Schuttin' from the hip: Recapping spring football across the B1G
Spring is over.
Well, technically, it might’ve never arrived in the Midwest. Throughout March and April, social media was filled with photos of snowmen, ice-covered roads and plenty of cloudy afternoon with the ugly vision of a wintry-mix filling the sky. The only part of “spring” that lived up to the name in B1G country was “spring” football.
All 14 teams have put spring ball in the rearview mirror as the calendar turned from April to May. A slew of glorified scrimmages occupied our televisions from 12 p.m. on Saturday, April 2 (Michigan) until 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 30 (Minnesota).
The hard part about spring football? Trying to find some key takeaways from each program without a kneejerk overreaction. It’s difficult, but I’ll do my best as I look back on the past 2 1/2 months of spring football across the B1G.
I’ll be the first to admit I had low expectations for Michigan heading into the spring game. The amount of turnover from last year’s B1G championship team, particularly on the defensive end, seemed like too much to overcome to make a serious bid at defending the conference title. This is a unit that lost Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Dax Hill, Chris Hinton, Josh Ross and Brad Hawkins. Oh, and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald left Ann Arbor to return to John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens staff.
That’s not to mention Josh Gattis leaving Michigan for Miami. Yeah, the belief Jim Harbaugh’s 2022 squad might suffer some broken bones after a fall from grace was warranted.
After watching Michigan’s spring game, though, I’ve changed my tune … at least for now. Michigan’s offense has playmakers all over the field. Incoming freshman Darrius Clemons joins a receiver corps that includes Cornelius Johnson, AJ Henning, Andrel Anthony and returns Ronnie Bell from injury. Erick All is a playmaker at the tight end position. Even with Hassan Haskins leaving for the NFL, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards might be the most versatile running backs in the league.
Maybe there’s a quarterback battle between Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy for the starting job. Maybe there’s not. Regardless, it doesn’t seem to be affecting the offense in Ann Arbor.
Michigan’s defense still has some questions to answer — things we won’t know until the start of the season arrives. The offense has the tools be one of the highest-scoring in the B1G this fall. Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss are picking up where Josh Gattis left off and the results could potentially be even better than 2021.
Can we all agree Ohio State’s offense is going to be just fine? I understand the offensive line play left something to be desired during the spring scrimmage in mid-April, but Ryan Day has never produced a subpar product during his time in Columbus. With the number of weapons at the skill positions, the Buckeyes are in line to have another explosive year offensively.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way … let’s talk about the defense. It’s what cost the Buckeyes a trip to Indianapolis last season and kept them out of the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2018. Hiring Jim Knowles was probably the splashiest of splash moves in the offseason.
That hire already appears to be paying off. There’s undoubtedly some work to be done still but Ohio State’s defense looked really aggressive in the spring game. JT Tuimoloau was consistently getting pressure on the quarterback and freshman defensive back Kye Stokes showed everyone why he might be the impact newcomer the Buckeyes need in the secondary.
Even against one of the country’s top offenses, a new-look defense held its own in the spring game. That’s a good sign moving forward, as Knowles’ defense won’t see many teams with the same level of talent as Ohio State’s offense.
Based on spring game performances, Minnesota might be the favorite to win the B1G West. Don’t get too excited just yet, Gopher fans, keep in mind Iowa and Wisconsin didn’t televise a scrimmage this year.
What stood out most from the Gophers’ spring game was the return of Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense, primarily the slant and out routes. The passing attack hasn’t been the same since he left after the 2019 season but there’s a sense Minnesota can recapture some of that success through the air in 2022.
At the skill positions, Minnesota is loaded. Freshman Zach Evans is going to provide a nice level of depth to a running back room that is already filled with talent (Mohamed Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams). Chris Autman-Bell, Brevyn Spann-Ford, Dylan Wright and Daniel Jackson are going to be solid options at receiver. Tanner Morgan is returning for his 16th season (OK, maybe just his sixth).
Minnesota’s defense looked well-rounded, as well. Secondary additions Beanie Bishop and Ryan Stapp are already making an impact — although the defensive backs were relatively inconsistent. The defensive line got a nice push up front throughout the day, too.
The biggest question for PJ Fleck and the Gophers is the offensive line. That still needs major improvement.
