Michigan State is hoping for a bounce-back season from quarterback Brian Lewerke
No matter what team you root for, there's always one player whose absence can make or break a game, if not a season. The Big Ten is no exception and has quite a few players who walk the tightrope between disappointment and a better future for their program.
Here are the players those squads need to improve and impress the most in 2019:
Illinois: Reggie Corbin, RB
With quarterback AJ Bush Jr. having moved on, the Fighting Illini are tasked with replacing a guy who was responsible for more than 200 yards of offense per game. Whoever takes over for Bush will have to get settled in, but fortunately for them, Corbin returns on the heels of a 1,000-yard season. To give Illinois even more hope, four of last year’s starting five offensive linemen return to assist.
The main problem is Illinois' schedule. If defensive coordinators sell out to stop Corbin and take their chances with Illinois' passing game, head coach Lovie Smith may be looking for a new gig following another four-win season.
Indiana: Coy Cronk, OT
The Hoosiers boast little experience up front with Cronk and right guard Simon Stepaniak being the only two returning starters on the offensive line. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey and running back Stevie Scott may help Indiana jerry-rig some wins out of the gate versus Ball State and FCS opponent Eastern Illinois.
The Hoosiers then run into a Buckeye buzzsaw. The front end of their schedule doesn't look too daunting. However, Cronk will be singled out from game one and the Hoosiers' slate features a gauntlet that may see them end the year on an 0-5 run.
Iowa: A.J. Epenesa, DE
One of the Big Ten's premier defenders, Epenesa amassed 37 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles last season. Chauncey Golston will complement him on the opposite side, one of the Hawkeyes' most improved players over the course of 2018.
An Iowa defense led by Epenesa should allow quarterback Nate Stanley to get into a groove with new tight ends to replace first-round NFL draft selections T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. They were Stanley's top two receivers and got 34 percent of the targets, the most of any tight end corps in the country. Even better for the Hawkeyes, they face a schedule that could see them start the season 4-0 before traveling to Michigan for their first big test.
Maryland: Anthony McFarland, RB
Mike Locksley's first year as the Terrapins' head coach looks to be anything but easy. He has to implement a reliable quarterback who not only has to jive with the top wide receivers but find a way to not run McFarland into the ground early on.
The rising sophomore had an impressive first season in College Park, racking up 1,034 yards and four touchdowns. Included in that was back-to-back 200-yards games against Indiana and Ohio State. Maryland is a curious team as another 5-7 record wouldn't be much of a surprise, while the Terrapins get used to a new culture and the offense gels. Still, McFarland's presence is a must. If he's absent on the field, five wins may look like a pipe dream for Locksley's debut.
Michigan: Shea Patterson, QB
Now in his senior season, the Ole Miss transfer is poised to lead Michigan to a Big Ten championship and perhaps a College Football Playoff berth. The biggest question mark is how he'll adapt to new offensive coordinator Josh Gettis' spread concepts that operate from a no-huddle approach.
Fortunately, Patterson managed 2,600 passing yards and a 22:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2018, so the learning curve shouldn't be too steep. He's also afforded an experienced offensive line that can give him all the time he needs to pick apart defenses.
Michigan State: Brian Lewerke, QB
To underscore how important Lewerke is to the Spartan offense, after suffering a shoulder injury during a gutsy win versus Penn State last season, Michigan State scored seven or fewer points in four of their final seven games. Assuming the Spartan quarterback can stay healthy, securing bowl eligibility shouldn't be a problem.
However, if Rocky Lombardi takes over for Lewerke as he did occasionally during 2018, Michigan State's outlook suddenly gets murky. Running back Connor Heyward isn't the biggest of offensive threats. Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr. provide solid options at receiver. The contrast in the two quarterbacks' ability to get them catchable balls is rather noticeable. Even with a bum shoulder for the second half of the season, Lewerke managed to complete 54 percent of his passes compared to Lombardi's 44 percent.
Minnesota: Carter Coughlin, DL
Whether we can legitimately view the Golden Gophers as a dark horse pick to win the Big Ten West will largely come down to defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. Having replaced Robb Smith following last year's 55-38 loss to Illinois, there's a Swiss army knife in Rossi's toolbox that’s bound to get picked up by an NFL squad: Coughlin.
The best part about the senior defender is that under Rossi, Minnesota can truly use him as a defensive terror whether he's your usual end in a 4-3 scheme or if the Golden Gophers opt to bring him in as the fourth linebacker in a 3-4 look. Considering the extensive menu of offensive looks Minnesota will see on this year's slate, P.J. Fleck needs a do-it-all defender like Coughlin to keep his team in games where a shootout is possible, if not probable.
