Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Spring isn’t necessarily a time to deliver a finished product. But this time of year is crucial for setting up a team for success in the fall -- and some programs have more work to do than others.
Who stands to benefit the most from these workouts heading into the summer offseason in the Big Ten? Our conference reporters break it down, roundtable style.
Brian Bennett: Minnesota
After the player-led boycott last December, the wave of suspensions and the firing of coach Tracy Claeys, it's an important camp for Minnesota and few teams have as much to accomplish this spring as the Golden Gophers. They’ve got a new head coach in P.J. Fleck and an entirely new staff. There’s a wide-open quarterback race with no proven veterans on the roster. This is going to be a young team, one that’s led by running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Fleck’s personality and schemes represent a major change. It’s a fascinating story to watch, and spring is more important than it usually is in the Twin Cities.
Dan Murphy: Michigan
The Wolverines have to begin filling 17 openings in the starting lineup this spring. Some spots are fairly easy to figure out but will need to use the next month to get comfortable in a new role. Others (like the safeties, receivers and one or two offensive line positions, for example) are wide open competitions. Spring practice will go a long way in determining an offseason pecking order at those spots.
It's also a big month for quarterback Wilton Speight. If Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, Speight will have to take ownership of the offense (which loses seven seniors) and team as a whole. He can start asserting himself this spring as the guy his teammates can trust to pull them out of tight spots. After losing three of their last four games in dramatic fashion, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his players shouldn't have any problem finding motivation to get a lot accomplished in March and April.
Jesse Temple: Purdue
Boilermakers fans are hungry for a reversal of fortunes, and optimism abounds with new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm in charge. His first spring in West Lafayette will be essential as he begins to put the building blocks in place for a potential turnaround. Purdue ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season in scoring offense (24.6 points per game) and last in scoring defense (38.3 points). Brohm, who came from Western Kentucky, helped the Hilltoppers lead the FBS in scoring offense at 45.5 points per game last season. His up-tempo style could benefit Purdue quarterback David Blough, who has a ton of talent and led the Big Ten in passing offense last season. Brohm needs to find enough receivers to help out Blough, and the offensive line must improve to create more of a running game. That doesn't address defensive issues, particularly on the line and in the secondary. Brohm has much work to do and only 15 practices this spring to sort things out.
Austin Ward: Rutgers
Considering the situation Chris Ash inherited a year ago and the brutal division in which he’s trying to make up ground, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect significant improvements during his debut season with the Scarlet Knights. With the roster still in rebuilding mode and the Big Ten’s East Division only getting stronger, expectations should perhaps still remain relatively low heading into 2017. But the second season is generally a time to show progress and is critically important in solidifying the foundation of a coach’s program, which makes this a significant spring for Ash.
After showing flashes of productivity leading the offense last season, this spring could be a chance for Giovanni Rescigno to stake a solid claim to the quarterback job and build some momentum in new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s offense. That position is always under the spotlight, but perhaps even more than most programs, Rutgers needs to find a reliable answer there soon.
"Row the boat" and "elite" are now staples in the Minnesota football vocabulary.
They are some of the buzzwords that new coach P.J. Fleck used at Western Michigan, a program he took to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic last season, and they are concepts he brought with him to the Twin Cities. Of course, it's going to take a lot more than slogans and catch phrases to get the Golden Gophers up to speed, beginning with their first spring practice Tuesday.
Minnesota is coming off a nine-win season and a victory over Washington State in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. But there was also turmoil in the program, with mass player suspensions for an alleged sexual assault, a brief player-led bowl boycott and the firing of former head coach Tracy Claeys. Fleck's unending enthusiasm and positive attitude might be exactly what this program needs right now, but there are some personnel questions that must be answered.
That's why the Gophers will be one of the most fascinating teams to watch this spring.
Spring schedule: Minnesota will practice Tuesday and Thursday behind closed doors, then take a week off for spring break. The first two workouts will be focused on installing Fleck's schemes. The team will return to the field March 21, hold its spring game on April 15 at TCF Bank Stadium and have one last practice April 17.
What’s new: The entire coaching staff. Fleck didn't keep any Claeys holdovers. He brought Kirk Ciarrocca with him from Western Michigan as offensive coordinator and hired Robb Smith, who was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas the past three seasons, to run that side of the ball. Ed Warriner, who was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator the past two years, is now the Gophers' offensive line coach/run game coordinator.
