B1G debate: Who is the best offensive player in the Big Ten besides Justin Fields?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Who is the best offensive player in the Big Ten besides Justin Fields?
RYAN: This is such a fun topic because I don’t know if there’s a right answer. I think there are as many as 5 offensive players not including Fields who could go in the 1st round of the 2021 NFL Draft. It probably won’t quite shake out that way, but I would say at this moment, these 5 are in the running: Rondale Moore (Purdue), Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Pat Freiermuth (Penn State), Wyatt Davis (Ohio State) and Chris Olave (Ohio State).
For me, the top offensive player besides Fields is Rondale Moore. In case you forgot, Moore was incredible as a freshman in 2018 before getting hurt early in the 4th game of the 2019 season. As a true freshman, he had 6 games of double-digit receptions, 6 games of 100+ receiving yards and 5 games of multiple touchdowns. He went gang-busters in the shocking upset against Ohio State, catching 12 passes for 170 yards and 2 TDs. That Ohio State defense was flawed, for sure, but to do that against a program that has lost only 10 games since 2012 is absurd. Moore was on track for a repeat performance as a sophomore before suffering a hamstring injury that cost him the rest of 2019.
Yes, Moore is only 5-9, but he’s electrifying. He ran a 4.33 40 and posted a 42-inch vertical in high school. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm can find different ways to get him the ball, too, whether that’s with jet sweeps, quick passes to the outside or over the middle from the slot. And despite only being 5-9, he can win on the outside downfield — at least in college.
With a good junior season, he’ll be in the running to go in the top half of the 1st round. And as long as he is fully healthy, which all reports indicate he is, he’s my pick as the top offensive player besides Fields. Who you got, Connor?
CONNOR: If there’s a consensus answer to this question, it’s probably Moore. It makes sense. As you mentioned, there’s not a more electric player in college football. If I needed to bet my life on a dude scoring a touchdown on a bubble screen from my own 20-yard line, he’s my guy (here’s hoping it never comes down to that).
But I’m gonna go with Bateman just because as great as Moore is, is it fair to at least wonder how he’ll look coming off the knee injury that limited him to 4 games last year? I think it is. Compare that to Bateman, who is coming off a year in which he tore up the conference for similar production to Moore’s 2018 season (Bateman had 39 fewer receiving yards but the same amount of receiving touchdowns) and established himself as 1 of the B1G’s top receiver prospects of recent memory. He has the size, the speed and the separation to be 1 of the country’s best receivers yet again, regardless of the fact that Kirk Ciarrocca left for Penn State.
Speaking of Penn State, that’s one thing I loved about Bateman last year. He was at his best when Minnesota needed him most. In games against Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin, he had a combined 20 catches for 448 yards and 2 scores. He was an absolute monster for Tanner Morgan. Even without Tyler Johnson, those opportunities for Bateman should still be there. He might not have the versatility of Moore or Chris Olave, but he’s what makes Minnesota a legitimate West contender again.
Is there a chance that we see a lesser role for Moore in 2020? Given how David Bell emerged last year, what are the odds that Brohm dials his looks back a touch and we don’t see any of these 12-catch, 200-yard games that put him on the national radar?
RYAN: There is absolutely a chance of that. I’m a big fan of David Bell, too, and I think it’s very possible Bell cuts into some of his production. (While we’re at it, shoutout to Brohm for getting 3 studs from Indiana in Moore, Bell and George Karlaftis to stay in-state and not go to a blueblood). Another worry is the QB situation, which is admittedly a little shaky. But Moore doesn’t necessarily need a QB that is going to throw him 20-yard out routes, he just needs to get the ball within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage and on many plays, he’ll do the rest.
I’m a big fan of Bateman, too, as he won me over with those huge games against Penn State and Wisconsin (not to mention a 3-TD game against Northwestern). Rewatching some of his highlights this week, he kind of reminded me of Michael Thomas. I quickly Googled it to see if anyone else had come up with that comparison, and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah beat me to the punch. But hey, I felt pretty good about that one.
