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TGS 2016 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE BIG TEN--PART I

Following is a look at the Big Ten, with Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano breaking down the West half of the loop before tackling the Eastern half in our next installment.  Last year's straight-up, spread, and over/under marks are included as the teams are presented in order of predicted finsih...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

                                         by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

IOWA (SUR: 12-2; PSR: 8-6; O-U: 8-6)...Iowa had one of its finest seasons ever last year, improving from a blah 7-6 campaign in 2014 to a perfect 12-0 regular season and a first-place finish in the Big Ten West. However, the Hawkeyes lost a heartbreaker in the final minute against Michigan State in the conference playoff and subsequently fell flat in the Rose Bowl, as Stanford routed Iowa 45-16. But HC Kirk Ferentz can hold his head high in his 18th season in charge, as 13 starters return, including key performers on both platoons.

QB C.J. Beathard is the statistically most efficient returning QB in the conference, coming off a season when he threw for 2809 yds. with 17 TD passes and just 5 interceptions. Beathard didn’t play in the spring game due to a bruised shoulder, but he’ll be ready to go by the time the Hawkeyes host Miami-Ohio Sept 3. Sr. RB LeShun Daniels and explosive jr. Akrum Wadley (6.0 ypc), who combined for 1142 YR and 15 TDs, are back and operating behind an OL returning 3 starters. The key to the Iowa offense is the ability to run the ball, and the presence of G Sean Welsh (who could move to C) and T Cole Croston are reasons to believe that will happen. Developing a quality offensive line has been a Ferentz specialty, so replacing C Austin Blythe (Indianapolis Colts on the 7th round) shouldn’t pose a problem.

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What will be a problem is developing receivers to complement sr. WR Matt VandeBerg, who led the team with 65 catches for 703 yards. The Hawkeyes lost a pair of quality TEs, and the other WR spots will initially be manned by walk-on 5-9 RS sr. Riley McCarron (8 recs. in 33 career games) and soph Jerminic Smith (6 catches LY). Smith has questionable hands, however, prompting the coaches to look hard at soph Jay Scheel (0 catches) and converted QB Ryan Boyle at WR in the spring. Sr. TE George Kittle will likely play a larger role after catching 20 passes for 290 yds. and a team-high 6 TDs in 2015.

The defense was just above the league average last season, ranking 5th in scoring at 20.4 ppg and 6th in total defense(386 ypg). Conference DB of the year and Thorpe Award winner Desmond King returns, and he led the Big Ten with 8 interceptions. Those pickoffs contributed to the team’s +14 turnover ratio in the 12-0 regular season, but a -2 mark in the postseason loss to the Spartans cost the Hawkeyes a seat in the College Football Playoff. Star LB Josey Jewell was 2nd-team all-conference and led the Hawkeyes with 126 tackles (2nd-most in Big Ten). LB Ben Niemann garnered an honorable mention all-league slot with 45 tackles and has upside as a pass rusher, provided he can recover completely from an ankle problem.

The defensive line is led by 310-lb. sr. Jaleel Johnson, but the NCAA’s denial of an additional season of eligibility for Drew Ott and the graduation of Nate Meier hurts a unit relying on youngsters to generate production at DE. With 7 starters returning, the defense should be comparable to last season’s model, but it’s not likely the ball will bounce in the Hawkeyes’ direction quite as often as it did in 2015. The win against Wisconsin was thanks to a pair of Iowa fumble recoveries and four Hawkeye pickoffs. Three more picks at Northwestern put that game away early. This year, it’s doubtful teams will test CB King very often, so 6-2 sr. Greg Mabin will see even more action than last year, when he made 54 tackles in 14 starts at corner. Depth might be an issue with the loss of CB Maurice Fleming, who likely will be starting for West Virginia this season as a graduate transfer.

