Detroit News Big Ten football primer

Bruce Mason
The Detroit News
J.T. Barrett

The countdown is on to the start of the college football season. Bruce Mason of The Detroit News provides a Big Ten primer on impact freshmen, coaches on the hot seat, top players at each position, sleeper stars and more.

IMPACT FRESHMEN

Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan: Outstanding lateral quickness. Tremendous vertical leap. A 40-yard dash time that’s better than a majority of the linemen at the 2016 NFL combine. Gary is a tremendous talent, and he was the first player to be ranked No. 1 by all four major recruiting networks (Scout, Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN). Gary (6-5, 293) is a rare combination of athleticism and power who can play anywhere on the line of scrimmage. His stat line as a senior at Paramus (N.J.) Catholic High was downright eye-popping: 13.5 sacks, 55 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, five pass break-ups and a blocked kick, all in nine games. “The sky’s the limit with him,” Michigan linebackers coach Chris Partridge told The Detroit News in March.

Nick Bosa, DT, Ohio State: Will he follow the footsteps of his brother? Nick Bosa (6-4, 265) was the nation’s No. 1-ranked defensive end out of St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and is expected to be a superstar who can rush the passer. His brother, Joey Bosa, the third overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, was a superstar at OSU. As a sophomore, he was named a first-team All-American by the five outlets recognized by the NCAA, giving him the rare “unanimous” distinction. Last season, Nick Bosa had 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks in seven games with St. Thomas Aquinas, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said on National Signing Day he expects Bosa to play as a true freshman.

Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State: Weber rushed for 2,265 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at Detroit Cass Tech in 2014 and committed to Michigan — then changed his mind and signed with the Scarlet and Gray. Weber (5-10, 215), a redshirt freshman, impressed the Buckeyes’ faithful at the spring game with two touchdowns and is the leading candidate to start in the fall.

COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT

Mike Riley, Nebraska: The trail of criticism that followed him from Oregon State has made its way to Lincoln. Riley lost four games in 2015 by a combined eight points — most notably home affairs to Wisconsin and Northwestern — to launch his Cornhuskers career with a 6-7 record. His team was flagged 94 times, the most in the Big Ten. Remember all the flack levied toward Bo Pelini? He had nine wins or more in each of his seven full seasons.

James Franklin, Penn State: Franklin has gone 7-6 in each of his two seasons at Penn State — not terrible, of course, but another barely-above-.500 season will anger the Nittany Lions' faithful, who are still seething after … never mind. Conventional wisdom says give Franklin more time, but in (Un)Happy Valley right now, Penn State has finished six straight seasons outside the AP Top 25. Then again, maybe they should lessen their expectations in a formidable Big Ten East that features powerhouses Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Yikes.

Darrell Hazell, Purdue: How does a guy who is 3-30 vs. FBS teams keep his job? Money talks, apparently. According to the Indianapolis Star, Purdue saves $2.1 million if it waits until Dec. 1, 2016 to fire Hazel, who is 2-22 in the Big Ten. So check back for Hazell’s status on Dec. 2.

TOP THREE QUARTERBACKS

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: He was in cruise control during his 2014 freshman season with 2,834 yards passing, 938 yards rushing and 45 total touchdowns (11 rushing). But a broken ankle ended his season and launched Cardale Jones’ run toward the national title. Barrett (6-2, 225), now a junior, no longer has to worry about Jones, with whom he shared playing time last season. Barrett was 11-1 as a freshman and must be considered a strong preseason Heisman Trophy candidate.

C.J. Beathard, Iowa: His 2015 passing efficiency of 139.5 is the best for returning quarterbacks. Beathard, who led Iowa to an 8-0 mark and West Division title, passed for 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns versus a league-low five interceptions. Beathard, however, no longer has All-Big Ten offensive linemen Jordan Walsh (first team, Associated Press) and Austin Blythe (second team, AP).

Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska: He recorded 3,430 yards of total offense last season, the best among all returners. Armstrong completed 55.2 percent of his passes for 3,030 yards and 22 touchdowns — but also threw a league-high 16 picks.

Saquon Barkley

TOP THREE RUNNING BACKS

Saquon Barkley, Penn State: He was the only freshman to earn all-league accolades by the Associated Press, earning a spot on the second team. Barkley rushed for 1,076 yards, third best in the conference, despite a rather weak offensive line. Barkley (5-11, 219) validated his ability last season at No. 1 Ohio State with a 194-yard outburst.

