Developing the deep threat was a common theme among Big Ten teams this spring. As the conference continue to leave its reputation for boring offenses in the dust, a pack of talented pass-catchers should have chances to shine this season.
Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts. This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. Next up is a look at the best receiving corps in the conference.
Best of the best: Penn State is stacked with veteran options in the passing game this fall. Seniors DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Mike Gesicki will set the pace for the passing game and provide plenty of size as well. Hamilton has played in 40 college games already and has catches in 38 of them. Gesicki is a candidate to be the league’s best tight end in 2017. He had five touchdowns and 48 catches as a junior last year.
There is rising talent in Happy Valley as well. Juwan Johnson’s spring might have been as promising of a step forward as any player at any position in the Big Ten. His 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame provides yet another big target for quarterback Trace McSorley through the air.
Next in line: Indiana might not have the depth at wide receiver that rosters like Ohio State's and Michigan's (both teams could end up with very dangerous passing attacks) can claim, but the Hoosiers have a one-two punch that could be as tough to cover as any in the Big Ten if both are moving at full speed. Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs Jr. are both tall and fast and able to bring down most balls thrown in their vicinity.
Cobbs missed almost all of 2016 with an ankle injury after racking up more than 1,000 receiving yards the previous season. Westbrook had 995 receiving yards in Cobbs’ absence last season, which is more than any other receiver returning to the Big Ten next season. Indiana could also add a speedy smaller option if J-Shun Harris gets healthy after missing both of the past two years with ACL tears.
Don’t sleep on: Nebraska features a good mix of experience and young studs. If all of them hit their potential, they could have more options than most defenses are equipped to handle. The group starts with De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr., both of whom impressed coaches this spring with increased speed and the way they handled a transition into leadership roles.
The Huskers are hoping that pair will be complemented by some incoming freshmen with impressive resumes. Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Jaevon McQuitty didn’t get an opportunity to do much during their first semester on campus. Joining them will be blue-chip prospect Tyjon Lindsey. If a couple of the young guys are ready to contribute, new quarterback Tanner Lee will be able to spread the ball. One concern that could slow them down is the roster’s lack of experience at tight end.
The Big Ten may not break its lengthy drought of sending a quarterback into the first round of the NFL draft with this year’s crop, but that doesn’t mean there’s any lack of talent at the position. Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts.
This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. We start the week with a review of the best quarterback depth charts in the conference heading into 2017.
Best of the best: Ohio State returns the most productive quarterback in program history to operate an offense that promises to let him unleash some deeper throws this year. J.T. Barrett has accounted for exactly 100 touchdowns heading into his senior season. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who previously had to stop Barrett when the Buckeyes played Indiana, said he thought the veteran leader made good strides on hitting longer throws in spring practice.
Barrett is a candidate to be the conference’s top player next season, but it’s Ohio State’s depth at quarterback that nudges them ahead of others to the top of this list. Backups Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins both have the skills to be starters. They threw three touchdown passes each in the spring game in Columbus, setting up what could be the most entertaining backup quarterback battle in college football this year.
Next in line: Penn State and Michigan both deserve mention here. Trace McSorley finished out his first year as a full-time starter with 12 touchdown passes in three games, including a conference title win and a trip to the Rose Bowl. He should have the weapons around him for another record-setting year in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions’ coaching staff also seemed pleased with the level of competition redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens provided as McSorley’s understudy.
The situation isn’t much different in Ann Arbor. Wilton Speight remains the starter after helping lead Michigan and its offense to another 10-win season in 2016. Speight separated himself as the leader of a team that has a lot of pieces to replace next fall and a calm, confident presence on the field. He may not be the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, though. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters showed he has both strength and touch during the spring season.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. The third-year starter made a significant jump forward between his first and second seasons leading the offense. If he can continue his upward trajectory again in 2017, the Wildcats will have as good a chance as any team to unseat Wisconsin as the West Division champions. Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also showed he has the potential to make plays with his feet, although he took off less often a year ago than during his rookie season. Top target Austin Carr is gone, but Thorson should get some help in replacing him from Oregon transfer Jalen Brown and the rest of a maturing receiver group.
As it currently stands, the Big Ten has six teams ranked in the top 20 of the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings for 2018. The conference has been on the rise in recruiting over the past few seasons, and the proof is in the numbers.
The success is the result of a few different factors, but a key one is the infusion of youth in the coaching ranks. Some of the top recruiters in the conference are under 40 years old and have made their presence known on the recruiting trail.
Here is a look at some of the top Big Ten assistant coach recruiters under 40 who have helped get their teams in the top 20 of the 2018 class rankings:
Ohio State: Zach Smith
2018 class rank: No. 2
Smith, the Buckeyes' wide receivers coach, is one of the youngest coaches in the conference at 33. He has been with head coach Urban Meyer for quite some time and has helped produce some elite talent at receiver for the Buckeyes. Smith is boisterous and unabashed on his Twitter account, which seems fitting considering the position group he coaches. Recruits have taken notice of Smith, and his youth has helped him relate to the prospects he has targeted. Since 2014, Ohio State has landed seven ESPN 300 wide receivers, largely due to Smith’s efforts.
