Written By T.J. Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Spring Primer – B1G West
The Wisconsin Badgers opened Spring Practice (on March 15) for the first time under new head coach Paul Chryst. Chryst is quite familiar with the Wisconsin way of doing things and I don’t expect to see much change in Madison. The Badgers will be working with a new coaching staff (with the exception of returning DC Dave Aranda) and they will be attempting to replace Melvin Gordon in the backfield.
-Who’s next up on the assembly line at running back? The first guy is Corey Clement. Clement rushed for 949 yards as a backup last season and he figures to be in line for a huge season behind the Badgers outstanding O-Line. After Clement, look for two players coming off of injuries (Caleb Kinlaw and Taiwan Deal) to battle each other for the back-up spot (a spot that routinely sees a player run for well over 750 yards). Incoming freshmen Jordan Stevenson and Bradrick Shaw won’t be competing in the Spring but if Kinlaw and Deal don’t separate themselves, one of the freshmen could factor in next season.
-Do the Badgers have a QB? Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy both saw playing time last season and had varying degrees of success. I’d say that most Wisconsin fans consider the QB position to be a legitimate point of concern heading into the 2015 season but the Badgers appear to be going with Joel Stave (a guy who battled some “mental yips” and confidence issues last season). Tanner McEvoy has reportedly been getting reps at both safety and WR and the former QB practiced with the first team defense during their most recent practice. Wisconsin has to replace a handful of starters on defense and the prolific Melvin Gordon but if they can get some competent play from Stave, they figure to be right at the top of the B1G West once again.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Coach Jerry Kill led his Golden Gophers to a very successful 2014 season and the Gophers kicked off Spring Practice for the 2015 season on March 3 (Spring Game is April 11). The Gophers have to replace running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams which will leave a major void in the playmaking department. Coach Kill has improved the talent at Minnesota but he’ll be relying on four redshirt freshmen this season and an offense that struggled at times last season will be a major question mark heading into the season.
-Can the Gophers put together a successful offense? Mitch Leidner is back but the offense has to replace Cobb and top pass catcher Maxx Williams. KJ Maye is the leading returning receiver (16 catches) and there’s barely any experience behind him. Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant all redshirted last season and they should have two large freshmen receivers (Rashad Still and Hunter Register) in the fall. Multiple people will have to exceed expectations for Leidner to be able to lead a successful passing attack. The outlook at running back is a little bit brighter. The offensive line is built to pave the way for a solid running game and redshirt freshmen Jeff Jones, returning big back Rodrick Williams, Rodney Smith and three well-thought of 2015 recruits will compete for playing time. My guess is that Jones and Rodrick Williams rotate and combine for a pretty good season but that the Gophers struggle to move the ball through the air.
-Can Minnesota replace Damien Wilson? Wilson was a steady, high-impact force at middle linebacker. However, the coaches love Cody Poock and seem pretty confident that he can fill the spot vacated by the departure of Wilson. Poock is coming off of a torn ACL that held him out last season but he was a highly-successful junior college linebacker prior to his injury and the Gophers have a lot of talent around him that should keep their defense at a pretty high level. The secondary should be one of the B1G’s best and the only major question about this defense (besides replacing Wilson) would be the depth at defensive line.
Bo Pelini won 9 games in each of his 7 seasons. That sounds great. However, the Huskers haven’t won a conference title since 1999 (under Frank Solich) and Pelini was a surly fellow that had worn out his welcome in Lincoln. Mike Riley (formerly of Oregon State) was tabbed as his successor and his first goal during this Spring is to gain familiarity. He needs to gain familiarity with the players and the players need to gain familiarity with his system and his coaching staff. That very intangible thing is probably the most important part of the Spring for Nebraska but we’ll focus on a couple of tangible questions and position battles.
-Does the new coaching staff wish to go a different direction at QB? Tommy Armstrong returns and figures to be the starter in 2015. However, the Nebraska passing offense was only the 83rd best (and that’s with defense placing a heavy emphasis on stopping the run) in the country and Armstrong only completed 53% of his passes and threw 11 picks. Ryker Fyfe saw action in 7 games last season and some think he could be a factor. The main competition for Armstrong’s spot though appears to be Johnny Stanton. He was an Elite 11 recruit that was recruited by Mike Riley a couple of years ago before choosing Nebraska. Stanton redshirted last season with a knee injury but he was well-regarded coming out of high school. With a new coaching staff and a new offensive system to grasp, a QB battle could develop in Lincoln this Spring. My guess (and the guess of Nebraska blog Corn Nation) is that Armstrong keeps the job and is given a chance to succeed in 2015 but I wouldn’t be stunned if Riley ends up going with the talented Johnny Stanton.
-Ameer Abdullah is gone, can anyone step up to replace him? In case you missed it, the B1G lost a whole lot of running back talent. Hoosier fans know all about Tevin Coleman but just look down the rest of the list of leading rushers that won’t be back in 2015…Melvin Gordon, Jeremy Langford, David Cobb, Akeem Hunt and Nebraska’s Abdullah. Nebraska will be running a pro-style offense under Riley and they’ll still be running the ball plenty. So, who will take the carries vacated by the splendid Abdullah? The first man up appears to be Imani Cross. Cross will be a Senior and he has averaged 5.4 yards per carry during his career as a back-up to Abdullah. After Cross, the Huskers have Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor and Mikale Wilbon. There’s no consensus on what the post-Spring RB depth chart is going to look like but the Huskers are high on both Wilbon and Taylor (each coming off of redshirt seasons).
