Big Ten: Penn State Nittany Lions

Saeed Blacknall AP Photo/Michael ConroySaeed Blacknall had 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns last season as a junior.

Every team has question marks when it enters spring practice, but Penn State might have fewer than just about any team in the Big Ten.

As head coach James Franklin mentioned at his spring preview news conference on Tuesday, the defending Big Ten champions return 99 percent of their rushing yards, 73 percent of their receiving yards, 72 percent of their tackles and 64 percent of their tackles for loss from last year's Rose Bowl squad. And they've got two Heisman Trophy candidates in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley.

The biggest challenge for Franklin may be making sure his team stays humble, hungry and hard working.

"Now you take all those things, and you combine them with the experience that we gained, I think you've got a chance to do something special," he said.

Here's a look at what to expect from the Nittany Lions this spring:

Spring schedule: Practice begins on Wednesday morning. The annual Blue-White game will be held on April 22 at 3 p.m. ET inside Beaver Stadium.

What's new: Not all that much. Franklin was able to keep his coaching staff intact despite last year's success. Sixteen starters are back, making Penn State suddenly one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten. There will be plenty of new faces this spring, however, as veterans like Barkley, linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen, tight end Mike Gesicki and others will have limited reps as young players get a chance to step forward.

Three things we want to see:

1. A new go-to wide receiver emerging: Chris Godwin's decision to enter the NFL draft leaves the offense in search of a true No. 1 wideout. Luckily, there are plenty of candidates.

Saeed Blacknall is a veteran who's had big moments but has lacked consistency. Could he be ready to truly break out?

"We expect him to have a huge spring and a huge offseason and go and have a monster year this year and stay healthy," Franklin said.

The coaching staff is also high on Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson, and senior DaeSean Hamilton has tons of experience.

2. What does the center position look like?: At long last, Penn State now has depth and talent on the offensive line, especially as young players who redshirted continue to develop. The big question there this spring is who replaces Brian Gaia at the all-important center spot.

Franklin said he would start spring by moving guard Connor McGovern over. Ryan Bates is another candidate, as well as Zach Simpson. If one player excels in the role quickly, it will simplify the other roles and allow the unit to build solid chemistry.

3. New pass-rushers: Last year's starting defensive ends, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, are both gone. So, too, is linebacker Brandon Bell. They took with them 16 of the team's 40 sacks a year ago. Everyone's eager to see redshirt Shane Simmons this spring, as well as classmates Daniel Joseph and Shaka Toney. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller played a lot as backups last year. Defensive line has been a strength in State College the last few years, and if the young guys are ready, the Nittany Lions might not miss a beat here again in 2017.

Spring practice is still in its early stages at several Big Ten schools, but it’s never too early to preview the conference race. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.

Speaking of champions, we're taking a look at the defending champs today: the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Mark Alberti/ Icon SportswirePenn State's Saquon Barkley, one of the nation's best running backs, could be an early Heisman contender.

1. They have the best player in the league: Saquon Barkley is a beast. There's no better word for it. He was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, he shredded USC's defense in the Rose Bowl and he ran a hand-timed, sub 4.4 40-yard dash in winter workouts. He accumulated nearly 1,900 total yards last season with 22 total touchdowns, and with two years of experience under his belt, he should be even better in 2017. Barkley is a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, and he's the type of player who can drag his team to a title.

2. They might also have the best quarterback in the league: Going into last season, and even deep into it, there wasn't much debate that Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was the Big Ten's top quarterback. But Trace McSorley had a better season than Barrett. So much so that the league awarding Barrett its quarterback of the year trophy now looks pretty silly. McSorley threw for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions. He got better as the season went along and was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, when he destroyed Wisconsin's elite defense for 384 passing yards and four scores. With Barkley and McSorley in the same backfield, running Joe Moorhead's high-paced offense, this will continue to be a pick-your-poison situation for opposing defenses.

