Big changes in Big Ten football give teams fresh starts this spring

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Josh Jackson

There were plenty of storylines from Michigan and Michigan State’s spring football practices, but outside of the in-state college football bubble, there was plenty else going on across the Big Ten during the 15 practices. Quarterbacks transferred out, quarterbacks transferred in, and the red carpet was rolled out at Ohio State and Maryland, welcoming their new head coaches.

Ryan Day, who successfully led Ohio State last fall while Urban Meyer served a suspension early in the season, is now the man in charge after Meyer retired. And at Maryland, Mike Locksley, the reigning Broyles Award winner for his work as Alabama co-offensive coordinator last year leading the Tide to their highest-scoring season in program history, is back in familiar territory. Locksley replaces D.J. Durkin as the Terps' head coach.

Day certainly has his hands full and also certainly seems capable. He’s got Justin Fields, a transfer from Georgia, in at quarterback, but the position group is not deep when it comes to experience. He made some in-Michigan’s-face hirings in the offseason, adding linebackers coach Al Washington and defensive line coach Greg Mattison as co-defensive coordinator. But time will tell, obviously, if Day can maintain the level of success that Meyer built.

Locksley’s job at Maryland will be more complicated. He is tasked with taking a program that was overwhelmed by controversy last season, and immediately got to work on recruiting. He brought in Josh Jackson, the graduate transfer from Virginia Tech (and son of former Michigan assistant Fred Jackson), and also flipped four-star quarterback Lance LeGendre from Florida State. 

It is important for first-year coaches to have a chance to breathe, get their footing, and then deliver what they can the first season. Locksley will be given time to get things in order and working, but that doesn’t cut it at Ohio State. Ryan Day better be ready to deliver.

Expectations going up

If there was one hire in the Big Ten last year that generated a lot of talk and predictions of quick success, it was Scott Frost to his alma mater, Nebraska. So, it wasn’t exactly an ideal start to his coaching career there. Hardly.

Adrian Martinez

But even so, there was promise. With their quarterback, Adrian Martinez, injured, the Cornhuskers started 0-6 but finished 4-8. With a healthy Martinez, who clearly is talented and finding his way as a leader, the Cornhuskers should be a team to watch.

Martinez said, in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald, that during spring practice he was able to distance himself from the freshman version of himself when he was too focused on what he could do – and what kind of accolades that might mean – instead of what he needed to do. He focused this spring on being high energy and all about his teammates, patting backs when needed and offering advice – stern and otherwise – when needed.

“Really, it’s about bringing everyone,” Martinez said. “So I’m just trying to focus on that.”

Boiler-up and up

Purdue has classic signs of a program that could be a threat to the top-level teams in the Big Ten. Submitted as evidence – the Boilermakers’ 49-20 destruction of then-No. 6 Ohio State last fall, and then, Auburn’s 63-14 annihilation of Purdue in the bowl game.

So the Boilermakers were close, but not entirely ready for primetime.

Elijah Sindelar

But here’s a sign the Boilermakers have earned some attention: For the first time in a while, they’re pretty settled at quarterback with Elijah Sindelar. Yes, he’s had injury issues and even was slowed in the spring with a hyperextended knee, but he’s the guy and that’s an important consideration. Sindelar is experienced and has shown toughness, playing with a torn ACL in the 2017 bowl game. He was the starter last season before knee tendinitis developed.

He didn’t play the rest of the season but recently was awarded an extra year of eligibility, so he can play in 2020, as well.

Still, having Sindelar ready to go is a plus for the Boilermakers, who entered spring ball determined to erase the residual effects of the beatdown by Auburn.

“Getting beat that bad on a national stage, just being embarrassed like that, I think it hits home with a lot of guys and people are going to start working harder,” senior offensive lineman Matt McCann told the Courier-Journal this spring. “It wasn’t a good feeling walking off that field. Emotionally, it hurt getting beat that bad. It’s good to remember that happened to you because it will give you some motivation to work harder.”

