Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines
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.
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.
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.
Defending Big Ten champion Penn State is loaded with experience on offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley are preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. They'll play behind a veteran offensive line and with a standout tight end in Mike Gesicki.
The one question about that unit going into the spring was at wide receiver. Not necessarily in depth of talent, as the Nittany Lions bring back accomplished players Saeed Blacknail and DaeSean Hamilton at the position. The question was more along the lines of who would become the true No. 1 wideout, someone who could replace the production of Chris Godwin?
The answer to that question might be one of the biggest breakout players in the Big Ten this spring: Juwan Johnson.
The redshirt sophomore created major buzz around the program all spring, earning raves from coaches and teammates and winning Penn State's most improve offensive player award. He showed the public what the fuss was about with seven catches for 81 yards in Saturday's Blue-White game.
Johnson played mainly on special teams last season, though he did start on offense against Purdue. He finished the year with two catches for 70 yards.
"I've been patient the past two years," Johnson told reporters Saturday. "It's time for me to step up and play a role on the team."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Johnson is ready to make an impact. He's a former ESPN 300 recruit who's listed at an impressive 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He could become a top target for McSorley, who often sought out Godwin (59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016) during key situations.
"He has just has taken a very mature approach, a very aggressive approach all offseason," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence right now, and I think we all know he's got some special physical abilities. It's all kind of coming together for him right now."
Here's a look at some other breakout players from around the league this spring now that every team has wrapped up its practice sessions until fall camp (in alphabetical order):
Ohio State CB Damon Arnette: Whoever emerges in the secondary for the Buckeyes is a good bet to become a star. Arnette had some struggles as a redshirt freshman last season but performed very well all spring to become the front-runner to start opposite Denzel Ward. Given how much pure talent Ohio State has at the position, that's saying something.
Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus: The sophomore -- who had four catches for for 94 yards as a true freshman -- turned in some big practices for the Badgers this spring. It was an emotional spring for him after his father was shot and killed. Cephus is in line to replace Robert Wheelwright as the team's No. 2 receiver.
Michigan LB/S Khaleke Hudson: It's unfair to compare Hudson to Jabrill Peppers. But Hudson might well be the guy who replaces Hudson at the Viper position, one where he'll be asked to do many of the same things Peppers excelled at. The early returns have been positive, as Hudson looked like a playmaker during an active spring game performance.
Minnesota S Jacob Huff: The junior has no career starts but has played as a backup the past two seasons. He showed up in a major way this spring at a position of need for the Golden Gophers. "All he does is make plays," head coach P.J. Fleck said of Huff.
Michigan State CB/WR Justin Layne: He made an impact as a true freshman in the Spartans' secondary, even returning an interception for a touchdown. Layne played on offense and defense during the spring game, catching a touchdown pass at receiver. Could he be a true two-way star this fall?
Nebraska slot receiver JD Spielman: The MVP of the scout team offense last year, Spielman looks ready to contribute where it counts this season. He impressed coaches most of the spring and went out and grabbed a 30-yard touchdown among his four catches in the spring game.
Indiana TE Ian Thomas: New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord intends to use the tight ends more than the Hoosiers have in previous seasons, and Thomas should be the biggest beneficiary of that strategy. A standout in junior college, Thomas had only three catches last season but snagged a touchdown in the spring game, a potential sign of things to come.
Iowa RB Toren Young: Akrum Wadley is the No. 1 tailback, but the Hawkeyes like A) spreading the carries around and B) occasionally putting Wadley out in space. Young and Toks Akinribade are both in the mix for work this fall, but it was Young who ran for 96 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. "I liked the energy he ran with and the toughness he ran with, and he's pretty much been doing that all spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Michigan assistant Michael Zordich has a well-earned side trip planned for when the Wolverines wrap up practice in Rome next week. He’ll be visiting his son, Alex, who is finishing a master’s degree in winemaking in northern Italy.
The younger Zordich, following in his maternal grandfather’s footsteps, has been an aspiring vintner for several years. The Michigan-based Zordich said he’s got a batch of his son’s work at home, but he’s waiting patiently before trying it to make sure it ages properly. He doesn’t have the same luxury with the Wolverines secondary this coming fall.
Michigan’s cornerbacks are the peak of the oozing-with-potential, lacking-in-experience make-up of the team’s defense heading into 2017. Zordich said he can’t remember working with a less experienced group in his coaching career, but he won’t be letting the players ferment any longer by changing up the way the Wolverines play defense.
