Big Ten: Maryland Terrapins

His Maryland teammates have learned that it’s a good idea to be friends with Ty Johnson.

An accomplished cook, Johnson likes to make meals for his fellow running backs and other players during the offseason. Steaks, pasta and even surf 'n' turf appear on his Friday night menus, which he likes to rotate to keep things fresh. He recently whipped up some filet mignon with stuffed green peppers, asparagus and steamed carrots.

There’s another thing that the Terrapins have learned about Johnson: It’s a really good idea to give him the football.

Ty JohnsonMark Goldman/Icon SportswireMaryland's Ty Johnson tied Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon last season for most 40-yard plays by an running back.

On the field, the junior is more flash fry than crock pot. He ran for 1,004 yards last season, which isn’t all that remarkable in a conference full of standout running backs. Until you consider that he accomplished that in just 110 carries. That equated to an average of 9.1 yards per carry, which was the highest rate in the FBS and a Maryland school record.

Johnson came close to the all-time NCAA record of 9.63 yards per carry, which Houston’s Chuck Weatherspoon set in 1998 on 119 attempts. Johnson cleared the 1,000-yard mark on his 107th carry of the season; for comparison’s sake, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon crossed the 1,000-yard barrier in 104 attempts during his landmark 2014 season.

Then again, Gordon went on to 343 total carries while finishing second in the Heisman Trophy race that year. Johnson got less than a third of Gordon's opportunities in 2016. He was like a Bugatti that stayed in the garage except on special occasions. Only three times all season did he get double-digit carries in a game, with his high of 15 attempts coming in the Quick Lane Bowl loss to Boston College.

Despite his ridiculous efficiency, Johnson isn’t exactly angling for 20-plus carries per game.

“If that time ever came, I guess we’ll see,” he said. “But I’m all right with how the carries are distributed and everything.”

Maryland’s coaches weren’t even sure what they had in Johnson until about this time last year, when he began turning heads in spring practice.

He committed to the previous staff out of Cumberland, a small town in western Maryland that doesn’t produce many Division I athletes. The only other schools showing major interest in him before he committed to the Terps were Albany and Delaware.

“You can drive through the whole city in like five minutes,” Johnson said of his hometown. “Coaches did come in, but they weren’t really interested when they stopped by. They were probably just there to get something to eat on their way to somewhere else.”

Johnson ran the ball only 35 times as a freshman but showed what he could do in spurts, including the season finale against Rutgers when he ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns on just two touches. That’s a pretty good yards per carry average.

Johnson burst onto the Big Ten stage again in last year’s conference opener against Purdue, when he ran for 204 yards and a pair of scores on just seven carries. Though he was inconsistent during the year, with five games of fewer than 25 rushing yards, Johnson continually showed his big-play ability by ripping off dashes of 76, 66, 62 and 55 yards. His nine rushes of 40 yards or more tied for second most in the country, and his 10 total plays of 40 yards or more (including one reception) tied with Florida State's Dalvin Cook and Oklahoma's Joe Mixon for the most among FBS running backs.

“He has what I would say is elite speed,” Maryland running backs coach Anthony Tucker said. “He approaches his top speed very quickly. Everybody in our league now has to account for the fact this guy can go. He can go right by you and take it the distance if you’re not careful.”

So why didn’t Johnson get more touches? The Terps like to keep their backs fresh in Walt Bell’s high-paced offense, and they also had Lorenzo Harrison averaging 7.2 yards per carry before his late-season suspension. Harrison has been reinstated and will again split time with Johnson in 2017.

“Philosophically, we like to be able to play with more than one guy,” Tucker said. “So now we’ve got two guys who can run and catch the football, and maybe their touch totals equal 30-plus. That way you have a bunch of explosive pieces to your offense.”

Johnson wants to be known as more than just a home-run hitter. He came to campus weighing about 170 pounds but now is up to 205. When asked for his favorite moments from last season, he picked a couple that few other people would remember. He recalled a run against Purdue in which he busted through a would-be tackler, and a short gain versus Michigan in which he lowered his shoulder and knocked out the mouthpiece of a Wolverines defensive back.

“Everyone thinks I’m more of a speed back and I don’t have power,” he said, “so those are the ones I definitely enjoyed the most.”

He’s determined this spring to become a complete tailback, and his determination usually wins out.

In high school, a family friend told Johnson that he should make a list of 21 goals. Seven for the upcoming month, seven for the next few months and seven for the long term. Johnson recently found that list at home and realized he’d crossed out 18 of the 21, with the remaining ones involving things like starting a family and landing a good job. He made another list of 21 goals this winter, only about half of which involve football.

He also taught himself how to cook while growing up, learning at his mom’s side early on then experimenting in the kitchen when she worked the late shift. Johnson would call or text her if he had questions about a recipe or a technique.

“I didn’t always want to eat microwavable meals and stuff like that when she was working,” he said. “So I had to learn to start cooking for myself.”

Johnson’s teammates are still seeing the benefits from that experience. And when the ball’s in his hands, he can heat things up faster than a microwave.

It's March, and it's championship week, so basketball and brackets have taken over the sports world.

That also has us thinking about which Big Ten basketball players might be able to make the transition to football. It's not unheard of. All-Pro tight ends Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez each played college basketball. Late last month, LSU power forward Brian Bridgewater said he'd like to join the Tigers football team in the fall.