Summary...Ferentz knows he’s got holes to fill: “We’re replacing 21 really good players,” says the dean of Big Ten coaches. New kickers are included in that count, and the team that was ranked fifth by the Playoff Selection Committee last year is running about 23rd in a couple of early 2016 preseason polls. Thanks to avoiding Ohio State and Michigan State on its schedule this season, nine wins is a reasonable goal. Pointspread note: Iowa is just 7-14 against the points at home in the last three years.


NEBRASKA (SUR: 6-7; PSR: 6-7; O-U 8-5)...
HC Mike Riley has placed himself squarely on the hot seat as the result of a 6-7 SU mark—including five last-minute losses a year ago—in his first season in Lincoln. A win over Michigan State and another in the Huskers’ bowl matchup with UCLA saved Riley from a quick hook, but his continuing longevity depends on this fall’s results. The alumni are expecting a return at least to the typical nine-win season delivered by Riley predecessor Bo Pelini, and anything less might not be enough. However, even with 16 starters returning, the 2016 schedule makes competing for the Big Ten West Division title difficult. Nebraska has to play at Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa this fall.

QB Tommy Armstrong is back after throwing for 3030 yds. with 22 scores. But his 16 interceptions last season and 54% career completion mark are both bothersome for an attack that ranked 34th in overall yardage, but 117th in turnover margin. Armstrong has improved his QB rating each of his first three seasons, and the only loss by more than seven points the Huskers suffered in 2015 came when he was on the bench with an injured foot. Armstrong’s legs are a strong point, as he is the team’s second-leading returning rusher with 400 yds., as well as topping the Huskers with 7 rush TDs. He ran six times for 120 yds. in the spring game.

WRs Jordan Westerkamp (team-high 65 recs. and 7 TDs), Brandon Reilly (40 recs., 19 ypc) and Alonzo Moore (16.5 ypc, 6 scores) combined for 2067 receiving yards last season. Those three form one of the best receiving combinations in the conference, and all will be pushed by high-quality incoming freshmen. The return to full health of jr. WR/KR De’Mornay Pierson-El could help to stretch opposing defenses. Westerkamp was also missing during most of spring work due to a groin injury.

Sr. RB Marcus Newby (765 YR; 5.2 ypc) shared starting duties last year and is still in competition for the No. 1 job this season despite leading the team in rushing in 2015. Newby has rushed for 1360 yds. and a 5.1 ypc mark in three seasons with the Cornhuskers and will be backed by soph Devine Ozigbo (209 YR, 5.5 ypc as a frosh) and RS soph Mikale Wilbon. Wilbon might end up being the lead dog this season, but all three are in the hunt for playing time.

The Nebraska OL is young, as it’s replacing 4 of its 6 rotational starters, so quick development in this unit is crucial. T Nick Gates (moved from right to left side in spring) and C Dylan Utter (started at left guard LY) made a combined 23 starts in 2015, and highly-touted true frosh Ts Brenden Jaimes from Texas and Matt Sichterman from Ohio have a chance to contribute right away.

The defense ranked a poor 121st a year ago against the pass, yielding 291 ypg, and there is a worry that the fact the Huskers lost all four starters up front might further compromise the coverage as the pass-rush diminishes. Three on the DL ran out of eligibility, and DE Greg McMullen decided to quit football. This will be a very young group, and developing an effective rush will be one key to improving the pass defense. The six remaining defensive regulars are reinforced by five other vets who made three or more starts last season and by incoming frosh stars who are expected to supplement the defense immediately. NU’s highest-rated recruit is 6-3 CB Lamar Jackson, who’s expected to push holdover starters Chris Jones or Joshua Kalu once Jackson learns the system. True frosh LB Avery Roberts (4-star from Delaware) and DT Deontre Thomas from Oklahoma could also fit in well. Unfortunately, the DL losses also represented the experienced run-stuffers (top 4 DTs) that helped the Huskers hold foes to 3.8 ypc and rank ninth nationally in rush defense.

