Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats
The Big Ten may not break its lengthy drought of sending a quarterback into the first round of the NFL draft with this year’s crop, but that doesn’t mean there’s any lack of talent at the position. Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts.
This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. We start the week with a review of the best quarterback depth charts in the conference heading into 2017.
Best of the best: Ohio State returns the most productive quarterback in program history to operate an offense that promises to let him unleash some deeper throws this year. J.T. Barrett has accounted for exactly 100 touchdowns heading into his senior season. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who previously had to stop Barrett when the Buckeyes played Indiana, said he thought the veteran leader made good strides on hitting longer throws in spring practice.
Barrett is a candidate to be the conference’s top player next season, but it’s Ohio State’s depth at quarterback that nudges them ahead of others to the top of this list. Backups Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins both have the skills to be starters. They threw three touchdown passes each in the spring game in Columbus, setting up what could be the most entertaining backup quarterback battle in college football this year.
Next in line: Penn State and Michigan both deserve mention here. Trace McSorley finished out his first year as a full-time starter with 12 touchdown passes in three games, including a conference title win and a trip to the Rose Bowl. He should have the weapons around him for another record-setting year in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions’ coaching staff also seemed pleased with the level of competition redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens provided as McSorley’s understudy.
The situation isn’t much different in Ann Arbor. Wilton Speight remains the starter after helping lead Michigan and its offense to another 10-win season in 2016. Speight separated himself as the leader of a team that has a lot of pieces to replace next fall and a calm, confident presence on the field. He may not be the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, though. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters showed he has both strength and touch during the spring season.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. The third-year starter made a significant jump forward between his first and second seasons leading the offense. If he can continue his upward trajectory again in 2017, the Wildcats will have as good a chance as any team to unseat Wisconsin as the West Division champions. Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also showed he has the potential to make plays with his feet, although he took off less often a year ago than during his rookie season. Top target Austin Carr is gone, but Thorson should get some help in replacing him from Oregon transfer Jalen Brown and the rest of a maturing receiver group.
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.
"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.
If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.
The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.
The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.
J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.
Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.
"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."
Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.
"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."
Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.
"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.
Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."
That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:
Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.
Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.
Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.
Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.
"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."
Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.
Northwestern had an up-and-down season in 2016, losing its first two games to Western Michigan and Illinois State but rebounding to make -- and win -- a bowl game.
The Wildcats dropped off the national radar in some respects after that tough start, which obscured a really big development. That is, the actual development of quarterback Clayton Thorson.
As a redshirt freshman starter, Thorson helped lead the team to 10 wins, but he wasn't asked to do much more than manage the game. As a sophomore, Thorson showed vast improvement in virtually all areas. He more than doubled his passing yards, to 3,182, while throwing 22 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. In Big Ten games, he completed 60.9 percent of his passes with a 17 touchdowns and just six intereceptions.
Thorson has quietly turned into one of the top quarterbacks in the league and one of the more promising young signal-callers in the country. Continuing in our series looking at the to-do list for the Big Ten's top individual returners and some of their key statistics, let's see what Thorson should be working on this spring:
1. Avoiding the rush: This is by no means all on him, but Thorson was sacked 38 times last year, which ranked 118th among FBS quarterbacks. He also fumbled five times while being sacked and completed just 33.6 percent of his throws versus pressure. Of course, the offensive line has to do a better job against the pass rush, and receivers and running backs have to pick up their blocks. Still, as Thorson matures, he should continue to get a better feel for where the pressure is coming from, find safety valves and throw the ball away rather than take a sack when possible.
2. Pick spots in the running game: As long as Justin Jackson is still around, Northwestern won't have to rely on Thorson running the ball. He turned into a very good pocket passer and deep-ball deliverer last year. Yet Thorson has good wheels and showed that off with some big runs as a redshirt freshman, when he had 397 rushing yards. That dipped to just 98 total rushing yards last season, a figure hurt by all of sacks. The Wildcats don't want him to get hurt while running, but the judicious use of scrambles could add an extra layer to the offense.