Penn State: Charles Huff, Josh Gattis and Ricky Rahne
2018 class rank: No. 4
The Nittany Lions have several coaches who fall into this category with running backs coach Huff, receivers coach Gattis and tight ends coach Rahne. Huff has established himself as an outstanding recruiter, helping to land several top running backs that include ESPN 300 prospects Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and Ricky Slade. At 34 years old, Huff has done quite a bit in a short amount of time in his career. Gattis and Rahne have been right there with Huff, helping to recruit similarly big names, including quarterbacks Trace McSorley and Sean Clifford and receivers Juwan Johnson and Chris Godwin.
Nebraska: Donte Williams and Trent Bray
2018 class rank: No. 11
Cornerbacks coach Williams was a big hire for Nebraska head coach Mike Riley, considering Riley’s efforts to recruit the West Coast. Williams was previously at Arizona, and at age 34 is a tenacious recruiter with many valuable connections in California. Williams and linebackers coach Bray have provided a big boost to Nebraska’s recruiting efforts. Williams has had a hand in landing Eric Fuller and Brendan Radley-Hiles, among other top prospects for the Huskers.
Michigan: Chris Partridge and Jay Harbaugh
2018 class rank: No. 13
Michigan has an outstanding young support staff and a recruiting staff that very well could make this list. This is just focused on assistant coaches, though, so linebackers coach Partridge and running backs coach Harbaugh are the two who stand out for the Wolverines. Partridge started out as a high school coach in New Jersey and was one of the better recent hires from the high school ranks. He began at Michigan as the recruiting coordinator, is now the linebackers coach and has helped recruit a ton of talent to Ann Arbor. Most notably, Partridge helped recruit No. 1-ranked Rashan Gary and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon out of Georgia. Harbaugh is the son of head coach Jim Harbaugh but has stood on his own feet when it comes to recruiting and relating to his targets. Previously as the tight ends coach, Jay Harbaugh had a hand in landing Sean McKeon, Nick Eubanks and Tyrone Wheatley Jr., among others.
Northwestern: Matt MacPherson and Adam Cushing
2018 class rank: No. 16
Northwestern has been gaining more and more momentum both on and off the field. After putting together a good season in 2016, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff are capitalizing on that in the 2018 recruiting class. A big part of that success is running backs coach MacPherson and offensive line coach Cushing, who is 36. Despite their relative youth, both MacPherson and Cushing have been mainstays at Northwestern for quite awhile and have had a big impact on the Wildcats' recruiting efforts. The No. 16 class ranking is one of the highest Northwestern has had, and both of these coaches have had a hand in helping to shape the class.
Minnesota: Maurice Linguist and Matt Simon
2018 class rank: No. 17
P.J. Fleck would be at the top of this list if it included head coaches, as Fleck is the leader for the Golden Gophers in every aspect. But when it comes to young assistants, defensive backs coach Linguist is becoming a well-known name across the country. At age 33, Linguist has already had stints at Baylor, Buffalo, Iowa State, Mississippi State and now Minnesota. In his short time with the Gophers, he has been a big part of their recruiting success along with wide receivers coach Simon, who is only 31.
The impact of a recruiting battle isn’t felt until the prospect hits the field for whichever team he chose. The team that missed out is often left with a void that the prospect could have filled and the team that won is left gloating if he pans out.
Since recruiting battles happen all the time within the Big Ten, there will likely be a few big names on the field this season that teams wish they could have landed. Here is a look at past recruiting battles within the conference and who they’re impacting.
RB Karan Higdon, Michigan
Higdon was headed to Iowa in the 2015 recruiting class until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh swooped in and got him to commit to Michigan. Higdon was at the center of a few battles as Michigan was also pursuing running back Mike Weber, who eventually signed with Ohio State after debating between the Buckeyes and Michigan.
Iowa losing out on Higdon stings because the Hawkeyes ranked 64th in the nation in rushing yards last season and 71st in rushing touchdowns. The Hawkeyes also must replace Leshun Daniels Jr., who rushed for 1,058 yards last season.
Haskins and Jones both decommitted from Maryland and flipped to Ohio State during the 2016 cycle in what ended up being a big sting for the Terps. While Maryland is headed in the right direction, these two would have been huge additions to the roster.
Having Haskins in his second season at quarterback would have been a big help to Walt Bell’s offense and could have accelerated the process. The staff has landed some nice pieces, including ESPN 300 quarterback Kasim Hill in the 2017 class.
The Buckeyes have recruited well at quarterback and will have Haskins in the mix as the backup this season.
WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State
For quite some time in his recruitment, it seemed as though Hamler would be headed to Michigan State. An in-state prospect in the 2017 class, Michigan State was hot on his trail.
Needing receivers and playmakers on offense, Hamler would have been a big addition to the Spartans’ offense, but a late push by the Nittany Lions swung him in their favor.
Penn State coaches put in a lot of work to reel in Hamler and the staff eventually won out. While Michigan State did land a few other receivers in the class, none were as explosive as Hamler.
The shifty receiver sustained an ACL injury his senior high school season, but if he fully recovers, Hamler could be a big playmaker for the Nittany Lions.
WR Tyjon Lindsey, Nebraska
Lindsey’s recruitment in the 2017 cycle was a bit odd, to say the least. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver was committed to Ohio State with Las Vegas (Nevada) Bishop Gorman teammates Haskell Garrett and Tate Martell until Lindsey abruptly decommitted and switched to Nebraska.
By all accounts, Lindsey seemed solid to the Buckeyes for most of his commitment. Nebraska started making a big push as the process got closer to signing day, ultimately leading to his commitment.
