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Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2022

A.J. Henning, Andrew Vastardis Michigan Wolverines Football vs. Ohio State Buckeyes

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 bulletin board 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 2022, 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 2022

Big Ten East

Indiana

"Big questions here. They're coming off a season that was underwhelming, but I think you also saw a lot of challenges to what we thought Tom [Allen] had succeeded in putting in place."

"As the season went on, you could see their players were frustrated; you could literally see it on the film. They didn't necessarily quit, but you could say the frustration was causing a lot of issues."

"The Missouri kid [Connor Bazelak] is it for them. If he can get things going, if they can find some help on the outside and he gets something going with his receivers, they can bounce back. The back from Auburn [Shaun Shivers] is a big get for them; he can help them get creative with scheme."

"They need the defense to carry it for a bit. But they had some guys transfer out and lost some guys up front, and that's where they really struggled. [Micah] McFadden was a stud; they're going to miss him."

"This is the season where we're all going to find out if this program can win sustainably. Can they develop talent, can they fill holes on the roster without leaning on the portal, all that. Tom had an amazing 2020 in a weird season, but now it's a test of how good all your fundamentals as a program manager are. You can explain away a lot of their 2020, and you can explain away a lot of their 2021. But as long as they're relatively healthy, this is the season we find out about these guys."

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Maryland

"When you talk about the portal, this was a program we figured would benefit from how Mike [Locksley] works in recruiting. They're a staff that's aggressive; they go out headhunting for big talent and fit what they do to their personnel, and that's probably not as popular a method in this league. But they've been killed in the offseason by defensive transfers, and that's the side of the ball where the questions are."

"Taulia [Tagovailoa] is a star. Does he have a next gear? Can he be a legit superstar? Legit superstars can slow things down. Sometimes you see his tape and he's close. Sometimes he's still playing off pure instinct. They have a lot of really good pieces around him, especially at receiver. This could be a really special year for that offense. Sometimes that talent-first mentality can bite them because they're so aggressive with their calls. It's like they're using every play-call to recruit. So they'll hit a big play, gash you for 50, and just as easily turn it over the next play."

"They're going to be must-see, because you never know if they're going score 60 and win or give up that much. Locksley is fearless; you have to hand him that. They could catch some breaks and just shoot everybody out, but they have a grinding schedule, so it could just as easily fall apart on them."

Michigan

"This was a changed program in 2021, and the results reflect that. Even before they beat OSU or won the conference, I think the coaches in the league knew it could happen. You saw a different energy here; they had more speed than in recent years, and they were still just as physical. They were violent on film. It was Michigan football. They had two good backs that got downhill, one is coming back this year, and I expect more of the same on offense. They have good tight ends, and they're still young overall on offense. The big pieces are in place on this side of the ball. We're curious how they're managing the two quarterbacks and if J.J. [McCarthy] gets more time. They both have upsides, but that's always a tricky thing to manage correctly."

"Defensively, you can't just replace those edge guys. Those are NFL players, and Michigan is great, but that's not a plug-and-play situation for anybody. So the defense will have a different identity. The measure of this program is how they replace league-caliber guys who leave. How deep can you stock your roster to where you're sending these guys off and still competing close to that level?"

"[DC Jesse] Minter will transition right in; I don't think you're going to see any kind of departure in terms of scheme."

"What you're looking for this year is how fast they resupply. Was '21 the exception or the new rule?"

Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2022

Michigan State

"There are two big questions: How do you maintain your culture and momentum when you live and die in the portal as much as these guys have, and how is life after Kenneth Walker III? That guy was a legit difference-maker, a real MVP. So many times they'd be stuck, and he would put the game on his shoulders."

"They keep one of their two good receivers; otherwise, expect some new faces. They were creative on offense, lots of shift and motion; expect more of that. [Payton] Thorne is pretty good, and that's about it. He had really good numbers because he never had to worry all that much. They're going to have to get more out of him."

"The DL always seemed a little beat up, and the secondary was just not good. You could see that Ohio State game coming from miles away. They rode the momentum off Michigan, and then their depth and talent caught up with them against Purdue and OSU."

"This is Transfer U. Does that work every season? What's your culture like? It seems like these guys don't set limits like other staffs. Normally, you're working the portal out of extreme need for a position group or to complement a roster. These guys shop the whole store, it seems. They haven't recruited in Michigan high schools as much as you'd expect."

"Maybe it works out. No one really has the portal completely figured out. You can't argue with their results so far."

Related: Ranking the Big Ten Quarterbacks for 2022

Ohio State

"Most coaches in the country would do anything to have a season that's considered a bad year for Ohio State. Their bad year is a great year for anyone else. When we broke down their roster last season, it was like editing your NCAA video game on dynasty mode and you put everyone at 99. Essentially they could do whatever they wanted to on offense for most of the season. Throw [Garrett] Wilson a bubble screen, he'd go 80 yards. First-round receivers, first-round QB, first-round back, hell, the tight end was an unsung hero who couldn't shine because he couldn't get touches, but he's one of the best in the country. This was one of the best college offenses possible, and even losing NFL receivers, they're still deep at that position. It's insane."

