Big Ten: Tyler Kroft
For Rutgers' fans or anyone new to this preseason blog staple, please know these are not to be viewed as predictions. Do not take them seriously. The scenarios illustrate the potential highs and lows in a season. Still not sure? Read the first installment on Wisconsin. Yes, this is meant to be fun.
Oh, what a night. Gary Nova throws for 240 yards and three touchdowns, and nose tackle Darius Hamilton sacks Christian Hackenberg on fourth down in the final minute as Rutgers defeats Penn State 24-21 at High Points Solutions Stadium in the Scarlet Knights' Big Ten debut.
Rutgers' first win over the Nittany Lions since 1988 -- in the first game between the traditional rivals since 1995 -- highlights a 6-0 start spurred by a resurgent Nova, a mean core of linebackers and a series of fortunate bounces.
Coach Kyle Flood's upstart bunch escapes a late night in Pullman, Washington, with a wild 38-35 victory in the season opener. After the emotional victory over Penn State, Rutgers starts sluggish at Navy, but running back Paul James churns for two touchdowns, and Tyler Kroft catches a late score from Nova to secure a comeback win.
Michigan, in freefall mode after losses to Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, manages just 11 rushing yards in a 21-3 Rutgers win on Oct. 4 in Piscataway as linebacker Steve Longa collects 20 tackles.
The day after an open date on the first weekend of October, Rutgers climbs to No. 15 in The Associated Press poll. Offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen is acclaimed as the best Big Ten hire of the previous offseason, and former OC Ron Prince accepts a demotion to quality control coach with the Detroit Lions following a poor performance by the club's tight ends.
The dream season hits a rough patch in late October. Rutgers loses at Ohio State, the first of three defeats in five games before a post-Thanksgiving road win over new rival Maryland to clinch a third-place finish in the Big Ten East.
Flood is named Big Ten coach of the year. Nova is a second-team pick at quarterback. Longa, Hamilton and Kroft are first-team selections. The Big Ten sends Rutgers across the country to San Diego to face USC as the league rekindles its tie-in with the Holiday Bowl.
Really, though, the season will be remembered for what happened on Sept. 13. The win is viewed as the most important by Rutgers since a 2006 upset of third-ranked Louisville en route to an 11-win season. Three of the Nittany Lions' four ESPN 300 recruiting commitments out of New Jersey attend the PSU game, including quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who flips to the Scarlet Knights after the Michigan victory.
To top it off, Rutgers jumps eight spots to No. 25 on this list.
This is ugly. Very ugly. Mike Leach runs up the score in the Aug. 28 opener, calling a flea-flicker with 40 seconds to play in a 55-21 debacle at Seattle's Century Link Field.
Penn State spoils the Scarlet Knights' Big Ten opener with a three-touchdown win before a revved-up group of fans in Piscataway who begin to head for the exits in the third quarter.
Nova goes down with a knee injury in a loss at Navy. Tulane squeaks past the Scarlet Knights. Michigan extends its unbeaten season with a 42-0 victory on Oct. 4 as Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess toy with the defensive scheme of first-year coordinator Joe Rossi.
A poll of Rutgers fans and students during the off week before the Scarlet Knights visit Ohio State reveals that a majority believe the school should attempt to petition the AAC for re-entry. Athletic Director Julie Hermann is discovered by the Newark Star-Ledger to have inquired about the possibility, reigniting discussion of this unfortunate situation.
Braxton Miller accounts for five touchdowns in the first half on Oct. 18, the start of a three- week stretch in which Rutgers is outscored 134-16 by the Buckeyes, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Rutgers does not lose in Week 11. Actually, it doesn't play. Hermann bungles an attempt to fire Flood as she is overruled publicly by the school's president.
Losses to Indiana, Michigan State and Maryland make it official: Flood is out after a 1-11 finish in his third year, the worst season at school since 2002. Rutgers does not come closer than seven points from winning a Big Ten game. Purdue feels better about itself.
Earlier today, we wrapped up our countdown of the Big Ten's Top 25 players entering the 2014 season. Not surprisingly, Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller topped the list as he aims for a third consecutive Big Ten offensive player of the year award.
Miller was a fairly easy choice at No. 1, but we debated several other players and where they should end up.
