Big Ten: Purdue Boilermakers

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.

Wilton SpeightCharlie Neibergall/AP PhotoIf Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, quarterback Wilton Speight needs to take ownership of the offense and team as a whole.

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.

Football is a game of inches, they say, but that can mean different things to different people. For Purdue defensive tackle Will Colmery, the inches came inside his head. They were the difference between him rejoining the Boilermakers for spring practice last week and having his football career, if not much more, derailed by a brain tumor.

Nobody in West Lafayette, Indiana -- where new coach Jeff Brohm has started to teach his nation-leading, head-turning offense to a struggling Purdue program -- was more excited to start spring workouts in late February than Colmery. Doctors say he won’t be able to participate in contact drills until this summer at the earliest, but the junior has been suited up and on the field for all five of the Boilermakers’ practices thus far.

“Even though I’m not doing everything, it feels really good to be back,” Colmery said. “I think about it almost every day. I feel like I’m lucky and blessed to have things work out the way they did. It could’ve been a lot worse.”

Nine months ago, a neurosurgeon made an incision that stretched nearly ear to ear across the edge of Colmery’s scalp, just above the hairline. It took four hours to remove the pieces of a tumor that had ruptured inside his skull a day earlier. Intact, the large mass of misplaced cells growing behind his left eye was roughly the size of a tennis ball. When it finally became too big and burst on the morning of June 28, it sent Colmery’s body into a seizure on the floor of Purdue’s indoor practice facility.

The diagnosis ended a mystery for the football program’s medical staff. About a half-dozen times in the previous year, Colmery said he had blacked out. For roughly 30 seconds, his friends and family told him, he would speak nonsense before returning to his senses completely unaware that anything strange had occurred. Initially, it happened once during a summer conditioning workout and then many months later during a practice last spring.

Team doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. They thought perhaps he was dehydrated. These types of tumors aren’t terribly rare, but the symptoms don’t usually present themselves in someone as young as Colmery, who was 20 years old. When the blackout episodes became more frequent in June, the training staff pulled Colmery from training until they could diagnose the issue.

They started with his heart and had scheduled an MRI on his head for early July. The seizure hit before they could get to it, while Colmery watched his teammates complete an early-morning weight-room session. Each time the tumor swelled, it put enough pressure on Colmery’s brain to cause him to act out of character. That morning, it grew too big for the pocket it inhabited.

Jeanne Colmery was at her home in Chicago’s southwest suburbs that morning when then-head coach Darrell Hazell called early enough to alarm her. Jeanne and her husband, Scott, hurried to make the two-plus-hour drive to a hospital near Purdue’s campus. By the time they arrived, Will was awake and was already determined to return to football.

“We call him ‘Strong Will,’” Jeanne said. “He never felt sorry for himself. The day we drove down there, he was already talking about how nothing was going to stand in his way of returning to the field. ... I just said, 'Let’s just take one day at a time.' After talking to the doctors, I think he realized how lucky he was and the most important thing was that he was going to be healthy.”

The tumor grew in the space between Colmery’s skull and brain. Had it nested an inch or two in another direction, on his brain, his problems might have been much worse. More importantly, doctors tested the cells and found they were non-cancerous. They said the way the tumor ruptured would not have any ill effects on his vision or speech. It was a harrowing experience, but Colmery had dodged several bullets.

He left the hospital four days after surgery and began plotting his path back to the field. He watched training camp from the sideline and helped out with the defensive line where he could. He wasn’t allowed to do anything more strenuous than going for a long walk before late September.

“I’ve been playing football since third grade. It felt really weird not doing anything, especially when I couldn’t work out,” Colmery said. “That was terrible. Not getting exercise for me was kind of a big deal and was kind of weighing on me a little bit.”

Saturday's are for the Boys #W #RipFlow

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Colmery was cleared to return to the weight room in the fall, and he had to pace himself to avoid dizzy spells. If he pushed too hard, blood rushed to fill the area of his head once occupied by the tumor and gave him an amplified version of the disoriented feeling of standing up too fast.

He was cleared for football activity in the winter, but his future isn’t fully settled. The biggest risk of future problems comes from the metal plates that surgeons used to help strengthen his skull after breaking it open. Colmery has more tests scheduled in July, a year after the surgery, to make sure his head has continued healing properly.

The path to getting his first game snaps as a Big Ten player is still long and hard. He’ll have a good deal of ground to make up physically. He’ll have mental obstacles to hurdle as well. Colmery said he weighed the merits of returning to a violent game with his family and his doctors. They told him about other athletes who had returned from similar problems. His parents -- both former college athletes -- and his older brothers encouraged him. He decided that as long as there is a healthy way forward, he’ll take it.