Ohio State has options on the roster, but Lindsey would have been a good fit and a big help on new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offense.
ATH Ambry Thomas, Michigan
Thomas is a dynamic prospect who can play offense or defense and was heavily considering Michigan State as well as Michigan. He ultimately landed with Michigan, but would have been a much-needed addition to the Michigan State roster.
The Spartans could use help on both offense and defense, and Thomas is the type of player who realistically could have had an impact both sides in East Lansing. He is a local prospect and was one of the highest-ranked prospects in the state, so not only did it sting for Michigan State not to get him on the field on their side, but it also meant losing an in-state battle to their top rival.
As Big Ten teams look to build on success from last season, they might not have to look much further than some of the incoming players on their roster. The conference has talented freshmen coming into the fold who could provide a spark and fill voids where needed.
Here is a look at some of the freshmen who could help their respective teams this season.
Michigan: The Wolverines have quite a few new players who could fit the bill for this category. The most glaring need is at wide receiver, which means Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black both have a ton of opportunity ahead of them.
One Michigan coach said Peoples-Jones is athletically and physically ready to play. Both Peoples-Jones and Black have created buzz in the spring, as well.
Outside of those two, center Cesar Ruiz has been mentioned as another newcomer who could push for playing time. The Wolverines have a need, and Ruiz was billed as the most college-ready center prospect in his class. On the opposite line, defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon might not start, but his talent means he should push for playing time, as well.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes always have a few freshmen contribute, and this year should be no different. A few Ohio State coaches have been talking up running back J.K. Dobbins, as he has been turning heads all spring.
The staff is losing quite a few big names in the secondary with Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker all headed to the NFL. The coaches did an outstanding job recruiting to that need, though, with five-star cornerback Shaun Wade, five-star safety Jeffrey Okudah and the No. 1-ranked junior college corner in Kendall Sheffield.
All three could get on the field for the Buckeyes this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s sooner than later. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see defensive end Chase Young make his way to the field. Young could be a terror on the edge for the Buckeyes as early as this season.
One Penn State coach singled Wade out as someone who has stood out in spring practices. At 5 feet 10, he isn’t the biggest defensive back, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed and instinct.
Outside of Wade, defensive tackle Fred Hansard has a lot of depth in front of him, but he could be a player who pushes his way to the field. Rotating linemen isn’t abnormal for Penn State, so he could see the field early in a rotation behind some of the more veteran players on the roster.
Iowa: Youth could help bolster some of the strongest points of the Hawkeyes' depth chart and some of the weakest.
Blue-chip defensive end prospect A.J. Epenesa will likely be too talented to keep off the field for his 2017 season. Iowa's staff thinks the 6-foot-5, 270-pound second-generation Hawkeye could average between 15 and 20 plays a game to help add a solid layer of depth to a talented front seven.
Incoming freshmen might also make an impact at wide receiver and in the secondary, both spots where injuries and attrition have hit this offseason. The names to watch once they get on campus this summer include Djimon Colbert, Matt Hankins and Trey Creamer -- who could end up playing on either side of the ball depending on how he looks in training camp.
Nebraska: Mike Riley's staff has roped in some help from the West Coast that could make a quick impact in the fall.
Nebraska coaches have said since signing day that at least part of the trio of talented young receivers they added to the roster will get a chance to prove themselves early. Despite Stanley Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El cementing their spots as leading upperclassmen in the passing game, there is still space for the young guys. Injuries held back Keyshawn Johnson and Jaevon McQuitty during spring football, but they should be healthy and joined by the speedy Tyjon Lindsey this summer.
It's also worth keeping an eye on Pasadena, California, native Elijah Blades. He could add a layer of depth as a playmaker in the secondary or on special teams if he gets a shot to get on the field.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Jim Harbaugh and his family started celebrating Mother’s Day early this year. That’s probably a good thing, according to his wife, Sarah, who says Harbaugh sometimes is too caught up in his coaching duties at Michigan to remember the day of the week, let alone any holidays sprinkled into the calendar.
“Are you kidding?” she joked. “I don’t think [he knows Sunday is Mother’s Day].”
Being the wife of a coach -- the mother of four young children and stepmother to Jim’s first three -- is not an easy gig. Sarah Harbaugh said she used to scoff at the people who told her that marrying into the football world would be difficult, but she quickly learned what they meant. She said that experiences such as watching her months-old son baptized in Vatican City a few weeks ago and the opportunity to help others make the demands worthwhile.
The Harbaughs were co-chairs of the ChadTough Foundation gala in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Saturday night, kicking off a mom-centric weekend with an event designed to raise awareness and money for pediatric brain cancer. Nearly 1,000 people gathered at Michigan’s indoor practice field and raised more than $1 million in the memory of Chad Carr, the grandson of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.
Tammi Carr, Chad’s mother, said it was no coincidence that her organization’s first fundraising gala fell on the eve of Mother’s Day.
“The thought of losing a child is something that resonates with every mom out there because it’s nowhere anyone wants to be,” she said. “We figured it would be appropriate.”
Sarah Harbaugh said she vividly remembers when Tammi texted to tell her that Chad had died in November 2015. She fell to the floor and started crying. Her 7-year-old daughter asked what was wrong and then provided Mom with some wisdom and direction.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Mom, Chad’s good now, but what about his mother?'”
