Biggest reason for hope for every Big Ten team

Every team in the country has at least one reason for optimism heading into 2016 — here are our picks for each Big Ten program.

| 4 months ago
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Biggest reason for hope for every Big Ten team


The offseason is the time for optimism, and as cliche reminds us, every team starts the season at 0-0. This week we’re taking a look at one reason for hope for every Power-5 program — and today brings us to the Big Ten:

Illinois: Dawuane Smoot is one of the best EDGE defenders in the country

Smoot was a solid performer against the run in 2015, but was nothing short of elite on pass rushes. He ranked No. 1 among returning EDGE players in the country (with at least 125 pass rush snaps in 2015) in pass rush productivity — our metric that gauges the number of total pressures (with weighting for sacks) relative to number of pass rushes. He has the power to rush both from outside and between the tackles, and has a knack for turning the corner and finishing at the quarterback despite lacking the top-end explosion of the more-heralded Myles Garrett from Texas A&M. Considering the Big Ten’s complete lack of elite, experienced talent at offensive tackle this year, expect Smoot to be even better in 2015.

Iowa: The defending West division champs return the most experienced roster in the division

Colleague Kev Connaghan wrote earlier this week why Iowa could pull off another undefeated season. The Hawkeyes return 12 players with at least 700 snaps played in 2015, eight on the defensive side of the ball. Compared to the rest of the West division of the Big Ten, Illinois is second with eight, while Iowa’s two biggest threats to the defense of its 2015 division title, Nebraska and Wisconsin, return six and four respectively with similar snap numbers from last year.

Highlighting Iowa’s list of veterans back for the 2016 season is QB C.J. Beathard. He is the highest-graded returning starting QB in the Big Ten, 23rd overall in FBS. When given more than 2.6 seconds to throw in 2015 he ranked fifth among returning QBs with an NFL passer rating of 103.1, and three starters from last year’s line return with Beathard.

Beathard 2

Not included in the list of high-snap returnees is TE George Kittle, who despite only 383 snaps posted the second-highest grade of returning TEs in FBS. While he was used primarily (and effectively) as a run blocker, he turned 25 targets into 20 catches (just one drop) and six touchdowns, and his 3.09 yards per route run ranked No. 1 in the country for all TEs in FBS last year.

Indiana: The Hoosiers boast the best offensive guard duo among Power-5 teams

While the Hoosiers’ offense will see new faces at quarterback, running back and left tackle this season, the Indiana faithful has to be excited about dynamic duo of Dan Feeney and Jacob Bailey returning at the guard positions. Last year both had overall grades ranking in the top 27 of returning guards, despite Bailey not starting a game until week seven.

Feeney boasts the highest pass-blocking grade of FBS guards back for 2016, and has yielded just one sack and 13 other pressures in 900 pass blocking snaps the past two season. His one hit and five hurries allowed in 2015 placed him number one in the country in Pass Blocking Efficiency for all guards.

Bailey played well in his first game as a full-time starter against Rutgers, but it was his Week 11 performance against Michigan that solidified his place on the Indiana offensive line, as his career high grades in both run and pass blocking won him Indiana’s offensive player of the week honors. In 243 career pass block snaps he has given up no sacks and just one hit.

Maryland: Despite NFL attrition, the defense can still stop the run

Three Maryland defenders were selected in April’s draft — the most in one year for the school since 2009 — and a fourth was signed as a free agent. Although the losses are significant, the Terrapins return the second-highest-graded run defense in the West division from 2015, behind only conference and national title contender Michigan.

Linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. is the third-highest graded returning inside linebacker in FBS from 2015, and could challenge for the top spot this season if he improves upon his 18 missed tackles from last year. Defensive ends Azubuike Ukandu and Kingsley Opara also graded out very well against the run in limited snaps, combining for 28 stops (tackles for gains of three yards or less) and just two missed tackles in 382 run snaps.