Three things we want to see:
1. Who is next at QB?: It only seemed like Mitch Leidner had a lifetime scholarship. Leidner appeared at three straight Big Ten media days and started 41 games under center for the Gophers. His departure means there isn't much experience at quarterback on the roster. Senior Conor Rhoda did start the Maryland Terrapins game last year but has thrown for just 88 yards in his career. Redshirt sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Seth Green have much to prove. There's also a juco transfer in Neil McLaurin, who signed with the previous staff, and an early enrollee in Tanner Morgan, who flipped from Western Michigan to follow Fleck. It should be a wide-open competition.
2. Secondary concerns: Two starters from last season, safety Damarius Travis and cornerback Jalen Myrick, were at the NFL combine. Two other contributors, corner Ray Buford and safety Dior Johnson, left the program after being suspended. Getting Antoine Winfield Jr. back from suspension was a big boost to a position that has been one of the program's best in recent years. But there still isn't a ton of depth or experience here, and this should be a focus this spring.
3. How it all comes together: This one is more esoteric and probably difficult to quantify in spring. Still, there was definitely a rift between the players and the administration over the winter, and many were sad to see Claeys go. Fleck's personality might not fit everyone. The schemes are going to be different than what the veterans are used to, especially on offense. Can Fleck and his staff get total buy-in during this crucial development period? Will everyone be on the same page going forward? This could be a transition year for the Golden Gophers, and spring could tell us a lot about the team's direction.
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.
— Benny (@FLBuckeye14) February 21, 2017
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.
@BennettESPN what are the most interesting out of conference games?
— Slotter (@Slotter) February 21, 2017
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.
— Ben Weinberg (@bweiny) February 21, 2017
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.
— YetiHawk (@AlgoHawk) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, all right.
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.
— TODD (@OhHeyItsTodd) February 21, 2017
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.
On Oct. 28, 2015, Jerry Kill announced his retirement as Minnesota's head football coach in a teary-eyed news conference. Battling seizures as a result of his epilepsy, Kill stepped down under his doctors instructions.
And that, he figured, would be the end of his long coaching career.
"I had reached the point where there was nothing left at all," he told ESPN.com earlier this month.
Less than a year and a half later, though, Kill is back working in the game he loves, if in a slightly different capacity. In December, Rutgers hired the former Big Ten coach of the year as its offensive coordinator.
The move came with some serious question marks. The pressure and stress of coaching certainly contributed to Kill's health problems in the past, which included a seven-game leave of absence from Minnesota in 2013 after a series of seizures. Yet the 55-year-old Kill is moving forward with no hesitations.
"I'm sure some people are like, 'What the hell is he doing?'" Kill said. "But the way I look at it is, you only have one life. There's no do-overs. And, hey, I don't feel like I'm done helping kids."
Besides, Kill has reason to believe things will be different this time around.
After stepping down from the Golden Gophers, he took some time to relax in Florida. He then went back to work on controlling his epilepsy.
A big breakthrough was teaching himself how to sleep. Kill estimated that he slept an average of only three hours a night in the previous 12 years, as he was unable to keep his mind from spinning when he lay down in bed. He began practicing meditation, which helped him get much more rest.
He also altered the way he eats, going to a low-carb diet. Those changes, he said, have kept him seizure free for the past year.
Kill said he had several offers to get back into coaching right after he left Minnesota. They included a call from Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, who told him he could have any part-time role he wanted with the Wolverines. But Kill wasn’t ready to go back to work until May 2016, when he took a job as an assistant athletic director at Kansas State, where he worked closely with the football program and head coach Bill Snyder in an administrative capacity.
"Going to K-State was one of the greatest things I ever did," Kill said. "It allowed me to test drive myself a little bit, health-wise."
Reinvigorated by that job, Kill decided he was ready to coach again when Rutgers' Chris Ash called about his vacant offensive coordinator position.
"When I heard through the coaching rumor mill that he might want back in, I reached out right away," Ash said. "The obvious question was, 'What type of shape are you in?'"
The two went over what Kill's schedule would look like. Ash insists that his coaches go home on Wednesday and Thursday nights during the season. There will still be long work days, but Kill assured Ash that he's properly managed his condition and could handle the load.
Now an assistant coach for the first time since 1993, Kill won't have as much on his plate as he did when he was a head coach. He was stretched in many directions at Minnesota, where he often had to be the face of the entire athletic program through some administrative disarray and lead a major fundraising campaign.
