Ohio State's Larry Johnson has a full library of former players at his disposal to use to convince top recruits that he can turn them from raw talent into college football’s next great defensive lineman.
Heading into his 22nd straight season coaching defensive linemen in the Big Ten, Johnson has produced six first-round draft picks (including Courtney Brown being the No. 1 overall selection in 2000), seven first-team All-Americans and more Big Ten defensive players of the year than any other coach in the past quarter century. His current roster in Columbus is full of players who could join at least one of those lists.
He can walk into a living room or a high school, sit down across from some freakishly large and athletic 18-year-old and say, ‘Hey, kid, how would you like to be the next Tamba Hali? Or Joey Bosa? Or Tyquan Lewis?’ It seems like a slam-dunk sales pitch, and Johnson says there’s no chance he would ever use it.
“I’m never going to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t want two of the same guy.”
Johnson has built one of the country’s scariest defensive fronts in the four years since he left Penn State to join Urban Meyer in Columbus. The Buckeyes’ line is big, athletic and overflowing with potential star power. It may be the most important piece to what Ohio State is hoping will be another run at a national championship in 2017. And while much of the talk heading into the fall will be about the remarkable depth stockpiled in that section of the depth chart, Johnson says what sets this group apart is its diversity.
Stockpiling is a scoffed-at term in the recruiting offices in Columbus. Why, Johnson asks, fill the roster with three carbon copies of a great athlete waiting for their turn to fill in for the starter when you can find three different athletes who all have unique skills that he can use now?
“Depth helps,” he said. “You want to have the depth to play a lot of guys, but the most important thing is getting a lot of different pieces and getting them all to fit together to take advantage of their skill set.”
The need for diversity on the defensive line started to become more pressing a little more than a decade ago, around the time that Johnson was helping Hali terrorize quarterbacks in State College. At that time, the goal for most defensive line coaches was to find one dominant pass rusher and set him up to do as much damage as possible. Johnson noticed offenses were evolving to find more sophisticated ways to eliminate that one talented player. He needed more weapons in the arsenal to respond to double-teams, chip blocks and quicker three-step drops.
Ohio State’s current line was put together with that in mind. Everyone brings something a little bit different to the equation. Returning Big Ten defensive player of the year Tyquan Lewis is “a horse” and as good on a run-stopper as Johnson has seen, he says. Fellow defensive end Sam Hubbard can keep quarterbacks guessing by dropping into coverage or rushing the passer with equal efficiency. Jalyn Holmes is a “wild card” at 270 pounds who can power his way past offensive linemen at several different positions. The list goes on.
Instead of collecting talent by selling them the idea of taking over for one of his current All-Americans, Johnson said that he recruited his players by identifying a specific strength and showing them how he would develop it further. That approached has landed the Buckeyes at least one five-star defensive line recruit in each of the past two years. Two more -- Taron Vincent and Brenton Cox -- are expected to sign with the 2018 recruiting class.
Once they arrive on campus, construction continues by getting the best athletes as close to the ball as their size will allow. Johnson wants as much natural speed as he can get without sacrificing the player’s ability to hold his own physically. So a 270-pound, highly touted defensive end prospect like Dre'Mont Jones quickly becomes a 295-pound defensive tackle so he can slide down a couple feet closer to the snap. Jones, a redshirt sophomore, is now the Buckeye’s likely starter at the three-technique spot that Johnson thinks is the most important piece in a dominant, modern-day pass rush.
“That’s the guy that’s going to get most of the one-on-one matchups,” he said. “That guy has to be a dynamite pass rusher.”
Jones’ competition for reps at that spot comes from Jashon Cornell and Malik Barrow, who both have added 20 pounds since arriving in Columbus. Cornell also started his career as a defensive end prospect, and Barrow was an explosive defensive tackle out of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Of course, there is a fine balance between bulking up your athletes to move them closer to the ball and packing on so much weight that it negates their athleticism. Johnson said his players all have body fat targets and jump on a scale for weigh-ins with strength coach Mickey Marotti every day to make sure they’re toeing that line without stepping past it.
Moving players into different spots keeps a crowded defensive line room happy by giving them all a role, Johnson said. It also keeps them fresh. Lewis managed to earn his Big Ten lineman of the year accolades by racking up eight sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss despite (or perhaps because of) playing only 42-45 snaps per game.