With that in mind, here's a starting five and a sixth man from the world of Big Ten basketball hoops who would be fun to see on the gridiron:

Caleb SwaniganRich Graessle/Icon SportswireCaleb Swanigan has been a beast on the basketball court. Would his skills translate to the football field?

Purdue's Caleb Swanigan: The Big Ten's no-doubt player of the year and Wooden Award candidate is a beast in the paint and likely would be in the trenches, too. He's listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds after dropping more than 100 pounds since eighth grade. Think Jeff Brohm would like to see the man they call "Biggie" at left tackle or perhaps stuffing runs as a nose guard?

Iowa's Ahmad Wagner: The 6-foot-7 sophomore had interest from Big Ten schools as a football player out of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. He even received a football scholarship offer from Kentucky after hauling in 58 catches for 1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He played with Wisconsin reserve guard D'Mitrik Trice, who was a star quarterback at Wayne.

Michigan State's Miles Bridges: If anybody could make a Gates/Gonzalez-type transition to tight end, it might well be Bridges. With great footwork and balance for a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, Bridges would be a nightmare for opposing defenders to cover. And since Tom Izzo is known to use football pads in practice, maybe the new sport wouldn't seem so unfamiliar for the Spartans freshman.

Maryland's Melo Trimble: At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Trimble could make an interesting wide receiver for D.J. Durkin's squad. Or maybe a safety. Doesn't really matter what position he plays. Trimble is a gamer who's unafraid of big moments, which is why he'd likely succeed in football as well.

Indiana's OG Anunoby: He's currently out with a torn ACL, but the Hoosiers' 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most explosive players in college basketball when healthy. Can't you just see him rushing the passer as a terrifying defensive end? It's not that outlandish, given the bloodlines. Anunoby's older brother, Chigbo, is a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns.

Northwestern's Nathan Taphorn: Hey, if he can make that perfect 90-foot pass for the game-winning layup against Michigan, then maybe the 6-foot-7 Taphorn could be a backup to Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. Even Thorson had difficulty recreating Taphorn's throw.

With spring practice gearing up throughout much of the Big Ten, it's time to bring back the mailbag. You can send in questions any time via Twitter or by emailing me at ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.

Go time:

Brian Bennett: Good question, if a bit early. We should have a better sense of these teams once they get through spring ball. But allow me to make a couple of way-too-early calls, which are subject to change.

Most improved? I think you have to go with Michigan State. Even though the offseason has had its share of difficulties for the Spartans, it's simply too hard for me to imagine this program going 3-9 again. Mark Dantonio's team probably still won't be good enough to seriously contend in the East Division, but 7-to-8 wins is totally in reach.

As for digressing (good word choice by you), I'll go with Minnesota. The schedule is still manageable early on for new head coach P.J. Fleck. But given the personnel losses, the uncertainty at quarterback, the turmoil around the program and the transition to a new staff, I find it unreasonable to expect another nine-win campaign out of the Golden Gophers. This is more likely a team that will have to scrap for a bowl bid.

Brian Bennett: Well, the big ones are well known. Michigan vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Oklahoma at Ohio State and Nebraska at Oregon in Week 2. Michigan State hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 23.

A couple of other lesser-heralded ones I like: Wisconsin at BYU in Week 3 -- not quite LSU at Lambeau, but it's an intriguing road trip nonetheless. Maryland at Texas and new coach Tom Herman in the opener. Penn State vs. Pitt, naturally. Purdue vs. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Jeff Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, in Indianapolis in Week 1.

The nonconference schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous in 2017 as it did in the summer of 2016, but there are still some very interesting games on tap.

Brian Bennett: Well, you're already eliminating Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the East and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West with your parameters. I think we can agree Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois aren't particularly close to winning a division, and Indiana and Maryland have the deck stacked against them in the East. So that leaves only Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota. As I wrote earlier, I think the Golden Gophers are in for some rebuilding. So yeah, the Wolverines and Wildcats are your best bets to be the next teams to break through and get to Indianapolis.

John A. emails: Do you see Alex Hornibrook taking a step forward for a Wisconsin team that is just a QB away from a special season? And if he does take that step, how do you see their season panning out?

Brian Bennett: I do think you'll see Hornibrook take a step forward. He showed good poise and made plays as a redshirt freshman in some tough games a year ago, and that can only help his development. The big question is what is Hornibrook's ceiling. Can he be a star at quarterback, or is he destined to be a solid game manager? The Badgers have managed a lot of success with the latter type of signalcaller, so he doesn't have to be Russell Wilson 2.0.

I'm fairly bullish on Hornibrook's potential because of two things: his outstanding makeup, and the tutelage of Paul Chryst. I think you could see Hornibrook develop into a slightly better version of late-career Scott Tolzien, which was pretty darn good.

Brian Bennett: Well, all right.

Top three QBs: 1. Penn State's Trace McSorley. 2. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett. 3. Michigan's Wilton Speight (with Northwestern's Clayton Thorson right behind).

Best team offense: Penn State, though Ohio State with Kevin Wilson pulling the levers is fascinating and dangerous.

Best team defense: Ohio State, because of its experienced defensive line. But Michigan and Wisconsin should both be really good defensively, too.

Brian Bennett: Things certainly can't get much worse, but I don't know how much a recruiting class will help. You're talking about a bunch of extremely young players who'd be outmatched physically in the Big Ten.

