New and improved QBs take center stage

Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski looked like a different player in the season opener.

Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito and Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson have actually become the new faces of their programs. Connor Bazelak could join the club on Friday in Indiana’s opener.

In a conference where the upper classes and experienced starters are all the rage this season, it’s the new and improved quarterbacks that are generating a (very) early hype and a lot of hope for teams looking to turn things around.

Few can match the way DeVito started his first game with the Illini.

“His first transfer was a big run and his first pass was a touchdown,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said Monday. “I think Tommy will have a significant improvement in a short period of time – not that Saturday was bad – just that he’s so motivated, very up to the task.”

Most teams seek stability in the toughest position in football, and there are plenty around the Big Ten: Sean Clifford at Penn State, Tanner Morgan at Minnesota, Aidan O’Connell at Purdue, CJ Stroud at Ohio State and Taulia Tagovailoa in Maryland.

Even the competitions look familiar with Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy in Michigan and Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla in Iowa.

But a handful of schools spent the offseason trying to move in a new direction, and what was dubbed week zero featured three.

DeVito brought a strong resume from Syracuse, where he finished in the top 10 in career completions, completion percentage, passer rating, touchdown passes and passing yards. Then he had to beat Artur Sitkowski, who helped the Illini beat Penn State in nine overtimes last season.

Turns out DeVito was worth the wait. He went 27 of 37 with 194 yards and two scores while leading Illinois to a season-opening win over Wyoming. The Illini play Friday at Indiana (7 p.m., FS1).

“I did well,” DeVito said Saturday. “I’m much harder on myself than people realize. I’ll probably pull out my iPad and watch every single throw and every decision I’ve made on the court.

At least he got a win. That’s the next goal for the Hoosiers, who will get another new quarterback as they look to snap an eight-game losing streak and nine-game conference skid.

Injuries forced Hoosiers coach Tom Allen to use four starters last season, and he declined to publicly announce his opening night starter. It could be Bazelak, a transfer from Missouri who hopes to replicate DeVito’s inspirational debut performance.

Bazelak was the SEC’s co-freshman in 2020 but struggled in 2021, throwing 16 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.

“Some new faces there, and I’m excited for those guys,” Allen said. “Animated to see our guys come out and compete.”

Nebraska and Northwestern are also eager to see recalls of their entries.

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A year ago, Hilinski completed 54% of his throws for 958 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. On Saturday in Ireland, the junior was 27 of 38 with 314 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 31-28 win over the Cornhuskers.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald wouldn’t talk about the difference between last year and this one, though Hilinski added some perspective to the confidence he and the Wildcats now possess.

“We didn’t flinch,” Hilinski said. “I looked at a scoreboard and saw (we’re hanging out) 14-3 and I was like, ‘That’s great, we’re going to be fine’ and before you know it I hit Ray (Niro) on that big ball. He caught it, scored and we went from there.

Even after another narrow loss, Nebraska saw promise in Thompson, the former Texas quarterback who put the Huskers ahead.

He went 25 of 42 with 355 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, but wasn’t happy with the result. Thompson knows he and his teammates need to find a bigger punch to end the frustration of so many tight losses during Scott Frost’s tenure.

And Thompson just might be the right person for the job.

“When I walk into the locker room, obviously I look at myself in the mirror,” Thompson said. “I have to try to be perfect every day, every training, every game.”