“We’re going to do everything we did with [last year’s veterans],” he said earlier this week. “We have to. We play man [coverage]. We need to make all the same calls with the young guys as with the old guys. That’s what we do. We’re not going to stray from what we do. We’re going to find the guys that are going to be able to handle it.”
A year ago, seniors Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling were two of the top cover corners in the Big Ten, if not the nation, and played a big role in creating the stingiest pass defense in the FBS. Their ability to lock down receivers in press man coverage also gave defensive coordinator Don Brown and his staff more opportunities to dip into his deep well of blitz packages and control the line of scrimmage. Both players rarely left the field, which means the pool of mostly underclassmen vying to replace them is virtually untested.
Sophomores Lavert Hill and David Long have been considered the most talented candidates to win those jobs throughout the spring. Hill has suffered through some minor injuries, which Zordich said is part of the process of learning to play at a higher level. He added that the competition for those jobs is “absolutely 100 percent wide open” as spring practices draw toward a close.
Freshman Benjamin St-Juste, who enrolled in January, played more snaps than anyone else in the group during Michigan’s spring game last Saturday. He intercepted a pass and made three tackles, but Zordich said he and fellow early enrollee Ambry Thomas both started to drift away from the techniques they’ve been taught as the game went on.
“Maybe when you get a little bit tired you start losing concentration and his technique started to wane and he gave up some plays,” Zordich said. “It’s good for him, too, because he felt bad after the game. He felt bad, but it was his first time here. It was a good experience for him.”
On the more experienced end of the spectrum, redshirt junior Brandon Watson has been the most consistent player in coverage for the Wolverines this spring, according to his coaches. Redshirt sophomore Keith Washington has also made good strides this spring after the former high school quarterback spent the last two seasons putting on weight and getting comfortable in a collegiate defensive backfield.
Zordich said that despite some growing pains, the entire group benefited from Michigan’s four-hour practice sessions during the first month of spring ball. Long days add up to a lot of extra reps, which is what his group needs more than anything at this point.
“We’re young and talented, but there is still a ways to go,” Zordich said. “Those guys being here and getting all those reps in practice right now, they’re going to walk in here in August and say, ‘OK this is pretty good, pretty easy.’ This time will be the hardest on them.”
Lani Fettig decided last summer that she wanted to find a sports-related name that started with “H” for her fourth son. As lifelong Michigan fans from the state’s Upper Peninsula, Harbaugh was the obvious choice for the newest addition to the Fettig family.
Harbaugh Fettig was born on Sept. 1, 2016, and not long after was snuggled up next to a Wolverines football. The Fettig family sent a birth announcement to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh earlier this month, and the coach gave his social media seal of approval for the new fan’s first name earlier this week.
Something about this kid, A Winner & Champ all the way! Enthusiasm! M Fan! Harbaugh Lee Fettig, keep an eye on him. pic.twitter.com/aq7fpA0LjE
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) April 18, 2017
Gregg Fettig, Harbaugh’s father, said he remembers watching Jim Harbaugh as a quarterback at Michigan in the 1980s and liked the idea of a good, tough football name for his son. It fits with the theme he and his wife established with their three other boys. His oldest, Hogan, is named after former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan. Colt and Case got their names from the quarterbacking McCoy brothers who both started at Texas.
“We didn’t want to go with really eccentric names, but I’m a football guy and a college football guy,” he said. “… I asked my wife, ‘What about Harbaugh?’ and she loved it.”
Lani’s father worked for the state police in Ypsilanti, Michigan, (next door to Ann Arbor) and covered a few Wolverines games. Both have been Michigan fans for as long as they can remember.
Fettig is a high school principal in St. Ignace, Michigan, and said several of his students have stopped him in the hallways this week to make sure he knew that Harbaugh was tweeting about his new son. A lot of the employees at LaSalle High School are Michigan State alumni or Spartan fans. The new name hasn’t been so popular with some of them. Fettig said some of them have refused to let that name slip from their lips.
“Well, that’s OK,” he told them. “You can call him by his nickname.”
“What’s his nickname, then?” they asked.
Bo, of course.
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
Michigan sophomore running back Chris Evans has noticed the difference in practice this spring. After spending his first year of college football running into one of the nation’s best defenses, Evans says this spring hasn’t been much different. In fact, he thinks the new group of Wolverines might have a step or two on last year’s team.
