What defines a terrific offseason in Big Ten circles?
For returning starters, it typically involves the luxury of leading an experienced group of performers, on either side of the ball.
For breakout candidates, it usually entails having few depth-chart obstacles to starting glory.
And for the coaches – either head coach or coordinator – it’s all about moving the program forward, in relatively perfect sync. Or, in the case of one new head coach, it’s being in the right place at the right time.
Here are some of the Big Ten’s best offseasons to date, an eclectic countdown of individual advancements and team accomplishments.
OHIO STATE QB J.T. BARRETT
For the first time in his collegiate career, Barrett doesn’t have to look over his shoulder at either Braxton Miller, the 2013 Big Ten Player of the Year, or Cardale Jones, who led Ohio State to a national championship in January 2015. Both quarterbacks have moved on to the NFL, allowing Barrett to assume full control of the OSU offense.
And that’s probably best for the reloading Buckeyes, who will be breaking in new playmakers at running back (redshirt freshman Mike Weber), receiver (Noah Brown, Parris Campbell) and tight end (Marcus Baugh), along with replacing last year’s lot of bookend tackles. For chemistry sake, rotating two quarterbacks every quarter or every game likely would have stunted any future growth.
After all, designing plays or conceiving game plans for both Barrett and Jones couldn’t have been an easy task last season, their immense talents notwithstanding. In terms of short-term preparation, different styles require different approaches.
As the clear-cut starter as a freshman – after Miller’s injury but before Jones’ emergence – Barrett accounted for 3,772 total yards and 45 touchdowns in 12 games, before incurring a season-ending injury against Michigan. For that year, Barrett reached the 300-yard passing mark four times — including 312 yards passing and six touchdowns against Kent State, the week after Ohio State incurred a devastating home loss to Virginia Tech.
With no immediate competition at quarterback, Barrett figures to flirt with career highs in yards passing, 100-yard rushing outings and career rushing yards per game (70.4) in 2016.
WISCONSIN D-COORDINATOR JUSTIN WILCOX
Wilcox seemingly has an untenable situation on his plate, succeeding defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, the architect of Wisconsin’s top-ranked scoring defense last year (13.7 points per game). But that pressure would have been more intense, if Aranda — now the defensive coordinator at LSU — hadn’t left on his own volition.
Instead, Wisconsin fans figure to throw their full support behind Wilcox, embracing a defensive mind who’s held premium jobs at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington and Southern California in recent years.
It also helps that Wilcox has some cornerstone pieces to work with in Madison, including linebacker Vince Biegel (4.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss), linebacker T.J. Edwards (leading tackler last season), defensive end Chikwe Obasih and cornerback Sojourn Shelton.
MICHIGAN STATE’S LINEBACKING CORPS
All signs point to senior Ed Davis (7.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss in 2014) being granted a sixth year of eligibility before fall camp starts, with the assumption of completing some summer course work at Michigan State.
If this occurs, the Spartans should have one of the Big Ten’s best back seven alignments this fall, led by a dynamic linebacking trio (Davis, senior-to-be Riley Bullough, breakout candidate Andrew Dowell) and a punishing, high-upside secondary (cornerbacks Darian Hicks, Vayante Copeland; safeties Montae Nicholson, Demetrious Cox).
This will likely be Michigan State’s greatest defensive strength this season, even with Bednarik Award candidate Malik McDowell wreaking havoc in the trenches.
Citing the previous two years, Michigan State has limited opponents to less than 22 points per game — a rock-solid average by most accounts. However, it’s somewhat deflating when comparing that figure to the 2013 Rose Bowl champions.
For that season, the Spartans owned the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense at just 13.2 points per outing.
MICHIGAN HEAD COACH JIM HARBAUGH
This pick was simple to make and even easier to quantify, relative to other Big Ten performers:
- Michigan headed into the offseason on a perfect note, earning kudos for its 41-7 rout of SEC East champ Florida in the Citrus Bowl and then accepting the monumental praise for the season ahead.
- Harbaugh consistently rankled SEC coaches during the offseason, either through cryptic taunts on social media or by scheduling a seemingly unlimited number of satellite camps for the summer — with the intent of stealing valuable recruits from fertile SEC territories.
- As part of that, ESPN announcer Paul Finebaum stole some headlines during the spring by likening Harbaugh to the ‘Donald Trump of College Football.’ For an in depth look at this hilarious controversy, click here.
- Jake Butt (51 catches, 654 yards, 3 TDs last year) might have been the first tight end taken in the recent NFL draft, if he had chosen to leave school early. Instead, the senior-to-be wasted no time in announcing his intent to stick with Michigan for one last season. With Butt still in the mix, Michigan likely has the Big Ten’s premier playmaking quartet, led by receiver Jeehu Cheeson, Amara Darboh, tailback De’Veon Smith and Butt. There’s also experience at quarterback, with Houston transfer John O’Korn (3,117 yards passing, 28 TDs as a freshman) competing for starter reps with Wilton Speight and Shane Morris.
