With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today on the Big Ten blog, we'll examine the biggest question marks for each team in the Big Ten West Division. We looked at each team's biggest strengths on Tuesday.
Illinois: The Illini are losing all four of their opening-game starters from a year ago on the defensive line: tackles Chunky Clements and Rob Bain, as well as ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. Phillips and Smoot, in particular, formed a tremendous duo off the edges for Illinois that will be tough to replace. Phillips became the first Illinois first-team all-Big Ten selection since 2011 after registering 20 tackles for loss with nine sacks. Smoot, a third-team all-conference pick, added 15 tackles for loss with five sacks. All told, the four defensive line players combined to start 36 games last season and record 179 tackles. But the cupboard isn't bare for Illinois, and the Illini actually return some solid experience at tackle. Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson each started five games last season and combined for 45 total tackles. At defensive end, Tito Odenigbo started one game a year ago and finished the season with 15 tackles. Sean Adesanya could be in line to be the other starter at defensive end. Early enrollee Owen Carney, a three-star defensive end from Florida, could also get a look.
Iowa: Any time a program has to replace a two-year starter with as much leadership ability and talent as quarterback C.J. Beathard, it's going to leave some question marks about his replacement. Beathard threw 40 career touchdown passes and was a part of that magical 2015 season, when the Hawkeyes finished the regular season unbeaten. The task of filling his shoes belongs to Nathan Stanley, who is listed as the starting quarterback entering spring practice. Stanley completed 5 of 9 passes for 62 yards as a freshman last season. Stanley skyrocketed up Iowa's depth chart last fall to become Beathard's unexpected backup, surpassing teammates Tyler Wiegers and Drew Cook. There is obviously a small sample size for Stanley, but he did look good when he temporarily replaced an injured Beathard against North Dakota State last September. Stanley completed a 37-yard pass and led Iowa into the red zone on one drive. With tailback Akrum Wadley returning, along with an experienced offensive line, Stanley will have pieces around him to help him succeed.
Minnesota: With the departure of longtime starter Mitch Leidner, the Gophers' starting quarterback competition should be wide open under first-year coach P.J. Fleck. At the very least, Minnesota will have some experience in the quarterback room because Fleck convinced backup Conor Rhoda not to transfer. Rhoda, a fifth-year senior, played in three games last season and made his first career start in place of an injured Leidner against Maryland. He completed 7 of 15 passes for 82 yards with one touchdown. But there are a host of other quarterbacks vying for time. Demry Croft is the only other player with FBS game experience at Minnesota. Croft appeared in three games last season and completed 7 of 17 passes. Junior college transfer Neil McLaurin is on campus for spring practices. Seth Green and Mark Williams each redshirted last season, while Rey Estes and Tanner Morgan will be true freshmen.
Nebraska: One of the most intriguing quarterback battles in the Big Ten will take place in Lincoln, as the Cornhuskers lose the only two quarterbacks who played last season. The Tommy Armstrong Jr. era is over, and what a prolific career it was. He finished first in program history in career passing yards, completions, touchdown passes, total touchdowns and total offense. Backup Ryker Fyfe filled in admirably when Armstrong endured injuries. But this spring will bring a quarterback competition involving Tanner Lee, Patrick O'Brien and Tristan Gebbia. Lee appears to have the advantage as spring practice begins. He played two seasons at Tulane before transferring to Nebraska. O'Brien will be a redshirt freshman this season and was a highly regarded high school prospect out of California who was a finalist at the prestigious Elite 11 summer camp in 2015. Gebbia is an early enrollee this spring who finished as the second-leading passer in California high school history with 13,109 yards and 141 career touchdowns. That's a lot of talent in one place at Nebraska. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and head coach Mike Riley must determine which player gives the Cornhuskers the best chance to win.
Northwestern: The Wildcats look to be in pretty good shape at most positions. They return their starting quarterback, running back, superback and four offensive linemen on offense, but must replace Big Ten receiver of the year Austin Carr. Defensively, the secondary should be a strength. One position to watch is defensive end. C.J. Robbins and Ifeadi Odenigbo are gone off last year's team. They combined for 17.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. Sophomore Joe Gaziano and senior Xavier Washington will likely fill those roles. Gaziano finished with 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season and made a highlight-reel sack of Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke that went for a safety. Washington tallied 7.5 tackles for loss with 4.5 sacks and has played in 36 career games.
Purdue: Quarterback David Blough has loads of talent, and there is plenty of excitement about how new head coach Jeff Brohm can elevate Blough's game. But who is going to catch Blough's passes? Purdue loses its top three receivers off last year's team: DeAngelo Yancey, Bilal Marshall and Cameron Posey. Domonique Young is also gone. Those four players combined to catch 157 passes for 2,122 yards and 17 touchdowns. That leaves tight end Cole Herdman and running back Markell Jones as the leading returning receivers. Herdman caught 35 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns, while Jones added 32 catches for 215 yards and no scores. Among the team's returning wide receivers, Gregory Phillips is the most experienced. The senior caught 17 passes for 172 yards last season. Anthony Mahoungou and Terrance Landers are other options. Perhaps early enrollee D.J. Edwards can rise up the depth chart and become a big-play threat for the Boilermakers. There will be no shortage of opportunities for players to stand out.
Wisconsin: The Badgers' defense should once again be among the best in the Big Ten next season. But the loss of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel at outside linebacker certainly hurts. Watt developed into an All-American, and Biegel was a second-team all-conference selection. Together, they amassed 107 tackles last season with 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Potential replacements include Zack Baun and Garret Dooley. Dooley was solid in place of an injured Biegel last season and finished with seven tackles in three separate games. Coaches are hoping junior-college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel emerges as another viable threat off the edges. Van Ginkel was the Missouri Valley Football Conference freshman of the year at South Dakota in 2015, when he recorded 18 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Another potential option at outside linebacker could be Jack Cichy. Cichy is part of a loaded inside linebacker group, but he has played outside before at Wisconsin. He's too good not to consistently be on the field.