The B1G 10: Indiana has a QB. And that will make all the difference in 2023
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G Story
There’s no big mystery how it all went down. How a feel-good story quickly devolved into a sickening state of affairs.
From getting screwed out of the Big Ten Championship Game in 2020, to paying a coach $10 million over the past 2 seasons for a grand total of 2 Big Ten victories.
This is the story of Indiana football over 3 torturous seasons, with 1 common denominator: the quarterback.
From the quarterback who got away (Michael Penix Jr.), to another who got away (Indianapolis-area high school star Tayven Jackson) but has since returned, the most important position on the field is the beginning and end of the this story.
When Penix was hot in 2020, Indiana was as good as anyone in the Big Ten not named Ohio State.
When he was recovering from a devastating knee injury in 2021 — and likely came back too soon — and didn’t play with confidence, Indiana tanked and didn’t win a Big Ten game.
When Penix left for Washington and Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak struggled in 2022, the hole got deeper.
And then Jackson — the 4-star recruit who nearly signed with IU but chose Tennessee — came back home through the transfer portal.
And here we are: Indiana has a real option at quarterback for the first time since Penix was completely healthy in 2020 and cutting up Big Ten defenses with his arm and legs.
Indiana now has another dual-threat quarterback who’s also a legit thrower, who can push the ball downfield with accurate intermediate and deep throws. Jackson left Tennessee because 5th-year senior Joe Milton III wasn’t leaving, and 5-star Nico Iamaleava joined the competition.
The quarterback room at Tennessee was full. The room at Indiana was wide open, especially with the uncertainty of the brutal knee injury Dexter Williams II sustained late last season.
Jackson arrived back home in Indiana through the same avenue Allen is using to rebuild the program: the transfer portal.
“It happened pretty quickly when he made the decision to go in the portal and then reached out to us,” Allen said in January of the process to bring Jackson home. “But the bottom line was we already had that relationship built.”
2. New talent, new direction
How does Indiana, with 2 Big Ten wins in the past 2 seasons, land a top-10 transfer portal class?
NIL obviously plays a role, but players can get that money anywhere — and the difference is negligible from school to school. What makes IU attractive is Allen, and the culture bubble he has built in Bloomington since arriving in 2017.
He calls it LEO — Love Each Other.
Because if you love each other, and want to play for and work with each other, those intangibles build an unbreakable chemistry and a unique culture that filters through each team every season — no matter the players.
“It’s his energy, the love he has for his players,” Jackson said during a video press conference. “What he brings every single day, a loving culture. Everyone looks out for each other, everybody wants everyone to succeed.”
Allen sold that culture and hit the portal hard, landing what could be as many as 8 new starters on defense — including edge Andre Carter (Western Michigan), CBs Nicholas Toomer (Stanford) and Jamier Johnson (Texas) and DTs Philip Blidi (Texas Tech) and Marcus Burris (Texas A&M).
He also got WRs EJ Williams (Clemson) and FCS star Dequece Carter (Fordham), and RB Christian Turner (Wake Forest) to place around Jackson and make his transition easier.
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“I always kind of use the NFL as the model,” Allen said. “This is what they do full-time in regard to they don’t have the academic piece to handle like we do. Just the way they’ve structured and how they evaluate players. So follow that model as we recreate and add a division of college scouting that we’ve not had in the past.”
3. A new IU, The Epilogue
When Indiana was hitting its stride in 2020, when it played so well that former Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren broke the return to play rules during the COVID season to get Ohio State into the Big Ten Championship Game — at IU’s expense — with a shot at the Playoff, their style was rare because the Hoosiers had a dangerous quarterback and a defense that forced turnovers.
They had an attitude and a belief — 2 things that go a long way in the emotion-fueled college game. The difference between winning 4th quarter, 1-possession games — and failing to make the postseason.
“To me it’s mental and physical toughness,” Allen said. “It’s who’s coming in on Saturdays to do extra work when that’s a discretionary day. We have 5 days a week where we have required workouts. Well, everybody in America is doing that. To me, the toughness piece never goes away.”
4. Making a move
Penn State’s heralded 2022 recruiting class may have had the most impact of starting, elite-level players than any class outside of Georgia.
There’s 1 player who was expected to make an impact and didn’t, but is primed to make a turn in Year 2: WR Kaden Saunders.
A top-60 recruit in 2022, Saunders didn’t get on the field for various reasons, with consistency in his physical and mental preparation at the top. He wasn’t ready to play and eventually redshirted.
But understand this: He’s 5-star QB Drew Allar’s roommate, and there’s hope that the connection off-field will translate to Saunders’ development on the field this spring. The Lions added 2 potential starters from the portal — Dante Cephas (Kent State), Malik McClain (Florida State) — and KeAndre Lambert-Smith is another.
That leaves a group of young receivers — Harrison Wallace III, Omari Evans and Saunders among them — battling this spring for playing time.
5. The Weekly 5
Michigan State’s national championship odds and 5 things it will take to reach the Playoff.
1. QB Payton Thorne must return to 2021 form (3,240 yards, 27 TDs, 10 INTs vs. 2,679/19/11 in 2022).
2. More than just turnover margin, the Spartans need more forced turnovers (only 12 in 2022; tied for fewest in B1G).
3. Rebuilt secondary must be more consistent in the back end. The TD/INT ratio (26/2) was the worst in FBS, and 66 percent of passes were completed.
4. UConn transfer RB Nathan Carter must have a Kenneth Walker-level transition. Walker was lost amid a loaded Wake Forest running back room. Carter was, too, at UConn — averaging 6.2 yards per carry on just 65 carries.