Maybe I’m a sucker for wordplay here, but I’m a big fan of the “Tem-Pro” style offense Barry Lunney Jr. is bringing to Champaign. For those who missed it, it’s a “tempo-style offense with a pro-style influence.” Bret Bielema has referred to the new scheme as “borderline erotic.”
OK, that’s a lie.
On a serious note, Illinois’ new offense under Lunney already looks like a significant improvement from last season. That’s partly due to the arrival of Syracuse transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito, who looked more than capable of leading the Fighting Illini this fall. There’s still a shortage of playmakers at the receiver position but there’s still time to locate some talent before the season kicks off.
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Plus, the running back room is loaded with Chase Brown, Josh McCray and Chase Hayden. Running the football is going to be a strength for the Illini again in 2022. Pair that with a much-improved passing attack and you’re looking at an Illinois team that is capable of getting to the 7-win mark in Bielema’s second year.
Mike Locksley may have assembled the best collection of wide receivers in the B1G. In a league with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Purdue and Minnesota, that’s saying something. Adding Jacob Copeland from Florida provided the Terrapins with even more depth at a position that has Dontay Demus Jr., Rakim Jarrett, Jeshaun Jones and Marcus Fleming returning. Plus, Tai Felton and tight end Corey Dyches looked really good in the spring game.
There is no shortage of options for Taulia Tagovailoa entering the 2022 season.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the spring was the offensive line play. The Terps return their most experienced line of the Locksley era and it looked really solid in pass protection. Run blocking still needs some work, but it has the potential to make a big leap from 2021 to 2022.
Defensive line is an area of concern for the Terrapins after spring, particularly the pass rush. For Maryland to take that next step and close the gap on the elite programs in the B1G, it’s going to have to produce a better defensive front than what we saw this spring.
Purdue lost George Karlaftis, Jaylan Alexander, Dedrick Mackey and DaMarcus Mitchell from last year’s stellar defensive squad. Oh, and Brad Lambert left West Lafayette to return to Wake Forest. But when the Boilermakers were on the field for the spring game, the defense was still playing with the aggressiveness Jeff Brohm wants on that side of the ball.
The Boilers may not be able to replicate the kind of production they got defensively in 2021 but the drop-off may not be quite as significant as expected.
Offensively, transfer receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. (Iowa) and freshman Zion Steptoe (the best receiver name in the country, for what it’s worth) are big additions on the perimeter. They’ll both provide Aidan O’Connell with more targets this fall.
A big concern for Purdue is still the offensive line and the rushing attack. There were glimpses of improvement with Indiana transfer Sampson James toting the rock but it’ll still be a struggle for the offense to gain much traction on the ground.
Brohm has proven he can win with average (at the very best) offensive line play in the past.
Still some concerns
Hey, you probably won’t believe this but I still have some concerns about Penn State’s offensive line and the rushing attack. I know, crazy after the Nittany Lions averaged whopping 108 yards per game on the ground last season, ranking 13th in the B1G and 118th nationally.
To be fair, Penn State dealt with limitations up front throughout the spring. That unit might make significant strides from last year, we just haven’t seen it yet.
And, let me be clear, the running back room isn’t something I’m overly concerned with right now. Keyvone Lee looked the part of a lead back in the spring scrimmage. Nick Singleton provides a nice punch out of the backfield and there’s quality depth with Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes in the mix.
Maybe Mike Yurcich has figured something out with the rushing attack. It was a focal point all spring long. It just … didn’t look like it during the spring game.
Let me preface this by saying that I like what Scott Frost did in shaking up his offensive coaching staff. The transfer portal additions of players like Casey Thompson, Anthony Grant, Hunter Anthony, Trey Palmer, Ochaun Mathis and plenty of others put the Huskers in a really good spot. They have a chance to make a big leap from that 3-9 campaign in 2021.
I can’t help but still be concerned about the offensive line. Like Penn State, the Huskers were limited in spring practice up front. That makes a pretty big difference in what we see on the field. What we saw wasn’t great.
Nebraska has had the talent under Frost to be a contender in the B1G West. At the very least, the Huskers should’ve been in a bowl game by now. Poor play in the trenches and a less-than-stellar rushing attack (out of the backfield, that is) has plagued this team for four years.
There are reasons for optimism in Lincoln, maybe more so than in years past. It’s fair to say there are still reasons to be concerned, too.