Sarah, who had a brother diagnosed with cancer as a child, has since become an outspoken advocate for the Carr family’s foundation. She said she’s not very comfortable being one of the public faces of an organization, but the importance of helping was driven home again this past winter when her newest son, John, had to spend time in the NICU after he was born prematurely.
John, now approaching the normal size of a 4-month-old, made his first international trip last month when Michigan’s football team toured Italy for a week. He was baptized in a small chapel in Vatican City, which comes with a rare distinction. Because he was baptized there, the Harbaughs’ youngest son is now technically a citizen of the smallest country in the world.
“That was something I could never in a million years have imagined would happen,” she said. “The whole thing, you felt like you were in a different world. You were just there in the moment and it was beautiful.”
Experiences like that one, and watching her husband do anything he possibly can for his kids, make it pretty easy to take it in stride if a Mother’s Day card shows up a day late, Sarah said. Oh, and that reminds her, she had better make sure Jim remembers to sign the card she got for his mother, too.
It’s been more than four months since the last college football game of the season was played in Tampa, Florida, and plenty has happened since then. Through signing day, offseason roster changes, injuries and some spring practice development, most teams look a bit different as college campuses start to clear out for the summer.
With that in mind, it’s time to take stock in how the last third of the calendar has changed the Big Ten programs. Which of them will be a worthwhile investment heading in 2017? After examining the East earlier this week, we turn to the West Division today:
Wisconsin: Buy. Despite losing another defensive coordinator at the end of 2016, the Badgers don’t appear to be headed for any setback on that side of the ball. Promoting Jim Leonhard makes for a smoother transition. The front seven should remain stingy with the number of players returning and additions such as junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel. Alex Hornibrook gives the offense a reliable and strong passer to match its running game.
Iowa: Sell. The Hawkeyes should be strong in the run game and in stopping the run. That alone won’t cut it anymore in the Big Ten. C.J. Beathard’s departure left a question at quarterback that went unanswered this spring. Wide receivers and tight ends weren’t a picture of consistency, either, according to those who saw the Hawkeyes practice. Coach Kirk Ferentz expected newcomers arriving this summer to get a shot to compete for spots at both receiver and defensive back.
Nebraska: Hold. The Huskers returned to their nine-win plateau in Mike Riley’s second year. At the end of spring, they haven’t provided many reasons to believe they’ll reach double digits in 2017, especially with cross-divisional games against Penn State and Ohio State on the schedule. Tanner Lee won the quarterback battle in the spring, but there is still some uncertainty about the full cast of receivers he’ll be targeting. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might need a couple years to recruit the ideal players for his 3-4 alignment.
Minnesota: Buy. Minnesota’s stock took a nose dive in December when players revolted against administration, which led to Tracy Claeys’ ouster as head coach in January. New coach P.J. Fleck’s infectious energy and his track record at Western Michigan are reasons enough to make the Gophers a more attractive pick than at the end of last year. Fleck needs to identify a quarterback and his team needs to get healthy, but he didn’t show up to a program void of talent. The offense quietly finished fourth in the league last year in points scored. The biggest problem after how last season ended was cultural, not talent-based, and that plays into Fleck’s strengths.
Northwestern: Buy. The Wildcats return a seasoned backfield duo in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. They also added Oregon grad transfer Jalen Brown at wide receiver to help mitigate the loss of Austin Carr. The school has cemented its intent to invest more heavily in football by adding a long-term contract for coach Pat Fitzgerald this season to match the sparkling new football facility on the edge of Lake Michigan. The results are starting to show in recruiting already, where the Wildcats have the 13th-best class in the nation early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. After a rough start to 2016, Northwestern has been on a fairly steady upward trajectory.
Illinois: Sell. Lovie Smith’s second team in Champaign didn’t look significantly different from his first at the end of their early spring workouts. A healthy combo of quarterback Chayce Crouch and wide receiver Mike Dudek was an optimistic sign, but the Illini’s problems went deeper than the injury bug during their 3-9 season in 2016. With Western Kentucky and USF on the nonconference schedule next fall, the road ahead doesn’t look any easier.
Purdue: Hold. Jeff Brohm and a new staff provides reasons for optimism in West Lafayette, Indiana. The school also appears to be willing to invest a little more in football after collecting only three league wins in the last four years. Brohm fortified his roster with a few solid transfers, but he said himself that he doesn’t yet have the pieces to run the offense he wants. To compete in the West, Purdue will have to use a different approach than Wisconsin and Iowa, who can recruit a different caliber player. For now, they’re still a run-first team in transition. Results might have to wait.
It’s been precisely four months since the last college football game of the season was played in Tampa, and plenty has happened since then. Through signing day, offseason roster changes, injuries and some spring practice development, most teams look a bit different as college campuses start to clear out for the summer.
With that in mind, it’s time to take stock in how the last third of the calendar has changed the Big Ten programs. Which of them will be a worthwhile investment heading in 2017? We start today with a look at the East Division:
Penn State: Hold. The league’s defending champions still are on track to be one of the country’s most entertaining offenses as an encore to the show they put on with USC at the Rose Bowl in January. A couple of losses at defensive end and an injury to cornerback John Reid are problems that need to be addressed, but another year of development in the trenches and the emergence of wide receiver Juwan Johnson keep the Nittany Lions right where they ended 2016 -- a bona fide playoff contender.