3. Develop chemistry with new receivers: Much of Thorson's growth was tied into the unexpected star turn by Austin Carr last season. The senior receiver came out of nowhere to become a Biletnikoff Award finalist with 90 catches for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns. Carr had an uncanny ability to get open despite defenses geared to stop him, and Thorson completed 68.2 percent of his targets to Carr. But with Carr and second-leading receiver Andrew Scanlan both graduated, that's 42.5 percent of Thorson's 2016 completions gone. This offseason is a key time for Thorson to develop chemistry with guys such as Flynn Nagel, Garrett Dickerson and Oregon transfer Jalen Brown, much like he did last spring and summer with Carr.
Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.
It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.
The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.
Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.
Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.
The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.
You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.
The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.
Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.
Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.
Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?
There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.
Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.
The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.
That's all well and good, but who would have guessed at this time a year ago that Penn State would win the league championship in 2016? Maybe there will be another sleeper team that rises up and surprises everyone this fall.
With that in mind, here are reasons why some teams outside of our list of four contenders could win the Big Ten title this year.
It was just two seasons ago that the Hawkeyes were 12-0 in the regular season and finished a yard short of winning the Big Ten championship game. They return a solid nucleus and solid leaders on both sides of the ball in linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz should reshape the offense into one that plays to its strengths. Iowa will have a first-year starting quarterback, Nathan Stanley, but as head coach Kirk Ferentz pointed out, first-year starters like C.J. Beathard and Ricky Stanzi fared pretty well in the past.
Hey, the Cornhuskers have to win another conference title sooner or later, right? Their three most likely challengers in the West Division -- Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern -- all have to come to Lincoln this season. Mike Riley has had some time to bring in his kind of players, including at quarterback. Nebraska should be as talented as any team in the West, and if it can just find a way to get over the hump in its biggest games, a trip to Indianapolis is certainly within reach.
OK, so things seem to be kind of a mess in East Lansing right now. But let's not forget this is a program that has won two of the past four Big Ten championships. It's going to be some seriously tough sledding in the East Division, but the Spartans have surprised us before. Of course, it would be nice if we even knew who was on the team right now or whether Mark Dantonio will speak publicly before the season starts.
Plenty of experience is back on offense, led by last year's Big Ten rushing champ, Justin Jackson, and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern won 10 games two years ago and had some nice wins last season at Iowa and over Pitt in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The Wildcats' 2017 Big Ten opener is at Wisconsin. If they can find a way to pull off that upset, they could find themselves in the thick of the division race.
Row the dang boat. The Golden Gophers have come close the past couple years, and maybe first-year head coach P.J. Fleck's enthusiasm and new offense will help push them past the finish line. The roster has some holes, but the schedule is manageable early. It's not unthinkable that Minnesota could be 7-0 heading into the Floyd game in Iowa City. Crazier things have happened ... just look at last year.
Spring practice is underway at most Big Ten schools. We're still waiting for Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers to get started, while Illinois is already done. One of the best things about spring practice is identifying breakout players for the following season. Our crew of Big Ten writers offer their picks for breakouts this spring:
Jesse Temple: Wisconsin LB Garret Dooley
Wisconsin will be loaded again on defense in 2017, but the biggest question centers on how the Badgers can replace the production of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Those two combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Dooley made a big leap as a redshirt sophomore last season. He went from making three tackles in 2015 to 40 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also earned his first two career starts replacing an injured Biegel at midseason.
Wisconsin has produced two All-Americans at outside linebacker the past two seasons with Joe Schobert and Watt. Dooley has a long way to go to reach that lofty status, but his predecessors have shown what is possible playing the position at Wisconsin.
Dan Murphy: Murphy: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
The Cornhuskers are going to need a new go-to target in the passing came now that Jordan Westerkamp is gone, and Morgan seems to be stepping up among a very young receiver corps in that role so far this spring. Coaches say the rising junior has hit the new stage of taking a more professional approach that many players reach when they're ready to blossom as newly minted upperclassmen.