“I want to get out there and play again,” he said. “That’s definitely my goal.”

However Colmery ends up contributing to the Boilermakers, he says there’s no doubt that he’ll do it with a renewed sense of appreciation for being a part of the team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like any first-year head coach, Jeff Brohm needs to build trust and familiarity with his new players at Purdue, and vice versa. Since his hiring in early December, however, Brohm hasn't opted for any team-building exercises or creative group outings to speed the bonding process.

Those types of things might come later. Right now, there's too much work to be done.

"At this point, it’s been all about getting our guys in the weight room, getting on the field for mat drills and getting in the meeting room," Brohm said last week. "We're kind of doing it the old-fashioned, step-by-step traditional way."

Brohm's offenses might be flashy -- his Western Kentucky teams were among the highest-scoring teams in FBS -- but the business of getting the Boilermakers ready requires a lot of manual assembly. Purdue opens spring practice on Monday afternoon having won just six games total in the past three seasons and with question marks all over the roster.

Brian Spurlock/USA Today SportsNew Purdue coach Jeff Brohm will get a chance to learn about his team in earnest at 15 spring practice sessions.

"We’ve got some areas we definitely have to shore up," Brohm said. "We don’t have a lot of experience in certain places."

Start with an offensive line that struggled to generate much of anything in the running game a year ago that now must replace three starters. Or the receiving group that graduated almost every major contributor but will be a key to implementing Brohm's pass-friendly system. The defensive line and secondary are major concerns as well.

The depth chart problems are a big reason why the Boilers signed five junior-college transfers earlier this month, three of whom (offensive lineman Ethan Smart, defensive end Kai Higgins and defensive back Jalen Jackson) will participate in spring ball. Graduate transfer linebacker T.J. McCollum also followed Brohm from Western Kentucky to West Lafayette, though he will sit out contact drills this spring. Brohm said Purdue is working to bring in some more graduate transfers this spring because "we definitely need some immediate help at certain positions."

Brohm and his staff expect to learn more about what their players can do over the course of these 15 spring practices. He's simplified and trimmed down the terminology of his system and said he feels confident that the players will grasp it quickly. The biggest key this spring, he said, is to instill a competitive environment and fighting spirit.

That's harder than it sounds, given the lack of on-field success the team has experienced. The Boilermakers ended 2016 on a seven-game losing streak and have won only two Big Ten games since the end of the 2012 season.

"Without question, we have to build the psyche of the team," Brohm said. "I do think we can do that. We have some young men who are good kids of high character, and they're hungry. They're wanting to be coached up. They’re starving to have some success.

"So we’ve got to do our part to get that done. Yes, it's going to be a challenge, but I do think if we can build a competitive team that really wants to win, we can make strides."

Building blocks include quarterback David Blough, who led the Big Ten in passing yards per game despite throwing 21 interceptions, a solid group of running backs and tight ends and an experienced linebacker corps.

Purdue also has showed an increased commitment to winning by hiring Brohm, increasing the money available for his staff and undergoing a badly needed $60-plus million facility upgrade that should be completed this summer.

"That's going to be huge," Brohm said. "You just have to have it. Recruits want to see it.

"The people in West Lafayette are hungry for success and want to see some excitement back into the program. I've been pleased with the commitment and the hunger of all the people associated with Purdue and around town. That's what you want. You want the pressure to be on you to win."

Winning right away will be difficult for Brohm and the Boilers, as they open the season against Louisville in Indianapolis, play at Missouri in Week 3, then host Michigan on Sept. 23. Welcome to the Big Ten, Coach.

"We’ve got to be able to start from the get-go with a sense of urgency," Brohm said.

The team-building exercises and other fun stuff can wait. For now, Brohm and everyone in the program has to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

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 Purdue Boilermakers.

AP Photo/Mark HumphreyJeff Brohm faces a rough early schedule in his first season at Purdue.

Must-win game: Nov. 4 vs. Illinois. The Boilermakers’ lone conference win last year came against the Fighting Illini. In fact, it was the only road Big Ten victory of Darrell Hazell's tenure. Purdue needed overtime to win in Champaign last fall, but the game is in Ross-Ade Stadium this year and it could be a rebuilding season for Lovie Smith’s squad. New Boilers coach Jeff Brohm has a little history with the Illini, as he was quarterbacks coach there from 2010-11. If he wants his new program to stay out of the Big Ten West Division basement in Year One, this is likely a must-win contest.

