Big Ten: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Spring isn’t necessarily a time to deliver a finished product. But this time of year is crucial for setting up a team for success in the fall -- and some programs have more work to do than others.
Who stands to benefit the most from these workouts heading into the summer offseason in the Big Ten? Our conference reporters break it down, roundtable style.
Brian Bennett: Minnesota
After the player-led boycott last December, the wave of suspensions and the firing of coach Tracy Claeys, it's an important camp for Minnesota and few teams have as much to accomplish this spring as the Golden Gophers. They’ve got a new head coach in P.J. Fleck and an entirely new staff. There’s a wide-open quarterback race with no proven veterans on the roster. This is going to be a young team, one that’s led by running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Fleck’s personality and schemes represent a major change. It’s a fascinating story to watch, and spring is more important than it usually is in the Twin Cities.
Dan Murphy: Michigan
The Wolverines have to begin filling 17 openings in the starting lineup this spring. Some spots are fairly easy to figure out but will need to use the next month to get comfortable in a new role. Others (like the safeties, receivers and one or two offensive line positions, for example) are wide open competitions. Spring practice will go a long way in determining an offseason pecking order at those spots.
It's also a big month for quarterback Wilton Speight. If Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, Speight will have to take ownership of the offense (which loses seven seniors) and team as a whole. He can start asserting himself this spring as the guy his teammates can trust to pull them out of tight spots. After losing three of their last four games in dramatic fashion, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his players shouldn't have any problem finding motivation to get a lot accomplished in March and April.
Jesse Temple: Purdue
Boilermakers fans are hungry for a reversal of fortunes, and optimism abounds with new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm in charge. His first spring in West Lafayette will be essential as he begins to put the building blocks in place for a potential turnaround. Purdue ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season in scoring offense (24.6 points per game) and last in scoring defense (38.3 points). Brohm, who came from Western Kentucky, helped the Hilltoppers lead the FBS in scoring offense at 45.5 points per game last season. His up-tempo style could benefit Purdue quarterback David Blough, who has a ton of talent and led the Big Ten in passing offense last season. Brohm needs to find enough receivers to help out Blough, and the offensive line must improve to create more of a running game. That doesn't address defensive issues, particularly on the line and in the secondary. Brohm has much work to do and only 15 practices this spring to sort things out.
Austin Ward: Rutgers
Considering the situation Chris Ash inherited a year ago and the brutal division in which he’s trying to make up ground, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect significant improvements during his debut season with the Scarlet Knights. With the roster still in rebuilding mode and the Big Ten’s East Division only getting stronger, expectations should perhaps still remain relatively low heading into 2017. But the second season is generally a time to show progress and is critically important in solidifying the foundation of a coach’s program, which makes this a significant spring for Ash.
After showing flashes of productivity leading the offense last season, this spring could be a chance for Giovanni Rescigno to stake a solid claim to the quarterback job and build some momentum in new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s offense. That position is always under the spotlight, but perhaps even more than most programs, Rutgers needs to find a reliable answer there soon.
With spring practice gearing up throughout much of the Big Ten, it's time to bring back the mailbag. You can send in questions any time via Twitter or by emailing me at ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.
— Benny (@FLBuckeye14) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Good question, if a bit early. We should have a better sense of these teams once they get through spring ball. But allow me to make a couple of way-too-early calls, which are subject to change.
Most improved? I think you have to go with Michigan State. Even though the offseason has had its share of difficulties for the Spartans, it's simply too hard for me to imagine this program going 3-9 again. Mark Dantonio's team probably still won't be good enough to seriously contend in the East Division, but 7-to-8 wins is totally in reach.
As for digressing (good word choice by you), I'll go with Minnesota. The schedule is still manageable early on for new head coach P.J. Fleck. But given the personnel losses, the uncertainty at quarterback, the turmoil around the program and the transition to a new staff, I find it unreasonable to expect another nine-win campaign out of the Golden Gophers. This is more likely a team that will have to scrap for a bowl bid.
@BennettESPN what are the most interesting out of conference games?
— Slotter (@Slotter) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, the big ones are well known. Michigan vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Oklahoma at Ohio State and Nebraska at Oregon in Week 2. Michigan State hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 23.