Morgan's numbers in the weight room have increased and he has looked a step faster in running his routes so far in practice, they say. The New Orleans native had 33 catches and two touchdowns last year. Those numbers could jump significantly in 2017 with Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El leading a group of talented, but raw younger players in the passing game.
Austin Ward: Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor
The Buckeyes have been searching for a replacement for Devin Smith since he left after the national title two years ago, trying to find somebody capable of causing fits of panic for defensive backs worried about matching the speed of a consistent, dangerous deep threat. Midway through last year, Urban Meyer sounded like he was on the brink of unleashing one with 6-foot-4 size to go with athleticism to burn, but Victor apparently wasn’t quite ready yet as a true freshman.
He finished with just four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, though one was the longest reception of the shutout loss to Clemson in a game where he also flashed explosive potential on a route that earned a pass interference penalty. For an offense looking to expand its passing game, Victor figures to be in the spotlight this spring.
I'll cheat a bit by going with one team that's well into spring ball (Northwestern) and another that has already wrapped up (Illinois finished its drills last week). But, hey, performances are better than predictions, right?
Nagel will be counted on to fill an enormous void left by Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr. Nagel had 40 catches for 447 yards last year and is stepping into Carr's No. 1 receiver role this spring. The 5-foot-11 junior probably isn't going to replicate Carr's numbers, but if he can continue to build chemistry with Clayton Thorson, he'll be an important target out of the slot.
Crawford is a fifth-year senior -- not a designation you usually see in breakout-type lists. But he is making a key position change, from linebacker down to the rush-end spot. That's the same position that Carroll Phillips played last year en route to nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. The Illini are replacing most of their defensive line, and Crawford showed good pass-rushing ability this spring.
It's March, and it's championship week, so basketball and brackets have taken over the sports world.
That also has us thinking about which Big Ten basketball players might be able to make the transition to football. It's not unheard of. All-Pro tight ends Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez each played college basketball. Late last month, LSU power forward Brian Bridgewater said he'd like to join the Tigers football team in the fall.
With that in mind, here's a starting five and a sixth man from the world of Big Ten basketball hoops who would be fun to see on the gridiron:
Purdue's Caleb Swanigan: The Big Ten's no-doubt player of the year and Wooden Award candidate is a beast in the paint and likely would be in the trenches, too. He's listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds after dropping more than 100 pounds since eighth grade. Think Jeff Brohm would like to see the man they call "Biggie" at left tackle or perhaps stuffing runs as a nose guard?
Iowa's Ahmad Wagner: The 6-foot-7 sophomore had interest from Big Ten schools as a football player out of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. He even received a football scholarship offer from Kentucky after hauling in 58 catches for 1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He played with Wisconsin reserve guard D'Mitrik Trice, who was a star quarterback at Wayne.
Michigan State's Miles Bridges: If anybody could make a Gates/Gonzalez-type transition to tight end, it might well be Bridges. With great footwork and balance for a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, Bridges would be a nightmare for opposing defenders to cover. And since Tom Izzo is known to use football pads in practice, maybe the new sport wouldn't seem so unfamiliar for the Spartans freshman.
Maryland's Melo Trimble: At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Trimble could make an interesting wide receiver for D.J. Durkin's squad. Or maybe a safety. Doesn't really matter what position he plays. Trimble is a gamer who's unafraid of big moments, which is why he'd likely succeed in football as well.
Indiana's OG Anunoby: He's currently out with a torn ACL, but the Hoosiers' 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most explosive players in college basketball when healthy. Can't you just see him rushing the passer as a terrifying defensive end? It's not that outlandish, given the bloodlines. Anunoby's older brother, Chigbo, is a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns.
Northwestern's Nathan Taphorn: Hey, if he can make that perfect 90-foot pass for the game-winning layup against Michigan, then maybe the 6-foot-7 Taphorn could be a backup to Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. Even Thorson had difficulty recreating Taphorn's throw.
