Spring Practice Preview: Big Ten

Spring Practice Preview: Big Ten

This article is part of our Spring Practice Preview series.

A Spring Practice Preview: Big Ten

Spring is in the air and so are the sounds of whistles and thumping pads as college football spring practices get started nationwide. RotoWire will preview key job position battles and storylines at schools across the country. This article will feature the top job battle at each school within the Big Ten conference and provide a projected outlook for the group heading into the 2022 campaign.

The conference saw some major surprises last season with teams like Michigan State and Michigan outperforming preseason expectations while others like Indiana and Nebraska fell completely flat. The ten other teams in the conference fell somewhere in between these two extremes, leaving a wide spectrum of offseason situations ranging from simply needing to replace or re-tool key position groups to wide-scale offensive changes as teams look to fix the glaring flaws from last season.

Looming questions at quarterback, up-and-coming offensive skill personnel and an ever-flowing market of transfer portal players can be found throughout the college football landscape and the Big Ten is no different. This spring should help provide us Saturday football-starved fans our first glimpses at how things will look throughout the conference five months out from the start of the 2022 regular season 

Illinois

Position of Interest: Wide Receiver

Illinois' offense found moderate success running the ball during Brett Bielema's first season as head coach, but struggled overall due to a conference-worst passing game that was plagued by inconsistent quarterback play throughout the 2021 season.

A Spring Practice Preview: Big Ten

Spring is in the air and so are the sounds of whistles and thumping pads as college football spring practices get started nationwide. RotoWire will preview key job position battles and storylines at schools across the country. This article will feature the top job battle at each school within the Big Ten conference and provide a projected outlook for the group heading into the 2022 campaign.

The conference saw some major surprises last season with teams like Michigan State and Michigan outperforming preseason expectations while others like Indiana and Nebraska fell completely flat. The ten other teams in the conference fell somewhere in between these two extremes, leaving a wide spectrum of offseason situations ranging from simply needing to replace or re-tool key position groups to wide-scale offensive changes as teams look to fix the glaring flaws from last season.

Looming questions at quarterback, up-and-coming offensive skill personnel and an ever-flowing market of transfer portal players can be found throughout the college football landscape and the Big Ten is no different. This spring should help provide us Saturday football-starved fans our first glimpses at how things will look throughout the conference five months out from the start of the 2022 regular season 

Illinois

Position of Interest: Wide Receiver

Illinois' offense found moderate success running the ball during Brett Bielema's first season as head coach, but struggled overall due to a conference-worst passing game that was plagued by inconsistent quarterback play throughout the 2021 season. The bulk of Illinois' receiving corps suffered as a result and even led six scholarship receivers to enter the transfer portal since December. This leaves the team with a striking lack of depth behind last year's starters Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington.

Former Miami transfer Brian Hightower failed to register a catch across four appearances in his second season with the Illini. The big-bodied receiver likely could have competed for the No. 1 receiver job last season but suffered a soft tissue injury late in the preseason and ultimately opted to redshirt the 2021 campaign. Redshirt freshman Pat Bryant is the lone remaining scholarship receiver with a reception in his Illinois career and will compete with Hightower for a starting outside receiver spot heading into the 2022 campaign. Walk-on Miles Scott should also have a chance to make a name for himself as one of the only remaining receivers on the roster with any collegiate experience after appearing in four games with one start before redshirting the 2021 season as well. Junior Khmari Thompson has played in 11 games since transferring from Missouri two seasons ago but has been used primarily as a returner on special teams and even temporarily moved to cornerback in his first season with the team. This should leave plenty of opportunities for freshman receivers Hank Beatty, Shawn Miller, Eian Pugh and Ashton Hollins to push for rotational reps while further developing their skills and physicality during the spring.

Syracuse transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito is set to see most of the first-team reps during his first spring with the team as redshirt junior Artur Sitkowski is still out recovering from a broken arm suffered midway through last season, Jeremy Werner of 247Sports.com reports. Spring practices should allow a valuable opportunity for these up-and-coming receivers to develop a connection with DeVito who could very well be the Fighting Illini's starter come Week 1. 