"The sole issue that kept them out of the playoff has been fixed. It's all about how fast [DC Jim] Knowles gets them fit for what he wants. If you're looking for a criticism here, they're short superstars on this side lately. They're solid in every phase on defense, but for instance, their linebackers were… fine? The reality is that no one, not even this team, is built to always win by outscoring the other team, and it finally bit them. You're gonna find out right away with Notre Dame, and that will set the tone for how fast you can expect them to be back as a national title contender. Even if they lose that opener, they can still run through this conference. They're that good."

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Penn State

"Sean Clifford coming back is absolutely huge for them. I know they have his replacement signed, but having him back with that much experience and [OC Mike] Yurcich in Year 2 is gonna be huge for them. They've been really ineffective since [Joe] Moorhead left. They've got to fix the offensive line; they couldn't run and they could pass protect. That's how they ended up losing that much down the stretch. They've been recruiting well at OL, and they need immediate results there. They're turning over the backfield, so the new guys have to come up big for them."

"[DC Brent] Pry leaving is a huge deal because he's been with James [Franklin] forever."

"Manny [Diaz] is gonna be really aggressive and press those young guys. It was no shock James grabbed him up; he'll be a head coach on that defense. They've got some nice players, especially in the back end. They'll go single high, they'll blitz, they'll get after it right away."

"You would think this is a really hungry team and staff because they've fallen off the last few years, and they're not as relevant nationally. Clifford needs protection, and they need to get creative with the playmakers they've got. Having an experienced passer and not installing a new system is a huge win for them. This could be a bounce-back season."

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Rutgers

"
Greg Schiano is doing what they asked him to. It's about getting all the way back to their roots from his Big East run when they had all that great success. He's done a really great job working with high schools in the New Jersey area. He wants fit guys, not just the best available, and everything we hear is that the administration is committed to a long-term rebuild. He hired his staff with that in mind, all guys with obvious Northeast connections."

"They're doing a pretty good job recruiting defensively. That could really end up being their strength because they started a lot of really young guys and let them get the reps and learn the hard way."

"There's a talent gap on film, but they're really physical, and they do a good job with their technique."

"It really comes down to long-term expectations. No one in the league doubts what they're doing; it's just an issue of where the ceiling will be. He's gonna have them as a bowl qualifier, no doubt, but the old Rutgers succeeded in a completely different conference, and they're on murderer's row being in the East."

"They're playing with a lot of energy and physicality, and they're not afraid. The biggest compliment you can give them is that they're not acting like they're rebuilding or a doormat."

Big Ten West

Illinois

"It's no secret — Bret Bielema is all-in on trying to replicate Wisconsin here. Whether or not you can do that remains to be seen, but it might be an easier blueprint than some of the other plans to rebuild this program. Bret brings that edge, demanding physicality, demanding competition. Offensively they struggled a lot, but they did a pretty good job running the ball, and they've been out trying to find bigs on the OL to make that their identity."

"I don't think they'll be dramatically different with the new OC; they're just trying to find more consistency. They need a quarterback, and they need playmakers on the edge. Right now, you don't really respect their ability to hit you deep or change it up if you're loading up the box."

"They got a little better last season because their defense stepped up. They got saltier as the season went along; it was impressive to see. They could easily sneak up on a better program early this year because those guys are coming back and they have room to grow and improve."

"It's going to be interesting this year because they had a lot of roster guys using that extra COVID year last season, maybe the most in our conference. That gave them a lot of veteran presence."

"If they want to build on last season, they have to find a quarterback going into camp, and the defense has to take that next step up.

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Iowa

"Every year that goes by, it's apparent this staff isn't going anywhere until the head man [Kirk Ferentz] decides to leave. They do what they do, they do it well and they do not care if you think they should do it different. They've got total support, too. So if everyone's calling for the OC's [Brian Ferentz] head, it doesn't really matter. This program moves at its own pace."

"They're a model of defense. They're assignment sound, physical up front and they're rarely out of position. When you look at them on film, it's all vanilla. It's hard to see an 'Iowa scheme' in anything. The Iowa part of it is running base stuff with great fundamentals, or playing sound gaps and understanding assignments on the fly. They'll cover your route concepts quickly because they're smart, and they're smart because they're well-coached. That's why you see so many flashier teams with more talent come in there and get brought down to Iowa's pace and style. They command games, even with less talent."

"The offensive line was young up front last year, and that showed at times. The issue is going to be production at the quarterback position. They're going to let those guys battle it out."

"This program is the definition of overachieving in this sport. Yes, they probably need to be more creative on offense, but they're not listening to the outside, trust me."

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Minnesota

"Last year, they really seemed to settle into a Big Ten West identity at times. They could look like Wisconsin or Iowa and get all the way up to 70-30 run-pass. They've got the big guys up front, and their primary back can make some big plays if he's fully recovered. That's probably their biggest personnel question. They were really banged up there last year."

"Bringing Kirk [Ciarrocca] back makes a ton of sense. We know he'll get back to his bread and butter, a lot of inside and outside zone, a lot of RPO, getting creative and still controlling the clock."