Justin Jackson, Northwestern: He finished second in the Big Ten last year with 1,418 rushing yards, averaging 109.1 per game. Jackson (5-11, 190) was a second-team all-league pick by the Associated Press last year as a sophomore. He was a shining star for an offense that ranked 114th in scoring (19.5 points per game).

Devine Redding, Indiana: OK, he’s our safe pick for third-best tailback in the conference over Michigan State’s LJ Scott and Wisconsin’s Corey Clement. Redding (5-10, 202) had 1,012 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a backup to Jordan Howard. Redding will run behind senior guard Dan Feeney (6-4, 310), a Sporting News preseason All-American.

Jehu Chesson

TOP THREE RECEIVERS

Jehu Chesson, Michigan: Chesson (6-3, 200), an All-Big Ten first-team pick by the coaches, caught nine TD passes. And if the end of 2015 is any indication of his prospects for this season, expect a big year from Chesson. He had 505 receiving yards for six touchdowns in the final four games, including three games of 111 yards or more.

Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska: Westerkamp (6-0, 200), a second-team all-league pick by the AP, may have the best hands in the Big Ten. He finished with a single-season school record of 65 catches last year and tied another Nebraska mark with four 100-yard receiving games. He finished with seven touchdowns, tied for second among Big Ten receivers.

Chris Godwin, Penn State: His 1,101 receiving yards ranked second in the league to Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge, making Godwin the leading returner in 2016. Godwin (6-1, 208), who was a second-team all-league pick last year by the AP, had 69 catches for five touchdowns.

How Michigan, MSU can win Big Ten championship

TOP THREE TIGHT ENDS

Jake Butt, Michigan: He’s a rare breed, a 6-6, 250-pound athlete who can catch passes in a variety of ways and weave through defenders. Butt caught 51 passes last year — flirting with Bennie Joppru's single-season record (53) — and finished with 654 yards receiving. He earned multiple first-team all-league honors and was named Big Ten Tight End of the Year. Butt, who had three touchdowns last season, was named a 2016 first-team preseason All-American by the Sporting News.

Josiah Price, Michigan State: He was a third-team all-league pick by both Big Ten coaches and media. Price (6-4, 260) caught a touchdown pass in four straight games to open the 2015 season and finished with six. His 16 career TD catches are the most in MSU history at his position.

Brandon Lingen, Minnesota: Lingen had a pair of 100-yard receiving games last season as a sophomore and finished with 33 catches and three touchdowns. Lingen (6-5, 250) posted 428 yards receiving, ranking second among Big Ten tight ends.

Brian Allen

TOP THREE OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Pat Elflein, Ohio State: He decided to skip the NFL, making him the only first-team Big Ten offensive lineman (AP) to return in 2016. Elflein (6-3, 300) played guard last year, but moves to center this year. He’s a projected first-round pick for the 2017 NFL draft and will key a Buckeyes’ offensive line that lost three starters. The Sporting News picked Elflein as a first-team preseason All-American.

Brian Allen, Michigan State: He started 10 games at left guard and two at center in 2015, en route to second-team all-league honors (AP). Allen (6-2, 305) will need to lead an offensive line that loses tackle Jack Conklin and center and brother Jack Allen. Brian Allen will be needed to open holes for a ground game that seeks a bona fide starting running back, not a three-man approach that averaged 151.3 yards per game last year and ranked 93rd in the country.

Dan Feeney, Indiana: Thirty-seven career starts, one sack allowed. That’s 2,719 snaps. Feeney (6-4, 310) earned All-American third-team honors last season by the AP and is a potential first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft. Feeney was named as a preseason first-team All-American by the Sporting News.

Malik McDowell

TOP THREE DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Malik McDowell, Michigan State: This spring, he told reporters he’s the best defensive lineman in the country. McDowell (6-6, 280) had 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season en route to second-team all-league honors by the AP. He also forced two fumbles and disrupted quarterbacks with eight hurries. And there was his punt block at Ohio State that set up prime field position for the go-ahead field goal as No. 9 Michigan State upset the No. 2 Buckeyes. Mel Kiper listed McDowell as the sixth-best prospect in the 2017 NFL draft on his early Big Board in May.

Dawuane Smoot, Illinois: Last year Smoot (6-3, 265) had eight sacks, 15 tackles for loss, forced three fumbles and recovered two — and yet was overlooked by Big Ten media and coaches in voting for the all-conference teams.

