Welcome to spring practice wrap-up week. With most spring practices in the books, it’s time to take a look at each Power Five team’s early 2017 storylines. Part four of our series is the Big Ten, which has multiple teams with a chance at the College Football Playoff.
Illinois (2016 record: 3-9)
Key takeaway: Things were rough during Lovie Smith’s first season at Illinois. He got the job just before spring ball began and the lack of familiarity between staff and team had players wearing name tags on their helmets during practice. Things were more settled this year for the Illini, who started spring ball in February, much earlier than most programs. Smith still is early on in what should be a fairly lengthy rebuild, but establishing a culture is the first step.
Position battle: Illinois’ top four defensive linemen from 2016, including ends Dewuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips, have moved on. That is a lot of production to replace. At defensive tackle, guys like Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson have some experience, but some younger guys, like early enrollee Owen Carney, could make a push at end.
Straight from the coach: “Last year we had names on the back of the helmets and things like that. We know our football team a lot better,” Smith said. “We need to make a lot of improvement. Three wins last year wasn’t good enough. We’ll be a better ballclub this year.”
Team trend: In 2016, the Illini averaged just 19.7 points per game while allowing an average of 31.9 points. That’s not exactly a winning formula. With the expected return of two of the team’s top offensive players, quarterback Chayce Crouch and receiver Mike Dudek, Smith thinks things will improve. While the offense seems primed for some improvement, the defense is replacing the entire starting defensive line and leading tackler Hardy Nickerson. It could be another long year. Push
Indiana (2016 record: 6-7)
Key takeaway: The Hoosiers experienced a bit of turmoil at the end of 2016 with the unceremonious departure of Kevin Wilson. Defensive coordinator Tom Allen was promoted to the top spot, keeping things fairly cohesive moving into 2017. Richard Lagow, who had moments of brilliance but bouts of inconsistency in 2016, returns at quarterback along with receivers Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs (back from injury), and the defense, which returns nine starters, could be fun, too. The Hoosiers are always a team that puts a scare into the top teams in the conference, but could this be the year they make a move from the middle of the pack?
Position battle: One position in a bit of flux for the Hoosiers is running back. Devine Redding, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2016, decided to declare for the draft, leaving 260-pound Tyler Natee as the leading returning rusher at 237 yards. The oft-injured Camion Patrick is also expected to be in the mix with a slew of others, including a few walk-ons, Alex Rodriguez and Ricky Brookins, who made some plays in the spring game.
Straight from the coach: “I feel like he has made some strong strides in the area of his execution in terms of understanding of what we’re trying to have him do offensively,” Allen said of Lagow. “He’s increased his poise and his confidence and I think the biggest thing he’s grown on is his leadership. Having the guys look to him to be a guy who, no matter what happens, good or bad, you’re a guy who can command that side of the ball with confidence and an unshakeable poise that I feel like you have to have to play that quarterback position.”
Team trend: There are a lot of pieces in place for the Hoosiers, but you have to look at the reality of the situation. IU plays in one of the toughest (possibly the toughest) divisions in college football: the Big Ten East. When you have Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan on your schedule, it’s hard to make a move up the standings. Nonetheless, this team is better than the 6-7 record it boasted last year. Trending up.
Iowa (2016 record: 8-5)
Key takeaway: After having the eighth-worst offensive output in the country last year, Kirk Ferentz made some changes to his offensive staff. Greg Davis retired, so Ferentz summoned his son, Brian Ferentz, to be the new offensive coordinator with many of the other offensive staffers — new and old — assuming new or adjusted responsibilities. The group is lucky to have Akrum Wadley, who tested the NFL waters, and Matt VandeBerg, who was injured, back at running back and receiver, respectively. The line should be good again, but beyond that
Position battle: The younger Ferentz is tasked with breaking in a new starting quarterback, either sophomore Nathan Stanley or junior Tyler Wiegers. Neither emerged from spring practice as the starter, and the two failed to impress in the spring game. Still, Stanley was the No. 2 option behind C.J. Beathard in 2016 and is expected to win the job in fall camp over Wiegers, 2015’s second-stringer. No matter who emerges, the Hawkeyes absolutely need better production from the passing game in 2017.
