Big Ten Spring Practice Primer: Which New Faces Will Swing the League?

Ohio State has a new coach, Michigan has a new OC, Penn State has a new quarterback—and the challengers to that group of national contenders should take a step forward, too.
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The Big Ten was shut out of the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year, largely due to Michigan’s meltdown at the Horseshoe and Ohio State’s disastrous blowout loss at Purdue, but the strength of the conference is not in question. From perennial playoff contenders like Ohio State and Michigan to up-and-comers like Nebraska, Minnesota and Purdue to steady challengers like Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern, the Big Ten has a claim to be the deepest league in the country, even if Illinois and Rutgers drag that reputation down.

Here’s what to keep an eye on as the Midwest thaws out and spring football begins. In case you missed it, we’ve also covered the ACCBig 12, Pac-12 and SEC this week.

State of the Spring Favorite: Ohio State has won the past two Big Ten titles and is still the class of the conference, but the Buckeyes have several questions to answer. Will Ryan Day be able to seamlessly replace Urban Meyer? He rose to the occasion last year as the acting head coach in wins over Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU, but he won’t be playing teams from the bottom half of the Power 5 every week. Can Justin Fields replace Dwayne Haskins? There’s no shortage of hype surrounding the quarterback who transferred from Georgia one year after he was hailed as the best dual-threat in the country, but there is a shortage of proof he can carry a college offense. Can co-coordinators Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison fix the defense? Edge rusher Chase Young and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah are back, but this unit wasn’t very good for most of 2018, and defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones leaves a big hole as he heads for the NFL. Because this is Ohio State, Day should have pretty good answers to all these questions. Still, this is the most uncertainty the Buckeyes have faced in several years.

Most interesting QB competition: Alex Hornibrook vs. Jack Coan (vs. Graham Mertz?) at Wisconsin. From Ann Arbor (Shea Patterson) to Columbus (Fields) to Evanston (Hunter Johnson) to Iowa City (Nate Stanley) to State College (Tommy Stevens), most Big Ten quarterback situations are pretty stable. But the situation in Madison could get interesting. Hornibrook missed four games with concussions and wasn’t particularly good when he played. Coan’s first two starts were disastrous, but he looked competent in wins over Purdue and Miami (with plenty of help from star running back Jonathan Taylor). Hornibrook and Coan aren’t the most exhilarating options, but the best quarterback recruit in Badgers history, Blue Valley North (Kan.) four-star Graham Mertz, waits in the wings.

Update: Hornibrook has reportedly entered the transfer portal.

Burning non-QB depth chart question: Who will replace everyone on Michigan’s defense? Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary and Devin Bush are all gone. Bush and Winovich were second- and third-team AP All-America selections, respectively, while Gary is a projected top-five pick in Kalyn Kahler’s latest mock draft. The Wolverines return standouts Josh Uche and Khaleke Hudson in the front seven and Josh Metellus and Lavert Hill in the secondary, and revered DC Don Brown is not one to make excuses. But this unit fell apart in its final two games last year and just lost arguably its three best players. Michigan’s first test comes against Hornibrook (or Coan) and Taylor in Madison on Sept. 21, but will we really feel safe making sweeping conclusions before Ohio State comes to town on Nov. 30?

Coach to watch: Mike Locksley, Maryland. The Big Ten’s only new head coach other than Day, Locksley faces high expectations and an uphill battle after the messy exit of Maryland’s previous staff. He’s off to a fast start: After leading Alabama’s offense to its highest-scoring season in school history, Locksley made waves on the recruiting trail by flipping four-star receiver Isaiah Hazel from West Virginia and prying four-star defensive back Nick Cross and four-star quarterback Lance LeGendre from Florida State. Locksley is also bringing in graduate transfer quarterback Josh Jackson from Virginia Tech. For a program that hopes to compete in a Big Ten East where the top three teams have playoff expectations, Maryland will need Locksley to build off of that talent infusion.

Spring viewing guide (all times ET)

Saturday, April 6: Purdue (Noon)
Friday, April 12: Indiana (7 p.m.)
Saturday, April 13: Ohio State (Noon), Illinois (2 p.m.), Nebraska (2 p.m., BTN), Michigan State (2 p.m.), Penn State (3 p.m.,, Rutgers (3:30 p.m., BTN), Michigan (5 p.m.), Minnesota (TBA)

Wisconsin, Maryland and Iowa have not announced dates and times for a spring game yet. Northwestern does not play a spring game.

This is the marquee event of the Big Ten’s spring schedule, with quarterback Tommy Stevens expected to step in as the starter now that Trace McSorley’s eligibility has run out. Highly-touted backup Sean Clifford should also get some extended exposure that could make things interesting if Stevens struggles in his first high-profile work this fall.

A trendy up-and-comer pick in year two under Scott Frost, Nebraska ranks 93rd in Bill Connelly’s returning production metric, so patience is advised. There will be plenty of optimism to monitor this spring, though. Scott Frost has brought in plenty of talent in just two years, with recruiting classes that have finished in the top half of the conference. If those new faces settle in early around promising quarterback Adrian Martinez, Nebraska could challenge for a division title in the weaker Big Ten West.