All this week, Josh Moyer and I will offer our picks on who will lead the Big Ten in several individual statistical categories this fall. Today's Take Two looks at who will be this year's receiving yards champion in the league.
Take 1: Josh Moyer
Only eight Big Ten receivers surpassed 800 yards last season and only four return this season. Of those four, only one -- Nebraska’s Jordan Westerkamp -- has his quarterback returning in 2016. That sure sounds like a safe pick to me.
I debated going with both Indiana's Simmie Cobbs and Penn State’s Chris Godwin. But Joe Moorhead’s offenses have tended to spread the ball around more, and the Hoosiers won’t have Nate Sudfeld flinging the ball downfield. It’s a different dynamic over at Nebraska. Tommy Armstrong Jr., the Big Ten’s only returning 3,000-yard passer, should take a step forward this season, and Westerkamp has made big strides every offseason. He increased his receptions from 20 as a freshman to 44 and then 65. There’s little reason to believe he will go in reverse this year.
Westerkamp is a natural playmaker, and he doesn’t need a lot of receptions to amass a ton of yards. He caught more passes thrown over 20 yards last season than any other returning B1G wideout. Cobbs needs to be in space to really take advantage of his skills; Westerkamp can be anywhere. Heck, so can the ball. He’s made acrobatic catches and has the ability to adjust with the offense.
According to Pro Football Focus, he’s the highest-rated returning receiver among the Power 5. And he plays three passing defenses that were ranked among the 25 worst last season. Add that all together and Westerkamp has a solid chance to surpass 1,000 yards for the first time in his career -- and lead the conference in receiving.
Take 2: Brian Bennett
Cobbs caught 60 passes for 1,035 yards last year as a true sophomore. Godwin is the only returning receiver who had more yards in 2015, and he won't have Christian Hackenberg around in what should be a more ground-based Penn State offense this fall. Cobbs has work to do on his game still; he's skinny, which means he can be pushed off his routes at time, and as Josh mentioned, he does most of his damage in open space and particularly on deep balls.
Here's the thing, though: Lagow probably has a stronger pure arm than even Sudfeld, so the deep throw could be a go-to play for Indiana this season. The 6-foot-4 Cobbs will be a tough matchup down the field for any Big Ten cornerback, and there's reason to believe he'll continue to improve, especially on his drop percentage of 8.2, which ranked 211th among Power 5 receivers in 2015. As he gets older and stronger, he'll be better going over the middle and on other shorter routes.
Still, Cobbs' forte is going deep, and getting lots of yards per catch (17.3 per reception last year -- only six Power 5 players with more than 40 catches had a higher mark). That's a good way to rack up a high season total and why I think Cobbs will lead the Big Ten in receiving yards.