"You've got a problem every day when you're the head coach," Kill said. "Your mind's never going to stop, because there's always a problem."
Kill has another motivation for getting back into football. He knows his elevated profile as a coach can help raise more awareness and money for people with epilepsy.
He has his own foundation, Chasing Dreams. It supports such projects as Camp Oz, a summer camp for Minnesota kids with epilepsy, and instructing schools how to respond to and care for students who have seizures. Kill also wrote a book, "Chasing Dreams: Living My Life One Yard at a Time"; all proceeds from sales go to the foundation.
He also promotes the social media campaign #TackleEpilepsy, which was tied in with the NFL during the Super Bowl.
— Jerry Kill (@JerryKillCoach) February 5, 2017
Once reluctant to discuss his health in detail, Kill is now using the platform he has with football to bring as much attention as possible to epilepsy. He knows that every time Rutgers plays on TV this season, for example, the announcers will likely tell his story. He embraces the role of public advocate.
"His willingness to speak out and share the struggles and successes he's had living with seizures is inspiring to all," said Phil Gattone, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation. "He is inspirational and courageous as he continually moves forward with the challenges ahead of him. He is changing the world and its view on epilepsy as he rises above his own personal circumstances to help and give hope to others."
Kill's immediate coaching challenge is a tall one. The Scarlet Knights had one of the worst offenses in the country last season, finishing 127th out of 128 FBS teams at just 15.7 points per game. It's a major rebuilding job. Then again, Kill's entire career, from small schools like Saginaw Valley State to places such as Northern Illinois and Minnesota, has been about rebuilding.
"These are the things I'm used to doing," he said.
Ash, in just his second year as a head coach, appreciates the experience and knowledge that Kill brings to the staff.
"People assume he's a sounding board for you as a head coach and he does bring that," Ash said. "But more than anything, it's the way he attacks his job. He goes out and attacks it the way he wanted his assistants to do when he was a head coach. That's a great thing for me, because it's one less thing I have to worry about."
Kill isn't worried that his health will derail him this time around. He wants to be a shining example of someone living with epilepsy and still realizing their dreams.
"My life's good, but some of these young people are having 40-50 seizures a day and there’s no answer," he said. "So we need people to help. And it's a lot easier to help when you have a platform to do so."
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:
OG Dan Feeney
DB Desmond King
OG Ben Braden
TE Jake Butt
WR Jehu Chesson
DB Jeremy Clark
WR Amara Darboh
LB Ben Gedeon
DT Ryan Glasgow
CB Jalen Myrick
WR Noah Brown
WR Chris Godwin
LB Vince Biegel
OT Ryan Ramczyk
LB T.J. Watt
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 Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Must-win game: Maryland, Sept. 30
For the second straight year, Minnesota has an advantageous early-season schedule, and it needs to take advantage of it. It's likely going to be a transition year under new head coach P.J. Fleck, who will inherit a young roster without any proven quarterbacks. But Fleck and the Golden Gophers can build some momentum with a nonconference slate that features two highly winnable games at home (Buffalo and Middle Tennessee) and a road trip to Oregon State, which went 4-8 last year. The Big Ten opener sees Maryland come to TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota beat the Terrapins by three touchdowns on the road last year, and while Maryland should be better in 2017, this will be an early litmus test for Fleck's program. If the Gophers are going to be any kind of factor in the West Division this fall, they need to get off on the right foot. That makes this a must win.
Trap game: Middle Tennessee, Sept. 16
At first glance, this doesn't look like all that dangerous of a game for Minnesota. But consider that it comes the Saturday after that trip to Oregon State, meaning the players will likely get home late from the West Coast and have to adjust their body clocks for the following week. Also consider that the Blue Raiders won eight games last year, including a road victory at Missouri. They also bring back quarterback Brent Stockstill, who threw for 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns last year in just 10 games. He leads an offense that averaged 39.7 ppg in 2016, 12th-most in the FBS. This Conference USA team will have a puncher's chance, and the Gophers had better be ready.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When all the craziness of last week's national signing day had ended, coaches could finally catch their breath for a moment. And perhaps reflect on the fact that things will never be the same going forward.
The hype and run-up to the first Wednesday in February will be altered forever if a mid-December early signing period is approved by conference commissioners in June, as expected. But it's the other piece of new recruiting legislation that should have the biggest impact in the Big Ten: earlier official visits.