“They’re just faster to the ball,” he said Saturday after the team’s spring game. “They’re all together. As soon as you bounce something, the DBs are darting. I feel like they’re faster.”
Ten starters from last year’s defense are gone. All of them landed some version of an all-conference honor at the end of a 2016 season in which Michigan held its opponents to 14.1 points (second in the FBS) and 261.8 yards (tied for first) per game. Experience and depth will both take a hit as Michigan tries to gear for a run at a championship in Jim Harbaugh’s third season in Ann Arbor. Defensive coordinator Don Brown & Co. are hoping they can make up for the difference with speed.
Brown came to Michigan a year ago and inherited a group of seasoned veterans, many of whom will be NFL draft picks a couple of weeks from now. His “solve your problems with aggression” approach to attacking an opponent’s backfield netted immediate results but took time for players to fully understand. Senior linebacker Mike McCray, the lone returning starter, thinks that an extra year of familiarity with the playbook has been a big part of the acceleration this spring.
“We’re going after it, we’re not afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “I don’t think we were afraid to make mistakes last year, but now you can see that because we know the system, we’re just out there playing. We don’t have to think as much.”
Beyond the handful of midyear enrollees, who are still “swimming” in new information according to Brown, many of the players who are stepping into new starting spots were at least able to get their feet wet in games during 2016. The expected starters at defensive line all played as regular rotation players last fall. Newcomers in the back end of the defense such as Khaleke Hudson and Tyree Kinnel, who combined for 10 tackles and a sack during Saturday’s spring game, were special teams mainstays a year ago.
While the list of ready-to-go players may not be as deep this time around, Michigan’s upperclassmen say the jump from being part of the rotation to being the main guy at a position hasn’t been very significant.
“For me, it feels the same,” defensive lineman Mo Hurst said. “I was in for big situations in games [last year]. It feels basically the same.”
Hurst and others said they’ve noticed a steady increase in athleticism on the recruiting trail since the new staff arrived at Michigan more than two years ago. Those top-10 recruiting hauls will have to start paying major dividends this fall, especially in the secondary. The unit that finished last season with the best passing defense in the nation didn’t rotate nearly as much as the defensive line. Brown said he was impressed with how the new wave performed on a bigger stage during the spring game.
McCray saw the same thing. He said that a lack of experience wasn’t going to be an acceptable excuse for the defense this season and so far it hasn’t been slowing them down.
“If you can play, you can play,” he said. “You can see, you can just tell at practice. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can tell we’re playing faster.”
Not long after Michigan’s spring game wrapped up Saturday afternoon, quarterback Wilton Speight leaned back in his chair at center stage on top of a raised platform inside Michigan Stadium and fielded questions about his day. Speight’s backup, redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, stood several feet below him in the corner of the same room with another group of reporters.
Their spots were a good representation of the Wolverines’ pecking order at quarterback as spring practice begins to wind down. Speight remains comfortable in his growing role as the team’s leader despite Peters pushing him with a better statistical day in his first Big House performance.
“He made quite a few throws today that were elite throws,” Speight said when asked about his understudy. “That’s really the Brandon we’ve been seeing since he got here last year. He has an arm that’s capable of making any throw, and [he’s] poised to stand in the pocket and do what he needs to do.”
Peters finished 9-of-17 with 160 passing yards and a 12-yard rushing touchdown in his first “start” as college player. His first throw of the day was a strike that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown pass to Zach Gentry, a former quarterback who switched to receiver in search of some playing time. That’s looking like a smart move for Gentry. The crew of quarterbacks Jim Harbaugh has assembled in Ann Arbor is deep and getting deeper.
In a small sample size, Peters looked the part as much as Speight and redshirt senior John O’Korn -- both of whom have a full season of starting experience at the college level. Meanwhile, incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey, one of the country’s top quarterback prospects in the most recent recruiting cycle, watched from the sideline. He’ll join the team this summer.
Speight said he’s sees the growing list of competitors nipping at his heels as a positive rather than a threat. He’s hung on to a quote from former Wolverine Tom Brady during the past couple of months to drive home that point.
“I saw a quote from Tom Brady very recently after the Super Bowl that was like, ‘I’ve gotta be in there every day because I don’t know who’s going to come in and take my job,’” Speight said. “Obviously I’m not comparing the two of us, but you have to have that mindset.”