5. The attitude and physicality from breakout 2021 season must return.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Maryland CB Deonte Banks.
“A physical and athletic guy who can play bump and off-man, and he mirrors really well. He has makeup speed, and he’ll go up and fight for 50-50 balls. He gets a little handsy at times and takes too many risks, but all of that can be coached. Besides, I like a risk/reward type guy out there on his own. I have him as a solid early Day 2 pick, but he could easily move into late Day 1.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: breakout player in spring practice.
1. Michigan: WR/CB Amorion Walker. Time for the elite athlete to find a home and stick with it. He’s tempting as a long, fast receiver, but may be needed more in a thin secondary.
2. Ohio State: S Ja’Had Carter. The Syracuse transfer is a physical hitter and has made plays in the passing game for 3 seasons. Could be an Andre Cisco-type ball hawk in Columbus, with better pieces protecting him in the front 7.
3. Penn State: CB Storm Duck. All eyes will be on QB Drew Allar, but Duck — a 3-year starter at North Carolina — is critical to Penn State rebuilding the secondary. He sandwiched 2 impressive seasons around 2 injury-shortened seasons at UNC, but when he healthy, is a lockdown corner.
4. Wisconsin: WR Skyler Bell. Played well last season (14.8 ypc., 5 TDs), and will gives defenses fits in new OC Phil Longo’s offense. With his speed and physical play, he’ll be a matchup problem at inside receiver.
5. Minnesota: RB Darius Taylor. The Gophers’ top recruit is a midterm enrollee, and is walking into a wide open position. Western Michigan transfer Sean Tyler is the likely starer, but Taylor is a hard runner and pile mover, and can be a factor in the pass game.
6. Maryland: WR Kaden Prather. WVU transfer is coming home (he’s a Maryland native), and will be a big (6-4, 215), dynamic target for QB Taulia Tagovailoa.
7. Iowa: DT Anterio Thompson. The junior college transfer is a wide body run-stuffer who can fill a critical need.
8. Purdue: Edge Will Heldt. Boilers think they have a steal in Holdt, a long and quick edge rusher. He still needs a full offseason of strength training (6-6, 240), but will get every opportunity to make an immediate impact as a midterm enrollee.
9. Illinois: RB Kaden Feagin. The 4-star freshman has enrolled early, and there’s no one at the top of the running back depth chart. He’s big (6-2, 220 pounds), and has gamebreaking speed — but level of play (small school Illinois high school) is a legit question.
10. Michigan State: TE Ademola Faleye. The staff feels Faleye could be a steal from the portal. He had less than 10 catches last year at FCS Norfolk State, but he’s athletic and long (6-7, 245) and will be used on the line and outside.
11. Nebraska: Edge Princewill Umanmielen. He and Cameron Lenhardt are 4-star freshman edge rushers — a desperate need for a struggling Nebraska defense — who enrolled early and could earn significant playing time from Game 1.
12. Rutgers: WR Naseim Brantley. Averaged 17 yards a catch and had 9 TDs in 2022 at FCS Western Illinois. Whoever plays quarterback at Rutgers (more on that later), they’ll need a true No. 1 receiver.
13. Indiana: S Amare Ferrell. How important was IU’s No. 1 recruit? Tom Allen flew to Florida to watch him play. An impact safety who enrolled early and should play in Game 1.
14. Northwestern: RB Joseph Himon II: Got a handful of carries late in the season against Purdue and Illinois, and showed vision and explosiveness. He’s no the biggest running back (5-9, 185 pounds) but Northwestern needs twitchy players at the skill positions.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: It has been absolutely brutal watching Rutgers games the last 3 seasons. I don’t know how many more bad offenses I can watch. Is there hope with this new offensive coordinator? — Tom Fredricks, Hoboken, N.J.
There are no magic bullets, there’s only good coaching — and in this case, teaching the quarterback position. In coach Greg Schiano’s 3 seasons at Rutgers (Round 2), his 4 quarterbacks (Noah Vedral, Artur Sitkowski, Evan Simon, Gavin Wimsatt) combined to throw 28 TDs and 38 INTs.
You are not winning games with a negative TD/INT ratio, much less a ratio of negative-10. Sitkowski transferred after Year 1, and Vedral graduated after last season.
So new offensive coordinator/QBs coach Kirk Ciarrocca must find a capable starter among Wimsatt and Simon, and get immediate change from their production. He has developed all-conference level quarterbacks before, most recently with Tanner Morgan at Minnesota and Zach Terrell at Western Michigan.
The problem: It typically take 2 seasons before change arrives for Ciarrocca’s quarterbacks. It took Terrell a season in 2013 (8 TDs, 8 INTs) at Western Michigan before he had 55 TDs and 19 INTs in his final 2 seasons.
Morgan had 9 TDs and 6 INTs in Year 1 under Ciarrocca, then made a significant jump in Year 2 (30 TDs and 7 INTs). I’m not saying it can’t happen immediately with Ciarrocca, but his track record shows it’s going to take time.
58. Wisconsin completed 58 percent of its passes over the past 2 seasons. If there’s 1 statistic that will significantly change in 2023, it’s completion percentage.
Expect QB Tanner Mordecai to improve that number by at least 10 percent, and likely more.
10. Quote to note
Penn State coach James Franklin: “In a perfect world you’d love to have a little bit more experience and a little bit more age in that (quarterback) room. But at the end of the day, it’s about talent. And I think we’re talented in that room.”