It's roundtable time, and our Big Ten reporter crew is set to break down the Top 25.
Which player did you struggle with the most to rank?
Brian Bennett: I'm not sure I properly ranked (or in some cases didn't rank) the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlet Knights. It's tough because we haven't watched them that closely, while we know the ins and outs of players who competed in the Big Ten the past couple of years. I'm sure Stefon Diggs belongs, and Andre Monroe probably does, too. What about Tyler Kroft or Paul James or Darius Hamilton or Steve Longa or Deon Long? We'll know more about these guys' bona fides after they spend a year in the league.
Mitch Sherman: Venric Mark posed some problems for me. Coming back from a broken ankle that ruined his 2013 season, the Northwestern Wildcats running back is something of a forgotten man, especially amid an outstanding group of league backs. But Mark rushed for nearly 1,400 yards in 2012 and would have likely earned a spot higher than I gave him -- No. 16; 15th in the composite vote -- a year ago.
Which player(s) do you see making the biggest moves up the list for the postseason rankings?
Austin Ward: Now that he's the last one standing with the Indiana Hoosiers, quarterback Nate Sudfeld won't have to worry about sharing snaps or practice reps, and his numbers could skyrocket in that high-octane offense. Fairly or unfairly, though, if the defense doesn't lend a bigger hand to help earn Sudfeld some credit as a winner, he might not be able to climb all that much higher than No. 23.
Rittenberg: Two defensive players suiting up in the Mitten State jump out in Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (No. 20) and Michigan State Spartans cornerback Trae Waynes (No. 19). Ryan showed in 2012 just how good he can be when healthy, recording four forced fumbles and 16 tackles for loss. Coaches around the Big Ten love Waynes, who steps into the top cover corner role with Darqueze Dennard departing. I also love Tevin Coleman's potential and could see the Indiana running back in our postseason top 10.
What does the Top 25 say about certain positions in the league?
Sherman: We probably overvalue quarterbacks. It's the most important position in football, yes, but I doubt five actually rate among the league’s top 23 players. Interestingly, with the quarterbacks and five running backs, we've still got just 13 offensive players in the top 25. Clearly, it's a strong year for Big Ten defensive ends. By December, at least one of those pass-rushers will belong among the league’s best four players.
Bennett: Defensive end is stacked. Nebraska Cornhuskers' Randy Gregory, MSU's Shilique Calhoun and Ohio State's Joey Bosa are studs, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Theiren Cockran and Ohio State's Noah Spence are also special. Also, where are all the offensive linemen in a league known for them? Other than Brandon Scherff, star tackles, guards and centers are MIA.
Ward: Playing quarterback might not be all that fun this season. Ohio State's defensive line might be among the best in the nation, but that's not the only team that will be able to generate a ferocious pass rush. There are seven defensive linemen listed in the preseason top 25, and there could easily have been a few more.
Who were the biggest snubs, either in ranking or those who didn't even make the Top 25?
Sherman: I'll go with two guys who didn't make the list -- Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell, on track to rewrite the school records at his position, and Rutgers' Longa, who collected 123 tackles as a redshirt freshman last year. If Longa played at an established league school, he would have made the Top 25. I voted Bell at No. 23, by the way, and Longa at No. 24.
Rittenberg: I ranked Illinois running back Josh Ferguson in my list and would have liked to see him in the group. He's incredibly versatile -- 50 receptions last season -- and explosive with the ball in his hands. I really like Waynes and think Minnesota defensive end Theiren Cockran could have been higher than No. 21.
Ward: Calling Doran Grant a snub might be a stretch coming off a season with three interceptions for Ohio State’s anemic pass defense, but I think the senior’s talent is overlooked and he’s primed for a breakout in the new system co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has installed. Playing more aggressively with bump-and-run coverage suits Grant’s athleticism, and by the end of the year, I expect he'll be recognized among the Big Ten's best.
Bennett: Indiana receiver Shane Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten player last season, and now he's the top option in the Hoosiers' high-octane passing attack. Fellow players pointed to Wynn as one of the league's best playmakers during media days, yet he didn't get his due here.
What's on your mind?
Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin would gain national respect. Sure, some would point to LSU's personnel losses and potential weaknesses on offense entering the season. But coach Les Miles never has lost an opener in nine years with the Tigers, and his teams have performed especially well in these types of games -- openers at neutral sites against other major-conference teams. Wisconsin has far more question marks than LSU entering this game, and a win would quiet a lot of the skeptics (including yours truly) and put the Badgers in serious contention for a playoff spot, especially with a favorable Big Ten schedule on tap. LSU essentially is the home team in Houston. The Tigers should be very tough on defense. The expectation is that they'll win. A Wisconsin win would and should turn heads.
@ESPN_BigTen ? 4 next mailbag. After reading 5 biggest non-l games, if W beats LSU, would they get respect or would LSU get pass?— Matt Pacholski (@Mpachol) July 16, 2014
Eric from Troy, Mich., writes: Everyone seems to be harping on Michigan's offense for the coming season, but I think their real issue is on defense, a topic that doesn't get seem to get a lot of coverage. MSU (my alma mater) and OSU both basically scored at will last year. The Wolverines had 8 games where an opponent scored more than 21 points, and three games where they gave up 40+. But forget all that and just focus on the fact that Akron, a middle-of-the-road MAC team, put up 24 on them! Is there anything to suggest that UofM's defense will be better this year? And if not, how can anyone seriously believe they are going to contend for anything important?
Adam Rittenberg: I agree not enough criticism/analysis is focused on Michigan's defense. The unit looked awful at the end of the season, surrendering 73 points and 946 yards in the final two games (losses to Ohio State and Kansas State). I thought young quarterback Shane Morris played decently in a tough situation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but the defense didn't give Michigan a chance against K-State. What can we expect this fall? Michigan shuffled its defensive staff responsibilities, which includes coordinator Greg Mattison directly overseeing the linebackers and the secondary being split between Curt Mallory and Roy Manning. I think Michigan will be better in the back seven. There's good experience at linebacker with Jake Ryan, James Ross III, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden. The depth in the secondary might not be quite as strong but I expect big things from cornerback Blake Countess. The key is finding difference-makers up front. Will Frank Clark become a bona fide star? What about Mario Ojemudia, Brennen Beyer and Taco Charlton? Who steps up at defensive tackle? I don't expect Michigan to be a bad defense in 2014, but the line will determine whether it's average, better than average or very good.
Adam Rittenberg: A lot would depend on how the Big Ten performs in nonleague play and whether a Big Ten team runs the table at 13-0. I've written repeatedly that an undefeated team from a major conference won't be left out. The question is whether a one-loss Big Ten team could get in with two SEC teams. I think if Michigan State plays Oregon close and then goes on to sweep the Big Ten for the second straight year, it could get in at 12-1. Could Ohio State or Iowa or Wisconsin or Nebraska? Depends on what happens elsewhere. In terms of other conferences being left out with two SEC playoff teams, the Big 12 would top my list. Oklahoma might be the only realistic playoff contender entering the season. Maybe Baylor, too, but the Bears must visit the Sooners. I don't think a Big 12 team can afford a regular-season loss and still make the top four. I also think the ACC would be in major trouble if Florida State stumbles. There aren't many other genuine candidates. I like the SEC and Pac-12 to get at least one playoff team this year.
@ESPN_BigTen if 2 Sec teams make the playoff would the Big Ten be shut out? If not then which conference?— Paul Mosher (@Moshers07604) July 16, 2014
Daniel from Robbinsville, N.J., writes: Why hasn't more attention been paid to the addition of Ralph Friedgen in evaluating Rutgers for the upcoming season? His resume as an Offensive Coordinator is overwhelming and he has plenty of returning talent to work with.
Adam Rittenberg: I really like the hire, Daniel. Friedgen's priority will be getting quarterback Gary Nova on track for his final season. Nova had a really nice start to the 2012 campaign but struggled down the stretch and for most of 2013. Friedgen's success is not only with the scheme but in managing quarterbacks like Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Shawn Jones and Joe Hamilton. Rutgers' offense returns almost entirely intact and features some exciting pieces like running back Paul James, wide receiver Leonte Carroo and tight end Tyler Kroft. The key is generating consistent production and more explosive plays. It will be tough with this schedule, but Friedgen is proven.