Michigan: The Wolverines could be fielding a historically great defense in 2016

The 2016 Jim Harbaugh-led Wolverines could field the school’s best defense since… the 1985 Harbaugh-led Wolverines. 21 years ago he quarterbacked the squad to a 10-1-1 record as Michigan finished No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll, but it was the dominating defense that was the real catalyst, as it yielded just 8.2 points per game.

Through six games year the defense had given up just 21 points (Utah scored a defensive touchdown in the opener), including three-straight shutouts over BYU, Maryland and Northwestern. While the defense struggled in November, particularly after defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow’s pectoral injury against Rutgers in week 10 ended his season prematurely, but the only truly significant loss heading into this year is Ravens’ fourth-round draft pick DT Willie Henry, and he is being replaced by Rashan Gary, the top 2016 recruit in the country.

Returning on the defensive line is three of the top 16-graded interior players (Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst and Glascow), and DE Taco Charlton, who in 2015 had the highest pass rush productivity of all defensive ends coming back this year.

The line isn’t the only loaded unit in Ann Arbor this year, as CB Jourdan Lewis was our top-graded CB all of last season, safety/linebacker/slot corner/returner/offensive weapon Jabrill Peppers is a darkhorse Heisman candidate.

This year’s defense should easily best last year’s 16.4 points allowed per game, and willing be in the running for college football’s best defense in 2016.

Michigan State: Malik McDowell could be this year’s DeForest Buckner

Possessing the same body type as this year’s first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, Malik McDowell had a breakout year for the Spartans in 2015. He was every bit the pass-rushing terror DeForest Buckner was in 2014 for Oregon, finishing 2015 fourth in pass rush productivity (among returning FBS players). He will need to continue on the same track as Buckner this year if Michigan State is to have any hope of defending it’s 2015 Big Ten championship, as McDowell’s 337 pass rush snaps last season is more than the rest of the returning line combined (284).

Minnesota: Cornerback Jalen Myrick may be a better player than 2015’s NFL departees

It’s natural to expect a significant drop-off in play at a position the year two starters depart for the NFL (Eric Murray was drafted in the fourth round by the Chiefs and Briean Boddy-Calhoun was an undrafted free agent of Jacksonville), but the reality is that when healthy, Jalen Myrick was the most productive CB on last year’s roster.

Myrick ranked ninth nationally in our cornerback grades through week nine, until a rib and lung injury knocked him out of the Ohio State game in week ten and prematurely ended his regular season. Opposing QBs had a NFL rating of 34.8 on targets thrown his way, ranking him third among all returning CBs with at least 250 coverage snaps in 2015. His deep speed and ability to play the ball in the air made him an effective defender downfield, and as long as he maintains his health this year he should be one of the Big Ten’s best at his position.

Nebraska: The aerial attack is intact

The Cornhuskers are the only FBS team to return three wide receivers with double-digit overall positive grades from 2015. In fact, the only other school with at least two back in the fold is Memphis, which of course will be without the recent first-round pick of the Denver Broncos, QB Paxton Lynch.

Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore caught 27 of 33 catchable deep balls (throws more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage) for 877 yards and seven touchdowns, while it was actually Stanley Morgan Jr. who had the best catch rate of the unit with only one drop on 26 catchable targets.

While returning QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. needs to improve his productivity when under pressure (10 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and an NFL QB rating of 51.8 when faced with pressure in the pocket), having the entire corps unbroken will certainly suggests he should be able to elevate his passing game.

Northwestern: Ifeadi Odenigbo is emerging as a stud pass rush specialist

Ifeadi Odenigbo only had 178 run defense snaps last year and did not grade out well in large part because he had seven missed tackles to only 12 stops. His pass rush production, however, painted a much different story about his skill set.

On 276 pass rush reps in 2015 he posted six sacks, five hits and 29 hurries. That was good enough to rank 12th among returning FBS 4-3 defensive ends in pass rush productivity, which helps measure production on a per snap basis. He graded out similarly in 2014 (three sacks, 38 other pressures), and as he continues to add bulk to his frame (he was listed at 235 pounds last season) we expect his all-around game to show more improvement this year.