3. The talent is getting better: It's still pretty amazing what James Franklin and his staff were able to do last season with such a young roster, as Penn State finally began to emerge out of the sanctions era. The kicker is that not only are several key players back, but the young ones who are coming in might be even more talented. Franklin has recruited very well, and former problem areas like the offensive line are rounding into legitimate upper-tier Big Ten units. This is illustrated by the team's testing during winter conditioning. Strength coach Dwight Galt told reporters recently that the Lions had two players run in the 4.4 second range in the 40 back in 2014. Now they have five players, including Barkley, in the 4.3s. Other benchmarks like, well, the bench press are the highest they've been in years as well. The weight room isn't the same as the football field, but this program is assembling more and more high-level athletes.

4. Experienced secondary: Penn State's defense has some question marks up front. But the back end boasts plenty of experience. Three starters return, including the underrated Marcus Allen at safety and cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley. One of the safety spots is up for grabs this spring, but Troy Apke played in every game as a backup last season. Division rivals Ohio State and Michigan will be basically starting from scratch with their defensive backs in 2017, though they have a lot of talent to work with.

5. Hunger: The Nittany Lions accomplished an awful lot in 2016, but they also fell just short enough of their ultimate goals to still be hungry for more this fall. They didn't make the College Football Playoff despite winning a stacked Big Ten and beating the league's playoff representative, Ohio State. They squandered a lead in Pasadena and lost a heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl. They will be eager for revenge against rival Pitt and to avenge last year's blowout at Michigan when the Wolverines come to Beaver Stadium. Combine the talent, experience and hunger, and you've got a recipe for a possible repeat.

And in the final week they busted out the motorcycles.

The excitement of starting a new year of offseason workouts can quickly give way to the tedium of mat drills in the winter and basic playbook installations in spring. There are no upcoming opponents to study, no palpable buzz that crescendos toward a big game on campus like in the fall. Coaches need to get creative to keep spirits high.

For players, a break from the norm makes the hard work a bit more tolerable. For spectators, the entertainment value is as good as a football fan can expect when the season is still six months away. Here are some of our favorite offseason attempts to spice up a workout so far.

The Buckeyes' strength staff slipped into its leather chaps last week to wrap up winter workouts with the team’s annual Harley Davidson workout. Coaches rode motorcycle onto the practice field. Later the team strapped the logos of their rivals onto punching bags and let loose a little frustration.

The team took a much different tenor than earlier in the same week when players held their own slam dunk contest. They might not have been playing at a full 10 feet, but linebacker Malik Harrison brought more style in his contest-winning slams than the competitors in the NBA All-Star contest this year.

At Penn State, dodgeball was the game of choice as the Nittany Lions wrapped up winter workouts. Head coach James Franklin and his staff suited up in uniform to challenge their players to a match. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer even donned a pair of futuristic-looking Rec Specs a la Gordon from the movie "Dodgeball".

Wisconsin doesn’t take the field for spring practice until next week, but here’s hoping the Badgers return their series of big guys doing things normally reserved for little guys. The trend started with a punt-catching competition between the offense line and defensive line a year ago. The Badgers also had their linemen run through a wide receiver gauntlet last spring with equally entertaining results.

And lastly there’s Michigan. The Wolverines will break up the doldrums of their spring practices with a trip to the Eternal City in late April. Last year the Wolverines spent a week of practice at the IMG Academy in Florida, and players said they enjoyed the beach trips they got to take between workouts. This year in Rome their non-football activities are scheduled to include visiting the Vatican, a trip to a Syrian refugee camp and some Italian sightseeing destinations. There are no known plans for any motorcycles for Jim Harbaugh’s team, but perhaps a Vespa or two.

We knew Saquon Barkley was really good and really fast. Now we have an idea of just how fast the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year is.

On Wednesday morning, Penn State tweeted out a video of Barkley running the 40-yard dash during recent testing drills. Have a look for yourself:

That's a blazing 4.33 seconds, according to the Nittany Lions coaches who were hand-timing the run. To put that in perspective, only one running back ran a faster 40 time than that at last year's NFL combine: Georgia's Keith Marshall, who posted a 4.31.