Trap game: Sept. 8 vs. Ohio. Purdue opens against Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in Indianapolis. In week 3, the Boilers travel to Missouri. The Tigers were bad last year, but it’s still a road game in SEC country. And in Week 4, Michigan comes to West Lafayette. That’s a doozy of a first month, and nestled in there is that Week 2 game against Ohio. And it’s no gimme. The Bobcats played in the MAC title game a year ago and, while they lost 10 starters from 2016, this is always a well-coached bunch under Frank Solich. This sets up as a classic potential overlook situation, given the other notable names on the September slate. But the Boilers aren’t good enough yet to look past anyone, and a loss here could very well lead to an 0-4 start.

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 player or position group has the potential to make an instant impact for each conference team in 2017.

Up next: Purdue

Player: T.J. Jallow

Jeff Brohm isn’t planning on relying on the junior college ranks much in the future, but given the pressing concern in the secondary and his previous relationship with one of the best defensive backs at that level, bringing in Jallow fit the bill as an exception in his first class with the program.

For all of the struggles the Boilermakers endured defensively last season, Leroy Clark was something of a bright spot at safety as he finished second on the team in tackles while also coming up with a pair of turnovers. But he won’t be around for Brohm’s first year, which leaves a critical role that Jallow could potentially fill right away after he switched his commitment from Louisville to Purdue and wound up as the highest-rated player in the class thanks to his four-star rating.

At a minimum, he’ll be expected to provide some depth for a relatively thin position group. But in bringing in a junior college product, Brohm is clearly anticipating Jallow will be capable of more than that.

“In the secondary, we wanted to get some help,” Brohm said on signing day. “We think he’ll be an outstanding player for us. He’s a strong young man, he’s played quite a bit.

“I think he’ll step in immediately and provide competition vying for that spot.”

After finishing No. 13 in the league in total defense, safety obviously won’t be the only position up for grabs as Brohm gets to work on his rebuild. But it looks like the Boilermakers might have one ready-made solution already in the fold from his first class.

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana

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

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

Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

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

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

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

Team that could surprise: Maryland

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

Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Iowa and Ohio State

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

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

Runners-up: Wisconsin and Nebraska

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

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

Team that could surprise: Minnesota

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

Teams that need to step it up: Maryland and Purdue

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the end of the regular season, it looked like the Big Ten coaching carousel might not spin all that much.

Sure, Purdue had fired Darrell Hazell in midseason. But there weren't any other obvious head-coaching changes on the horizon, or so we thought. Just goes to show, you never say never in the coaching biz. Indiana surprised everybody by dumping Kevin Wilson a few days after the season and promoting defensive coordinator Tom Allen to head coach, while an off-field scandal and brief bowl boycott led Minnesota to fire Tracy Claeys despite a 9-4 campaign.

Three head coaching changes is pretty much par for the course these days. Purdue's hiring of Jeff Brohm and the Golden Gophers snagging P.J. Fleck have gotten both fan bases excited. But there have been a lot more changes than just at the head coaching level. Today, we're going to look at the five most significant assistant coaching hires of the Big Ten offseason. Or at least so far, as Wisconsin still needs to name a defensive coordinator and other moves still could happen -- because the carousel never really stops.

The list of five, in alphabetical order:

Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator, Nebraska: Diaco's three-year stint as head coach at UConn was remembered more for his bizarre invention of a rivalry with Central Florida than any actual on-field success. Whether he's cut out to be a head coach remains to be seen because the UConn job is not an easy one. Still, there's very little question that he's one of the top defensive minds in the game, as he proved at both Cincinnati and Notre Dame. Diaco is more than a little off-center personality-wise, but his players usually respond to him. He could be the key for Nebraska to get back to its Blackshirt tradition of tough, physical defenses.

Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY SportsBrian Ferentz, left, will be by the side of his father Kirk as Iowa's offensive coordinator in hopes of bringing a spark to the Hawkeyes.

Brian Ferentz, offensive coordinator, Iowa: There's no doubt that the Hawkeyes needed a jolt after finishing 121st in the FBS in total offense last season. With the notable exception of the 2015 run to the Big Ten title game, Greg Davis' philosophies didn't always seem to mesh well with Iowa's bread-and-butter staples. Ferentz certainly will be on the same page as his father, and the staff will be reworked to get everybody moving in the right direction. The younger Ferentz gained valuable experience during his time with the New England Patriots, and the former offensive line coach will push an aggressive, physical run game to the forefront.

