Big Ten spring football recaps: Breaking down the offseason for each team

ByBlake Baumgartner and Harry Lyles Jr. ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 4, 2022

With spring football wrapped up and the start of another season just four months away, let's take a look at what we've learned and what we still need to learn for each Big Ten team.

Does Michigan have a quarterback controversy? How good are Ohio State's receiving corps after losing two first-round wideouts? And will Wisconsin find a way to add more depth in the secondary? Blake Baumgartner and Harry Lyles Jr. break it all down.

East Division

Indiana Hoosiers

What we learned this spring:Head coach Tom Allen is back to calling plays defensively after Indiana ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (33.3 PPG). New defensive coordinator Chad Wilt comes from Minnesota, where he coached the defensive line, and has been running things in practice. Cornerback Tiawan Mullen, an All-American as a sophomore in 2020, returns for his senior year after being limited to just five games in 2021. Fellow corner Jaylin Williams and safety Devon Matthews, who combined for 96 tackles, will add veteran presence to the back end of the Hoosier defense.

What we need to learn by Week 1:Most of the team's offense is new and developing. The team lost veteran QB Michael Penix Jr., its top three running backs and three leading receivers. Penix's backupJack Tuttleand Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak have both received snaps at quarterback during spring ball. Freshman running back Jaylin Lucas joins transfers Shaun Shivers (Auburn) and Josh Henderson (North Carolina). Former Tar Heel receiver Emery Simmons and junior wideout Cam Camper are two others to watch.

Maryland Terrapins

What we learned this spring:Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa enters his third year at Maryland, leading an offense head coach Mike Locksley has high expectations for after it averaged 29.3 points in 2021. All five offensive line starters return from a year ago. Florida transfer Jacob Copeland joins receivers Dontay Demus Jr., Rakim Jarrett and Tai Felton. Tight end Corey Dyches had a productive spring as well.

What we need to learn by Week 1:Competition at running back will continue throughout the summer and into fall camp. Colby McDonald, Challen Faamatau, Roman Hemby and Antwain Littleton II all return, with McDonald's 325 rushing yards setting the pace. Finding a way to complement what should be an explosive passing game behind Tagovailoa is imperative entering the season opener against Buffalo on Sept. 3.

Michigan State Spartans

What we learned this spring:The return of quarterback Payton Thorne (3,233 passing yards, 27 TDs) and wide receiver Jayden Reed (1,026 yards, 10 TDs) gives Mel Tucker's offense reason to be excited. With numerous options at running back to be worked out and the offensive line in flux, the Spartans figure to be passing early to set up the run. Having those two established options in the offense should sustain momentum from last year's 11 wins.

What we need to learn by Week 1:Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard arrive from Wisconsin and Colorado, respectively, to help replace the void left by Doak Walker winner Ken Walker III's departure. Elijah Collins, Jordon Simmons and Davion Primm give offensive coordinator Jay Johnson more options in the backfield. Whoever becomes the top option will be running behind an offensive line that wasn't fully assembled during the spring. Center Nick Samac and tackle Spencer Brown were the only two projected starters to participate in their open spring practice.

Michigan Wolverines

What we learned this spring:New defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss will try to keep things rolling after last season's Big Ten title and College Football Playoff appearance. Cade McNamara gives Jim Harbaugh proven experience at quarterback, and running back Blake Corum will see his workload increase after rushing for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns.

What we need to learn by Week 1:Backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy didn't throw at all during the spring because of shoulder soreness, but his role should get bigger behind McNamara. The defense loses several big names, notably No. 2 overall draft pick Aidan Hutchinson and pass-rusher David Ojabo. Mazi Smith, Kris Jenkins and Jaylen Harrell will show what they can do up front and pressure opposing quarterbacks.

Ohio State Buckeyes

What we learned this spring:With C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba all back, the Buckeyes' offense should remain quite potent despite the departures of wide receiversGarrett Wilson and Chris Olave. Stroud threw for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns in 2021 and has become more efficient this spring. He's doing a better job of picking up on what the defense is doing pre-snap. Marvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Johnson and Jayden Ballard should fill in nicely behind Smith-Njigba at receiver.