- Michigan secured a top-five recruiting class in Harbaugh’s second season with the program.
- Harbaugh may have forever changed the way we look at National Signing Day. On that morning, the Michigan coach welcomed famous athletes and entertainers like Tom Brady, Derek Jeter and wrestling icon Ric Flair for a televised party/charity event, highlighting the announcement of the Wolverines’ sterling recruiting class. Ten years ago, the greatest National Signing Day entertainment typically involved a continuous camera shot of a fax machine inside the Alabama football office. But now, thanks to Harbaugh, the pomp and circumstance should only ratchet up from here.
- Michigan corralled a robust number of 3- and 4-star talents last February (according to 247Sports.com); but the jewel of the decorated class was New Jersey-based defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the Wolverines’ first No. 1-ranked recruit in quite some time. Early indications suggest that Gary will contribute to the team this fall, earning true freshman reps with one of the nation’s deepest defensive lines.
- Given Michigan’s manageable schedule — doable home slate, three tough roadies with Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State — the Wolverines will likely earn the nation’s No. 1 ranking at some point of the season. This will undoubtedly please the U-M masses who view Harbuagh as a true master of his craft.
INDIANA RB DEVINE REDDING
Redding was one of the nation’s best backup tailbacks last year, rolling for 1,012 rushing yards (5th in the Big Ten) and nine touchdowns. In his final three games, he also rushed for 401 yards and two scores.
There are no more hurdles to starting fame in 2016, though, with Jordan Howard now taking his rookie lumps in the NFL. As a tandem last season, Howard and Redding combined for 422 carries, 2,225 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
Which brings us to this: Given the absurd number of above touches, is it possible that Redding could hit the hallowed mark of 350-plus carries this fall — similar to last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Alabama tailback Derrick Henry (395 carries, 2,219 rushing yards, 28 TDs),
Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson has leaned on two-headed backfields in previous years, but this season may qualify as an outlier, given Redding’s skill set of size, speed, power, experience and athleticism.
Either way, Indiana’s excellent track record in the running game portends great things for 2016. To wit, the Hoosiers’ last two primary rushers (Howard, Tevin Coleman) averaged 1,625 rushing yards and 13 TDs in their respective final college seasons.
NEBRASKA O-COORDINATOR DANNY LANGSDORF
With Fox Sports in 2013, I authored an out-of-box piece for college football, fearlessly predicting the SEC head coaches for the 2023 season. As part of that whimsical exercise, I had Langsdorf — then a quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator at Oregon State — targeted as a future head coach in the SEC West.
Will that prediction come true one day? Only time will tell. But things are certainly progressing well for Langsdorf, who helped Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., post career highs with passing attempts, completions, passing yards (3,030) and total touchdowns (29) in 2015.
As a result, Armstrong (57 total TDs since 2014) will soon become Nebraska’s all-time passer in numerous categories.
That distinction can only boost the 44-year-old resume, in terms of Langsdorf becoming a college head coach or NFL offensive coordinator within five years. Citing his last four seasons (three with Oregon State, one with Nebraska), Langsdorf’s respective squads averaged 31.5 points per game.
ILLINOIS HEAD COACH LOVIE SMITH
Smith walked into a favorable situation at Illinois, despite being a March hire, with no chance of recruiting/signing any prep players from the Class of 2016.
- The Fighting Illini have a resourceful, strong-armed quarterback in senior Wes Lunt, the Big Ten leader in passing completions/attempts last season. Lunt looks like a good bet for 3,000 yards passing and 20 touchdowns this fall.
- Tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn (842 total yards, 6 TDs as a freshman) has 1,000-yard potential as a sophomore.
- Illinois has a stealth quartet of returning receivers — Geronimo Allison (among Big Ten playmakers, posted top-7 numbers with receptions and receiving yards last year), Malik Turner (39 catches, 510 yards, 3 TDs), Desmond Cain (53 catches as a freshman) and up-and-coming sophomore Sam Mays. The primary concern with this group: Finding the end zone with more consistency.
- The defense has three potential stars with seniors Dawuane Smoot, ‘Chunky’ Clements and linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr., who transferred to Illinois from Cal to join his father Hardy Nickerson Sr., the Fighting Illini’s new defensive coordinator.
- In short order, Smith (81-63 record in the NFL) has assembled a quality staff at Illinois, featuring offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, the aforementioned Hardy Nickerson Sr. and a number of assistants with substantial NFL and college experience. We’re talking about a handrful of super-loyal coaches to Smith … eerily reminiscent to when NFL coach Bill Parcells would get the proverbial band back together when coaching.
- Smith’s contract with Illinois was wonderfully constructed: He’ll receive a lower base salary for a few years, while still getting paid by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers (his previous stop). Soon after that, Smith will be in line for a big-time pay bump. We should all be so lucky with our respective negotiating ploys.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.