The NCAA Division I Council likely will make that a reality this spring. If so, prospects could take paid official visits to schools beginning in April of their junior year of high school and lasting into late June. Right now, recruits can only take official visits beginning in September of their senior year.
"I think it changes everything," Penn State head coach James Franklin told ESPN.com last week. "It changes your camp model, your recruiting model and your spring practice model. You have to factor all those things in."
Earlier official visits have long been viewed as a change that would benefit the Big Ten, perhaps more than any other league. To understand why, one only has to consider geography and timing.
Several Big Ten programs, especially West Division schools Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota, are located far away from the top recruiting hotbeds. Getting a kid on campus obviously is crucial to eventually signing him, but it's not easy for a prospect from, say, Florida or Texas to get to the upper Midwest for an unofficial visit in the spring or summer, considering he and his family would have to foot the cost.
Plus, more and more recruits are committing early, before the current official visit schedule even begins. That puts many Big Ten schools behind the curve and gives even more of an advantage to programs whose campuses are closer to where recruits live.
Then, of course, there's the weather. A recruit visiting a northern Big Ten school in the fall could well encounter the snow, cold and wind that make late-season conference games a challenge for all involved. Earlier official visits allow teams to show off their surroundings in a potentially better light.
"I think that's critical," first-year Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. "There are not many better places in the spring and summer than the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota. It's some of the most beautiful weather you'll find in the entire country. That's what we look forward to showing off."
As the westernmost Big Ten school, Nebraska could reap major rewards from the earlier visit model.
The Cornhuskers are second to none in terms of facilities and fan support, and often can seal the deal when players and their families see the campus in person. But with a far-flung recruiting base that this year included players from California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana, it's not always easy to get those prospects to Lincoln on their own dime.
"It’d be great to be able to pay for that visit," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. "I think that’s right for these families. I think that’s good."
Riley was in favor of another early signing period in the summer, a proposal that was tossed around last year but ultimately rejected. While he likes the idea of earlier visits, he still has some questions. Is it ideal to bring in a player in April or May when he can't actually sign until December? And is it better to have recruits come to the spring game or an actual home game in the fall?
"Do we shoot the bullet in June, and then we don’t get to bring him from Texas to one of our games?" Riley asked. "What we have found is that the game is a great experience for these guys. Half of our early  commitments had been to the spring game, and then about half of our signees, I believe, had been on our campus before July 1."
"Did we hit the exact right mark [on the signing date]? I think we kind of chickened out at the end. Now we’ve got some decisions to make on how to use the visits."
Coaches will have some time to figure this out. Though the December signing date would go into effect this year once approved, the earlier official visits wouldn't be enacted until 2018, for the class of 2019.
Franklin said his staff already has plans in place on how to best use the potential new calendar, though the Nittany Lions won't finalize anything until the measures are officially approved. Penn State sits closer to the players it recruits than other Big Ten schools, but State College lacks a readily accessible airport.
"You can make an argument that being able to visit with kids when the weather’s really nice and the campus is going to show best and those types of things, it really helps," Franklin said. "I also think that when you do something new, there's always a concern about unforeseen consequences, and there are going to be some to those."
As always, new rules bring new complications. But the earlier official visits figure to eventually be a good thing for the Big Ten.
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.
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.
Few head coaches in the country faced more challenges in putting together their 2017 recruiting class than P.J. Fleck.
Minnesota hired Fleck on Jan. 6, just 26 days before national signing day. He inherited a football program in turmoil from a sexual assault scandal that led to mass suspensions and a brief, player-led boycott of the Holiday Bowl. Several players voiced their anger at the administration when Tracy Claeys was fired after a 9-4 season, and committed recruits were defecting in waves.
It was a situation that most coaches would have found daunting. But Fleck, using the same endless energy and optimism that helped him lead Western Michigan to a New Year's Six bowl, embraced the obstacles. He described the past few weeks as "drinking from a fire hose." A cliché, sure, but at least it fits the water theme of Coach "Row the Boat."
In the end, the Golden Gophers ended up with the No. 58 class, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, to rank 13th in the Big Ten, one spot ahead of Purdue. But that was actually an improvement on where Claeys' class ranked before the coaching change, and considering all the factors at play, was a solid showing.