Indiana

Position of Interest: Quarterback

Indiana is coming off an extremely disappointing season in which the Hoosiers finished 2-10 after a magical 2020 campaign that was built largely on forcing turnovers defensively combined with the big play ability of quarterback Michael Penix. The 2021 season ended early for Penix when he suffered a separated AC joint, making it the fourth and final season-ending injury of his career with the Hoosiers as he transferred to Washington in December. His departure will pave the way for new offensive coordinator Walt Bell to have his choice from any five of the quarterbacks participating in spring practices.

The five-man quarterback battle is headlined by Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak. The 2020 SEC Co-Freshman of the Year has by far the most career production of the five signal-callers with 5,058 passing yards and 23 touchdowns to 17 interceptions in 24 games. The redshirt junior by no means has the job locked up, however, as fellow former four-star recruit Jack Tuttle has experience starting for the Hoosiers in place of Penix at different times throughout his career. He has appeared in nine total games over the past two seasons with mediocre results, throwing for just 785 yards and four touchdowns to six interceptions while completing 56 percent of his passes. Tuttle also dealt with injuries that kept him sidelined for portions of last season but was healthy heading into spring practices, according to the Herald Bulletin.

While these two hold the most likely chances of winning the starting job, the competition this spring also includes sophomore Donaven McCulley who was thrown into starting four times for the Hoosiers in 2021 while Tuttle and Penix were down with injuries. He unsurprisingly struggled in his first collegiate action; he completed just 35 of 82 passes for 475 passing yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. However, his ability as a dual-threat quarterback should help his case with the athleticism he can bring to the position.

Walk-on Grant Gemel started the season-finale and appeared in five total games for the Hoosiers last season, and redshirt freshman Dexter Williams missed the 2021 season with a torn ACL suffered last spring. These two will likely have the lowest chances of seeing playing time in 2022.

Iowa

Position of Interest: Quarterback

The defending Big Ten West Division champions showed just how far a team can go without consistent quarterback play. The Hawkeyes won ten games based largely on an opportunistic defense that led the conference in takeaways combined with an offense that made just enough plays to get by. Though, they learned the hard way just how unsustainable this model was when they suffered a resounding 42-3 loss at the hands of Michigan in the Big Ten Championship. Poor offensive line play certainly contributed to the overall lack of offensive production throughout the season, but subpar quarterbacking cost the Hawkeyes multiple games in 2021.

According to Scott Dochterman of The Athletic, Coach Kirk Ferentz is keeping the quarterback job wide open this spring between Iowa's three returning passers: Spencer Petras, Alex Padilla and Joey Labas. Petras and Padilla split time starting last season with largely similar results, though they brought different styles of play. Petras operated at his best as a game manager that maintained a consistent offensive rhythm but struggled with turnovers including two games with at least three interceptions. Padilla started three games while Petras was coming off an injury and brought an extra component as a runner. His benefits as a runner were negated by his inaccuracy as he completed just 49.1 percent of his passes. The two ultimately combined for just 2,516 passing yards and 12 passing touchdowns to 11 interceptions. If either can use this spring to clean up the issues that plagued their games in 2021, then they should be able to buoy an offensive with stronger offensive line play.

Labas, a redshirt freshman, did not play last season but turned heads as a scout team quarterback leading up to the team's Citrus Bowl game. If he can continue his impressive playmaking throughout the spring, he just might vault himself into a starting role. Barring a fantastic spring season for Labas or Padilla, it's likely that Petras will be in line to start the season once again as the overall most consistent option for the Hawkeyes. 

Maryland

Position of Interest: Wide Receiver

The starting receiver positions will see some significant changes this offseason for Maryland: six of the team's receivers entered the transfer portal since the Pinstripe Bowl win in December. While there are perhaps bigger question marks left due to the professional departures of the team's top running back and tight end, figuring out how returning starter Taulia Tagovailoa will spread out the ball in the team's pass-happy offense creates an interesting position group to analyze this spring. 