Speight completed nine of his 26 attempts Saturday. He had a chance to display some increased quickness (he says he’s down to roughly 235 pounds after dropping nearly 20 pounds during the winter) while under constant pressure early in the afternoon. He also threw two interceptions -- mistakes he blamed on trying to force balls into windows that were too small.
Those are decisions that Speight said he has been eliminating for most of spring practice thus far. A couple of missteps didn’t do anything to shake the confidence that helped Speight lead the Wolverines’ offense to a 10-win season during his first year as a starter in 2016.
Peters said the command and control that have helped Speight excel are the areas of his own game that need the most work. Harbaugh and company have been pushing him to speak up since he got to campus last year.
“That’s probably my biggest thing I need to work on as far as getting things executed,” he said. “Making sure everyone hears me, they line up right, and we get the play going as fast as possible.”
The Indiana native said he "of course" would like to take over the No. 1 job, but his focus remains on competing on a daily basis. He was happy with how well he read the defense -- save for one interception -- on Saturday and thinks he has made big strides in seeing the field and his footwork in his first year at college. Throwing the deep ball has been one of his biggest strengths since high school, and that showed again this weekend.
Nonetheless, it remains a safe bet that Speight will be the face of Michigan’s offense and its steady rudder when the team starts next fall against the Florida Gators in Texas. Saturday’s spring game didn’t change much there. It’s more clear now, though, that the growing stable of arms waiting in line has what it takes to push him.
On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.
"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.
If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.
The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.
The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.
J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.
Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.
"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."
Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.
"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."
Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.
"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.
Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."
That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:
Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.
Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.
Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.
Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.
"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."
Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.
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Michigan’s defensive line is not shy about setting a high bar for itself.
A year ago assistant coach Greg Mattison and his players declared during spring ball that they had the potential to be the best line in the country in 2016. They weren’t that far off. The Wolverines’ defense statistically finished fifth in sacks, third in tackles for loss and second in points allowed.
This year, despite having to replace all four starters along the line, it was defensive coordinator Don Brown who started the spring with some bold claims about his big guys up front. Brown said he couldn’t think of a tandem that will line up next to each other anywhere in the nation that will be better than sophomore Rashan Gary and redshirt senior Maurice Hurst.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “I believe in it.”
After collecting 27 tackles (five for loss) and learning behind two soon-to-be NFL players in Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton, Gary has approached his first spring as a college football player with a professional attitude that has most of the Michigan coaching staff gushing about what he could become in the fall.
The 287-pound end ran the 40-yard dash, Michigan says, in 4.57 seconds. For comparison's sake, had he been running alongside every quarterback heading into the NFL draft at the end of this month only one of them would have finished with a faster time. That’s a positive sign for his pass-rush ability, but what has his coaches more excited is how quickly Gary has matured and started to carry himself as a veteran.
“Rashan comes out every day like he’s a senior,” Mattison said. “He’s done that throughout the winter conditioning. ... I really think it had a lot to do with Taco and Chris Wormley [and] the way they mentored him. They set a great example for what you have to do to be successful.”
Gary has consistently credited his two former teammates with showing him how to be a college player. He said he’s now trying to pass on the same lessons to the incoming freshmen and develop as one of the group’s leaders. He’ll have some help from Hurst and fellow defensive end Chase Winovich, who along with Bryan Mone make up the likely first-string defensive line.
Hurst, with 33 career games under his belt, is easily the most experienced of the group. He has developed a quick burst that allowed him to pick up 11.5 tackles for loss from his spot on the interior of the defensive line while splitting time with Matt Godin a year ago. His decision to return for a fifth season is a major boost for what will be a very young Michigan defense and creates a major headache for opposing offensive lines that will have to block both Hurst and Gary on the same side of the ball.
“Both of them have played a lot of football and are very, very explosive,” Mattison said. “It’s time for [Hurst] to really reap the benefits of all he’s done and take it the next step further. He’s showed that also this spring, so I’m excited about Mo.”
The depth that made the Wolverines’ defensive line dangerous last season will be hard to replicate in 2017. Mattison said youngsters Carlo Kemp and Donovan Jeter have shown impressive flashes this spring, but the group isn’t yet ready for an eight-man rotation with little drop-off like it was a year ago. At the top end, though, it might be hard to find a better side-by-side duo than Hurst and Gary in the Big Ten.
“I know his ability and he knows mine,” Gary said. “We both have goals. I know his. He knows mine. And we go after it every practice.”
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