With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:
1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?
2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.
3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?
Embracing the art of Hard Work is to disappearing from society. Therefore, we at Michigan Football designate 2015 as the year of Hard Work— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 27, 2015
4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.
5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.
6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.
8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.
10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.
It’s Friday, which means it’s time for one of the Big Ten Blog’s newest regular features: #B1GFridayFive. We begin the end of each week with a new topic in hopes that it will inspire you to join the conversation, pass it along, our tell us how dumb and biased we are. Use the hashtag and give us your thoughts directly by following @MitchSherman, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @ESPNRittenberg, @AWardESPN and @ESPN_BigTen.
Given the buzz about the conference’s “Year of Readiness” idea earlier this week, we decided to take a look at which players have benefitted the most from staying on the sideline during their first year on campus. Here are our top five returning redshirt seniors in the Big Ten. An important caveat: In the spirit of freshman ineligibility, no one on this list played as a true freshman. Fifth-year players who sat out later in their careers (Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, for example) don’t qualify.
1. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
The former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year passed up the NFL draft for a season to chase a national championship in East Lansing. Calhoun is used to putting things on hold for a year. After sitting out as a true freshman, he played on the defensive line in all 13 games in 2012. He began the following year with three defensive touchdowns in his first two games and has been a staple of the Spartans defense since then. His return this year gives Michigan State a dominant pass-rusher to anchor a front seven that has some key players to replace.
2. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
No one benefits more from delayed gratification than the Spartans. Mark Dantonio’s system builds its players into overachievers with slow and steady progress. His quarterback is no exception. Cook improved incrementally during the 2013 season and was at the center of completing the country’s biggest two-year offensive turnaround last fall. Cook will be essential in his final season for an offense that loses top receiver Tony Lippett and top back Jeremy Langford, both of whom were also beneficiaries of a redshirt year.
3. Michael Caputo, S, Wisconsin
Wisconsin is another program that doesn’t often attract the blue-chip athletes ready to compete for starting jobs when they arrive on campus. Caputo was considered the top prep player in western Pennsylvania at one point, but still waited his turn with the Badgers. In his fourth season, he led the defense with 106 tackles. After losing starting inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch to graduation, Wisconsin in thrilled to have another year of Caputo keeping the middle of the defense steady.
4. Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State
Zettel became an impact player for the Nittany Lions last fall when he moved inside from the defensive end spot. His martial arts training helped him shed blockers to finish the year with 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Had he played in 2012, Zettel would have been a one-year wonder for Penn State. Now he has the chance to return for another season under coordinator Bob Shoop to lead a stingy front seven.
5. Paul James, RB, Rutgers
James has only 15 collegiate games under his belt after four years at Rutgers. He missed the last nine games of the season in 2014 after tearing his ACL in September. Before the injury, he scored a nation-leading six touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season. James might have competed for headlines with the plethora of Big Ten running backs had he stayed healthy. Instead, he’ll have another season in 2015 to separate himself from the pack.
Of course, it was about Harbaugh.
“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever been around,” U-M offensive coordinator Tim Drevo told reporters Thursday night after the Wolverines’ second practice of the spring.
What, not the smartest man in the world?
It should be noted that Drevno, 45, worked with Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007 to 2010. If you take him at his word on Harbaugh, it’s safe to assume Drevno didn’t get out and about much on the Stanford campus, which is full of its share of smart people.
Otherwise, in this opening week, Drevo said he likes what he’s seen from Michigan, which returns its entire offensive line.
Drevno, who will call plays next season and coaches the line, told the Detroit News:
“There’s something special in there. Are we there yet? No. It’s Day 2, but there’s something special in there, and I’m excited about it.”
Ah, the optimism of spring.
Some intriguing data and excellent analysis here by Joseph Juan of numberFire on the NFL combine results of Melvin Gordon.
According to the numbers, the former Wisconsin All-American compares favorably to many of the great running backs of this generation.
Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. ... As a testament to the rarity of Gordon’s collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth for (build, speed, power and explosiveness.)
The writer finds, in conclusion, that Gordon “appears that he’s primed for a breakout rookie season.”
Full disclaimer: While I enjoy the NFL draft, I’m not sold on the predictive ability of the combine, pro days or individual workouts. I think a player’s body of work in college serves as the best indicator of his NFL potential -- and Gordon couldn’t have done much better in that category.
