach Borges says the aspect that gets overlooked in a quarterback is toughness. I feel like I've displayed a whole lot of mental toughness throughout my career.

--Michigan QB Devin Gardner

All three have had to shore up their mechanics and have spent time on their own studying with quarterback gurus in California. Miller and Gardner received tutoring from George Whitfield Jr., and Martinez has worked with Steve Calhoun. Although perhaps needing some refining as pure quarterbacks, their other attributes make up for any lack of polish.

"A prototypical pro-style quarterback does things more by structure," Borges said. "He's more dependent on your play call, your protection and certain things that are difficult to control. Whereas when you have a playmaker back there, he can do things still by structure but has what I call the third play. That is, when the protection breaks down, receivers are not open or whatever, he's now like a point guard in basketball. He can create something.

"In this day and age, we're always looking for a kid who can make that third play."

Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska all have "third-play" quarterbacks. But the one major hole on each of their résumés is the absence of a championship. Miller, who has suffered through one losing season and then a year without a bowl game because of probation, says the chance to bring a title to Columbus "means everything." Gardner agrees with Michigan coach Brady Hoke's assessment that the Wolverines "fail" when they don't win a Big Ten title, something they haven't accomplished since 2004. The Huskers haven't captured a conference crown since 1999, and Pelini says that "at the end of the day, it comes down to winning championships" for any Nebraska quarterback's legacy.

Martinez, Miller and Gardner all overcame some early adversity to get to this point. The question for all three is where their differing paths will lead in 2013.