In fact, nine of the 15 players who committed under Claeys left the fold after his firing on Jan. 3. Fleck still managed to bring in 25 total recruits less than a month later, including six prospects who had committed to him at Western Michigan.
"The first thing you do is call the people who were committed to you before and see if they have any interest," Fleck said. "Those guys who traveled with us didn't even see the University of Minnesota. They committed sight unseen. I think that shows the power of our culture."
While taking recruits from his former school surely ruffled some feathers back in Kalamazoo -- just as James Franklin did when he took some Vanderbilt commits to Penn State -- Fleck said it was important to bring with him players he knew well given the compressed time.
"That first class, you want to know them as much as you can, because you'll be with them for four or five years," he said. "You want to make sure it's truly your culture, and those guys exemplify our culture."
From there, Fleck and his assistants worked their previous connections as hard as they could to find some late additions. He kept all of Minnesota's in-state pledges on board, including standout offensive lineman Blaise Andries.
Thought it might have been tempting to simply take the best available players, given the time frame and his lack of familiarity with the roster, Fleck said his staff had to fill needs. Minnesota not only lost several seniors, but 10 players are suspended indefinitely in connection to an alleged sexual assault in early September and could face expulsion.
"We don't have a freshman, a redshirt freshman or a sophomore at defensive tackle on our entire roster, and we have only one junior there," Fleck said. "We're very thin at the defensive back position and will be as we move forward, possibly."
"We became a lot younger, very quickly. In 2018, we'll probably be one of the youngest teams in the country. So we had to be able to look two years ahead, not just one year ahead, when we built this class to at least provide some depth for the future."
Quarterback was another area of need. Mitch Leidner graduated, and two of his backups are suspended. The Gophers signed three quarterbacks in this class, including a junior-college signal-caller who had committed to Claeys and enrolled early. The two Fleck-recruited quarterbacks are Tanner Morgan and Reyondous Estes, the latter of whom could play wide receiver or defensive back because of his athleticism.
Fleck said a big focus of next year's class will be to sign another quarterback, and "we're going to shoot for the stars on that one."
"We know we have issues in terms of depth and experience there right now," he said. "We're going to solve that here in the next year and a half, I promise you that."
Fleck and his staff had to scramble to assemble this class, but he's not shy about aiming high for 2018 and beyond. His new term for players he wants on campus is "Howfers," as in how future Gophers will fit his culture.
"We have to change the image of the University of Minnesota forever," he said. "That's nothing negative. But we're going to change it going forward to a national brand and a national style. We're going to go after the best players in the entire country."
That is an ambitious plan. Yet it's par for the course for a guy who transformed Western Michigan into national relevance almost through sheer force of will.
His challenges at Minnesota are different and possibly even more difficult, given what has transpired off the field. Fleck said he has been impressed so far with the buy-in of his veteran players during winter workouts, and he has tried to meet with everyone from boosters to marketing people to regular students already during his short time in the Twin Cities.
"You want to do everything you possibly can to connect as many people to your culture as possible, and that's what we're doing," he said. "It's a large task in two-and-a-half weeks, but we have the energy to do it."
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.
Here's a look at the players from Big Ten schools who will be in the Super Bowl:
DL Alan Branch, Michigan
DB Nate Ebner, Ohio State
OL Chase Farris, Ohio State#
LB Jonathan Freeny, Rutgers*
DB Duron Harmon, Rutgers
DB Devin McCourty, Rutgers
LB Rob Ninkovich, Purdue
CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers
S Ricardo Allen, Purdue
DT Jonathan Babineaux, Iowa
DL Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers
# -- Practice squad
* -- Reserve/injured list
The Way-Too-Early team rankings are already out as the attention shifts to the 2017 season. But what about the individuals who are returning in the Big Ten to lead those programs this year? The conference reporters got together and worked up another batch of power rankings, this time focusing on the stars who are coming back around the league next season.
Also be sure the check out Adam Rittenberg's list of the top 50 players returning nationally.
1. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley: The push for Heisman Trophy consideration nationally came a little too late in the season a year ago, but the rest of the country appears to be realizing what the Big Ten has known for a while now: Barkley is a rare talent with the football in his hands. Expectations will be sky high for his junior campaign.
2. Penn State QB Trace McSorley: The spotlight may shine a bit brighter on his counterpart in the backfield, but McSorley has developed into a game-changer in his own right at quarterback. After accounting for 36 touchdowns on the way to the Big Ten title, another step forward for the Nittany Lions could be frightening for opponents.
3. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The ups and downs were undeniable during Barrett’s junior season, and while there was plenty of blame to go around for the struggles in the passing game, the mandate from Urban Meyer to improve it will put him under the microscope. Based on his prolific track record, Barrett should be able to handle that pressure without much problem.
4. Iowa LB Josey Jewell: Already well established as one of the best defenders in the Big Ten, Jewell will look to build on the 124 tackles he piled up last season as the centerpiece for the Hawkeyes. If he can top the 6 tackles for loss he added last season, even more acclaim could be headed Jewell’s way.
5. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson: Considering the rising senior already has more than 900 touches on his collegiate resume, it would have been understandable if Jackson had declared for the draft. But with a degree in sight, the Wildcats will once again have the seemingly tireless workhorse once again in the backfield.
6. Indiana LB Tegray Scales: The league’s leader in both total tackles and tackles for loss is sticking around for another season with the Hoosiers, giving coach Tom Allen a huge building block as he puts his stamp on the program. Scales hasn’t typically received much attention for his work, but few defenders can match his production.
7. Ohio State LB Jerome Baker: After an injury ahead of him allowed Baker to step into the starting lineup early in the season, the gifted defender hasn’t looked back. With Raekwon McMillan now gone, Baker will be counted on even more this season to keep the Silver Bullets operating at a high level.
8. Ohio State RB Mike Weber: Just the third freshman in school history to top 1,000 rushing yards, Weber’s role figures to increase without Curtis Samuel around to split some of the carries. And he might be better equipped to handle the workload now that a pesky shoulder injury has had time to heal.
9. Ohio State DE Tyquan Lewis: In a bit of a shocker, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year elected to stick around for one more crack at a championship with the Buckeyes. Lewis proved his success wasn’t just a product of playing on the other side of Joey Bosa, tallying eight sacks and forcing three fumbles without his old sidekick around last season.
10. Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard: The deep, loaded unit up front limits the opportunities at times for Ohio State’s pass-rushers, but Hubbard typically finds a way to leave a mark in every game thanks to his versatile athleticism. He’ll be trying to build on his 46 tackles -- eight of them for a loss -- after electing to return for another season.
11. Minnesota RB Rodney Smith: Smith rushed for 1,158 yards as a sophomore with 16 touchdowns -- the third-most in school history in a single season. He has quickly become one of the top tailbacks in the Big Ten.
12. Michigan QB Wilton Speight: After winning the starting QB job in 2016, Speight never looked back and earned third-team All-Big Ten honors. He threw for 2,538 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions and should be even better as a senior.
13. Iowa RB Akrum Wadley: Wadley strongly considered leaving school early for the NFL but opted to return for his senior season. He'll be the focal point of Iowa's running game without LeShun Daniels Jr. Wadley rushed for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.
14. Ohio State OL Billy Price: Not many three-year starters with a national championship and All-American honors already under their belt would bypass the NFL draft and come back to school. But then, not many players are like Price, who will anchor the Buckeyes' offensive line as an important leader.
15. Penn State TE Mike Gesicki: Gesicki became a sure-handed, catch-making machine in 2016 and set school records for tight end receptions (48) and receiving yards (679). He'll add another dynamic piece to the Nittany Lions' versatile offense in 2017.
16. Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli: As safety valves go in the passing game, you can't do much better than the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Fumagalli. He led the Badgers with 47 receptions last season and added 580 yards with two touchdowns. He'll be the go-to tight end again next season.
17. Minnesota DL Steven Richardson: Richardson led Minnesota with 11 tackles for loss and added seven sacks. First-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has a solid piece up front defensively on which to build around.
18. Wisconsin LB T.J. Edwards: For the second consecutive season, Edwards led the Badgers in total tackles (89) and added 8.5 tackles for loss with three sacks and three interceptions. Wisconsin will be loaded again at linebacker next season, and Edwards will be among the best in the league.
19. Michigan State RB L.J. Scott: There wasn't much to cheer about for Michigan State in 2016, but Scott was a bright spot. He led the Spartans in rushing yet again as a sophomore, tallying 994 yards and six touchdowns. Expect him to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark as a junior on his way to a big season.
20. Michigan State OL Brian Allen: Allen will enter his senior season having played in 38 games, including 24 starts the last two seasons. He played both center and guard last season and led the Spartans in knockdowns.