Virtually all conventional wisdom suggested that Northwestern running back Justin Jackson should have declared for the NFL draft after his junior season.
Jackson finished 2016 as the leading rusher in the Big Ten, completing his third straight 1,000-yard campaign. He put an exclamation point on the year with a 224-yard, three-touchdown performance in a New Era Pinstripe Bowl victory over Pitt. Given the short shelf life for running backs at the next level, Jackson's heavy college workload pointed toward an early exit.
Instead, he's back in Evanston this spring, going through workouts with the Wildcats and preparing for his senior season. Jackson gave so little consideration to entering the draft that he didn't even submit paperwork to the NFL's college advisory committee.
"I felt like it was in my best interests to come back and fine-tune my skills," he said. "Plus, I've put so much work into this whole school thing, I figured I might as well finish it out."
Jackson will earn his Northwestern degree sometime in the next year. And he could wind up with some truly impressive achievements on the field.
He needs just 357 yards to eclipse Damien Anderson's school record for career rushing yards (4,485). Another 1,000-yard season would give him more than 5,000 yards for his career, something only five Big Ten players have ever accomplished.
In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, only eight players in FBS history have ever recorded four straight 1,000-yard seasons. The list includes luminaries such as Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Pitt's Tony Dorsett and Texas' Cedric Benson. The last player to do it was Southern Miss' Damion Fletcher, from 2006-09.
"Those things would mean a lot," Jackson said of the possible milestones. "Most of all, I like to think it means I’ve done everything I possibly could, that I've given everything I possibly could for this program."
That's certainly true from a physical standpoint.
Jackson's 298 carries last year were sixth-most in the FBS, and that actually represented a lighter workload than the previous season. His 855 rushing attempts the past three seasons are second to only San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey (934) and are the most of any returning player in the FBS. The next closest player? Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, who has taken 739 handoffs the past three years.
That's a lot of pounding and a lot of hits absorbed by Jackson's body. But he never complains or sees that as a reason why he should have left school.
"I know some people might think that," he said. "But, honestly, the way I look at it is I’m here now, and I'm going to do everything in the moment. This team and this program has done so much for me, so I give everything I can to them.
"I have no idea how NFL scouts think. But hopefully they'll look at my production and the fact that I haven’t missed any games, and I hope that can be a plus."
But Jackson also understands that NFL careers can be painfully brief, especially for running backs. He saw what happened last year to friend and former teammate Matthew Harris, a talented defensive back who had to retire from football because of concussions.
Jackson's family has always stressed the need to have a backup plan. That's why he's determined to get his degree in economics while adding two related minors. He's interning this spring at TSMGI, a marketing firm in the Chicago area.
He's also continuing to get better as a player. Last year, Jackson set career highs in total yards (1,524), yards per carry (5.1), receptions (35) and touchdowns (15), equaling his total from his first two seasons combined). There's even more room to improve.
"He’s got a lot to work on to continue to be a complete back," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Route running, catching the ball, still continuing to become a great blocker in protection. All those things when you're not getting the handoff."
Jackson is coaching up the young running backs and mostly taking mental reps this spring, as there's little need for him to do much contact work. But he said there are still moments on film when he watches himself and asks, "What was I doing there?" His goal this season is to be closer to perfect on every play.
That's a big goal. Yet for someone who's already accomplished so much, it might be the final frontier.
"He has a great opportunity here in his senior year to rewrite a lot of records that have been held by some special players," Fitzgerald said.
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.
We knew Michigan was loaded with senior talent last year. The NFL knew it, too.
The Wolverines lead all schools with 14 players invited to this year's NFL combine, the annual prodding and poking of draft hopefuls. The Michigan contingent includes Jabrill Peppers, who declared early, and 13 seniors from last year's Orange Bowl runners-up.
Ohio State was second in the Big Ten with eight invitees, six of whom were underclassmen. Purdue and Rutgers were the only Big Ten schools without a representative.
