Big Ten Football: 10 Most Crucial 2014 Fall-Camp Battles
The impending start of fall camp can only mean one thing: position battles.
There are certainly many returning stars in the Big Ten who, barring major injury, will be full-time starters. There are also several hotly contested position battles that we'll outline for you here.
Players like Braxton Miller or Connor Cook are clearly central to their respective teams' chances of success, both in the past and in 2014, but some of the great championship teams often rely on unexpected contributions from underclassmen or previously unknown players who were buried on the previous season's depth charts.
With several roster spots opening up for these potential stars, we'll take a look at the looming position battles we'll see around the Big Ten during fall camps in the run up to the 2014 college football season.
Michigan State: Quarterback
It might seem strange to put MSU's quarterback situation on this list, especially given the tenuous position of Connor Cook's counterpart down the road in Ann Arbor. But give us a moment to explain.
First, let's rewind to last August. At this time in 2013, there was almost no certainly about who would be the full-time starter for the Spartans at quarterback. Even after a couple of shaky weeks, Cook's position as starter was anything but secure.
By the time MSU was walking into Lucas Oil Stadium to take on Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game, Cook had undergone one of the most amazing in-season maturations the Big Ten has seen in quite some time.
Cook was eventually named MVP in both the Big Ten title game and the ensuing Rose Bowl Game.
So where does that leave us today? Cook is unquestionably the front-runner, but we seem to have a tough time getting his early struggles out of our minds. With some quality "backups" waiting in the wings, the battle will be focused on securing the No. 2 spot on the depth chart—and potentially a starting spot if something disastrous were to befall Cook, or if he somehow relapses to his younger performances.
Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry will be battling for that second spot on the depth chart, and the talent these two possess speaks to the surprising young depth MSU has at the position.
O'Connor was the No. 2 in 2013, and he has the inside track for the backup slot in 2014. The 6'3", 220-pound sophomore saw limited action last year before the coaching staff settled on Cook as the full-time starter.
Terry, while an unknown factor, certainly comes with plenty of intrigue. Spartan fans were anxious to get a peek at Terry last season, eager to catch a glimpse of his rumored crazy athleticism. After all, in the 2013 camp, Terry was nothing short of impressive. He opened plenty of eyes both in the media and among his own defensive teammates. Mark Dantonio eventually decided—probably correctly—to redshirt Terry in 2013.
With that redshirt now effectively burned, will we finally get a look at this phenom? Let's hope so.
Rutgers: Running Back
Even if you ignore the massive leap Rutgers is going to need to make in order to be competitive in the Big Ten, there are some adjustments the Scarlet Knights need to make just to hold serve when compared to last season's 6-7 finish (which included a 3-5 record in the American Athletic Conference).
The starting running back in 2013, Paul James, accounted for just 881 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. That's not good—even in the AAC. Some of the defenses in the East Division in 2014, like those in East Lansing and Columbus, are going to have a field day against such an anemic running game.
So what are Rutgers' options? There are some new faces on campus who could make some noise early in their collegiate careers. Todderick Hunt, from NJ.com, outlined some of the new talent head coach Kyle Flood has brought in to the program for 2014.
Unless James can somehow develop into a quality, Big Ten-caliber running back overnight, don't be surprised if Flood gives newcomers Josh Hicks, Robert Martin and Jacob Kraut a shot at carrying the football for the Scarlet Knights in 2014.
Penn State: Running Back
Penn State has been doing a fine job of ignoring the NCAA's rather severe sanctions over the past two seasons. Still, as time moves on, those scholarship limits are going to cause some glaring holes when it comes to roster depth.
First things first, however, is nailing down the starters. With new head coach James Franklin coming in for 2014 and a good number of seniors departing, there are a lot of roster holes to fill before Week 1.
At running back, Penn State has three legit options: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. Last season, the three backs combined for 2,150 yards and 18 touchdowns on 427 carries.
There's something to be said about running back by committee, and some teams—namely Wisconsin—have been making championship runs with such a system. But is Penn State in a position to constantly rotate three players at a single position while remaining strong at the other 21 slots on the field?
Zwinak certainly has the most experience and is the odds-on favorite. But both Belton and Lynch, both with dynamic speed and likely some untapped potential, could give Zach a run for his money this fall.
Nebraska is a team we expect to make a little noise in the new West Division this season, what with a running back like Ameer Abdullah, the Big Ten's leading rusher in 2013, back in action. But Nebraska draws Michigan State as a cross-division foe in 2014, while West Division teams such as Iowa and Wisconsin won't be a cakewalk, either.
