Every Big Ten Team's Biggest Concern This Offseason
After the way the 2013 season unfolded, every single team in the Big Ten—save maybe Michigan State—has a lot of work to do.
And given the losses they'll incur on defense, the Spartans shouldn't be excluded.
Maryland and Rutgers join the league in 2014, both fresh of bowl losses, which should help them fit in seamlessly with the B1G. The conference went 2-5 in bowl games this December and January, continuing a long string of failure in the postseason.
In order to improve on that, every team will have to get better. In order to get better, every team needs to identify its biggest weakness and make it right. And each team needs to answer its biggest questions as quickly as possible.
Here is where each team should start.
Concern: Cobbling together new offensive pieces.
Whether it's Oklahoma State castoff Wes Lunt or red-chip sophomore Aaron Bailey who starts at quarterback next season, it will be someone who has only spent one season in head coach Tim Beckman's system.
What's more, four of last year's five leading receivers were seniors, so this offseason will force a new band of playmakers to emerge. Most of that pressure will be heaped onto a pair of JUCO recruits, Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis, who are expected to come in and compete for early playing time.
Spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp will all be about A) figuring out where everyone stands on the depth chart, and B) teaching them how to play with one another. It's tough to cobble together so many transfers and underclassmen, but with the right coaching, it's not impossible.
Concern: Replacing Size on the Outside
Indiana is taking baby steps toward fielding a competitive outfit under Kevin Wilson, and much of that has had to do with a high-octane passing offense.
Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will both be back in 2014, but the Hoosiers were dealt a massive and surprising blow when Cody Latimer declared early for the NFL draft. He and Kofi Hughes, who was a senior, combined for over 1,800 receiving yards last season.
Both Latimer and Hughes were big targets, each checking at over 6'2". Senior Duwyce Wilson (6'3") is also gone, and Shane Wynn, the top returning receiver, is only 5'7''. One of the guys behind him, like Nick Stoner (6'1"), Isaiah Roundtree (5'11") or 4-star freshman Dominique Booth (6'0.5''), will need to take a big step forward and replace lost production on the outside.
Concern: How do you replace those linebackers?
Iowa's defense was led by a trio of senior linebackers—Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey—in 2013, which helped propel the Hawkeyes to a bounce-back season and a berth in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.
Hitchens, Morris and Kirksey combined to make 101 starts in their respective Iowa careers, finishing first, second and third on the team in tackles last season—all with more than 100. No other linebacker finished with more than 12.
The task of replacing that trio falls on the shoulders of Quinton Alston, Travis Perry, Reggie Spearman and Cole Fisher, among others, who will compete for spots on the depth chart. With so much talent returning on offense, this might be the only thing holding Iowa back from another step in the right direction.
Concern: Establishing the run.
Maryland will get a stern introduction to the Big Ten in 2014, especially during a five-game stretch against Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan. In order to fit in, the Terps will need to blend in.
Randy Edsall's team uses a spread concept on offense, running outside the tackles and stretching the field to the sidelines in the passing game. This runs counterintuitive to Big Ten football, which might be advantageous in some spots but hurt in others.
This is a ball-control league. In order to succeed, you need to be able to move the sticks on the ground and keep your defense off the field. UMD needs to foster some depth (and strength) across the offensive line, see some development from running back Brandon Ross and improve on a unit that averaged 4.05 yards per carry in 2013.
Otherwise, Big Ten defenses will swallow this offense whole.
Concern: Who is next year's quarterback?
Devin Gardner took a big step backwards in 2013, entering the year as a dark-horse Heisman candidate and leaving it without a firm grasp on the starting position.
Shane Morris showed glimmers of hope in the bowl game against Kansas State but not enough for Michigan fans to get fully on board with. Against a defense that Baylor's Bryce Petty shredded for 332 yards on 21 passes, Morris had just 196 on 38.
So. Where are we? Who is "the guy"? Both have significant upside, both have significant downside and both might hold the key to Michigan's 2014 season. With Doug Nussmeier now in charge of the offense, Gardner loses the edge of experience, so charting their progression through camps should be interesting to watch.
Concern: Keeping Pat Narduzzi.
To this point, Michigan State has survived the coaching carousel. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi—the winner of last year's Broyles Award for top assistant coach—has had his name come up for numerous job openings, but none have yet to take.
It needs to stay that way. Narduzzi is one of the best defensive minds in football, leading Michigan State to an FBS-best 4.04 yards allowed per play in 2014. With Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis all leaving, his presence will be needed to weather the storm of attrition.
So far, so good; but there are still some job openings out there. Narduzzi's name will continue to pop up. Turning down Connecticut is far easier than turning down, say, Vanderbilt in the SEC.
Concern: Leadership on defense.
Minnesota loses just six out of 22 starters from a team that started 8-2 this season, so things appear to be in pretty good shape. But the "who" of those losses might be more important than the "how many."
Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen were both named to the All-Big Ten First Team by conference coaches in 2013, and both are now gone. Hageman, in particular, used his otherworldly athleticism to plug up the middle of the defense and generate negative plays.
The Gophers offense should take a small step forward next season, but even that won't be enough to finish in the top half of the conference. If it wants a repeat of 2013, the defense will again need to carry the load. And if the defense again wants to carry the load, guys like Damien Wilson and Theiren Cockran must step up and become leaders of that unit.
