Biggest Remaining Challenge Each Big Ten Coach Faces This Offseason
The dog days of summer are upon us. That means summer workouts and filling out rosters with incoming freshmen.
It also means it's time to assess the biggest question marks facing teams before the start of preseason camp.
Everyone in the Big Ten has questions—from Ohio State to Purdue. Some teams just have more pressing ones.
What is the biggest remaining challenge for each Big Ten head coach? The answers are in the following slides.
Mark Dantonio: Find Leadership on Defense
Technically, this has been an ongoing project since the end of last season. The 2013 Michigan State defense was a special group that was just about the best in the country at all three levels.
But the big names like cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Denicos Allen are gone. Stepping up into prominent roles are guys like linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris.
The good news is that Michigan State has depth on defense. What head coach Mark Dantonio will be looking for is leadership from players like defensive end Shilique Calhoun.
“Our guys are growing up,” Dantonio said via Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News.
Just how quickly they'll grow up will have a major impact on the season—and Sparty travels to Oregon in Week 2.
Brady Hoke: Offensive Line
At least Michigan has one thing in common with Ohio State: The Wolverines have a lot of questions at offensive line.
Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield are off to the NFL, and there are several young players who now have to become leaders for the offense. Erik Magnuson, Kyle Bosch and Kyle Kalis were touted recruits, but there hasn't been much optimism about the O-line this spring.
Last year's group was awful and the Wolverines had the 87th-best offense in the country. If Michigan is going to get to the Big Ten championship in a tough East Division, the O-line is the key.
Gary Andersen: Is Quarterback Joel Stave the Guy?
There aren't a lot of quarterback questions in the Big Ten this season, but one of them is located in Madison, Wisconsin.
Joel Stave was decent enough in 2013, but he threw three picks in a crippling loss to Penn State, a microcosm for his inconsistencies. Stave then sustained a shoulder injury in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and was limited, if not otherwise held out, during spring.
That's paved the way for Tanner McEvoy to make some noise of his own. McEvoy played safety for the Badgers last season and his athleticism could give this offense an extra dimension besides running back Melvin Gordon. Head coach Gary Andersen just needs to see if McEvoy should be a full-time starter, a situational player or whether he is best served on defense.
Urban Meyer: Offensive Line
Ohio State got some help for its offensive line with the addition of former Alabama center Chad Lindsay. That said, the O-line is still the biggest area of concern for the Buckeyes.
It starts with the turnover. Ohio State lost four seniors from last year's team. But tackle Taylor Decker and guard Pat Elflein have unofficially wrapped up starting jobs heading into the summer months. In that sense, experience isn't as huge of an issue as it is made out to be, but this group still has to grow together as a unit.
And, there are several young players who could see playing time this season.
Ohio State's defense, especially the defensive line, could be asked to win some games in 2014 if the O-line doesn't mesh quickly. Quarterback Braxton Miller's health will depend on it, too.
James Franklin: Protect Christian Hackenberg
The good news for Penn State and first-year head coach James Franklin is that quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a pure talent with an exceptionally high ceiling.
The not-so-good news is that the Nittany Lions have a lot of questions about how to protect Hackenberg. In that sense, go ahead and add Penn State to the list of Big Ten teams with offensive line problems.
The O-line is a concern thanks to the turnover from last year's group and the knee injury to Miles Dieffenbach. Donovan Smith and Angelo Mangiro are two guys who will be counted on to anchor the line.
Elsewhere, the Nittany Lions have to find replacements for receivers Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder, who combined for more than 1,700 yards receiving (most of which came from Robinson).
Penn State's passing game could be dicey.
Jerry Kill: Find Explosive Playmakers
In the figurative sense, of course. No one at B/R advocates actual exploding athletes.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill should feel really good about his team on both sides of the ball this season. That said, there's extra room to grow on offense. The Gophers have what appears to be a good quarterback, Mitch Leidner, and a crop of solid, young receivers in Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky and tight end Maxx Williams.
The production just needs to match the potential.
The Gophers were among the worst teams in the Big Ten last year in explosive plays, especially in the passing game. Jones, Wolitarsky and Williams are all big-bodied players, so the capability to stretch the field is there.
Kirk Ferentz: Lock Down the Safeties
Things are actually looking good for Iowa this season. There just aren't a lot of questions. As such, this really isn't so much a concern for head coach Kirk Ferentz.
But two positions that could still see some competition heading into preseason camp are in the secondary. Jordan Lomax has emerged at one of the safety spots and Maurice Fleming is listed as the starter at one of the cornerback spots.
That said, corner Sean Draper is still competing for a spot and safety Nico Law could still battle his way into some starts.