Ohio State’s coaching staff has found creative ways to keep their stars fresh and to get their increasingly deep and diverse group of talents onto the field. Last season they assembled a pass rush package that featured four defensive ends across the line of scrimmage. This year they’re looking for ways to add a fifth.
Good luck to the coaching staffs scheming to stop them. Johnson said that in his two-plus decades of coaching, he’s never had a defensive line with such a wide variety of athletic abilities. All five of them will be talented. And, more importantly, all five of them will be different.
CHICAGO -- It's the Big Ten's turn at the mic. All 14 of the league's teams will be descending on the Windy City to fill up the last vestiges of the offseason with some hot air.
Practice will return a week from Monday. Before then, there are plenty of questions to ask and topics to be discussed. What are some of the more prevalent storylines that are likely to dominate the conversation in Chicago this week? We're glad you asked ...
1. Ohio State is back with a vengeance. Urban Meyer has by and large stuck to the life-balance promises he made to his family when he returned to Ohio and to coaching six years ago. After suffering the most embarrassing loss of his career (a 31-0 shutout to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal), will some of the uber-intense, blood-pressure-raising edge that helped him become one of the sport's top coaches start to return?
The Buckeyes' offense has certainly made clear its plans to ratchet up the intensity. Ohio State hired former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as its offensive coordinator to help upgrade an attack that had trouble pushing deep downfield at times in 2016. Meyer has promised to fix the passing game this offseason. If Ohio State can make a jump there, and its loaded defensive front can live up to the billing, it will continue to receive in the coming days another run at a national championship is possible.
2. Who is No. 2? By all accounts Ohio State is the prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten this year after falling short in 2016. There are several teams nipping at the Buckeyes' heels. It's not clear which one will step up as the biggest challenger.
Wisconsin returns a strong defense and -- due to its schedule and its division -- probably has as good a shot as almost any team in the nation to play in a conference title game this year. Penn State's offense should be one of the most exciting on-field products in the country this season. After beating Ohio State last year, the Nittany Lions have to go to Columbus to try to knock off the Buckeyes. Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh are loaded with young talent but void of experience. All three have flaws, which will raise questions about whether the Big Ten, like the SEC, is a one-team league. Yes, we see that steam coming from your ears, State College.
3. Where are the stars? The Big Ten has three bona fide Heisman hopefuls this season: Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and J.T. Barrett. None of them will be in Chicago this week. Penn State brings only seniors and Ohio State said Barrett attended last year so the Buckeyes picked three different players from their stacked roster.
This isn't intended as a knock on the very talented players who will be there promoting their league and their teammates. It should be, though, a little disappointing for the fans. It also plays into the Big Ten's reputation as a conference that is conservative at times to its own detriment. The star power this year will have to come from head coaches such as Meyer, Harbaugh and James Franklin. Luckily, there is plenty of that to go around.
4. Some excitement in the country's most boring division. Speaking of coaching stars, there will be plenty of discussion this week surrounding coaching newcomers Jeff Brohm (at Purdue) and P.J. Fleck (at Minnesota). Brohm's high-powered offense and Fleck's high-powered personality add some spice to a West Division that is otherwise a strictly steak-and-potatoes type of group. Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern are all at their best when playing quiet, consistent defense and avoiding flash. Two of those coaches (Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald) will have combined for 29 appearances at Big Ten media days. Brohm and Fleck, though, should provide some interesting new fat to chew.
5. Culture rebuilds abound in the wake of off-field issues. There are at least four teams in the Big Ten in different stages of trying to regain their footing after non-football issues shook their programs on a foundational level.
Penn State's breakout year in 2016 helped the team and the town regain a sense of normalcy five years after news first broke about the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Minnesota and Indiana are both introducing new coaches this year due to non-football-performance issues. Michigan State is still in the throes of a string of sexual assault allegations, locker room problems and police run-ins in the past year that accompanied a nosedive in the Big Ten standings. Expect all four of those teams to answer questions about how the environment around their program has changed or how they plan to change it. Let's just hope all involved can keep from calling these serious issues "distractions" from football.
It doesn't matter if it's homecoming.
It doesn't matter if it's Senior Day.
Schools can forget about asking for those extra five or 10 minutes to make a special announcement during halftime this season.
