Spring Practice Preview: Big Ten Spring Practice Storylines

Spring Practice Preview: Big Ten Spring Practice Storylines

This article is part of our Conference Preview series.

2023 Spring Practice Preview: Big Ten Preview and Storylines

Spring sessions are in full swing across the world of college football. In Big Ten country, this will be the last offseason before the conference fully spans the entire nation, as West Coast mainstays USC and UCLA will join the conference in 2024. It's only fitting that a number of existing conference members are going through roster and identity rebrands under new head coaches. Meanwhile, others stick with their tried-and-true or, in some cases, tried-and-untrue methods of program building. Plenty of eyes will be on conference newcomers Tanner Mordecai and Hudson Card while along with breakout candidates Kyle McCord and Drew Allar.

To catch up on the spring practice action elsewhere, check out our other spring practice previews from the Sun Belt, SEC, ACC, AAC and Conference USA.

Illinois Fighting Illini Spring Storyline

Maintaining consistency at running back and quarterback

Brett Bielema's biggest task on offense this offseason will be replacing running back Chase Brown and quarterback Tommy DeVito. These two formed the backbone of the Fighting Illini's offense, as Brown ranked third nationally last season in rushing yards per game (136.9) while DeVito excelled in his role as game manager with a 69.6 completion percentage for 2,650 yards and 21 total touchdowns. Both starting jobs are now open following Brown's departure for the NFL and DeVito exhausting his collegiate eligibility in 2022. 

Top returning backs Reggie Love and Josh McCray recorded a combined 372 rushing yards in 2022. The Fighting Illini could opt for a complementary approach between these two, or, if spring practices don't yield quite the results they're looking for, the team could turn to the transfer portal for reinforcements. Illinois already hit the portal at quarterback this offseason, bringing in Luke Altmyer from Mississippi and John Paddock from Ball State. Altmyer is the likely leader to start for Illinois in 2023 after he battled with a more experienced starter in Jaxson Dart for the Rebels' starting job last season. Altmyer will once again compete with an experienced signal-caller, as Paddock started 12 games to largely mediocre results for the Cardinals last season (59.6 completion percentage, 2,719 passing yards, 18:14 TD:INT ratio).

Indiana Hoosiers Spring Storyline

Where do the Hoosiers hang their hat on offense?

The Hoosiers offense was haphazard in every phase last season, ranking 13th in the Big Ten in both rushing yards per game (110.8) and completion percentage (54.0). This unit also finished 12th in yards per carry (3.4) and dead last in passing yards per attempt (5.4). Indiana has now undergone an overhaul of outgoing and incoming offensive transfers for the second offseason in a row. As a result, it's unclear what kind of identity second-year offensive coordinator Walt Bell and newly-named co-offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker want to establish. 

Week 1 starting quarterback Connor Bazelak was eventually benched last season for backup Jack Tuttle before the latter suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during his first start Week 10. The Hoosiers then pivoted to dual-threat quarterback Dexter Williams, who suffered a dislocated knee in the regular-season finale that required surgery in early December. With Bazelak and Tuttle departing via the transfer portal, it seems that Tennessee transfer Tayven Jackson could be in the driver's seat for the starting quarterback job in 2023. The 2022 four-star recruit out of Indiana will have only a couple of returning starters at running back and wideout to work with this spring. Last season's top wideout Cam Camper is still working his way back from a torn ACL, so Jackson will have a chance to build rapport with younger reserves as well as fellow transfers in running back Christian Turner (Wake Forest) and wideout E.J. Williams (Clemson). 

Iowa Hawkeyes Spring Storyline

Who takes over as Iowa's top tight end?

The Hawkeyes' downright depressing results on offense last offseason were well-documented. However, with so many jeers directed toward quarterback Spencer Petras and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, a lot of people overlooked tight end Sam LaPorta. LaPorta finished with the most receptions (58) and receiving yards (647) of any tight end in the Big Ten in 2022. He was also the most recent in a long line of Iowa tight ends that have managed to stand out in the team's often archaic offense. LaPorta is now off to the NFL where he should make one lucky franchise very pleased with his extremely reliable play. 

