Big Ten 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings

Athlon previews the key spring storylines.

Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.

 

The Big Ten is home to college football’s defending national champs (Ohio State), as well as a cast of intriguing teams in 2015. Michigan State should be among the top-10 teams in the nation, while Michigan and Nebraska hope to take a step forward under new coaches. Penn State should be better in the second season under coach James Franklin, but the Nittany Lions have some key personnel issues to address this offseason.

 

What are the key questions and storylines shaping all 14 teams in the Big Ten and outlook for 2015? Let’s take a quick look at the 14 teams and the priority list for each coach.

 

Big Ten Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch

 

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

 

East Division

 

1. Ohio State

2014 Record: 14-1 (8-0 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Tim Beck (Co-Offensive Coordinator)

Tony Alford (RBs)

 

Ohio State’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers

There’s little doubt quarterback play is going to garner most of the preseason attention. But it’s unlikely there will be much clarity here, as J.T. Barrett (leg) and Braxton Miller (shoulder) continue to recover from 2014 injuries. Cardale Jones has a chance to secure his lead in the quarterback derby while both are out, but all three will have a chance to push for the job in the fall. Much like the quarterback position, the receiving corps isn’t hurting for options. However, replacements must emerge for Devin Smith and Evan Spencer.

 

2. Reinforcements on the Defensive Line
Ohio State’s defensive line should be one of the best in the nation in 2015, but coach Larry Johnson has to restock this unit after the departures of ends Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier, along with standout defensive tackle Michael Bennett. Finding help for end Joey Bosa and tackle Adolphus Washington will be a key for the Buckeyes’ hopes of repeating in 2015.

 

3. Replacing CB Doran Grant

The Buckeyes aren’t losing a ton from last year’s team, but cornerback Doran Grant won’t be easy to replace. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 63 tackles and nine pass breakups in 2014. Young talent is available here, but the defense is looking for players to emerge outside of Eli Apple at the position. 

 

2. Michigan State

2014 Record: 11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Harlon Barnett (Co-Defensive Coordinator)

Mike Tressel (Co-Defensive Coordinator)

Mark Snyder (LB/Special Teams)

 

Michigan State’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Playmakers at Receiver
Quarterback Connor Cook must find a new go-to target after standout receiver Tony Lippett expired his eligibility after the Cotton Bowl. Keith Mumphery also departs after catching 26 passes last year. Who steps up at receiver this spring for Cook? Will it be Aaron Burbridge or A.J. Troup? Or will tight end Josiah Price become an even bigger part of the offense in 2015?

 

2. Settling the Order at Running Back

Jeremy Langford finished his career at East Lansing with an effective senior year (1,522 yards and 22 scores). The Spartans need to find a new go-to back this spring, but this offense isn’t hurting for options. Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes, Madre London and incoming freshman L.J. Scott (will arrive in East Lansing this summer) are plenty capable of keeping the ground attack performing at a high level. How will the pecking order develop this spring?

 

3. Keep the Momentum on Defense

Michigan State’s defense was one of the best in the nation under former coordinator Pat Narduzzi. With Narduzzi taking the head coach job at Pittsburgh, coach Mark Dantonio promoted Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel into the co-defensive coordinator role. Barnett and Tressel’s job was made easier with the return of end Shilique Calhoun, but the secondary loses cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond, and the linebacking corps loses Taiwan Jones. This spring will be the first opportunity for the new co-coordinators to find replacements for the key departures.

 

3. Penn State

2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

None

 

Penn State’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Offensive Line

Keeping quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright in the pocket is Penn State’s top priority in 2015. The offensive line was hit hard by youth and injuries last year and surrendered 44 sacks in 13 contests. Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, and this unit should show improvement in 2015. Junior college recruit Paris Palmer should help alleviate some of the concerns at tackle.

 

2. Reload the DE Spots
Both lines of scrimmage will be under the microscope for Penn State this spring. The Nittany Lions must replace ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan after the duo combined for nine sacks last season. Garrett Sickels and redshirt freshman Torrence Brown are two names to watch as line coach Sean Spencer looks to restock at defensive end.