Maryland should have a strong amount of depth despite returning just two of the team's top seven leading receivers from 2021. Junior Rakim Jarrett will return after leading the team with 62 catches for 829 yards and five touchdowns with No. 1 receiver Dontay Demus going down for the season after suffering a knee injury that required surgery in early October. Demus still finished second on the team in receiving yards as he racked up 507 yards on just 28 receptions through the first five weeks of the season. The big-play threat announced in December that he would return to Maryland this season. This spring could be an important time for him to return to his big-play form. Receivers Marcus Fleming and Jeshaun Jones both had their seasons cut short due to leg surgeries as well but should step up to compete with so many departing wide receivers this offseason. 

While the transfer portal has led to a massive exodus of receiving talent for the Terrapins this offseason, it has also brought some back in return. Florida transfer Jacob Copeland transferred to Maryland in December after leading the Gators in receiving with 41 catches for 642 yards and four touchdowns over 13 games. The redshirt junior was a high four-star recruit coming out of high school and, like Demus, boasts similar big-play potential. This should make him the immediate option to start as the outside receiver opposite Demus. Establishing a connection with his new quarterback this spring should help him to hit the ground running come Week 1. How the team sorts out the wide receiver pecking order should be an interesting storyline to watch this spring as the Terrapins' passing game appears poised for must-see viewing come the fall. 

Michigan

Position of Interest: Quarterback

Michigan came into the spring with easily the most unique and potentially complicated quarterback situation in the conference. The Wolverines relied on Cade McNamara to be a game manager in the truest form of the term when he started all 14 games in 2021. He passed for 2,576 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 64.2 percent of his passes. Though, the Wolverines ran the ball on 68.7 percent of downs, and McNamara was often rotated out for highly-talented freshman J.J. McCarthy who came in as a situational rusher in 11 games last season.

With this model, Michigan was able to reach its first-ever College Football Playoff berth and secure a Big Ten Championship in the process. However, new heights may breed ever-higher expectations and a desire for a quarterback, like McCarthy, who has the necessary arm talent to take Michigan's passing game to the next level. While it would have been interesting to see how the Michigan coaching state handled this situation in spring practices, McCarthy has been sidelined with lingering arm soreness and won't throw until fall camp at the earliest. The injury should not require surgery, but it does put McNamara in a strong position to put his stamp on the starting job by playing mistake-free football and making improvements as a passer wherever possible. If McNamara finishes the spring with a solid performance in the Wolverines' annual spring game on April 2, he could make it extremely difficult for Jim Harbaugh and his revamped offensive coaching staff to move on from the senior quarterback. Though, any signs of regression may be all it takes for the coaching staff to make the decision to move on in favor of the younger McCarthy instead. 

Outside of running back Hassan Haskins, who left for the NFL Draft, Michigan returns every major skill position player on offense while Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards should be more than qualified to fill this hole in the rushing game. The only true question mark on Michigan's offense will be what direction the program decides it wants to take at quarterback. 

Michigan State

Position of Interest: Running Back

Michigan State found shocking success in Mel Tucker's second year as head coach thanks to his aggressive pursuit of transfer portal players. This was epitomized by under-the-radar pickup Kenneth Walker from Wake Forest. Walker became the first running back in Michigan State history to win the Doak Walker Award for best running back in the nation as he barreled his way for a Power 5-best 1,636 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. This massive success unsurprisingly led Walker to enter the NFL Draft a year early and left Tucker returning to the transfer well for his replacement heading into next season. 