Oh, yeah: All three of those games are not in Lincoln this season.
Add in some angst surrounding the quarterback situation, and Bo Pelini seems ripe for his seventh consecutive four-loss season at Nebraska.
Right now, Tommy Armstrong seems to have a decent grip on the starting role. But keep in mind the fact that Armstrong threw eight interceptions to just nine touchdowns last season, while completing less than 52 percent of his passes.
Enter Johnny Stanton. In Nebraska's spring game, Stanton completed eight of 12 passes for 135 yards and two scores. He also seems to possess some things Armstrong lacks: confidence and decisiveness.
Who knows how Armstrong will react to a solid challenge from Stanton. Armstrong struggled mightily with confidence last season, and he'll either have to rise to the challenge this season or fall by the wayside.
Michigan: Offensive Line
Shockingly, one of Michigan's weakest spots last year was along the offensive line. The Wolverines have been known for their lockdown O-lines for years, but what was once utterly unfathomable became reality in 2013.
Suffice it to say, we're not the only ones who noticed. Anyone who watched Michigan play last season noticed: Michigan fans noticed, Michigan coaches noticed and you can believe that Michigan quarterbacks, led by Devin Gardner, definitely noticed—usually from a position on the turf.
The entire O-line will be overhauled for 2014 on the heels of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduating. So how can U-M hope to improve on a struggling position grouping with the two best players departing?
A spirited position battle, of course.
At right tackle, sophomore Ben Braden and freshman early enrollee Mason Cole will be vying for a spot atop the depth chart. Cole played with the first team during the spring game. Erik Magnuson, who missed spring practice on the heels of shoulder surgery, is the leading candidate to start at the other tackle spot.
Braden has two seasons under his belt and should have the inside track. You might think that would led Cole towards a spot on the practice squad for the true freshman, but if the line struggles or there are more injuries, it's likely Cole will be needed on the sidelines as a prepared backup, rather than sitting in the stands as a member of the practice team.
There's also the possibility that Cole can beat out other players with more experience, too. While not the most likely scenario, Cole might in fact be that gem Michigan needs to get back on track on the O-line.
It might also highlight just how desperate Michigan is for any talent on the offensive line.
If you don't pay close attention to Wisconsin football, you might be surprised to learn that returning starter Joel Stave doesn't have the job locked up for 2014. Stave played pretty well last season and nearly found a way to get past a very good South Carolina team in the 2014 Capital One Bowl.
Maybe that's just it: Stave played pretty well. Not great, just pretty well. Sure, he had a nearly 62 percent completion rating, and there were 22 touchdowns in there, as well.
So, too, were there 13 interceptions and no real ability to add to an already outstanding rushing game (-24 yards on 38 credited attempts). Wisconsin has, in the past, had quarterbacks that could add to the lethality of the offense with an ability to move the ball down the field via the ground. Stave doesn't really have that skill.
Enter Tanner McEvoy.
Formerly committed to South Carolina, the former JUCO standout and Wisconsin safety is now a very good "other option" for head coach Gary Andersen. Just how close are Stave and McEvoy in the running? Stave is definitely the No. 1 guy, but McEvoy might be No. 1.5 at this point.
It didn't help Stave's case that he missed most of the spring workouts with a shoulder injury, which took him out of the Capital One Bowl late in the game. Add in the fact that McEvoy is exactly the kind of quarterback Wisconsin fans want to see—a mobile guy with a cannon for an arm—and all of the sudden Stave's position looks far more precarious.
The strike against McEvoy, of course, is experience; he played just a single season of quarterback in high school and has yet to take a single snap under center since his JUCO days. If, however, he can prove that he's up to the task of leading a team that has a legitimate shot at winning the West Division in 2014, McEvoy might very well find himself as the guy in Madison this fall.
Ohio State: Linebacker
The linebacker position isn't just a single guy, but if it was, Ryan Shazier would still have been Urban Meyer's pick for the role. Heck, he would have been most coaches' pick. But Meyer doesn't have that option any longer, and the slot will be up for grabs among a fresh group of eager young Buckeyes.
In replacing Shazier, Ohio State must replace the 259 tackles Shazier accounted for over the past two seasons, not to mention the incredible hole he filled up in the middle of the Buckeyes' defense. And even with Shazier anchoring the middle, Ohio State's defense was still pretty ugly in 2013 (112th nationally in passing defense).