A couple of other lesser-heralded ones I like: Wisconsin at BYU in Week 3 -- not quite LSU at Lambeau, but it's an intriguing road trip nonetheless. Maryland at Texas and new coach Tom Herman in the opener. Penn State vs. Pitt, naturally. Purdue vs. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Jeff Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, in Indianapolis in Week 1.
The nonconference schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous in 2017 as it did in the summer of 2016, but there are still some very interesting games on tap.
— Ben Weinberg (@bweiny) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, you're already eliminating Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the East and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West with your parameters. I think we can agree Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois aren't particularly close to winning a division, and Indiana and Maryland have the deck stacked against them in the East. So that leaves only Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota. As I wrote earlier, I think the Golden Gophers are in for some rebuilding. So yeah, the Wolverines and Wildcats are your best bets to be the next teams to break through and get to Indianapolis.
John A. emails: Do you see Alex Hornibrook taking a step forward for a Wisconsin team that is just a QB away from a special season? And if he does take that step, how do you see their season panning out?
Brian Bennett: I do think you'll see Hornibrook take a step forward. He showed good poise and made plays as a redshirt freshman in some tough games a year ago, and that can only help his development. The big question is what is Hornibrook's ceiling. Can he be a star at quarterback, or is he destined to be a solid game manager? The Badgers have managed a lot of success with the latter type of signalcaller, so he doesn't have to be Russell Wilson 2.0.
I'm fairly bullish on Hornibrook's potential because of two things: his outstanding makeup, and the tutelage of Paul Chryst. I think you could see Hornibrook develop into a slightly better version of late-career Scott Tolzien, which was pretty darn good.
— YetiHawk (@AlgoHawk) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, all right.
Best team offense: Penn State, though Ohio State with Kevin Wilson pulling the levers is fascinating and dangerous.
Best team defense: Ohio State, because of its experienced defensive line. But Michigan and Wisconsin should both be really good defensively, too.
— TODD (@OhHeyItsTodd) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Things certainly can't get much worse, but I don't know how much a recruiting class will help. You're talking about a bunch of extremely young players who'd be outmatched physically in the Big Ten.
There is bound to be improvement, though, and there's no real reason why the Scarlet Knights couldn't compete with teams like Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana. The bad news is that Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are still on the schedule, plus a trip to Nebraska. Ouch.
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.
On Oct. 28, 2015, Jerry Kill announced his retirement as Minnesota's head football coach in a teary-eyed news conference. Battling seizures as a result of his epilepsy, Kill stepped down under his doctors instructions.
And that, he figured, would be the end of his long coaching career.
"I had reached the point where there was nothing left at all," he told ESPN.com earlier this month.
Less than a year and a half later, though, Kill is back working in the game he loves, if in a slightly different capacity. In December, Rutgers hired the former Big Ten coach of the year as its offensive coordinator.
The move came with some serious question marks. The pressure and stress of coaching certainly contributed to Kill's health problems in the past, which included a seven-game leave of absence from Minnesota in 2013 after a series of seizures. Yet the 55-year-old Kill is moving forward with no hesitations.
"I'm sure some people are like, 'What the hell is he doing?'" Kill said. "But the way I look at it is, you only have one life. There's no do-overs. And, hey, I don't feel like I'm done helping kids."
Besides, Kill has reason to believe things will be different this time around.
After stepping down from the Golden Gophers, he took some time to relax in Florida. He then went back to work on controlling his epilepsy.
A big breakthrough was teaching himself how to sleep. Kill estimated that he slept an average of only three hours a night in the previous 12 years, as he was unable to keep his mind from spinning when he lay down in bed. He began practicing meditation, which helped him get much more rest.
He also altered the way he eats, going to a low-carb diet. Those changes, he said, have kept him seizure free for the past year.
Kill said he had several offers to get back into coaching right after he left Minnesota. They included a call from Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, who told him he could have any part-time role he wanted with the Wolverines. But Kill wasn’t ready to go back to work until May 2016, when he took a job as an assistant athletic director at Kansas State, where he worked closely with the football program and head coach Bill Snyder in an administrative capacity.
"Going to K-State was one of the greatest things I ever did," Kill said. "It allowed me to test drive myself a little bit, health-wise."
Reinvigorated by that job, Kill decided he was ready to coach again when Rutgers' Chris Ash called about his vacant offensive coordinator position.
"When I heard through the coaching rumor mill that he might want back in, I reached out right away," Ash said. "The obvious question was, 'What type of shape are you in?'"
