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 2018, Athlon asked coaches in the Big Ten to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2018
"I don’t care who you are, the Lovie Smith hire was a strange one. He certainly has the resume for it, but everything about that hire screamed strange. He’s an NFL guy. The last thing anyone would say about Lovie is he’s a great college fit. So what do you do? You throw him into this league, and set him up to fail with a program that botched the last hire and is now in need of a complete engine overhaul."
"Are we really that surprised that Illinois has been absolutely atrocious, and has won five games in the last two years?"
"I’m not buying the idea that Illinois gave up early in the season and started playing a bunch of freshmen, and that’s why it got so ugly. So that’s why there were so many coaching changes in the offseason? I think this was a lot tougher of a job than Lovie first realized. The guy before him left a mess, and digging out of that was going to take more than just a year of transition. I’d be shocked if they won more than three games this fall."
"(RB) Mike Epstein is a tough runner, a guy who definitely doesn’t look the part but sure as heck plays it. He’s fun to watch. Lovie needs about 20 more Mike Epsteins."
"They don’t have a quarterback, they are terrible on defense and they are one of the worst teams we’ve played in the last six or seven years. At one point last year, I remember watching film on them and thinking this team looks completely disinterested."
"Tom Allen is a good man. A no-nonsense coach stuck in a football program whose administration doesn’t care enough to want to get better. They’ve made some changes in the facilities, but that’s almost because they have to. You can’t sit around while everyone else does it, and sit on that (Big Ten) network money."
"Tom is not a guy who is going to sit around and wait for something to happen. He doesn’t suffer fools. He made that move to bench (Richard) Lagow last year for the freshman (Peyton) Ramsey, and it looked like a heckuva move until Ramsey got hurt. You’re talking about benching a guy who set a lot of records there, and giving the whole show to a freshman. But that’s Tom. He does what he thinks is best for his team."
"They’re going to be really good on offense this year. Going to score a lot of points on the teams in this league. Ramsey is a good player. If you’re completing close to 70 percent of your passes in the first year in this league, you’re doing something right. I never saw him get rattled."
"Tom has been a defensive coach all of his career, so I know it must pain him to see what happens on the field week after week. Because as good as the young guys were on offense, the offense as a whole couldn’t stop turning the ball over. You want to lose games? You want to get a coach fired? Keep being lax with ball security."
"There are a lot of young guys on that team that are going to put up some really good numbers over the next couple of years. It’s not just Ramsey. TB (Morgan) Ellison is a big kid who runs with an attitude, and that quick WR (Whop) Philyor is a player. A solid nucleus of young guys will be fun to watch, and brutal to deal with if you’re a defensive coach in the league."
"There are very few guys in our business as genuine and loyal as Kirk Ferentz. I respect him greatly. But I also realize he has a great gig. He goes 8–5, and they love him. He goes one step forward one year, and two steps back the next, and they love him. I wish it was like that for all of us, but more and more, I’m beginning to think it’s like that for only one of us. Not just in this league, but the entire country."
"No matter what happens year after year, his teams always get one or two big wins that make you think, boy, they could be really good. Then every four or five years, they get one of those special seasons that makes everyone in Iowa think ‘That’s why he’s our coach.’ There are about a 120-something coaches (in FBS) envious of his situation."
"I really like safety Amani Hooker. He brings a load in run support, and he can cover back there. A smart guy in the back end of your defense is so undervalued."
"How about Nate Stanley? What a surprise he was, and did he ever produce. When was the last time Iowa had a QB put up those type numbers and that few turnovers? He’s the kind of player who can lead to that special season."
"They’re going to need a lot better play from the offensive line to reach that level. They have to retool that thing, and other than OT (Tristan) Wirfs, who is a beast, they weren’t as steady last year as they usually are."
"They always play above their ceiling on defense, and last year they had a ton of interceptions (21) from a bunch of guys that just played hard and didn’t act like stars."
"I don’t know how you can pin that train wreck of a season on that coaching staff. They had to use five quarterbacks, and it all fell apart. If you’re looking for what that team could be with DJ Durkin, you look at the 3–1 start before the injuries at quarterback really kicked in."
"He’s not the biggest guy on the field and not the biggest recruit, but (Tyrrell) Pigrome is the best QB on that team. He is one dangerous kid with the ball in his hands. If he’s healthy, it’s not even a question who takes the first snap there."