Ohio State will have a new defensive coordinator in Chris Ash this season, and that inevitably means some changes in play-calling and philosophy. One major change we'll see in 2014 is a move back to the 4-3 instead of the nickel we've seen thus far under Meyer.
The reality of the situation in Columbus is that there really isn't much in the way of proven options for the Buckeyes when it comes to filling in middle. While that may sound dangerous, leave it to Urban Meyer and staff to pull a few rabbits out of those scarlet and gray, buckeye leaf-adorned helmets.
Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant will certainly be back in the mix, but keep your eyes on Darron Lee, Chris Worley, Camren Williams and Trey Johnson as contenders throughout fall camp.
If Ohio State can't manage to figure out a way to improve upon its defense, the biggest roadblock between the Buckeyes and a conference crown might not come from Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Madison or Lincoln. Instead, it might come from its own linebacking corps.
Purdue was long considered one of the best collegiate programs for quarterbacks to hone their skills before gliding into NFL success. Not so much these days.
Danny Etling, the returning starter for the Boilermakers, isn't exactly in the strongest position when it comes to holding on to his job. Despite some of the best passing defenses in the nation, it isn't some guy in East Lansing, Columbus, Lincoln or anywhere else in the Big Ten that should frighten Etling the most. Rather, it's the guy nipping at his heels on the Purdue depth chart: Austin Appleby.
With a completion ratio south of 56 percent and seven picks on just 10 touchdowns, Etling isn't winning too many supporters in West Lafayette. Appleby, on the other hand, completed five of the six passes he threw in very limited action last season.
Okay, we admit that six pass attempts doesn't prove Appleby can be a star at Purdue. But as fall camp progresses, don't be surprised if Appleby is put through his paces by the coaching staff to see if he can handle a much higher level of pressure.
Besides, what does Purdue have to lose at this point?
Last season, Purdue won just one game. That victory was by six points over FCS Indiana State and wasn't conclusively settled until the final play of the game. Indiana State, for its part, also won just one game—against a Division II program that itself won just two games in 2013.
There is no shortage of bold predictions out there when it comes to the impending quarterback battle at Michigan. What do we know for sure? It will either be Devin Gardner or Shane Morris.
What don't we know? Pretty much everything else.
Yes, Gardner was Michigan's starter in 2013, but that was under offensive coordinator Al Borges. For 2014, Borges is out and Doug Nussmeier is in. If head coach Brady Hoke were to tie Nussmeier's hands by insisting on Gardner, one has to wonder what the point of hiring a new OC was in the first place.
Shane Morris got the start in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl for Michigan in place of an injured Gardner. Sure, Michigan lost that game, but Morris showed signs of being something Michigan hasn't had in quite some time: a true, honest to God quarterback.
Both Gardner and his predecessor, Denard Robinson, were pure athletes. But when it came to the mechanics of being a quality quarterback, both lacked sterling abilities in the passing game. Last season, Gardner threw 11 interceptions to his 21 touchdowns. Morris, more focused as a true quarterback, would likely be a more stable option, cutting down on the turnovers from the QB position.
Still, it's Gardner's job as of now. Morris will need to do something in fall camp to prove he should be the starter come Week 1's visit from Appalachian State. Either that, or Gardner will need to continue to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of his coaches.
Michigan State: Linebackers
Michigan State will be turning over a good portion of its dominating 2013 defense for 2014. Perhaps the biggest positional question mark comes at linebacker. Gone are Max Bullough, Kyler Elsworth and Denicos Allen, with Taiwan Jones the only returning starter at the position.
But Spartan fans shouldn't lose hope just yet. If there's one thing that Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi have proven over the years, it's their ability to attract some of the nation's top defensive talent, year in and year out.
For 2014, the battle will boil down to a slugfest between returning senior Jones, juniors Darien Harris and Ed Davis, sophomore Riley Bullough and freshman Jon Reschke.
Jones is probably a lock, barring some sort of surprise during fall camp. Last season, Jones started 13 of MSU's 14 games and finished fourth on the team in total tackles (with 67).
Harris appears likely to take over the MLB spot, although he'll get some competition from his younger teammates in camp. The other OLB slot isn't quite as clear. While Davis looks to be a front-runner, we can't rule out Max Bullough's little brother, Riley. It would also be a mistake to ignore freshman Reschke, who is coming off of his redshirt season.
Regardless of who earns the eventual starting spots for Week 1, don't be shocked if all of the guys we just mentioned see some significant playing time during 2014.