With spring practices in the rear view, we’ve reached the long, agonizing part of college football’s offseason. Instead of counting down the weekends until Week 1 of the 2017 season, let’s get prepared by breaking down the best of the Big Ten, from players to coaches to games. Up next: The pass catchers.
It was an odd season for wide receivers and tight ends in 2016, but it might be more unpredictable this season.
Passing numbers around the Big Ten, both for quarterbacks and their targets, were down last season. There were eight players with 60 catches or more in 2015, but last season only three reached that mark. Northwestern’s Austin Carr went from an afterthought (23 receptions in two seasons) to star, and led the conference with 90 catches, 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns.
There were also more productive players returning. Six of the top 10 and 12 of the 20 pass catchers from 2015 were back last year. Of those 12, only three caught more passes in 2016. Two caught one more, while Michigan State’s R.J. Shelton improved the most with 10 more receptions.
Now we look to 2017 and the Big Ten landscape for pass catchers is … uncertain, to say the least. Only one of the top 10 in catches returns from last season, and seven of the top 21. The quarterback situation could improve at several outposts, but who is going to be catching passes at a few places remains a bit of a mystery. There are four teams — Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota — who don’t return anyone who caught at least 25 passes last season.
New go-to targets will emerge, but for now there are question marks. It does look like a strong year for tight ends, and they could open space for teammates on the outside.
Here is our look at the top 10 pass catchers for 2017, though this list could look a lot different just a few weeks into the season once roles are established.
2016 stats: 33 catches, 453 yards, 2 touchdowns
The Cornhuskers are going to have a new quarterback, with Tulane transfer Tanner Lee replacing Tommy Armstrong. Five of the team’s top-seven targets from 2016 are gone.
Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El are the veteran receivers, and there are a couple of exciting freshmen joining the group. Morgan has been consistent as a complementary piece, but the Cornhuskers need a go-to guy.
2016 stats: 6 catches, 26 yards, 0 touchdowns
Dixon did score a touchdown last season on a 5-yard rush against Rutgers. He has struggled with injuries for three seasons, but was healthy during the spring and looked like he could be the No. 1 wideout.
Ohio State’s passing attack sputtered late last season, and both Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown left early for the NFL. There are a bunch of interesting options, but it might take a few weeks for J.T. Barrett to settle on which are going to see the most targets. Dixon looks like the best bet, but that could change during fall camp.
2016 stats: 20 catches, 210 yards, 0 touchdowns; 16 carries, 138 yards, 3 touchdowns
Grant was playing well before a season-ending broken right ankle injury against Iowa. It also affected Rutgers’ ability to do anything on offense without its dynamic weapon.
Getting an extra year of eligibility for Grant was huge. He’ll likely see the ball as a wideout, running back, wildcat quarterback and return man. Assuming the injury hasn’t sapped his explosiveness, Grant will be one of the most exciting players in the conference.
2016 stats: 19 catches, 284 yards, 3 touchdowns
VandeBerg had 65 catches two years ago, but like Grant was lost early in the season. It was a broken foot, and he had more foot issues that kept him out of spring practice.
Riley McCarron and George Kittle were gone at season’s end, and Jerminic Smith joined them in May. Beyond VandeBerg, the next three guys on the depth chart have combined for 4 receptions at Iowa. Akrum Wadley is a great receiver out of the backfield, but is likely going to carry the ball more this season.
Oh, and the Hawkeyes aren’t settled on a quarterback for next season. There aren’t many players who could be more important next season than VandeBerg. They need him to be healthy and dependable.
2016 stats: 43 catches, 635 yards, 5 touchdowns; 21 carries, 318 yards, 1 touchdown
The Badgers failed to throw for 200 yards in nine games last season. They didn’t reach 150 in four.
Now that Alex Hornibrook should be the unquestioned starter and not need to split time with Bart Houston, the Badgers might throw more in his second season. Peavy will get the ball in the air and on the ground, and should bust big plays to help the rushing attack.
2016 stats: 48 catches, 712 yards, 6 touchdowns
Turner had three monster games with at least 9 catches last season. The Illini used three different quarterbacks, and none were great. West Lunt was OK, and helped Turner produce two of those three games.
Chayce Crouch is probably going to be the starting quarterback, and Mike Dudek, who had 75 catches in 2014, might be able to help after missing the past two seasons with injuries. Turner could have a few more of those huge games this season if the offense is better around him.
2016 stats: 41 catches, 637 yards, 6 touchdowns
Teldrick Morgan ended up as the Terps’ leading receiver with 43 catches, but Moore made the most big plays in the passing game. Maryland had problems at quarterback when Perry Hills was injured, and he’s exhausted his eligibility.
North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson or sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome is going to replace him. Maryland’s offense is going to be run-first, but Moore gives them a big-play threat on the outside. The offense could be explosive if the quarterback play is competent.
2016 stats: 47 catches, 580 yards, 2 touchdowns
Fumagalli was one of three tight ends in the league last season with more than 45 catches. Jake Butt is in the NFL, and the other guy is still to come on this list.
How Wisconsin’s passing game progresses this season will be one of the interesting developments to monitor in the West division. The Badgers are going to be able to run the ball, but a second year with Hornibrook could make the Wisconsin offense potent.
2016 stats: 54 catches, 995 yards, 6 touchdowns
The Hoosiers needed a replacement for Simmie Cobbs, who missed the season with an injury. Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige had almost identical seasons compared to 2015, and Westbrook stepped in and replicated Cobbs’ production.
Jones and Paige are gone, but Cobbs will be back. He and Westbrook should be top targets for returning starter Richard Lagow. Either one of them could end up leading the Big Ten in catches or receiving yards.
2016 stats: 48 catches, 679 yards, 5 touchdowns
Chris Godwin could have been No. 1 on this list, but he left early for the NFL. Gesicki was Trace McSorley’s No. 2 target last season, and his highlight reel is loaded with fantastic catches.
With Godwin gone, there’s a decent chance Gesicki will see a few more balls thrown his way. Joe Moorhead’s offense tends to spread the targets around, but few players can match Gesicki’s size, athleticism and hands. Double-digit touchdowns is a distinct possibility.
Honorable mentions: Flynn Nagel, Northwestern; Juwan Johnson, Penn State; Donovan Peoples-Jones and Kekoa Crawford, Michigan; Austin Mack and K.J. Hill, Ohio State; Cole Herdman, Purdue; Mike Dudek, Illinois; Tyjon Lindsey, Nebraska