There is bound to be improvement, though, and there's no real reason why the Scarlet Knights couldn't compete with teams like Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana. The bad news is that Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are still on the schedule, plus a trip to Nebraska. Ouch.

With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses that could shape the division races in 2017. Earlier this week, we examined the biggest strengths of each team in the East Division. Today, it's time for the weaknesses.

Indiana: Short-yardage offense. The Hoosiers converted only 71.4 percent of their red zone opportunities into scores in 2016 and were 121st nationally in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents' 20. Third-and-short and fourth downs were also a problem. New head coach Tom Allen has made fixing this a priority this spring.

Maryland: Pass protection. The Terrapins were more like turnstiles when it came to keeping defenders off their quarterback in 2016. Maryland surrendered an unconscionable 49 sacks in 13 games, more than all but one team in the FBS. The program is making strides under D.J. Durkin but won't go very far until that number improves substantially.

Michigan: Running the ball against good opponents. The Wolverines' 2016 rushing stats look good on paper. But they piled up a lot of yards against inferior teams. When Michigan absolutely needed to run the ball against outstanding defenses last year, it often stalled. See the 2.5 yards per carry against Florida State, the 2.1 ypc vs. Ohio State and the 2.8 vs. Iowa -- not coincidentally, all losses. The offensive line needs to get stronger in order to stand up against the best defenses on the schedule.

Michigan State: The pass rush. The Spartans managed just 11 total sacks in 12 games a year ago, the fewest of any Power 5 team. And that was with Malik McDowell in the lineup for much of the year. Mark Dantonio turned to playing several freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line late in the season, which could speed their development for this fall. But if Michigan State can't put pressure on the quarterback, the rest of its defense will continue to be ineffective.

Ohio State: The downfield passing game. J.T. Barrett struggled to get the ball to his receivers in the vertical passing game last year, as the Buckeyes averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt (88th in the FBS). New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were brought in to fix the passing issues, and Barrett will need to build chemistry this spring with a fleet of young wideouts.

Penn State: Third-down conversions. There's not much to complain about from the 2016 Nittany Lions' season, though third downs were strangely troubling for much of the year. Penn State converted just 32.6 percent of its third downs last year and was just 7-of-20 on third downs against Wisconsin and USC. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, there's no good reason for that to continue in 2017.

Rutgers: Quarterback play. We could go a number of different ways here after the Scarlet Knights' disastrous 2-10 campaign. No unit is blameless. But a lack of playmaking ability behind center was a chief culprit in why Rutgers averaged just 9.9 points per game against Power 5 opponents and was shut out four times. Job one for new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is to find a quarterback who can move the offense.

With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in each division. Check back Thursday for a look at each team's biggest weakness.

Here's a look at the East:

Indiana: The back seven. Yes, the Hoosiers are best known for their offensive prowess, but their biggest strength might actually lie on the other side of the ball. Tegray Scales is back to lead the linebacker group after finishing with an FBS-best 23.5 tackles for loss last season. Marcelino Ball is also a force as a hybrid defensive back after recording 75 tackles as a true freshman. Throw in returning veterans and head coach Tom Allen's 4-2-5 scheme, and this might be the basis for Indiana's success in 2017.

Maryland: The running backs. The Terrapins quietly finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season at nearly 200 yards per game. The potential is there for more in 2017. Ty Johnson ran for 1,004 yards on an insane 9.1 yards per carry as a sophomore. He'll be rejoined by Lorenzo Harrison, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in nine games before earning a suspension. Maryland is bursting with big playmakers in the backfield.

Michigan's Wilton SpeightAP Photo/Tony DingWilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter for Michigan, which shouldn't count quarterback depth among its concerns.

Michigan: Quarterback depth. After losing a boatload of valuable seniors and sending 14 players to the NFL combine, the Wolverines have question marks going into the spring. Quarterback isn't really one of them. Wilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter, completing 61.6 percent of his passes and finishing with an 18-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a big edge to keep the job, but he also has talented youngsters Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey behind him, along with veteran John O'Korn.

Michigan State: The linebacker group. Despite the loss of leader Riley Bullough, the Spartans should be able to count on this position group as an anchor in 2017. Jon Reschke and Chris Frey have lots of experience, and Andrew Dowell is on the rise. Yet another Bullough brother, Byron, will be pushing for playing time as well.

Ohio State: The pass-rush. Nick Bosa would start for just about any team in the Big Ten, and quite likely in America. But his playing time is in question for the Buckeyes, who bring back starting defensive ends Tyquan Lewis -- the league's defensive lineman of the year in 2016 -- and Sam Hubbard. That's a crazy amount of talent coming off the edge, and it doesn't even include senior Jalyn Holmes or blue-chip signee Chase Young.

Penn State: The offensive backfield. Running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley ranked 1-2 in our list of the top 25 returning Big Ten players last month. So it's kind of a nice advantage to have them in the same backfield, and it makes the Nittany Lions' run-pass option plays even more devastating. Miles Sanders is an excellent backup choice and change-of-pace guy behind Barkley, too.

Rutgers: The kick-return game. So the Scarlet Knights didn't have any discernible strengths during a miserable 2016 campaign, but at least Janarion Grant is back after suffering a season-ending injury early last fall. Assuming he's healthy, he should reclaim his reputation as one of the top return men in the country. He has eight career combined kick and punt return scores, tied for the most in FBS history.

The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.