I was ready to label Rutgers a B1G East contender after the first two drives of the spring game. Sorry, I lied again. To be honest, though, I was thoroughly impressed with Noah Vedral and Gavin Wimsatt as the two combined to complete 6-of-6 passes for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns on those opening drives.
After that, there wasn’t much to write home about.
Rutgers does have more playmakers on the field by adding Taj Harris and Sean Ryan to the receiving corps. Kyle Monangai and Al-Shadee Salaam looked good out of the backfield. A lot of the offensive success is going to depend on that quarterback room, though. I’m not sure anything has been really been answered there.
Like the other two teams in this category, offensive line might still be a weakness.
Defensively, this still looks like a Greg Schiano-coached team. The Scarlet Knights are attacking the football and capable of delivering some big hits.
A big thumbs down to Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin, the four B1G teams that did not televise a spring game or scrimmage this year. What fun is that?! How are we supposed to irrationally judge your team in April and May if we aren’t seeing live reps on Big Ten Network?
And I should throw Michigan State in this category, too. Yes, technically it had its spring “game” airing in April, but it was basically just individual drills. How does that help me, Tuck?
Honestly, I don’t care whether a team hosts a spring game or not. It’s not that big of a deal. It just makes those teams a little more unpredictable heading into the season.
Top 5 B1G coordinator hires
1. Jim Knowles, DC, Ohio State — Knowles was outstanding during his final season at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys ranked first in scoring defense, run defense and total defense and second in pass defense. Ohio State already has the talent in place, it just needed a new voice. It was arguably the biggest hire in college football this offseason.
2. Kirk Ciarrocca, OC, Minnesota — The passing attack had been lacking since Ciarrocca left the program at the conclusion of the 2019 season. Now that he’s back, the Gophers should have more consistency through the air. That could open up the ground game even more in 2022. Don’t expect Minnesota to have that prolific passing attack it had three seasons ago, but this should be a more well-balanced offensive approach.
3. Mark Whipple, OC, Nebraska — Something needed to change. Frost overhauled his staff and brought Whipple to town after he turned Kenny Pickett into a Heisman Trophy finalist during Pitt’s ACC title run. The Panthers owned the ACC’s top scoring offense and scored touchdowns on 88% of its red zone trips. With Thompson under center and an underrated receiving corps in Lincoln, Whipple has all the weapons he needs for Nebraska’s offense to take a step up.
4. Manny Diaz, DC, Penn State — It was going to be difficult to replace Brent Pry, who left for the head coaching job at Virginia Tech. James Franklin brought one of college football’s top defensive minds to State College, a huge addition for the program. It’s a small sample size, but Penn State’s defense looked solid in the spring game, and that’s no easy task after losing Arnold Ebiketie, Jaquan Brisker, Tariq Castro-Fields, Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks and others. Even with all the change, the Nittany Lions still may possess one of the top defenses in the B1G with Diaz in charge.
5. Barry Lunney Jr., OC, Illinois — Lunney’s hiring might not be the sexiest of the offseason but it could be one of the most important. We’ve already seen the slight improvement to the passing game. Illinois’ rushing attack should still be a strength. So, when you throw in a little tempo, the Fighting Illini might actually be able to keep defenses on their toes in 2022. Don’t expect Illinois’ offense to catapult to the top of the conference statistically, but if it’s able to make gradual improvement then Bielema’s team will be a tough out all season long.
Newcomers (freshman & transfer) to watch
Illinois — Tommy DeVito, QB (transfer from Syracuse)
Indiana — Connor Bazelak, QB (transfer from Missouri)
Iowa — Xavier Nwankpa, DB (true freshman)
Maryland — Jaishawn Barham, LB (true freshman)
Michigan — Darrius Clemons, WR (true freshman)
Michigan State — Jacoby Windmon, LB (transfer from UNLV)
Minnesota — Zach Evans, RB (true freshman)
Nebraska — Anthony Grant, RB (JUCO transfer)
Northwestern — Anto Saka, DE (true freshman)
Ohio State — Kye Stokes, DB (true freshman)
Penn State — Mitchell Tinsley, WR (transfer from WKU)
Purdue — Zion Steptoe, WR (true freshman)
Rutgers — Taj Harris, WR (transfer from Syracuse)
Wisconsin — Jay Shaw, DB (transfer from UCLA)