Summary...Riley is making inroads in recruiting, with Californians QB Tristan Gebbia and WRs Keyshshawn Johnson Jr. & Jaevon McQuitty heading the team’s highest-ranked class in the last decade. His recruiting success has bought him some time, and a healthy 72,992 fans at the spring game shows why the Cornhuskers have sold out Memorial Stadium an NCAA-record 347 straight games. Pointspread note: Nebraska has covered 9 of last 11 as an underdog.


WISCONSIN (SUR: 10-3; PSR: 7-6; O-U: 5-8)...The Badgers enter season two with Paul Chryst in charge, and there is good news and bad news in the outlook. The good news is that with a trio of talented tailbacks and four returning offensive line starters, Wisconsin’s version of its “ground-and-pound” style should be alive and well. The bad news is that the Badgers could play well, be much improved, and still be 2-4 SU when West Division play begins on October 22. The schedule is tough! Wiscy opens against LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, with the ESPN Gameday crew in attendance, and then has a pair of cupcake dates in Madison before visiting Michigan State, Michigan, and then returning home against Ohio State. Chryst will have problems coming through that at 4-2.

Offensively, the recruiting treadmill is still churning for the Badgers. The offensive line returns nine of 10 players listed in the two-deep for the Holiday Bowl against Southern California last December, and added Ryan Ramczyk (former Division III star at Wis.-Stevens Point) to fill the left tackle job vacated by the departed of Tyler Marz. C Dan Voltz is attempting to come back from an ACL injury suffered against Illinois last season and has offered to shift to guard so that Michael Dieter, who took over when Voltz was hurt, can remain in the middle.

Wisconsin is four deep at tailback. Incumbent sr. starter Corey Clement missed nine games last season with injuries, being held to 221 YR, 4.6 ypc and 5 TDs after running for 949 yds., 6.5 ypc and 9 TDs in 2014 while playing in the shadow of A-A Melvin Gordon. Sr. Dare Ogunbowale led the team with 819 YR and 7 rushing TDs last season, and he also caught 36 passes, making him the team’s second-leading receiver as well. But there is plenty of additional depth at RB. Soph Taiwan Deal gained 503 yds. and scored 6 TDs last season, and Alabama product RS frosh Bradrick Shaw was mentioned by Chryst as one of the most impressive players in spring. Shaw and Deal were given the lion’s share of the work in spring in order to protect Clement and Ogunbowale from injury.

The passing game has often been the “change up” in Wisconsin’s offensive repertoire, and the team will likely lean even more heavily on the OL and those RBs early this season, as the Badgers will replace their winningest all-time QB, Joel Stave. Stave was 31-10 as a starter (22-6 in Big Ten games) and finished second in Badger history with 7635 YP and 48 TDP. This fall, Chryst will choose from between 5th-year sr. Bart Houston and RS frosh Alex Hornibrook to run the attack. Houston played a bit in 2015 (27-47 passing for 281 yds., 3-2 TD-ints.), and he holds a slight edge. But Hornibrook is Chryst’s guy. Hornibrook committed to Chryst when the HC was at Pittsburgh and then followed Chryst to Madison. Hornibrook appeared tentative early in spring camp, but he had a strong showing in the spring game (2 TDP), and the starter hasn’t been named, pending fall competition. The top target will be 6-3 sr. WR Robert Wheelwright, who caught 32 passes for 416 yds. in just 9 games last year.

The defense was a bit surprising last season. In 2015, the Badgers returned six starters, the same as this year, and among this year’s five departed players are three of their top five tacklers. The 2015 team allowed the fewest points in the country (13.7) and ranked 2nd in total defense. Although the 2ndary returns only one starter, sr. CB Sojourn Shelton, a crop of three new CBs all looked capable in spring work. Jr. D’Cota Dixon has played in 25 games at safety the last two seasons. Neither sr. S Leo Musso (38 appearances) nor 6-2 soph S Arrington Farrar (12) are strangers to the field, either. The DBs will be coached by ex-Badger legend and 10-year NFL vet Jim Leonhard this year. The front seven is a solid, veteran unit that looked as if it added quality depth in the spring. Sr. LB Vince Biegel is a known quantity who was 2nd-team all-Big Ten last season after making 66 stops and 8 sacks. T.J. Watt (J.J.’d brother) played his way into the OLB spot opposite Biegel in spring. Soph LB T.J. Edwards made 84 tackles as a RS soph last year; 245-lb. Garret Dooley was singled out by Chryst as having had an outstanding spring.

