For a coaching staff, there are some pretty primary goals for spring practice. You want to start the process of getting your players into shape or keeping them there. You want a better idea of what you have on the roster, seeing who has improved and checking out any new faces looking to push themselves up the depth chart. Finally, you want to get through it all without any serious injuries. You get all that accomplished, and you've had yourself a successful spring.
If you're a fan, it's different. A fan gets a glimpse of his team's spring game, sees a third-string walk-on receiver beat a fourth-string defensive back on a slant, break a tackle, and take off for the end zone and suddenly we've got a superstar new receiver who is going to be the x-factor next season!
Yep, with the season so far away, and so little access to our beloved teams between now and then, it's easy to overreact to what we see in the spring. So let's take the easy way out while looking around the Big Ten.
Illinois: We're about to be Tight End U
The Illinois offense will look different in 2021. That's only natural when you hire Bret Bielema, and he's replacing a coaching staff who had been running a spread-option offense with mobile quarterbacks. While it will take some time to transition the team from that kind of offense to the cheese-and-brat teams Bielema had at Wisconsin, there were early glimpses this spring, particularly at the tight end position.
The tight end has hardly existed in Champaign, Illinois, in recent years, but the team has talent at the spot, and it was on display this spring. Luke Ford is a local kid who was a highly-rated four-star recruit out of high school and originally signed with Georgia. After transferring back home, Ford was nonexistent in the offense last year. This spring, he's a featured member, making quite a few plays in the spring game, including a one-handed touchdown catch.
Ford and fellow tight end Daniel Barker might be the two biggest receiving threats on the offense.
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Indiana: Davion Ervin-Poindexter is going to light the Big Ten up
You probably haven't heard of Davion Ervin-Poindexter, but don't worry, most Indiana fans hadn't before the spring. Hell, not even Indiana coach Tom Allen always knew who he was.
"I remember a year ago when we were in in fall camp there were a couple times when he ran the ball and he would be wearing a scout team jersey and we always put our scout team in the jersey numbers of the players that they're simulating for that week, and so sometimes you'd forget who he was because he was wearing a different number and I was like who's that guy?" Allen said this spring.
Well, the coach will remember who he is now because Ervin-Poindexter played so well this spring that he won two of the team's LEO Awards, being named the most outstanding player on both special teams and offense this spring.
Ervin-Poindexter is a walk-on who was already contributing on special teams, but it sounds like he's earning his way to a more prominent role on the offense this fall. For an Indiana team hoping to live up to higher expectations, with some playmakers to replace on offense, Ervin-Poindexter might be the right guy in the right place at the right time.
Iowa: This is the greatest secondary in Hawkeye history
Iowa already had all five starters in its secondary returning this year, and while there wasn't a lot of access to Iowa's spring practices, most reports suggest the secondary looks like a strength. Kirk Ferentz raved about the performance of Riley Moss, and Kaevon Merriweather seems to be putting all his tools together and living up to his potential.
Those two, along with Jack Koerner, Matt Hankings, and Dan Belton, provide experience and depth, and there's more behind them, as players like Jermari Harris and Sebastian Castro impressed the coaching staff too.
Maryland: Oh no, we're going to lose all our QBs again, aren't we?
Listen, you cannot blame Terps fans for being concerned about their QB depth chart. This team has had to convert a linebacker to QB in the not-so-distant past thanks to injuries. This is a program that had to dig deep on the depth chart far more often than anybody wants to. Hell, if you're reading this, there's a 5% chance Maryland has needed you to take some snaps in practice.
So when the Terps entered their spring game with only two healthy quarterbacks on the roster well, old fears started to surface.
The good news is one of those starters was Taulia Tagovailoa, who started four of Maryland's five games last season and is in line to start again in 2021. The other was walk-on David Foust. Fellow walk-on Eric Najarian needs shoulder surgery, so it's just Tagovailoa and Foust heading into the summer. The Terps are expected to add another couple of walk-on options this summer, and Reece Udinski is transferring in from VMI this summer. Of course, Udinski suffered a knee injury during VMI's spring season.
So, yeah, the QB PTSD is real in College Park, Maryland.
Michigan: Daxton Hill is about to be That Dude
There wasn't a lot to be excited about with Michigan football in 2020, particularly on the defensive side of the ball where everybody struggled. Still, if you were looking for peaks of sunshine cracking through gray Michigan skies, former five-star recruit Daxton Hill showed those flashes.
And now, after being a dominating force during spring practice on new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald's defense this spring, folks in Ann Arbor, Michigan, believe he's ready to make the leap.
The safety finished last season with 46 tackles, which was second on the team, but he didn't make many game-changing plays. He broke up four passes and had an interception. The belief is that Hill is on the verge of becoming the kind of player that doesn't just cover well and make tackles, but that helps Michigan win games by taking the ball away. The talent is undoubtedly there, and if the overall production catches up, we're talking about a potential first-round pick.
Michigan State: The Spartans are the new UCF
Considering how late in the process Mel Tucker's hire at Michigan State was last year, and then a global pandemic hit shortly afterward, it's hard to know how much to take away from the Spartans' 2020 season. We know that Michigan State has never been looked at as an offensive juggernaut, and it certainly wasn't last year. What we did see signs of was a Spartans offense hoping to pick up the pace a bit.
While Michigan State ran only 68.7 plays per game last season on offense (78th nationally), when you consider the time of possession for its offense last year, they moved pretty quickly. My adjusted pace stat at Michigan State ranked 25th nationally as far as pace, and it's clear this spring that was intentional, and the Spartans hope to speed things up even more.