Straight from the coach: “I’m getting along fine with him — and his mom also,” Ferentz said of his son Brian, the team’s new offensive coordinator. “But we haven’t lost yet and we haven’t been stopped on third down where everybody can evaluate it. Those days are coming but it’s gone good. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Team trend: The defense and running game will keep Iowa in games, but it needs its passing game to improve for it to make a jump in the Big Ten West. Getting VandeBerg back will certainly help whoever ends up starting at quarterback, but the Hawkeyes desperately need another wideout to emerge as a consistent playmaking threat to go with what should be a pretty good ground attack. Brian Ferentz’s offense doesn’t seem like it’ll be too much of a departure (other than some modernization, perhaps) from previous years, and we don’t see Iowa with the likes of Nebraska and Wisconsin in the division. Push.
Maryland (2016 record: 6-7)
Key takeaway: Maryland made a bowl game in its first season under D.J. Durkin. He and his staff have done a good job recruiting the local talent, but the Terps still have a ways to go to compete with the top teams in the Big Ten East. Still, there’s a sense of optimism with Durkin, who was able to get playing time for a lot of his young players in 2016. A lot of those young guys, on defense especially, were thrown to the wolves a bit last year. They will be better for it in 2017.
Position battle: Tyrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager both saw action at quarterback as true freshmen last year and are battling it out with North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson. Henderson ended up missing the spring game because of a foot injury, so Pigrome and Bortenschlager ran the team’s up-tempo attack, led by second-year offensive coordinator Walt Bell. Henderson was the apparent front-runner before the spring game, but no decision on a starter will be made until the fall (when freshman Kasim Hill will be added to the mix).
Straight from the coach: “(Henderson) has a year or two of experience on (Pigrome and Bortenschlager) in college football, but in terms of game experience there’s not a ton of difference with those guys,” Durkin said of the QB competition. “Every day is a little different. One guy makes a move and then the next day it’s someone else. I like it that way. We’re enjoying that competition. I’d like to have that at as many positions as we can. I think it makes everyone better. When you’re going to practice every day knowing you’ve gotta be locked in and have a great day in order to keep your job or get the job you want because there’s competition all around you, I think it makes everyone better.”
Team trend: The Terps used a weak schedule to start 4-0 and eventually squeak into a bowl game in the final week of the season. Maryland will probably be better (read: more competitive in the Big Ten) in 2017 than it was in 2016, but it would not be a surprise to see its win total decrease by a game or two with Texas and an improving UCF team on the non-conference slate. We’ll put it like this: the program as a whole is trending up, but it might not translate to wins and losses in 2017.
Michigan (2016 record: 10-3)
Key takeaway: A lot has been made of the amount of starters — 18 — Michigan is losing from its 2016 squad, and understandably so. Most of the attrition is on the defensive side of the ball, but Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines staff has been recruiting at a high level to ensure there is no rebuilding, only reloading. UM played its spring game ahead of a trip to Italy for the remainder of its allotted practice sessions, giving fans a chance to familiarize themselves with some new faces. Those guys will need to get acclimated quickly to ensure there’s no drop-off.
Position battle: Michigan’s offensive line is going to be somewhat of a work in progress that Harbaugh hopes to have ironed out during preseason ball. The Wolverines used several different iterations up front during the spring game, with a few guys rotating to different spots as the game progressed. Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson seem like locks to start, but there will be competition at the other spots — plenty of it. Michael Onwenu and Jon Runyan Jr. made up the first unit’s right side and looked good doing it, so there’s optimism here despite some inexperience to protect second-year starting quarterback Wilton Speight.