Stats and measurements can be interpreted to make just about any argument. Nevertheless, the numberFire breakdown of Gordon is solid.
I agree that he’s got a chance to join the backs to whom he’s compared in this article. But the organization that drafts him in May likely ranks as the top factor in determining his shot to make a rookie splash.
A Friday trip around the rest of the Big Ten:
- The quarterback competition is just getting started at Northwestern.
- Mark Dantonio is understandably bullish on Michigan State's chances to maintain its top-five status from the past two seasons.
- Indiana's cornerbacks under the spring spotlight.
- Doran Grant will be difficult to replace for an Ohio State secondary that made huge strides in 2014.
- Nebraska's 2015 roster is the best in the Big Ten West, according to this analysis.
- Penn State running back commitment Miles Sanders added a scholarship offer from Alabama.
- A spring preview of Rutgers from the Big Ten Network.
- Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Brad Craddock is the only repeat member of Maryland's leadership council, the Terps' version of captains.
- Social media can be a friend or enemy to college athletes.
And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.
We come now to the end, with special teams. Since it's virtually impossible to predict what kick coverage units will look like several months from now or project how new starters will fare on field goals and such, we're basing these rankings mostly on who's coming back at place-kicker, punter and returner.
Here we go:
Best of the best: Maryland
The Terrapins return the 2014 Lou Groza Award winner in Brad Craddock, who missed only one field goal all of last season. They also bring back an elite return man in Will Likely, who led the Big Ten in kickoff return average and was third on punt return average last year. Punter Nate Renfro is also back, giving Randy Edsall both experience and trust at the key specialist spots.
Next up: Ohio State
It's entirely possible that Cam Johnston is a wizard, as his rugby-style punts somehow both cover a ton of distance yet seem to stop at the right places. He was brilliant in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes also have a boatload of speed they can use in the return game, including Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. Place-kicker Sean Nuernberger is back after a respectable freshman campaign, but it's not like Urban Meyer really wants to kick field goals, anyway.
Sleepers: Nebraska and Minnesota
"Sleeper" isn't really the right word here, but we wanted to give a shout out to both of these special-teams units.
The Huskers have one of the nation's most electrifying punt return men in De'Mornay Pierson-El, who averaged 17.5 yards per attempt and scored three touchdowns last year. Punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown also return and could improve with experience.
Minnesota has the reigning Big Ten punter of the year in Peter Mortell, plus highly productive returners Jalen Myrick and Craig James. More accuracy from kicker Ryan Santoso (12-of-18 as a freshman) would solidify the Gophers as one of the best special-teams groups around.
Problem for contenders: Penn State and Michigan
Again, it's nearly impossible to predict how new kickers will fare, as you don't really get to see how they will fare in pressure situations until the games begin. Both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have some big shoes to fill.
Place-kicker Sam Ficken was far and away the best thing about Penn State's otherwise highly shaky special teams in 2014, and now he's graduated. The team doesn't have a scholarship kicker on the roster and may turn to walk-on Joe Julius. Punt and return teams must make major strides as well.
Michigan lost both its place-kicker (Matt Wile) and punter (Will Hagerup) to graduation, and its return game was no better than average last season. New special-teams coach John Baxter will have his work cut out for him this spring in bringing some new names -- like freshman kicker Andrew Davis -- along.
The conference’s plan to circulate a white paper regarding keeping football and basketball players off the field for their first year on campus has become a hot topic for anyone involved with college sports this week. Reactions have ranged from cautious support to complete dismissal to “I don’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
The Big Ten’s release was flushed out with a handful of ideas that Delaney and his athletic directors would like NCAA members to mull over in the next year leading up to the organization’s national convention. Of the brainstorming icebreakers -- which included time commitments, length of season and academic requirements – the only one to gain much attention was the most outlandish and improbable: freshman ineligibility. Maybe that was the point.
Several theories about the proposal’s actual intent have been floated in the past few days: Maybe this week’s meeting was purely a public relations stunt so Delaney and other could proudly tout the Big Ten’s commitment to academics. Maybe it was to try to nudge the NBA toward raising its minimum age requirement. Or maybe it was an attention-grabbing idea designed to stir up enough interest that smart minds started thinking about more logical solutions.