@ESPN_BigTen Does Desmond King have what it takes to be 1 of the best shutdown corners in B1G this year? How much will he impact the IA D?— Caleb Simon (@HeyImSimonSays) July 16, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: I really like King's skill set and potential, and he'll have every opportunity to become a shutdown corner. Iowa has had a really nice run of them with Amari Spievey, Shaun Prater, Micah Hyde and B.J. Lowery. King, the first true freshman corner to start for Iowa since 2002, could be among the best as he continues to develop. He'll be matched up against top opposing wideouts this fall. His first test comes Sept. 20 when he'll likely go against Pitt wideout Tyler Boyd, who had 1,174 receiving yards as a freshman last season. I'm also interested to see how he fares against Maryland's threats -- possibly Stefon Diggs -- when the Hawkeyes visit the Terrapins on Oct. 18.
Rutgers tight end Tyler Kroft is one of those players. He was an honorable mention on at least one All-American team last season and led the Scarlet Knights with 43 catches for 573 yards and four TDs. At 6-foot-6, he’s the biggest offensive weapon Rutgers has and should make an immediate splash in the Big Ten.
You’re just two weeks away here from being a full-fledged member of the Big Ten. So, as a Scarlet Knight who grew up in Pennsylvania, do you think Rutgers already has a conference rival in Penn State -- or is that main rival to be determined?
Tyler Kroft: It’s still to be determined. Obviously we share a border, Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- and with Maryland, there’s that recruiting battle that’s always being played out. It adds to it, too, that we’re opening our Big Ten inaugural season with Penn State at home. So that adds to the buzz, but that’s to be determined.
I think it’s going to have to do with how we play. If everyone comes out high energy and it’s a high-quality game, where everyone plays their best, that’ll lead into making this a rivalry game from then on. I think it’s just going to [depend on] the quality of this game, with this being the first one.
As I said before, you’re a Pennsylvania guy. So I feel like you’re qualified to answer this question since you’ve tried both the fat sandwich and the cheese steak. What’s the one restaurant Big Ten fans need to stop at when they visit RU for the first time?
TK: I know there’s a lot of hype around the grease trucks, but I’ve always liked ‘Stuff Yer Face.’ It’s right on Easton Avenue, which is right off College Avenue. They have good strombolis and burgers and pretty much anything you want there.
I’m adding that to my to-do list. But let’s bounce right back to football: What’s the hardest you’ve ever been hit in your career?
TK: Biggest hit? Probably when I was younger playing Pee Wee football because I always thought I was bigger and better, so I would try to play with my brother -- and he was four years older than me. So I just remember him laying me out in the practice field one day; he really stuck it to me. It was just one of those moments, where I was like, ‘This is what football’s all about.’ That’s when I fell in love with the game.
Hold on a second. So you fell in love with football the moment your brother cleaned your clock?
TK: [Laughs] Yeah.
I think that’d make some kids want to play soccer. Why’d that make you want to play football?
TK: I guess it just kind of goes back to my family and how I was brought up. We liked to take on challenges and, basically, I knew football was going to bring a lot of those challenges. I guess kind of knocking that sense into me at young age -- that this is something difficult. I don’t know how to explain it. Really, it’s just how I was brought up: Take up the hard things; don’t take the easy way out.
Let’s mix it up because we want to know about you outside the football field, too. So, outside the football realm, what is the most interesting -- or weirdest -- thing about you?
TK: Probably that I have a love for animals. Ever since I was a younger kid, just like horses, dogs -- all sorts of wildlife. I’ve always been intrigued with the outdoors. Whether it’s camping, fishing or kayaking, I’m just an outdoors kind of guy.
Liking animals isn’t really that different. What makes it unique in your case, do you think? Are you the type of guy who wants to have like four or five dogs once you get out of college -- or do you think the outdoors lifestyle just really defines you?
TK: [Laughs] I’m probably going to be that guy with a few dogs, to be honest with you, when I’m older. But definitely the whole outdoors theme, also. I definitely see myself near a lake or near something where there’s stuff to do outside all the time. You don’t have to take a trip somewhere; you can just be there and do something on a daily basis.
If you were able to spend a weekend anywhere, a dream vacation of sorts, where’d you go?
TK: I’d probably go down to the Jersey Shore and relax, especially after a hard week of training, and be able to relax and basically just get my bearings back. Just being with friends and family.
