Receiver questions looming from top to bottom
In the run-heavy Big Ten, seven wide receivers were drafted. Still, there will be no shortage of talent out wide this year. Here are the questions surrounding the skill position.
How will Gary Nova’s graduation affect Leonte Carroo?
Many expected Leonte Carroo to cash in on his monster junior season and declare for the NFL draft. After all, he’d have a first-year starter to work with if he came back to Jersey. That’s a little different than working with former Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova, who he’d been friends with since middle school. But the conference’s second most productive receiver in 2014 is back for more in 2015. Whether or not Carroo’s production will take a hit remains to be seen. Sophomore Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig have been battling all spring for the starting quarterback job. Both came in as more heralded prospects than Nova, but they don’t have a college touchdown pass between them. Whoever wins the job, they’ll have arguably the Big Ten’s best receiver to throw it up to.
Will Connor Cook be as productive do without his go-to receivers?
Connor Cook has already been penciled in for 3,000 yards, 25 TD passes and another crack at a Big Ten East crown. But if the senior is going to reach those feats, it’ll be because he’s found a couple new running mates. Tony Lippett, the Big Ten’s leading receiver last year, and Keith Mumphery are both gone to the NFL. Tight end Josiah Price is a reliable red zone option but Cook still needs wideouts that can move the chains. Macgarrett Kings Jr. is the natural option to take over the lead gig. But Kings was arrested for the second time during the offseason and is on thin ice with Mark Dantonio. Dantonio has, however, liked what he’s seen from senior DeAnthony Arnett while Aaron Burbridge could also emerge. Cook has options, but they’re definitely not as solidified as the ones he worked with last year.
Will De’Mornay Pierson-El become an every-down receiver?
There’s an unfair assumption that if a player is dangerous in the open field, he has to be used as a receiver. But even with the freakiest of open field threats — Deion Sanders, Devin Hester, Dante Hall — there’s no guarantee they’ll become an every-down offensive threat. De’Mornay Pierson-El’s breakout freshman season as a returner resulted in him carving out a receiving role the Nebraska offense midway through the season. There were ups — his 8-catch, 102-yard effort in the Holiday Bowl — and downs — his two costly red zone fumbles against Minnesota. It’s not certain how first-year offensive coordinator Danny Langsford will use Pierson-El’s talents. Jet sweeps, drags and screens all make sense. If Langsford can turn the former high school quarterback into a go-to option out wide, there might not be a more lethal player in the conference.
If Christian Hackenberg gets time, will DaeSean Hamilton be Big Ten’s best?
DaeSean Hamilton was a possession receiver last year because of Penn State’s offensive limitations. Without time for Christian Hackenberg to throw, the Nittany Lion offense relied on quick-hitting routes. Hamilton’s Big Ten-best 82 receptions were the result of that, which was still impressive for a true freshman. But with a more experienced line, Hackenberg should have more chances to hit his No. 1 guy downfield. Hamilton’s biggest offseason priority was turning himself into the deep threat Penn State needs. We saw what Hackenberg did with Allen Robinson when he had a pocket to step into. Hamilton might not quite reach Robinson’s junior year numbers — 97 catches and 1,432 yards is an awfully high bar — but expect bigger things from Hamilton and the Penn State offense.
Who will step up without Mike Dudek?
Next to another injury to Wes Lunt, Mike Dudek suffering an offseason ACL tear was probably the toughest blow for the Illinois offense to take. He earned Freshman All-American honors after hauling in 76 passes for 1,038 yards, despite the Illini’s rotating quarterback situation. All reports have been positive about his progress, which could mean he’ll be back by the time the conference season starts. But if he’s not, Lunt needs a new primary target. Geronimo Allison might be up for the task. The Iowa Western Community College transfer racked up 598 yards in his first season with the Illini. At 6-4, Allison is capable of being a jump-ball receiver. Dudek’s classmate Malik Turner also showed promise as a true freshman last year. The versatile Josh Ferguson could see an even bigger role in the passing game out of the backfield. It’s no secret the Illini will be one of the most pass-reliant teams in the Big Ten. Whether or not they can make up for Dudek’s production, however, could determine its postseason bowl fate.