Pep Hamilton, assistant head coach/passing game coordinator, Michigan: The only non-coordinator on our list, Hamilton reunites with Jim Harbaugh after serving as his wide receivers coach at Stanford in 2010. Hamilton later went on to be the offensive coordinator for the Cardinal and with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns. You could say he's overqualified for his new role in Ann Arbor, but Michigan certainly is thrilled to have him working with Wilton Speight and a host of young receivers and quarterbacks.

Jerry Kill, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights averaged just 13.4 offensive points per game, last in the FBS, and were shut out four times in Big Ten play. A major overhaul was needed, and head coach Chris Ash scored a coup by luring former Minnesota head coach Kill out of retirement. Kill insists that his epilepsy is under control, and hopefully he'll be better able to manage his condition without all the pressures and requirements that a head coaching job brings. He's still going to have a ton of work to do to right this ship, beginning first and foremost with finding and developing a quarterback.

Kevin Wilson, offensive coordinator, Ohio State: Urban Meyer vowed to fix the Buckeyes' passing game after his team shockingly was shut out in the Fiesta Bowl by Clemson, and Wilson is one of the best offensive schemers around. His Hoosiers were consistently ranked among the top passing teams in the Big Ten, and they combined a fast pace with a creative running attack. Both Wilson and Meyer will have to answer some tough questions about the circumstances in which Wilson left Indiana, which included allegations of player mistreatment. But if there are appropriate firewalls in place, this could be as productive a marriage as that of Meyer and Greg Schiano, his defensive coordinator and another former head coach.

The Big Ten mailbag is back, this time on a Tuesday thanks to some technical difficulties last week. As always, if you've got questions, tweet them to me or shoot an email to ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com. It's the offseason, but keep them coming.

Let's ride ...

Brian Bennett: Arguing over preseason rankings by a few pundits in January? Never change, guys.

OK, let's start with Michigan. Few if any teams in the country were hit harder by graduation than the Wolverines, who had 18 senior starters and Jabrill Peppers. That's why the enthusiasm for next season, I think, has been a bit muted. Colleague Mark Schlabach ranked Michigan No. 12 in his first Top 25 of 2017, and even that might be a bit generous given the massive personnel losses.

Yet there are two main reasons to remain excited about the Maize and Blue prospects for next fall: Jim Harbaugh and talent. This program is never going to dip too low as long as Harbaugh is still calling the shots, and there are a ton of skilled players percolating and coming into Ann Arbor. I'll take a very talented but inexperienced team over the opposite situation any day. Look at what Ohio State accomplished using that same mix last season.

Speaking of the Buckeyes, I've seen some people rank them ahead of Penn State for next year and some doing the opposite. Schlabach, for example, has the Nittany Lions fourth and Ohio State sixth. Seems fair. James Franklin's team will start in a great position with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, but Urban Meyer still has J.T. Barrett and Mike Weber. Plus a roster full of blue-chippers, even after another draft exodus.

Remember, too, that Meyer has still only lost two regular-season Big Ten games. Franklin got him last year, but that was a night game in Beaver Stadium, a week after Ohio State had a physical night at Wisconsin, and it took a fluke special teams play to pull off. The challenge for Penn State to repeat that result in the Horseshoe this season will be much tougher.

Then again, the Nittany Lions played better in the final few weeks and in bowl season than Meyer's team did. It's pretty much a coin flip right now, in my view. And assuming Michigan is good and Michigan State can bounce back, well, the East Division could be flat out ridiculous in 2017.

Brian Bennett: I could cop out here and say Michigan State, since the Spartans certainly were a bottom-half team in 2016. But that kind of pansy answer isn't what you've come to expect from this mailbag, is it?

So instead, I'll take Purdue. I don't expect the Boilermakers to make a bowl, not with a neutral-site game against Lamar Jackson and Louisville, a trip to Missouri and a visit from Michigan all by Week 4. Yikes.

But Jeff Brohm is an offensive whiz who oversaw some of the most explosive teams in the country at Western Kentucky. He's got a quarterback, David Blough, who led the Big Ten in passing yards per game in 2016. Though the defense requires a major overhaul, I think Purdue could win a shootout or two over a team most people wouldn't expect them to beat this season.

Brian Bennett: Can I hold?

The big question here is, what is Nathan Stanley? I'm not even sure the coaching staff knows exactly what to expect of its young and untested quarterback. Getting Akrum Wadley back was big, but he may need a backfield mate to help carry the load, given his size. He averaged less than 13 rushing attempts per game last year, after all.