Ohio State: Buy. The Buckeyes have been rising since taking an embarrassing hit in the Fiesta Bowl. Urban Meyer signed both the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation and Kevin Wilson, an offensive mind capable of filling up the scoreboard. Combine that with a defensive line that should be one of the country’s best groups in 2017, and it’s no surprise that Ohio State has climbed to the No. 1 spot in a handful of post-spring ball Top 25 polls.
Michigan: Hold. The Wolverines have plenty of questions yet to be answered. Nevertheless, they looked more settled than one would expect for a team that saw 11 of its starters picked in the NFL draft and a few others land on pro rosters. The additions of Indiana offensive line coach Greg Frey and former NFL offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton were positive. Some assistant coaches are convinced that the defense that finished as one of the best in the nation last year can be faster in 2017. They’ll have to prove they can play on Saturdays, though.
Indiana: Sell. We’ve already mentioned two coaches that left the Hoosiers, including Wilson, who built them into a regular bowl contender but departed in December amid allegations of mistreating players. Some good experience returns to Bloomington -- All-America linebacker Tegray Scales, cornerback Rashard Fant, quarterback Richard Lagow -- but the offense might have trouble without Wilson calling the shots, which is what helped Indiana stay competitive with the upper half of the conference.
Maryland: Buy. After a promising start to spring, UNC transfer quarterback Caleb Henderson missed the spring game with an ankle injury and will have to battle a host of young contenders for the starting spot in August. The Terps should have some young playmakers for offensive coordinator Walt Bell. Head coach D.J. Durkin should help his program take a step forward on defense as well, but progress might be hard to measure in the top-heavy East Division.
Michigan State: Sell. There has been a steady stream of bad news coming from East Lansing this offseason. Legal issues have put football in the back seat from an outside perspective. The team still is working to repair locker room rifts that contributed to last season’s 3-9 record. On top of that, the loss or suspension of a few potential starters on both the offensive and defensive lines will further weaken groups that were a staple of the Spartans’ success in happier days.
Rutgers: Sell. The Scarlet Knights weren’t trading at a particularly high price at the end of 2016, and they’ve shown very few reasons to expect a positive turnaround in 2017. The team’s offensive coordinator and the majority of its quarterbacks jumped ship or were injured between the end of the regular season and last month’s spring game. Finding ways to score points will be difficult beyond a lone bright spot from senior Janarion Grant, who could be one of the league’s most versatile weapons if he’s fully healthy.
Football may be the ultimate team sport, but there are always a few players who serve as essential pillars on any roster.
They don’t have to be the most talented. Whether it’s due to experience or a specific schematic fit or a lack of options behind them on the depth chart, these are the players that would be the hardest to replace. Now that spring football has provided a better picture of what 2017 might look like for the Big Ten and its 14 teams, it’s easier to see which players could create the biggest problems if they’re not able to play for some reason next fall.
Here’s a look at the league’s five most indispensable players. They may not necessarily be swimming in personal awards at the end of the season, but their teams' success will depend on them being in the lineup.
Penn State S Marcus Allen: The Nittany Lions’ leading tackler from a year ago helped clean up a lot of stray ball carriers while the group in front of him worked through some depth issues at linebacker in 2016. After making 110 stops as a junior, he’s back for a final season as the leader of a secondary that could be a difference-maker in Penn State’s attempt to defend its Big Ten title. Allen, heading into his fourth season as a starter, is an important on-field director, especially since his group has to replace safety Malik Golden and might be without returning starter John Reid (knee injury) at cornerback for the year.
Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook: Hornibrook didn’t play in Wisconsin’s spring scrimmage, which made it perfectly clear how important he’ll be to the offense’s success in the fall. Neither of his backups -- early enrollee Jack Coan and redshirt freshman Kare' Lyles -- looked ready to take the reins as of the end of April. Not that it’s a huge problem to throw a rookie in at quarterback (just ask Hornibrook, who started nine games and threw for 1,262 yards after winning the job a few games into his first year on the field in 2016), but it’s clear that the incumbent lefty remains a step ahead. With a healthy Hornibrook and the usual Badgers defense, Wisconsin is a favorite to win the West. Without him, its outlook gets a little dicey.
Michigan LB Mike McCray: The lone returning starter from a loaded defense, McCray is responsible for helping a young and talented pack of players around him get used to college football on the fly. The redshirt senior battled injuries through most of his career before finding his groove with 76 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season. He said after Michigan's spring game that his confidence was at “an all-time high” and that he thinks the whole unit can be faster than it was a year ago. When the Wolverines get up to full speed, it will largely be McCray’s job to keep them all running in the right direction.
Ohio State OL Billy Price: The best news to come out of the Buckeyes’ blowout playoff loss on New Year’s Eve was Price’s postgame announcement that he would return for his senior season. It’s not very often that a team can replace a Rimington Trophy winner at center with another player who is already an All-American. Price is shifting from guard to center to take Pat Elflein's place in the middle of an Ohio State line that should be able to win most battles in the trenches. Price’s leadership and versatility on the line could be the difference between a very good unit and a championship-caliber group.
Indiana LB Tegray Scales: Scales led the nation in tackles for loss (23.5) and the Big Ten in tackles (126) during his junior season with new defensive coordinator Tom Allen. Allen is now the head coach, and the Hoosiers are shaping up to be a team that will need more help from its defense than it did in the Kevin Wilson era. Scales provides a consistent tackler and an explosive playmaker in the middle of a 4-2-5 scheme at Indiana, which needs to replace his counterpart starter at linebacker. If the Hoosiers expect to make it to a bowl game for a third straight year, Scales will have to be one of country’s most productive players again in 2017.