Here's the full list of all 51 Big Ten players invited to the event, which will be held Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis:
OG Dan Feeney
DB Desmond King
OG Ben Braden
TE Jake Butt
WR Jehu Chesson
DB Jeremy Clark
WR Amara Darboh
LB Ben Gedeon
DT Ryan Glasgow
CB Jalen Myrick
WR Noah Brown
WR Chris Godwin
LB Vince Biegel
OT Ryan Ramczyk
LB T.J. Watt
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 the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.
Must-win game: Minnesota, Nov. 18.
Northwestern has lost to the Golden Gophers in three of the past four seasons. The lone win in that time came in 2015, when the Wildcats won 10 games. It's not a one-to-one correspondence, of course; beating Minnesota won't guarantee a huge season for Pat Fitzgerald's team. But it is true that both the Gophers and Wildcats occupy some of the same space in the Big Ten West as teams good enough to contend if everything goes right. With P.J. Fleck's inexperienced club coming into Ryan Field, Northwestern needs to defend its home turf. Of course, we know what happened when Fleck brought Western Michigan into Evanston last September.
Trap game: at Maryland, Oct. 13
Perhaps the Terrapins will be good enough for this not to qualify as a trap game, if D.J. Durkin's team can build on last season's bowl bid and a successful recruiting effort. Yet Northwestern has had more recent success than Maryland and should be expected to win this crossover game. Here's the issue: The Wildcats' previous two games will be the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin and a visit from Penn State. Those will be physical, hyped-up games, and matching that intensity on the road in College Park might prove a bit difficult for the guys in purple.
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? 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 because it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.
Wrapping up on the defensive side of the ball, the defensive backs are next.
Best of the best: Northwestern and Nebraska
The Nebraska coaching staff has undergone some changes this offseason, and pitching the opportunity to work with a staggering amount of experienced talent in the secondary was surely appealing when Mike Riley went out looking for new defensive assistants. With Kieron Williams, Aaron Williams and Chris Jones combining for 11 interceptions last season and Joshua Kalu in the fold as well, the Huskers have depth and stability in the secondary that few teams can match -- even with Nathan Gerry no longer in the program.
The Wildcats aren’t far behind thanks to Godwin Igwebuike ’s decision to return for another season, spurning the NFL draft to try to boost his stock after racking up 108 tackles with a pair of interceptions last year. Northwestern also heads into the offseason with an established unit of defensive backs, with Kyle Queiro returning at safety, Montre Hartage coming off a five-interception campaign and Trae Williams rounding out the group.
Runners-up: Indiana and Ohio State
The Hoosiers certainly haven’t been known for their defense during the last few years, but they’ve done a much better job addressing that side of the ball on the recruiting trail recently and it’s paying dividends with the personnel on hand for new head coach Tom Allen. Rashard Fant ’s decision to stick around for another year after leading the Big Ten in passes defended was a huge bonus for Indiana, and the Hoosiers will have four defensive backs who defended at least 10 passes last season back this fall.
The Buckeyes are something of a gamble here because safety Damon Webb and cornerback Denzel Ward are the only two returners with starting experience. But the banner recruiting classes in the secondary and the uncanny ability Ohio State has shown over the last few years to simply reload after losing multiple players early to the draft makes it a relatively safe bet to include them among the league’s best without even knowing who will round out the lineup. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs have no shortage of former four-star and five-star recruits to choose from, and by the end of the year, Ohio State could easily find itself back on top of the Big Ten.
Team that could surprise: Wisconsin
The Badgers have a pair of solid building blocks to work with in the back end, with cornerback Derrick Tindal and safety D'Cota Dixon giving new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard a nice head start. But there’s work to be done with veterans Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton no longer around after strong senior seasons, though Lubern Figaro has started 11 games during his career and could help the Badgers again emerge as one of the league’s best units.