Straight from the coach: “It’s been great. Pep brings so much energy,” Harbaugh said of bringing in Pep Hamilton as his passing game coordinator. “We’d worked together before. I hadn’t remembered how much energy he brings. It’s really unmatched. He’s at the highest level — 11 on a scale of 10.”
Team trend: Michigan is going to be good but it’s hard to be optimistic when a team loses as much talent as this one has. With so many players becoming first-time starters in the Big Ten, plus a few tough non-conference games, we see this young Michigan team taking a bit of a step back in the win column. The Wolverines look like a third-place team in their division for the third year in a row. We’ll classify it as trending down — for now. The future still looks bright.
Michigan State (2016 record: 3-9)
Key takeaway: If 2016 was a disaster year for Michigan State on the field, 2017 isn’t going much better off of it. The program has three unnamed players suspended amid a sexual assault investigation while another was dismissed following a separate investigation. Meanwhile, the Spartans are looking to rebound from a horrid 3-9 campaign that came on the heels of three straight double-digit win seasons. There’s nowhere to go but up, right? To get back on track, MSU has questions to answer at quite a few positions, though it looks like Brian Lewerke will be atop the quarterback depth chart when fall camp begins.
Position battle: There doesn’t seem to be a clear No. 1 wide receiver right now after the graduation of R.J. Shelton. Guys like Donnie Corley, Trishton Jackson and Cam Chambers are all talented. If the top guy for Lewerke is anybody, it’s probably Corley, who caught 33 balls for 453 yards as a freshman. Jackson, who caught five passes in 2016, had a nice spring game: eight catches for 168 yards.
Straight from the coach: “We have a young football team, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Mark Dantonio said. We have eight (scholarship) seniors, but we have a strong junior class. I’ve been impressed with our younger players as they move forward. Guys are getting a lot of reps. When you’re young you improve. It’s just a daily improvement. The learning curve is a little greater so you see a little more drastic improvement as you go. I think we’re going to have a good football team.”
Team trend: Dantonio is too good of a coach for his team to 3-9 again. For that alone (and not taking into account what’s gone on off the field), the Spartans should be back in the postseason in 2017. That doesn’t mean they’ll be back to the top of the division any time soon when there are a few positions (defensive line and wide receiver namely) that really need some guys to progress. Nonetheless, they’re still trending up, mainly because the 2016 season set the bar pretty low.
Minnesota (2016 record: 9-4)
Key takeaway: Hey, it’s P.J. Fleck! He has brought his super juiced up, elite boat-rowing to Minneapolis from Western Michigan, giving the program a much different feel compared to the laid back natures of Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys. On the recent Big Ten coaches teleconference, Fleck seemed pleased with the way his players have bought into how he and his staff do things. Like with any coaching change, it’s an adjustment, but he has a good amount of tough, experienced talent to work with to keep things competitive as he replenishes the roster on the recruiting trail.
Position battle: Two quarterbacks are in contention for the starting role: Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft. Both have been the No. 2 behind Mitch Leidner in recent years, but with Fleck in the fold, the two have a clean slate as they compete to start. Croft, who redshirted in 2016 after being second string in 2015, is more highly-touted of the two, while Rhoda is a fifth-year senior who began his career as a walk-on. At this point, this competition is far from over.
Straight from the coach: “I think our kids have worked extremely hard getting to know our coaching staff, getting to know our system and how we do things,” Fleck said. “I think that was one of the main goals of the spring and the winter was to get familiar with how we do things — not necessarily the outcome and result of how we’re doing it, but structurally how we’re doing it. Everything these young men are coming in contact with right now is completely different for them. Whether it’s scheme, position meetings or the type of coaching they get. Whatever it is, it’s new for the first time every time they get it. I thought the kids have been absolutely spectacular.”
Team trend: Minnesota hired Fleck in an effort to finally get over that hump and into the upper echelon of the Big Ten. That won’t happen next year. Frankly, the 2016 team overachieved with nine wins. Fleck has some work to do before he can get the Gophers up with the likes of the Wisconsins and Nebraskas and Iowas of the world. Minnesota is trending down in the short term, but it’s hard not to believe in Fleck after his success at WMU.