Ohio State: Pat Elflein may be the best interior lineman in college football

As I highlighted last week, stud right guard Pat Elflein will be moving inside to center this fall, and it could be the singular move needed to steady the Buckeye offense as the new pieces adjust. His 42 consecutive starts under Urban Meyer means he’s the most ready to take on the extra burden of pre-snap line calls and blitz adjustments.

His production in the run game has been outstanding each of the last two seasons, and last year he improved his pass blocking, as he yielded just one sack and nine other pressures compared to four sacks and 11 pressures in 2014. The move to center should help him further advance his pass blocking, as he’ll likely take on more of a support role with his guards than be called on to consistently perform against one-on-one assignments.

Elflein’s power and smarts at the point of attack should have Buckeye faithful worrying about NFL attrition on offense breathing a little easier, and NFL scouts drooling.

Penn State: Linebacker duo can pick up the pass rush slack from NFL losses on defensive line

With DT Austing Johnson (second-round pick of the Titans), DE Carl Nassib (third-round pick of the Browns) and DE Anthony Zettel (sixth-round picks of the Lions) all headed to the NFL, the Nittany Lions are losing an obviously massive amount of production. In particular, the trio combined last year for 25 sacks, 14 hurries and 77 other pressures. While some of the pass rush burden will fall on junior DE Garrett Sickels, who posted four sacks and 24 other pressures last season, Penn State also has two returning linebackers who enjoyed significant success last year on a limited number of pass rush reps.

While they rushed as a collective unit just 138 times in 2015, Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell did so with outstanding success, as they managed to combine for seven sacks, nine hits and 26 other pressures. They certainly had the element of scheme and surprise on their side, but both individually pressured the QB on better than one out of every four rushes. The only 3-4 OLB to approach the rate of success Cabinda and Bell enjoyed collectively last year was former Badger (now current teammate of Nassib in Cleveland) Joe Schobert, who had 52 total pressures in 182 pass rush snaps.

Penn State is sure to miss its three outstanding defensive linemen from last year, but through proper scheme adjustments, the defense still has the personnel to get after the QB this year.

Purdue: From a pure production standpoint in 2015 there is no better returning Big Ten defender than Jake Replogle

With 41 defensive stops and 48 total pressures to his name last season, defensive end Jake Replogle graded better than Michigan State’s McDowell, better than Michigan’s trio of interior terrors, better than any other defensive interior player in FBS.

While he doesn’t have the top-end athleticism or body type of McDowell, he is a dominant player at the point of attack capable of consistently shedding blockers, and consistently makes plays all over the field with his smarts and his effort.

Rutgers: Janarion Grant is the best return-man in the country not named Christian McCaffrey

One of the many reasons we believe Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey should be this year’s favorite to win the Heisman trophy is that he was our highest-graded returner in 2015 coming back this year. What may be surprising (well, surprising to anyone who didn’t watch Rutgers football last year) is that the second-highest-graded returner heading into the 2016 season is Janarion Grant.

He tied for second in the country with three kick returns for touchdown, and added another score on a punt return while posting a solid average of 12.6 yards per punt return, four yards better than McCaffrey’s average.

PuntReturn

On film, Grant shows all the tools needed to repeat his 2015 effort, as his combination of speed, elusiveness and vision is matched by very few in all of college football.

Wisconsin: The Badgers can defend the run

Despite losing Schobert to the Browns, Wisconsin has plenty of talent left on the defense front seven, and all of its top returning players showed the ability to play the run last year.

The Badgers are led by OLB Vince Biegel, who last year nationally graded out second in run stop percentage among all FBS OLBs (and fourth in pass rush productivity). While he is clearly one of the top returning players in the country at his position, Wisconsin returns six other defenders from the front seven with at least 150 run defense snaps that graded positively against the run last year.

Expect the production to improve even further with the majority of last year’s group still intact, as the Badgers should have one of the top run defenses in the conference this season.

| Analyst

Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Rather strange that with the #2 ranking in 1985, that stellar Michigan defense didn’t have anyone drafted until round 3 – Hammersmith/Bengals. Coaching staffs usually show improvement with a years experience so Harbaugh & Co. could deliver a very high grade product this season.