The Big Ten is shaping up be a highly competitive conference this year. Although much of the conference’s top talent left for the NFL Draft last season, new faces enter will soon be household names. Jeff Feyerer‘s 2016 Big Ten Preview focuses on those players and teams, and the schemes and strategies coaches will utilize to attempt to take home the conference title.
Illinois Fighting Illini: Lovie Smith and the Illusion of the Cover 2
This offseason generated the most football related excitement out of Champaign since their Rose Bowl appearance in 2007. Lovie Smith’s departure from Tampa Bay and installation as head coach in Illinois gave the program an initial jolt, but it’s the sustainability that he’ll hope to bring that matters. Will Lovie Smith, who last coached college football in 1995, be able to use his NFL experience to draw the attention of kids that may have growing up watching him patrol the sideline on Sundays while also finding a style of player that fits today’s game and adheres to Smith’s own football sensibilities?
Upon Smith’s hiring, it was expected that the Cover 2, or more specifically the Tampa 2 coverage scheme, would be headed for Champaign. They certainly have the personnel to pull it off. The front four, led by Dawaune Smoot, is one of the best in the Big 10 and transfer linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. has the range and experience necessary to cover the middle of the field in that scheme. Moving to the Tampa 2 would also mask some of the deficiencies that are present in the defensive backfield, while also requiring young quarterbacks to be patient waiting to hit short, underneath passes.
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But Smith has said he has the ability to be flexible incorporating some single-high, man coverage defenses. This decision would certainly place a heavier burden on their shaky defensive backfield. Safety Taylor Barton has the range and ball skills to play single high, but cornerbacks Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap have little starting experience. I certainly will have my eye on how Lovie Smith and new defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson react schematically to the ebbs and flows of the college season.
Indiana Hoosiers: The Continuation of Ground Game Success
Just when it looked like the Kevin Wilson regime was finally gaining momentum in Bloomington following their first bowl appearance in his six years as head coach, the top three performers of the top ranked offense in the Big Ten have departed to the NFL. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld, running back Jordan Howard, and offensive tackle Jason Spriggs all parlayed their collegiate success into NFL jobs, leaving huge voids on the depth chart.
Much of the offense’s success is predicated on the execution of the Hoosiers shotgun / pistol run game mixing in both zone read and power elements to create confusion for the defense. The two main cogs this season will be tailback Devine Redding and guard Dan Feeney. Redding, who had more carries than Howard last season, should have no problem following in the footsteps of his predecessor, as well as current NFL tailback Tevin Coleman. While Howard was more of a north-south runner, Redding brings a little more versatility and wiggle to his game. Feeney will step in for Spriggs as leader of the unit. He won’t protect the blind side like Spriggs, but he does have the athleticism to get out in space to open up holes in the running game. The play below shows both players in action.
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The Hoosiers still have difficulty containing opposing offenses, giving up 37.6 points per game in 2015. But what I’ll be watching for is if the Hoosiers offense will maintain its explosiveness and not lose traction on the forward progress they’ve been making as a program.
Iowa Hawkeyes: The Tight End as an Offensive Weapon
George Kittle may not be a household name, even in Big Ten circles, but the senior tight end has a chance to make as big an impact in 2016 as Dallas Clark did for the Hawkeyes in 2002. Last season, Iowa was the only team in the Big Ten to have two tight ends with at least 20 receptions. Kittle himself hauled in exactly 20, but six went for touchdowns and his role is expected to grow with the departure of Henry Krieger-Coble, who he split time with last season.
As spread offenses become more prevalent and more perimeter athletes take the spots previously occupied by tight ends, the position’s importance is often lost. But on teams like Iowa and Big Ten cohorts Michigan and Michigan State, the position is still a weapon. The Hawkeyes focus a large part of their recruiting regionally rather than nationally and don’t pull the same type of athletes that other big programs do. This means head coach Kirk Ferentz focuses on building around his offensive line and players that can fit more of a pro-style offense and offensive schemes that favor tight end usage. The Hawkeyes offense includes an outside zone run scheme and a pass game incorporating many West Coast offense elements. The combination of these two concepts mean many opportunities for the tight end to catch the ball whether through play action, delays, or drags, often from an inline starting point where blocking remains vital. The ability of Kittle to do both effectively makes it tougher for defenses to see what comes next.
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Quarterback C.J. Beathard surprised with his steady play last year. In order for Iowa to take advantage of a relatively soft schedule and make another run at a Big Ten West championship, Beathard will need to elevate his play again, but also get contributions from players like Kittle who have developed with the Iowa program for four years and are just now hitting their apex.
Maryland Terrapins: Will Likely, Weaponized
Head coach D.J. Durkin has quite the task ahead of him in building the Maryland Terrapins into a perennial Big Ten contender. It doesn’t look like their ascent will happen this season, but the presence of cornerback William Likely will certainly make things exciting. The diminutive 5’7’’ cornerback is already an All-Big Ten defender and All-American kick returner, but he has three tasks ahead of him for the 2016 season: Be a bridge to a new era of Maryland football, add to the impressive amount of tape already assembled for NFL scouts, be an offensive weapon. Likely accumulated 110 yards on 16 combined passing and rushing touches last season, but will have to add to that for a Maryland offense that lost its 2015 leading rusher Brandon Ross to graduation, and is lacking an explosive dimension on the perimeter.