The possibility of the idea actually becoming an NCAA rule seems both unrealistic and counterintuitive. This is an all-or-nothing deal, and the vast majority of Div. I universities that don’t deal with one-and-done players don’t have the resources (or the motivation) to give all their student-athletes an extra year of scholarship money. The NCAA already created a rule that will keep academically at risk athletes off the field as freshmen. It goes into effect in 2016. Does it make sense to punish the freshmen that are ready to handle school and sport by making them sit out a year too?
If the schools are genuine in their academic-first approach, shouldn’t they focus on the other ideas that create an environment where the workload for athletics is manageable for all student-athletes regardless of their year? Doesn’t the “Year of Readiness” discourage student-athletes from finishing their degrees in four years? Why rush when you know you’ve got five years on campus? And doesn’t that set student-athletes apart from all of their other peers? Isn’t that the perception the NCAA is trying to avoid in the first place?
The Big Ten’s idea, which has been endorsed by commissioners from the Big 12 and the Pac-12 as well, raises plenty of questions. If that was the point, then kudos, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And now, onto your links…
- The quarterbacks and offensive linemen are players to watch as Northwestern gets spring practice started this week.
- A film room-style breakdown of how Ohio State’s offense got better during the 2014 season.
- Penn State ticket prices for 2015 are out. Michigan and Rutgers will be the most expensive games of the year for fans.
- A good week at the NFL combine reflects well on Michigan State’s program, says Mark Dantonio.
- It’s the more, the merrier at quarterback for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan this spring.
- The majority of Rutgers’ fans are ready to forgive Ray Rice and welcome him back to campus.
- Maryland’s football team is warming up for spring practice with a little dunk contest.
- The assistant coaches at Wisconsin are getting a small bump in salary under new coach Paul Chryst.
- Brian Stewart brings college and professional experience to his new role with the Cornhuskers.
- Could Iowa’s Brandon Scherff follow in the footsteps of former college tackle and current All-Pro guard Zack Martin?
The exodus of high-profile run-stuffers leaves a large group of programs bunched together in the middle of the pack when evaluating the conference's linebacker units at the start of 2015. Most of those teams losing big-name players have good depth and a supporting cast to help fill the gaps. It may take time next fall to sort through which groups have weathered losses the best and which young players will rise to the occasion.
Best of the Best: Ohio State
No surprise here. The Buckeyes will be at the top of many of these position breakdown lists. Senior Joshua Perry returns to lead this athletic group. He finished a breakout 2014 season with a team-leading 124 tackles. Freshman Darron Lee started to emerge as a future star with the ability to make big plays late in the season, especially during an MVP performance at the Sugar Bowl. Raekwon McMillan and incoming freshman Justin Hilliard provide more young talent for a group that is still improving after a national championship this past fall.
Next up: Michigan State, Penn State
The Spartans, who had the country's stingiest rushing defense last year, will have at least one player named Bullough (junior Riley) in the second level of its defense next fall. That is historically a good sign for Michigan State. He joins senior Ed Davis, who won honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2014, to give the linebacker unit a sleeker, speedier look than on previous Mark Dantonio defenses. The departure of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves a little bit of uncertainty, but new coach Mark Snyder should help this unit remain a feared entity.
Penn State finished only a couple spots behind Michigan State in stopping the run. Hull is gone, but the majority of a deep unit returns. Starters Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman return for their second season in the lineup. Wartman finished second on the team last year with 75 tackles. The return of Ben Kline, who missed all of 2014 as part of an injury-riddled career so far, should also help the unit.
The Wolverines lose a natural ballhawk in Jake Ryan but shouldn't take a major step back after quietly having one of the better linebacker groups in the conference last year. Senior Joe Bolden is ready to take over for Ryan after making 102 tackles last year. Fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan missed almost all of 2014 with a hand injury, but he returns for his fourth season as a starter. Two defensive assistants with great track records coaching linebackers, D.J. Durkin and Greg Mattison, should help solve any issues Michigan has at the position.
Problem for a contender: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are still struggling to get up to speed at linebacker in the Big Ten. Michael Rose-Ivey missed a full year after setting a Nebraska freshman record with 66 tackles in 2013. He will be back on the field, but the loss of two starters (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) means that there is still work to be done in filling out the two-deep. Nebraska missed out on a good chance to add experience when South Carolina transfer Kaiwan Lewis chose Rutgers over the Cornhuskers in early February.
