Breaking down the Big Ten football field after the spring season

Breaking down the Big Ten football field after the spring season

1. Wisconsin

Coaching Jonathan Taylor is ... "a blast" for Paul Chryst. The almost-2,000-yard rusher is back for his sophomore season. "What you focus on is how you can help him to get better."

Taylor is taking advantage of his first spring session in Madison.

"He wants to be the best he can be and he wants to be coached," Chryst said. "He's got a great approach."

The offensive line is ... the best in the country. On paper. All five starters are back from a team that went 12-0 during the regular season and beat Miami in the Orange Bowl.

"We've got to go do it," Chryst said. "I like the group we have. We have not arrived."

Is it Chryst's best line ever?

"They've got to earn that one," he said."We'll see."

The quarterback will be ... one-time Illinois target Alex Hornibrook. He threw 25 TD passes last season. That's good. The Badgers don't want a repeat of his 15 picks.

2. Ohio State

The quarterback will be ... on everyone's mind in the state for the next four months. J.T. Barrett is finally out of eligibility, meaning Urban Meyer needs somebody new to run his offense.

The contenders are Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow and Tate Martell.

"All three are close," Meyer said. "There are times you wish you'd have one guy separate. It's certainly not because of poor performance. It's because all three want the job. Some decision are going to have to be made,"

The flaw with early recruiting is ... players can't sign until December.

"That's too long to hold someone," Meyer said. "We're being very selective. This is all new for everybody.

"Timing is going to be of the essence. If you're going to make an early decision, we'll consider an early visit."

Other than quarterback, the biggest battle is ... at safety.

Jordan Fuller has one spot nailed down, but the other is a fight between Isaiah Pryor, Jahsen Wint and Brendon White.

3. Penn State

The big spot to fill is ... tight end. Coach James Franklin likes his group at the position, but isn't ready to announce a starter.

"I think there's going to be a really good battle," Frankin said.

The quarterback will be ... Trace McSorley. With superstar Saquon Barkley off to the NFL, McSorley is the leading returning rusher. He wants to cut his interceptions (10) in half.

Education is important ... to Barkley, who has another semester of work to finish before earning his degree.

"Saquon's done a great job academically since he's been here," Franklin said. "I know he had some things on his list. He wanted to get his degree, win a national championship and he wanted to win the Heisman. Those are things that kind of quietly he had on his goal list. When he decided to leave early that was part of the conversation."

Barkley expected to be an early pick the NFL draft, which will mean millions. But he plans to return to school in the off-season.

4. Michigan

Improvement starts ... up front. The Jim Harbaugh's team is coming off a disapppointing 8-5 season, which included the Big Ten's oply bowl loss.

"I've really been pleased with the offensive line," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Run blocking is probably one of the best things we're doing right now. The pass protection is improving as well."

Michael Dwumfour is ... ready to roll. Harbaugh singled out the junior defensive tackle for his performance in the spring. He also mentioned defensive back Ambry Thomas and linebacker Josh Ross.

The Wolverines are ... getting stronger thanks to a new weight room that is up and running. "Come by and take a look at that some time," Harbaugh said. "It's magnificent." The school has also started construction on a new performance center. "I can't wait for our players to be able to use that," Harbaugh said.

The quarterback will be ... Shea Patterson. if he gets cleared to play this season by the NCAA. Patterson left Mississippi and enrolled at Michigan, where he participated in spring ball. He is arguing he was misled by Mississippi coaches about the severity of penalties facing the program.

"He's going about his business and taking care of it nicely,: Hardbaugh said. "He's controlling the things that he can control. We're treating it the same way as a coaching staff and as a team."

5. Michigan State

No worries about ... the offensive line. Though center Brian Allen will be missed, the other four starters return. And Allen's likely replacement is his brother Matt, a former News-Gazette All-Stater from Hinsdale Central.

The defensive line might be ... better. No. 2 in the nation against the run in 2017, the Spartans return three starters and a bunch of guys ready to contribute. "We've got good players up there," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. Defensive end Kenny Willekes has been a force. The former walk-on "just goes," Dantonio said. "He's a guy who looks to get better every single practice. He's a much more confident player. He's becoming a great leader as well."

The Friday opener gives ... the Spartans bonus time to prepare for a long trip the second week to Arizona State.

The quarterback will be ... Brian Lewerke. He threw 20 touchdown passes in 2017 and ran for five more. His completion percentage should go up. "He makes everybody better out there," Dantonio said.

6. Northwestern

If not on Saturday ... how about Thursday? The Wildcats open the season at Purdue on Aug. 30, two days before most of the rest of college football. "I would prefer for us moving forward that we would always play the opener on Thursday night," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It doesn't impact with recruiting. It doesn't impact with Friday night football. And it also gives us an opportunity to come in a day or two early for camp."

If a player transfers ... Fitzgerald wants to see him sit out a year.

"In 13 years, I've never blocked a transfer and I've never blocked him from going to any school," Fitzgerald said. "If a young man doesn't want to be here anymore, I would sit down with he and his family and find out what the issues are and why.

"Just because you transfer doesn't mean it's going to be better."

Fitzgerald thinks the players who transfer should be given the year back at the end of their careers, if the player graduate.

The quarterback will be ... Clayton Thorson. If he is totally recovered from a torn ACL suffered in the Music City Bowl. He is on pace to play.

7. Purdue

Running back D.J. Knox is ... a role model for the rest of the Boilermakers. "He is a guy who gives us everything he has, in every practice, on every rep," Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. "His teammates notice that. If we can get all our guys doing that it makes us a better football team. Very unselfish."

The quarterback will be ... David Blough. Didn't see that one coming after the nasty ankle injury he suffered against Illinois. But the senior came back sooner than expected and was able to participate in spring drills.

