SportsPulse: Miss college football action already? Well, Trysta Krick and Paul Myerberg tell us what to look forward to next season.
The projected rivalry between Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh turned out to be a dud: Meyer and Ohio State took all four meetings against Harbaugh and Michigan, with none more embarrassing for the Wolverines than the last — the 62-39 loss in November with an Big Ten East championship at stake.
But take note of the past tense. Meyer is gone, replaced by former Ohio State offensive coordinator Ryan Day, and the rivalry enters a new phase. Harbaugh couldn’t beat Meyer’s Ohio State. Could he get the better of the Day-led Buckeyes?
It’s the biggest question in the Big Ten heading into the heart of the spring football.
A quick trip around the league finds other intriguing story lines at play, including the parity found in the West and the jumbled mix of top-of-the-line contenders in the East.
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Illinois: The search for optimism
You might need a stronger pair of glasses. But here’s one reason to be bullish: Illinois signed a small recruiting class this December and February, true, but among the group were a handful of elite signings — defensive back Marquez Beason and quarterback Isaiah Williams, to name two. They won’t arrive until the summer, but the coming influx of talent is one of Illinois’ prime spring themes.
Indiana: A new offensive coordinator
Indiana’s going to have some issues to address on defense, beginning with a line that may end up being overly reliant on freshmen. The hope is that an offense now led by former Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer picks up the slack. He starts his first spring with the Hoosiers after two unexpectedly successful seasons alongside Jeff Tedford at Fresno State and brings along a reputation for quick results.
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Iowa: What’s going to happen at tight end?
Technically, the Hawkeyes are set to shift from the tandem of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson to the duo of Shaun Beyer and senior Nate Wieting. Despite the program’s track record at the position, a decline in production is to be expected. What we’ll begin to see this spring is if Iowa begins to tinker with pass-game formations that tend more toward multiple-receiver sets rather than leaning on its new tight ends.
Maryland: Excitement meets reality
New coach Mike Locksley has already brought new talent into Maryland and will undoubtedly bring more, which should cause some concern for those programs inside and out of the Big Ten recently accustomed to raiding the program’s recruiting backyard. This spring will provide the first dose of reality: Maryland’s a work in progress as it transitions to a new staff.
Michigan: Is this a playoff contender?
The short answer: yes. Whether the Wolverines are a championship contender is a more difficult question to tackle. A positive sign worth watching this spring is the continued development of quarterback Shea Patterson, and whether another offseason will yield not just a stronger performance but show more willingness from Jim Harbaugh and the new faces on his offensive staff to let the five-star talent take on an even greater role within the system.
Michigan State: Tracking Lewerke’s health
Michigan State’s offseason coaching shakeup on the offensive side will be fairly meaningless if senior Brian Lewerke isn’t able to rediscover his sophomore form following last season’s shoulder injury. He’s the player to watch this spring: Michigan State’s defense is ready, so Lewerke is the key to whether or not the Spartans can be a New Year’s Six bowl factor.
Minnesota: There’s a real QB competition
Minnesota exceeded expectations in 2018 while shuffling between two quarterbacks, Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, with Morgan posting a 4-2 record after replacing an injured Annexstad in October. This spring marks the start of what may be an offseason-long competition. Morgan has two factors in his favor: one, his play down the stretch, and two, a statistical edge in completion percentage and efficiency rating from a season ago.
Nebraska: Is this the top Heisman contender?
Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez is a Big Ten skill player set to develop into a national figure in 2019. Martinez was electric as a true freshman despite a nagging knee injury, even if his play went largely unnoticed amid the Cornhuskers’ 4-8 debut under Scott Frost. If Nebraska doubles that win total in 2019 — if not even a bit more — Martinez will be on the periphery of the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Northwestern: Hunter Johnson’s turn begins
Northwestern is expected to go from multiple-year starter Clayton Thorson to Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, a former five-star recruit who got lost in the Tigers’ logjam of depth and talent under center. While he’s been with the team since last year, this spring marks the first real look at how Johnson could fare as the Wildcats’ starter.
Ohio State: What changes will Day make?
Few first-time coaches have ever inherited a better on-field situation — Ryan Day takes over a team fresh off successive Big Ten titles and a Rose Bowl win. What’s fascinating to consider is what changes he could install as the Buckeyes’ head coach, especially on offense. There will be at least one new look: Georgia transfer Justin Fields will step in for NFL-bound Dwayne Haskins.
Penn State: The backfield changes, again
Trace McSorley will be eventually replaced by Tommy Stevens, though the fifth-year senior will be limited during the spring after an offseason surgery. The spring will help settle a crowded competition at running back, with as many as four contenders — Ricky Slade (257 yards in 2018), Journey Brown, Notre Dame transfer C.J. Holmes and true freshman Noah Cain, an early enrollee — battling to replace Miles Sanders.
Purdue: Rondale Moore’s next step
The nation’s top freshman in 2018 will begin his sophomore campaign as a primary topic of conversation for Big Ten defensive coordinators. While coach Jeff Brohm will scheme to get the ball into Moore’s hands, Purdue needs to round out a supporting cast capable of taking advantage paid in Moore’s direction. One name to remember is senior tight end Brycen Hopkins, who made 34 receptions for 583 yards a year ago.
Rutgers: Another search for optimism
The annual Big Ten punching bag takes another run at respectability. One thread to monitor this spring is the availability of Boston College transfer Johnny Langan, who if eligible would immediately become an option at quarterback alongside returning starter Artur Sitkowski. Rutgers could use the competition
Wisconsin: True freshman QB may take over
Alex Hornibrook is gone after three years as the Badgers’ starter, potentially paving the way for incoming recruit Graham Mertz to buck program tradition and grab the starting role as a true freshman. While fairly unprecedented, Mertz starting at some point his year wouldn’t be ridiculous — he’s a special talent at a place that maximizes quarterback play.