No matter who was at QB or which unit was on the field, everybody on offense was concerned with keeping up the tempo and moving with a sense of urgency.
Minnesota: We finally have a pass-rush!
Like many Big Ten teams, things didn't go quite as planned for the Gophers in a COVID-ravaged season last year, but one area of concern was the team's pass-rush. Specifically, the lack of one. Minnesota had a sack rate of 4.0% last season, which finished 12th in the Big Ten (thanks, Northwestern and Purdue!) but rated 114th nationally. The inability to pressure and get to the other team's quarterback impacted the entire defense, which is one reason Minnesota's defense performed so poorly overall.
But this spring showed plenty of reasons to be optimistic about 2021! Boye Mafe was the team's only real pass-rushing threat last year, picking up 4.5 of the team's eight sacks, but it looks like he'll have more company in 2021. DeAngelo Carter showed flashes last season, and this spring, it was Jah Joyner turning heads. Joyner was one of Minnesota's biggest recruits in the 2020 class, but he sat out last season. He finished the spring strong with two sacks in the spring game and was impressive throughout the spring.
Nebraska: The Blackshirts are back!
Listen, was the Nebraska defense supposed to be the strength of the team entering Scott Frost's fourth season in Lincoln, Nebraska? Of course not, but whatever you want to take away from it, the fact of the matter is Nebraska's defense is further along than its offense at this point.
The unit dominated during practice and really showed out during the spring game. The first team allowed only one rushing yard on nine attempts and only let two of the eight passes attempted against it find a receiver. What's more encouraging is that the defense was without some of its starters -- and lost Will Honas during the spring game -- but players behind them on the depth chart stepped up and performed well.
Yes, it's taking the offense a lot longer to come along than anybody could've imagined, but a sturdy defense will help keep the Huskers in games in 2021 and make them far more competitive than they have been recently.
Northwestern: Will we ever name our starting QB?
If you thought Northwestern would have any real depth chart answers following the spring, you were fooling yourself. This is a team that lost a lot of key production from last year's division winners, and this spring was going to be about seeing where players stood more than determining where they'll finish.
That said, it wouldn't have hurt anybody's confidence to see somebody stick out at the quarterback spot, but that didn't seem to happen. The Wildcats went into the spring with six different QBs vying for the spot and still has six guys vying for the spot.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said he doesn't anticipate naming a starter until the fall, but whether or not that's just typical coach-speak, or he feels that way, only time will tell.
Ohio State: C.J. Stroud is better than Justin Fields
Last week Justin Fields became the savior of the Chicago Bears when the team moved up in the draft to take him. While everybody in Columbus, Ohio, is thrilled for a player who did extraordinary things in a Buckeyes uniform, the focus this spring has been on who will be replacing him.
And you'll have to forgive Ohio State fans for getting excited about the possibilities. C.J. Stroud is widely perceived as the favorite, and not much happened this spring to change that perception. Not because the other options -- Kyle McCord and Jack Miller -- didn't play well, but because Stroud did everything that was asked of him.
Stroud played well all spring and finished by going 16-for-22 for 185 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, including a lovely toss to Chris Olave. And while I'm qualifying the idea that Stroud is better than Fields as an overreaction -- Justin Fields was pretty danged good, you guys! -- it's not entirely out of the question.
Like in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the days of the game-manager QB are long gone in Columbus.
Penn State: This is the most exciting group of playmakers James Franklin's had
Penn State hasn't had an overall shortage of skill position players during James Franklin's tenure. In the last four years alone, we've seen players like Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders, K.J. Hamler and Pat Freiermuth go in the early rounds of the NFL Draft. Still, it feels like the Lions haven't had a collection of talent like that on the field at the same time.
Maybe this is the year?
The running back spot took several unexpected hits in 2020, but entering 2021, there's some exciting depth. Noah Cain is back, as is Keyvone Lee, and then there's Devyn Ford, Caziah Holmes and John Lovett. At the receiver spot, Jahan Dotson established himself as the name to know last season, but Parker Washington shined this spring as well. Cam Sullivan-Brown, Daniel George and Keandre Lambert-Smith all earned accolades as well. The new Mike Yurcich offense looks like it'll have a good number of options.
Purdue: Let's just hope we have a defense come the fall
Purdue would like to throw 2020 out the window and start from scratch in 2021, but it's going to be more challenging to do that considering all the injuries the team is already dealing with.
Purdue was installing its third different defense in three years under new co-defensive coordinator Brad Lambert, but it's a lot more difficult to do that when so many players are forced to miss time. That was the case for the Boilermakers this spring, as all eleven projected starters rarely saw the field together, if at all.
Rutgers: The spring is never going to end
Seriously, Rutgers' spring practice has not ended yet. The team's spring game is currently scheduled for May 20. If they wait any longer, they're going to have to call it the summer game.
Wisconsin: Devin Chandler is the big-play machine this offense needs
Wisconsin is Wisconsin, so we know it's going to have an excellent offensive line, a solid rushing attack, and burly tight ends able to exploit the seams over the middle on play-action. What it needs is a game-changing receiver to really open things up in the passing game, and that's where Devin Chandler comes in.
Chandler saw limited action last season, appearing in four games, and most of his work came on kick returns (he had six returns to only three touches on offense). His speed is what separates him from the rest of the Badgers skill players, and while he's going to be used on special teams, Wisconsin will find ways to get the ball in his hands on offense this fall.