Teams that need to step up: Michigan State and Rutgers
Given the track records of the two coaches, last season will easily qualify as unacceptable in the eyes of Mark Dantonio and Chris Ash. For Dantonio, the Spartans' struggles might have come as a surprise, but there’s no shame in a transition year after the wildly successful seasons that came before it. Dantonio should be able to get Michigan State back on track and improve on a defense that ranked 12th in the league in pass-efficiency defense and had eight interceptions.
The Scarlet Knights are facing a more difficult rebuild under Ash, and while his team allowed just 187 yards per game through the air, that’s thanks in large part to being on the wrong end of blowouts last season. Rutgers finished No. 13 in the league in pass-efficiency defense and also finished with just eight interceptions, leaving plenty of room for improvement.
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.
It's ridiculously early, so things can change between now and the start of the season. Let's take a look at where things stand for our next position group, the defensive line.
Best of the best: Ohio State
The Buckeyes were hit hard again by early NFL decisions on defense, but not up front.
The returning nucleus is stellar. It includes 2016 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Tyquan Lewis, who had 7.5 sacks last season; junior defensive end Sam Hubbard, a physical freak; Nick Bosa, who had five sacks as a true freshman; Dre'Mont Jones, who made our All-Big Ten freshman team at defensive tackle; veterans Jalyn Holmes, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill; and promising sophomore Robert Landers. That doesn't include any incoming recruits like Chase Young.
The biggest question for defensive line coach Larry Johnson will be how to get all those guys playing time, especially a young rising star like Bosa. The Buckeyes might lack a truly dominant inside tackle right now, but the depth and skill on hand is otherwise the envy of the league.
Runners-up: Wisconsin and Michigan
Despite fielding some of the best defenses in the country the past few seasons, Badgers defensive linemen rarely get accolades. That's due in large part to the 3-4 system that allows linebackers to make a ton of plays, while the guys up front do most of the dirty work without big numbers. But it would be silly to ignore their contributions, and here's the great news for first-year Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard: all three starting defensive linemen -- Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih -- are back. Top reserves Olive Sagapolu and Billy Hirschfeld also return, making this a very experienced group.
The Wolverines lose a lot of talent off their front four, including Taco Charlton, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley. But we're still pretty bullish about their chances in 2017. Returning veterans include Maurice Hurst, Chase Winovich and Bryan Mone. The biggest reason for optimism, though, is the full unleashing of Rashan Gary, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2016 class who got his feet wet as a true freshman. Add in the arrival of heralded recruit Aubrey Solomon, and this line can rival just about anybody in the Big Ten in terms of pure talent.
Team that could surprise: Northwestern
The Wildcats lost defensive ends C.J. Robbins and Ifeadi Odenigbo, the latter of whom had 10 sacks in 2016. But three other players who started are back, including tackles Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster. There's some good young talent ready to step in, and Pat Fitzgerald scored a recruiting coup with four-star Texas pass-rusher Earnest Brown. It might be asking too much for Brown to have a huge impact as a true freshman, but this group has the pieces to be better than expected.
Teams that need to step it up: Michigan State and Nebraska
Defensive line had long been a strength of the Spartans -- until last season. Even when Malik McDowell was healthy, the '16 group put far too little pressure on opposing passers, finishing with just 11 total sacks. By the end of the season, Mark Dantonio was relying heavily on first- and second-year players up front. This recruiting class didn't bring as much help as expected, especially after one prospect was arrested right before signing day. So Dantonio and his staff will have to hope last season's experience sped up the development of guys like Raequan Williams and Josh King -- and that they stay healthy.
Nebraska has been decidedly average on the defensive line for a couple of years now and was pushed around down the stretch last season. Now, the Huskers will move to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Bob Diaco. Sophomore twins Carlos and Alex Davis form a good building block in the middle. Can Freedom Akinmoladun live up to his potential as a junior and become the outside pass-rushing force the scheme needs? Nebraska will need to step up in the defensive trenches to compete with Wisconsin and Iowa in the Big Ten West.