With the length of games steadily rising -- the FBS averaged 3 hours, 24 minutes last season -- pomp and circumstance must fit into the allotted time slot from now on, with no exceptions.
"Halftime across the board in all regular-season games will be 20 minutes," Big 12 coordinator of officials Walt Anderson said. "Period. End of story."
That means that coaches better hustle out of their halftime TV interviews if they want to address their team for more than a few minutes before the start of the third quarter. And if they feel the walk from the field to the locker room is too long, then they might want to look into finding a better, more efficient route, Anderson said.
In February, the NCAA rules committee will take a comprehensive look at the time of games, which, according to Anderson, will include "actual game time" and the "number of plays." But for now, conferences are trying to work within the current framework to shave time off games.
Halftime is a new point of emphasis, as is the ability to get in and out of TV breaks quicker.
"Where we can hustle within the game," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said, "let's hustle within the game."
Sankey, for his part, wasn't troubled so much by the 3:24 average of games last season as he was by the 30- to 40-percent variance in time. The shortest game, he said, was 2:55 while some games lasted nearly an hour longer than that.
According to ACC commissioner John Swofford, every bit counts. Which means losing what he calls "de facto timeouts" at the start of the third quarter and holding TV partners to their pre-defined commercial time and "not another minute."
"We have a whole new generation coming up that is more constrained time-wise about what they're going to pay attention to," he said. "Baseball is going through it. I saw an article where the NBA is looking for ways to shorten their games. A pitch clock potential in baseball, which would be a significant change to the rules. So we're going to be working on that."
"We need to look ahead," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told ESPN in January. "We shouldn't wait until there's a problem."
The average length of games has gone up seven minutes during the past four seasons, and the 2016 season opener between Cal and Hawaii came in at just shy of four hours.
Everyone seems to agree that the game is healthy overall, and coaches aren't necessarily itching for change. But with more and more passing offenses leading to more and more first-down stops, there's some worry that those four-hour games could become a regular occurrence.
"People are concerned about the time," SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said. "But the question being asked by the rules committee is, 'What is the optimal time?' Nobody's really answered that question yet. Everybody knows it's creeping up."
Adjustments need to be made, Sankey said, but he and others don't want to "mess with the fabric of the game."
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who believes that 3:25 should be the goal, says that they've spoken to the NFL about the ways it has shortened games and studied Division II and III football, whose games are all below three hours.
Fulfilling the needs of TV partners and maintaining the pageantry of the game is where the balancing act comes in.
"Therein lies the art form," Bowlsby said. "That's why we're spending a lot of time listening to coaches, because nobody wants to do that."
While NFL games are much shorter than college games, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was quick to point out that the pro season is longer.
What's more, FBS teams are averaging roughly 100 more plays per season than they did a decade ago.
Stoops would welcome change, he said, so long as it's "without changing the structure of the game."
"I like the way it's played right now," he said.
But the game is changing on the field, and time is becoming a factor.
Small, strict changes are coming this season in hopes of addressing that. The question is whether they'll be enough to turn back the clock to a more reasonable hour.
ESPN reporters Andrea Adelson and Mitch Sherman contributed to this report.
With less than 10 weeks to go before football returns and your weekends disappear, it's time to do some planning. Before you begin scouring for tickets, gassing up the RV and RSVP'ing to those fall wedding invites with full regrets, let's map out the best way to see as much high-quality Big Ten football as possible this season.
We took the liberty of putting together our ultimate road trip for the 2017 season. We focused on finding the biggest and best games each week while hitting as many campuses as possible and trying to keep the travel from getting too repetitive. We started this week with September and October. Now it's time to wrap things up with November.
Week 10 (Nov. 4) -- Iowa vs. Ohio state (Iowa City, Iowa)
November begins and ends with the Buckeyes. First is a trip to Kinnick Stadium, where a loyal fan base and hard-to-predict weather can cause problems for visitors. The Hawkeyes will have a strong defensive front and a couple of talented running backs built for keeping close games interesting. If Ohio State's offense isn't cranked up to full speed after a tough game against Penn State the previous week, this could be a trap for them and a chance for Kirk Ferentz and Iowa to make a push for its own relevance in the Big Ten title hunt.