The two went over what Kill's schedule would look like. Ash insists that his coaches go home on Wednesday and Thursday nights during the season. There will still be long work days, but Kill assured Ash that he's properly managed his condition and could handle the load.
Now an assistant coach for the first time since 1993, Kill won't have as much on his plate as he did when he was a head coach. He was stretched in many directions at Minnesota, where he often had to be the face of the entire athletic program through some administrative disarray and lead a major fundraising campaign.
"You've got a problem every day when you're the head coach," Kill said. "Your mind's never going to stop, because there's always a problem."
Kill has another motivation for getting back into football. He knows his elevated profile as a coach can help raise more awareness and money for people with epilepsy.
He has his own foundation, Chasing Dreams. It supports such projects as Camp Oz, a summer camp for Minnesota kids with epilepsy, and instructing schools how to respond to and care for students who have seizures. Kill also wrote a book, "Chasing Dreams: Living My Life One Yard at a Time"; all proceeds from sales go to the foundation.
He also promotes the social media campaign #TackleEpilepsy, which was tied in with the NFL during the Super Bowl.
— Jerry Kill (@JerryKillCoach) February 5, 2017
Once reluctant to discuss his health in detail, Kill is now using the platform he has with football to bring as much attention as possible to epilepsy. He knows that every time Rutgers plays on TV this season, for example, the announcers will likely tell his story. He embraces the role of public advocate.
"His willingness to speak out and share the struggles and successes he's had living with seizures is inspiring to all," said Phil Gattone, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation. "He is inspirational and courageous as he continually moves forward with the challenges ahead of him. He is changing the world and its view on epilepsy as he rises above his own personal circumstances to help and give hope to others."
Kill's immediate coaching challenge is a tall one. The Scarlet Knights had one of the worst offenses in the country last season, finishing 127th out of 128 FBS teams at just 15.7 points per game. It's a major rebuilding job. Then again, Kill's entire career, from small schools like Saginaw Valley State to places such as Northern Illinois and Minnesota, has been about rebuilding.
"These are the things I'm used to doing," he said.
Ash, in just his second year as a head coach, appreciates the experience and knowledge that Kill brings to the staff.
"People assume he's a sounding board for you as a head coach and he does bring that," Ash said. "But more than anything, it's the way he attacks his job. He goes out and attacks it the way he wanted his assistants to do when he was a head coach. That's a great thing for me, because it's one less thing I have to worry about."
Kill isn't worried that his health will derail him this time around. He wants to be a shining example of someone living with epilepsy and still realizing their dreams.
"My life's good, but some of these young people are having 40-50 seizures a day and there’s no answer," he said. "So we need people to help. And it's a lot easier to help when you have a platform to do so."
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: Quarterback depth. After losing a boatload of valuable seniors and sending 14 players to the NFL combine, the Wolverines have question marks going into the spring. Quarterback isn't really one of them. Wilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter, completing 61.6 percent of his passes and finishing with an 18-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a big edge to keep the job, but he also has talented youngsters Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey behind him, along with veteran John O'Korn.
Michigan State: The linebacker group. Despite the loss of leader Riley Bullough, the Spartans should be able to count on this position group as an anchor in 2017. Jon Reschke and Chris Frey have lots of experience, and Andrew Dowell is on the rise. Yet another Bullough brother, Byron, will be pushing for playing time as well.
Ohio State: The pass-rush. Nick Bosa would start for just about any team in the Big Ten, and quite likely in America. But his playing time is in question for the Buckeyes, who bring back starting defensive ends Tyquan Lewis -- the league's defensive lineman of the year in 2016 -- and Sam Hubbard. That's a crazy amount of talent coming off the edge, and it doesn't even include senior Jalyn Holmes or blue-chip signee Chase Young.
Penn State: The offensive backfield. Running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley ranked 1-2 in our list of the top 25 returning Big Ten players last month. So it's kind of a nice advantage to have them in the same backfield, and it makes the Nittany Lions' run-pass option plays even more devastating. Miles Sanders is an excellent backup choice and change-of-pace guy behind Barkley, too.
Rutgers: The kick-return game. So the Scarlet Knights didn't have any discernible strengths during a miserable 2016 campaign, but at least Janarion Grant is back after suffering a season-ending injury early last fall. Assuming he's healthy, he should reclaim his reputation as one of the top return men in the country. He has eight career combined kick and punt return scores, tied for the most in FBS history.