It may be ridiculously early, but we're examining the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Maryland Terrapins

Must-win game: vs. Rutgers, Nov. 4 (at Yankee Stadium)

For the first time since both joined the Big Ten, Rutgers and Maryland won't play each other in the season finale. Instead, this year's game -- the "Big Ten Battle in the Bronx" at Yankee Stadium -- will be in early November, while the Terps end the season against Penn State. As the two newbies in the league with a lot to prove, Rutgers and Maryland made sense as rivals, and the first two meetings between them as conference mates (in 2014 and 2015) were thrillers decided by a total of eight points. The Terps won by 18 points last year to qualify for a bowl game and appear to have zoomed ahead of their fellow Big Ten East expansion school. Maryland needs to keep it that way, especially against a schedule that offers precious few breathers along the way.

Trap game: vs. UCF, Sept. 23

The Terrapins had to escape with a double-overtime victory at UCF last September. While D.J. Durkin's team should be better in 2017, the Knights figure to be as well. Head coach Scott Frost played a bunch of freshmen and sophomores last season, including first-year quarterback McKenzie Milton. Maryland has a bye week this season before hosting UCF, so it should be well prepared for this one. But if the Terps start peeking ahead to the start of conference play a week later, this can become a trap situation.

We knew Michigan was loaded with senior talent last year. The NFL knew it, too.

The Wolverines lead all schools with 14 players invited to this year's NFL combine, the annual prodding and poking of draft hopefuls. The Michigan contingent includes Jabrill Peppers, who declared early, and 13 seniors from last year's Orange Bowl runners-up.

Ohio State was second in the Big Ten with eight invitees, six of whom were underclassmen. Purdue and Rutgers were the only Big Ten schools without a representative.

Here's the full list of all 51 Big Ten players invited to the event, which will be held Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis:

Illinois

DT Chunky Clements

LB Hardy Nickerson

DE Carroll Phillips

DE Dawuane Smoot

Indiana

OG Dan Feeney

RB Devine Redding

Iowa

QB C.J. Beathard

DT Jaleel Johnson

DB Desmond King

TE George Kittle

Maryland

DB William Likely

Michigan

OG Ben Braden

TE Jake Butt

DE Taco Charlton

WR Jehu Chesson

DB Jeremy Clark

WR Amara Darboh

LB Ben Gedeon

DT Ryan Glasgow

S Delano Hill

CB Jourdan Lewis

S Jabrill Peppers

RB De'Veon Smith

CB Channing Stribling

DE Chris Wormley

Michigan State

LB Riley Bullough

DT Malik McDowell

S Montae Nicholson

Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner

CB Jalen Myrick

S Damarius Travis

Nebraska

TE Cethan Carter

S Nate Gerry

Northwestern

DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

LB Anthony Walker Jr.

Ohio State

WR Noah Brown

CB Gareon Conley

C Pat Elflein

S Malik Hooker

P Cameron Johnston

CB Marshon Lattimore

LB Raekwon McMillan

WR Curtis Samuel

Penn State

WR Chris Godwin

DE Garrett Sickels

Wisconsin

LB Vince Biegel

RB Corey Clement

RB Dare Ogunbowale

OT Ryan Ramczyk

CB Sojourn Shelton

LB T.J. Watt

With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.

Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago, after all? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?

Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And since it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, next up will be the linebackers.

Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsLed by Tegray Scales, the Big Ten's top tackler in 2016, Indiana's linebackers could rank among the league's elite next season.

Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana

A top spot on defense is obviously unfamiliar ground for the Hoosiers recently, but with the league’s most productive tackler returning for a unit that new coach Tom Allen has helped find a higher level, it’s deserved heading into this season. Tegray Scales isn’t exactly a secret within the Big Ten, though he remains undervalued nationally for all the ways he can contribute at linebacker and his decision to return for another campaign was a huge boost for Indiana after losing Marcus Oliver to the NFL draft. But counting hybrid defensive back Marcelino Ball as a member of this group, the Hoosiers should still be in position to roll out one of the league's best groups with junior-college signee Mike McGinnis and returning veterans Dameon Willis and Chris Covington all vying for playing time.

Iowa is in a similarly strong position, with Josey Jewell electing to come back for another year after finishing just behind Scales in total tackles last season. With Ben Niemann and Bo Bower on hand, the Hawkeyes have three seniors to lean on and anchor the defense -- guys who combined for 284 tackles a year ago.

Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

Given the rich tradition of both programs at this position, it’s no surprise that the Badgers and Buckeyes are in the mix and more than capable of rising up to potentially become the best unit in the Big Ten. Both have key losses to address this spring that are currently keeping them just outside of the top spots, though, and just how painless the transition without Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan or Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel turns out will be key.

Wisconsin addressed one of those outside spots with a rare junior college pickup, and the pressure will be on Andrew Van Ginkel right away to contribute. But the Badgers are loaded on the inside with four proven commodities, and throwing a healthy Jack Cichy back in the mix could be huge for new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are loaded on the outside with Jerome Baker and Chris Worley coming back after breakout campaigns. And while the picture isn’t clear yet in the middle, Dante Booker's return from an injury that kept him on the shelf virtually all of last season could provide a solution. And if not, maybe four-star freshman Baron Browning, who is already on campus, could find his way into that role.