21. Penn State S Marcus Allen: He led the Nittany Lions in tackles last season with 110, adding a pair of fumble recoveries. Penn State was happy to see him come back for his senior year.
22. Nebraska S Kieron Williams: He tied for second in the league with five interceptions in ’16 and will be a building block for new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco
23. Wisconsin LB Jack Cichy: He was a force when healthy, with 60 tackles and seven TFLs in just seven games. He should help the Badgers’ LB corps remain strong.
24. Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson: As a sophomore, Thorson threw for more than 3,000 yards, with 22 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. The arrow is pointing up.
25. Rutgers WR/KR Janarion Grant: His eight combined kick and punt return touchdowns is tied for the most in FBS history. His return after missing most of last season with a broken ankle is vital for the Scarlet Knights.
The college football season is officially in the rearview mirror, but the Big Ten mailbag is back after its holiday break. Let's stay warm together in these cold weather months. You can send mailbag questions to ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com or via Twitter.
— Frenkenstein (@fadam33) January 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: In case you missed it, the big news out of the AFCA coaches' convention this week was that FBS coaches came out unanimously in support of a mid-December signing date. Proposals had been made last year for early signing dates in June as well, plus earlier official visits. The AFCA coaches opposed those latter two ideas.
As such, I'm not sure a December signing date will make that big of an impact in the Big Ten. Perhaps some of the mid-tier teams will be able to hold onto more recruits and not get poached by bigger programs closer to the February signing day. But the bigger impact would have come with a summer signing day, and especially so with an earlier official visit schedule. Programs in the north and in some hard-to-reach locales such as Minnesota and Nebraska would have definitely benefited from this.
We'll see where this goes with the NCAA convention. But I don't think a mid-December signing day will do much but relieve some of the headaches for coaches who have to babysit their commitments.
— Blueallthru (@karljehresmann) January 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: That's a good question.
P.J. Fleck's biggest challenge will be uniting the team. Many of the players are really ticked off at the administration and did not want to see Tracy Claeys get fired. Luckily, one of Fleck's greatest skills is getting players to buy in and, uh, row the boat with him. I think he'll get most guys back onto the ship.
Minnesota's roster could be heavily impacted by the potential loss of several players involved in the scandal that started the whole boycott. That's particularly true on defense. The Golden Gophers also have to replace longtime starting quarterback Mitch Leidner, and while some fans always were calling for Leidner to be benched, the truth is we haven't seen anything from his backups. Fleck was a wide receiver who coached that position earlier in his career, and his work at Western Michigan suggests he'll help improve a passing game which has been subpar for years.
The 2017 schedule, once again, is pretty manageable. I think it's realistic to expect six wins and a bowl. But this could be a transition year in many ways in Minneapolis.
@BennettESPN In your opinion do you believe OSU deserves to be ranked ahead of PSU and how to some voters justify PSU at 11 in their AP?
— Ethan Putterman (@lethaniel_) January 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: I don't think a lot of voters can get past one simple number: Penn State had three losses, while Ohio State had two. However, I think the Nittany Lions were playing better down the stretch than the Buckeyes were, emphatically so on offense. Clemson beating Alabama made Ohio State's Fiesta Bowl loss less of a black mark, but the Buckeyes still weren't very competitive in that game.
I, personally, would have ranked Penn State higher in the final polls. Though, in the playoff era, I'm not sure final rankings matter much.
— Jonny Hawkeye (@JonnyHawkeye) January 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: I know many Iowa fans celebrated the retirement of Greg Davis, but it's important to remember that the Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz have a tried-and-true philosophy on offense. They're not going to be a wide-open, spread-it-out team. They're going to run the ball and play fairly conservatively, even in the "New Kirk" era.
That said, I'm intrigued by the idea of Brian Ferentz running the show. He's a really bright young coach, one who could succeed his dad in Iowa City one day. Brian was an offensive line coach, so the emphasis on the running game should remain strong, but at just 33 years old and owning some experience with the New England Patriots, he should also bring some fresh ideas. Iowa also let go of its running backs and receivers coaches on Thursday, so an overhaul of the offense has begun. And rightfully so.
The younger Ferentz will stick to the bread and butter and will try to build a physical offense. That can work just fine in the Big Ten, as we've seen at Wisconsin and Michigan State and other places. A new voice might be what the Hawkeyes need.
