With Wisconsin bowing out of the NCAA Tournament after an excellent run, the Big Ten basketball season is officially over. It is now time to focus on the one thing that binds us all together. The one thing we live, breathe and die for. And no, I'm not talking about delicious bourbon and hating Michigan. I'm talking about Big Ten football.
There's so much going on this year in the Big Ten. How will unionization play out for Northwestern? Will Rutgers and Maryland be competitive in the East? Can Tim Beckman win more than a single conference game? Can Dantonio and Michigan State repeat? Will James Franklin "get it" in State College? Can Gary Andersen rebuild the Badgers defense?
Can Brandon Scherff win the Heisman? Will Jim Delany continue attempting to expand the league? Just a few questions to consider in early April.
Michigan, who held their spring game on April 5th, is breaking in new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and trying to send senior quarterback Devin Gardner out on a high note. Gardner, who suffered an injury (one of many) and had to sit out for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, was/is supposedly in competition with sophomore Shane Morris this spring. Reviews are mixed on Michigan's new look offense, though it's likely that Nussmeier is keeping things close to the chest. As far Gardner, his spring game couldn't have gotten off to a worse start:
Michigan isn't the only squad with a high profile position battle brewing. This is, after all, spring football and position battles are what make April so interesting. I polled OTE writers and had them send me a few of the position battles that they find intriguing. Here's what we think are some interesting battles.
Michigan State: The Entire Team, apparently, by Green Akers
MSU has four defensive linemen leaving off the 2-deep, including both DT starters. This might be Lawrence Thomas's last chance to live up to his massive recruiting hype, but Joel Heath's supposedly looking pretty good after moving to the 3-tech. Since Shilique Calhoun's probably an early departure with another good season, I'll be watching his backup, Demetrius Cooper, who didn't play much in high school because of an injury and then an eligibility problem when he switched schools. Cooper was very, very small (like, 215#) for a DE when he came in, but the coaches rave about his potential, Ken Mannie's had a year with him now and I can't wait to see his progress.
The LB spots are more worrisome, where Bullough, Allen, and Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth are all gone. Ed Davis is a safe bet to replace Allen, but there are about 4 options for the MLB spot. For now, I'd say Darien Harris' experience edge gives him the inside track, but it's an important position in this defense, so I'd expect a long competition, and redshirt freshman Jon Reschke has been viewed as Bullough's eventual successor since Jon was a sophomore in high school. Riley Bullough and Shane Jones should be part of the equation, too, but I expect the middle to come down to Harris and Reschke. I'd give more attention to the 2 vacated DB spots, but the cupboard is pretty well-stocked there, it's just a matter of picking the best guys.
On the OL, there are technically 3 starters to replace, but since Bollman liked to roll 8 deep there last year, there are still plenty of experienced guys around. The interior positions should be solid, but identifying another quality tackle would be nice. It would be grand if Miguel Machado is as prepared to play as our last Californian JUCO, Fou Fonoti, was when he arrived. Bottom line, whoever the starters on OL are, they probably won't play as many snaps as a starting OL combo usually does. We'll see Jack Conklin at tackle, Jack Allen at center, and beyond that who really knows.
The offensive skill positions will be mostly jockeying amongst returning guys, as Bennie Fowler is the only significant departure. Believe it or not, there are still some fans anxious to see Damion Terry. This, after our current starting QB, who will only be a junior, led us to a 13-win season capped with the Rose Bowl. Sure, I'm curious about Terry, but only in an academic sense. He's not taking more than a handful of snaps while Cook is able to play. Maybe this is finally the year that Aaron Burbridge and DeAnthony Arnett fulfill their potential at WR, but even if it isn't, there are other reliable options there.
So there you have it- 6 defensive starters and some important backups to replace, but a lot of good options to choose from. A lot more stability on offense thanks to Bollman's rotations and a relative lack of seniors. #Sadler4Heisman, y'all.