Team that could surprise: Maryland

The Terrapins appear to be growing nicely under DJ Durkin and appear to have plenty of potential to move up the ranks in the Big Ten based on the recent signing class that unexpectedly finished in the top 20 in the nation. And with more teams lighting up the scoreboard in the East Division recently, putting together a solid corps of linebackers, like the one led by Jermaine Carter, could be crucial in taking a step forward. Jalen Brooks is also on hand with some experience, and if leading tackler Shane Cockerille is cleared again after being ruled ineligible for the bowl game last year, the Terrapins have the makings of a defense that could turn a few heads.

Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue

The Scarlet Knights finished last in the Big Ten in both rush and total defense in Chris Ash’s first season with the program, which won’t sit well with a coach who has made his name on that side of the football. The linebackers weren’t solely to blame and Trevor Morris did some impressive work at times while piling up 102 tackles, but Rutgers clearly needs to take a step forward at the second level.

If not for the Scarlet Knights, Purdue would have finished in the basement in both of those key categories, putting another item on the list of improvements Jeff Brohm needs to work on in his debut season. The Boilermakers have a solid building block in Markus Bailey, and he still has room to improve after posting 97 tackles and snagging four interceptions as a redshirt freshman.

With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.

Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago, after all? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?

Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And since it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.

Staying on offense, next up in the series will be the offensive lines.

Boone MyersRandy Litzinger/Icon SportswireIowa's offensive line has earned acclaim as one of the nation's best units.

Best of the best: Iowa and Ohio State

The Hawkeyes and all their returners up front have already earned national acclaim as one of the nation’s best units, but the reigning Joe Moore Award winners should be even better this season with another year to develop. And assuming Iowa can stay healthy and avoid needing to play seven different combinations of starters on the line, it could improve on the 30 sacks allowed a year ago and help the rushing attack shoot up the charts in the Big Ten after finishing just eighth in the league in yardage. Kirk Ferentz will only have to replace Cole Croston in the rotation after the veteran started seven games in his final season, but due to injuries, the Hawkeyes already have a jumpstart on that heading into spring practice.

Ohio State clearly had issues in pass protection at the end of the year, but once again, the big guys paved the way for the best ground game in the Big Ten and will have no shortage of talent and experience on hand this year. Losing Pat Elflein at center leaves a big hole to fill, but just like the Buckeyes did a year ago by sliding over the captain from guard to take over snapping duties, Billy Price is set to do the same this spring. With three other returning starters alongside Price, Ohio State won’t need to spend much time worrying about the future up front.

Runners-up: Wisconsin and Nebraska

The tradition of success in the trenches isn’t going away any time soon for the Badgers, who could easily find themselves on top of the rankings by the end of the season depending on how seamless the process of replacing star left tackle Ryan Ramczyk winds up being this offseason. Wisconsin has some similarities with Ohio State as it returns four starters from a unit that was better in pass protection by allowing just 24 sacks while finishing a distant third behind the Buckeyes in rushing offense. And the Badgers, too, should be expected to be even stronger on the line with so many experienced veterans back in the fold.

Along those same lines, Mike Riley’s Huskers took a significant step forward last season and could duplicate that again with a skilled group returning this fall. The loss of Dylan Utter is significant, but the rest of the line is stocked with players who have already shown they can handle the blocking responsibilities for a team that allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten last year.

Team that could surprise: Minnesota

After posting one of the most productive, under-the-radar campaigns in the league a year ago, a Minnesota unit that finished in the top five in the Big Ten in both rushing offense and sacks allowed will have three starters returning for P.J. Fleck as he takes over the program. As far as building blocks go for a first-year coach, Fleck should be in relatively decent shape -- and he hired a proven offensive line coach in Ed Warinner who can get the most out of the Gophers. There are questions elsewhere on the roster, but Minnesota could again be a sleeper pick to thrive up front.

Teams that need to step it up: Maryland and Purdue

The Terrapins have some intriguing pieces and potential, but there will have to be significant improvement by the blockers if they’re going to climb a rung or two in the brutally challenging East Division. Maryland gave up 49 sacks last season, though it did show some encouraging flashes as a run-blocking unit.

The Boilermakers finished last in rushing and gave up 29 sacks, putting another item on Jeff Brohm’s lengthy to-do list as he takes over and tries to upgrade the offensive attack.

National signing day has come and gone, which means we can begin to fully evaluate the recruiting haul each team collected. This week on the Big Ten blog, we're looking at which new player has the potential to make an instant impact for each conference team in 2017.

Up next: Maryland

Player: QB Kasim Hill

Kasim Hill Phelan M. Ebenhack for ESPNTrue freshman QB Kasim Hill could come in and compete for the starting job from day one.

The Terrapins had a surprisingly strong class, as head coach D.J. Durkin brought in a top-20 group. As such, there are several players who could step in right away, including athletic safety prospect Markquese Bell, who picked the Terrapins over Ohio State and doesn't have a ton of competition in front of him.

But we'll go with Hill, who was a bedrock recruit in this class. Quarterbacks don't often start from day one in the Big Ten, but Maryland does have a need at the position with Perry Hills graduating. Tyrrell Pigrome was fun to watch as a true freshman when he lined up at quarterback in 2016, but the speedster doesn't likely have the size to be the long-term answer in such a physical league.

The Terps also have Caleb Henderson, who transferred in from North Carolina and sat out last season. But Hill is clearly the future and is solidly built already at a listed 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. If he can handle the responsibilities of the position early on -- always a big if for any young quarterback -- then there will be little reason for Durkin not to turn the reins over to him. The future is now in College Park, and we could see several true freshmen contributing in a big way in 2017.