What we need to learn by Week 1: New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles comes from Oklahoma State and will institute a 4-2-5 defense in Columbus. Seven starters return defensively for a unit that should be far more experienced. The Buckeyes surrendered 30 points five times in 2021, while the Cowboys did it once under Knowles, who was hired prior to the Cowboys' Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. If the unit adjusts quickly to Knowles' defense -- starting Sept. 3 against Notre Dame -- Ohio State will become even more dangerous.

Penn State Nittany Lions

What we learned this spring:Sean Clifford's decision to come back for a fourth season as Penn State's starting quarterback is a good place to start. Clifford should continue his climb up the program record book. Sophomore wide receivers Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith will look to help replace the production lost by Jahan Dotson leaving for the NFL. Four-star wideout Kaden Saunders and Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley (1,402 yards, 14 TDs) could provide immediate impacts.

What we need to learn by Week 1:The Nittany Lions need to find a way to improve the running game behind Clifford. Their offense ranked 118th in total rushing yards and 117th in rushing touchdowns in 2021. Keyvone Lee returns as the team's leading rusher (530 yards). Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, both ESPN 300 prospects in 2022, will also be asked to help rectify that issue.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

What we learned this spring:Head coach Greg Schiano brought in five new staff members on the defensive side after ranking 11th both in scoring defense (25.6 PPG) and total defense (396.7 YPG) in the Big Ten. Defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak spent the past two years as co-defensive coordinator at Minnesota. Unfortunately, he may not have ESPN 300 linebacker Moses Walker and veteran Mohamed Toure, who both suffered injuries in April and each could miss significant time, at his disposal.

What we need to learn by Week 1:The Scarlet Knights spent this spring restructuring their offensive line. Between incoming freshmen and transfers, the Scarlet Knights brought in 13 new offensive linemen. After moving from defensive line to left guard, junior Ireland Brown will be playing his second different spot on the offensive line in as many years, spending the spring at center.

West Division

Illinois Fighting Illini

What we learned this spring: The Illinois offense is likely going to be improved. After finishing 112th in total offense last season, new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. had the Illini impressing in the spring game with Syracuse transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito, running backs Chase Brown and Josh McCrayand wideout Isaiah Williams, who had two touchdowns in the spring game. Bret Bielema said of the offense afterward, "We wanted to see how they performed in a game-like atmosphere, the communication, the execution, there are a lot of coaching points but overall, I thought they handled it and played pretty clean."

What we need to learn by Week 1: Who is the quarterback? DeVito started the spring game, but it's not his job yet. Artur Sitkowski has been with the program longer after transferring from Rutgers and saw action in five games last season. Sitkowski had arm surgery and is expected to be back in June. Bielema said of Sitkowski, "He will be full-go so we are excited to get him back and have great competition in that room, as iron sharpens iron and overall we will be better at that position."

Iowa Hawkeyes

What we learned this spring: The Hawkeyes had many players sitting out of their spring game, so it was a little difficult to get conclusions from that alone. However, it does seem like this Iowa team will be one that we are familiar with: defensively strong and hoping for the best everywhere else. The loss of Tyler Linderbaum on the offensive line is massive, along with guards Kyler Schott and Cody Ince. There will be new faces on the line, but good offensive line play is something that the Hawkeyes have historically been able to continue to churn out. They'll hope to see that come August.

What we need to learn by Week 1: More clarity on the quarterback situation. Rising senior Spencer Petras had a tough spring game completing 7-of-16 passes for 52 yards. It appears the competition is between Petras and Alex Padilla, with Kirk Ferentz noting that third-stringer Joey Labas is behind the others on knowing what to do, but that he's made a lot of progress. When asked if Petras was the leader in the competition, Ferentz said, "Overall, yeah. But we're going to keep an open mind."

Minnesota Golden Gophers

What we learned this spring:While not everybody will be familiar with returning offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, there's hope that the spark the 2019 offense had will return in 2022. After coaching the quarterbacks and handling the offensive coordinator position for three seasons in St. Paul, Ciarrocca spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons with Penn State and West Virginia respectively, seasons in which Tanner Morgan didn't quite look the same as he did in the 2019 campaign when he threw for nearly 3,300 yards and 30 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Head coach P.J. Fleck said at the beginning of spring that the expectation is for Ciarrocca to both make what they currently do better while evolving the offense.