Northwestern: Also The Entire Team, apparently, by C.E. Bell
For Northwestern, there's some interesting position battles out there:
- The 2nd CB spot opposite Nick VanHoose (between true sophomore Matthew Harris, Dwight White, Daniel Jones, who is out for spring practice, and true freshman and rare early enrollee Parrker Westphal)
- Maybe defensive tackle, where injuries are wrecking havoc this spring on determining a rotation
- 3rd string RB? Venric Mark and Treyvon Green seem to have 1-2 set, but Stephen Buckley, Malin Jones, Warren Long, and Xavier Menifield (along with incoming true freshmen Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson) all seem to be in the mix for carries.
Some have suggested redshirt freshman Matt Alviti might be pressing Trevor Siemian for playing time at QB, but I just don't see that happening. Alviti will be hard pressed to beat out redshirt junior Zak Oliver for the second-string QB position, in my opinion.
Northwestern: Special Teams, by MNWildcat
Also add kicker/punter to Northwestern. Hunter Niswander, RS-Fr, is likely to take over the kicking job, but there are like 3-4 backups to Budzien who could get it. And Chris Gradone was underwhelming taking over for the horrible, no-good, very-bad benched senior Brandon Williams at punter. Niswander can apparently punt, too, though the 'Cats don't need to Demos him right off the bat.
Nebraska: Quarterback & Offensive Line, by Jesse Collins
Nebraska is most likely going to go with Tommy Armstrong (not insurance salesman) for QB but look out for Stanton. The O-Line is also really crazy because we lost three seniors, but also we had a million injuries so there's a bunch of people with experience fighting for spots. Oh, and we're looking to better our 1 yard per return average from last year, so uh, yeah... punt returner is a thing.
Iowa: Running back, by Mike Jones
In the end, position battles at Iowa seem manufactured as Kirk Ferentz always settles on the lesser of two evils. He insinuated that quarterback position was open following C.J. Beathard's admirable Outback Bowl performance. Iowa fans know that's bunk. Quarterback is locked down and we have to look elsewhere for interesting position battles. Of the many possibilities I've settled on running back.
"But Mike, isn't Mark Weisman Iowa's starting running back?" Well, yes. But two things: 1) Mark Weisman isn't a running back; and 2) Mark Weisman isn't a running back. Mark Weisman is a blunt instrument that deals out a great amount of pain in small increments. Unfortunately, he also tends to deal out pain to himself and takes a beating as the season wears on. That is why Iowa needs a platoon. So let's talk about the possible co-starters.
There are two logical choices: Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. Bullock is a larger, upright runner who is extremely effective catching the ball. Canzeri is your prototypical scatback who spins, jukes and jives away from contact. The difference between the two is that one has looked nothing short of fantastic in the sparse playing time he has received. One runs without hesitation, shows burst and exceptional vision. Yet...that one barely sees the field. That one is Jordan Canzeri.
The Iowa coaches have been trying to make Damon Bullock a thing for three years now. But as Iowa fans can tell you, it isn't work. Bullock dances in the backfield, is indecisive and when he does make a decision it's usually the wrong one. In 2013 he only had two games where he averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry and one of those games was against Purdue. In his defense, he is exceptional at catching the ball and there doesn't seem to be a player in the backfield who is better at catching and running than Damon Bullock.
Canzeri, on the other hand, looked great in what few opportunities he was given. In games where he had more than 5 carries he averaged 7.5 yards and had excellent showings against Purdue and Nebraska. And yes, anyone could've run for 100 yards on Purdue last season. But running for 165 is damn impressive. Canzeri shows burst, often picks the correct lanes and is surprisingly difficult to bring down (he's only 5'9).
Could this be the year that Canzeri finally supplants Bullock on the depth chart? We'll see. Ball security is one of Kirk Ferentz's biggest concerns and Canzeri has had some issues in the past. However, if Canzeri continues to display the brilliance he showed in late 2013, he'll be seeing more touches this fall. Actually, if Canzeri continues to display the brilliance he showed in late 2013 he might be the starter come August 30th.