Ohio State QB battle highlights Big Ten spring story lines
It doesn’t feel like spring in many parts of the Big Ten, but that hasn’t stopped all 14 teams from getting after it during their 15 available practices and/or games.
With most of the conference either done with spring practice or wrapping things up in the next week, The News decided to take a look at some of the key storylines for the rest of the conference as Michigan State has been done for a week and Michigan completed its work on Saturday.
Here is a quick summary of where the rest of the Big Ten stands heading to the offseason.
After failing to get things turned around in his first two seasons leading the Fighting Illini, coach Lovie Smith made some changes to his coaching staff, most notably bringing in Rod Smith as the offensive coordinator. Implementing a new offense with a young roster was the No. 1 goal this spring for the Illini, who have won just five games the last two seasons.
“It’s a pretty important spring for us,” Smith said. “There’s a new offensive coordinator coming along with other new coaches. We really feel like we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Sophomore quarterback Cam Thomas took advantage of taking the bulk of the first-team reps this spring and hopes to improve after starting twice last season as a true freshman.
“We feel good about where we are,” Smith said. “Now we transition back into the phase of our offseason program.”
There are position battles to keep an eye on for the Buckeyes, but the clear focus for most this spring was the quarterback spot, where the race is on to replace J.T. Barrett. As usual, there are no shortage of options for coach Urban Meyer beginning with sophomore Dwayne Haskins, who saw action in eight games last season, including the win over Michigan. However, junior Joe Burrow has also been solid and redshirt freshman Tate Martell has shown flashes.
Coming out of spring practice it looks like it’s between Haskins and Burrow, a decision Meyer said will be a difficult one.
“I think Tate Martell really showed his athleticism,” Meyer told ESPN. “Showcased it, but didn’t throw the ball as well. And the other two guys, you know, we got to go back and statistically analyze everything and make a decision, and it’s not going to be an easy one.”
Memorial Stadium has been sold out for every regular-season Cornhuskers game since 1962, but that hasn’t been the case for the spring game. So much for that as the excitement surrounding first-year coach Scott Frost — a former quarterback at Nebraska — led to every ticket being scooped up in about a day.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me,” Frost said. “I’ve been watching Nebraska football since I was a little boy and have seen the excitement Nebraska fans have and the support they have for us. … I was surprised with however long it took, but walking around Lincoln you can feel the excitement people have. Everybody is getting behind it.”
The task Frost has ahead won’t be an easy one as he tries to get the Huskers into position to contend in the West and win a conference championship for the first time since winning the Big 12 in 1999.
“These are the first couple steps on the long road to making Nebraska what it should be,” Frost said. “We have a lot of things to get better at, a lot of culture to adopt and install, a lot of Xs and Os to adopt and install. We’re in this for the long haul, the long fix, and we’re gonna fix it the right way.”
As the Nittany Lions enter the final week of spring practice, the battle for starting spots at both tight end and linebacker are taking center stage while Penn State copes with life after Saquon Barkley. But at least one player from Michigan is turning heads at the wide receiver position. K.J. Hamler, who redshirted last season, has been a standout this spring.
“He’s so quick and so fast,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Hamler, who played two seasons at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. “Usually you get a guy who is really fast or a guy who is really quick, and he’s both.”
Hamler is healthy now after suffering a knee injury during his senior season at IMG Academy in Florida, and now he’s making the most of his chances. As for the other spots, Franklin is busy sorting out who will emerge by the end of spring.
“There’s competition, but I wouldn’t say at this point we’re comfortable saying who the starter is going to be,” Franklin said.
There was no way Minnesota wasn’t going to play a spring game, which necessitated moving it up to last Thursday because of poor weather over the weekend. With the amount of youth second-year coach P.J. Fleck is dealing with, he felt it imperative to put the Gophers into a game-like situation.
“We’re gonna have a quarterback, whoever is our starting quarterback, who has never thrown a college pass,” Fleck said. “We’re gonna have young wideouts who have never played in college game, some lineman that have never done that, multiple defenders who have never done that. So, we have to give them game simulation the best we possibly can and the best way was moving the spring game to Thursday under the lights.”
As for that quarterback spot, redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan appears to have the edge over freshman Zack Annexstad.
“I saw them make really good passes, really good decisions,” Fleck said. “I saw them make some not-so-good decisions. What I did see from those two is the responses. One would take their team down the field, and the other would do the same thing.”
For the second time in three season, Northwestern is coming off a 10-win campaign after beating Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. The hope this time is the Wildcats don’t fall flat like they did in 2016 with seven wins, something coach Pat Fitzgerald said was an “underachievement.”