It's important to note that the 40-yard dashes at the combine are timed electronically, which usually adds to any hand-timed result. So Barkley might not actually run a 4.3 if he were in Indianapolis this week.

But the point here is just how gifted the Penn State junior is. Last year during testing, he tied a school record with a 390-pound power clean in another video that went viral.

Then he went out and ran for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns, proving he's much more than just a weight room warrior.

In fact, he's the top player in the Big Ten. And this is another reason why.

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

Go time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Bennett: Well, all right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penn State football coach James Franklin may not have the mullet to match Mike Gundy, but Franklin did have strength in numbers when he returned the Oklahoma State coach's singlet-clad social media volley from last week. Franklin and his entire staff slipped into spandex to start their week with a Monday morning meeting.

The wardrobe choice was in response to Gundy, who wore an orange Cowboys singlet in a video last week urging Oklahoma State fans to show up to a wrestling match between the top-ranked Cowboys and No. 2 Penn State. Gundy asked fans to put "a butt in every seat" for the meet.

Penn State won the meet in Stillwater, and in the process claimed its second straight Dual Championship Series title. Franklin and his assistants celebrated by borrowing uniforms from the new champs. In the process, they provided an important reminder that baseball remains the only sport where it is marginally acceptable for coaches to wear the same attire as players.

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

Here's a look at the East:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illinois

DT Chunky Clements

LB Hardy Nickerson

DE Carroll Phillips

DE Dawuane Smoot

Indiana

OG Dan Feeney

RB Devine Redding

Iowa

QB C.J. Beathard

DT Jaleel Johnson

DB Desmond King

TE George Kittle

Maryland

DB William Likely

Michigan

OG Ben Braden

TE Jake Butt

DE Taco Charlton

WR Jehu Chesson

DB Jeremy Clark

WR Amara Darboh

LB Ben Gedeon

DT Ryan Glasgow

S Delano Hill

CB Jourdan Lewis

S Jabrill Peppers

RB De'Veon Smith

CB Channing Stribling

DE Chris Wormley

Michigan State

LB Riley Bullough

DT Malik McDowell

S Montae Nicholson

Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner

CB Jalen Myrick

S Damarius Travis

Nebraska

TE Cethan Carter

S Nate Gerry

Northwestern

DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

LB Anthony Walker Jr.

Ohio State

WR Noah Brown

CB Gareon Conley

C Pat Elflein

S Malik Hooker

P Cameron Johnston

CB Marshon Lattimore

LB Raekwon McMillan

WR Curtis Samuel

Penn State

WR Chris Godwin

DE Garrett Sickels

Wisconsin

LB Vince Biegel

RB Corey Clement

RB Dare Ogunbowale

OT Ryan Ramczyk

CB Sojourn Shelton

LB T.J. Watt

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 what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Must-win game: Sept. 9 vs. Pittsburgh. Last year’s renewal of a great college football rivalry served as one of the few low points during a great season in Happy Valley. The Panthers beat Penn State 42-39 after quarterback Trace McSorley threw an interception at the edge of field goal range of the Nittany Lions’ final drive of the game. The Week 2 rematch in 2017 provides McSorley and company their first real chance to keep momentum rolling (They open the season against Akron) after a strong finish this past fall. With a conference title under his belt, James Franklin’s next box to check on the way to returning Penn State to the success its huge fan base expects will be beating its top in-state rival.

Trap game: Oct. 7 at Northwestern. Franklin got into the habit of repeating his next opponent’s name like a Hare Krishna to keep his team focused during the second half of the conference championship run in 2016. Don’t be surprised if he has a one-word vocabulary during the first week of October. Penn State’s hopes of a Big Ten repeat rest in late October with back-to-back games against Michigan and at Ohio State. They’ll have a bye week after facing the Wildcats to prepare, but keeping focused will still be a challenge. Northwestern in recent years has been a team that can beat anyone at its best and lose to FCS programs at its worst. If Penn State catches the Wildcats on a good day, it will be in a battle that can’t be overlooked.