"DJ made a lot of adjustments to that staff this offseason. You look at the moves, and it looks a lot like a guy who thinks he needs to win. I don’t know if that’s a fair deal. He’s recruiting better there, and when they’re healthy, they’re a solid team."
"I like the hire of Matt Canada as offensive coordinator. I don’t know what happened at LSU, but I know what he has done everywhere he has been. He makes offenses better. He makes kids play beyond their ceilings. I’ve heard about the talk that he’s hard to get along with. But if you have a guy who can produce results like he can, I think you just deal with it and find a way to make it work."
"They couldn’t tackle anything, and there were times when it looked like they didn’t care. That’s a bad sign."
"They need guys who can change the pace of a game, who can force the offense to adjust to them. Maybe defensive end Byron Cowart is one of those guys. I don’t know why it didn’t work at Auburn, but he was everyone’s No. 1 player a few years ago."
"Before the injuries at quarterback, last year could have been a nice breakout season for the offense."
"I just want to be clear about one thing: You folks in the media make such a big deal out of everything Jim Harbaugh does. You’re just feeding the monster without really seeing what’s going on. Let me say this first: You’re not doing what he did at Stanford and in the NFL without being a helluva coach. But he has to start winning those big games at Michigan, and there can’t be any more of those South Carolina gaffes."
"Think about this: You’re a Michigan fan (and we all know the expectations of Michigan fans), and you’re not better than Ohio State or Penn State or Michigan State? You finish fourth in your division again, then what? Uh-oh."
"So after you hear all that doom and gloom, I’ll tell you that they will have the best defense in our league this season. Maybe even the best defense in the whole country. That allows you to make a bunch of mistakes on offense, or play with a quarterback who’s just another guy. You tell me two players on any defense that are a better combination than (DE) Rashan Gary and (LB) Devin Bush."
"Jim’s problems are no different than most anyone else: He needs a quarterback. What’s surprising is that’s what he does best. He coaches quarterbacks and makes them elite performers and leaders."
"That has to be so frustrating for Jim. He has the pieces everywhere but can’t make it work at quarterback."
"I don’t know what all is going on over there, and I’m not sure I want to know. I know this: They have a really strong team coming back. I realize that doesn’t mean anything in relation to the off-field problems there, but 19 starters from a 10-win team? They’re getting attention for all of the wrong things this offseason."
"You want to know how you go from three wins to 10 wins? You play defense and you find a QB. How about that for a recipe of winning? You’re a genius, right coach?"
"They were terrible on defense two years ago, and I think everyone in this league was shocked at how ill-prepared they were. Last year, completely different story. They’re good up front, they’re really good at linebacker with (Joe) Bachie and (Andrew) Dowell. Kenny Willekes is a fantastic rush end. He forces you to know where he is at all times."
"There’s no way you’re going to sit there and tell me everyone knew Brian Lewerke was going to be a great player. That he was going to be this tough, smart, talented dual-threat guy who is going to give defenses fits. Now way. Never saw it. He can make all the throws and he’s a tough, willing runner."
"It’s time for LJ Scott to either show he’s an elite tailback, or just hang out and meander through his senior season and hope for the best in the NFL Draft. They’ve got a strong, experienced offensive line. Time for Scott to play like he wants it."
"I know P.J. Fleck rubs some people the wrong way with that rah-rah stuff, but it’s genuine. He’s a positive energy, positive thoughts guy. Not that a lot of us aren’t -- he just wears it on his sleeve in a very public way. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Some young kids really like a coach like that. Others crave discipline and direction. It’s a balancing act we all have to figure out."
"They’ve struggled for so long at the quarterback spot, and that’s one foot in the grave in this league. They’ve got to get that figured out. There’s no one on that roster from last year that scares you."
"I like (RB) Rodney Smith. He has been a quality runner in our league for three years. I’m not so sure he took a step back last year as much as that offensive line wasn’t helping much. They just weren’t that good up front, and not just blocking between the tackles. Their pass protection was lousy, too."
"Whoever’s running that show has a couple of good young guys to throw to. In the past, they couldn’t win on the outside, couldn’t get off jams. It was easy to get those guys out of their game. But Tyler Johnson started to play really well last season, and he’s going to have to be accounted for this season. Tough kid, makes the tough catches and can get behind you."