Who steps in as the Hawkeyes' No. 1 tight end – and likely top receiver – is yet to be seen. Last year's second-string tight end Luke Lachey logged 28 receptions for 398 yards as a sophomore in 2022 – both of which ranked sixth amongst the conference's tight ends. Michigan transfer Erick All will provide immediate competition this spring. The fifth-year tight end recorded a career-high 38 receptions (on 54 targets) for 437 yards in 2021, but he sustained a season-ending injury three games into the 2022 campaign. He also heads to Iowa City along with his former starting quarterback, Cade McNamara. In 2021, McNamara was a steady game manager in a Michigan offense that unseated Ohio State as Big Ten champions for the first time in years, and his presence should help provide a level of stability for the Hawkeyes. Whoever wins out in this competition for Iowa's top tight end job will be one of the most direct beneficiaries of this improved consistency in the passing game. 

Maryland Terrapins Spring Storyline

Supporting Tagovailoa

Taulia Tagovailoa is back for his fourth season as Maryland's starting quarterback after passing for over 3,000 yards in each of the past two campaigns. But, he's losing three of his top five pass catchers -- Rakim Jarrett and Jacob Copeland, who were arguably Maryland's two best wideouts last season -- as both declared for the 2023 NFL Draft, and No. 2 tight end CJ Dippre transferred to Alabama. Similar to departing Purdue signal-caller Aidan O'Connell, Tagovailoa has shown an ability to keep the Terrapins in games against the Big Ten's top opponents. However, he still needs a reasonably strong cast of supporting actors. This was evident last season when he often struggled to overcome a lack of reliable pass blocking that caused him to deal with lingering injuries down the stretch. 

Graduate senior Jeshaun Jones is back after leading Maryland in receptions (44) and receiving yards (557) in 2022. He'll be accompanied by transfer wideouts Tyrese Chambers, who caught 45 passes for 1,074 yards with Florida International in 2021, and Kaden Prather, who recorded 52 receptions for 501 yards as a true sophomore with West Virginia last season. Returning running back Roman Hemby should also provide a solid check-down option after catching 33 passes for 298 yards on top of 188 carries for 989 yards and 10 rushing scores. 

Michigan Wolverines Spring Storyline

Blake Corum's recovery

After flirting with a return to the NFL ranks for the second year in a row, Jim Harbaugh is officially back to coach Michigan in 2023. Despite any unique awkwardness this dynamic creates, there's no question what the Wolverines' offense will look like so long as Harbaugh is calling the shots. The team's dominant rushing game reached new heights with junior running back Blake Corum in 2022. Corum finished ranked 11th nationally in rushing yards (1,463) despite suffering what was essentially a season-ending torn meniscus and sprained MCL in the second-to-last game of the regular season. 

Michigan's offense didn't see a significant decline following the loss of Corum, as No. 2 running back Donovan Edwards rushed for 520 yards and three touchdowns on 70 carries over the team's final three contests. Still, Corum's decision to return for his senior season in 2023 was perhaps the best piece of offseason news imaginable for Michigan. Corum will sit out this spring while recovering from surgery, and how well he progresses through this rehab process will be significant when projecting how the Wolverines split touches between him and Edwards this coming season. Third-string running back CJ Stokes could also be in line for more opportunities if Corum still isn't ready for a full workload by the start of the 2023 campaign. 

Michigan State Spartans Spring Storyline

Fixing the running game

Michigan State's rushing attack saw a stark dropoff in 2022 following the departure of star running back Kenneth Walker. Subpar offensive line play combined with underwhelming results from transfer portal backs Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard led to a running game that lacked both explosion and consistency, ranking 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (113.0) last season. This also weighed down the entire offense, which went from 429.3 total yards and 31.8 points per game in 2021 to 353.0 total yards and 24.4 points per game in 2022. 