Week 11 (Nov. 11) -- Minnesota vs. Nebraska (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
We couldn't go a full season without visiting new Gophers coach P.J. Fleck to check in on his progress in Minnesota. Will his efforts to transport his unique culture from Western Michigan to a Big Ten campus find a foothold by November? Beating Nebraska at home in the cold would be a momentous push in the right direction. With Northwestern and Wisconsin to follow (and Michigan the previous week) November is no cakewalk for a team in transition, but stealing at least one or two wins out of that stretch will give Fleck and his staff something to build on.
Week 12 (Nov. 18) Wisconsin vs. Michigan (Madison, Wisconsin)
Pack your thermals for what might be the best cross-divisional meeting of the season in the second-to-last week on the schedule. These two teams feature strong defense -- Michigan's should be matured enough by late November to have its obvious talent settled into place -- and smart, steady quarterbacks. Those are both good ingredients to have when building competitive teams that can win close games. No matter who enters Camp Randall Stadium as the favorite for this game, the outcome will likely have a big impact on the league's postseason picture.
Week 13 (Nov. 25) -- Michigan vs. Ohio State (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
Thanksgiving weekend is a loaded cornucopia of worthwhile trips. It's hard to go wrong with the end-of-year Big Ten rivalry games, but it's impossible to pass on The Game. Last season's meeting went into double overtime and tipped in Ohio State's favor on a controversial fourth-down conversion. For all the tangible progress he's made in two season, Jim Harbaugh has yet to beat the Buckeyes. The only coach to ever start his Michigan career 0-3 against the school's biggest rival is Rich Rodriguez. So, though no one in maize and blue will be ready to run him out of town anytime soon, the pressure to win this year's meeting at the Big House will be significant.
With less than 10 weeks to go before football returns and your weekends disappear, it’s time to do some planning. Before you begin scouring for tickets, gassing up the RV and RSVP’ing to those fall wedding invites with full regrets, let’s map out the best way to see as much high-quality Big Ten football as possible this season.
We took the liberty of putting together our ultimate road trip for the 2017 season. We focused on finding the biggest and best games each week while hitting as many campuses as possible and trying to keep the travel from getting too repetitive. We started earlier this week with September. Now it’s on to October, with November to follow soon.
Michigan State and Michigan might not have the same luster it did the last time these two teams met in the Big House, but the two rivals usually put on a good show no matter where each falls in the standings. The Wolverines should have a distinct advantage on paper this season. Then again, they had a 99.8 percent chance of beating the Spartans last time around before a last-second punt went famously awry. Adding to the intrigue this season is the possibility this game might be a rare Michigan Stadium night kickoff. The three previous prime-time starts in Ann Arbor (two against Notre Dame and one against Penn State) have been spectacles worth remembering.
The friendly confines of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium will welcome Ohio State with open arms in mid-October. New quarterback Tanner Lee should be fully settled in for the Cornhuskers by that point. So should a young secondary for the Buckeyes. If Urban Meyer’s team can get out of Lincoln with a victory, they will get a full week off to prepare for Penn State, one of only two Big Ten programs that has defeated the Buckeyes since Meyer’s arrival.
Week 8 (Oct.21) -- Penn State vs. Michigan (State College, Pennsylvania)
Before Penn State can get to that rematch, it has its own loss to avenge. Michigan embarrassed the Nittany Lions a year ago in Ann Arbor. Injury problems and an offense that had yet to click (and certainly wasn’t going to find its groove against the stingy Michigan defense) led to a 49-10 beatdown. Penn State didn’t lose again until the Rose Bowl and James Franklin’s group could very well be unbeaten again when the Wolverines come to Beaver Stadium. The school has already announced its plans to host a “White Out” game that weekend, which creates an energy that can literally shake the turf and should be on every Big Ten fan’s bucket list.
Week 9 (Oct. 28) -- Ohio State vs. Penn State (Columbus, Ohio)
If the first eight weeks of the season play out exactly as the experts in Las Vegas expect, Penn State’s trip to Ohio State will be one of the biggest college football games of the year and could (for the second year in a row) decide who plays for a conference championship and potential playoff bid. Two of the last three meetings between these teams have provided memorable drama. In 2014, the Buckeyes needed two overtimes to beat Penn State en route to a national championship. Penn State’s blocked field goal last year may have derailed Ohio State’s chance at another playoff run.