The Spartans bring in two new transfer running backs in Jalen Berger from Wisconsin and 2020 Pac-12 Player of the Year Jarek Broussard from Colorado – the program Tucker coached prior to Michigan State. However, Broussard won't arrive on campus until sometime this summer, leaving Berger with first dibs on carries this spring. Berger saw reliable action during the COVID-hampered 2020 season for the Badgers, but things didn't go quite as expected for him as a sophomore. He was ultimately squeezed out of the starting rotation after the emergence of freshman phenom Braelon Allen and entered the transfer portal near mid-October. Berger now has a second chance to prove his status as a highly sought-after four-star recruit coming out of high school while competing for consistent snaps out of the backfield. Returning backs Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins will also be in East Lansing this spring looking for bigger roles in the offense. Simmons was the team's second-leading rusher last season but saw just 70 total rushes which ranked third on the team behind quarterback Payton Thorne. Collins was Michigan State's leading rusher in 2019 but saw limited opportunities in 2021 as he dealt injuries that hampered his season. 

However, it's unlikely that any of these three or Broussard alone will be able to account for nearly 72 percent of the team's total rushing production as Walker did last season. Instead, a running back-by-committee approach seems in order, and a strong spring from Berger, Simmons or Collins could help place them firmly in the team's rushing rotation heading into 2022. 

Minnesota

Position of Interest: Running Back

Minnesota's running backs delivered on a next-man-up philosophy last season as the team dealt with a shocking number of injuries over the course of the season. This poor injury luck began when clear No. 1 back and two-time 1,000-plus yard rusher Mohamed Ibrahim tore his Achilles tendon in the season opener. Down perhaps the Big Ten's best rusher, the Golden Gophers were still able to finish the season with the conference's third-best total rushing offense thanks primarily to backups Treyson Potts and Ky Thomas. Potts eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in three straight games before suffering an undisclosed illness after Week 5 that kept him out for the remainder of the season. Thomas then picked up where Potts left off and would go on to finish the season as the team's leading rusher with 824 yards and six touchdowns. 

Thomas seemed to make a strong argument for himself with his play as the primary back going forward, rushing for over 100 yards in five of seven games to end the season, but shocked many by entering the transfer portal in January and choosing to continue his collegiate career with the Kansas Jayhawks. Thomas' decision to depart was likely affected by Ibrahim's announcement in November that he would postpone any attempt to make a run for the NFL and instead return to Minnesota for his fifth season. The likely returns of Potts along with ball carriers Mar'Keise Irving and Bryce Williams – both of whom also registered 100-plus-yard rushing performances in 2021 – should make for a likely crowded running back room despite Thomas' departure. 

While Ibrahim figures to reprise his starting role heading into next season, it will be interesting to see how the Golden Gophers handle splitting the running back snaps this spring with Ibrahim, Potts and Williams all coming off season-ending injuries. There should be more than enough opportunities for multiple backs to see consistent playing time next season though; Minnesota held true to its core offensive identity last season by running the ball behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in all of college football just under 70 percent of the time. Though, whichever running backs do see consistent playing time in 2022 will have to operate behind a new offensive line as this unit returns just one of five starters 

Nebraska

Storyline: Complete Offensive Overhaul

Nebraska's offense went through a complete offensive makeover before the end of last season when head coach Scott Frost fired four of the team's offensive assistants in early November. Frost then hired four new replacements for these coaches including play-caller and quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple. Whipple has over 40 years of experience coaching offenses throughout college and the NFL, including the past three seasons with the Pittsburgh Panthers where he held the same positions he now holds with Nebraska.

This change in coaching staff reflects major turnover in the offensive personnel as well. Four-year starting quarterback Adrian Martinez underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in December and was one of five offensive skills players to enter the transfer portal since the start of last season. The Cornhuskers will also be without their top-two leading receivers from last season in wideout Samori Toure and tight end Austin Allen – both of whom set various program records for their respective positions and are now focused on improving their stocks ahead of the NFL Draft. Six new offensive transfers, including quarterbacks Casey Thompson from Texas and Chubba Purdy from Florida State, means that there will be new faces at nearly every offensive position and will only reinforce this wholesale change. 