The offensive line is set to look largely the same – which could be considered a good or bad signal depending on how you look at it. Berger, who led the Spartans in rushing yards (683) and carries (148), is the only returning member from last season's top running back group. Therefore, new transfer portal additions Nathan Carter (Connecticut) and Jaren Mangham (Colorado, USF) will look to provide energy to this unit. How the rushing attack fares in 2023 should significantly impact the effectiveness of Michigan State's offense as a whole. 

Two Michigan State players who could greatly benefit from an improved running game are quarterback Payton Thorne and wide receiver Keon Coleman. The 6-foot-4 wideout emerged as one of the Big Ten's best playmakers during his breakout 2022 campaign (58 receptions for 798 yards and seven touchdowns). With three-year starter Jayden Reed off to the NFL, Coleman could be ready to take over as the biggest star in Michigan State's entire offense this season.

Minnesota Golden Gophers Spring Storyline

The growth of Athan Kaliakmanis 

Minnesota's offense is undergoing a significant transition this offseason. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim is off to the NFL after totaling a program-record 4,668 career rushing yards to go along with a single-season program-record 20 rushing touchdowns in 2022. The Gophers are also losing three starting interior offensive linemen and last year's No. 2 running back Trey Potts, who entered the portal this offseason. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca was hired away by Rutgers after designing one of the nation's most physical, run-heavy units in 2022. These significant departures leave new co-offensive coordinators Matt Simon and Greg Harbaugh Jr. with a lot to figure out this spring. 

One potential source for optimism is quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis. The redshirt freshman saw significant playing time while longtime starter Tanner Morgan shuffled on and off due to injuries over the final seven games of the season. Kaliakmanis had an extremely limited role most of the time he was on the field, completing just 54.1 percent of his 111 passes for 946 yards. However, he showed some true flashes of upside when he completed 19 of 29 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale versus Wisconsin. Kaliakmanis added another element to the Gophers' offense with his legs when on the field too. With Morgan's eligibility fully exhausted, Kaliakmanis is next in line to take over under center moving forward. 

Bryce Williams and incoming Western Michigan transfer Sean Tyler are the top candidates to fill the 320-carry hole left by Ibrahim. If Simon and Harbaugh don't feel that these two will be enough to buoy the entire offense, it will be worth watching if Kaliakmanis' development this spring could swing the Gophers into a more quarterback-centric scheme moving forward.

Nebraska Huskers Spring Storyline

Can Jeff Sims grab the starting QB job this spring?

New head coach Matt Rhule needs to restructure just about every aspect of how Nebraska does business after years of mediocrity under Scott Frost. However, it's unclear how Rhule plans to approach the team's returning personnel. Last year's starting quarterback Casey Thompson completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 4,520 yards and 41 passing touchdowns over his past two seasons between Texas and Nebraska. This still didn't stop Rhule from bringing in some competition at the position with Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims. Sims is a true dual-threat with plenty of starting experience over the past three seasons, tallying 277 carries for 1,152 yards to go along with 4,462 passing yards across 24 games. 

Thompson's play last season should give him a leg up in this competition, but he's expected to be largely limited this spring while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, according to Michael Bruntz of 247Sports. As a result, Sims is likely to see the bulk of snaps under center during spring sessions. Rhule often favored quarterbacks who posed a threat on the ground during his previous head-coaching stops at Temple and Baylor. Thompson can make things happen with his legs when needed to go along with his significant downfield passing. Sims is a more dynamic rusher, but he's been an inconsistent passer in his career. How Rhule decides to build things along with new offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield will be a major sticking point in figuring out who's starting under center in 2023. 

One new skill player who could be extremely valuable no matter the offense is tight end/wide receiver hybrid Arik Gilbert. The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder is a former top-five recruit who has displayed freakish athleticism during his collegiate career. However, it has been since his true freshman season at LSU in 2020 that he made a major impact on the field. Finding a way to exploit Gilbert's unique abilities this spring could provide Nebraska with a next-level playmaker to build around. 