With less than 10 weeks to go before football returns and your weekends disappear, it's time to do some planning. Before you begin scouring for tickets, gassing up the RV and RSVP'ing to those fall wedding invites with full regrets, let's map out the best way to see as much high-quality Big Ten football as possible this season.
We took the liberty of putting together our ultimate road trip for the 2017 season. We focused on finding the biggest and best games each week while hitting as many campuses as possible and trying to keep the travel from getting too repetitive. We start today with plans for September. October and November will follow later this week.
Week 1 (Aug. 31/Sept. 2) -- Multiple stops
The first weekend of college football has morphed into a four-day opening ceremony jam-packed with matchups that make the offseason feel more tolerable. So why not take advantage and start with a double dip? Indiana hosts No. 1 Ohio State on Thursday night. Former Hoosiers head coach Kevin Wilson (now the Buckeyes' offensive coordinator) will be back on familiar territory for the debut of an Ohio State offense that has promised throughout the offseason to be more explosive through the air.
After spending a day or two in beautiful Bloomington, head south to AT&T Stadium in Dallas, where Michigan opens its third season under Jim Harbaugh against Florida. Gators coach Jim McElwain also enters his third year as the head coach of a program that was in need of a rebuild. Both coaches start an important year with big questions to answer. Michigan returns fewer starts than almost any team in the country. Florida recently acquired transfer Malik Zaire to try to solve its quarterbacking woes, but the former Notre Dame player remains a bit of an unknown entity. Kicking the year off at Jerry World will set the tone and expectations for both programs.
Week 2 (Sept. 9) -- Penn State vs. Pittsburgh (State College, Pennsylvania)
A strong slate of non-conference games provides plenty of options, including Nebraska's trip to Oregon and a top-10 meeting between Oklahoma and Ohio State. We'll see a lot of the Buckeyes on the season-long road trip, though, so best to spend this weekend in Happy Valley watching the Pennsylvania rivalry between the Nittany Lions and Pitt. Last season's rekindling of this matchup lived up to its billing, with Pitt squeaking out a field goal victory before Penn State's offense fully hit its stride.
At that time, James Conner was the best-known back in Pennsylvania. Saquon Barkley has secured that title in 2017, and this game will be his first big chance to start building a resume for what might become a Heisman-contending season.
Week 3 (Sept. 16) -- BYU vs. Wisconsin (Provo, Utah)
Our last trip outside the Big Ten footprint this season comes in Utah, where Wisconsin faces its stiffest test of the non-conference schedule. Along with being a unique and worthwhile venue to check off the college football passport, BYU has won nine games in each of its past two seasons and is 2-1 against Big Ten competition during that stretch. Taking in a Badgers' game also means that our trip will provide a good look at each of the four teams from the conference that are expected to start the season in the rankings during the first three weeks.
Week 4 (Sept. 23) -- Michigan State vs. Notre Dame (East Lansing, Michigan)
Michigan State's trip to Notre Dame felt a lot different a year ago than it will when the Irish visit East Lansing in late September. Both had historically bad seasons. Head coaches Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio will be in need of a reassuring victory by this point in the season. A loss for either could send their season spiraling in a dangerous direction. This series has produced a long line of nail-biting finishes in the past decade or so. Their history alone makes it a worthwhile game to see, especially on a weekend that doesn't feature many other blockbuster matchups.
Week 5 (Sept. 30) -- Wisconsin vs. Northwestern (Madison, Wisconsin)
The longest month of the season ends with a trip to Camp Randall Stadium where Northwestern and Wisconsin will have an early battle among what could be the top two teams in the West this season. The Wildcats' backfield duo of Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson will face their toughest test of the season. Wisconsin will be coming off of a bye week with a fired-up home crowd behind it. Plus, it's always nice to enjoy one of the conference's best game-day experiences before it gets too bone-jarringly cold in Madison.
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Each year college football produces a new list of previously unheralded names and unexpected accomplishments. Not many expected Trace McSorley to rewrite the Penn State record books last year. Who expected a fullback (Khalid Hill) to lead Michigan's potent offense in touchdowns? How many casual Big Ten fans knew of Indiana tackling machine Tegray Scales even midway through the season?