Nebraska (2016 record: 9-4)
Key takeaway: After a rough first year, Nebraska was back among the top teams in the Big Ten West in Mike Riley’s second season as head coach. In year three, he has a nice array of talent on offense around new quarterback Tanner Lee, a Tulane transfer, who was named after spring ball ended. On the other side of the ball, the Huskers are implementing a change. Ex-UConn head coach Bob Diaco is the new defensive coordinator. With Diaco comes his 3-4 defensive alignment. This spring was about installing the new system, though they opted not to put any of Diaco’s schemes on tape during the spring game, so it remains to be seen how the transition is going.
Position battle: With the productive Terrell Newby’s eligibility expiring, Nebraska has a few options to fill the hole at running back. Devine Ozigbo saw plenty of carries (412 yards, 5 TDs) behind Newby last year, but was apparently a bit banged up throughout the spring, giving more opportunities to the likes of Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon (no, not that Wilbon), who combined for 261 yards in 2016. All three should see touches during the season, but the staff wouldn’t mind one of these guys emerging as a go-to ball carrier.
Straight from the coach: “There’s a structural change. We’ve changed systems going to a 3-4. With newness comes a natural energy change,” Riley said. “People, whether or not they were comfortable, are competing for a spot with a new group of coaches. There are three new coaches on that side of the ball. Coach Diaco personally brings a special energy to practice. He’s a great teacher and does it enthusiastically and that’s noticeable.”
Team trend: This Huskers team has as much talent as any team in the West. Most of its toughest Big Ten games, including back-to-back October contests against Wisconsin and Ohio State, will be at home. Could that be enough to bump the Huskers to the top of the division? If the changes on defense come together and the offensive line, which Riley is concerned about, holds up, NU should be right there with Wisconsin at the end of the year. Trending up.
Northwestern (2016 record: 7-6)
Key takeaway: After a 1-3 start, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats were able to improve as the season progressed and eked out a bowl win over a pretty good Pitt squad. They want that win to carry over into an even better 2017 season, and they have some foundation pieces, namely quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson, to do so. There’s a lot to like on defense, but the loss of Anthony Walker at linebacker is a big hole to fill. Like most NU teams in recent years, this is going to be a tough team that opponents will not look forward to playing.
Position battle: As mentioned above, Walker’s decision to declare early for the NFL after back-to-back seasons with 100-plus tackles leaves a hole at the linebacker position. Fitzgerald said on the Big Ten teleconference earlier this month that two players — redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher and sophomore Nathan Fox — competing for that spot. Fitzgerald said that battle is “neck and neck” moving into the fall and that both players will see the field quite often.
Straight from the coach: “He has just really grown as a leader. Leadership isn’t about age, it’s about production. It’s amazing how confident that young man gets when he’s had on-field success,” Fitzgerald said of Thorson. “And then he’s able to affect everybody else on the offense and everybody else on the team because they believe we can move the ball, score points and win because of the quarterback position. There’s that old saying, ‘When you have a quarterback, you have a chance,’ and without a doubt we’ve got a chance. I’ve seen great growth in him fundamentally and in our system and as a leader. His confidence is at an all-time high.”
Team trend: There’s something to be said sometimes for momentum from one season to another. A bowl win definitely sent the program into the offseason with good vibes, but in 2017, we should know pretty soon if this team can be a contender after Northwestern opens its Big Ten slate against Wisconsin and Penn State. Even if those games don’t go well, this team is better than the seven wins it accumulated last year. Trending up.
Ohio State (2016 record: 11-2)
Key takeaway: The Buckeyes were good enough to make the College Football Playoff without winning the league crown. On that stage, things didn’t go very well as the Buckeyes were overwhelmed by eventual champions Clemson. OSU wants to get rid of that bad taste and get back to the top of college football in 2017. Despite the usual NFL defections, OSU has the horses to do it. Most of its offensive line is back. J.T. Barrett is back. Mike Weber is back. The entire defensive line is back. The East is such a tough division, but it’s hard not to look at the Buckeyes as the favorites despite all of the offensive struggles in 2016.