 

3. New Kicker

Don’t overlook the loss of kicker Sam Ficken this spring. Penn State had eight kickers on last year’s roster (not all scholarship players), with Chris Gulla listed as Ficken’s backup. The Nittany Lions played in seven games decided by one score or less last year. A reliable kicker can make a big difference in close games.

 

4. Michigan

2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Jim Harbaugh (Head Coach)

Tim Drevno (Offensive Coordinator)

D.J. Durkin (Defensive Coordinator)

 

Michigan’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Quarterback Battle

New coach Jim Harbaugh is going to make a difference with Michigan’s offense in 2015. But in order for the Wolverines to make a big jump on the stat sheet, quarterback play has to improve. Who will get the call under center for Harbaugh? Will it be Shane Morris? Or will freshmen Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry or Wilton Speight push for starting time?

 

2. Find a Few Playmakers

Top receiver Devin Funchess left for the NFL, and Michigan finished 2014 ranked ninth in the Big Ten in rush offense. Quarterback play has to improve for the offense to take off, but the Wolverines also need more from their skill players. USC transfer Ty Isaac could help the rushing attack, and this is a big spring for receivers Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Freddy Canteen.

 

3. More Progress on Defense
Lost in Michigan’s offensive woes was a defense that limited opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2014. New coordinator D.J. Durkin comes to Ann Arbor after a solid stint at Florida and is regarded as a rising star in the coaching ranks. His biggest spring goals will be to find a replacement for standout linebacker Jake Ryan, restock the defensive end position and settle the options in the secondary. Is talented redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers a cornerback or safety?

 

5. Rutgers

2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Ben McDaniels (Offensive Coordinator)

Phil Galiano (Special Teams/Tight Ends)

Anthony Campanile (WRs)

 

Rutgers’ Spring Priorities

 

1. New Play-Caller on Offense
Ralph Friedgen’s one season with the Scarlet Knights was a successful one, and Ben McDaniels will inherit an offense with just three returning starters in 2015. McDaniels was the team’s receivers coach in 2014 and has never called plays on the FBS level. What changes will McDaniels implement in 2015?

2. QB Battle
The first priority for McDaniels this spring is to settle the quarterback battle between Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig. Laviano completed 11 of 28 passes for 107 yards last season, while Rettig sat out 2014 as a result of transfer rules from LSU.

3. Defensive Improvement

Rutgers ranked last in the Big Ten by allowing 6.4 yards per play (all games) last season. Coordinator Joe Rossi has work to do at each level, as the defense must replace contributors like end David Milewski, linebacker Kevin Snyder and defensive backs Gareef Glashen and safety Lorenzo Waters.

 

6. Maryland

2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 4

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Keith Dudzinski (Defensive Coordinator)

Terry Richardson (RBs)

 

Maryland’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Replacing C.J. Brown at QB
The Terrapins’ quarterback battle probably won’t be settled until the fall, as Caleb Rowe won’t participate this spring due to his recovery from a torn ACL. However, while Rowe is sidelined, Perry Hills and Shane Cockerille will battle to claim an early lead in the quarterback race.

 

2. Settle the OL
While quarterback play is a concern, a bigger priority for Maryland this spring has to be an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks in 2014. Center Sal Conaboy and guard Silvano Altamirano depart after each started 13 games last season. Expect to see redshirt freshmen Damian Prince and Derwin Gray push for snaps this spring.

 

3. Rebuild the Front 7 on Defense
New defensive play-caller Keith Dudzinski is going to be a busy man this spring. The Terrapins lost several key players from last year’s front seven, including ends Andre Monroe and Keith Bowers, tackle Darius Kilgo and linebackers Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree. How quickly can Maryland reload here this offseason?

 

7. Indiana

2014 Record: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

None

 

Indiana’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Getting the Passing Game Back on Track
An injury to starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld hampered Indiana’s offense last season. Sudfeld is expected to return at full strength from a shoulder injury suffered in 2014, and this spring is the first chance to work with the revamped receiving corps. The Hoosiers brought in plenty of help for Sudfeld, as junior college recruit Camion Patrick and UAB transfer Marqui Hawkins should help bolster a young receiving corps.