The 2017 season will be no different. It's hard to say exactly where the next wave of surprises will emerge, but sifting through last year's stats and sorting out what the fall might hold provides a better picture of some of the Big Ten players who have a chance to catch our attention before the year's end. For discussion's sake, let's take a stab at some of the West Division players who could jump onto the national radar if everything breaks right for them this year. Don't be surprised if ...
Minnesota's Blake Cashman finishes with at least 10 sacks
The former walk-on linebacker may have found his scholarship in an Easter egg hunt, but he really earned it by tracking down quarterbacks last fall. Cashman had 7.5 sacks for the Gophers last year as a sophomore. With another season of experience, a maturing group around him and some serious closing speed, he has everything he needs to make a name for himself as one of the conference's most efficient pass-rushers.
Illinois' Mike Dudek leads the Big Ten in receiving
How will one of the league's least productive offenses from a year ago get better? A healthy Mike Dudek is a good start. After an eye-opening freshman season in 2014 (76 catches, 1,038 yards), Dudek missed both 2015 and 2016 with torn ACLs. If his knees hold up, Dudek might remain as one of the Big Ten's best when it comes to pulling in contested balls and getting into the end zone. As part of an Illini offense that isn't exactly swimming with options, Dudek should get plenty of opportunities to make plays. When he had those chances as a rookie, he took advantage.
Purdue's Markell Jones tops 1,750 all-purpose yards
Jones was a bright spot for the Boilermakers in his first couple seasons, and now he has a chance to be the top weapon in an attack orchestrated by coach Jeff Brohm's offensive mind. Brohm said he didn't yet have the personnel to run the type of pass-heavy offense that helped him make Western Kentucky the country's highest-scoring team a year ago. That's good news for Jones -- a compact and powerful back who has run for 1,491 yards in his first two season and shown the ability to be an effective receiver out of the backfield. The Boilermaker staff could do a whole lot with Jones' skill set if they are willing to get creative with him.
Each year college football produces a new list of previously unheralded names and unexpected accomplishments. Not many expected quarterback Trace McSorley to rewrite the Penn State record books last year. Who expected a fullback (Khalid Hill) to lead Michigan's potent offense in touchdowns? How many casual Big Ten fans knew of Indiana tackling machine Tegray Scales even midway through the season?
The 2017 season will be no different. It's hard to say exactly where the next wave of surprises will emerge, but sifting through last year's stats and sorting out what the fall might hold provides a better picture of some of the Big Ten players who have a chance to catch our attention before the year's end. For discussion's sake, let's take a stab at some of the East Division players who could jump onto the national radar if everything breaks right for them this year. Don't be surprised if ...
Indiana's Rashard Fant leads the Big Ten in interceptions
Fant got a little overlooked in the pack of very talented cornerbacks at schools like Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa last year. No one in the country, though, has more combined pass break-ups during the last two years than the Hoosiers' returning senior. Fant said his biggest focus this spring was turning all those tipped ball into turnovers. He spent time running routes with the wide receivers and working on his hands. With a front seven that should have some talented pass-rushers in its second year under Tom Allen, Fant may have a lot of chances to reap the benefits of his work on the Jugs machine.
Michigan's Devin Bush Jr. has more TFLs than Jabrill Peppers did in 2016
The explosive sophomore is one of a host of new names that will be vying for a chance to shine on Michigan's young defense. Bush showed the ability to shoot through the line of scrimmage during the Wolverines' spring game while lined up next to veteran linebacker Mike McCray. Don Brown's defense is designed to help players like Bush get into the backfield. Peppers took advantage last year with 16 tackles for loss. While it will take many hands to replace the Heisman finalists' impact, Bush could go a long way in providing big plays on defense.
Maryland's Ty Johnson leads the league in touchdowns
As a team, the Terps scored a middle-of-the-pack 44 touchdown last season and Johnson, despite his penchant for big runs, was responsible for only seven of those. That number seems too low for a guy who averaged nearly 10 yards each time he carried the ball, so it's not too much of a stretch to expect him to make progress this year. It will take 20-plus trips to the end zone to land at the top of the conference in that category in 2017. With a creative offense breaking in a new quarterback, Johnson should be able to get the opportunities he needs to at least get himself into contention with the likes of Saquon Barkley (who will have to share scoring opportunities with Penn State's passing attack) and Justin Jackson at Northwestern.