Urban Meyer waited only a few minutes after his Ohio State team finished its 2016 season to promise the offense would be better next year. After an embarrassing 31-0 shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, Meyer threw some conviction behind the sentiment that his program's passing game had to improve.
"We will become a good passing team, we will," Meyer said at the time. "Next year."
Since then, the Buckeyes have made some tangible progress toward meeting that goal. They’re not alone among their Big Ten brethren either, which should be a scary thought for defensive coordinators in the Midwest and beyond.
Ohio State -- despite an air attack that didn’t live up to the head coach's standards -- scored 66 touchdowns in 2016. Michigan and Penn State each matched their East Division foe with the same number. For the first time in league history, three different Big Ten teams topped 500 total points. There’s reason to believe all three could be more prolific in 2017. Could next fall be a record-setting year for scoring in the Big Ten? If spring ball is any indication, there’s a pretty good chance.
All three quarterbacks from those programs return as seasoned veterans, and all three have some exciting new toys at their disposal.
Trace McSorley and the reigning champion Nittany Lions have a crew of tall, rangy receivers that can keep defenses from loading up too much to stop star running back Saquon Barkley. At the top of that list after the spring was 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson, who was the most improved player on the team according to his coaches and has a chance to be a breakout star next fall.
At Michigan, Wilton Speight raved about the two newest additions to his passing game. He called early enrollees Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black "pretty freaky" and "special" after just a few practices. Peoples-Jones was one of the top 25 high school players in the country last season and should be able to help the Wolverines' depleted two-deep right away. It was Black who turned the most heads this spring, with a touchdown catch in the spring game and an impressive performance in Rome.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett has a strong cast of receivers, too, but his biggest upgrade comes in the form of new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. The former Indiana coach is working to restore Ohio State's deep-ball threat to the level it reached in 2014 when the Buckeyes scored 672 points (the highest total of any Big Ten team in at least the past 20 years) en route to a national championship.
"There is some enhancement going on now," Meyer told reporters in March. "We're not changing, we're enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we'd have to change it."
Compounding those high scores will be the fact that the most inexperienced groups on some of the league’s best teams are in the secondary. Ohio State has to replace three first-round picks in its defensive backfield. All four of the starters from a Michigan back end that had the best passing defense in the country in 2016 are gone. Penn State’s group suffered a blow this spring when top cornerback John Reid reportedly suffered a potential season-ending injury. The talent is still there, but youth usually leads to some mistakes.
The West Division will still provide some of the defense-first, slugfest-style football that one thinks of when talking about the Big Ten. Wisconsin should be stingy as usual and Northwestern will be able to ride the reliable workhorse Justin Jackson.
Elsewhere, though, some of the conference’s weaker offenses should be able to take some steps toward contributing to an influx of points. Purdue (24.6 points per game in 2016) hired Jeff Brohm after he wrapped up his season in Western Kentucky with the highest-scoring offense in the nation. Maryland (25.8) has the playmakers to make another jump under offensive coordinator Walt Bell and his fast-paced attack. Receiver Mikey Dudek should be able to help Illinois (19.7), too, if he stays healthy for a full season.
The Big Ten climbed back into the conversation as one of college football’s toughest conferences, especially in the East Division, over the past several years by adding speed and innovative coaches. It’s no surprise that the points are starting to stack up, and they could be coming in some unprecedented bunches in 2017.
Michigan's coaching staff was just returning from an Italian dinner -- their final meal as a team in Rome -- in a 17th century Baroque mansion with marble door frames and elaborate chandeliers when their phones started to buzz again. A few thousand miles away, on the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Jets had just selected Jeremy Clark with the 197th pick of the NFL draft. He was the 11th Wolverine to have his name called in Philadelphia, a new school record.
It was likely just a coincidence that the program's most successful NFL draft occurred as those returning to Ann Arbor next fall wrapped up an unprecedented week-long trip to one of Western civilization's oldest cities. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has had crazier recruiting schemes in his two-plus years on the job, though, so who knows.
Intentional or not, Michigan managed to once again head into summer in control of college football headlines and distill a powerful recruiting pitch into a single weekend. Hey, kid, want to play in the NFL? And how about a couple international vacations on us in the meantime? It should be a good month for Harbaugh's staff as they turn back to the recruiting trail.
"I think it's a huge plus. It's an opportunity to experience a different life," said Thomas Wilcher, head coach of Detroit-area high school powerhouse Cass Tech, which produced a couple of this year's draft picks from Michigan. "That just shows the coach is really trying to develop young men. He's trying to let football open a lot of avenues for them in life."
Harbaugh said before leaving Italy that he wanted to take the team to South Africa next spring, or perhaps Brazil. The anonymous donor who helped fund the trip is on board, for now, to help make it an annual spring finale for the football team.
International travel is a new addition to the recruiting pitch. The NFL angle has been around since Harbaugh arrived and brought with him a staff that has plenty of pro level experience. Talking about pro aspirations used to be nearly taboo in the team's practice facility. Now, Michigan's coaches talk in the middle of a season about limiting workloads to avoid long-term wear and tear and have regular conversations with players about getting to the next level.