 

2. Defensive Improvement

If Indiana wants to contend for a bowl in 2015, the defense has to improve – significantly. The Hoosiers allowed 6.4 yards per play in Big Ten action last year and gave up 16 passing touchdowns in conference games. The front seven has reasons to be optimistic for improvement, but the secondary must replace both starting cornerbacks from last season. 

 

3. Jordan Howard Replacing Tevin Coleman

Tevin Coleman will be missed in Bloomington, but Indiana found an excellent replacement in UAB transfer Jordan Howard. The former Blazer will get his first chance to work with the Hoosiers’ solid offensive line this spring. How quickly will he mesh with the returning personnel? 

 

West Division

 

1. Wisconsin

2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Paul Chryst (Head Coach)

Joe Rudolph (Offensive Coordinator)

 

Wisconsin’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Develop the Passing Game
Melvin Gordon has departed at running back, but there’s a capable replacement in Corey Clement. The passing game is a bigger concern for coach Paul Chryst, as the Badgers managed only 150 yards per game through the air in conference action in 2014 and completed 53.9 percent of their passes. Quarterback Joel Stave has to take a step forward in his development, while the coaching staff also has to find another receiver or two to take the pressure off of Alex Erickson.

 

2. Restock the OL
Wisconsin had one of the nation’s top offensive lines last season, but there’s work ahead for Chryst this spring. Three starters – Dallas Lewallen, Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstein – have departed after a successful career in Madison. Two starters – Tyler Marz and Dan Voltz – will be solid players to build around, but who steps up to replace the three departures?

 

3. New Faces in the Front Seven
The Badgers owned one of the best defenses in the Big Ten last season, limiting conference opponents to just 4.8 yards per play. Seven starters are back for 2015, but there are a few key holes to address. Linemen Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski and linebackers Michael Trotter and Marcus Trotter are gone. There’s plenty of talent to keep this defense performing at a high level, but the depth must be restocked after player departures.

 

2. Nebraska

2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Mike Riley (Head Coach)

Danny Langsdorf (Offensive Coordinator)

Mark Banker (Defensive Coordinator)

 

Nebraska’s Spring Priorities

 

1. New Coaching Staff, New Schemes

New coach Mike Riley inherits a good roster, and there’s enough talent to push for the West Division title in 2015. But as with any coaching change, there will be tweaks to the schemes on both sides of the ball. This spring is the first opportunity to get a look at how different the Cornhuskers will look in 2015.

 

2. Tommy Armstrong’s Development

Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf had plenty of success on offense at Oregon State. Quarterback Sean Mannion just finished his career as the Pac-12’s all-time passing leader. This spring will be a big one for quarterback Tommy Armstrong under the new staff. In his first full season as Nebraska’s starter, he completed 53.3 percent of his throws, 2,695 yards and 22 scores. How much will Armstrong improve over the spring?

 

3. Replacing Randy Gregory at DE

Even though Gregory had a knee injury in 2014, he was still one of the Big Ten’s most disruptive defenders. In 11 games, Gregory registered seven sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and one forced fumble. The Cornhuskers aren’t stocked with a ton of options this spring at defensive end, so it’s a critical time for players like Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels and A.J. Natter (if healthy) to join Greg McMullen as key contributors at the position.

 

3. Minnesota

2014 Record: 8-5 (5-3 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

None

 

Minnesota’s Spring Priorities

 

1. David Cobb’s Replacement
Running back David Cobb was the driving force behind a Minnesota rushing attack that generated 215.5 yards per game last season. Cobb has expired his eligibility, and the battle to replace him will start this spring. Berkley Edwards, Rodrick Williams and talented redshirt freshman Jeff Jones will compete to determine the pecking order in the backfield.

 

2. More Consistency from QB Mitch Leidner

In his first full season as Minnesota’s starting quarterback, Leidner completed 122 of 237 passes for 1,798 yards and 11 scores. He also rushed for 452 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Golden Gophers need more from Leidner in 2015, but his job would be made easier if…

 

3. Finding Receivers

…Minnesota can find a few receivers this spring. This unit is the biggest concern for coach Jerry Kill, as tight end Maxx Williams and receivers Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones have departed Minneapolis. This is a big spring for Drew Wolitarsky, KJ Maye, Eric Carter and Melvin Holland.