Kevin Wilson: Improving the Defense
It's a general statement, yes, but with 10 returning starters on defense, there's not much else to do, except allow this group to jell.
Indiana was at or near the bottom of every major defensive statistical category in the Big Ten last season. Scoring points wasn't a problem for the Hoosiers, but stopping opposing offenses certainly was.
Defensive coordinator Brian Knorr was hired in January to start the rebuilding project and he has some decent players to work with. Indiana has a great cornerback in Tim Bennett and he'll undoubtedly be the leader of this defense.
This group doesn't have to be night and day from last season, but it needs to hold its own well enough to take some of the pressure off the offense. If it does that, getting back to a bowl game isn't a crazy thought.
Pat Fitzgerald: Stay Healthy
This is a big-picture question, and there's not much anyone can do about it, but it's pertinent. Can Northwestern stay healthy?
It was a problem for the Wildcats last season and a big reason why they lost seven straight games in stunning fashion. Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune pointed out last November that 20—count 'em, 20—players were on the injury list. Thirteen of them were key contributors.
The issue continued into the spring. According to ESPN.com's Brian Bennett, the 'Cats had 11 players sidelined for the spring "scrimmage" because of injuries.
The injury issues have been jaw-dropping. If the football gods have any mercy, Northwestern will get through the summer months unscathed.
Bo Pelini: Find More Passing Options Beyond Kenny Bell
Nebraska's season storyline will revolve around the defense—can it finally get back to, dare we speak it, Blackshirt status?—and getting over the perennial four-loss hump.
In the meantime, head coach Bo Pelini has to find help for wide receiver Kenny Bell. Quincy Enunwa, the team's second-leading receiver, is gone. Jordan Westerkamp returns after catching 20 passes as a freshman and depth is solid.
Nebraska is also young at tight end, a position that wasn't a huge part of the offense last season. Depending on how you look at it, that's either a problem—or a chance to get better. There's potential with the Huskers' pass-catchers, that's for sure.
It's just a matter of whether they can step up in 2014. Or, whether quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can put them in a good position to make plays.
Darrell Hazell: Improve the Offensive Line
Really, where do you begin with Purdue?
2013 was a disaster from pretty much every perspective. Taking away positives from Darrell Hazell's first year is tough. The Boilermakers should improve on their 1-11 record if for no other than two reasons.
First, the only thing worse is going winless, so the floor for this program is pretty much set. Secondly, Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois are on the schedule. There has to be at least two wins in there.
To improve its record, Purdue has to improve along the offensive line. The Boilermakers gave up a Big Ten-worst 39 sacks last season.
Stats and offensive lines can be tricky. There are coverage sacks to consider, or sometimes the quarterback holds on to the ball too long. But the number is what it is, and it's not good.
Tim Beckman: Develop the Passing Game
Illinois has various question marks heading into the 2014 season. If enough of them don't get answered—or, if the answers are bad—head coach Tim Beckman could find himself out of a job.
Developing the passing game is one of those questions. Illinois actually had the second-best passing attack in the Big Ten in 2013, but the Illini are breaking in a new quarterback—likely Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt—and several new receivers.
Running back Josh Ferguson will be a part of the passing game too, but the Illini need more weapons so that it doesn't have to be a one-man show with him.
Randy Edsall: Keeping Everyone Healthy
Maryland is a lot like Northwestern: when healthy, it's a good, if not dangerous, team. But staying healthy has been a problem for Randy Edsall's group. Perhaps nothing solidified that fact more than in 2012 when the Terps went through more quarterbacks than Spinal Tap went through drummers.
Maryland has some exciting talent on offense—from quarterback C.J. Brown to wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. With those three stars, the Terps can have a versatile offense that can hurt defenses in a variety of ways.
They just haven't been able to stay healthy enough to do it.
Running backs Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii all return to give the Terps solid depth at running back, too.
There are a lot of weapons for Edsall, but his concentration should be on making sure everyone stays healthy.
Kyle Flood: Developing Quarterback Gary Nova
Now that Chas Dodd has graduated, Gary Nova is basically the unquestioned starting quarterback for Rutgers.
That's not the strongest of statements based on Nova's previous numbers. Last season, he completed just 55 percent of his passes for 2,159 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, as he shared time with Dodd.
Head coach Kyle Flood said via Dan Duggan of NJ.com that, if the season were starting today, Nova would be the starter. But, technically, Nova is competing with Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano.
The Big Ten East Division, which features Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State, won't offer the Scarlet Knights many breaks. All of those teams have solid quarterback play.
Rutgers has many question marks, but Nova's improvement is among the most compelling.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
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