Summary...The Badgers have a tough schedule. But by the time they open B1G West play in October, Chryst will have a more-seasoned QB, and Wiscy will look a lot like the team that’s averaged 10 wins over the last seven seasons. In his second year in charge, Chryst’s systems and personnel will start to mesh.


NORTHWESTERN (SUR: 10-3; PSR: 8-5; O-U: 5-8)...College football is a coaches’ game. And Northwestern is a gritty reflection of HC Pat Fitzgerald, who’s beginning his 11th season in charge at his alma mater. He’s neither flashy nor fancy, but smart, tough and workmanlike in all aspects of the game. The Wildcats bounced back from consecutive 5-7 seasons to win 10 games in 2015 and garner a berth in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

Northwestern wasn’t much to look at offensively in 2015, scoring fewer than 20 points a game and ranking 115th in total offense. However, utilizing a solid ground game led by second-team all-conference RB Justin Jackson (1418 YR), the team rushed for most of its yardage. Jackson’s figures to increase his production if he stays healthy, as all five Wildcat offensive linemen return from an underrated group.

QB Clayton Thorson is clearly the key to an improved attack, as he struggled late in the season (just 81 ypg passing last five games LY; 4 ints., just 1 TDP). RS soph Thorson ran for nearly 400 yds. and 5 scores, but his poor 7-9 TD-int. ratio and lowly 50.8% completion rate are concerns. It’s questionable whether or not the former prep four-star recruit from Wheaton will be able to develop as a top-notch passer, although he showed signs of improved accuracy and confidence in spring drills.

The team is replacing all three WRs, and 2nd-team all-Big Ten hybrid SB/FB/TE Dan Vitale (team-high 33 recs., 4 for TDs). That’s four of the team’s top six pass catchers, but the wideouts might be better as a group overall despite being inexperienced, if the spring game is any indication. Sr. Austin Carr (6-1) was second on the team last year with 276 yds., and consistently got open in spring work. Fellow sr. Andrew Scanlan (6-2) appears ready to take a big step up after playing mainly on special teams the past few years. Speedster Solomon Vault, a converted RB, made the all-conference lists as a return specialist last season and will be given a larger role as a pass-catcher in 2016. The bottom line? It would be hard to figure Northwestern’s aerial attack producing less than last season, when it ranked 119th in yards passing and was outgained by every Big Ten team except Maryland.

The defense lost some tip-notch talent, but still should be very good, led by first-team all-Big Ten MLB Anthony Walker (122 tackles LY; led the league in TFL with 20½), CB Matthew Harris (3rd-team all-Big Ten; 4 ints., 48 tackles), and S Godwin Igwebuike (2nd on team with 87 stops LY). Walker is a force on the field who can be moved around as needed. His ability to penetrate and extinguish plays almost before they get started is next-level stuff, and he’s high on NFL scouts’ early lists despite being a tad small (6-1, 225).

The Wildcat defense ranked 13th overall, allowed just 3.5 ypc (21st), and was 7th at 4.5 yds. per pass and 2nd behind only national champ ‘Bama in defensive QBR. Despite the fact that stop unit loses five starters (including NFL draftee DE Dean Lowry), the gap between the departed vets and the players waiting in the wings to take over is reportedly the closest it’s been in the last five years. “We’re much further along,” according to Fitzgerald.

Summary...The situation at QB is crucial, and, as Fitzgerald aptly put it, “Wanting to be the guy and being the guy are two totally different mind sets.” Soph Thorson must develop rapidly if the Wildcats are to get to another bowl. The Northwestern passing game has a favorable incubation period thanks to the schedule, which consists of home games against Western Michigan, Illinois State, Duke and Nebraska in September. Northwestern hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2000 (under the late Randy Walker). Interestingly, the Wildcats have posted winning records in 5 of Fitzgerald’s 10 previous seasons in charge, averaging only 6½ wins the next season. The schedule is favorable early, but NU must then go to Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa, and will be fortunate to reach 7 victories.