Justin Fields

OSU QB shakeup

There was plenty of focus on Ohio State’s quarterback situation after the Rose Bowl that heated up when Fields transferred from Georgia and was able to secure immediate eligibility this fall. My how the breakdown of the Buckeyes’ quarterback room has shifted.

Tate Martell never seemed secure with his role at OSU, and he transferred to Miami (Fla.). Matthew Baldwin, who competed in the spring opposite Fields, stunned Ohio State coaches with his decision to transfer. So, then what? The Buckeyes have Fields on scholarship as well as grad transfer Chris Chugunov, and Gunnar Hoak left Kentucky and will be on scholarship. Danny Vanatsky is a walk-on and the Buckeyes added JP Andrade, a preferred walk-on.

What does this mean? It means that, not surprisingly, the Justin Fields Era has just begun.

Badgers moving on

When Alex Hornibrook decided to transfer to Florida State after starting 32 games for Wisconsin (26-6), that pushed Jack Coan into a new role.

Jack Coan

Coan played five games last season and started four filling in for Hornibrook after he was sidelined with a back injury and then missed a game because of a concussion. He completed 60 percent of his attempts for 515 yards and five touchdowns against three interceptions.

“We’re looking for consistency, who can be the best, play in and play out,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “They’ve all done some things to really show their growth.”

The Badgers have four quarterbacks competing, but Coan, from all accounts, is the No. 1 guy and definitely has the most experience.

Badgers quarterbacks coach Jon Bedmayr told the Wisconsin State Journal that Coan has done everything asked of him.

“I think I’d be disappointed if Jack wasn’t viewing himself as the starter,” he said.

Wins for Rutgers?

Chris Ash is entering his fourth season as Rutgers head coach, and while he was upbeat after spring practice, the Scarlet Knights need wins. They were 0-9 in the Big Ten last season, the second time in three seasons they came up empty in league play. Rutgers has never beaten Ohio State, Michigan State or Penn State and is 1-4 against Michigan in the East Division.

Raheem Blackshear

There are positives, though. Running back Raheem Blackshear led Rutgers in rushing with 586 yards and also had 367 yards receiving. The offensive line is solid and allowed only 16 sacks. But Rutgers was last nationally in scoring offense, led by Artur Sitkowski, a freshman quarterback last season, who threw for 1,158 yards and had four touchdowns against 18 interceptions.

The good news for Rutgers is offensive coordinator John McNulty returns for a second season; Ash hasn’t had that consistency at that staff spot. This should give Sitkowski a leg up this fall.

“Definitely more comfortable with the system, and what we’re trying to do offensively,” Sitkowski told “Definitely more comfortable just being out there. A lot of reps over two years now. Definitely very comfortable out there trying to be as poised as I possibly can and trying to lead these guys down the field.”

Michigan schedule

Sat., Aug. 31, Middle Tennessee

Sat., Sept. 7, Army

Sat., Sept. 21, at Wisconsin

Sat., Sept. 28, Rutgers

Sat., Oct. 5, Iowa

Sat., Oct. 12, at Illinois

Sat., Oct. 19, at Penn State

Sat., Oct. 26, Notre Dame

Sat., Nov. 2, at Maryland

Sat., Nov. 16, Michigan State

Sat., Nov. 23, at Indiana

Sat., Nov. 30, Ohio State

Michigan State schedule

Fri., Aug. 30, Tulsa

Sat., Sept. 7, Western Michigan

Sat., Sept. 14, Arizona State

Sat., Sept. 21, at Northwestern

Sat., Sept. 28, Indiana

Sat., Oct. 5, at Ohio State

Sat., Oct. 12, at Wisconsin

Sat., Oct. 26, Penn State

Sat., Nov. 9, Illinois

Sat., Nov. 16, at Michigan

Sat., Nov. 23, at Rutgers

Sat., Nov. 30, Maryland