What we need to learn by Week 1: We still don't have concrete answers at running back. None of the Gophers three running backs who were injured in 2021 (Mohamed Ibrahim, Trey Potts, and Bryce Williams) played in the spring game. It was undoubtedly one of the most nagging position groups for Minnesota last season -- not just because of the injuries, but because of the potential that those players have. Zach Evans, a true freshman, and redshirt freshman Jordan Nubin were the stars on the ground in the spring game with 51 and 44 yards respectively, but seeing how the running backs shape up for 2022 will only be seen with time.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

What we learned this spring: What the Huskers want out of their starting quarterback. The messaging between Scott Frost and Mark Whipple for much of spring seemed to be revolving around consistency and protecting the football. "In this league you are not going to score a lot unless you can be consistent and sustain some drives and create some big plays along the way," Frost said ahead of the spring game. The Huskers played six quarterbacks during the spring game, with Texas transfer Casey Thompson starting, going 3-of-4 for 31 yards.

What we need to learn by Week 1: Officially, the starting quarterback is still a question, but how far along the offensive line will improve might be the bigger one. Frost's offensive staff has been almost completely revamped, headlined by the addition of offensive coordinator Whipple, who is credited for the rise of Kenny Pickett from being just another college football quarterback to first round NFL draft pick. There's enough to be excited about on that side of the football between the quarterback competition and a fresh group of wideouts, but everything starts with the offensive line.

Northwestern Wildcats

What we learned this spring: The quarterback competition is now between Ryan Hilinski and sophomore Brendan Sullivan at this point, according to Pat Fitzgerald. In 2021, the Wildcats started three different quarterbacks, Hilinski included (who completed just 54% of his passes for 978 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions). Coming into spring, there were four players (sophomore Cole Freeman and junior Carl Richardsonas the other two) that were considered candidates for the gig.

What we need to learn by Week 1: The starting quarterback. Despite the competition being narrowed down, and Hilinski the favorite going into spring, Fitzgerald said that Hilinski and Sullivan will be competing for the job going into training camp. Defensively, seeing how the linebacker room shakes out, as well as how the departure of Brandon Joseph plays out, will be keys to watch going into the season.

Purdue Boilermakers

What we learned this spring: Overall, Purdue will look familiar with seven returning starters on offense and eight on defense, but with two big names missing in David Bell and George Karlaftis. In the middle of spring, Jeff Brohm wanted his defense to be aggressive, and the offense to be able to go out and make plays, run the ball and be consistent. Consistency was hard to come by offensively in the spring game with Aidan O'Connell getting limited reps, but the defense was dominant, shutting out the offense in the first half in a modified scoring system.

What we need to learn by Week 1: It will come with time, but seeing who emerges as the next big offensive weapon (like a Bell or Rondale Moore) will be key. With O'Connell coming back and Bell's departure, Milton Wright is primed to become the No. 1 target. But the Boilermakers added transfers Elijah Canion from Auburn andTyrone Tracy Jr. from Iowa. Freshman Collin Sullivan scored on a 7-yard touchdown in the spring game as well.

Wisconsin Badgers

What we learned this spring: There appeared to be an emphasis on consistency with the offense. The No. 1 offensive line, from left to right the entirety of spring ball, was Jack Nelson, Tyler Beach, Tanor Bortolini, Michael Furtney and Logan Brown. Joe Tippmann--who started 11 games at center last season -- was out this spring while working back from an injury and will factor in later in the year. The Badgers will hope a consistent line leads to a strong line that will give the offense a better Graham Mertzat quarterback and, in turn, lift everyone else up around him after an inconsistent 2021 season.

What we need to learn by Week 1: Will the Badgers hit the portal for more safety help? Jim Leonhard is replacing eight starters on a defense that was No. 1 in the nation in yards per game last season. Despite this, the Badgers' defense is expected to be dominant again, but Leonhard has concerns about a lack of depth at the safety position. "Obviously, I like to play a lot of guys," he said.