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5 Big Ten Players Facing a Make-or-Break Spring

Terry Wright College Football

Terry Wright College Football

Spring football practice has begun across Big Ten country, and that’s usually a welcome sign. It’s a time of clean slates, the opportunity to climb the depth chart and, in some cases, keep a scholarship. Today, we look at a handful of players across the conference that have one more shot to stake their claim to the title of “program contributor.”

Joe Burrow College Football

Jalin Barnett, OL, Nebraska

Barnett came into Lincoln with quite a bit of fanfare. Ranked as a 4-star prospect and a top-200 recruit, according to the 247Sports Composite Index, Cornhusker fans saw a potential key cog in their team’s offensive lines for years to come.

Three years later, Barnett doesn’t have much time left to make a statement for a number of reasons. New head coach Scott Frost’s enthusiasm has permeated the program and resulted in a rejuvenated strength and conditioning effort that saw the team lose an average of 2.8 percent body fat across the board according to a now-deleted tweet by Tommy Jensen, the Huskers' assistant director of sports nutrition.

Ideally, Barnett helped make a significant dent in that final number, but he’s still going to have plenty of competition in his quest to get more playing time. He’s not a natural offensive tackle by any means and Jerald Foster has an edge at guard due to experience. He’ll have to fight the likes of Tanner Farmer, Boe Wilson, Cole Conrad, Broc Bando and others to find a spot.

If he can’t, he may very well get lost in the shuffle by the time a sold-out Memorial Stadium leaves following the Red-White Spring Game on April 21.

Joe Burrow, QB, Ohio State

“Should I stay or should I go?” That might be what Burrow (above, right) is asking himself by the time spring practice wraps up in Columbus. Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer has a familiar problem at quarterback — three very talented prospects and not enough snaps to go around. Not only that, but Burrow has the option to head elsewhere and immediately play as a graduate transfer.

He would have to beat out likely favorite Dwayne Haskins and the much-heralded Tate Martell for the starting spot, which is a tall task in and of itself. Even if Burrow is able to stiff-arm the true freshman Martell, staring at a backup spot when he could potentially be starting elsewhere doesn’t seem to be an effective use of his time.

Meyer has used his siren song to keep fantastic athletes at the position from leaving before, but there is talk that programs are ready to pounce should Burrow announce his intentions to transfer. Should that be the case, being a likely starting quarterback for two years at another program versus a backup in Columbus seems like an easy decision.

Aaron Mends, LB, Iowa

The Hawkeyes’ spring will be about replacing some big names on both sides of the ball, but no position appears more fluid than linebacker. Iowa has to replace all three starters — Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann. Not only were these three Iowa’s top tacklers in 2017, Jewell was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the trio combined for 122 starts in their careers.

Enter Mends. One of just two seniors in the linebacking corps, Mends has been waiting for his opportunity to start. But to claim a spot not only will he battle classmate Jack Hockaday, but a pair of underclassmen looking to get the coaching staff’s attention in Nick Niemann and Amani Jones. The good news for Mends is that his experience should give him a slight advantage as he tries to beat out Jones for the strong-side spot. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

O.J. Smith, DL, Minnesota

In Smith’s case, his shot at one good spring to prove he can contribute is quite literal. The Alabama transfer sat out 2017 in the hopes he could cement himself as a terror on P.J. Fleck’s defensive front this year.

Expectations should be rather high for Smith as he was a 2014 Under Armour All-American Game participant, and while he was unable to make hay at Alabama, Nick Saban typically doesn’t give scrubs the time of day.

Minnesota finished the 2017 season 74th in rushing defense at 172 yards per game allowed, including three occasions where the Gophers surrendered 240-plus yards on the ground. There’s clearly a big need up front with starting tackles Steven Richardson and Merrick Jackson both graduated. Smith has the size (6-2, 309) to be a factor up front for Minnesota’s defense. He also has one more chance to live up to the hype he received coming out of high school.

Terry Wright/Isaac Zico, WRs, Purdue

Okay, technically Wright and Zico are two people, but they find themselves at similar points as it relates to their status with the Boilermakers.

Both are former junior college transfers who each started three times in 12 games while combining for 308 receiving yards and a touchdown this past season. In the meantime, freshman Jackson Anthrop accounted for 423 yards and five touchdowns by himself.

The team’s top two receivers — seniors Anthony Mahoungou and Gregory Phillips — have departed, leaving the door wide open for a re-shuffling of the pecking order in the passing game. This gives Zico and Wright a perfect opportunity get more balls thrown their way. If they don’t give head coach Jeff Brohm a reason to do so, watch for Anthrop and a slew of younger players to get those looks, including incoming U.S. Army All-American Rondale Moore.

— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to like his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter @eightlaces.