Big Ten 2019 Fall Camp Preview: Five Key Storylines for August

Ryan Day takes over in Columbus and Wisconsin has a decision to make under center. What other stories will dominate the Big Ten this August?
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As the calendar flips to August, it can only mean one thing: college football is here. Fall camps are opening or getting ready to open all across the country, and the first game of the season—the big Florida vs. Miami showdown in Orlando—is less than four weeks away. But there's plenty of work to be done before the first snaps that count are taken. This week, we'll be previewing August practice for each major conference, plus the Group of Five. Up next, it's the Big Ten (previously: SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12).

Top August Story

For the first time since 2011, Urban Meyer will not be manning the sidelines during Ohio State’s upcoming season (even if he is still lurking in Columbus). His successor, Ryan Day, was the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2017 and ’18, and he also served as interim coach during Meyer’s three-game suspension last fall. Day has spent time in the NFL with the 49ers and in the ACC and AAC. Though he worked for a year as Meyer’s GA at Florida, it’s a stretch to say he’s from the retired coach’s tree, and it’ll be interesting to see how his approach differs from his predecessor’s, which elements of Meyer’s operation he keeps and what new wrinkles he implements.

Positional Battle to Watch

Former Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State this winter, and the Badgers are in need of a new signal-caller in 2019. That need is made even more acute by their speed bump of a season last fall, when they finished with their worst record since 2012, when Bret Bielema was fired. In 2018, Wisconsin’s defense regressed in a big way, and it’s not absurd to think it won’t immediately rebound to 2017 standards come fall—which means the winner of the quarterback battle in Madison is paramount. It’ll come down to Jack Coan, the junior who took over during Hornibrook’s injuries last year for four up-and-down starts, and Graham Mertz, a four-star, pro-style quarterback out of Blue Valley North in suburban Kansas City. It’s rare for a quarterback of Mertz’s caliber to commit to the Badgers out of high school, and if he doesn’t win the job in fall camp, he’ll likely be hovering should Coan struggle.

Positional Group Under Pressure

Michigan’s defense lost a ton of talent after last season, when it had the No. 2 unit in the FBS. Looming largest among those graduated and NFL-bound players is linebacker Devin Bush, and replacing him will be a tall task. Just consider what the Wolverines looked like without him last year: Bush injured his hip in the second half of a Nov. 24 game against Ohio State, which Michigan lost, 62–39, and when he missed the Peach Bowl, his team gave up 41 points in a loss to Florida. Josh Ross, Devin Gill and Jordan Anthony will compete to fill his spot in the middle of the field, and Michigan’s ability to lock in on a replacement, be it one player or a platoon, will be crucial to its success in this season’s make-or-break games.

New Coach Spotlight

Maryland hired Mike Locksley last winter to take over for interim coach Matt Canada, who was filling in for the fired DJ Durkin. It’s been a tumultuous year in College Park, and Locksley, who was on Nick Saban’s staff from 2016–18, will have plenty of work to do creating a new culture. Fortunately, he’s familiar with the school, having served as the Terrapins’ offensive coordinator under Randy Edsall from 2012–15. (He also spent 1997–2002 as Maryland’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.) But Locksley’s task goes beyond culture; he’s inheriting a team that hasn’t won 10 games since 2003, and he’ll need to work quickly to get his new quarterback, Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson, up to speed. Coordinator Jon Hoke will also have plenty of work to get his defense, which returns only three starters and struggled a season ago, up to snuff. Maryland fans have to hope that their new coach’s seasons with Saban rubbed off in a positive way; going into 2019, Locksley has a 3–31 record as a head coach at New Mexico and in an interim capacity at Maryland in 2015.

Week 1 Game to Circle

Northwestern, winner of the Big Ten West in 2018, opens at Stanford in what should be one of the more interesting Power 5 matchups of Week 1. The Wildcats will have a new quarterback, Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, under center, and Stanford will play its first game since star running back Bryce Love graduated. Northwestern hopes to continue its upward trajectory in 2019, and Johnson will be an upgrade at quarterback for a team that’s won despite a middling offense in recent years. The former five-star recruit is the most talented player to throw the football during Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, and with plenty of returning defensive depth, the Wildcats could start the year with a splash.