MINNESOTA (SUR: 6-7; PSR: 7-6; O-U: 7-6)...Minnesota HC Tracy Claeys enters his first full season in charge after replacing Jerry Kill, who was forced to retire from coaching for health reasons. Claeys led the Gophers to a 2-4 SU mark last year, and the team covered 5 of his 6 games in charge, including a 21-14 bowl win over Central Michigan. Minny also named Mark Coyle, recently at Syracuse, as its new athletic director in the wake of embarrassing developments and probation involving HC Richard Pitino and the Gopher hoopsters. Claeys made changes aimed at improving the Minnesota attack as soon as he was named full-time head coach, firing o.c. Jim Zebrowski and OL coach Matt Limegrover. Jay Johnson, formerly at Louisiana-Lafayette, is the new offensive coordinator, and he’ll be responsible for improving the Gophers from a lowly 13th in the Big Ten in scoring and 12th in total yardage.

The Gophers own a deep corps of RBs that form the strength of the offense. Sophs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith combined for 1379 yards and 9 TDs last season, and RS frosh James Johannesson ran 22 times for 130 yards in the spring game. New OL coach Bart Miller (formerly at Fla. Atlantic, Wisconsin and N. Mexico St.) appears to be a positive, inheriting a group that has only 5 players who’ve seen game action and that is replacing 3 graduated starters up front. Vet starters T Jonah Pirsig and C Tyler Moore have been boosted by juco G Vincent Calhoun and should open some holes.

Much-criticized sr. QB Mitch Leidner isn’t as bad as Gopher fans might believe. He completed 59.5% for 2701 yds. with 14 scores last season despite an uninspiring set of receivers and a patched-up offensive line. Leidner can beat teams with his legs, and has rushed for 1129 yds. and 23 TDs over the last three seasons. Of course he’d like to curb his penchant for throwing interceptions (11 in each of the last two seasons), but he’s not dragging the team down and has actually been touted by ESPN NFL analysts as a possible sleeper pick in the 2017 draft.

Claeys believes the receiving corps will be deeper and improved this season, led by 6-3 jr. WR Drew Wolitarsky (39 recs., 524 yds.). Claeys is counting on jr. Eric Carter (23 catches) and 6-5 soph Rashad Still (18, with 3 TDs as a true frosh) to become Minny’s best group of wideouts since the days of Eric Decker.

Minnesota’s defense lost five 2015 starters, including a pair of NFL draftees in CB Eric Murray and LB De’Vondre Campbell. The secondary was particularly hard-hit, losing three senior starters from what was the strongest area of the team a year ago. Jr. CB Jalen Myrick (27 tackles, 3 ints. LY) has a chance to step in and help jr. S Adekunle Ayinde maintain quality coverage and run support this fall. Projected starters Damarius Travis and Ace Rogers are coming off injuries, so there is a concern in the 2ndary. The Gophers also added ex-Oregon S Eric Amoako. Amoako is a 3-star prospect who originally was part of the Ducks’ 2012 recruiting class, spent the last two seasons at Houston Baptist, and now has made his third and final transfer to play for Minnesota this fall. The unit ranked 11th in the country in passing yards allowed last season, but might struggle this fall unless new leaders emerge.

The Gopher defensive front improved from 4.8 ypc allowed in 2014 to 4.1 ypc last season, and the return of LBs Cody Poock and Jack Lynn as well as three defensive line starters bodes well. Poock and Lynn combined for 175 tackles last season, and DTs Andrew Stelter and Yoshoub Timms proved themselves worthy when taking over for injured starters Scott Ekpe and Steve Richardson. Now, Ekpe and Richardson are back at full speed and the DL is deep and experienced, with 7 players appearing in at least 9 games. If Minny can develop a pass rush, the Gophers will be formidable up front.