Concern: Is Tommy Armstrong Jr. the answer?
Taylor Martinez's swan song was an injury-riddled disaster, providing Tommy Armstrong Jr. a hearty sample to audition for the role of his successor. Appearing in nine games, he threw for 966 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions on 131 passes.
Even at his brightest moments, however, Armstrong gave causes for pause. The Huskers upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl; Armstrong completed just 43 percent of his passes. The Huskers beat Purdue by 37 points; Armstrong went 6-of-18 with three interceptions.
It's hard to get excited about Armstrong as the QB of the future, especially with redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton entering the picture next year. One of those two needs to step up and seize this position. Otherwise, the return of Ameer Abdullah and a deep group of pass-catchers might go for naught.
Concern: Team morale.
It's night and day, the difference between where Northwestern sat last January and where it sits now. Instead of coming off a 10-win season and the snapping of a 63-year bowl drought, it's coming off a narrow escape from going winless in the Big Ten.
But the Wildcats didn't play nearly as poorly as their record indicated in 2013. They hung with Ohio State at home, then lost to Nebraska on a Hail Mary and to Michigan on a Turbo Field Goal. For the umpteenth consecutive year, Pat Fitzgerald's team just couldn't finish games.
With the (massive) exception of quarterback Kain Colter, this team returns almost everything of note on paper. What it needs is a new attitude, a way not to pity itself for the implosion of last year. If Fitz can turn that fire into fuel, this team could be next year's Michigan State.
If not, it could be next year's...well, Northwestern.
Concern: Fixing the secondary.
Ohio State's defense imploded down the stretch this season, not unlike Nebraska's in 2012. In their last three games of the season, the Buckeyes allowed 7.03 yards per play against Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson—one very good offense and two that struggled for most of the year.
That's pretty awful.
The secondary was the primary culprit, finishing 112th in the nation with 268.0 passing yards allowed per game. Bradley Roby, CJ Barnett and Corey Brown are all gone next season, which may seem like a blessing given their collective form...until you realize that their replacements weren't good enough to overtake them.
There is hope on the horizon, though. The Buckeyes have recruited well in the secondary, and the reported hire of Chris Ash at co-defensive coordinator, via Austin Ward of ESPN, provides the best mind for defensive backs that Columbus has seen in a while.
The young players need to buy into Ash's system.
Penn State is in a pretty good spot right now, which would have seemed crazy to say as early as two years ago. It has talent across the board, on both sides of the ball, and it might see even further reductions from its historic NCAA sanctions.
The biggest issue facing the Nittany Lions right now is restoring their once-powerful brand. New head coach James Franklin—the perfect man to do that, by the way—has spoken powerfully about the way he plans on recruiting the area, which has to strike fear in the rest of the Northeast.
Good as PSU might be next season, its eyes are focused more squarely on 2015. With a solid end to this recruiting class, another improved campaign on the field and a big class next season, it might not be long before the Penn State of old returns.
Similar to Northwestern, but in many ways different, the Boilers can't hang their head after a disastrous year in 2013. The Darrell Hazell era began with the feeblest little whimper, as Purdue finished 1-11 and last among power-conference teams (by a wide margin) in the Football Outsiders F/+ Ratings.
Hazell needs his team to focus on the positives, though there weren't many, and pledge itself to getting better next season. Bad as the Boilers were, freshman quarterback Danny Etling and almost every offensive skill player will return in 2014.
"First and foremost, it’s got to be confidence," said Hazell, according to Mike Carmin of the Lafayette Journal and Courier. "That’s where we’ve got to start. I think everything else will trickle down from that confidence."
It's hard to breed that confidence on the heels of such a poor campaign. But if Illinois was able to make strides this past season, why can't Purdue follow suit in the next?
Concern: Replacing bodies in the trenches.
Rutgers lost a lot from its great defense of 2012, and it unthinkably stands to lose more after 2013. Along both lines, offensive and defensive, new faces will need to step into the lineup and produce.
On the defensive front, Marcus Thompson, David Milewski, Isaac Holmes and Jamil Merill are gone to graduation—not to mention three more starters in the secondary. On offense, per B/R's Andy Coppens, seven of 10 linemen from the two-deep must be replaced.
As with Maryland, Rutgers might have a tough time inuring itself to the physical nature of the Big Ten. This league demands size, talent and—most importantly—depth along the front lines on both side of the ball.
How Kyle Flood and Co. develop that depth is the biggest question before next year.
Concern: New starters in the front seven.
Wisconsin has faced mass exoduses before, though never one quite this severe. Six of seven starters depart in the defensive front seven, including linebacker Chris Borland, the 2013 Big Ten Player of the Year on that side of the ball.
Under previous regimes, this was not viewed as such a massive problem. Bret Bielema and his defensive staff knew how to develop depth, how to recruit their kind of guys. Next man up seemed easy; things never got too high or too low.
Are we sure Gary Andersen can do the same? It was impressive to see his old defenders dominate at Utah State this year—the Aggies finished second nationally in rushing yards allowed per attempt—but can he breed such players at a Big Ten level?
It remains to be seen.