Thompson has taken most of the first-team snaps under center so far this spring and appears to be the team's tentative starting quarterback, though Purdy is coming off recovery from four surgeries to repair a fractured collarbone suffered in 2020 and could still compete for this job before the end of spring practices according to Mitch Sherman of the The Athletic. Third-year quarterback Logan Smothers could also still be in the mix as the signal-caller who stepped in for a sidelined Martinez in the 2021 regular-season finale. Thompson should still provide the new offensive coaching staff the best chance at immediate results however as the group looks to make a good impression in its first season.

Whipple, who coached Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett and Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison at Pittsburgh last season, is known for finding ways to get the ball in the hands of his best offensive player and will likely have a plan to feature at least one skill position player. He should have no shortage of potential candidates for this starring role; receivers Omar Manning and Zavier Betts make up solid returning production from last season and LSU transfer Trey Palmer could likely make a push for the No. 1 receiver position. Alante Brown and Brody Belt have received praise from teammates and coaches alike and are making strong cases as the team's most improved players this spring, Brian Christopherson of 247Sports.com reports. Nebraska also has an astounding 14 running backs on the roster and a pretty clear heir apparent at tight end with senior Travis Vokolek who has 21 games of experience. Finding a player who can demonstrate consistency this spring will likely go a long way in determining who could fit this star player role on offense. 

Northwestern

Position of Interest: Quarterback

Northwestern dealt with perhaps the most inconsistent quarterback play in the entire conference last season Junior Ryan Hilinski led the Wildcats in attempts and passing yards last season after taking over the role from Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty, who were respectively benched and injured in a Week 5 loss to Duke. Hilinski, a transfer from South Carolina prior to the 2021 season, largely struggled in the starting role however as he finished the year with a 54 percent completion rate and three touchdowns to four interceptions. The season ended with starting duties fluctuating between Hilinski and Marty, who came back from injury in Week 9 but similarly failed to string together positive performances. 

Despite these less-than-stellar results, the Wildcats appear likely to repeat the same formula from last season with no clear answer for the team's quarterback problem heading into the spring. 

With Johnson transferring back to his old school, Clemson, in January, Northwestern is left with Hilinksi and Marty as the only two quarterbacks with any true playing experience. It's safe to say, however, that the starting job should be wide open for any quarterbacks further down the depth chart to reach up and grab this spring. Junior Carl Richardson saw experience in mop-up duty late in four games last season, though sophomores Cole Freeman, Brendan Sullivan and Jasper Stratton should all have just as much of an opportunity to show that they are worth a look this spring. 

Ohio State

Position of Interest: Wide Receiver 

Each season for Ohio State, it's about reloading not rebuilding. The recruiting juggernaut consistently finds ways to replace highly productive players that are either graduating or moving on to professional careers by turning to a seemingly endless well of up-and-coming talent. With leading Heisman candidate C.J. Stroud set to return for his second season under center, the biggest question seems to be which budding receivers are set to breakout alongside him.  

Wide receiver will see the biggest turnover from last season as stars Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson look like locks to be selected with first-round picks in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft. These two were key cogs in what was statistically the most productive offense in the FBS by nearly every major statistical measure last season. The Buckeyes do still have the luxury of leading receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba who is coming off a record-setting Rose Bowl performance in which he posted a preposterous 15-catch, 347-yard and three-touchdown stat line. The junior should likely emerge as the best receiver in college football in 2022. So, while the No. 1 receiver spot is rather securely set, there will be a need for some additional weapons along the outside to help exploit opposing defenses. This should open an exciting competition for the second and third receiver spots. 

No Buckeye receivers outside of Olave, Wilson or Smith-Njigba recorded more than seven receptions during the 2022 regular season given the number of targets these three commanded. Sophomore Marvin Harrison did out-perform his regular-season production during the Rose Bowl though, recording six catches for 71 yards and three touchdowns, and this performance should place him in a strong position for one of the two remaining starting wide receiver spots. Fellow returning wideouts Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka were the No. 1 recruits at their position in the classes of 2020 and 2021 respectively. Fleming may have the most to prove this spring however as he has dealt with back injuries that likely stunted his on-the-field growth during his first two seasons in Columbus. This trio should be foremost in the mix to receive targets heading into next season and a strong spring could be the difference in setting two of the three apart.  

Penn State

Position of Interest: Running Back 

While an important offensive weapon like Jahan Dotson will be difficult to replace, returning receivers Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith have enough experience working with three-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford that there isn't much to worry about when it comes to Penn State's passing game. Instead, it was the running game that leaves just about everything to be desired after last season. The Nittany Lions failed to have a rusher go for over 100 yards in a single game in 2021 and the team's 3.2 yards per carry and 107.8 yards per game both ranked second to last in the Big Ten. An inability to run the ball with any consistency is a sure-fire recipe to make a physically demanding Big Ten East schedule even more grueling as the season rolls along. There's reason to believe that improved overall offensive line play combined with an undeniable amount of rushing talent should help change this going forward though. 

Penn State's running backs are arguably the team's most talented offensive skill group, at least on paper. Returning rusher Keyvone Lee found the most success of any back on the team last season as he averaged 4.9 yards per carry and took over primary rushing duties from Noah Cain late last season. With Cain transferring to LSU earlier this offseason, Lee is in line to see first-team reps during the spring, though running backs coach Ju'Juan Seider still said that it will be an open competition, according to Audrey Snyder of The Athletic

Penn State's running back room now includes two newcomers with highly touted recruits Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Singleton was the Gatorade National Player of the Year and the No. 1 running back recruit in the class of 2022. He comes in listed at 6-foot and 219 pounds on Penn State's roster and has the physical toolset to immediately push for reps at the position this spring. Returning backs Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes will both certainly have something to say before the spring is over as well, however. 

Purdue

Position of Interest: Wide Receiver 

For years now, Purdue's offense has been based on a strong passing game. This phase found great success on the arm of Aidan O'Connell who took over the bulk of the reps under center from Week 5 onward. Led by O'Connell, the Boilermakers' reached their first nine-win season since 2003 as the redshirt junior completed a program-record 71.6 percent of his passes. With initial starter Jack Plummer transferring to California in mid-December, O'Connell should have the starting role all but locked up heading into spring practices; though, he will now have to replicate the success of last season without the help of two of his top three receivers from 2021. No. 1 wideout David Bell will head to the NFL after averaging over 100 receiving yards per game in back-to-back seasons with the Boilermakers. Jackson Anthrop's time in West Lafayette is also over after a senior season in which he was the team's third-leading receiver. Replacing the production of these two multi-year starters will leave some intriguing opportunities for both returning and incoming players along the perimeter. 

Milton Wright, the team's leader in touchdown receptions in 2021, would be the first logical choice to take over the primary receiver spot for the Boilermakers, though he missed the team's bowl game after being ruled ineligible due to academic issues. Senior wideout Broc Thompson is coming off a record-setting bowl performance that included seven catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns in the Music City Bowl, but he is still recuperating from surgeries on both knees and will likely be unable to participate this spring. Fellow wideouts TJ Sheffield, Mershawn Rice and Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen will all also be held out of spring practices while recovering from injury. This has opened things up for Iowa transfer Tyrone Tracy to command most of the attention so far this spring. The redshirt junior was frustrated by a lack of targets with the Hawkeyes but could provide a versatile spark for the Boilermakers' offense. The speedster has also shown his abilities in the running game so far this spring with coach Jeff Brohm previously saying that the team plans to use him in multiple ways on offense next season, according to Mike Carmin of the Lafayette Journal and Courier

The unclear status for so many players makes it difficult to tell just how the Boilermakers' receiving corps will shake out by the start of the regular season, but it should provide more opportunities for players like Tracy as well as Auburn transfer Elijah Canion to establish an early connection with O'Connell.  

