Biggest offseason questions for the Big Ten West

If Tanner Lee can manage games and not make big mistakes, Nebraska could be on its way to an excellent season. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

With spring ball over, coaches have a better sense of where their teams are and what needs to be improved in the fall.

The season will be here before we know it, and there are still big questions that remain unanswered for Big Ten West teams.

Here is a look at some of the biggest questions for each team in the division.

Illinois: All of the questions

There is really more than one big question for Illinois, so it’s too hard to pinpoint just one. There are questions on offense and defense for coach Lovie Smith and his staff, which could mean another poor season is in store.

On offense, the staff is losing two of its top receivers, starting quarterback Wes Lunt, three starting offensive linemen and tight ends Tyler White and Ainslie Johnson. This is an offense that ranked 123rd in total yards per game, ahead of only five other FBS teams last season.

On defense, defensive ends Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips are gone, as well as defensive tackles Jarrod Clements and Robbie Bain. The coaches are also replacing linebacker Hardy Nickerson and defensive backs Taylor Barton and Darius Mosely.

The defensive unit ranked 61st in yards allowed per game in 2016 and is losing its leading tackler in Nickerson and three leaders in sacks from last season.

How this staff can replace those names and that production will be a question that will remain until the season starts. The numbers don’t show a lot of promise for Smith and his staff.

Iowa: Can changes on the coaching staff help the offense?

Brian Ferentz is the new offensive coordinator for the Hawkeyes, and fans are hoping that move provides a spark on offense.

Iowa, in an 8-5 season in 2016, ranked 117th in total offense, 121st in yards per game and 95th in points per game. Not to pile on, but the team is losing quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back LeShun Daniels and leading receiver Riley McCarron along with tight end George Kittle.

Beathard threw for 17 touchdowns last season, and McCarron and Kittle accounted for eight of them. That is a lot of production to replace on a team that is already struggling to produce offensively.

Ferentz has a big task in front of him, and this season will pose a challenge to stay consistent throughout. Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska are all on the schedule and should field good defenses.

Expectations might not be high for the Hawkeyes’ offense, but frustration levels could be if this season ends in a disappointing manner.

Minnesota: Can P.J. Fleck work his magic in Season 1?

Despite coming off a nine-win season, this is a completely different Minnesota team. There are big holes on the roster and issues with depth, which Fleck has noted in the past.

Offensive and defensive line numbers were an issue; quarterback Mitch Leidner is gone and because of sexual assault allegations; the secondary is depleted. But a good challenge has never scared off Fleck and he almost seems to thrive in the underdog position.

Dealing with the roster issues and a team that was divided early in his tenure could mean a rocky season for the Gophers. That is, unless Fleck can work his magic and get the team working together early in the season. In his first season with Western Michigan, the Broncos only won one game, so this isn’t new territory for Fleck and his staff.

This is somewhat of a different situation than Western Michigan, though, and there are some pieces that could work this season. At quarterback, the Gophers have former four-star Seth Green, Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda.

While the job is up in the air, there is competition and depth to build with, which should help. If Fleck can find his quarterback, that will help to row this boat away from a one-win season and toward another nine-win season for the Gophers.

Nebraska: Can Tanner Lee lead the offense?

The Huskers took on Tulane quarterback transfer Tanner Lee, and it looks as though the offense will be his to run. Taking over for Tommy Armstrong and a team that finished with nine wins last season, the fans are hoping and expecting to continue to progress forward.

At Tulane, Lee threw for 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, 14 of which came during his freshman season. Those numbers aren’t exactly reassuring for Nebraska fans, but Lee has been on campus for a year taking in the offense and getting adjusted.

Also, Armstrong only ranked 75th in passing yards last season, 76th in touchdown passes and 77th in passing efficiency, and the Huskers still won nine games. Lee doesn’t need to light the world on fire, especially with a defense that should be improved.

If Lee can manage games and not make big mistakes, the Huskers could be on their way to an excellent season. But at this point, it remains a question of what the quarterback position will look like with Lee.

Northwestern: Can Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson push the offense forward by themselves?

Thorson started the season a bit rough, losing back-to-back games to Western Michigan and Illinois State while throwing for just one touchdown in the two games.

That can’t happen this season, and Thorson needs to take over from the start against Nevada and Duke if this is going to be the season Northwestern fans are hoping for. He will need help to do it, though.

The pieces are there as the Wildcats are really only losing two major starters on offense and will have a more experienced offensive line protecting Thorson. That experienced line should also help Jackson, who could join the four-time 1,000-yard rushing club with another good season.

Jackson’s rushing yards have continually increased each season, starting at 1,187 in 2014, 1,418 the following season and 1,524 last season. If he duplicates his rushing yards from last season, Jackson would be second all-time in Big Ten career rushing yards, behind Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and ahead of Ohio State’s Archie Griffin.

That would be a huge boost and a big help to keep Thorson in control of the offense throughout the season. Those two will be the main pieces to how this offense runs, but they will need other names to step up and produce big numbers to finish this season the way fans are hoping it does.

Purdue: Can Jeff Brohm get this offense going?

Brohm was brought in partially because of his acumen and wizardry on the offensive side, which has been a big part of Purdue’s struggles in recent years.

Brohm has quarterback David Blough returning, but he is losing his top three receivers from last season in DeAngelo Yancey, Bilal Marshall and Cameron Posey. That raises the question of how Brohm will tweak the offense to adapt to what he does have on the roster.

This offense will very likely look different than what he had at Western Kentucky for quite some time, so the question is whether Brohm has enough pieces to create something that can be effective.

No one is expecting huge results in Season 1, but if he can show big improvements with this roster, that could be a good sign for the next few years under his regime.

Wisconsin: What will the defense look like with a new coordinator and new faces?

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is now the head coach at Cal, and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard was promoted to fill that spot. Leonhard has never called a play as a coordinator and ascended to this job very quickly in his short coaching career.

The Badgers are projected to still have an excellent defense, but bringing in a young coach to take over the defense will naturally raise questions on how that will translate. Add in the fact that the Badgers’ staff is also replacing big names on defense, and it becomes one of the bigger questions.

The defense loses team sack leader T.J. Watt, safety Leo Musso, who lead the team in interceptions, corner Sojourn Shelton, who was second on the team in interceptions, and linebacker Vince Biegel.

Those are big shoes to fill in a short amount of time for a new coordinator. Wisconsin opens with Utah State and Florida Atlantic, so there will be somewhat of an adjustment period that Leonhard and his defense will have to get everyone acclimated.