Curtis C. emails: If Justin Jackson is able to duplicate the success he had last season, yardage-wise, he could finish his Northwestern career second all-time on the Big Ten career rushing yards list behind Ron Dayne. And yet, he has never been a consensus first-team All-Big Ten. Is he one of the most underrated Big Ten players ever?
Brian Bennett: Most underrated ever? That might be a bit of a stretch.
I admit I was not as high on Jackson as some others coming into the year. I really admired his toughness and durability, but his 4.7 yards per carry average his first two seasons was rather mediocre. So I was pleasantly surprised when he upped that to 5.1 this season while rushing for as many touchdowns (15) as he did his first two seasons combined. Jackson is still getting better as a running back.
He has a chance to post four straight 1,000-yard seasons, which would be remarkable. Then again, his 1,524 yards this year were a career best, while Dayne had a pair of 2,000-yard seasons. The tailback position in the Big Ten is stacked with great players year after year, and Jackson will be competing for Big Ten honors in 2017 against guys such as Saquon Barkley and Mike Weber. He has had a fantastic career and should get more attention nationally. But as far as Big Ten honors, he mostly has been rated properly to this point, in my opinion.
Just one round wasn’t enough for a season this memorable.
We already have compiled one batch of superlatives for the Big Ten and collected the season's best quotes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to celebrate. Even if some attention has already shifted to projecting what’s next, the 2016 season was far too fun, entertaining and competitive to stop reflecting on it already. So let’s dip back in for seconds.
Biggest individual emergence: Northwestern’s Austin Carr. With apologies to the overnight superstars in Ohio State’s secondary, the rise of Carr as the league’s most prolific wide receiver was just about impossible to predict. Those Buckeyes at least came with previous recruiting hype, but Carr was a former walk-on playing for an offense that at the beginning of the season didn’t look like it could throw the football on anybody. By the end of the season, Carr had snagged 90 receptions for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns, and established himself as the conference’s most productive target.
Most underwhelming: Michigan State’s Malik McDowell. Injuries were a major part of the problem for the physically imposing defensive lineman, and that shouldn’t be held against him. But even when McDowell was healthy, he wasn’t looking like the potential first-round pick or nightmare in the trenches that many expected to see before he skipped off to the NFL. McDowell finished with just 34 tackles and 1.5 sacks in his nine games this season, as part of an overall effort by the Spartans that left plenty to be desired.
Wildest run: Curtis Samuel’s double-overtime scamper. The touchdown dash and joyous leap into the end zone will be the lasting image from Ohio State’s thrilling win over rival Michigan. Right before, there was the famous J.T. Barrett spot on fourth down that will forever be a flashpoint for the Wolverines. But before either of those plays could happen, Samuel had to go on his sideline-to-sideline, catch-and-run roller coaster on a “T-swing pass” on third-and-9 that eventually netted 8 yards after he had dropped back as far as 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Considering the stakes, the moment and the drama, few plays compare with that magic act pulled off by Samuel.
Best use of a single hand: Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis. The star cornerback seemed to be floating through the air, waiting for the moment to throw up his right arm at full extension and snag a deep, last-gasp shot from Wisconsin in another tight Big Ten battle. Watching Lewis pull down the interception at full speed is breathtaking for its incredible athleticism, and it was even more impressive that he pulled it off in the clutch to lock up a crucial victory over the Badgers.
Most unsustainable statistical start: Minnesota’s Tai’yon Devers. The streak was bound to end at some point, because obviously not every tackle of the freshman’s career was going to produce a sack and forced fumble. But Devers made it three in a row to begin his career, showing off his immense potential right away by flying around to hit quarterbacks and knock the football loose. Talk about bursting on the scene with major impact performances. Injuries slowed him down some after that, and he finished the season with just five tackles, but that start is remarkable no matter what.
Best and worst NFL news: Ohio State. The Buckeyes are once again getting hit hard by early defections to the draft, but the number is smaller than last year -- and the number of key contributors electing to stick around is higher. The secondary will have to rebuild on the fly for the second year in a row after Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore all turned pro, and Raekwon McMillan, Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel pushed the total to six departures. But Ohio State will be getting quarterback J.T. Barrett back along with Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Tyquan Lewis, fellow pass-rushers Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes and veteran offensive linemen Billy Price and Jamarco Jones. For the Buckeyes, the offseason news probably couldn’t have turned out much better.