You can tell you’re a Rutgers guy -- picking Wildwood and Cape May over those white sand beaches in Hawaii? OK, fair enough. Let me kind of reverse course here: Who’s the best player you’ve gone up against in college?
TK: Probably the D-End from Notre Dame last year, [Stephon] Tuitt, in the Pinstripe Bowl. He’s a very good football player; I know he got drafted. Physically, he was just a monster. He was in the 300s and he was 6-6 so having to block him was a challenge.
Final question: Who’s winning the World Cup? And you can’t say the USA; that’s cheating.
TK: I’m going to go with Germany.
A lot of good responses to what you would do to improve college football.
To the inbox ...
Jeff from Chicago writes: What would I like to see in college football: A Big Ten-SEC Challenge every season, the first weekend of October. Just like the B1G-ACC Challenge in basketball, you make the pairings by perceived quality, play half the games in each conference's stadiums. Alabama-Ohio State. Texas A&M-Michigan. Michigan State-Auburn. Florida-Penn State. Wisconsin-Georgia. All on the same day. Would that be compelling TV or what? (And yes, I know it's not going to happen!)
Adam Rittenberg: It would be extremely compelling TV and, unfortunately, it will never happen. Although SEC teams will have more nonleague games to schedule than their Big Ten counterparts, I could never see that league getting on board with a scheduling agreement like this one. There are other nonleague rivalries (Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech) that would take priority, and I just can't see too many SEC teams leaving the comforts of the South to play Big Ten opponents on the road. Maybe the playoff and its purported emphasis on schedule strength changes things.
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting proposal, Bill. It could provide a more comprehensive gauge on which teams truly deserve to be part of the playoff. I actually like having nonleague games sprinkled in later in the season as some teams improve gradually. Some early season nonleague contests are really misleading. If logistics didn't matter, maybe this plan could work. I wish there was more flexibility to do short-notice scheduling in college football, but when you have big stadiums and big money on the line, it's difficult, if not impossible.
Adam Rittenberg: Rob, I certainly considered the possibility of a Penn State tight end breaking out this season, although 1,000 yards is a very lofty mark. Ultimately, Breneman would really have to separate himself to have a chance to catch so many passes from his buddy Christian Hackenberg. Breneman was hurt when I watched PSU practice this spring, and James looked like the best receiving option on the field. He's a beast at 6-foot-7 and 257 pounds -- a matchup nightmare. So while Breneman could become a superstar, I don't know how Penn State ignores James. And then there's Carter, who has 54 receptions in his first two seasons. I expect all the tight ends to play and likely limit one from producing way more than the others.
1. Ban oversigning. Eat it, Team SEC.
2. Create an early signing period.
3. Quit tinkering with rules just for the sake of tinkering. Touchback placement comes to mind. "Safety" has become the catch-all justification for every bit of tomfoolery the rules committee wants to try.
4. Expand playoff to 8 teams.
5. No polls until after Week 4.
6. USC, Texas, Nebraska, PSU, Miami, etc. return to normal and help beat some humility back into the University of SEC. A thousand years of darkness for Michigan. Reversion to pre-1993 historical means for Wisconsin and Minnesota.
7. Honestly wouldn't mind Boston College in the B1G, albeit for selfish hockey reasons.
Adam Rittenberg: Wow, a lot of thoughts here, Joe. I'll tackle a few of them. I agree on the early signing period, but as I'll write later this week, moving up official visits to a prospect's junior year is even more important, especially for Big Ten schools. I can't agree more with pushing back any sort of poll or getting rid of them entirely. They have way too much significance in shaping the way teams and leagues are viewed. Looking at your list for No. 6, it's amazing how college football's power structure has shifted. You likely won't see any of those teams mentioned as likely playoff contenders this season. Times have changed.
Adam Rittenberg: Bold statement, Isaac. I like Arneson, too, and he could have a much bigger role in the offense this season. I don't know if Wisconsin will pass the ball enough for any player to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, but the uncertainty at wide receiver creates opportunity for players like Arneson, who has only 10 career receptions, four for touchdowns. I'd be surprised if he has more yards than Michigan's Devin Funchess (still technically a tight end), Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and possibly several others, but his numbers will go up.
The 28 receptions don't jump out. Dozens of FBS wide receivers reach that mark in a season.