Summary...The Gophers have a tougher schedule this season than last, with key West Division road games at Nebraska and Wisconsin. And remember that Minny is just 1-5 SU in its last 6 Big Ten games (1-4 in the conference after Claeys took over). Still, keep in mind that the Gophers are an outstanding 14-3 as an underdog in the regular season over the last 2+ seasons!


ILLINOIS (SUR: 5-7; PSR: 5-7; O-U: 4-8)...A new era has begins in Champaign-Urbana this season. With the hiring of Lovie Smith as head coach, new athletic director Josh Whitman has hopefully sparked a change in fortunes in the long-mediocre (or worse) Illini program. Smith is the team’s fifth coach in the last five seasons, but the hope on campus is that this time it’s different. Smith’s pedigree of coaching the NFL Chicago Bears for nine years and the Tampa Bay Bucs for two gives him a bit more cachet than Vic Koenning or Tim Beckman, and Lovie’s already developing new frontiers on the recruiting trail. However, a big negative is that the team returns just 11 starters from a team that dropped 6 of its last 7 SU and 5 of its last 6 vs. the number in conference play.

There will be growing pains in assimilating the new systems on both sides of the ball. The offense will move from the college spread to a pro-style attack under new o.c. Garrick McGee, while the defense will move from the 4-2-5 spread-countering base to the familiar Tampa Two under Smith and new d.c., ex-NFL star LB Hardy Nickerson.

Offensively, the cupboard isn’t bare. QB Wes Lunt threw for 2761 YP with a 14-6 TD-int. ratio LY, and soph RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for 723 yds. and 6 TDs while sharing time with graduated starter Josh Ferguson. Three offensive line starters are also back, although none made any of the all-league teams, but OL coaches like big and nasty RS frosh T/G Gabe Megginson. The receiving corps is a bit of a worry, however, as the team’s best offensive player, WR Mike Dudek (2nd-team all Big Ten with 50 catches, 1038 yds. in 2014), will lose another year to injury after tearing the same ACL in the spring that forced him out of the 2015 season. Soph WR Desmond Cain (53 recs., 492 yds LY) and 6-3 jr. Malik Turner (39 for 510) couldn’t stretch defenses enough, and the offense will miss graduated Geronimo Allison (65 catches, team-best 13.6 ypc). Spring workouts revealed a few bright spots, as RS frosh H-back Caleb Reams and 6-6 sr. TE Andrew Davis opened some eyes.

Nickerson’s defense returns just 4 starters from a unit that ranked 9th in the league overall (11th vs. the run). Included in the losses are the team’s top 3 tacklers and a couple of NFL draftees. The Illinois stop unit improved from 109th in the nation in 2014 to 30th last year. However, expect a regression, as the team will rely on mostly new blood trying to pick up a pro system. On the plus side on defense, Nickerson has the team’s leading sackmeister in DE Dawuane Smoot returning, along with sr. DTs Rob Bain and Jarrod “Chunky” Clements, so the DL figures to be a strength of the unit. You can also expect sr. S Taylor Barton (returning leader with 56 tackles LY; topped Illini with 4 ints.) to be a mainstay. It’s conjecture and projection beyond that. Nickerson likes soph LB Julian Jones’ speed, and soph CB Chris James shined in the spring and could be a player on the rise. But the defense lacks depth and quality.

Summary...Smith’s impact in recruiting won’t make a big difference this fall, as he wasn’t named the head coach until after the 2016 National Signing Day. Eventually his celebrity and NFL credentials will be valuable in the recruiting wars against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Illinois has ranked well behind the upper-crust of the league in talent for some time, and any Illini climb up the pecking order must start with better athletes. The absorption of a new offense and defense is always a challenge, and it’s doubtful enough of the existing Illini roster will be “plug-and-play” ready in the systems installed this spring. With no slip-ups and an upset win here or there, Illinois could get to six wins and a minor bowl bid. But for the team to achieve any more than that is fantasy.