Michigan State's Trishton Jackson catches 65 passes
The Spartans are running low on experience in the passing game this fall. Jackson's five receptions as a rookie last year puts him second on the list of returning receivers behind Felton Davis. By his coaches' account, Jackson had a breakout spring while growing into a new role within the offense. Michigan State has had success in plucking go-to targets out of its ranks in the past (Tony Lippett in 2014, Aaron Burbridge in 2015). If quarterback Brian Lewerke decides that Jackson is going to be his guy, the Spartans may end up calling his number frequently to try to generate some downfield momentum on offense this season.
Somewhat surprisingly, only one receiver in the conference gained 1,000 yards through the air in 2016: Northwestern’s Austin Carr. He had 1,247 yards last season and was followed by Indiana’s Nick Westbrook, who had 995 yards, and Penn State’s Chris Godwin with 982.
With quite a few returning quarterbacks and receivers in the conference, that number could go up this season. At the same time, there are some big question marks on conference offenses.
So how many receivers will hit the 1,000-yard mark within the Big Ten this season? Let’s take a look at the possibilities.
Nick Westbrook or Simmie Cobbs, Indiana: It isn’t likely that both will gain 1,000 yards, but both have the potential. Cobbs had 1,035 receiving yards in 2015 but suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Ball State in the second game of the 2016 season. Westbrook stepped up in Cobb’s absence. Quarterback Richard Lagow is returning and the chemistry built between Lagow and Westbrook should help re-create those numbers. There are some questions as to what the production will look like without former head coach Kevin Wilson as Mike DeBord takes over as offensive coordinator.
DeAndre Thompkins, Penn State: Chris Godwin came up 18 yards short of 1,000 last season, so it isn’t out of the question to think a Penn State receiver will hit the mark this season. Although Godwin is off to the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, quarterback Trace McSorley returns, and he threw for 3,614 yards last season. Thompkins (440 yards in 2016) and Juwan Johnson (70 yards on two catches as a freshman) are two receivers with breakthrough potential. The issue for Thompkins is that Johnson, DaeSean Hamilton (506 yards in 2016) and tight end Mike Gesicki (679) are going to get their shots, too. Add in the carries that workhorse Saquon Barkley will likely have and the production could be spread out.
Flynn Nagel, Northwestern: The Wildcats were the only Big Ten team to have a receiver with 1,000 yards last season in Carr. He has graduated, leaving an opportunity for Nagel (477 yards as a sophomore in 2016). Quarterback Clayton Thorson is returning, which should help Nagel’s cause. Similar to other teams, though, the Wildcats will have other offensive weapons, including running back Justin Jackson. Carr gained 1,247 yards on 90 catches last season. Nagel had 40 receptions last season, averaging 11.18 yards per catch. If he maintains that average with 90 receptions, that would put him over 1,000. He has a shot to be targeted more and haul in enough passes to get there.
Someone at Purdue: This is a flier that's simply based on the fact new coach Jeff Brohm had so much offensive production as head coach at Western Kentucky. Brohm had Taywan Taylor gain 1,730 yards receiving, which ranked third overall for FBS receivers, and teammate Nicholas Norris had 1,318 yards. Those are some impressive numbers. Purdue has issues at receiver, though, as they must replace their top three players in receiving yards from last season. The staff brought in a few junior college prospects and transfers in Isaac Zico, Terry Wright and Corey Holmes, but it’s unclear who will step up. Quarterback David Blough is back and he threw for 3,352 yards last season, so math tells us that someone should be in the 1,000-yard mix.
On Wednesday, we offered our prediction for which Big Ten quarterbacks will throw for 3,000 yards next season. On Thursday, we are predicting the running backs who will reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season.
Nine Big Ten rushers eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2016, and quite a few of them should reach that milestone in 2017, but some new names could make the list as well.
Here is a look at the Big Ten running backs who will likely reach 1,000 yards rushing next season.