Ohio State Buckeyes Spring Storyline

Can Kyle McCord keep the offense rolling?

Aside from a few hiccups along the way, Ohio State's offense was once again virtually unstoppable in 2022, scoring at least 43 points in all but three of 13 total games. A fair amount of the credit for this can go to quarterback C.J. Stroud, who is projected to be a top-three NFL draft pick after completing at least 66 percent of his passes for over 40 touchdowns for the second year in a row. Kyle McCord appears next in line to pilot this offense after attempting 58 total passes over the first two seasons of his collegiate career. 

Other than Stroud, the rest of the Buckeyes' star-studded offense will look almost exactly the same. Top running backs Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson both return after missing time due to injury at different points in the 2022 season. Superstar wideout Marvin Harrison also leads an incredible returning corps of pass catchers along with Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming. However, a number of these playmakers will be sidelined this spring while recovering from injuries. This could create an interesting opportunity to see how well McCord performs without some of the Buckeyes' best playmakers during his first opportunity at the helm of head coach Ryan Day's potent offense. 

Penn State Nittany Lions Spring Storyline

The development of Drew Allar

Allar is set to become the new face of the Penn State program following the graduation of four-year starter Sean Clifford. The true sophomore projects to have a much higher ceiling than Clifford, who logged a career-best 64.4 completions percentage for 2,822 yards and a 24:7 TD:INT ratio in 2022. Allar stands 6-foot-5, 238 pounds and was a late riser in the 2022 recruiting class thanks to his arm strength and prototypical pro-style build. The composite five-star ultimately saw minimal usage between garbage time and a few emergency situations during his true freshman campaign. Therefore, it's likely he still needs time to grow into a legitimate difference-maker at the collegiate level. 

Penn State will have a solid returning core on the offensive line to go along with a pair of budding stars at running back in sophomore Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Highly productive Kent State transfer Dante Cephas should also help make up for the loss of the Nittany Lions' top two pass catchers from last season Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley. Keep an eye on Allar as a true breakout candidate heading into spring practices. 

Northwestern Wildcats Spring Storyline

Finding any consistent playmakers

The outlook for head coach Pat Fitzgerald's program is extremely bleak after finishing the 2022 campaign with the Big Ten's worst scoring offense (13.8). Northwestern had subpar quarterback play that was amplified by numerous significant injuries, so the Wildcats' offense only had a couple of skill players that managed to put up fairly consistent numbers in do-it-all running back Evan Hull and top wideout Malik Washington. This top offensive duo is now gone after Hull declared for the 2023 NFL Draft and Washington transferred to Virginia. With a long way to go to improve heading into next season, this spring will be about cobbling together new pieces to yield better production and consistency for Northwestern.

Last year's No. 2 running back Cam Porter (87 carries, 286 yards, two touchdowns) is back along with 5-foot-11 senior Donny Navarro, the latter of which finished as the team's third-leading receiver (31 receptions, 237 yards, two touchdowns) behind Washington and Hull. It's still possible that neither of these two raise their level of play heading into the 2023 campaign, which might spur Fitzgerald's staff to comb the transfer portal a little harder yet this spring. Arizona State transfer Cam Johnson, who totaled 12 receptions for 1,188 yards and 10 touchdowns over the first three seasons of his career at Vanderbilt. Considering the difficulties in attracting potential transfers who qualify academically at Northwestern, Johnson's path to contribute right away could be wide open heading into his final season of collegiate eligibility. 

Purdue Boilermakers Spring Storyline

The introduction of OC Graham Harrell and QB Hudson Card

Purdue has undergone a whirlwind of change in the past few months. Almost immediately after the Boilermakers' loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game, head coach and offensive mastermind Jeff Brohm was hired away by his alma mater Louisville. The brain behind its fast-paced, pass-heavy offense is now gone, but the changes under new head coach Ryan Walters don't figure to be too foreign for Purdue. Walters helped revive Illinois' football program as its defensive coordinator over the past two seasons. The 37-year-old head coach also chose to hire air-raid offensive coordinator Graham Harrell onto his new staff at Purdue. While this new offense won't fully resemble the unique passing approach of Brohm's teams, the addition of Harrell should ensure that moving the ball through the air is still at the core of Purdue's offense. 

