Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2016

Coaches dish on all 14 Big Ten teams.

It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.

 

In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2016, Athlon asked coaches in the Big Ten to talk anonymously about their opponents.
 

Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2016

 

Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.

 

Big Ten Coaches Anonymously Scout League Foes

 
East Division
 
Indiana

 

“Kevin Wilson is as good of an offensive mind as I’ve ever coached against. He’s so good at spatial awareness and figuring out the weak points of a defense. The fact he’s got a top-20 offense at Indiana and finds a way to compete with the top teams in the league says a lot.”

 

“The biggest thing is losing Nate Sudfeld. He’s going to be a really, really difficult player to replace because he’s an intelligent, competitive, accurate dude and managed that offense really well.”

 

“They also downgrade at running back because Devine Redding is no Jordan Howard or Tevin Coleman. Howard was going to get them yards and fall forward no matter what. Redding is a good back; he’s just not built the same way. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and do some things, but I think there’s going to be a drop-off.”

 

“I’m not sure what they’re going to do at quarterback, but you need someone with accuracy and touch to run that offense and I don’t think they have anyone in Sudfeld’s league.”

 

“[Dan] Feeney is as good an offensive lineman as there is in the country, but losing their center is going to hurt.”

 

“Mitchell Paige is 5-foot-nothing, but he’s a hell of a slot guy and competitive SOB who you’ve really got to watch out for in the punt return game.”

 

“I like their defensive coordinator hire [Tom Allen]; he’s really well regarded. He’s a little different personality-wise from Wilson, who is super intense. Allen is a guy who goes to church and doesn’t swear, so they may balance each other out.”

 

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Maryland

 

“Talent wise, they’re toward the bottom of the league.”

 

“The new staff there is going to get that ship right. They’re a young, aggressive staff that is going to recruit and do a really good job there. I don’t think it will take long, but they have a ways to go, and the division is so tough because you’re drawing four bad hands a year out of the gates.”

 

“They had some ability at the skill positions. Walt Bell is a good coach, and they’ll be headed in the right direction offensively, but there’s a pretty big gap athletically with the rest of the league.”

 

“I think [D.J.] Durkin wants to be no-huddle, run-the-QB type of offense. I don’t know if that’s what he really believes in stylistically, but it helps in recruiting and it gives you a chance to even the game against teams that are better; basically everybody in the division is better than Maryland right now and will have better players for the next few years.”

 

“After [Randy] Edsall got fired, they totally changed what they did on defense. You can watch it happen on film. They went from being a team that closed the middle of the field to bringing eight guys in the box and saying, ‘Screw you, go ahead and throw it against us.’ They just weren’t going to let you run it.”

 

“Will Likely is a good enough corner, but those guys had no chance unless they could stop the run.”

 

“Offensively, it’s going to be rough at first because they don’t have a quarterback. Losing Dwayne Haskins when Ohio State flipped him was a big blow because he would have started right away at quarterback.”

 

Michigan

 

“Jim Harbaugh is going to get it rolling and the whole Urban (Meyer)-Harbaugh thing is going to be a blast. It’s going to be good for college football. I have no doubt they’ll be successful.”

 

“They were a good team last year, but what they really did well is they played really hard and had a lot of pride. There’s a little (bit) of coach speak in that, but when you watched them on the field, how they lined up and communicated and the intensity they had on the sideline, it was really impressive.”

 

“You look at the difference between 2014 and 2015 offensively, and it’s night and day. They are physical and mean and just want to pound the crap out of you, and Harbaugh gets a lot of productivity out of his quarterbacks. They got a bit worn down at the end of last year, but I think they’ll take another step offensively.”

 

“They were pretty bland from a defensive standpoint. They’ll be very different schematically than with [D.J.] Durkin, but Don Brown is really good at what he does. Brown does a bunch of different things, but they wouldn’t let you throw posts last year in a league where people have thrown posts for 25 or 30 years, and I don’t think that will change.”

 

“Keeping Greg Mattison is going to really help them because their defensive line was obviously well-coached. Tempo doesn’t really affect them much as you’d think.”

 

“The one cornerback, Jourdan Lewis, that dude is a really, really good player and he’s savvy. He gets interceptions by making intelligent plays.”

 

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2016

 

Michigan State

 

“They’re just a violent football team, probably more than anyone else in the league, and I mean that in the best way possible.”

 

“Defensively they probably aren’t quite as good as they were maybe three or four years ago because they’re just not quite as good at corner. You felt good about being able to win a one-on-one matchup with them, but they’re still pretty good.”