With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.

Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago, after all? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?

Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And since it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.

Staying in the offensive backfield, next up in the series will be the running backs.

Saquon BarkleySean M. Haffey/Getty ImagesSaquon Barkley's playmaking ability and skills as a receiver make him one of the Big Ten's best running backs.

Best of the best: Penn State and Northwestern

The two most productive rushers in the league both will be back to torment would-be tacklers this season, giving both the Nittany Lions and Wildcats a strong chance of racking up yardage once again on the ground. And with both Saquon Barkley helping expand Penn State’s attack as a receiver and Northwestern not afraid to throw to Justin Jackson out of the backfield, neither team has to be all that deep at tailback since the stars are capable of handling just about anything that can be required at the position.

That’s not a knock on the talent on hand for either program because Northwestern has seen some potential in John Moten IV, and a youngster such as Miles Sanders or Andre Robinson at Penn State could emerge to spread around some of the workload. But Jackson’s ability to take a pounding and seemingly get stronger even deep into the season and Barkley’s incredible playmaking ability will keep them on the field as long as they’re healthy. And that’s enough to put Northwestern and Penn State on top of the preseason list for rushers.

Runners-up: Ohio State and Minnesota

After becoming just the third freshman in school history to top 1,000 yards rushing, Mike Weber should be in line for even more carries and productivity with Curtis Samuel now off to the NFL. Even more encouraging for the Buckeyes? Weber has had time to heal from the shoulder injury that plagued him throughout his first season in the lineup, plus he stands to benefit from Kevin Wilson’s arrival to call plays and retool the Ohio State playbook. Demario McCall flashed some dynamic athleticism when given a chance to touch the football backing up Samuel at the H-back position, and the speedster could again give the Buckeyes a useful, versatile weapon to complement Weber.

Often overlooked last season, Rodney Smith still finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing and found the end zone 16 times on the ground. The Gophers also have no shortage of depth and will likely again get multiple tailbacks involved to take some of the burden off Smith’s talented shoulders as P.J. Fleck arrives to take over the program.

Team that could surprise: Maryland

Thanks to an explosive finish in the last two games, Ty Johnson just cleared the 1,000-yard bar -- remarkably doing it despite getting just 110 carries. Those final two outings showcased his ability to make the most of his opportunities, racking up 327 yards on just 26 rushing attempts to build some momentum heading into his junior year. And with Lorenzo Harrison having shown a few encouraging signs on the field, the Terrapins could have the makings of a breakout backfield.

Teams that need to step it up: Purdue and Illinois

Even with Big Ten programs embracing more wide-open offenses, the ability to rush the ball still is critically important in the league. And averaging less than 100 yards per game on the ground, as Purdue did last season, obviously wasn’t the program’s only issue, but it certainly didn’t help matters much in Darrell Hazell’s final year in charge. Markell Jones delivered a promising freshman campaign two years ago with 875 yards, and he could be a useful building block for new coach Jeff Brohm.

The Illini finished just one spot ahead of Purdue in rushing offense, though they were a full 40 yards clear of the league basement. Kendrick Foster will be back for one more season with Illinois and has offered a couple of glimpses of his ability to handle the job with three 100-yard games last season, and Reggie Corbin appears to have a bright upside as well.

Signing day is over. So it's time for us to update our way-too-early Big Ten Power Rankings for 2017, which debuted Jan. 10.

How did recruiting affect the pecking order? Glad you asked:

1. Ohio State (four first-place votes): The Buckeyes led our first way-too-early power rankings and stay on top after signing a star-studded class ranked No. 2 in the country by ESPN RecruitingNation. The new crop of blue-chippers, especially in the defensive backfield, should offset another wave of early NFL defections. The offense should improve under the direction of former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson.

2. Penn State: Best quarterback-running back duo in the country? It's quite possibly in State College, where Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley return. James Franklin will have a veteran team that could dig down for reinforcements from a recruiting class that finished No. 17.

T-3. Michigan: The Wolverines move up slightly in the power rankings after signing the No. 6 class in the country, which was badly needed given how many valuable seniors are gone. New recruit Aubrey Solomon and last year's recruiting prize Rashan Gary could form a terrifying defensive line duo in the near future.

T-3. Wisconsin: The Badgers' class didn't wow the analysts, but they simply know how to evaluate and develop in Madison. Wisconsin remains the team to beat in the West Division until proven otherwise.

T-5. Nebraska: Mike Riley's staff pulled in the No. 21 class in the country, a much-needed infusion of talent. There will be several position battles to watch this spring in Lincoln, particularly at quarterback.

T-5. Northwestern: How's this for academic appeal: Defensive tackle Joe Spivak chose to walk on for the Wildcats instead of taking scholarship offers at Michigan State and elsewhere. Pat Fitzgerald's team is in great shape in the offensive backfield, with running back Justin Jackson gunning for a fourth-straight 1,000-yard season and quarterback Clayton Thorson coming off a 3,000-yard sophomore campaign.

7. Iowa: Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was the big catch on signing day, but the return of linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley was even bigger news for the Hawkeyes. New quarterback Nathan Stanley takes over an offense that will be run by Brian Ferentz.

8. Michigan State: The Spartans managed to land a solid class despite last year's 3-9 record. Another bad season could have lasting ramifications, so Mark Dantonio will have to trust that their previous recruiting efforts pay off this year.