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

Up next: Penn State

Player: DB Lamont Wade

Wade was one of the headliners in the Nittany Lions' strong 2017 recruiting crop, a four-star defensive back whose outstanding athleticism and instincts will likely help him see the field right away.

At 5-foot-9 and a listed 190 pounds, he's not physically intimidating. But Wade is explosive and excellent in coverage, which is why he was coveted by many of the top programs in the country. Wade also enrolled early, giving him a head start on learning the system.

He's versatile enough to play anywhere in the secondary and make an impact on special teams. He also looked comfortable with the ball in his hands in high school.

"We think he's got a chance to make an impact and compete for the cornerback job, or the nickel job or even safety," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "And then possibly as a return man. He's already come in physically developed, and his time on campus is only going to help him get even farther ahead."

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."

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsPenn State coach James Franklin said that being able to visit with kids when the weather is nice to show off the campus is a big help in recruiting.

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 [2017] 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.

It's ridiculously early, so things can change between now and the start of the season. They surely will for our next position group, receivers and tight ends.

Eight of the top 10 receivers in the league from 2016 have moved on, so the field is wide open for new stars to emerge. Let's take a stab at where things stand:

Best of the best: Penn State

The Nittany Lions' No. 1 wide receiver in 2016 was Chris Godwin (59 catches, 982 yards, 11 touchdowns). He decided to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. The depth here is still good, though, especially since we are including tight ends.

Penn State's DaeSean HamiltonAP Photo/Darron CummingsPenn State's DaeSean Hamilton had an up-and-down 2016 but should be a bigger factor as a senior.

DaeSean Hamilton had an up-and-down year and didn't record a catch in the Rose Bowl. He did perform well in the Big Ten championship game and should be a bigger factor as a senior. Saeed Blacknall was suspended for the Rose Bowl but is a good deep threat when available. Irvin Charles has earned a lot of hype around the program for his pure talent and could break through in 2017. Juwan Johnson is in a similar boat as Charles.

What really puts this group over the top, however, is tight end Mike Gesicki. A rare big-time playmaker at his position, Gesicki is a go-to guy for Trace McSorley who is capable of making spectacular catches.

Runner-up: Indiana

The Hoosiers had three of the top 10 receivers in the league, and only one of them returns. Nick Westbrook had a breakout season with 54 catches for 995 yards, the second-highest total in the Big Ten behind Biletnikoff finalist Austin Carr. He should be joined by Simmie Cobbs Jr., who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2016 opener. Cobbs had 60 catches for 1,035 yards in 2015, averaging 18.1 yards per catch.

There are questions marks beyond those two -- such as, will J-Shun Harris be able to contribute after two straight ACL injuries? But with two tall deep threats in Westbrook and Cobbs, Indiana is ahead of most Big Ten teams in terms of proven performers at wideout. The Hoosiers could use more production out of the tight end spot, however.

Teams that could surprise: Michigan and Michigan State

These two are less potential surprises than teams who could flourish at the position if their youth comes of age.

The Wolverines lost a ton of production with the graduations of receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt. And Grant Perry is currently suspended. But there's also plenty of promise in sophomores Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford, plus the untapped potential of oft-injured Drake Harris. Michigan also had a fantastic recruiting haul led by Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black. Meanwhile, Ian Bunting has the talent to replace Butt at tight end. A lot of development must take place, but this coaching staff understands how to teach the passing game.

Michigan State had a big freshman class of receivers last year, and Donnie Corley (33 catches, 453 yards) made an impact right out of the gate. Trishton Jackson also got his feet wet, and rising junior Felton Davis III continued to gain experience. Cam Chambers should contribute this year after redshirting, and incoming freshman Hunter Rison -- son of legendary Spartans receiver Andre Rison -- could force his way onto the field. The tight ends are unproven, and there's lots of projection involved here, but Mark Dantonio has good young depth.