"No one really understood why he was treated the way he was at Penn State. He had these guys absolutely firing. The problem is that they don't have those caliber receivers right now. Where are those top-end guys? The [Rashod] Batemans? You haven't seen that with them for a minute. [Tanner] Morgan's always been a solid quarterback. You don't want him winning or losing games on his own, but he's good when he's got weapons. They lose a lot of that OL, so that's certainly something to keep an eye on."

"The defensive line will probably take a step back since they're losing NFL talent there, but they didn't get a lot of attention for a really solid overall unit, we thought. They make you keep it in front of them, really solid and smart."

"If Ciarrocca and Morgan can click again, and the lines hold, they could have another special year."

Nebraska

"In their division, Nebraska still has the best-looking roster. We call it the all-bus team because they look better than anyone else in the West in pregame. Long, tall dudes, really athletic, and then after a quarter or so, you stop worrying because they're usually hurting themselves. They struggle with turnovers, they struggle with technique. I think it's a culture issue."

"Defensively they improved, but they lost some of their better guys to eligibility and they filled it with transfers."

"We ask ourselves a lot what's going on there because they're pulling in good talent and have the resources, and the administration seems to have faith in this staff."

"With the new OC and the do-or-die mentality, they have to manage the summer really well and find the right QB. My guess is that Mark Whipple's going to take over the room. He's a headstrong guy."

"The biggest thing they need to do is get the OL to a point where they can run the ball long enough to let the defense breathe. That defense isn't the problem; they were solid as hell at times. The offense just needed to stay on the field and not burn quick possessions, not go tempo and get desperate because you're playing from behind."

"Obviously, this is a big year for them. They're talented enough, but is there some kind of mental block here? If they can't come out and win and show some signs that they can build around what they're doing, this is probably it."

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Northwestern

"Looking at this team from year to year, it's pretty much a broken record now: You know exactly what you're getting on defense, and you respect the hell out of it, and you have no idea what's coming on offense, but chances are it will be pretty bad."

"The more time you spend in this league, the more you respect Fitz [Pat Fitzgerald] as a program manager. Their guys model their play off the head coach. He has great culture, and he has great communication within the program."

"Defensively, they're great; they like to get after you in the secondary, and when they have experience up front, they can give you hell."

"The issue with the program is how inconsistent they've become with the offense. It's not a mystery: There's no consistency with the running back and quarterback, and there's not enough talent at receiver. If the [Ryan] Hilinski kid is their guy, they need to ride with him."

"The good news is that they're maybe the best in the nation at changing circumstances quickly. They've had bad seasons that were a series of single-possession losses, and the next year they're efficient enough on offense to come right back and get on a run. That's possible this season, too, although they're drawing a pretty nasty schedule. Finding an established starter at quarterback could get them to .500, and that would be a huge success building towards the future."

Purdue

"You could see in their bowl game, they're getting back to that offensive energy they had early when Jeff Brohm got there. Most of that offense is coming back, and they're clicking. They're losing David Bell, but that's a position group they're good at developing. They're solid at wide receiver without having that next guy just yet, and they've got good tight ends. I think their entire line is back, and when they're comfortable passing the ball in his offense, look out — they can kill you. We're not sure what the upside of the quarterback [Aidan O'Connell] is. Can he take another step?"


"Defensively, losing a guy like George [Karlaftis] is just insane. Even one guy. Everyone was accounting for him, sliding lines over and matching everything they could to stop him. I'm not sure they have another guy like that."

"It hinges on how the front seven holds up. Can they stop the run? That's life in that division. They've done a pretty good job recruiting those positions, and they've got a few transfers. So if they can push the run-heavy teams into passing, that offense will complement perfectly."

"They have really good corners, especially the one [Cory Trice] coming off the ACL. You just have to stop the run more effectively."

"If they can knock off Penn State in the first game, they might catch fire early and make some noise in the West."

Related: Ranking the Big Ten Quarterbacks for 2022

Wisconsin

"Last year they were exceptionally good on defense. Jim Leonhard does a really great job. They do lots of things with coverages; they attack people. A lot of us thought last year, Leo Chenal was the best defensive player in the league. He's gonna be a great NFL player one day. Jack Sanborn is a really, really good inside backer; he's a pure football player and another next-level guy. They're losing some huge pieces, but Leonhard really makes this the strength of the program right now."

"Offensively, they're Wisconsin, full stop. They're big and they're physical up front, to the point where you feel like they invented it. The back is a typical bruiser for them, a 240-pound cannon-ball guy that looks like a beast who's been in a college weight room for four years, but he's young."

"The new OC [Bobby Engram] needs to work on QB consistency and find some targets. Unless they hit on some transfers, I don't really know if they have a go-to option at WR or TE right now."

"It's UW, so you're running the ball, but they struggle when that's all you can do and teams can cheat you. And, yeah, they have this one very specific offensive identity, but you can't get stale. Their red-zone execution really suffered last year because they were easy to predict. They need new ideas, they need some playmaker receivers, they need to make you respect the whole field."

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