Two years ago, Pat Fitzgerald was a rising star in the coaching world and the Wildcats had gone “bowling” five years in a row. Return to the present and Northwestern has missed the postseason in two straight seasons and at least a little bit of the shine has rubbed off of Fitzgerald’s star. The Cats have some returning talent (including a really good running back in Justin Jackson) but there are plenty of questions heading into a critical year for Northwestern football.
-For the first time in a long time, Northwestern has an unsettled QB situation, who wins the starting job? Trevor Siemian has graduated and there are three guys that will split reps equally during the Spring and battle for the starting job. Zach Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson are the contenders for the position. Thorson, a redshirt freshman and the least experienced of the bunch, is the probably the frontrunner. Thorson was a 4-star recruit out of high school and chose NW over schools like Ole Miss and Penn State. He’s a pro-style QB but isn’t considered to be completely immobile and has drawn comparisons to former Wildcats QB Mike Kafka. I think Thorson wins the job but I don’t expect him to be a star in his first season as a starter.
-Can Northwestern find a pass rush? There’s no sugarcoating this…the Wildcats’ pass rush was terrible last season. They finished the year with 17 sacks, good for dead last in the conference. Defensive end Dean Lowry was the leading sack man (4) and he returns but there’s not a ton of encouraging things to look to in this area. There is a lot of depth but questions abound about how many of those guys are capable of consistently getting to the opposing QB. Ifeadi Odenigbo is probably as talented as anyone in the D-line rotation and he’ll be a passing down specialist but he’s hasn’t lived up to his promise thus far in his career. Other guys that could provide some type of pass rush are Deonte Gibson, Max Chapman and Xavier Washington. If Northwestern is to return to a bowl game in 2015, the pass rush will have to improve from “non-existent” to “decent”.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Tim Beckman’s job was reportedly on the line last season and his Fighting Illini did just enough to get him to a bowl game and keep him gainfully employed in Champaign. The job for Beckman and his squad is to try and move up the ladder in the B1G West in 2015.
-Can Wes Lunt take the next step? Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State that broke his leg in October and was largely ineffective upon returning, completed 63% of his passes and had 14 touchdowns during his first season at Illinois. Illinois fan blog The Champaign Room (thechampaignroom.com) ran an excellent article that points out where Lunt excelled (and struggled in 2014). He was really, really good in the 4th quarter and was a big reason why the Illini got to a bowl game. He completed 80.5% of his passes and had a rating of 208 in the 4th quarter but a rating of 113.7 and a completion percentage of only 56.1% in the 1st quarter. He needs to improve his starts and he needs to stay healthy (he hasn’t completed a full season yet and his primary backup transferred…he’s all the Illini really have at QB). If he can be a bit more consistent in the first half of games, Wes Lunt could be one of the top 2 or 3 QBs in the conference.
-Can the defense improve? It’s going to have to. Illinois’ defense under Beckman has been pretty bad and last year was no different. They were last in the conference in scoring defense (34 ppg), last in yardage surrendered (456.4 ypg) and last in rushing defense (239.2 ypg). The Illini have a new D-line coach (although it could certainly be argued that the talent along the D-line is the much bigger problem). Guys like Jihad Ward, Mason Monheim, Paul James and Dawuane Smoot are fine players but there’s not much proven depth or experience and recent history suggests that the defensive will remain at or near the bottom of the league.
Another year under Kirk Ferentz (we are now entering year 17), another season with middling results, solid defense and frustratingly bland offense. Hawkeyes fans are hoping for more but what’s realistic when so little has changed on the coaching staff and recruiting rankings for Iowa continue to fall somewhere around #50?
-The QB job is now Beathard’s alone, can he elevate his play to meet the challenge? Former starter Jake Rudock is reportedly transferring (at least according to Bruce Feldman…intriguingly, Feldman reports that Rudock visited Michigan) and Beathard is now “the guy”. Bruising running back Mark Weisman (Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley are the likely replacements) has graduated and the Hawkeyes need to establish some new wide receivers as well. If Iowa’s offense is to elevate itself at all, Beathard is going to have to be the driving force behind it.
The Hoosiers biggest rival have one B1G win in two seasons and four wins total in Darrell Hazell’s two years in charge in West Lafayette. This is an important season for him to show some significant progress. Their two top offensive threats (as far as explosion goes), Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, are gone and there have to be serious concerns about how this offense is going to hurt defenses with big plays. I think the defense will be improved (particularly the secondary and linebackers) but can it be good enough to get above 3 wins?
-Who are the playmakers? As I touched on a bit already, Hunt and Mostert are gone and this wasn’t a good offense before their departure (#11 in the conference last season). Danny Anthrop is going to be the “go-to receiver” but he’s coming off of a knee injury. DeAngelo Yancey is probably the most talented of the bunch but he was disappointing last season. There will be a 3-way QB battle between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough…can one of them emerge and be a consistent playmaker? Running back doesn’t appear to have a standout player ready to step in for Hunt or Mostert (Keyante Green is the most likely choice). The offensive line appears to be pretty solid but this offense has a ton of questions and I don’t see a whole lot of obvious positive answers.