 

“Defensively the Big Ten just in general is less complex than other conferences, and that’s sort of what you get with Michigan State. It’s more quarters coverages, it’s very downhill, very aggressive. More often than not you’ll see their corners pressed up, safeties 10-11 yards from the line of scrimmage and get a four-down front with three linebackers in the game and they’re very basic. They’ve got some six-man pressures with zone concepts that are a little unusual that they do a good job disguising, so you know where everybody’s going to be, but your answers for their pressure have to be really, really good in the passing game.”

 

“Their defense plays with a lot of violence.”

 

“The [Malik] McDowell kid is pretty dang good and disruptive, and you go from getting two blockers on him to suddenly it’s a single block and he’s using his length to disrupt you. They stop the run and make you complete contested catches on the outside to beat them.”

 

“Offensively they’ll be fine. Connor Cook was good, but those receivers — they were unbelievable. They made contested catch after contested catch and attacked the football.”

 

Ohio State

 

“The talent disparity in the league between Ohio State and everybody else in the Big Ten is striking.”

 

“Obviously they lost a ton of guys to the draft, but I think they’ll be fine. They have a bunch of good players. Coaching against them, they were just so talented across the board you felt more mismatched in that game than any other.”

 

“Offensively, I think some of their issues stemmed from play-calling. Not that those guys didn’t know what they’re doing because they’re all good coaches, but there were probably too many cooks in the kitchen last year. Cardale [Jones] and [J.T.] Barrett were two different players, and they really were more comfortable offensively with a quarterback who could really run the ball for them. I think another year of that staff getting ready to call it together plus having one guy to focus on at quarterback will be good.”

 

“Up front, defensively they are a heavy-handed, powerful team. It’s like, I hope we get three yards when we run the ball. They’re not as committed to bringing extra players into the run fit as a team like Michigan State. They’re so talented they don’t have to do that to stop you.”

 

“Joey Bosa was unreal for them last year. He was that much better than everybody we played, so I think everybody knows that’s going to be a big loss for them.”

 

“Their secondary is good but not great; I’m not knocking them — they just didn’t have any individual standout guys.”

 

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Penn State

 

“It was a pretty good football team last year. You put them in the West last year, they might have been a nine- or 10-win team.”

 

“I don’t know enough about the offensive coordinator they hired to really project what they’re going to be like, but with [Saquon] Barkley, they’ve got some pieces to build around on offense.”

 

“They might be better off without [Christian] Hackenberg. He’s talented, but he just didn’t fit the style they want to play offensively.”

 

“People talk about their offensive line issues, but they were a lot better in the second half of the year and they really weren’t any more productive.”

 

“I don’t know how much different they will be on defense, but Bob Shoop is a really, really good football coach, and losing him will hurt.”

 

“They played a weird zone coverage on first down. They do a good job keeping your runs to the boundary, they play three strong linebackers, and just generally they were really sound.”

 

“Losing [Carl] Nassib is going to be big because he was a good and productive player, but the two guys they had on the interior [Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson) were damn good, too. They were high-motor, productive players who knew how to use their hands to get off blocks, so I think they’re going to really take a step back up front.” 

 

“In the secondary, there were places you thought you could throw the football, but they covered pretty well. It’s a stereotypical Big Ten defense, good against the run. The free safety [Marcus Allen] is a really good player.”

 

Rutgers

 

“They were just not a very good football team last year, and I don’t see how they’re going to be good this year.”

 

“They basically were running two different schemes on defense last season, but Chris Ash will get them more in that Ohio State mold.”

 

“They’re not very talented right now, and at least a couple years away from being talented enough to compete in this division. But Ash knows that. They’ll install what they do and try to establish the foundation and get better players.”

 

“It’s just going to be a struggle for them defensively.”

 

“They’ve got some OK guys on offense, but losing Leonte Carroo is going to hurt them. Let me tell you, that dude could flat out ball.”

 

“I don’t know what they’ll be schematically. [Drew] Mehringer is their new offensive coordinator, so I assume you’ll get a lot of what Houston ran. But you have to be able to win some one-on-one battles in the offensive line to run that, and I don’t know if Rutgers is ready to do that. Look at who’s gone through that offensive system at quarterback; the guys at Ohio State can all run, and Vad Lee at James Madison, where Mehringer was before, Greg Ward at Houston — who you can’t tackle. I don’t know if they have a guy who fits that. It’s not going to be a complicated drop-back passing game. Mehringer is incredibly bright, though, and he’ll have creative ways to score some points, but personnel-wise I think it’s harder to get that roster right than it is anyone else in the league.”