"I’ll tell you who’s a really good player on that team: (DB) Antonie Winfield Jr. If he played at a bigger program, he’d be all anyone was talking about in this league."
"I read somewhere this winter that Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. Think about that. The game has changed so much, and Nebraska hasn’t changed with it."
"That’s why I think Scott Frost will have success there that everyone post-Tom (Osborne) hasn’t had: He knows that program, and he is part of the new breed of college football. He’s going to run that wide-open Oregon offense, and he’s going to recruit his tail off. If it doesn’t happen this time around with Frost, I don’t know when it ever will again."
"He needs a quarterback, that’s not really big news. I know there are a lot of guys competing, and there’s a true freshman (Adrian Martinez) who will also get a look. Scott has gone through this before as OC at Oregon and at UCF. He’s going to find a tough guy -- I’m telling you, he’s serious about that -- who’s talented and who wants to learn. A lot like the kid (McKenzie Milton) he just coached the last two seasons at UCF."
"Everyone walks into the new program talking about making their guys tough. I don’t think there’s any question that’s what Scott wants to do. He knows how important the idea of being tougher than the guy across from you is to those in that program. You might think these are little things, but believe me, these little things have all been overlooked by everyone after Osborne."
"I like the rah-rah attitude from the first day he got there. But the reality is they’re not that good on the offensive and defensive lines, and that’s going to be a critical problem this season."
"The key to this season will be the health of QB Clayton Thorson. I’ll tell you right now, if his knee is healthy and he plays well, two things will happen: Northwestern will win 10 games again, and he’s going to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. He has that ability, and his measureables are off the charts. Smart kid, big arm, loves to compete. He’ll blow them away at the Combine. But first he has to get healthy."
"The good news for Thorson is if he returns in time, he’ll have two terrific security blankets to make the transition as easy as possible. (Ben) Skowronek and (Flynn) Nagel will make any quarterback’s job easier. Those two guys can go get anything."
"I absolutely love (LB) Paddy Fisher. When I first saw him play, it was eerie. It was like I was watching a young Pat Fitzgerald running around out there in the purple. Same type of player, same ferocious intensity, same desire every single snap. If he’s not all-conference after this season, I’ll be stunned."
"Think about that concept of Northwestern winning 10 games 'again.' If you ever doubted the impact of Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, let that idea sink in. Northwestern with back-to-back 10-win seasons and it’s not really surprising. What Pat has accomplished there, how he has everyone bought in, how they’re building palatial facilities for him, it’s just a remarkable achievement."
"They can be really good up front, and they’re going to need it to protect Thorson and open some holes for (RB) Jeremy Larkin, a young guy who I think is good."
"They are so darn good at just about every position on the field. You wonder how they lose. Maybe that’s why when they do lose, it’s the end of the world. That’s a tough way to coach, I’ll tell you that. It’s tough for any of us to lose a game in this conference. But Urban (Meyer) has it going so well there, when they lose, it’s like a death in the family."
"I realize people are going to think this is blasphemy, but I think they’re going to be better offensively this year without J.T. Barrett. One thing about J.T., he always knew where to go with the ball. I think Dwayne Haskins, if he’s making the same smart decisions, will have a huge season. He’s a better thrower and has a better arm."
"I have no idea how they lost once last year, much less twice. They are that much better, talent-wise, than everyone in our conference."
"The young guys on that offense are amazing. (RB) J.K. Dobbins is a grown man. He was running over people and showing NFL moves from the first snap against Indiana. The guy I really like is (WR) Parris Campbell. The fastest guy on the field every time he steps on it. He’s one arm tackle away from scoring every play."
"Where do you start on defense? So many impact guys all over the place."
"DE Nick Bosa is playing at a higher level than his brother, Joey, did. (Donte) Booker and (Tuf) Borland at linebacker. CB Jeffrey Okudah is going to be an absolute stud. Then you have big DT Dre’Mont Jones in the middle. Everywhere you look, they’ve got guys that will play a long time in the NFL."
"I still contend that Penn State had no idea what it was getting with James Franklin. We saw what he did at Vanderbilt, and how he could recruit. But this was a completely different animal, and he just hit it out of the park."
"He recruits difference-makers, and his staff is developing the lower-tier recruits as well. Look at Trace McSorley. He was a three-star guy who didn’t exactly set the world on fire in high school. Now he’s going to probably hold a majority of their passing records by the time he leaves school."