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The idea of a player playing offense, defense, and special teams seems so foreign in an era where football is more about sub packages and depth than one player filling multiple holes on a roster. But on a team like Maryland, who is still attempting to build the organizational depth necessary for long-term program stability, Likely’s ability to mask some of the Terrapins deficiencies could certainly help for one season. More importantly for Likely, his ability to play multiple positions will give him a better chance to find at least one at the next level. Questions will be raised about his stature, but if he is able to show the explosiveness and toughness necessary for a smaller player to survive in the NFL, height won’t matter.
Michigan Wolverines: Making Peppers’s Flexibility Possible
For all the talk about how great Jabrill Peppers is and how he could become the next great hybrid safety / linebacker, the ability for him to move away from the defensive backfield and closer to the line of scrimmage wouldn’t be possible without the presence of cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Lewis stands only 5’10’’ and weighs only 176 pounds, but he has the requisite ball skills, athleticism, and cover ability for a successful collegiate and NFL cornerback, registering 20 passes defended last season. New defensive coordinator Don Brown was known at Boston College for mixing coverages and blitzing often, leaving a heavier burden on his cornerbacks to be on an island and make plays in passing situations. This is something Lewis has no problem with.
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Due to the blitz and attack mentality set forth by Brown, he has high expectations for his cornerbacks in run support. If the opposing offense is able to elude the first line of defense, Lewis had better be there ready to stick the ball carrier. Lewis’s skills have a domino effect on the defense. Having one player that can lock down an opposing receiver makes creating a defensive game plan much easier and affords Brown more flexibility with schemes and matchups. It also means being able to use Peppers as more of a chess piece than a standard operating safety. Being able to utilize Peppers, a phenomenal blitzer and explosive athlete, closer to the line means forthcoming nightmares for opposing offenses. Not just because Peppers is barreling down on them, but because Lewis is making sure they have nowhere to go with the ball.
Michigan State Spartans: Connor Cook Not Required
Accolades and praise were heaped upon Connor Cook prior to last season with some experts even putting him in the conversation for Heisman. Anyone that thought Cook would be in any position to win the Heisman doesn’t fully understand what head coach Mark Dantonio asks of his quarterbacks. The Spartans recent string of success, including three straight double-digit win seasons, has been predicated on a power run game fueled by a stable of running backs, a technically sound offensive line, and a stingy defense using principles of the 4-3 Over defense, often with quarters coverage on the back end. But most importantly, the Spartans do not turn the ball over. During each of the last three seasons, Michigan State has committed the least number of turnovers of any team in the conference. Dantonio simply asks his quarterbacks not to make mistakes.
This isn’t news to recently appointed starting quarterback Tyler O’Connor. He was at the helm when the ninth ranked Michigan State went into Columbus and took down the second ranked Ohio State late last season. During that game, Michigan State ran 66 plays and possessed the ball for over 38 minutes, but only threw the ball 12 times. O’Connor did fumble the ball away once but also made a couple of huge throws showing he is more than capable of letting it rip, but most of the quarterback’s performance resided in the low risk, low reward, minimize damage range.
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Michigan State’s approach to what they ask of their quarterbacks isn’t foreign. It’s a simple request to be a game manager and make plays when they are given to you, relying instead on defense and the running game to win out. But as the quarterback position continually draws the most attention on the field, especially as passing games have ramped up over the last decade, what Michigan State does will continue to look odd. Cook was a superior talent at the position and threw far more than Dantonio traditionally has allowed, but O’Connor should not stray too far from what’s been successful for the Spartans.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Same Goal, New Approach
New offensive coordinator Jay Johnson wasn’t hired to reinvent the wheel at Minnesota. Cold weather, a talented running back duo, and a quarterback who can pull it down and take off are all strong ingredients for a healthy ground game – something head coach Tracy Claeys doesn’t want to stray from. But the results haven’t been there recently. Minnesota averaged 70 fewer rushing yards per game last season than they did in 2014 as well as finishing 105th in points scored per game. Enter Johnson, who has been rumored to bring a few new ideas to the Minnesota offense that I’ll be watching for early on. Johnson prefers more no-huddle concepts in order to create an elevated pace to the game, he allows his quarterbacks free reign at the line of scrimmage to change things as the game progresses and expects more zone reads with quarterback Mitch Leidner having the opportunity to make more plays with his legs. These three changes, could change up an approach gone stale.
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An interesting byproduct of Johnson’s attempt to revive and rev up the Gophers offense is the effect it could have on Leidner’s draft stock. Adding more no-huddle will continually develop Leidner’s ability to get a team organized, catch the opposition off guard and process information on the go. In addition, allowing Leidner the freedom to have control over changes at the line when not in the no-huddle offense will, depending on his success, show his football intelligence and continue to develop his ability to read and process defenses quickly. With a weak class of draft–eligible prospects anticipated, the Minnesota QB is an intriguing wild card to watch this season.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and see his explanation for his new player-team evaluation system here and its application to the AFC East here.
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