9. Indiana: New head coach Tom Allen emphasized size on both lines of scrimmage in this year's recruiting class. Even with Wilson gone, the Hoosiers could have an explosive offense with quarterback Richard Lagow (3,362 passing yards in '16) back behind center.

10. Maryland: The Terrapins exceeded expectations with the No. 20 class in the nation and could look to play a lot of those talented freshman in 2017. There are plenty of athletes here, though the trenches still need work.

11. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers were hit hard by graduation and a scandal that resulted in numerous indefinite suspensions. New head coach P.J. Fleck brings energy, but with little to no experience at quarterback and a whole new system, the transition could be bumpy.

12. Purdue: First-year head coach Jeff Brohm signed five junior college prospects to try to shore up the roster immediately. There are still many holes in the two-deep, especially on defense, but Brohm's offense might be able to outscore a few teams.

13. Illinois: This could be a bridge year in Champaign for Lovie Smith because of depth issues created by all the coaching transition. The Illini will have to wait until this summer for quarterback Dwayne Lawson, who didn't sign last week because of academic issues.

14. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights brought in three four-star prospects in this year's class after landing none last February. That's a start for Chris Ash & Co., but there's still a ton of work to do.video

Scan through the list of ESPN RecruitingNation's top 2017 classes, and you'll find the usual Big Ten suspects at the top.

There's Ohio State and Michigan in the top six, naturally. Penn State is No. 17. And then there's one more league team in the top 20: Maryland.

Wait, Maryland? Seeing the Terrapins rated that highly is almost as unusual as, say, a four-star running back committing via a weather balloon in space. Which also happened, when Cordarrian Richardson pledged to Maryland over Ole Miss, Oklahoma, Michigan State and other suitors on Wednesday.

Richardson didn't end up signing with the Terps -- space commits aren't what they used to be -- as he flipped to UCF on Thursday in a bizarre saga. Still, Maryland finished with five ESPN 300 signees, which was one fewer than it had in the previous six years combined. To further put that in perspective, Texas and Tennessee also had five ESPN 300 guys in their respective classes this year.

So, yeah, Maryland was one of the surprise teams of this recruiting cycle with one of its best classes ever (on paper, at least).

"This is the level we need to recruit at," head coach D.J. Durkin said. "It's what we need to do to go do what we want to do, which is win championships."

Miller Safrit/ESPNRunning back Anthony McFarland is one of Maryland's 17 signees from the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.

The Terrapins looked to put together a strong class last year as well. But after the school fired Randy Edsall in midseason and hired Durkin in December, things began to fall apart. The gut punch came when two four-star commitments, quarterback Dwayne Haskins and Keandre Jones, opted out to head to Ohio State.

But with a full year to work the trail this time around, Durkin aimed big -- literally. This class has 29 players, several of whom enrolled early and will count toward last year's numbers. He even got one back against the Buckeyes, as New Jersey athlete Markquese Bell picked the Terps over Ohio State.

The class is large on homegrown talent, as 17 signees are from the surrounding area known as "The DMV" -- Washington, D.C.; Maryland; and Virginia. That includes quarterback Kasim Hill (Washington, D.C.) and running back Anthony McFarland Jr. and offensive guard Marcus Minor from powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School (Hyattsville, Md.).

"I can’t tell you how excited we are about that," Durkin said of all the local talent on board. "We’ve made no secret about that. Our formula is we’re going to take care of our backyard and we’re going to win here in the DMV. We’re going to build our team with that being our foundation."

The Terrapins' location, in a fertile recruiting base, has long been its chief selling point. It's a major reason why the Big Ten added Maryland, along with Rutgers, prior to the 2014 season. Since then, other league teams have very much enjoyed coming into both schools' areas and poaching top recruits.

The 39-year-old Durkin -- who was known as an ace recruiter as an assistant at Michigan, Florida and other stops -- is looking to keep more players home. He led the team to a 6-7 record and a trip to the Quick Lane Bowl in his first season in College Park, a season in which the Terps got exposed against the better Big Ten teams because of a lack of strength in the trenches. This class includes nine offensive and defensive linemen to try and address that need.

The program is just 16-22 overall and 8-17 in league play since joining the Big Ten. But Durkin can sell a new facility, as a $155 million renovation of the former Cole Field House is underway, as well as the school's close ties to Under Armour.

One top-20 recruiting class isn't going to push Maryland over the top in the brutal Big Ten East Division. But if Durkin can keep this up, the Terrapins will be an interesting team to watch in the near future.

"There's now a tremendous influx of talent coming into this program," Durkin said. "I know this: Great players want to play with other great players. When they see other guys going there, they want to go there for a reason. I think there's a great opportunity for this to continue as we keep going through this for years to come."

Dan Sanger/Icon SportswireWhile some schools have made big headlines on signing day, Paul Chryst's Badgers have been under the radar. And that has worked out just fine for Wisconsin.

On signing day three years ago, Penn State announced a class that included a quarterback who had previously committed to Vanderbilt. He was a three-star prospect who was rated as the 60th-best player at his position that year, according to ESPN's Recruiting Nation. Most other schools saw him as a safety. The Nittany Lions signed a higher-rated quarterback, four-star Michael O'Connor, in that same class.

