One thing is certain coming out of spring practice in the Big Ten: Jim Harbaugh likes his Michigan team a lot. There’s much less clarity across the rest of the conference.
Ohio State still hasn’t determined the successor to C.J. Stroud, Purdue’s Ryan Walters is finding his way in his first head coaching job, Wisconsin’s move to coordinator Phil Longo’s Air Raid offense under Luke Fickell has been challenging and Nebraska’s Matt Rhule is trying to turn around a name-brand program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2016.
Michigan, meanwhile, is well set to make a run at a third straight Big Ten championship and another College Football Playoff appearance.
“As we sit here April 1, 2023, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best team, but it’s the best version of a Michigan football team on April 1, 2023, that we’ve ever had,” Harbaugh said at a pep rally before the spring game. “A great roster, players, tremendous coaches all pulling in the same direction. That doesn’t mean we’re not gonna have a letdown as the months go on, but this is the best version of football I’ve seen since I’ve been here the last eight years.”
The Wolverines bring back 84% of their offensive production. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy and running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards will work behind the nation’s best offensive line. The defense is loaded, especially in the front seven, and linebackers Ernest Hausmann (Nebraska) and Josaiah Stewart (Coastal Carolina) are transfers who showed this spring they’re capable of making big impacts.
As many as six quarterback competitions will continue into the fall. The battles: Kyle McCord vs. Devin Brown at Ohio State, Brendan Sorsby vs. Tayven Jackson at Indiana, Payton Thorne vs. Noah Kim and Katin Houser at Michigan State, Jeff Sims vs. Casey Thompson at Nebraska, Brendan Sullivan vs. Ryan Hilinski at Northwestern and Gavin Wimsatt vs. Evan Simon at Rutgers.
Eight teams appear set at quarterback: McCarthy at Michigan, Cade McNamara at Iowa, Luke Altmyer at Illinois, Taulia Tagovailoa at Maryland, Athan Kaliakmanis at Minnesota, Drew Allar at Penn State, Hudson Card at Purdue and Tanner Mordecai at Wisconsin.
Jackson (Tennessee), Sims (Georgia Tech), McNamara (Michigan), Altmyer (Mississippi), Card (Texas) and Mordecai (SMU) are transfers.
INHERITING A WINNER
Purdue’s Walters, the former Illinois defensive coordinator, is the rare head coach who takes over a winning team.
The Boilermakers won the West Division last season, were 36-34 and went to four bowls in six seasons under Jeff Brohm, who left for Louisville.
“Yeah, it’s not a rebuild, right?” Walters said. “I’m trying to elevate and really dive into it and understand the tradition and the standard here. It will be my job to raise that standard and continue to race and win championships.”
Among Purdue’s starters in the Big Ten championship game, seven on offense and four on defense were on the spring roster.
GROUND TO AIR
Wisconsin made the most dramatic change, scrapping the bruising pound-the-ground offense and installing Longo’s version of the “Air Raid.”
Tanner Mordecai put up huge numbers at SMU the past two seasons and should be a great fit. But the Badgers’ open practice, called “The Launch,” showed change is never easy. Mordecai threw interceptions on the No. 1 offense’s first three series and finished with four.
Purdue’s Tyrone Tracy Jr., a promising receiver at Iowa before transferring in 2022, is bidding to be the top running back behind Devin Mockobee.
Nebraska’s AJ Rollins, a reserve tight end last season, is now a defensive lineman and played with the No. 1 defense in the spring game.
Ohio State’s Chip Trayanum was a running back at Arizona State before agreeing to play linebacker when he transferred to the Buckeyes last year. He began dabbling at running back again in October and got 15 carries for the season. The 230-pounder raised eyebrows with his 65-yard touchdown burst in the spring game.
TO THE PORTAL
Notable Big Ten entrants to the transfer portal during the 15-day open period that ends Sunday: Illinois LBs Calvin Hart Jr. and Shammond Cooper; Indiana DB Trevell Mullen; Maryland OL Coltin Deery; Michigan KR A.J. Henning and S RJ Moten; Purdue OL Eric Miller and DB Jah’Von Grigsby; Nebraska QB Logan Smothers; Ohio State WR Caleb Burton; Penn State CB Storm Duck.
The Rhule era at Nebraska opens Aug. 31 with a visit to Minnesota, which has won four straight against the Cornhuskers.
Sept. 1: Central Michigan at Michigan State. Sept 2: Buffalo at Wisconsin; East Carolina at Michigan; Fresno State at Purdue; Northwestern at Rutgers; Ohio State at Indiana; Toledo at Illinois; Towson at Maryland; Utah State at Iowa; West Virginia at Penn State.
By Eric Olson, AP Sports Writer