 

West Division

 

Illinois

 

“I thought getting Lovie [Smith] was a pretty good deal for them. I don’t know him personally, but he’s a guy that knows the area, and the name will resonate in recruiting, and I think he’s a good guy. You kind of have to have, for lack of a better word, some star power in recruiting if you’re going to get to the level of competing for Big Ten championships. I don’t know if he’ll sign those kinds of players, but he can get in the game.”

 

“Illinois is a tough job. I know a couple guys on the old staff, and I’m not sure about [the school’s] commitment to football, and I don’t know if the quality of football in the state is good enough to lift you in the Big Ten. Are there enough Big Ten championship players in there?”

 

“Defensively, the one thing we noticed is their secondary, they probably played more aggressive as far as being down in the box against the run than most teams we played.”

 

“Offensively, it’s going to be interesting to see what they come up with. I’m assuming with Garrick McGee it will be the Bobby Petrino system and they’ll do some of the stuff they did at Louisville and Arkansas and throw it around a bit — use some run-pass option type of stuff, but I just don’t know if they have a true difference maker on either side of the ball.”

 

“They played hard but except for [Mike] Dudek, who was their best player but was hurt last year, there was nobody we said, ‘Hey, we can’t let this guy beat us.’ Now he’s hurt again, so that’s going to be a problem for them.”

 

Iowa

 

“They know what they hell they’re doing there.”

 

“They’re a very basic team defensively, they just line up and kick your ass. We had so many issues with them. You felt like you could move the ball between the 20s, and then all of the sudden it got really tough in the red zone.”

 

“The middle linebacker, Josey Jewell, is a really, really good football player, and he made a bunch of tackles and was just a general pain in the ass.”

 

“They were good up front, not great, but nobody was in the league other than Ohio State.”

 

“Their defense had a very good feel for our scheme. They had a check to one of our formations that they built in as one of their calls, which tells you their kids can process formations on the fly and their staff has a good feel for what gives a team problems. It happened so many times you’re thinking they’re stealing our signals. In hindsight they had a check to it.”

 

“Desmond King is a corner they put in a lot of different places. They have a good third-down plan; you know what you’re getting on third down and it doesn’t always help you because they move King around to get him matched up on the right guy and it makes throws difficult.”

 

“I marvel at what they did there last year. They’re really good and took Michigan State to the wire, but are they really any better talent-wise than Penn State? Maybe a little better at linebacker and corner, but their kids understand what they’re doing and they execute and they’re physical. Those guys bring it to you on the line of scrimmage.”

 

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Minnesota

 

“They’re kind of like most of the teams in the division in that they recruit to their makeup and they’re tough.”

 

“They run the ball really well, probably more in 2014 than 2015, but they are committed to running the ball first and foremost. They slipped a little bit as the year went on, maybe some injuries set in, but their quarterback made some plays to keep them in games. I don’t think they had a change in philosophy after Jerry Kill left, but they definitely didn’t run the ball as much.”

 

“I think they’re going to be good on the offensive line, and the two young running backs they had were productive and should get better, but does Mitch Leidner take the next step at quarterback? You look at that game when they almost beat Michigan, and it wasn’t some great scheme or Michigan making mistakes — it was just the quarterback making big plays in big moments. Can you get that from him game to game?”

 

“It’s a fine line between being committed to one philosophy and being one-dimensional. They didn’t have the big-play receivers or that one guy that they felt like could make a play if they needed it. Their best receiver was about 5'9", so it’s hard to ask him to go get a 50-50 ball.”

 

“Sometimes their offense just seems like it’s running into a brick wall, but that’s kind of who they are.”

 

“Where they had some trouble last year is teams got up on them early, and they didn’t necessarily have a great passing game. When they’re playing behind the eight-ball, it can turn ugly.”

 

Nebraska

 

“It’s not really a rebuild, it’s more of a teardown. They’re playing one style with players who were recruited for a totally different offense, so it’s just how many steps backward they have to take before they go forward.”

 

“A lot of their problems started up front. They had some veteran guys, but trying to go from the read-option blocking scheme to the inside zone, it seemed those guys were not really on the same page.”