If Blough needs a break ... Purdue can always go back to Elijah Sindelar. He led the Boilermakers to three wins in their final four games, including the Foster Farms Bowl against Arizona.

8. Iowa

The linebacker competition ... remains open. Aaron Mends and Maroa-Forstyth's Jack Hockaday are among the contenders. "Aaron's doing a good job," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We'd expect that. And Jack Hockaday, the two older guys, both have been good. (Former Illini commit) Amani Jones continues to impress us."

Spring and summer recruiting is ... a work in progress. "The landscape is going to change as we go through this whole deal," Ferentz said. "We're just trying to figure out who we would want to invite for an official visit and when. Two critical questions."

Speeding up is ... a priority. "We were just really struggling last year at this time on the perimeter. Akrum (Wadley) had good speed. But basically our whole passing game, there wasn't much to it. It didn't look very attractive. We're hardly there yet, but I think we're improved from a year ago,"

The quarterback will be ... returning starter Nate Stanley, who threw 26 TD passes last season and just six interceptions.

9. Maryland

Didn't you used to play ... at Illinois? If the question is to linebacker Tre Watson, the answer is "Yes." Watson transferred at the semester break to work with the Terps during spring ball. Good move.

"Tre's been tremendous," Maryland coach D.J. Durkin said. "He's worked hard. He's put himself in a starting role. We're expecting big things from him."

The Illini will get to see their old teammate this season. They play at Maryland on Oct. 27.

We heard rumors that ... offensive coordinator Matt Canada was coming to Illinois. Instead, the former LSU coordinator moved to College Park.

"It's reallly gone well," Durkin said. "Matt Canada's done a great job installing and teaching our guys. They picked up on it well. I think everybody has bought in."

It helps that all five starters are back on the line. And the run game is led by talented Ty Johnson.

The quarterback will be ... Max Bortenschlager. Or Tyrrell Pigrome. Or Kasim Hill. Pigrome helped beat Texas before getting knocked out for the season. Same thing happened to Hill. Bortenschlager finished the season.

10. Nebraska

First-year coach Scott Frost knows ... what he has gotten himself into. He led Nebraska to its last national title during the 1997 season. The place hasn't been the same since. "We're taking the first couple steps on a long road to making Nebraska what it should be," Frost said.

The stands will be ... full for next Saturday's spring game. The excitement about Frost's return led to a quick sellout of the 90,000-seat building.

"It wasn't really a surprise to me," Frost said. "I've been watching Nebraska football since I was a little boy and watching the excitement that Nebraska fans have. There's really nothing like it."

The quarterback will be ... new. Last year's starter Tanner Lee decided to try the NFL and Patrick O'Brien is transferring. Frost wants a quarterback comfortable running his spread option offense. He has two scholarship quarterbacks on campus" Tristan Gebbia and Adrian Martinez.

11. Indiana

Indiana's schedule is ... not as easy as it seems. Yes. there are winnable nonconference games against Florida International, Virginia and Ball State. But the Hoosiers miss rebuilding Illinois and Nebraska in the Big Ten and have to play Iowa from the West. At least, no Wisconsin or Northwestern.

The Hoosiers will really miss ... receiver Simmie Cobbs, who caught 72 passes in 2017. They will need a big year from Luke Timian. Fortunately, the entire offensive line returns.

The quarterback will be ... a player very familiar to Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith. Brandon Dawkins, who played for Smith at Arizona, is joining the Hoosiers. A star with the Wildcats in 2016, he got hurt during the '17 season and played in just seven games.

"As we searched for a fit for us it begins with the kind of young man that he is and his character," Allen said. "He brings some leadership and maturity to our quarterback room."

12. Minnesota

Last season, the Gophers rowed the boat ... into the ground. Coach P,J. Fleck's motto, which was such a hit during a breakout season at Western Michigan, didn't help Minnesota much. Especially later in the year. After a 3-0 start, the Gophers went 2-7 in the Big Ten. The wins came against West also-rans Illinois and Nebraska.

The top playmakers are ... tailback Rodney Smith and receiver Tyler Johnson. They each had two touchdowns in the spring game, with Johnson making a "SportsCenter" worthy one-handed catch.

The quarterback will be ... inexperienced. Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan appears to be the guy. He threw for 272 yards and two touchdowns in Thursday's spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.

Freshman Zack Annexstad with sophomore transfer Vic Viramontes are Morgan's competition,

"They work really well collectively and I think that's big for us to see," Fleck said. "We wanted to see decisive decision-making, accuracy and development in their fundamentals."

13. Illinois

Missing players because of injuries meant ... a chance for others to shine.

"We feel like we know the team a lot better, which we wanted to do," coach Lovie Smith said.

Next up for the coaches is ... spring recruiting. The Illini are off to a good start with three commitments, including a top quarterback (Isaiah Williams) and receiver/defensive back (Marquez Beason).

The quarterback will be ... Cam Thomas for now. He is the only scholarship quarterback on campus until June. Then, four newcomers will take their shots ahead of the Sept. 1 opener against Kent State.

14. Rutgers

Chris Ash sees ... improvement on and off the field. "I really like where our football team is at right now," the third-year coach said. "I like our culture. I like our chemistry. I like our attitude and approach every single day. It's been a very, very productive off-season."

The Scarlet Knights need ... two more wins. Ash's team went from two wins to four in 2017. But they lost their last three games, all blowouts, to miss a bowl game. With 15 starters back and a friendly nonconference schedule (Texas State, Kansas, Buffalo), six wins seem doable.

The quarterback will be ... under the gun. After a dreadful 2017 season, during which Johnathan Lewis and Giovanni Rescigno combined to complete just 44 percent of their passes. an uptick is expected. They had more picks than TDs. Never a good thing.

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