"I love McSorley. A gym rat type of player, a guy that sells out play after play. He’s what you want from a quarterback."
"It’s going to be interesting to see how that team handles change. It’s all over the place. A handful of new coaches, including a new offensive coordinator replacing a highly successful guy. Then you got maybe the best player in the country leaving early, and now you’ve got to find a suitable replacement for him."
"Miles Sanders was everybody’s No.1 running back in high school. I think everyone in our conference was recruiting him."
"Ricky Slade is going to be a fantastic player. I’m not saying they wont miss Saquon (Barkley). I guess what I’m saying is they’ll have options."
"They’re so solid on defense, and now they get a guy I think was the best high school player on that side of the ball last year. Micah Parsons will be an immediate impact guy in our conference."
"This is Exhibit A of how the right coach can change everything. That program was a joke the last couple of years. They didn’t do anything well. They certainly didn’t play hard and play like they were invested in the program, their coach or themselves. Now look. What a job by Jeff (Brohm)."
"It became pretty clear in the second half of the season that Elijah Sindelar was the quarterback they had. He stands tall in that pocket and can sling it. They lost a couple of really good receivers, but (Jackson) Anthrop is a darn good player, and they’ve recruited skill guys fairly well the last couple of years."
"That offense will get more help with the two tailbacks returning, and a pretty good line that started to figure it out near the end of last season."
"The biggest shock of all last year is how well that team played defensively. They lose a lot from that front four that really was the nucleus of the defense. The one guy that does come back is the wide body in the middle, Lorenzo Neal. What a player he is. The perfect run stuffer. He just eats up space."
"I really like (LB) Markus Bailey. He’s a ball player. He will be one of the best defensive players in our league."
"It may not look like it, but Chris Ash is making some headway at Rutgers. I’m actually shocked they won four games last year with the offense they had. They were horrific. There’s no other way to say it."
"They were below average at quarterback, and that’s where it all begins. I don’t know where they go -- I’m guessing you stick with Gio (Rescigno) and hope someone either pushes him or beats him out -- but I know the position isn’t the only problem. Rutgers has had nine offensive coordinators in the last nine years. You’re just not giving your kids a chance when you do things like that. You make a bad hire, then compound it by making another bad hire."
"They’re not that good at wide receiver. But there’s potential on the line. I like a couple of their guys -- (Tariq) Cole and (Michael) Maietti -- and that’s a great place to start when you need points."
"Chris had a ton of turnover on that staff. I think he’s trying to find chemistry and guys that can get those kids in position to have success."
"Winning at Rutgers in this conference, in that division, is asking a lot. Heck, winning in the Big East was no piece of cake."
"John McNulty is a good hire at offensive coordinator. He did some nice work there about 10 or so years ago on (Greg) Schiano’s staff."
"They don’t do anything really special on defense, and you just know that makes a defense-first coach like Chris go crazy."
"They’ve got some potential in the secondary."
"If they were a little better at quarterback, if Alex Hornibrook were a little more refined, they would’ve been in the playoff last year. They could have beaten Ohio State in our championship game, and probably should have."
"You can say, ‘How many quarterbacks played well against Ohio State?’ and that’s a fair argument. Then watch the tape, and watch (Hornibrook) miss open receivers on throws he just has to make. They are so good everywhere else. You just can’t have a quarterback who throws 15 interceptions. You just can’t do that."
"I thought Hornibrook was hurt last year by the loss of WR (Quintez) Cephus. He was just beginning to become a dangerous threat on the outside when they lost him to an injury."
"I think TE Zander Neuville is going to be a great player this season. I don’t even think he had but a handful of catches last year, but he’s a punishing blocker and he has talent."
"If I were to tell you, hey, Wisconsin had a freshman tailback that had 2,000 yards, you’d probably say, yeah, that sounds about right. I don’t want to make light of what Jonathan Taylor did because he’s a special player, but it’s death, taxes and Wisconsin with an elite tailback. Oh by the way, three of those stud offensive linemen who could’ve left for the NFL, stayed in Madison."
"I loved watching these guys play last year. A team that looked like it was having fun every time they stepped on the field. It was so cool to watch week after week. That’s a reflection on Paul Chryst."
"There aren’t many better guys than Paul, and he and that team are clearing connecting."
"The defense that everyone overlooked last year will be great again. LB T.J. Edwards returning to school and skipping the NFL was icing on the cake."
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