Rutgers

Position of Interest: Quarterback

Noah Vedral has been with the Scarlet Knights for the past two seasons but has brought mixed results as a passer. The former Nebraska quarterback has thrown for 3,076 yards and a 16-to-15 TD:INT ratio over 20 games played the past two seasons, leaving something to be desired from the quarterback position. Insert sophomore quarterback Gavin Wimsatt – an early enrollee from the 2021 season who saw action in four games since arriving on campus late last September after foregoing the remainder of his high school career. The former four-star recruit out of Kentucky is the highest-rated quarterback recruit in the history of the Rutgers program and has been widely heralded for his ability as a dual-threat quarterback. However, he certainly struggled in these four games during his freshman season, completing just nine of 21 passes for 45 yards and two interceptions while rushing for a total of 68 yards. 

Vedral has begun spring practices taking first-team snaps at quarterback with Wimsatt and sophomore Evan Simon rotating through. Simon also saw action in six games last season but does not have the same hype surrounding him that Wimsatt does. Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson has said that Wimsatt's early enrollment really aided in his development and that the young quarterback is "much more settled in" this spring, James Kratch of NJ.com reports. Kratch adds that there is a widespread belief that Wimsatt - if he continues to progress throughout the spring - will likely be the Week 1 starter as the future of the program going forward. 

Wisconsin

Position of Interest: Wide Receiver

After an offseason of conjecture and rumors that Caleb Williams may be interested in transferring to Madison, the Badgers will run it back with Graham Mertz at quarterback. As such, the annual question of what the Badgers will do to engineer a stronger passing game still remains. Any increase in productivity will no doubt have to start with a jump in play from Mertz himself, though the junior quarterback will have to do so with a new set of faces at pass catcher. 

Wisconsin's top three leading receivers in Danny Davis, Kendrick Pryor and tight end Jake Ferguson all graduated after the 2021 season, leaving Chimere Dike as the lone returning wideout with more than three career receptions. The Badgers will almost certainly look to Dike to be their primary receiver come the fall, but the starting spots alongside him will be up for grabs this spring. While it's worth asking who Ferguson's successor will be at tight end, there is much less to go off of at the position given the lack of playing time last season for those behind the four-year starter. However, there are clearer options for new potential starters at the wide receiver position. Redshirt freshmen receivers Markus Allen and Skyler Bell are young players that wide receiver coach Alvis Whitted has previously stated he feels strongly about as potential contributors. Both saw very limited action last season until injuries at wide receivers thrust them into starting roles in the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State. 

Bobby Engram was also hired this offseason to take over play-calling and quarterback coach duties after eight years of combined experience coaching wide receivers and tight ends with the Baltimore Ravens. Coach Paul Chryst said in his press conference to open spring practice that, while Engram will call plays, these duties will take into account the offensive coaching staff's collective decision-making on how plays should be called, Jesse Temple of The Athletic reports. So, the odds of a full-scale reshaping of Wisconsin's run-first offensive identity are dim, to say the least. However, some intriguing new faces on this side of the ball could bring some new life to Wisconsin's offense. Dean Engram, son of the new offensive coordinator, converted to wide receiver from nickel corner this offseason and, after three scholarship receivers transferred dating back to October, he should have a chance to make waves early this spring. Included amongst an influx of transfer portal talent is wide receiver Keontez Lewis. Lewis appeared in 11 games for UCLA last season but has yet to record a reception in his college career. The sophomore comes in with a strong body to build on, standing at 6-foot-3 and 197 pounds, and his ability as a run blocker with the Bruins should help him see the field early in his career with the Badgers. With new faces in the offensive personnel and coaching staff, it will be interesting to see if the passing game as a whole can take a jump in Mertz's third year as the starter. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Wollersheim
2022 University of Wisconsin graduate and blind lover of all things college football. Also an unbiased observer of NFL, CFB, NBA and CBB for all teams not located in the cheese capital of the world.
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