It's the ratio -- nine touchdown catches, nearly one-third of the total production -- that suggests something is special about Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo. There are possession receivers and then there are playmakers. Carroo undoubtedly belongs in the second category.
His opening line: five catches, 135 yards, three touchdowns. Not too shabby.
Carroo's scoring secret is treating plays in or near the end zone like any others. Rutgers' fans undoubtedly have heard him recite the line his mother, Lavern, first told him after watching him drop a key pass in a game as a 7-year-old.
When the ball is in the air, everyone else is invisible. You don't see the defender, you don’t see the crowd, you just see the ball. As long as you focus on the ball 100 percent, you’ll be fine.
"It's almost like the ball is coming to me in slow motion," Carroo told ESPN.com. "That's why I feel comfortable catching the ball if there's 35 seconds left and my team's losing, or whether it's in the second overtime. I'm just going out there and making plays."
Levern, who Leonte says "knows pretty much nothing about football," gets a kick when she sees her advice in print, since Leonte often mentions it in interviews. It's a directive that has carried him through Pop Warner, high school and now college football, and will stay with him if he reaches the NFL.
Carroo's teammates expect big things from the 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior this fall as Rutgers makes its Big Ten debut. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova this spring called Carroo the "best receiver in the country," while fellow signal-caller Mike Bimonte added, "The sky is the limit for Leonte."
The Knights need big things from Carroo, and not just touchdowns. Rutgers loses top wideouts Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt, and returns no player with more than 43 receptions (tight end Tyler Kroft) from the 2013 team. Although Carroo left his mark in the end zone last season, he also disappeared for stretches.
Coleman's departure means Rutgers needs a true No. 1 receiver. Carroo wants the job.
"Last year, I was a big-time underdog, I was young," he said. "I'm sure in the beginning of the year, a lot of my teammates didn't expect much from me and they didn't expect that I was going to do what I did last year. This year, I want to start off like that and let this team know I’m going to do whatever it takes to lead this team to a Big Ten championship."
First, he has to get fully cleared to play. Carroo wore a no-contact jersey in practice this spring after missing the final three games last season following a concussion. He had suffered a previous head injury earlier in the year after crashing into a brick wall behind an end zone at SMU.
Carroo spent spring ball working on his leadership skills and his route-running, especially the shorter routes like hitches and curls. Although he felt 100 percent following winter break, he leaned on the strength coaches to improve his conditioning.
"They did a great job putting me in uncomfortable situations to see how far I was off and how fast I could recover," Carroo said.
Carroo isn't sure when he'll be cleared for contact but doesn't seem concerned.
When the lights come on this fall, he'll be ready to follow his mother's advice.
"All I know is if I see the ball and it's coming to me," he said, "I'm going to make a play."
- Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner joined in the tradition of poking fun at a rival during a fundraising event with fans. Should anybody be offended by his canned jokes?
- Michigan coach Brady Hoke responded to Warinner's comments with a bit of humor of his own.
- Mark Dantonio doesn't usually hold press conferences to talk about one player, but the recruitment of Malik McDowell called for some discussion of how it all went down for Michigan State.
- Penn State tight end Adam Breneman will be on the shelf for the rest of spring practice thanks to a bone bruise in his knee.
- Nebraska wide receiver Sam Burtch is a no-nonsense guy, and his businesslike approach could be a boost for the offense this fall.
- Mark Weisman saw plenty of room to grow after reviewing every carry from last season, and the Iowa running back might need to improve to keep getting most of the carries in a crowded backfield.
- Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert's speed isn't up for debate based on his times on the track. The next thing he has to do is prove he can be physical on the football field.
- Illinois is looking for more team speed on defense, and the early returns from spring practice suggest the unit might be getting faster.
- Yet another Big Ten tight end is currently stuck on the sideline during spring practice, and like the others, Tyler Kroft is trying to make the most of it.
- Deon Long is now "90 percent" healthy, but he's well on the way to getting back and helping Maryland at wide receiver.
Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.
QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn
The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.
2. Ohio State
QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith
You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.
3. Michigan State
QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett
The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James
The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.
QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs
Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.
QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess
Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).
QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft
New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.
Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.
Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.
Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.
Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.
Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.
Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.
Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.
Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.
Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.
Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.
Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).
Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.