Starting quarterback Aidan O'Connell is moving onto the NFL along with two highly productive pass catchers in wide receiver Charlie Jones and tight end Payne Durham. The team still has an experienced group of returning receivers set to vie for starting reps this spring. Therefore, Harrell should have some solid pieces to work with while building around his new quarterback. Texas transfer Hudson Card is the likely leader for this job. The 6-foot-2 passer saw significant playing time in four games when Longhorns starting quarterback Quinn Ewers was sidelined by injury. In these contests, Card completed 68.6 percent of his 102 passing attempts for six touchdowns to one interception. His final start included a 303-yard, three-touchdown passing performance versus West Virginia, which is where Harrell called plays last season. Returning backup Brady Allen is also in the mix for this starting job, so it's worth keeping an eye on which of these two will emerge as the centerpiece of a new offense in West Lafayette. 

Rutgers Scarlet Knights Spring Storyline

How does new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca build the offense?

Rutgers was yet another Big Ten program that struggled mightily on offense last season. The Scarlet Knights flipped back and forth between redshirt freshman quarterbacks Evan Simon and Gavin Wimsatt in 2022 to little avail. The team also did not have a player tally more than 450 yards on the ground or through the air last season. This leaves a very blank and extremely raw canvas for newly-hired offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.

Ciarrocca has experience working with various personnel while holding positions at Minnesota, Penn State and West Virginia over the past six years. Creating a system that helps the development of either Wimsatt or Simon will be priority No. 1 for Ciarrocca. However, his most successful seasons came as the Golden Gophers' offensive coordinator in 2019 and 2022 with units built on power rushing attacks that helped open up downfield and intermediate passing lanes. 220-pound running back Samuel Brown provided a spark to the Scarlet Knights' offense as a true freshman in 2022 before he suffered a season-ending lower-body injury Week 8. If he's available for spring practices, Brown could be an intriguing player to watch compete with top returning rusher, Kyle Monangai.

Wisconsin Badgers Spring Storyline

How does Wisconsin's new-look offense gel together? 

Wisconsin chose to go out of its comfort zone by hiring new head coach Luke Fickell away from Cincinnati. As part of this regime change, the Badgers allowed Fickell to bring in offensive coordinator Phil Longo from North Carolina. The Tar Heels ranked third in passing yards and fourth in passing touchdowns over the past four seasons under Longo's air-raid offensive scheme. He'll now have a major task in transitioning the Badgers from decades of quintessential ground-and-pound, Big-Ten-West football into a more modern passing offense. 

While Longo would be wise to continue feeding the ball to bell-cow running back Braelon Allen, he'll work with a unit that brings in nine players via the transfer portal, including four wide receivers and three quarterbacks. This influx of offensive talent is headlined by fifth-year quarterback Tanner Mordecai. Mordecai heads to Wisconsin after passing for 7,152 yards and 72 touchdowns over the past two seasons at SMU. With previous starter Graham Mertz off to Florida, there's no question that Mordecai comes in as the immediate presumed starter in Madison. Who steps up as his top receivers are still yet to be seen. 

Chimere Dike is back for his senior season after leading the Badgers' receiving corps last season (47 receptions, 689 yards, six touchdowns). He'll have some direct competition from another experienced pass catcher in Oklahoma State transfer Bryson Green. USC transfer CJ Williams was also a high four-star recruit who caught just four passes for 34 yards during his true freshman campaign in 2022, but he has the highest ceiling of any Badger wideout in a long time. It's also worth keeping tabs on the development of versatile wideout Skyler Bell, as he caught 30 passes for 444 yards and five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman with the Badgers last season. 

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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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