No one was doing cartwheels over that letter of intent from Trace McSorley. Yet, arguably no player had a bigger impact on the Big Ten race in 2016 than McSorley did as a redshirt sophomore. He was the league's top-rated passer, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns, and was named MVP of the Big Ten championship game.

McSorley led the Nittany Lions to victory in Indianapolis over Wisconsin, which was a second-half collapse away from staking a claim to the College Football Playoff. Those are the same Badgers whose previous four recruiting classes were ranked by ESPN, on average, as no better than the 36th-best in the country.

So consider this the annual reminder that signing day, while no doubt extremely important, doesn't always tell the full story in the Big Ten.

Only a fool would dismiss the comings and goings of each team's fax machines on Wednesday. Championships can be won on the decisions of high schoolers. Look no further than Ohio State's ridiculous 2013 class, which formed the backbone of the Buckeyes' national title team less than 24 months later. That crop included Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa, who were named the NFL's offensive and defensive rookies of the year, respectively, by the Pro Football Writers Association earlier this month.

This year's Ohio State class could be compared to that 2013 group in the near future. As of Monday afternoon, the Buckeyes counted 19 commitments, 18 of whom are ranked as either four- or five-star players by ESPN; sixteen of them are in the ESPN 300. Michigan also had 16 ESPN 300 commits as of Monday, with coach Jim Harbaugh still working the trail for some last-minute additions. The rest of the Big Ten, combined, accounted for 18 ESPN 300 commits.

Ohio State and Michigan should both land top-five classes, with Penn State and its seven ESPN 300 commits likely to finish with the third-best class in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are also off to a flying start in the 2018 class after last season's Rose Bowl run. The three best and most aggressive recruiters in the league -- Harbaugh, Urban Meyer and James Franklin -- are at the height of their powers right now.

That trend line seems to reinforce the notion that the Big Ten East will continue to be one of the toughest, if not the most rugged, divisions in college football. An also-ran in that division, Maryland, looks to make a signing day splash with eight current four-star commits and five ESPN 300 prospects. That has to feel good for Terrapins fans and head coach D.J. Durkin, who saw their talent raided last January during the coaching transition from Randy Edsall.

Durkin and the Terps are angling toward a top-20 finish, which would be quite an accomplishment. Yet, it guarantees little.

If it did, then how would we explain Michigan State's recent success? The Spartans recruit a lot better than the national narrative would often have you believe, but they still generally place outside of the top 20 to 25 teams on signing day. Still, they've won one more Big Ten title in the past four years than Ohio State, while Michigan hasn't won a league championship since 2004.

Or how about the 2015 Iowa team that came within a couple of inches of beating Michigan State for that season's Big Ten crown? Or the poster child for downplaying signing day freakouts: Wisconsin. The Badgers just keep racking up double-digit wins, despite classes that don't excite the recruitniks.

There's no substitute for talent, and it's nearly impossible to win a national title without recruiting at the level Meyer, Harbaugh and Franklin are reaching. But there's also still room in the Big Ten for developmental programs and for coaches who know how to find the right needs for their own styles, regardless of the star ratings.

And there is plenty of room for guys like McSorley, who did nothing but win in high school and whose best measurable was his heart. Don't overlook the importance of Wednesday's developments and class rankings. But don't assume those will tell the whole story in the Big Ten.

Let the hype begin for Super Bowl LI. The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will play for football's biggest prize in Houston on Feb. 5. And as always, several Big Ten alums will be part of the extravaganza.

It might surprise you to learn that Rutgers -- that is not a typo -- has more players on the Super Bowl rosters than any other Big Ten team. In fact, as NJ.com's Steve Politi points out, the Scarlet Knights' five representatives on both rosters (counting injured linebacker Jonathan Freeny) is the most of any college team.

Penn State has one player on the rosters -- sort of. Wide receiver Chris Hogan, who starred in Sunday's AFC championship game for New England, was a star lacrosse player for the Nittany Lions from 2007-09. After graduating from Penn State, he transferred to FCS Monmouth and played football for one season. He eventually became another Bill Belichick diamond-in-the-rough story.

Belichick has had a close relationship with Rutgers, dating back to his friendship with former Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano. His son, Steve Belichick, played long-snapper and graduated from the school. He is now the Patriots' safeties coach.

Falcons running backs coach Bobby Turner was the offensive coordinator and running backs coach at Purdue from 1991-94 and the running backs coach at Ohio State from 1989-90. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and tight ends coach Brian Daboll were graduate assistants at Michigan State under Nick Saban.

Mohamed SanuEPA/ERIK S. LESSERFalcons receiver Mohamed Sanu is one of Rutgers' five representatives on the Super Bowl rosters.

Here's a look at the players from Big Ten schools who will be in the Super Bowl:

New England

QB Tom Brady, Michigan

DL Alan Branch, Michigan

DB Nate Ebner, Ohio State

OL Chase Farris, Ohio State#

LB Jonathan Freeny, Rutgers*

DB Duron Harmon, Rutgers

OL Ted Karras, Illinois

DB Devin McCourty, Rutgers

LB Rob Ninkovich, Purdue

CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers

DT Vincent Valentine, Nebraska

RB James White, Wisconsin

Atlanta

S Ricardo Allen, Purdue

DT Jonathan Babineaux, Iowa

LB De'Vondre Campbell, Minnesota

DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa*

RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana

DL Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota

WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers

DT Joe Vellano, Maryland

# -- Practice squad

* -- Reserve/injured list

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