The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.
It may be ridiculously early, but we’re examining what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Must-win game: Oct. 14 at Illinois. Rutgers needs to break the Big Ten ice after going winless in conference play during Chris Ash’s first season as head coach in 2016. Ash’s second go-round in the league starts with games at Nebraska and against Ohio State. Neither of those are realistic victories for the Scarlet Knights at this point, but a trip to Illinois the following week might be the best chance they have to get some positive vibes flowing in Piscataway. The Illini won 24-7 last year at Rutgers, but a more settled lineup might have a better chance this time despite being on the road.
Trap game: Sept. 9 vs. Eastern Michigan. The last time a team from southeast Michigan visited Rutgers, it didn’t go well for the Scarlet Knights. Eastern Michigan doesn’t have the firepower that their neighbors at Michigan brought to High Point Solutions Stadium in 2016, but the Eagles are coming off of their best year (6-7) in recent history. Redshirt senior quarterback Brogan Roback and redshirt junior running back Ian Eriksen both return this season, which should help their offense continue to improve. A loss against Eastern Michigan would likely leave the Scarlet Knights with four defeats in their first five games and an increasingly deep hole for Ash and company to try to escape.
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: Rutgers
Player: QB Johnathan Lewis
There's no nice way to put this: The Scarlet Knights stunk at quarterback last year. Just look at Rutgers' passing stats from this game. Or this one. Or this one. You get the point. It was almost historically bad.
That's why Lewis has a chance to make an impact from Day 1, even though it's unusual for true freshmen to start at quarterback in the Big Ten.
He won't arrive on campus until this summer, so veteran players such as Giovanni Rescigno, Zach Allen and Tylin Odin will have a big upper hand in experience and a headstart to learn new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill's system. Then again, all three guys had a chance to make an impact last year, and it didn't go so well.
The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Lewis is a dual threat who ran a similar offense in high school and looks like a perfect fit for what Rutgers coach Chris Ash wants to do. The Jersey City native was an important recruit for Rutgers, and even though Ash isn't guaranteeing him immediate playing time, the path certainly exists.
"I don't care what level of football you're a part of -- whether it's the NFL, college, high school -- if you don't have a quarterback, you really don't have a chance," Ash said on national signing day. "And to be able to get a quarterback with the characteristics Johnathan Lewis has means everything to us."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Here's a look at the players from Big Ten schools who will be in the Super Bowl:
DL Alan Branch, Michigan
DB Nate Ebner, Ohio State
OL Chase Farris, Ohio State#
LB Jonathan Freeny, Rutgers*
DB Duron Harmon, Rutgers
DB Devin McCourty, Rutgers
LB Rob Ninkovich, Purdue
CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers
S Ricardo Allen, Purdue
DT Jonathan Babineaux, Iowa
DL Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers
# -- Practice squad
* -- Reserve/injured list
The 2016 season is officially in the rear-view mirror, but the Big Ten blog is taking one last look back at the numbers that defined each conference program. Some teams underperformed, while others surprised by making drastic improvements in key areas.
Here are three stats that help explain the 2016 season for each Big Ten team. Next up: Rutgers, which went 2-10 and was winless in the Big Ten under first-year head coach Chris Ash.
99: That's how many points Rutgers scored against its Power 5 opponents. For you non-math majors out there, that equates to 9.9 points per game. It's pretty hard to average single digits for an entire season against equal competition, but somehow the Scarlet Knights pulled it off. Even counting their lone wins against Howard and New Mexico, in which the team scored a combined 89 points, they still finished last in the FBS in offensive points per game at 13.4. And they were shut out four times in conference play. Yeah, it was ghastly. New offensive coordinator Jerry Kill has a lot of work to do.
264.2: That's how many rushing yards per game Rutgers allowed. Only two FBS teams were more generous against the run. That included a 410-yard performance on the ground by Ohio State, 481 rushing yards by Michigan and 339 by Penn State. That's ugly, with a capital U. Ash will need to recruit more defensive linemen who can hang in against the better Big Ten offensive lines.
128: Well, there are 128 FBS teams. Here are some categories where Rutgers finished 128th nationally in 2016: Yards per game, yards per play, net yards per pass attempt, net yards per punt, red-zone offensive efficiency and yardage margin per game. This was truly one of the worst seasons by a Big Ten team in a long time, and there's no reason to belabor the point any further.