Teams that need to step it up: Ohio State and Iowa

It's not often that a Buckeyes position group finds itself in this tier, but Ohio State struggled in the downfield passing game last year. Its top three receivers -- Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown -- are off to the NFL. Ohio State notably went with bigger bodies at receiver in this year's signing class, and young players like K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor showed flashes last year. Senior Marcus Baugh is a solid tight end who, like most of his predecessors in Columbus, doesn't get targeted enough. Talent isn't the question here, but the production simply must improve.

It's a different story at Iowa, where recruiting at the receiver position has been full of misses in recent years. Matt VandeBerg returns after being granted a medical redshirt, which should be a big boost. But the rest of the group is full of question marks that must be answered. Kind of like most of 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.

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

Best of the best: Penn State and Northwestern

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

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

Runners-up: Ohio State and Minnesota

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

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

Team that could surprise: Maryland

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

Teams that need to step it up: Purdue and Illinois

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

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

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.

Trace McSorleyCharles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Trace McSorley returns to lead all Big Ten quarterbacks into 2017.

Let's start with the most important position on the field: quarterback.

Best of the best: Penn State and Ohio State

No real surprises here.

McSorley, as we mentioned, was phenomenal in 2016. He led the league in pass efficiency while throwing for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions. He also ran for seven scores, and his ability to keep plays alive was crucial to the Nittany Lions' offensive resurgence. He'll begin the season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Tommy Stevens is still around as his backup, and four-star signee Sean Clifford is on the way.

Sure, J.T. Barrett struggled in the passing game down the stretch for Ohio State. But he's still one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history, and working with new assistants Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day should help Barrett rediscover his mojo as a senior. Dwayne Haskins, who redshirted in 2016, has a world of talent, and incoming freshman Tate Martell was the Gatorade national high school player of the year.

Runners-up: Michigan and Northwestern

The Wolverines don't return much experience on offense except for under center. Wilton Speight had a very solid first year as a starter, completing 61.7 percent of his passes with an 18-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He particularly excelled on the deep ball. Speight has a big edge going into the spring, but he'll face some talented competitors in redshirt freshmen Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey. John O'Korn is still around, too, adding serious depth at this spot.

Northwestern's Clayton Thorson quietly put together a 3,000-yard campaign last season, with a 22-to-9 TD-to-INT rate. He needs to improve on his \completion percentage (58.6), but he has good wheels and continues to grow after starting every game as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. He could really blossom in 2017 if he has enough weapons around him at receiver.

Team that could surprise: Purdue

Perhaps surprise isn't the right word, since David Blough did lead the league in passing yards per game last year. Still, he accomplished that mostly on volume and was terribly inefficient, with a Big Ten-worst 21 interceptions.

The good news: He's now playing for a quarterback guru in new head coach Jeff Brohm, who coaxed great things out of his passing attacks at Western Kentucky. Blough has all the talent in the world, and if he can learn to improve his decision-making under Brohm, he could really have a special season. If not, backup Elijah Sindelar is waiting in the wings with his own blue-chip arm.

Teams that need to step it up: Michigan State and Nebraska

The Spartans were decidedly below average in the first year of the post-Connor Cook era and dealt with injuries to boot. Brian Lewerke is the favorite to win the job this spring, and he did show flashes of potential in his brief stint running the show last year. Redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver will try to push him, and Damion Terry is back even if it seems like he has been competing for this job since the Biggie Munn era.

Nebraska barely completed 50 percent of its pass attempts in 2016, and the two quarterbacks who started games -- Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ryker Fyfe -- are both gone. It will be an open competition this spring, though Tulane transfer Tanner Lee has the inside track over Patrick O'Brien. Someone needs to claim the job as his own and improve the Cornhuskers' consistency in the passing attack.

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