PURDUE (SUR: 2-10; PSR: 6-6; O-U: 7-5)...Head coach Darrell Hazell has his back against the wall, as the Boilermaker faithful are about to pick up their hammers and storm Mollenkopf Athletic Center demanding a ritual sacrifice. After staggering to a 6-30 SU mark in his first three seasons, Hazell likely has to produce a 6-6 mark and a bowl berth, or start looking for work. Hazell pulled the usual levers in an attempt to escape the noose, firing both coordinators and his DL coach within hours of his team’s season-closing 54-36 loss to rival Indiana. They were followed in short order by the OL and RB coaches, who left of their own accord. Hazell cannot afford another desultory amrk, and hope that his contract thru 2018 will save him; though Purdue ranks last in the conference in football revenue and net profit, it has plenty of cash from Big Ten media deals and alums to trigger a buyout, which most regional sources expect if the Riveters miss a bowl once more.

No Big Ten team has more returning starters than Purdue’s 16, although none of those made the all-conference three-deep last season, and the best of the lot, CB Anthony Brown, went to Dallas in the NFL draft. Chief among the returnees is RS soph QB David Blough, who put up decent freshman numbers last season, completing 58% of his passes for 1574 yds. with a 10-8 TD-int. ratio while sharing time with the since-graduated Austin Appleby. Blough was an Elite 11 three-star Texas prospect coming out of HS who threw for 57 scores in three seasons as a prep. However, one must remember that Hazell hasn’t stayed with his initial choice at QB in any of the three previous seasons. So Elijah Sindelar, a highly-touted prospect and former Mr. Football in Kentucky who redshirted, might just get a shot when (not if) the attack falters.

The offense returns its top weapons, such as they are. WR DeAngelo Yancy (team-high 700 rec. yds. & 5 TD catches) is back, along with jr. RB Markel Jones (led team with 875 YR, 5.2 ypc and 10 rush TDs to go with 34 catches). Two missing starters are from the offensive line, where C Robert Kugler and left tackle David Hedelin must be replaced. Jones is the clear top dog at RB after backup D.J. Knox tore his ACL during spring practice in April. Knox was the team’s 2nd-leading rusher last season with 409 yds. and a pair of scores. Development of the OL is crucial, and there is little depth up front, so the Boilermakers can’t afford injuries.

Purdue ranked 111th in scoring defense and 110th in total defense LY, while allowing 5.1 ypc and sacking opposing QBs just 21 times. So perhaps returning 7 full-time starters isn’t necessarily a good thing. Holdover starting sr. defensive tackle Ra’Zahn Howard jumped ship in May and announced his intention to transfer after he was arrested in April and sat out spring practice. That leaves DT Jake Replogle and backup NG Eddy Wilson to hold down the middle along with a bunch of inexperienced players.

Sr. S Leroy Clark led the team with 88 tackles, followed by jr. LB Danny Ezechukwu, but the coverage will suffer with the loss of Brown and the other regular CB, Frankie Williams. The expected lack of a pass rush from the thin defensive line will put more pressure on the coverage.

Summary...Last season was actually a bit worse than the team’s 2-10 record indicated, as the victories came against a 5-6 Indiana State team and against Nebraska, thanks to four interceptions by backup Husker QB Ryker Fyfe. The last three seasons have established that the Boilermakers lack both quality and depth. It’s a bit unrealistic to think much will change. But the schedule is a bit softer (Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are off the schedule). Perhaps three, maybe four, wins are attainable, but the Boilermakers might be favored only in one game this season (the opener vs. Eastern Kentucky). The kicking game is a mess, the defense is a mess, and the OL could be a problem. If Markel Jones tweaks a knee, the Boilers are going to be hard-pressed to score a TD (he had 11 of the team’s 40 offensive touchdowns LY). Pointspread note: The Boilermakers have covered 9 of their last 10 as dogs of 13 pts. or more.

NEXT UP:  BIG TEN--PART II


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