The Way-Too-Early team rankings are already out as the attention shifts to the 2017 season. But what about the individuals who are returning in the Big Ten to lead those programs this year? The conference reporters got together and worked up another batch of power rankings, this time focusing on the stars who are coming back around the league next season.
Also be sure the check out Adam Rittenberg's list of the top 50 players returning nationally.
1. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley: The push for Heisman Trophy consideration nationally came a little too late in the season a year ago, but the rest of the country appears to be realizing what the Big Ten has known for a while now: Barkley is a rare talent with the football in his hands. Expectations will be sky high for his junior campaign.
2. Penn State QB Trace McSorley: The spotlight may shine a bit brighter on his counterpart in the backfield, but McSorley has developed into a game-changer in his own right at quarterback. After accounting for 36 touchdowns on the way to the Big Ten title, another step forward for the Nittany Lions could be frightening for opponents.
3. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The ups and downs were undeniable during Barrett’s junior season, and while there was plenty of blame to go around for the struggles in the passing game, the mandate from Urban Meyer to improve it will put him under the microscope. Based on his prolific track record, Barrett should be able to handle that pressure without much problem.
4. Iowa LB Josey Jewell: Already well established as one of the best defenders in the Big Ten, Jewell will look to build on the 124 tackles he piled up last season as the centerpiece for the Hawkeyes. If he can top the 6 tackles for loss he added last season, even more acclaim could be headed Jewell’s way.
5. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson: Considering the rising senior already has more than 900 touches on his collegiate resume, it would have been understandable if Jackson had declared for the draft. But with a degree in sight, the Wildcats will once again have the seemingly tireless workhorse once again in the backfield.
6. Indiana LB Tegray Scales: The league’s leader in both total tackles and tackles for loss is sticking around for another season with the Hoosiers, giving coach Tom Allen a huge building block as he puts his stamp on the program. Scales hasn’t typically received much attention for his work, but few defenders can match his production.
7. Ohio State LB Jerome Baker: After an injury ahead of him allowed Baker to step into the starting lineup early in the season, the gifted defender hasn’t looked back. With Raekwon McMillan now gone, Baker will be counted on even more this season to keep the Silver Bullets operating at a high level.
8. Ohio State RB Mike Weber: Just the third freshman in school history to top 1,000 rushing yards, Weber’s role figures to increase without Curtis Samuel around to split some of the carries. And he might be better equipped to handle the workload now that a pesky shoulder injury has had time to heal.
9. Ohio State DE Tyquan Lewis: In a bit of a shocker, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year elected to stick around for one more crack at a championship with the Buckeyes. Lewis proved his success wasn’t just a product of playing on the other side of Joey Bosa, tallying eight sacks and forcing three fumbles without his old sidekick around last season.
10. Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard: The deep, loaded unit up front limits the opportunities at times for Ohio State’s pass-rushers, but Hubbard typically finds a way to leave a mark in every game thanks to his versatile athleticism. He’ll be trying to build on his 46 tackles -- eight of them for a loss -- after electing to return for another season.
11. Minnesota RB Rodney Smith: Smith rushed for 1,158 yards as a sophomore with 16 touchdowns -- the third-most in school history in a single season. He has quickly become one of the top tailbacks in the Big Ten.
12. Michigan QB Wilton Speight: After winning the starting QB job in 2016, Speight never looked back and earned third-team All-Big Ten honors. He threw for 2,538 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions and should be even better as a senior.
13. Iowa RB Akrum Wadley: Wadley strongly considered leaving school early for the NFL but opted to return for his senior season. He'll be the focal point of Iowa's running game without LeShun Daniels Jr. Wadley rushed for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.
14. Ohio State OL Billy Price: Not many three-year starters with a national championship and All-American honors already under their belt would bypass the NFL draft and come back to school. But then, not many players are like Price, who will anchor the Buckeyes' offensive line as an important leader.
15. Penn State TE Mike Gesicki: Gesicki became a sure-handed, catch-making machine in 2016 and set school records for tight end receptions (48) and receiving yards (679). He'll add another dynamic piece to the Nittany Lions' versatile offense in 2017.
16. Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli: As safety valves go in the passing game, you can't do much better than the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Fumagalli. He led the Badgers with 47 receptions last season and added 580 yards with two touchdowns. He'll be the go-to tight end again next season.
17. Minnesota DL Steven Richardson: Richardson led Minnesota with 11 tackles for loss and added seven sacks. First-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has a solid piece up front defensively on which to build around.
18. Wisconsin LB T.J. Edwards: For the second consecutive season, Edwards led the Badgers in total tackles (89) and added 8.5 tackles for loss with three sacks and three interceptions. Wisconsin will be loaded again at linebacker next season, and Edwards will be among the best in the league.
19. Michigan State RB L.J. Scott: There wasn't much to cheer about for Michigan State in 2016, but Scott was a bright spot. He led the Spartans in rushing yet again as a sophomore, tallying 994 yards and six touchdowns. Expect him to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark as a junior on his way to a big season.
20. Michigan State OL Brian Allen: Allen will enter his senior season having played in 38 games, including 24 starts the last two seasons. He played both center and guard last season and led the Spartans in knockdowns.
21. Penn State S Marcus Allen: He led the Nittany Lions in tackles last season with 110, adding a pair of fumble recoveries. Penn State was happy to see him come back for his senior year.
22. Nebraska S Kieron Williams: He tied for second in the league with five interceptions in ’16 and will be a building block for new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco
23. Wisconsin LB Jack Cichy: He was a force when healthy, with 60 tackles and seven TFLs in just seven games. He should help the Badgers’ LB corps remain strong.
24. Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson: As a sophomore, Thorson threw for more than 3,000 yards, with 22 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. The arrow is pointing up.
25. Rutgers WR/KR Janarion Grant: His eight combined kick and punt return touchdowns is tied for the most in FBS history. His return after missing most of last season with a broken ankle is vital for the Scarlet Knights.
An instant turnaround was never expected. Chris Ash also was aware of just what he was getting into when he took over the program last year.
But it’s possible that the former Ohio State defensive coordinator’s first season in charge at Rutgers was more challenging than he might have imagined, with still plenty of work ahead of him heading into this offseason.
The Scarlet Knights didn’t win a single game in Big Ten play, and their last victory was way back in the middle of September against New Mexico. Rutgers actually had a winning record at that point and a modest two-game winning streak, but there wouldn’t be another victory for the rest of the year despite occasional flashes of potential.
There are obviously plenty of questions to be answered in the coming months. At Rutgers, start with these three for now.
1. Can the Scarlet Knights chip away at the gap?
Obviously the sustained losing is a problem. But the bigger issue right now at Rutgers is probably just how massive the margin is between Ash’s program and the league's elite. This isn’t a new development for the Scarlet Knights since they joined the Big Ten, but blowout, shutout losses like they suffered against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and even a struggling Michigan State team highlight just how much ground must be made up. All four of those teams share room in the East Division with Rutgers, and at the rate those powerhouses are recruiting and developing, the gap could grow even larger. This is a crucial class of signees for Ash and a pivotal offseason to develop some toughness.
2. Is Giovanni Rescigno the answer at quarterback?
After wading through the options, Rutgers found something of a spark when it installed Rescigno in the starting lineup to lead the offense. The junior nearly pulled off a road upset at Minnesota while throwing for three touchdowns and looking like the safest bet to guide the attack moving forward. There were still some bumps in the road, including the shutouts against Michigan State and Penn State that included 13 total completions for 88 yards, but for the most part Rescigno appeared to be somebody who could grow with the first-team reps. There’s no guarantee that Ash will continue to give all of them to Rescigno with Tylin Oden and Zach Allen still expected to be around and dual-threat commit Johnathan Lewis on the way. But stability will be key, and Rescigno now has the benefit of experience.
3. What can Jerry Kill do with the offense?
The return of the former Minnesota coach to college football sidelines and the encouraging progress with his health are positive developments, but Kill has a lot on his plate to try to get the Scarlet Knights on track again offensively. Rutgers has seemingly had a revolving door outside the offensive coordinator’s office with seven consecutive coaches lasting just a single season in that role, and even if Kill just manages to make it to second year working with Ash, that will be progress. The constant upheaval has surely played some part in the issues that have plagued the Scarlet Knights, and if Kill can provide some consistency with the playbook, the verbiage and the approach, the attack should be more dangerous almost by default.