Nebraska: Adrian Martinez, QB
Martinez is worth several wins to the Huskers in 2019, far from a well-kept secret. The record-setting Californian signal-caller not only is a dynamic dual-threat playmaker but he takes pressure off of a defense that's still rounding into form.
If removed from the lineup, defensive coordinators will no doubt breathe a huge sigh of relieve as the onus will now be on the Blackshirts to give their offense more and more chances to score. We saw how this might play out during Nebraska's 24-19 loss to Troy last season which came after Martinez sustained an ankle injury during the Colorado game one week prior. It's as simple as saying that with fleet-footed No. 2 on the field, the Huskers have a chance to beat just about anyone. Without him, that statement is significantly tempered.
Northwestern: Hunter Johnson, QB
How do you replace the leadership and skills of Clayton Thorson? Pick up a talented dual-threat that Dabo Swinney felt was good enough to play for his national championship program. Johnson also has the benefit of several returning playmakers in leading rusher Isaiah Bowser and two of the Wildcats' top receivers from 2018.
Northwestern came out of nowhere to win the Big Ten West last season and Johnson's addition has a few fans ready to roll the dice on picking Pat Fitzgerald's team making a second trip to Indianapolis this December.
Ohio State: Justin Fields, QB
The Buckeyes will have to be efficient on offense if they want a chance to match 2018's 13-1 record. Only four offensive starters return from the nation's second-ranked offense. Fortunately, Fields has J.K. Dobbins next to him at running back with last year's No. 2 receiver K.J. Hill looking to replace the productivity of Parris Campbell.
Quarterback Chris Chugunov - a graduate transfer from West Virginia - has been with the program since 2018. However, the talent gap between him and Fields would be noticeable should Ryan Day's starter have to step away from his duties for any amount of time.
Penn State: Micah Parsons, LB
A testament to the Nittany Lions' claim to the title of "Linebacker U," Parsons showed out as a wunderkind in 2018. With a team-leading 83 tackles, he proved to be an instant impact player and should only continue to improve. While he wasn't an every-game starter last year, the title is merely semantics. His work alongside Cam Brown and Jan Johnson gives Penn State one of the best linebacking corps in the conference.
With Penn State replacing its starting quarterback and running back, among others, the offense will need plenty of time to find its sea legs, which calls for Parsons and crew repeatedly stuff the opposition and make turnovers a regular part of their diet.
Purdue: Rondale Moore, WR
One of the most electric players in the nation, Moore gave the Boilermakers all the momentum necessary to knock off then-No. 2 Ohio State 49-20. That was one of three wins Purdue notched against ranked opponents in 2018 and head coach Jeff Brohm is ready for more.
While they play different positions, Moore's importance to Purdue's offense is similar to that of Nebraska's Adrian Martinez. With Moore on the field, the Boilermakers will be a handful for any defense to go up against. But with just three other returning starters on that side of the ball, Purdue needs Moore to stay healthy and continue to produce big plays if the Boilermakers want to improve upon last season's 6-7 record.
Rutgers: Raheem Blackshear, RB
There's really nowhere to go but up after the Scarlet Knights went 1-11 in 2018. This season's schedule offers a couple of opportunities for wins but it will be up to Chris Ash's team to take advantage of these opportunities. Six starters return on offense, including Blackshear.
The rising junior led the team in rushing last season, including two 100-yard games. He was most productive when he got double-digit carries. Rutgers' offense has plenty of room to improve, especially when it comes to the passing game and taking care of the football, which is why the Scarlet Knights could use a breakout season from their No. 1 back.
Wisconsin: Jonathan Taylor, RB
Arguably the best running back in college football, Taylor makes most opposing defenses look foolish even when they make stopping him the No. 1 priority. The leading rusher in FBS, Taylor was held under 100 yards just once, had four 200-yard games, and shredded Purdue for 321 on the ground.
One of the Heisman Trophy front-runners entering this season, Taylor could get some help if heralded freshman quarterback Graham Mertz turns out to be as good as advertised. Chances are, Jack Coan will at least open the season as the starter following the transfer of Alex Hornibrook to Florida State. But Mertz is being touted as the best quarterback the Badgers have brought onto campus since a guy named Russell Wilson. Regardless of who takes snaps, the offense will continue to revolve around Taylor, who gets a couple of tough tests in the first month of the season in Michigan and Northwestern.