The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team. And needless to say, it’s difficult to challenge for a conference championship or national title if the quarterback play is an issue all year or if the coaching staff’s status is uncertain after a slow start.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at linebacker, cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2015.
Related: Big Ten Football 2015 Predictions
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the other positions that must produce in 2015.
14 Big Ten Position Groups Under Pressure in 2015
Illinois Offensive Line
Keeping quarterback Wes Lunt healthy is priority No. 1 for Illinois in 2015. With Lunt in the lineup, the Fighting Illini can push for a bowl appearance. Without Lunt, Illinois could struggle just to reach two wins in Big Ten play. The offensive line had its share of issues last year, giving up 37 sacks and only clearing the way for rushers to average 3.6 yards per carry (Big Ten-only games). Three starters are back in 2015, including standout senior Ted Karras. Will all of the pieces mesh up front for Illinois this year?
Indiana Defensive Backs
Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for coach Kevin Wilson’s team in 2015. Even though running back Tevin Coleman left for the NFL, the Hoosiers landed UAB transfer Jordan Howard, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld is back from a season-ending shoulder injury. Defense has been an issue for Indiana in recent years, ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in points allowed in each of the last seven seasons. The Hoosiers gave up 18 passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2014 and will have four new starters in the secondary with the dismissal of safety Antonio Allen.
Related: Big Ten 2015 All-Conference Team
Reloading at linebacker usually doesn’t present much trouble for coach Kirk Ferentz. But the Hawkeyes head into 2015 with uncertainty at this position, as Iowa needs to replace Quinton Alston and Reggie Spearman. The projected starting trio at the end of spring featured all sophomores, including Josey Jewell (51 stops in 2014) and Bo Bower (38 tackles, two sacks last year). With two defensive tackles stepping into the lineup, the linebackers will have to take on a bigger role in stopping the run and an overall presence in the front seven.
Maryland Wide Receivers
A couple of positions – defensive line, linebacker or offensive line – are worth a mention for Maryland here. But the receiving corps is the pick, as the Terrapins have been hit hard by player departures since 2014. Stefon Diggs left for the NFL, Deon Long expired his eligibility, while Marcus Leak and Juwann Winfree departed the team over the summer. The Terrapins need big contributions from senior Levern Jacobs, junior Amba Etta-Tawo and sophomore Taivon Jacobs.
Michigan Offensive Line
In addition to quarterback play, this unit is the biggest concern for new coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines have struggled to get steady play from this group over the last two years and allowed 17 sacks in Big Ten play last season. Not only are tweaks and improvements coming to the offense under Harbaugh, the offensive line also has a new coach in Tim Drevno. With four starters back, Harbaugh and Drevno should be able to squeeze some improvement out of this group. Left tackle Mason Cole is a name to watch in 2015.
Michigan State Defensive Backs
Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” is looking a little vulnerable headed into fall camp. The Spartans lost safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes from a unit that allowed only six passing scores in Big Ten play in 2014. Junior Darian Hicks is a returning starter in the secondary, but both cornerback spots are up for grabs. Senior Arjen Colquhoun and freshman Vayante Copeland will compete with Hicks, one starting job at safety is in good hands with senior RJ Williamson, while sophomore Montae Nicholson is a breakout candidate in the secondary. The Spartans have one of the best defensive fronts in college football. Will the secondary quickly reload under new co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel?
Minnesota Wide Receivers
Quarterback Mitch Leidner has to play better, but the Golden Gophers also have to get more production out of their receiving corps to upgrade the passing attack. Minnesota’s receiving corps featured only one player with more than 18 catches last year (tight end Maxx Williams). With Williams off to the NFL, which receivers will step up to give Leidner a big-play threat or consistent possession option? Senior KJ Maye is the veteran of the receiving corps, while freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland and Jeff Jones are expected to play a large role.
New coordinator Mark Banker will spend a lot of time watching over this group in the fall. The Cornhuskers are thin on depth and proven options, and the overall outlook for the linebacking corps changed even more when David Santos left the team in June. Junior Michael Rose-Ivey is projected to start but is also coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss all of 2014. Josh Banderas has to be the anchor for this unit in 2015, and the junior is back after recording 50 tackles in 12 games last year. This fall will be a critical one for sophomore Marcus Newby and freshmen Dedrick Young and Luke Gifford.
Northwestern Wide Receivers
Northwestern is looking to generate more production out of its passing attack after connecting only six plays of 30 yards or more. Quarterback play is still a concern after three players were locked into a tight battle at the end of spring practice. But who steps up as big-play targets for the quarterbacks? Christian Jones is back after missing 2014 due to a knee injury, and fellow seniors Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson combined for 47 catches last year. The senior trio needs to step up in 2015, while getting help from the next group of receivers to help the passing game grow behind the new starting quarterback.
Ohio State Defensive Line
As the defending national champs, combined with 14 returning starters, there’s very little in the way of personnel concerns that should concern coach Urban Meyer. Considering the overall depth and roster talent, it seems odd to even list a position here. However, the Buckeyes lost a couple of key contributors up front, including standout tackle Michael Bennett. While Joey Bosa (DE) and Adolphus Washington (DT) are All-Americans, who will step up at the other spots and develop as key contributors for depth?
Related: 2015 All-America Team
Penn State Offensive Line
Much has been made of the performance of Penn State’s offensive line last year. The Nittany Lions couldn’t generate much of a push in the rushing attack and allowed 44 sacks. And headed into the 2015 season, this unit is still the team’s biggest question mark. Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, and there’s reason to believe improvement will be noticeable with four starters back. Junior college recruit Paris Palmer could be a huge addition on the left side of the line, as this group has to do a better job of giving quarterback Christian Hackenberg time to throw.
Purdue Running Backs
The Boilermakers head into coach Darrell Hazell’s third season looking to take a significant step forward after a 4-20 record over the last two years. Improving the quarterback play is a priority for Hazell, but the rushing attack is also under the spotlight after the departures of Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert. That duo rushed for 1,478 yards of Purdue’s 1,886 yards on the ground last season, leaving sophomore Keyante Green and freshman Markell Jones as the top options for Hazell. Will this duo match or exceed the production from Mostert and Hunt?
Rutgers Offensive Line
The Scarlet Knights have more concerns than just the offensive line, but this unit is replacing three starters off a group that allowed only 19 sacks in 2014. Senior left tackle Keith Lumpkin and junior guard Chris Muller are two solid building blocks for new coordinator Ben McDaniels and line coach Mitch Browning. But filling the other three spots up front will be critical with a new quarterback stepping in, as well as the talent returning at running back.
Wisconsin Wide Receivers
New coach Paul Chryst has to get better play from his quarterback Joel Stave, but the supporting cast at receiver also has to provide more help. Last year, no Badger receiver with at least 10 catches averaged more than 14 yards per reception. More big plays are needed from this group, along with a second option to help Alex Erickson (55 catches in 2014).