The offensive line should remain sound, led by the underrated Sean Welsh. I'm bullish on Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator, and getting the entire coaching staff on that side of the ball on the same page is crucial.

Developing receivers remains an issue, though the return of Matt VandeBerg will settle some of that. Iowa simply has to stretch the field better. But if you're asking me if I buy that the Hawkeyes will improve over 2016, when they ranked No. 121 nationally in total offense, then yes, I'm rushing to the counter to make that purchase.

On Monday, Jesse Temple looked at the toughest and easiest nonconference schedules in the Big Ten for 2017.

Out-of-league games comprise only 25 percent of a team's regular-season schedule, however. What's even more important for many teams is how their Big Ten schedules stack up.

So today we're taking a look at which teams have the most and least favorable Big Ten schedules in 2017. We're not using "tough" and "easy" because it's never easy to get through a conference slate. And things are all kind of relative here. Playing in the East Division is going to present a major challenge with all the heavyweights located on that side. But we're more looking toward who has the more advantageous crossover games and how the home/road splits sort out. (As a reminder, West Division clubs gets five conference home games each this year, while East teams have only four apiece.)

After going through all these, I have to say I'm pretty impressed with how the league has managed to balance things out in Year 2 of the nine-game schedule. There are few glaringly obvious discrepancies in who plays whom.

Still, schedules will never be truly equal when there's no round-robin. So here are the three most favorable conference schedules -- at least on paper -- in late January:

AP Photo/Aaron GashPaul Chryst's Badgers will face a much more manageable conference schedule in 2017.

1. Wisconsin: One year after facing one of the most brutal schedules imaginable, the Badgers get a bit of a letup in 2017. Their East crossovers are Maryland, Michigan and Indiana, with only the game against the Hoosiers coming on the road. Wisconsin does have to go to Nebraska on Oct. 7, but that's the only road game against a league team that had a winning record last year until the finale at Minnesota. And Wisconsin has absolutely dominated the series with the Gophers in the last decade-plus.

2. Illinois: The Fighting Illini do have to go to Ohio State. But their other crossovers are at home against Indiana and Rutgers, and they get Wisconsin, Nebraska and rival Northwestern all in Champaign. It's just a question of whether Lovie Smith's team will be good enough to take advantage of those matchups.

3. Rutgers: After going winless in the Big Ten last year, the Scarlet Knights can't count any game as easy. But their crossover schedule includes winnable games against Purdue and Illinois, along with a trip to Nebraska. That won't make the division games any more manageable, especially with road trips to Penn State and Michigan, but it sure beats the early days of facing both Wisconsin and Nebraska as West crossovers. A close fourth is the Golden Gophers, who get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home and whose crossover schedule (Maryland, Michigan State and at Michigan) depends heavily on how good Michigan State will be in 2017.

And here are the teams that appear to have the three least favorable conference schedules, same caveats applying:

1. Iowa: Rival fans have complained that the Hawkeyes' league schedules were too generous the past few years. Not so in 2017. Kirk Ferentz's team drew Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State as crossovers. While the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes do have to come to Kinnick Stadium, they are both likely preseason top-10 teams. And the Spartans could be poised to bounce back. Iowa also has to play both Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road, so they'll have to earn everything next season.

2. Nebraska: The good: Wisconsin and Iowa both come to Lincoln, and one of the three crossovers is Rutgers. The bad: Like Iowa, the Cornhuskers must play both Ohio State (at home) and Penn State (on the road). That's about as tough as it gets. And both Wisconsin and Iowa have had recent success winning in Memorial Stadium.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions' three crossovers could all be against West contenders: at Iowa, at Northwestern and versus Nebraska. The defending Big Ten champs also have to go to Ohio State. That game in Columbus convinced me to put Penn State here over the Buckeyes, who have road games against Iowa and Nebraska, plus the end-of-season trip to Michigan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New England

QB Tom Brady, Michigan

DL Alan Branch, Michigan

DB Nate Ebner, Ohio State

OL Chase Farris, Ohio State#

LB Jonathan Freeny, Rutgers*

DB Duron Harmon, Rutgers

OL Ted Karras, Illinois

DB Devin McCourty, Rutgers

LB Rob Ninkovich, Purdue

CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers

DT Vincent Valentine, Nebraska

RB James White, Wisconsin

Atlanta

S Ricardo Allen, Purdue

DT Jonathan Babineaux, Iowa

LB De'Vondre Campbell, Minnesota

DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa*

RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana

DL Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota

WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers

DT Joe Vellano, Maryland

# -- Practice squad

* -- Reserve/injured list

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