Breaking Down the Big Ten's Top Spring Wide Receiver Battles
There weren't many conferences that cared less about the pass in 2012 than the Big Ten, and for good reason. The talent level was light at both quarterback (at least when it came to throwing the football) and at wide receiver. And while the QB situation still looks dicey across most of the conference, the wideout talent level should be a little more robust in 2013.
Some teams are more stable at wide receiver than others, of course. Penn State can trot returning All-Big Ten Allen Robinson out as the sole WR and load up on tight ends and backs and still have a dynamic passing attack. Nebraska welcomes back everybody at WR except Tim Marlowe, who registered four catches for 54 yards on the year.
Indiana had the most prolific passing offense in the Big Ten (low hurdle to clear, yes), and it brings everybody back at wideout. Same goes for Ohio State, unless we're still calling Jake Stoneburner a WR in that offense.
But that's it.
Plenty of other schools have fights brewing for starting roles at wide receiver, though, and how those shake out could directly affect each of the division title races come November. Here's a look at some of those races and how we think they'll shake out by the time the spring games come and go.
Iowa is one of only two teams in the Big Ten that returns fewer than three starting receivers (including tight ends), according to Phil Steele. Purdue is the other team (more on it later), and both these schools have two WR/TEs back. One of each, in both instances.
Kevonte Martin-Manley is Iowa's leading returning WR by a hefty margin, but he's best utilized in the slot and his ceiling is somewhere around "bigger Jeremy Gallon." That's not an insult; Gallon was Michigan's best receiver in 2012 and probably will be again this year. More on the Wolverines later too.
But Iowa's going to need more, and there are some options as the Hawkeyes continue to implement Greg Davis' new offense.
Jordan Cotton has emerged as a kick return dynamo, and that athleticism is what Davis has historically tried to exploit on the outside. He's a good candidate for major playing time, but his route-running isn't superb.
Don Shumpert is big-framed like departing top wideout Keenan Davis, but his first three years haven't been productive. Maurice Fleming is smaller, but, like Cotton, has explosive athleticism; he's still young and raw, having redshirted in 2012.
Like Penn State, Iowa has a glut of talent at tight end. As such, it may go heavy on TE more readily than most teams. Nonetheless, Martin-Manley should hang onto his starting role. Whether he's starting next to Cotton or a bigger receiver will depend on where Iowa goes with the roles it wants its two top receivers to play.
Roy Roundtree bids Michigan a fond farewell after a solid career—and on a team already hurting for wide receiver depth, that's not a positive development. Fortunately, Jeremy Gallon returns after his most productive season yet, and Drew Dileo looks to be rounding into form as a reliable slot option.
But as Michigan transitions into more of a pro-style offense, Gallon and Dileo are both more of the Z-receiver type (a flanker, basically), playing off the line rather than muscling past a defender, so starting them both won't make much sense even if they're the top two returning receivers. Which they are. And if Michigan's going three-wide, Dileo's that third guy for sure.
So Michigan has quite the battle at the X-receiver (or split end) and more options than the barren stat sheet of 2012 would suggest. Joe Reynolds is a senior walk-on who's got a significant experience advantage. If he proves to be an enthusiastic downfield blocker (as walk-on WRs tend to be), he could be a valuable man on the field for the Wolverines even if his catch totals are low.
If Michigan needs a strong pass-catching threat, however, it can go in a couple different directions. Sophomore Amara Darboh played sparingly as a true freshman last year, but he's got worlds of potential and size to match it. Redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson should also be in that mix.
And then there's what to do with Devin Funchess, who is ostensibly a tight end but emerged as a serious pass-catching weapon as a true freshman last year. Funchess has the skill set to split out wide. And if Michigan wants to go big, it can do that and put in 283-pound masher A.J. Williams at TE.
So there's some versatility here.
Darboh and Chesson have a competition on their hands. As much as we like Reynolds to be a glue guy, he's probably only going to be situationally used. We're giving Darboh the slight nod due to him keeping a redshirt off last year.
There's no greater amount of uncertainty at the wide receiver position than in West Lafayette, where Purdue bids farewell to graduating senior starters Antavian Edison and Gary Bush.
Leading receiver O.J. Ross was only a junior in 2012, but he was suspended indefinitely by first-year head coach Darrell Hazell at the beginning of February this year. Hazell can make an example out of Ross, and that's a bad place for Ross to be—especially because this isn't his first suspension with the Boilermakers.
It's entirely possible that he will not be with the team in 2013, valuable as he might have been with a clean disciplinary slate.
If Ross has indeed played his last game for the Boilermakers, Dolapo Macarthy is the leading returning pass-catcher for the Boilermakers in 2013. He emerged as a decent backup last season, snagging 28 passes for 252 yards and a score.
Nine yards a pop isn't setting anything on fire, but Macarthy is a bigger target at 6'5" and 220. What he lacks in field-stretching ability he makes up for in being a big target.
Past Dalapo, it's pretty bleak. Danny Anthrop worked his way onto the field as a freshman in 2012, but he mainly contributed on special teams aside from some garbage-time work in the early season. He'll probably get some looks this spring.
Same goes for sophomore Shane Mikesky and junior-to-be Charles Torwudzo. Torwudzo and Mikesky are at least big targets at 6'4", and Torwudzo's big enough at 223 pounds that he should be able to out-muscle the smaller corners they'll face.
Keep a close eye on two redshirt freshmen this spring: Cameron Posey and Jordan Woods. Both are talented former 3-star prospects who have an opportunity to earn playing time in a wide-open situation and keep it for a four-year starting career, if they can hang onto it.
Woods in particular is slippery and jet-fast; he could wreak havoc on short routes for the Boilermakers.
Macarthy's productivity and the dearth of experience around him make him a near-lock for top-three status. Woods' athleticism puts him solidly in the mix, and Shane Mikesky's speed should make him a decent third option. This group has a lot of production to replace, but there's some long-term potential.
4. Michigan State
The good news for Michigan State is that all the wide receivers are back. The bad news for Michigan State is that all the wide receivers are back.
After a soul-crushing 2012 season that saw the Spartans go 7-6 despite giving up 16.3 points a game (ninth best in the nation and best in the Big Ten), the impetus is to fix a passing game that was one of the Big Ten's most inept. That starts by shoring up the wide receiver position.
There's certainly potential at WR.
Sophomore Aaron Burbridge flashed potential to be one of the top Big Ten wideouts with a great display of athleticism here and there, especially after the catch. But his hands were as suspect as anyone's and his route-running is not ideal yet.
DeAnthony Arnett is somehow already a junior. Spartan fans probably expected more from his first year in East Lansing than three catches for 69 yards.
Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery saw the highest amounts of passes in 2012. Both are big, experienced targets, but neither performed well enough to think he's got a starting role shored up for 2013.
And don't count out Tony Lippett, who finally committed to the WR position full-time in 2012 after bouncing between there and cornerback. Andre Sims is also in the mix, though with his return specialist skill set, he's probably best used situationally.
Put simply, this position is wide, wide open, even with a full season of data to go off of.
Fowler and Mumphery are each in for a battle, and we really like the potential Burbridge flashed. If he stays healthy, he should develop into the best playmaker Michigan State's got. Past that...it's anybody's guess.