2016 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten
RB Justin Jackson, Northwestern -- 1,524
RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State -- 1,496
RB Corey Clement, Wisconsin -- 1,375
RB Rodney Smith, Minnesota -- 1,158
RB Devine Redding, Indiana -- 1,122
RB Mike Weber, Ohio State -- 1,096
RB Akrum Wadley, Iowa -- 1,081
RB LeShun Daniels, Iowa -- 1,058
RB Ty Johnson, Maryland -- 1,004
Guys who could make a run at 1,000 yards this season:
1. Justin Jackson, Northwestern: Jackson is back for Northwestern and is roughly 1,500 yards from becoming No. 2 all time in career rushing yards for the Big Ten. That would put him ahead of Ohio State’s Archie Griffin and behind Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne. Another 1,000-yard season would give Jackson four seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing. It seems likely that will happen, and Jackson could be well on his way to No. 2.
2. Saquon Barkley, Penn State: Barkley was second in the conference in rushing yards last season, just 28 yards behind Jackson, and should be near the top again next season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Barkley move past Jackson as the league's leading rusher; Penn State’s offense is in Year 2 with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who has a more experienced offensive line and returning quarterback Trace McSorley. Barkley's name is starting to pop up on the Heisman Trophy watch, so it should be an exciting season for the electric back.
3. Mike Weber, Ohio State: Weber was just behind Indiana’s Devine Redding and Minnesota’s Rodney Smith in yards last season, but Weber had 66 fewer carries than Smith and 71 less than Redding. Weber’s new offensive coordinator, Kevin Wilson, called the plays for Redding last season, so it’s easy to see why Weber’s production could be close to last season's tally, if not better. Ohio State’s offense has more playmakers than Indiana’s, but Weber still will get plenty of reps in his quest for 1,000 yards.
4. Akrum Wadley, Iowa: Wadley reached 1,000 yards last season despite sharing carries with LeShun Daniels. He won’t be sharing with Daniels next season and also has a new offensive coordinator in Brian Ferentz. Wadley will be called upon to help carry a Hawkeyes offense that will have a new starting quarterback, new receiver and tight end. The stage is set for Wadley to have an explosive season.
5. Ty Johnson, Maryland: Johnson has proved that he is the guy for Maryland after averaging 9.1 yards per carry in 2016. He rushed for 1,004 yards on 110 carries and should have more opportunities in 2017. This will be his third season, and for the most part, he will have a more experienced offensive line in front of him. Johnson was part of a crowded backfield that included Wes Brown and Kenneth Goins, but those two have graduated, giving Johnson a chance at the spotlight.
6. LJ Scott, Michigan State: Scott missed out on 1,000 yards by six yards last season. Nothing went right for the Spartans, so maybe there will be a little more consistency next season. Scott will be asked to help a struggling offense that no longer has last season's top four receivers. He will need to come up with big plays and shoulder most of the load if the Spartans are to have any success, so he'll have a good shot at 1,000 yards.
7. Bradrick Shaw, Wisconsin: The Badgers’ top two rushers in Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale have both graduated, which leaves Shaw next in line to carry the torch of outstanding running backs at Wisconsin. Given the Badgers' success at running back in recent years, it's almost a given that a Wisconsin back will run for over 1,000 yards. Quite a few players will return on offense, and Shaw will be joined by Taiwan Deal and Chris James in the backfield, so he won’t have to carry the load alone. If Shaw can take over as the lead back, he'll have plenty of opportunities to hit at least 1,000 yards.
8. Rodney Smith, Minnesota: Smith ran for 1,158 yards in 2016 and will likely have an important role for new coach P.J. Fleck. Minnesota will be breaking in a new quarterback, who will need some help. Smith and Shannon Brooks, who ran for 650 yards last season, could be a good two-headed monster in the backfield, but Smith likely will get the bulk of the carries. Fleck brought offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca with him from Western Michigan, and the Broncos almost had two 1,000-yard rushers last season: Jarvion Franklin collected 1,353 yards and Jamauri Bogan notched 923. If the Golden Gophers can get similar production from their two backs, it will be a huge boost to the offense.
9. Chris Evans, Michigan: Evans burst on the scene as a freshman last season, running for 614 yards on 88 carries. Starter De'Veon Smith has moved on, and the opportunity for Evans to get more reps will be there. He still will have plenty of competition with Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon and Kareem Walker on the roster, plus O’Maury Samuels and Kurt Taylor from the 2017 recruiting class. Evans has bulked up this offseason and focused on improving his game, so despite the number of backs on the roster, he still has a chance for 1,000 yards.