2019 Big Ten Football Rumors – Part I
Football season is just around the corner. The Big Ten Conference “Media Days” have come and gone and we are now left with nothing but waiting time until each team opens training camp. With waiting comes speculation and “reading between the lines”. What speculation has legs and meaning and what is merely offseason fodder? After combing through a whole lot of content, I have identified some of the buzz about players or position groups and will attempt to project whether or not you can use the information to inform your opinion of a team for the 2019 season.
#1 – Purdue May Struggle on the Offensive Line
We will take this straight from the horse’s mouth. Jeff Brohm told The Athletic for their State of the Program preview: “I think where we’re definitely very inexperienced and untested is the offensive line. We have two guys coming back that have played; everyone else hasn’t seen a snap, so that is a lot of inexperience. We worked hard in the spring and continued to in the summer, and then in fall camp and we gotta get those guys ready to play. But that’s where we’re very, very inexperienced, and those are some big question marks in the running game and passing game.”
That’s a very open and honest assessment from the head coach and I think it is very likely to be an issue, particularly early in the season. The tackles are solid with Grant Hermanns (although he was injured each of the previous two seasons) and multi-year starter Matt McCann. Beyond that, it’s a complete mystery. The Boilermakers could swing McCann move inside and play right guard, as he did in his sophomore season, if they feel better about their other options at tackle. Sophomore Viktor Beach has a history of back injuries but he is the presumed starter at center, simply because no one else appears to be ready for that position. So, that’s two likely starters with major injury questions. Their other options for the interior positions do not have the size you are looking for in major conference guards and they certainly don’t have the experience. While they have recruited well very recently, Jeff Brohm said at Media Day that he did not expect any of the freshman offensive linemen to be ready to contribute in 2019. Purdue’s staff is concerned and they moved a senior defensive tackle, Alex Criddle, to offensive guard in an attempt to plug a gaping hole. Starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar has chronic knee issues. Two of the three linemen Purdue feels okay about have injury concerns. The remaining options are somewhat undersized and as inexperienced as it gets. To make matters worse, the Boilermakers play at Nevada and then host Vanderbilt and TCU before beginning conference play. The concern about the offensive line is very, very real and it could cost the Boilermakers some games early.
#2 – The Best Defense in the Big Ten Belongs to Penn State
There will be some very good defenses in the Big Ten in 2019. Michigan State figures to be tremendous, Michigan is retooling but it’d be foolish to think they’ll be less than stellar, Ohio State has a lot of talent…the list goes on. The general consensus amongst Penn State insiders is that the Nittany Lions will be better than all of them and they could end up being the best defense in the country. Head coach James Franklin said, “I think we got a chance to be pretty good on defense, I really do. Probably the fastest defense I’ve been around in all my years.”
Penn State beat writer Audrey Snyder is a believer, writing, “it’s difficult to remember the last time Penn State’s defense came into a season with so much stability. At every position, there aren’t just talented players, but at least one person who can change the course of a game with one play.”
I am buying into the hype and it brings up an interesting question. If you believe in the Nittany Lions defense to the point of believing it is the best in the conference, what does the offense need to do to feel good about betting their “over” for the season win total? The schedule is very difficult as they travel to Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Maryland and Ohio State and have home dates against Pittsburgh, Purdue, Michigan and Indiana but it does make the over tempting. Of course, if you think the offense is going to really struggle due to massive turnover at key positions (offensive line, quarterback, wide receiver, running back…basically everywhere but tight end) and inexperience, you might side with the under (as I did). A defense with this much star power and depth makes them a team that I will be betting the under on early and often. I think their point totals will be inflated early on but teams are going to have a hard time scoring on Micah Parsons, Yetur Gross-Matos, John Reid, Cam Brown and potential breakout stars like Jayson Oweh.
#3 – Michigan State’s Offensive Shuffling Will Work
The third rumor emerged from Big Ten Media Day and I am going to shoot this one down. I love MSU’s defensive front seven but I think the offense was atrocious last year and I see very little reason to believe any hype about it improving much in 2019. Mark Dantonio did not fire anyone after a couple of seasons of offensive struggle. Loyalty is often a very admirable trait. It usually doesn’t work out well in college football though. Mark Dantonio is putting that to the test as he simply reshuffled assignments. As he put it at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago, “We restructured our offensive staff. We basically have put everyone back to their positions of expertise.”
In addition, he spoke about quarterback Brian Lewerke and was very optimistic on his senior quarterback. “He was an extremely productive player as a sophomore. He got hit a little with the injury bug midway through the season. But I think his confidence is back, he’s certainly back and healthy. Bigger and stronger, fast. And he comes into his senior year with a tremendous amount of experience. I expect great things from him. I expect him to return to his sophomore status and very exciting to watch him play.”
In my opinion, that won’t be happening. I don’t think the Spartans are particularly dynamic at wide receiver, the offensive line has been bad for a few seasons now and the running game continues to suffer. MSU wants an identity of being a smashmouth, physical squad but they are not any good at running the ball. The Spartans have steadily fallen from 12th in S&P+ on offense in 2014 to 30th in 2015, 55th in 2016, 72nd in 2017 and 112th in 2018. That is a significant sample size and I don’t believe simply changing the job titles of the coaches involved and hoping for better is an adequate solution.
#4 – Penn State Linebacker Micah Parsons is Returning Kicks
I am throwing a short bonus one in here. The Penn State 247sports site (Fight on State) had an article in mid-July that focused on star linebacker Micah Parsons returning kickoffs. PSU media saw it occurring during an open portion of Penn State’s spring practice sessions. Parsons is 6’3” and more than 240 pounds and he is one of the best linebackers in the country. The coaching staff claims they would not practice anything that they “won’t really do” and his teammates claimed that Parsons is definitely capable of doing it. I don’t doubt that he is athletic enough to be a serviceable kick returner. However, PSU has KJ Hamler and a number of other very speedy and athletic players that are equal, if not superior options. There is no way, absolutely no way, Penn State would be foolish enough to risk their All-American linebacker and a key cog of the defense on kickoff returns. I’m not sure why exactly they were practicing it and showing it to the media in the spring but this just won’t be happening.
Check back very soon for an article about the next wave of stars in the Big Ten. Players like Dwayne Haskins and Miles Sanders are gone, established stars like Shea Patterson and Rondale Moore are back. Which Big Ten players, either new or returning, are poised for breakout campaigns that will have them as household names across the country by the time we get to the end of the 2019 campaign?