Chris Wormley, Michigan: Wormley (6-5, 303) had 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last season and was named an All-Big Ten third-team defensive tackle in 2015.

TOP THREE LINEBACKERS

Anthony Walker, Northwestern: Who led the Big Ten in tackles for loss last season? It wasn’t Carl Nassib (Penn State), the defensive player of the year. It wasn’t Joey Bosa (Ohio State), the third overall pick in the NFL draft. It was Walker, a sophomore with 20.5 tackles for loss. Walker (6-1, 235) also led the Big Ten in fumble recoveries (three) and ranked third in tackles (120). Walker was named a 2016 second-team preseason All-American by the Sporting News.

Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State: He ranked fourth in the Big Ten in tackles (119) last season, leading the Buckeyes, who pumped five defensive players into the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL draft. McMillan (6-2, 240) had 4.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks and was an AP first-team All-Big Ten linebacker. Mel Kiper listed McMillan as the 18th-best prospect on his early Big Board.

Josey Jewell, Iowa: His 126 tackles ranked second in the Big Ten last season en route to second-team all-league honors by the AP. Jewell (6-2, 230) also intercepted four passes and recorded 7.5 tackles for loss.

Desmond King

TOP THREE DEFENSIVE BACKS

Desmond King, Iowa: The accolades abound for the Detroit native, who was second in the nation with eight interceptions last season en route to earning the Jim Thorpe Award as the country’s best defensive back. King (5-11, 200), who was also named a first-team All-American by the AP, finished seventh in the nation in punt return average (14.2 yards per return) and third in the Big Ten for passes defensed (21). King (Detroit East English) also had 72 tackles and was named the 2015 Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year.

Jourdan Lewis, Michigan: He defensed 22 passes last season, which ranked fourth in the nation. Lewis (5-10, 175) was a first-team all-league defensive back (AP) who finished with 52 tackles and averaged 25.2 yards per kick return. The Detroit Cass Tech alum was a second-team AP All-American cornerback last year who had two interceptions. Lewis was listed as the 15th best prospect for the 2017 NFL draft on Mel Kiper's early Big Board in May.

William Likely, Maryland: Likely was a first-team all-league pick by the Big Ten coaches as a cornerback. He had 11 passes defensed and forced three fumbles last year. Likely (5-7, 175), who returned two punts and a kickoff for touchdowns, was named the league’s Specialist of the Year with 1,197 combined return yards, a total that was third-best in the country.

Jabrill Peppers

ALL-PURPOSE STUDS

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan: You knew who would top this list, right? He’s the most exciting player in the Maize and Blue since Charles Woodson. Peppers (6-1, 208) was listed as a 2016 first-team preseason Sporting News All-American as an all-purpose player. It’s a fitting description for a player who took snaps at at least eight positions last season. He averaged 11.4 yards on punt returns, rushed for two touchdowns, defensed 10 passes and made 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss). Mel Kiper currently lists Peppers as the ninth-best prospect for the 2017 NFL draft.

William Likely, Maryland: At Wisconsin last season, he started the game on offense and defense. Likely (5-7, 175) was a first-team all-league pick by the Big Ten coaches as both a cornerback and return specialist.  He forced three fumbles, defensed 11 passes and returned three kicks for scores (two were punts). Likely was named Big Ten Specialist of the Year with 1,197 combined return yards, a total that was third-best in the country. He averaged 17.7 yard per punt return, third-best in the nation, en route to being named as a first-team All-American punt returner by the Football Writers Association of America.

Janarion Grant, Rutgers: His 1,583 all-purpose yards ranked second in the conference to Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. Grant (5-10, 176) led the Big Ten with 984 kickoff return yards and three kick returns for touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown pass and caught another as a receiver, meaning he scored in four different manners.

UNDER THE RADAR

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin: He rushed for 949 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014 — and that came when he was second-fiddle to Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon (2,587 yards, 29 rush TD). Clement (5-11, 214) endured a sports hernia last year, which cut him to four games, but now he’s fully healthy as a senior.

Torrance Gibson, WR, Ohio State: Gibson (6-4, 205 pounds) is a big target who caught six passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ spring game.

Rashard Fant, CB, Indiana: Fant (5-10, 177) has to compete for the spotlight with a Jim Thorpe winner (Desmond King, Iowa) and a pair of returning star defensive backs in Jourdan Lewis of Michigan and William Likely of Maryland. Fant, however, was second in the nation as a sophomore in 2015 with 23 pass break-ups.