Position battle: Malik Hooker will be a first-round pick Thursday night, so the Buckeyes have a big hole to fill at safety. Damon Webb is locked in at one spot, but it looks like it’s down to two — Erick Smith and Jordan Fuller — at the other safety spot. Smith is a senior who has dealt with some injuries during his career but is more experienced than Fuller, a sophomore, who played mainly special teams in 2016. The cornerback spot across from Denzel Ward is wide open, too, with a number of young guys in the mix.
Straight from the coach: “As an offense for spring we had three very clear targets we wanted to accomplish,” Meyer said of offensive changes under new coordinator Kevin Wilson. “One was pass protection, two was accuracy with an emphasis on deep balls and three was the ability to finish plays, whether it’s linemen or receivers.”
Team trend: Meyer is too good of a coach for the Buckeyes not to be in contention for the College Football Playoff yet again. Penn State and Michigan certainly pose a challenge in the division, but if the offense improves to go with the imposing defense, OSU is going to be tough to beat. The offense has to be better in 2017, so we’ll say the Buckeyes are trending up.
Penn State (2016 record: 11-3)
Key takeaway: After winning a Big Ten title, the Nittany Lions go from an upstart team to a team that is targeted and expected to win. That’s a shift in mindset to an extent, and coach James Franklin and company seem to have embraced that this spring. PSU returns the bulk of its starters, 19 in all, including quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, a potential Heisman candidate. There’s production to replace on defense with Brandon Bell graduating and John Reid injured, but PSU thinks the depth is there to make another run — this time beyond just the Big Ten championship.
Position battle: DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki are back at receiver and tight end, but PSU is going to need another reliable threat at receiver to fill the loss of Chris Godwin, who left for the NFL. There are plenty of guys who saw playing time last season, including Big Ten title game star Saeed Blacknall. Blacknall will be in the mix, but Juwan Johnson is a guy who has gotten some hype this spring. There’s plenty of talent for McSorley to spread the ball to.
Straight from the coach: “None of those things from last year matter this year. None of those wins, none of those points, none of those things transfer,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to build it all over again. We were one of the youngest teams in college football last year. We had only one senior on offense and three on defense. We’ve got a lot of guys coming back that had big contributions on this team. Those experiences are going to be helpful. I think our coaching staff and our players understand who we want to be and where we want to go, but we’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do. The programs we want to compete with, they’ve been having these types of years consistently over the last five to ten years. We had a nice year last year, but we’ve got a long way to go in every area.”
Team trend: With so much talent returning, it’s hard not to set high expectations for Penn State, who we’ll say is trending up. With Barkley and McSorley leading the way, we expect PSU to be right in the mix for the College Football Playoff yet again alongside Ohio State. Last year, where PSU won the conference over OSU yet were on the outside looking in for the CFP, should prove to be an outlier in the CFP era. If you want to make it to the Playoff, you should strive to win your conference.
Purdue (2016 record: 3-9)
Key takeaway: The Darrell Hazell era came to an end during the season last year, so the Boilermakers brought in Jeff Brohm from Western Kentucky. He’s bringing in a fun offensive style that put up a ton of points, more than 40 per game, in Conference USA. He has a talented quarterback in David Blough who can really air it out. It seems like a great match, though there aren’t many proven options at receiver or on the line. Brohm’s teams have always put up points, but can Purdue stop anybody?
Position battle: Most of Purdue’s receiving depth from 2016 has graduated, leaving a big hole on offense. Gregory Phillips and Anthony Mahoungou have some experience on the field, but Brohm felt the need to sign junior college transfers Isaac Zico and Terry Wright to added to the group. Additionally, Notre Dame graduate transfer Corey Holmes is expected to come in and make some plays. Tight end Cole Herdman, who caught 35 passes in 2016, will be counted on to produce as well.