On the flip side, though, is there a chance that Bateman receives more attention from defenses without Tyler Johnson this season? Johnson was the No. 1 guy going into last season, and Bateman snuck up a little bit in his true sophomore season. He is the clear-cut No. 1 now and will be at the top of every scouting report.
I think those are probably the top 2 candidates for this prestigious title of “Best B1G Offensive Player Besides Justin Fields.” Unfortunately, there is no trophy or anything. Who else could you see holding that title by the end of the season?
CONNOR: I’ll be honest, it feels strange saying anything negative about Moore because he’s such an exciting weapon. We really don’t see players like him in the Big Ten in part because we don’t have coaches who are as aggressive as Brohm.
As for who else could join this discussion besides the obvious names (Olave, Morgan, Davis, etc.), I’m gonna squat on a take. I’d like to buy all the stock in the Penn State running backs. I truly believe that by season’s end, we’ll be talking about Journey Brown and Noah Cain among the top 2-3 backfield duos in America. They’re that good. Like, Ricky Slade was a 5-star running back in the 2018 class and even he saw the writing on the wall. Brown and Cain are special.
The thing I like about Cain is that there are soooooo many miles left on those tires. Besides the fact that he shared carries last year and was banged up, he went to IMG Academy, where he shared a backfield with Alabama’s Trey Sanders and Oklahoma’s T.J. Pledger (Pledger was there until Cain’s senior year of high school). Cain has the balance, vision and discipline to be a 1,500-yard guy. Granted, that might have to wait another year because of Brown, who played like an All-American from November on. By the way, those guys will run behind an offensive line that returns 4 of 5 starters, and they’ll have Ciarrocca on board after he led the No. 21 scoring offense at Minnesota. The sky is the limit for those guys.
Is that a cop-out by picking 2 guys?
RYAN: Nope, I’m with you on that. When you couple that in with the fact that their wide receivers are a major question mark coming into this season, it sure seems like those backs are going to have monster years. Don’t sleep on Devyn Ford, either. He was ranked ahead of Cain out of high school and averaged nearly 6 yards per carry; he just didn’t get the volume as Brown and Cain separated themselves from what was a 4-man backfield committee early on.
Are we sure Pat Freiermuth shouldn’t be mentioned, too? I could see him getting double-digit touchdowns, even in a shortened season. He is a well-rounded player who also excels as a run blocker, so it might not always look like he’s having a huge game if you’re just checking a box score. But there will be times when Sean Clifford feeds him over and over in the pass game, like against Minnesota, and you’ll see why some people compare him to Gronk.
I don’t think Olave will get the recognition he deserves because he’s not the most flashy and he plays for Ohio State, but dang, that guy is smooth. Just makes it look easy out there.
We are allowed to pick a QB for this, right? Because we haven’t mentioned any. I am a big believer in Michael Penix Jr. of Indiana. If he can stay healthy, he might wind up in Fields’ neighborhood. Tanner Morgan and Sean Clifford are also candidates.
CONNOR: Sure, quarterbacks are people, too. It seems fitting that it took so long to mention Morgan for this given how it seems like he gets overlooked nationally. Every time I see someone say that Auburn’s Bo Nix is a better quarterback than Morgan, I question if they’ve ever watched football.
Isn’t it strange that Adrian Martinez doesn’t even deserve a mention? Last year was just so frustrating. I’m not even sure he’s the best quarterback on the roster. Speaking of the McCaffrey family, I feel like Dylan McCaffrey is being downgraded just because Michigan quarterbacks have been somewhat underwhelming in the Jim Harbaugh era. But he’s someone who Michigan fans should be excited about. I’m anxious to see what he can finally do if and when he gets the opportunity.
So by my count, that’s roughly a dozen guys we’ve mentioned here. If none of these guys are the answer to this question at season’s end, well, at least we tried!