 

4. Iowa

2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Brian Ferentz (Run Game Coordinator)

Seth Wallace (CBs/Nickel Backs)

LeVar Woods (Tight Ends)

 

Iowa’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Settle the QB Position
Will it be Jake Rudock or C.J. Beathard starting for Iowa in 2015? The first shot at answering that question could come this spring. Rudock threw for 2,436 yards and 16 touchdowns, but Beathard has a stronger arm, which would allow Iowa to stretch the field more – if he’s the starter.

 

2. Replacing the Offensive Tackles
The Hawkeyes have a good core of starting linemen returning in 2015, but tackles Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal are huge losses. Scherff was among the nation’s best at his position, while Donnal started 13 games in 2014. Who steps up at the offensive tackle spots this spring?

 

3. Reloading at Defensive Tackle
The trenches will be an area of focus this spring in Iowa City. Not only must the Hawkeyes rebuilt the offensive tackle position, but the defensive tackle spot is a major concern. Gone are standouts Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and backups Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata combined for just 15 tackles in 2015. 

 

5. Illinois

2014 Record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Mike Phair (Co-Defensive Coordinator)

 

Illinois’ Spring Priorities

 

1. Solidify the OL
If the Fighting Illini can keep quarterback Wes Lunt healthy, the offense should easily surpass last year’s 25.9 points per game mark. The offensive line gave up 37 sacks last season, and the left side must be revamped with the departure of tackle Simon Cvijanovic and guard Michael Heitz.

 

2. Getting Defensive
In coach Tim Beckman’s three seasons at Illinois, the Fighting Illini has allowed at least 5.8 yards per play each year. Beckman is turning to former NFL assistant Mike Phair to help Tim Banks coordinate the defense. Seven starters are back on defense, but this unit needs to generate a better pass rush and show improvement against the run.

 

3. Consistency on the Ground
Running back Josh Ferguson is a solid all-around back for the Fighting Illini, recording 735 yards and eight scores on the ground last season. He also caught 50 passes for 427 yards and two touchdowns. However, Illinois needs a little more from its ground attack. In Big Ten games, the Fighting Illini averaged 3.6 yards per carry. 

 

6. Northwestern

2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 10

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

None

 

Northwestern’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Quarterback Battle

The Wildcats open spring practice with three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Zack Oliver has the most experience of the signal-callers, but Matt Alviti and talented redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson will push for time.

 

2. Rebuilding the OL
In eight Big Ten games last season, Northwestern allowed 24 sacks. The Wildcats have some work to do up front this spring, as two key starters depart in center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen. The development of this group will be critical for Northwestern’s bowl hopes in 2015.

 

3. Finding a Pass Rush
The Wildcats tied for last in the Big Ten with just nine sacks generated in eight conference games. The defense held opponents to a respectable 5.3 yards per play in Big Ten action, and with 10 starters back, improvement should be expected. Boosting the pass rush is critical for Northwestern to help elevate the defense even higher in the rankings for 2015.

 

7. Purdue

2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Terry Malone (TEs)

 

Purdue’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Settling the QB Position

Austin Appleby and Danny Etling shared the quarterback job last season and combined to throw 16 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Both players will have a chance to win the starting spot this spring, but redshirt freshman David Blough also joins the competition.

 

2. Find Playmakers

While the quarterback job remains uncertain, Purdue also has to develop more options at running back and receiver to help out the offense. Top running backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert are gone, leaving Keyante Green (199 yards) as the team’s top returning rusher. Hunt was also the team’s leading option in terms of catches (48), and top receiver Danny Anthrop (616 receiving yards last season) is coming off a torn ACL.

 

3. Step Forward on Defense

In coach Darrell Hazell’s two seasons with the Boilermakers, Purdue has ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in yards per play allowed in back-to-back years. There’s reason for optimism with seven starters returning, but key players like end Ryan Russell and safety Landon Feichter must be replaced. Can this unit take a step forward in the spring?

More Stories: