Ranking the B1G's most pressure-filled replacement positions heading into 2016
There’s pressure on every new starter in a Power Five conference to deliver. That’s no debate.
Some, however, have a little bit more pressure than others. Pressure can come from fans, coaches, a team’s expectations or from a predecessor.
The B1G has plenty of position groups that are dealing with pressure-filled transitions in 2016.
Here’s a look at the top 10:
10. Nebraska DT — Nebraska has a nice recent history of churning out NFL defensive tackles. Unfortunately, two of them turned pro early in 2015. Without Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, there will be pressure on Greg McMullen, Kevin Maurice and Kevin Williams to become the run-stopping unit that Nebraska desperately needs to stay afloat. With the way the Huskers defend the pass — or don’t — they need all the help they can get locking down that side of the game.
9. Iowa OL — Speaking of units that crank out NFL players, the Hawkeyes have two oversized holes to fill after losing Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh. The team that racked up 35 rushing touchdowns in 2015 can’t afford to take a step back. Iowa puts a lot of responsibilities on its center, a role possibly filled by true sophomore James Daniels. Boone Myers will have increased duties in the run game now at guard while Sean Welsh will be the key veteran on the right side. This unit has experience, but they have questions to answer without their two anchors.
8. Michigan State OL — While Iowa might be a little more one-dimensional in its approach, some new Spartan starters are going to have to quickly become well-versed in MSU’s balanced attack. Gone are Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, both of whom garnered All-America honors. The skilled but oft-injured Kodi Kieler, Jack Allen’s younger brother, Brian, and left guard Benny McGowan are the new leaders of this unit. The good news for MSU is that it has veterans across the board as new starters. How serious is the competition for starting jobs up front? Mark Dantonio listed two starters at every offensive line position on MSU’s spring depth chart. Yes, there will be plenty of competition in East Lansing this offseason.
7. Ohio State DB — Three of Ohio State’s four defensive back starters left early for the NFL. That means Gareon Conley’s new running mates are going to get picked on by B1G quarterbacks. Safeties Cameron Burrows and Erick Smith, Jr. and cornerbacks Damon Webb, Jr. Marshon Lattimore all missed significant portions of 2015 with lower-body injuries. Even though they’re all juniors, they didn’t get the grooming most Ohio State underclassmen do. Everybody says Ohio State will “reload not rebuild” but its new-look secondary is one of the bigger offseason mysteries Urban Meyer faced since coming to Columbus.
6. Penn State DL — Like Ohio State’s secondary, Penn State’s defensive line has three studs to replace. Austin Johnson, Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel spearheaded a group that churned out the sixth-most tackles for loss in FBS. Without Bob Shoop, the Lions will turn to a nearly brand new group to carry the torch. Garrett Sickels, Penn State’s lone returning defensive line starter, could be joined by Torrence Brown, Evan Schwan, JUCO transfer Tyrell Chavis, Curtis Cothran or Parker Cothren, none of whom started a game in 2015. Replacing 45.5 tackles for loss will be quite the task for the new-look line, especially against the loaded offensive playmakers in the B1G East.
5. Indiana QB — Unless your name is “Zander Diamont,” you’re going to throw a lot as a quarterback in Kevin Wilson’s offense. When Wilson has a pocket passer, his quarterback averages over 40 attempts per game. Replacing Nate Sudfeld, the program’s all-time leading passer, won’t be an easy transition. JUCO transfer Richard Lagow, Danny Cameron, Austin King and Donnie Hale are battling this spring for the job and Diamont will join the competition when he gets healthy this summer. Whoever the guy ends up being, he’ll likely be tasked with scoring a ton of points. IU had the B1G’s No. 1 scoring offense and it still only won two conference games. It can get ugly for IU if it isn’t a well-oiled machine with the passing game.
4. Wisconsin QB — Wait, I thought playing quarterback is Wisconsin was the easiest job in the world? Isn’t it just handoffs and high-percentage throws? Well, if there was no pressure on the Badger quarterback, why was its winningest signal-caller ever so hated? That’s because expectations have been raised in Madison. Whoever replaces Joel Stave has to do more than hand the ball off to Corey Clement. Badger fans wouldn’t mind if Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook could stretch the field. The multi-interception games have to be kept to a minimum, too. The Badgers have a brutal 2016 schedule that begins with a showdown against Dave Aranda’s LSU defense. A new starter is going to have to play like a seasoned vet or else the Badgers could have five losses by the end of October.
3. Ohio State RB — When you have five past Heisman Trophy winners at one position, there are some expectations there. Replacing one of the best in the history of the program in Ezekiel Elliott isn’t a one-man job. Urban Meyer wants an open competition, and it isn’t likely he feeds a back like he did with Elliott. Senior Bri’onte Dunn finally has the opportunity to win the lion’s share of the carries. Curtis Samuel could carve out a regular role, as could talented redshirt freshman Mike Weber and Dontre Wilson. Meyer asks a lot of his running backs, and even without Elliott, he’ll do the same in 2016. Luckily for the Buckeye backs, J.T. Barrett will be the focal point of the offense.
2. Michigan QB — Remember how much heat Jake Rudock took in the beginning of 2015? It didn’t matter that he got a late start under Jim Harbaugh. Michigan fans, given the College Football Playoff expectations they have in 2016, aren’t going to give its new quarterback a free pass. Many expect John O’Korn to win the job and become Harbaugh’s next great QB project. Unlike Rudock, the 2016 starter is going to have plenty of worthy competitors ready to step in. Taking over a potential preseason top-five team is a little different than taking over a five-win group. The spotlight is on everyone in maize and blue, but it shines brightest on the next starting quarterback.
1. Michigan State QB — The big question in East Lansing is who will become Connor Cook’s replacement. Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry are both different than Cook, but the starter will have to at least approach the high bar the three-year starter set. So why is this the most pressure-filled replacement position of any in the B1G? Well, Dantonio already said that this battle could go into September. That means MSU could go into the Notre Dame showdown in South Bend with two guys still trying to win the job. A win there could put MSU into the early College Football Playoff discussion. Meanwhile, Dantonio could still be breaking down film of O’Connor and Terry to try and figure out who will start the B1G opener. It’s one thing to battle in summer and fall camp for a spot. It’s another to have that battle continue into the regular season. Just ask J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones about that.