To be fair, all 11 of the draftees this weekend were sold on Michigan by Brady Hoke's staff in 2013. Hoke stuck to a more traditional recruiting script and still managed to bring in a class of prospects as heralded -- or more heralded -- than any group Harbaugh has compiled since his arrival. It's not unreasonable to assume, though, that playing under the new coaching staff the last two years helped get a few extra players drafted or bumped a couple players into earlier rounds.
There is a counterargument to Michigan's well-timed sales pitch of a week and another way to view the team that produced more NFL talent than any other last year. Just ask Florida State assistant Tim Brewster, who (in Harbaugh parlance) sent a shot across the bow on Twitter this weekend.
Most draft picks doesn't correlate to winning....Just ask Michigan! #OrangeBowlChampions!
— Tim Brewster (@TimBrewster) April 29, 2017
Michigan missed a golden opportunity to win a Big Ten title, if not more, in 2016. Losing three of its last four games in skin-of-your-teeth fashion didn't make that reality any easier to swallow for the Wolverines -- nor does watching so many of the key players from that team get selected in the draft this weekend. There's no way to sugar coat that, and no one on Michigan attempted to do so.
"Winning the offseason" started out as a sign of a bright future for Harbaugh and company in Ann Arbor. Their detractors didn't take long to start pointing out that the in-season results haven't yet matched. If more time passes without at least a divisional title, it won't be long before Harbaugh's unique adventures and NFL success are used as a punch line as often as a sales pitch.
Trying to introduce players to new cultures and innovate within the sport are admirable ventures in their own right, but winning championships remains the ultimate goal. Can enticing experiences and NFL futures help Michigan to get there? So far the results on National Signing Day in February have been good, but they might start to lose some shine on the recruiting trail if the results in November and December don't follow.
The “way-too-early” power rankings are starting to approach the territory of just “too early” now that a full season of Big Ten spring football is in the books and the 2017 version of the conference has started to take shape. Fifteen spring practices didn’t provide any major shake-ups in the league, but they did offer a window into how most programs are evolving and which new faces will be the ones to watch in the fall.
With that in mind, it’s time to provide an update to the Big Ten power rankings as teams start to look ahead toward summer.
1. Ohio State: From a talent and depth standpoint, no one in the Big Ten has a better chance to play for a national championship in 2017 than the Buckeyes. Their defensive front promises to be one of the toughest in the nation. Their offense, now under the direction of Kevin Wilson, will try to push the ball downfield more often. If the younger receivers are ready by September, this team won’t have many weaknesses.
2. Penn State: The defending conference champs still boast the best backfield in the league with quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. The Nittany Lions should have one of the most entertaining offenses in the country. The defensive depth and size is still building in James Franklin’s fourth season in Happy Valley, so his team may need to win some shootouts to hang with their toughest competition.
3. Michigan: The Wolverines piled up as many reps as possible in spring practice to try to get a young team -- especially on defense -- a bit more time on task. Jim Harbaugh’s enthusiasm (most recently manifested in a trip to Rome) has helped bring in prospects that can physically match any team in the Big Ten. They won’t be able to move past the slightly more proven teams on this list until all that youth shows what it’s capable of doing in a game.
4. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn’t make any big waves on National Signing Day or during spring ball, which is par for the course and a positive sign in Madison. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook and several others skipped the spring game, but there isn’t much mystery about what to expect from Wisconsin’s offense. First-time defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard (the Badgers’ third DC in three years) should have plenty of depth to help him get used to his new role.
5. Northwestern: Veteran running back Justin Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson should be able to provide good leadership for a team that slipped to 7-6 last season. Their 1-3 start in 2016 was a popular discussion topic this spring among the Wildcats, who feel like they put themselves in a hole to start the year. Pat Fitzgerald’s 10-year contract extension signed in April shows the type of trust he’s earned in being able to get back to comfortably above .500.
6. Nebraska: Former Tulane transfer Tanner Lee won Nebraska’s quarterback competition this spring. That’s one question settled for the Huskers. In order to compete for a West Division title in Mike Riley’s third season, they’ll have to figure out the pecking order for who will be catching Lee’s passes and settle quickly into a new defensive scheme under coordinator Bob Diaco.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes’ best offseason news came in January when linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley both decided to return for senior seasons. That pair should help Iowa remain steady on defense and in the running game. Will they find a quarterback who can help them climb back toward the top of the West? That job is likely to remain open well into August.
8. Minnesota: P.J. Fleck’s stated mission for his first spring at Minnesota was less about scheme and more about putting a rocky offseason in the rear-view mirror. Fleck felt that he made progress there. He also inherits a roster that has enough talent to win games early in his tenure.
9. Maryland: The Terps have a handful of potentially electric playmakers in 2017 and the fast-paced offense that can lead to fireworks. They’ll need to continue to get stronger in the trenches and settle the quarterback competition this summer.
10. Indiana: After only a little more than a year in Bloomington, Tom Allen has flipped the Hoosiers’ defense into the strength of the team. Tegray Scales and Rashard Fant are both potential first-team All-Big Ten players. Offensively, though, Indiana may be headed for a step backward after Kevin Wilson’s departure.
11. Michigan State: The Spartans ended a 3-9 season in search of some positive vibes and so far the offseason has not provided any. Mired in sexual-assault allegations and player departures, Michigan State’s spring left more questions than answers. While there is enough talent still in East Lansing to keep them out of the cellar, Mark Dantonio and company have a lot of rebuilding to do.
12. Purdue: The Boilermakers should take a step forward under Jeff Brohm. The first-year head coach runs a dynamic offense that can help eliminate some of the talent gap between Purdue and others in the Big Ten. Despite some good junior-college additions to the roster, he’ll need more than one offseason to accrue the talent he needs.
13. Illinois: Lovie Smith had a little more time on his hands this spring compared with 2016 when he was hired in March. He used it to hold early practices and try to build some much-needed depth. The combination of quarterback Chayce Crouch and receiver Mikey Dudek provides a reason for optimism if they can both stay healthy.
14. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights finished spring football with only one healthy scholarship quarterback. Chris Ash has a lot of problems to solve in his second season as head coach, but nothing will be as important as finding a solution under center.
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MADISON, Wis. -- Several moments have transpired during Leon Jacobs' football career at Wisconsin in which he felt like a missing puzzle piece of sorts. He knew he was talented and athletic enough to fit in somewhere. But given all his position changes, he sometimes wondered where that might be.
Take last season, which was among the most trying times of his Badgers tenure. Jacobs arrived on campus back in 2013 as a promising outside linebacker. But he found himself opening fall camp of 2016 at fullback, of all places, only to move to inside linebacker in the second week of the season because of an injury to teammate Chris Orr. Jacobs felt a step slow and less prepared than he would have liked as a reserve. So he approached then-defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and asked what he could do to get on the field.
"And I'll always remember this," Jacobs said. "He said, 'Sometimes on really good teams, good players get left out.' It's just the way it goes. So if I were to get in, I had to make the most of my opportunities.
"It 100 percent helped me get through. At least I knew he recognized that I was a good player and wasn't just like this person who wasn't good enough to play."
Jacobs' positivity and work ethic has allowed him to push through an unconventional path he could not have foreseen. As Wisconsin closed spring practice last Friday and now heads toward fall camp, Jacobs has returned to his roots at outside linebacker. And, if things finally go according to plan, he could be in for a breakout season as a fifth-year senior.
"Let me start out by saying Leon Jacobs is the biggest human being I've ever seen in my life," Badgers outside linebacker Zack Baun said of the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Jacobs. "He's athletic as hell. He can do a lot of things. They move him around because he's capable, and he's strong, fast and powerful. He has everything you need at either inside linebacker, outside linebacker or fullback."
For once, Jacobs is hoping to stick at a single position and create the impact he knows he is capable of attaining. After playing outside linebacker as a true freshman in 2013, Jacobs was moved to inside linebacker during spring practice in 2014. That fall, he recorded 12 tackles in his first career start as a sophomore against Illinois and rotated between inside and outside. He then opened the 2015 season as one of the Badgers' starting inside linebackers. But Jacobs was ejected for a targeting call in Week 3 against Troy, and Orr registered 14 tackles in his place. Orr took over the starting role the following week, and Jacobs promptly suffered a season-ending toe injury.
Jacobs earned a medical hardship waver. But by the time he was healthy enough to return the following season, Wisconsin's inside linebacker depth was immense and he had lost his hold on a spot in the rotation.
"I was happy for those guys, but obviously it sucks because you can't do anything about it," Jacobs said. "You want to be out there playing with your fellas, and you get hurt."
With Wisconsin stacked inside, and with future All-American T.J. Watt and three-time all-Big Ten selection Vince Biegel outside, Badgers coach Paul Chryst suggested Jacobs move to fullback. The switch came as a surprise to Jacobs, but he was willing to try anything to play. One week into the 2016 season, however, Jacobs flipped to inside linebacker after Orr's injury and spent the year attempting to play catch-up.
Jacobs finished the year ninth on the team with 37 tackles. He even recorded a 25-yard fourth-quarter interception of Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner in the regular season finale to help Wisconsin secure a 31-17 victory. But after Wisconsin's Cotton Bowl victory against Western Michigan, Jacobs approached coaches about moving to outside linebacker for his final season. He showed during spring practice why the switch could prove beneficial for the Badgers' Big Ten West title defense hopes.
Garret Dooley has locked up one starting outside linebacker spot, but Jacobs could work his way into a starting role on the other side if he continues to excel. Baun opened the spring as a potential starter, and those two will compete for playing time, as will junior-college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel in the outside linebacker rotation.
"I'm excited for Leon and about Leon," Chryst said Friday after his team's spring game. "There's a guy that would do anything for this team, and he did it. Last year at this time he was playing fullback. Then he jumped in and we had injuries and he was playing inside backer, but I think the outside is a really good fit for him. … I think he's a guy that is capable of having a really big impact on this team, and I'm excited for him to have that senior year that you're playing your best football. He works. He's talented. I think he'll be really a big part of what we do defensively."
Jacobs enters 2017 among the most experienced players on Wisconsin's roster, having played in 45 career games. But he is still trying to find his niche with the Badgers. And this year, he hopes, he'll represent a final piece to the team's puzzle on a path toward maintaining an elite-level defense.
"I think I made some plays in spring that allows me to stay alive in the games with those guys," Jacobs said. "I've set goals for myself. I'll have every play on a checklist to put down did I win or lose that rep? If you go through everything like that, then the rest will take care of itself in terms of the bigger picture stuff."