1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.
3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.
5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
1. It's great to have football back, even if it's only spring practice. Michigan was the first Big Ten team to open spring drills on Tuesday, and Northwestern hits the field for the first time Wednesday.
What's also great is the, uh, unique way Jim Harbaugh answers questions. While Michigan likely will never be much of a fountain of information under its new head coach (or the previous one, or ...), at least Harbaugh gives some unorthodox quotes. Like his response to a Q&A on the school's website about what it's like to start spring drills:
It's like Thanksgiving. It's like New Year's Day. It's like a family reunion. And having it all rolled into one. Most people think of Jan. 1 as the start of a new year. To people who espouse to Catholicism and Christianity, they might correlate that with the birth of Christ. Us in football, the start of spring practice and the first day of summer training camp are what you look at as the New Year with fireworks going off, it's your birthday. It's being born back into football, it's a happening.
Q: So it's the birth of a new team?
Yeah, it's like coming out of the mother's womb. You're in a nice, warm, cozy environment -- safe. And now you are out into the chaos and bright lights. It's a happening. It's all those things rolled into one.
And it's also like the first day of school. You're so excited for that first day of school, and the night before you set out your clothes, you stuff your lunch into a lunch box, and off you go. It's the start. It's laying down a benchmark. Now we have a place to start from. We have a place to improve from. We have a place to go forward from, and you hope to lay that benchmark halfway up the mountain -- and not way down on the flat land.
Michigan's first practice was full of enthusiasm and energy, Harbaugh said.
2. Now that the NFL combine's over and we know who the top performers were, who rose and who fell from the Big Ten?
Much of that is subjective, of course, but just about everybody agrees that Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes helped himself the most. With his ridiculous 4.31 time in the 40-yard dash and other great showings in the drills, Waynes is rocketing up draft boards. According to NFL.com's Charles Davis, "Waynes has put himself in the top 10-15 territory."
Our Todd McShay is not as bullish as Waynes' former high school teammate, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. McShay writes that Gordon "had a decent workout but not a great one, putting up results that were average or above-average in every category." Still, our Scouts Inc. says Gordon still has a good shot to go late in the first round and adds that Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah emerged as a sleeper "who should land somewhere in the Day 2 range."
But analyst Mike Huguenin writes that Abdullah was one of five players who hurt his stock, thanks to his 4.6 time in the 40. Huguenin also includes Michigan's Devin Funchess in the stock down.
You know what they say: It only takes one team to fall in love with you.
Around the league ...
- Pat Fitzgerald gave a preview of what to expect at Northwestern's spring practice.
- Michigan State is a program about to decline? Mark Dantonio scoffs at that notion.
- Purdue's Gerad Parker has returned to his passion: coaching receivers.
- The salary pool for Wisconsin assistants will see a modest increase.
- Urban Meyer and the Ohio State cruise ship finally returned to port last night.
- James Franklin will be the headliner on Penn State's coaches caravan. A recruit received 107 letters from the Nittany Lions.
- Previewing the position battle at cornerback for Indiana this spring.
- Former Huskers have praise for new Nebraska defensive backs coach Brian Stewart.
- Athlon's list of running backs on the rise includes several Big Ten names.
As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Offensive line is next on the list. For others in the series, click here:
Best of the best: Michigan State
The linchpins are back in rising junior left tackle Jack Conklin and senior center Jack Allen, both of whom will land on preseason All-America teams. The pair of Jacks spearheaded the line last year as the Spartans allowed a Big Ten-low 11 sacks, converted 49.7 percent on third down (second to Ohio State) and operated more efficiently in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations than any other Big Ten team. Donavon Clark also returns at tackle. The Spartans lose left guard Travis Jackson, a second-team all-conference pick, and versatile mainstay Connor Kruse. Brian Allen, Kodi Kieler and Miguel Machado appear ready to compete. And these guys will look even better with Connor Cook in command of the offense.
Next up: Ohio State and Wisconsin
A temptation exists to rank every OSU unit as the Big Ten’s best, and the Buckeyes aren’t far off on the offensive line. They lose only right tackle Darryl Baldwin from a group that turned dominant late last season en route to clearing a path to the national title for Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. Left tackle Taylor Decker, the lone returning starter last year, ranks among the nation’s best at his position, and right guard Pat Elflein earned all-conference honors. Center Jacoby Boren and left guard Billy Price are also back as starters.