Straight from the coach: “This program is hungry for change,” Brohm said of taking the job. “The people on campus and in town are hungry for some success. They have shown us some investment as far as building us a new practice facility. There’s a lot of little things that added up and definitely the challenge of trying to make a difference was something that stood out.”
Team trend: Purdue has won a combined nine games (only three in the conference) over the past four seasons, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Things probably won’t get a whole lot better this season, but Brohm is a creative coach who seems like a pretty good hire. It won’t show on the field immediately, but we’ll say the Boilermakers are trending up from a program standpoint.
Rutgers (2016 record: 2-10)
Key takeaway: From the ashes of the Kyle Flood era emerged… Chris Ash. The former Ohio State defensive coordinator took on a huge challenge in his first season at Rutgers and it showed to the tune of a 2-10 record. That included an 0-9 mark in the Big Ten. It was not pretty, especially on offense. In eight of its 12 games, Rutgers scored 14 points or fewer, including four shutouts. Again, not pretty. One thing working in Rutgers’ favor is the return of receiver Janarion Grant, one of the most dynamic players in the conference. Ex-Minnesota coach Jerry Kill will run the offense and has a new option at quarterback in the mix now with the addition of Louisville’ Kyle Bolin.
Position battle: After multiple transfers, the dismissal of Tylin Oden and the injury to Zach Allen, Rutgers was down to two quarterbacks for its spring game. After a visit to campus, Bolin joined that mix to battle with Giovanni Rescigno for the starting role. Rescigno saw plenty of action, including five starts, last season and struggled without much help around him. Bolin started five games for Louisville in 2015 before 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson seized the job from him for good. He immediately becomes the favorite to win the job.
Straight from the coach: “Last year when we had offseason workouts it was all about survival,” Ash said per The Trentonian. “This year guys were attacking. They just knew what to expect, and they were more productive in workouts. Practices were cleaner, more efficient. We got more done in practice because they understood the offense and the defense more and the special teams.”
Team trend: The Scarlet Knights still have a long way to go, but Ash, like most coaches, is pleased with the progress his guys have made from this time last year. Does that mean Rutgers will be back in a bowl game? Doubtful, but it’d be surprising if this team didn’t at least win a few conference games. You’ve got to start somewhere, right? Trending up.
Wisconsin (2016 record: 11-3)
Key takeaway: Wisconsin’s success in 2016 was a surprise to many, but not the folks in Madison. It seemed like a rebuilding year, but the Badgers upset LSU early in the year and went on to win the West division. Looking ahead, the defense is going to be really good once again, perhaps the league’s best. The offensive line, as is typical for UW teams, should also be a strength. Alex Hornibrook is back for his second year as starting quarterback after showing promise in 2016. He has the tools to be one of the more accurate throwers in the league. This is a good team.
Position battle: With Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale moving on, there are carries up for grabs. Taiwan Deal and Bradrick Shaw both showed flashes in 2016, averaging more than five yards per carry. Pitt transfer Chris James is also in the mix and looked good in the spring game. This could end up being a classic running back by committee approach.
Straight from the coach: “The big thing that I was impressed with Jim is, his communication and (ability to) teach and really take something that was pretty far along and developed, well thought-out, but he’ll be able to simplify it for a player to take,” Paul Chryst said of new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. “Last year, it was fun to be able to coach with him. And then when Justin (Wilcox) got the job at Cal, it was a chance to really just take a look at our staff and what’s the best way we can make use of the talents we have here and who can we add? And I feel great with Jim taking over as defensive coordinator.”
Team trend: Wisconsin has the looks of the team to beat in the West. The defense has so much talent, especially at linebacker, and will keep the team in games. If the offense can build on a lot of the struggles from last year, the Badgers should get a chance to redeem itself in the Big Ten title game after last year’s tough loss.
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