 

“Some people were surprised how well they threw it, but they have a solid group of receivers. Tommy Armstrong is kind of a square peg in a round hole in a pro-style offense, but it looked like he bought into what they’re trying to accomplish. He made some questionable decisions in late-game situations, but that may have been their staff trying to get a feel for what he can and can’t do.”

 

“I think they could be better on offense, but they need another recruiting class or two to get their guys on the field. The problem with that is it’s Nebraska and they just ran the last guy out for winning nine games a year.”

 

“Defensively, they were really good plugging gaps and making sure you didn’t run the ball, but they did not have a pass rush last year at all, and the biggest difference in their team was that they didn’t create many turnovers.”

 

“They’ve got some different pieces going in there in the front seven, but you’ve got to have a guy who can get off the edge and pressure the quarterback. I don’t know who that’s going to be.”

 

“Linebacker is probably the strongest group on their defense.”

 

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Northwestern

 

“We always say they do what they do and they do it well. They’re really well coached.”

 

“All their units look alike, and what I mean by that is year to year they have the same kinds of players that they just plug in, and they don’t have one area that stands out. They just have a bunch of well-coached, disciplined units. If you look at the conference as a whole, they are probably getting the most out of what they have, who they have and the resources they’re able to use.”

 

“They do a good job of staying simple schematically. They aren’t complex. They coach and teach exactly what they want. Some defenses you play, you see the kids thinking a little bit. Not Northwestern. You know what coverage they’re going to be in, what front they’re going to be in, but they don’t give up a lot of mistakes or big plays because they don’t put their guys in position to get beat. They don’t really worry about if your guy is better than their guy. It’s what they’ve hung their hat on every year. They just continually have players who fit what they do.”

 

“I didn’t think the quarterback was as sharp early as he was toward the end of the year and rightfully so as a freshman. He got older. He’s kind of who they are. He didn’t try to do too much. It looks like he learned to be a little more patient with some of his throws and reads and decisions.”

 

“Their scheme doesn’t require them to have super athletes or be perfect.”

 

Purdue

 

“[Darrell] Hazell fired almost everybody on his staff, so they know they’re under pressure to win some games or they’re going to clean house. But I think they have a long, long way to go.”

 

“What they were doing on defense last year didn’t make a lot of sense. It was just very predictable and didn’t do anything to cause you problems. You could mess with their linebackers’ eyes. They were playing man a lot of time with corners who just couldn’t play man-to-man without some sort of help.”

 

“They aren’t great up front. You think of Purdue over the years having some pretty good defensive linemen, but don’t think I can name a single good player off that defense, and it was so easy to scheme them up because you knew what you were getting, you could check to certain things.”

 

“They have a lot of issues and losing [Austin] Appleby doesn’t help. He was a productive player and a really tough kid and could at least run enough to keep you honest. Those kids are valuable in your program. I think it’s going to be hard on those guys to reboot the offense without a solid quarterback.”

 

“Their offensive line hasn’t been very good at any point since he’s been there and they lost their starting center and a tackle. So if they don’t have the personnel to run the football and they don’t have a good quarterback, I don’t know if the coordinator change is really going to make a big difference. They’ve got a lot of other guys back, but I don’t know if they have the quality to take a big step forward.”

 

Related: Big Ten's Most Underrated Players for 2016

 

Wisconsin

 

“They’ve got the program set up now where they don’t even have to be all that good to win nine or 10 in this division, and that probably won’t change anytime soon.”

 

“They’re just so far ahead of the game in having some depth and knowing what they’re doing offensively.”

 

“Their defense is the question mark because the way they did it with Dave Aranda was different from anybody else in the league. They were so exotic in their fronts and the way they changed things up to attack your strengths offensively, it was really creative and made up for their lack of size. That’s a much bigger loss than their quarterback, in my opinion, and they are starting over with a new group in the secondary. I don’t think Justin Wilcox can do as much schematically because he’s really been a base 3-4 over his entire career which is a little more of bend-but-don’t-break mentality.”

 

“They’ll be fine on offense. Joel Stave was just a guy; for them it’s really all about the offensive line and who they’ve got at running back and if they’ve got enough coming back.”

 

“If Corey Clement is healthy, he’s a top-10 back in the country. He looks like a power back, but he can cut and outrun your second-level guys. I think he’ll be hungry to get back out there and make up for last year when he was supposed to be the guy and it didn’t work out.”

 

“It will be interesting to see what they do at quarterback because the backup last year only played a little bit and they open against LSU, who is going to know everything they do.”

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