At Wisconsin, the cupboard is considerably more empty with the departure of right guard Kyle Costigan, right tackle Rob Havenstein, both All-Big Ten picks, and left guard Dallas Lewallen. Alongside the brilliance of Melvin Gordon, this was the league’s best unit last year. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz return to anchor the line in 2015. Michael Deiter is ready to go as a redshirt freshman, and the Badgers will find two more starters among a promising group of youngsters.
The Wolverines weren’t bad on the line last year. Seriously. OK, at least, it was an improvement over 2013, and all five starters are back to go with, presumably, a much more well designed offensive system. With left tackle Mason Cole, who played as a true freshman, guards Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis, center Jack Miller and right tackle Ben Braden, Michigan looks the part. New offensive coordinator and O-line coach Tim Drevno has plenty of tools with which to work. Reserves Erik Magnuson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Blake Bars and Patrick Kugler give Michigan a chance to develop solid depth this spring. The Wolverines should be better at running back with the addition of Ty Isaac. A breakthrough season across the front isn’t out of the question.
Problem for a contender: Penn State
It was flat-out ugly last year as the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks, last in the Big Ten and 121st nationally, and averaged 2.94 yards per rush – 122nd nationally. PSU lost left tackle Donovan Smith early to the NFL and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Center Angelo Mangiro and tackle Andrew Nelson lead the group of returnees, and Penn added a pair of potential difference-makers in January in freshman Sterling Jenkins and juco transfer Paris Palmer. Four freshmen redshirted last year. Really, there’s nowhere to go but up, but Penn State needs fast improvement from its line to allow QB Christian Hackenberg time to operate. If growth here is slow, so will be Penn State’s offensive progress.
Pass-catchers were largely overshadowed by big-name running backs in the conference last season. There are a handful of receivers with star power returning in 2015, but the strongest units in the Big Ten next fall will thrive on their ability to spread the wealth to a balanced corps of playmakers in the passing game.
Best of the best: Penn State and Ohio State
The Nittany Lions return DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis, both of whom looked to be headed toward 1,000-yard seasons in 2014 before an inexperienced line and struggling running game grinded Penn State’s offense to a halt. Tight end Adam Breneman missed all of his sophomore year recovering from surgery, but should be one of the conference’s best tight ends if he stays healthy in 2015. Depth will come from sophomore Saeed Blacknall and three freshmen ranked among the top 100 receivers in this year’s recruiting class.
Ohio State loses deep-ball specialist Devin Smithbut has the playmakers to replace him. Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall will once again be standout weapons in the passing game. The late addition of incoming freshman K.J. Hill, who literally broke a defender’s ankle last fall, provides the potential for another young contributor.
Next up: Mike Riley inherits a capable duo at wide receiver with a pair of former All-Big Ten Freshmen. Junior Jordan Westerkamp caught 44 passes for 747 yards and flashed some highlight-reel ability during his sophomore season. De'Mornay Pierson-El made his biggest impact as a rookie in the return game, but should be a big part of the Cornhuskers’ offense in 2015. Losing standout Kenny Bell to the NFL is the only thing keeping this group from being at the top of the list.
Sleepers: Illinois and Rutgers
Illini freshman Mike Dudek had a standout rookie season of his own. He had six touchdowns and 1,038 receiving yards last fall. Along with seniors Geronimo Allison and Josh Ferguson, who both had more than 40 receptions last fall, quarterback Wes Lunt has the targets to sneak up on a few teams next fall.
Rutgers lacks depth is the passing game, but may have the Big Ten’s top returning receiver in Leonte Carroo (55 catches, 1,086 yards, 10 TDs in 2014). Carroo’s decision to put the NFL on hold for another year will be a major help for the Scarlet Knights, who lost junior tight end Tyler Kroft and still need time to develop the rest of a young, but potentially talented group of receivers.
Problem for a contender: Wisconsin
The Badgers finished near the bottom of the league last fall with less than 150 passing yards per game. To call their pass attack a “problem” last year wouldn’t be totally accurate. It was more of an unnecessary appendage with Melvin Gordon running wild. Gordon is gone and so are three starting offensive linemen in Paul Chryst’s first season back in Madison. The running game will still be strong, but the lack of a passing threat could be a bigger issue in 2015. The Badgers need to find more support for former walk-on Alex Erickson, the only returning receiver with more than 14 catches last year.
Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.
Tuesday's roundtable topic: What Big Ten coaching job has the most upside?
Brian Bennett: Maryland
You can look at this question a number of ways. I chose to view it as a program that's not currently viewed in any way, shape or form as one of the nation's top jobs, yet has the potential for serious growth. That's why I picked the Terrapins. Granted, to do so means to ignore much of history, as Maryland's past couple of decades contain a lot of mediocrity (or worse). Ardent fan support isn't really there, either; this is anecdotal, but here at the Big Ten blog, we almost never hear a peep from Terps fans (and the ACC folks will tell you the same was true in their neighborhood).
Even still, this job has a lot of things going for it. The school is located in a fertile, if highly competitive, location for recruits. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank could be Maryland's version of Phil Knight, pouring money into the program and upping the "coolness" factor. Ralph Friedgen showed from 2001 to 2003 -- when the Terrapins went 31-8 and finished first or second in the ACC each season -- that very good things are possible in College Park under the right circumstances. It will be an uphill climb in the East Division, but the upside certainly exists.
Mitch Sherman: Penn State
The Nittany Lions haven’t gone more than five straight years without a 10-win season since the early 1960s -- a streak in jeopardy in 2015 after a tumultuous stretch in the wake of tragedy, scandal and two coaching changes. Are there 10 wins on Penn State's schedule in 2015? If coach James Franklin can fix the offense during the offseason, maybe. Regardless, Penn State is a 10-win program -- and it can reach greater heights in special seasons, which remain within reach amid the rigorous East Division. Its combination of fan support, resources, natural recruiting ground and history match that of the best programs in the Big Ten.
Three years ago, Penn State wasn’t a top-five coaching job in the league. The work of Franklin, predecessor Bill O’Brien and the school administration has repositioned the Nittany Lions to emerge from this dark period and make strides as significant as any Big Ten team during the next two to three years.
Dan Murphy: Michigan
Michigan's program isn't in the top tier of the Big Ten right now, but it offers the biggest reward for the coach who can boost this team up a level. Much like at Penn State, all of the resources (financial and human) that come with a winning tradition are in place in Ann Arbor. It only takes a little bit of momentum for those advantages to start working in Michigan's favor. If and when they do, the infrastructure is in place for the Wolverines to eventually compete for conference titles and playoff spots. The Michigan coach has opportunities to take incremental steps forward (a bowl game one season, a win over a hated rival the next, etc.) to keep that momentum rolling in the right direction. Jim Harbaugh is already considered one of the top coaches in the game, but a speedy turnaround at Michigan would launch him to exalted status in the Mitten State.
Why do I feel like everyone on Twitter is talking to Jim Harbaugh these days?
The Wolverines will be warm and cozy at practice inside Al Glick Field House. Northwestern also starts this week. Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska open drills next week, which makes now as good a time as any to review staff openings around the Big Ten.
Presumably, all 14 programs will get back to full strength for spring practice. For now, three teams remain down a man.
Since we last took a divisional look at offseason changes in the East and the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin lost assistant coaches. Brian Stewart left Maryland as defensive coordinator to take the opening at Nebraska.
And Purdue hired Terry Malone over the weekend to coach tight ends.
Malone made it to a 6 a.m. workout Monday with the Boilermakers.
He is an intriguing hire for Purdue. Most recently the tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints, where he was instrumental in the development of 2013 first-team All-Pro pick Jimmy Graham, Malone coordinated Michigan's offense from 2002-05 and also worked under Lloyd Carr as offensive line coach.
Michigan won five league crowns in Malone's nine seasons. He brings an NFL pedigree and a history of success in the Big Ten. Pretty good place to start for the Boilermakers, who have won one Big Ten game in two seasons under coach Darrell Hazell.
The imminent Stewart hire at Nebraska, to replace Charlton Warren as secondary coach, also makes sense for Mike Riley, who generally picks coaches that he or his assistants know. Stewart served a solid stint in 2007-08 with the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator. Also on that Dallas staff was Bruce Read, Nebraska's special teams coach and a longtime Riley assistant.
Stewart is a San Diego native and coached the secondary for the Chargers before his stint in Dallas; Riley, former head coach of the Chargers, and his staff have numerous San Diego ties.
Of little relevance, Stewart, as the Cowboys coordinator, succeeded Mike Zimmer, who -- after the 2003 season -- interviewed for the Nebraska head-coaching job. It went to Bill Callahan, who spent 2012-14 with the Cowboys.
And of minor relevance, Stewart would be the only full-time member of the Nebraska staff to coach a game at Memorial Stadium. He spent three seasons at Missouri, losing to the Huskers in 1996 and 2000 in Lincoln and in 1999 at Mizzou.
Here's a rundown of the programs with open positions:
- Illinois still has an opening after the January firing of two assistant coaches. The spot yet to be filled was vacated by special teams coach Tim Salem, though coach Tim Beckman might hire for a different position. Beckman said recently that he had interviewed internal candidates and likely would assign Alex Golesh, the Fighting Illini recruiting coordinator who worked last season with running backs and tight ends, to handle a heavy load on special teams next season.
- Maryland needs an assistant to replace Stewart. Inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski was promoted to defensive coordinator.
- Wisconsin must hire a running backs coach to replace Thomas Brown, who left for alma mater, Georgia. John Settle, who coached the position for the Badgers from 2006-10 and for Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh last season, has been mentioned in reports as a candidate.
- Michigan features a bigger backfield as spring practice opens. How will Harbaugh's big personality impact the Wolverines?
- A few Northwestern players decide to support their basketball team -- in full pads.
- Former Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes had a great day at the NFL combine.
- Ex-Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon mmight land in the first round of the NFL draft.
- Yet another reason for the Hawkeyes to be proud of Hayden Fry's contributions to Iowa.
- The coach of Ohio State running back recruit Mike Weber feels much better now about Urban Meyer.
- A review of Minnesota's three former stars at combine.
- Five players with the most to gain for Nebraska this spring.
- As the Big Ten mulls the eligibility of true freshmen, here are five rookie performances that helped Rutgers.
- Former longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is headed to UCLA after one season at West Virginia.
Let’s get started with a look at the league’s quarterbacks – always the premier position but especially in 2015 as the Big Ten looks likely next year place a quarterback in the opening round of the NFL draft for the first time since Kerry Collins in 1995. Only Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern are replacing starters, and nine teams return a quarterback with more than one year of experience as the man in charge.
Intriguing storylines abound.
Best of the best: Ohio State and Michigan State
Any conversation about Big Ten quarterbacks begins with the Buckeyes and their three-headed monster of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. We won’t go in depth on the trio, but know this: Ohio State would be favored by many to repeat as national champion with any of three at the helm next fall. Miller and Barrett, of course, must return to good health after the spring. Health is not a concern for the Spartans, who have a bonafide star in rising senior Connor Cook. Cook could have made a splash in the draft this year but opted to return after throwing for 24 touchdowns and 3,214 yards last season in leading MSU to a second straight top-five finish. As long as he’s at the helm, Michigan State won’t be far from the national spotlight.
Next up: Penn State and Nebraska
The numbers aren’t over-the-top great for Christian Hackenberg, who took a step back statistically as a sophomore with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. His completion percentage of 55.8 also dropped, but Hackenberg remains arguably the most physically gifted Big Ten QB. And if Penn State improves on the offensive line, a breakout season would surprise few. The situation is more murky for Tommy Armstrong Jr. and the Huskers. He must first win the job over inexperienced contenders as new coach Mike Riley takes stock of talent in the spring. But for Armstrong, the ceiling is high. He started eight games as a redshirt freshman, then threw for 2,695 yards and rushed for 705 last year. Armstrong still fought consistency but displayed big-play skills in accounting for more than 400 yards in the Huskers’ Holiday Bowl loss to USC.
Don’t forget about Nate Sudfeld, back from surgery on his non-throwing, left shoulder to reclaim the starting position for a third season. He threw for 2,523 yards in 2013 and started well last fall, leading a late drive to beat Missouri before he was hurt against Iowa. Sudfeld’s absence crippled the IU offense, which got a boost this offseason with the transfer of a Jordan Howard and Marqui Hawkins, a dynamic running back-receiver combo from UAB. It’s up to Sudfeld to make the pieces fit and carry the Hoosiers back to a bowl game.
Problem for a contender: Wisconsin
New coach Paul Chryst inherits an interesting situation with Joel Stave, who missed the first four games of his junior season with a case of the yips. After his Octoer return, Stave rarely showed the poise from his first year as a starter in 2013. He completed 61.9 percent of his throws as a sophomore; it was just 53.4 last year with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. For some, patience has worn thin for Stave, who must adjust to life without Melvin Gordon in the backfield. Still, he looks like the Badgers’ best option unless someone emerges this spring from the group of Tanner McEvoy, who could move back to defense, Bart Houston or freshmen Austin Kafentzis and Alex Hornibrook.
Is it an idea whose time has come? Or an old approach that doesn’t reflect modern realities?
Unless and until more details emerge, I would lean toward the latter.
First of all, freshmen ineligibility in men’s basketball is a non-starter without a change in the NBA age-limit rule or the creation of a better non-college option than the D-league. You only have to look at Duke, Kentucky, or Ohio State to realize there are true freshmen right now who are plenty good enough to be in the NBA, and restricting them from playing in college or at that level for a year would be unfair.
Things are different in college football, where a lot of players redshirt their first year anyway. But it’s also true that many are ready to contribute as true freshmen. Justin Jackson, Mikey Dudek, Mason Cole, and De'Mornay Pierson-El are just a few names of true freshmen who made a major impact last season in the Big Ten. (No wonder Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith opposes freshmen ineligibility, since Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer says he doesn’t redshirt.)
Of course, the rule would be more about preparing players for the academic rigors of college than performing on the field. At the same time, however, teams are always going to bring in borderline students or even academic risks who have exceptional talent. Will a year off really make a huge difference for those types of players? How do you keep them engaged in school and the team when the reward of games has been removed for a year? Would players automatically get a sixth year if they need a medical redshirt later in their careers? What about transfers? And would you really want to see big-time stars -- like, say, Joey Bosa and Christian Hackenberg -- potentially jump to the NFL after only two seasons of playing for your team?
The sport's leaders should be lauded for trying to find ways to emphasize the college part of college football. Yet it's the uniquely American and mostly illogical practice of turning our universities into quasi-minor league teams that is the intractable problem. Making freshmen ineligible raises as many questions as it might solve.
Maryland changes defensive coordinators
Give the Terrapins points for stealth. Few people forecast the change Maryland made on Thursday, when it replaced defensive coordinator Brian Stewart with inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski.
The official Terrapins company line was that the team and Stewart agreed to "mutually part ways." But given that Stewart was handed a multi-year contract extension just 13 months ago, it’s hard to believe the decision wasn't more one-sided than that.
Stewart has a strong track record and was mentioned as a candidate for Tulsa’s head coaching job in December. Yet his defenses in College Park got a little worse each of the past three years. Despite some individual standouts on last season’s unit -- like defensive end Andre Monroe, cornerback Will Likely and linebacker Cole Farrand -- the Terps finished 95th in the FBS in yards allowed and tied for 87th in points allowed (30.2). The defense completely collapsed in the second half against Rutgers in the season finale, and gave up 45 points to Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Stewart will land on his feet and might already have another job lined up. Dudzinski, a coaching veteran who ran defenses at smaller schools in the Northeast earlier in his career, now has the task of reshaping this Terrapins defense that will break in almost an entirely new starting front seven this spring.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten ...
- Quarterback guru George Whitfield is confident about Braxton Miller's return.
- Indiana's Tevin Coleman played nearly half the season with a broken toe -- and still rushed for 2,000 yards.
- Some Iowa football players got down with their bad selves at halftime of a Hawkeyes basketball game.
- Michigan's Devin Funchess said he could have played basketball in college.
- Another guy named Allen could be headed to Michigan State soon.
- Minnesota is excited about its redshirt freshman receivers.
- Scouts don't have to question much about Nebraska's straight-shooting Ameer Abdullah.
- Bill O'Brien cheered when he heard Penn State's sanctions had been lifted.
- Melvin Gordon is being realistic at the NFL combine.
- Is Illinois getting better under Tim Beckman?
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD Southern Illinois Indiana TBD Illinois State Iowa TBD Richmond Maryland TBD BYU Nebraska TBD Norfolk State Rutgers TBD Penn State Temple TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD Stanford Northwestern