Spring practice wrapped up this weekend and Fitzgerald is happy where his team is entering the offseason.
“I love the leadership on our squad right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got a lot of guys around here that have won a lot of football games. We’ve also got a group here that won 10 a couple years ago then, I think, dramatically underachieved when we went 7-6 and won the Pinstripe Bowl. So this team pretty veteran savvy but at the same time we played 25 freshmen or redshirt freshmen last year so we’re still pretty young.”
As for quarterback Clayton Thorson, who tore his ACL in the bowl game?
“Clayton’s great,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s doing terrific and progressing the way we thought he would.”
The Hawkeyes enter their final week of spring still figuring out the linebacker spot, where all three starting spots will need to be determined. Seniors Aaron Mends and Jack Hockaday, juniors Amani Jones and Kristian Welch and sophomores Nick Niemann and Barrington Wade continue to push for playing time, however, coach Kirk Ferentz said there’s still plenty to figure out.
“We haven’t made any strong determinations on anything yet,’’ Ferentz said. “We might take it through the last practice. Aaron’s doing a good job. We’d expect that. And Jack Hockaday. The two older guys both have been good. Amani Jones, I think’s done a nice job, continues to impress us. Welch has done a good job. And I think Nick Niemann, those are probably the top five guys at this point, and really pretty close in terms of the strengths, weaknesses.”
Third-year coach DJ Durkin said the Terrapins will hang their hat on the offensive line and the running game, but the Terps expect to get production from the quarterback spot as well. That might not be clear through spring as Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill recovered from knee injuries, leaving Max Borteschlager to take most of the reps this spring.
Durkin believes Borteschlager won’t simply pave the way for Pigrome or Hill this fall.
“I think a lot of the things we do may even suit him better, which will help him,” Durkin said. “I’m looking forward to Max continuing to do well, compete, so that when we go into camp in August he’s competing for a job.”
It’s business as usual at Wisconsin these days as the Badgers will once again be the favorite in the West thanks to a bruising offensive line and a standout running back. Jonathan Taylor is coming off a freshman season when he ran for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns and is now taking the next step in his evolution.
“He’s a blast to coach. It’s not difficult at all,” coach Paul Chryst said. “There’s always a ton of learning to be had, and he does a great job of just always coming in with an approach to how to learn and how to get better.”
He’ll also run behind a line that is good with the chance to become great.
“We’ve got to go and do it. I like the group we have,” Chryst said. “Every one of those guys, a lot of them have played and done good things, but we have not arrived.”
Second-year coach Jeff Brohm is hoping to build off last season’s surprising turnaround that included seven wins, capped by a victory in the Foster Farms Bowl. And while the Boilermakers are working hard and buying into a new culture, Brohm admits they’re still looking for difference-makers.
“For us it’s about being competitive and getting more guys to step up and make plays,” Brohm said. “In the end you’ve got to have a handful of guys that can flat make plays. That’s on both sides of the ball. We’re improving and we’ve gotten better, but we still need to find more play-making ability at certain positions.
“There are a lot of challenges on the schedule this year so we have to step up our level of play.”
After six wins over two years, coach Chris Ash said the focus this spring wasn’t on Xs and Os.
“We had a few goals and we wanted a tough football team,” Ash said. “We wanted to bring the team closer together and wanted the team to attack every day like it’s the last day. That was it. Nothing about scheme or fundamentals. We wanted to make sure we’re a tough football team, a tight football team and have that mindset every day.”
The biggest on-field question remains at quarterback, where early enrollee Artur Sitkowski stood out by throwing for 280 yards and three touchdowns. However, he was unhappy with a couple of interceptions.
“He’s intelligent, he’s got a lot of tools, he studies and works extremely hard, he’s got great leadership,” Ash said. “He’s done a really good job in the couple of months he’s been here.”
The Hoosiers new they needed more production at the quarterback spot, so the addition of graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins has been a welcome one. He played 23 games at Arizona and the Hoosiers hope he is the type of dual-threat they’re looking for.
“I think at that position, I just know as defensive-minded coach, that kind of quarterback is difficult to defend,” coach Tom Allen said. “The ability to run the football, but you’ve got to throw it and you’ve got to throw it well, and that’s the piece that will not change. And it doesn’t mean the guy is running it more than he’s throwing it, but the ability to extend plays and the ability to create things with your legs, to create something from nothing, are things that we are trying to get to, and I believe a big part of that is the escapability, the athleticism of that quarterback.”
Dawkins showed that at Arizona where he threw for 2,414 yards and 15 touchdowns while running for 1,582 rushing yards on 232 carries with 20 touchdowns.