May 27, 2022

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Big Ten spring football overreactions: Michigan has a new Charles Woodson, Wisconsin offense modernizing

Spring practice in college football exists for two fundamental reasons. The primary reason is to get a head-start on the upcoming season. Coaches use it to implement new players and principles in the playbook, so that by the time training camp opens, everybody has a better idea of what’s expected of them.

The other — and some would argue the more important reason — is for fans and media to overreact to everything they see in this minor glimpse to sustain their college football souls for the next few months. Well, I’m not a coach because I haven’t been able to play a new version of NCAA Football in years, but I am a writer. So while I can’t teach you how to play football, I can help you figure out what wild overreactions you should have following spring practice in the Big Ten.

There’s no need to thank me, but I’d appreciate it if you could tell EA Sports to speed up the new game.

The Illini will have two 1,000-yard rushers: In 2010, a few years before Bret Bielema would leave Wisconsin for Arkansas, both James White and John Clay rushed for over 1,000 yards in Wisconsin uniforms. A third back on the team, Montee Ball, rushed for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns that same season. After watching Illinois’ spring game, you could wonder if we’ll see a repeat of that performance under Bielema in Champaign. Even with new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney calling plays and a new QB in Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito, Illinois’ offense was at its best when handing the ball off to Chase Brown and Josh McCray. Brown (1,005 yards and 5 TD in 2021) rushed for 90 yards on 11 carries in the game, while McCray (549 yards, 2 TD) rushed for 86 on 13. The Illini also had carries available for giant freshman back Jordan Anderson, and were without veteran Reggie Love and another freshman in Aidan Laughery. The Illini will have no shortage of options to turn to this fall.

Tom Allen calling plays on defense will fix everything: Indiana didn’t have a spring game this year because it wanted to maximize the 15 practices it had to work with. Perhaps it also wanted to give Tom Allen a chance to reacquaint himself with calling the plays defensively, as the Hoosiers coach announced this spring he would be doing so in 2022. It’s not hard to understand why Allen felt a change was needed. During Indiana’s surprise run during the 2020 season, the Hoosiers defense allowed only 20.3 points per game, good for fourth in the Big Ten. That number ballooned to 33.3 points per game last year, dead last in the conference and 109th nationally.

Lukas Van Ness is ready to terrorize backfields: Iowa didn’t have a traditional spring game, opting instead for an open practice. Those who attended got a glimpse of Iowa’s next great pass-rusher. Van Ness was impressive during his freshman season in 2021, finishing with seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. And he did that before spending a full year in the strength and conditioning program. Van Ness looked bigger, quicker and meaner this spring, and will be a part of many a nightmare in 2022.

This team will score 50 points per game: The Terps had an entertaining offense last season, but Taulia Tagovailoa and Co. are ready to take things to another level in 2022. Even with a few key players at skill positions missing, the Terps offense lit it up with big plays in the air and on the ground. It was a chance for Florida transfer Jacob Copeland to shine. Copeland led the Gators in receiving last season, and with Rakim Jarrett, Jeshaun Jones and Dontay Demus all sitting the game out, he was more than happy to soak up the targets from Tagovailoa.

Mike Sainristil is the new Charles Woodson: Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy in 1997 because he wasn’t just an outstanding defensive back but an excellent receiver and returner for the Wolverines. Now, 25 years later, the tradition is renewed, as Michigan receiver Mike Sainristil saw snaps at corner during the spring game. Sainristil caught 22 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns last year, but didn’t catch a pass in the spring game despite playing at receiver. The closest he came to a catch was when he broke up a deep ball in coverage. Could we have seen early glimpses of Michigan’s answer to Shohei Ohtani?

Darius Snow will be an All-Big Ten defender: Like many other teams, Michigan State hosted an open practice that served as their spring game and converted safety Darius Snow was one of the stars of the day. Snow played safety last year, but has been working a lot more with the linebackers in the spring, so he could be in line for a hybrid role, but whatever position you want to call him, he was making plays. Snow obliterated tight end Jackson Morse to force a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Later, Snow brought the blizzard again, delivering a big hit on Jayden Reed to break up what would’ve been a first-down pass. Linebacker? Safety? Let’s just call him a hammer.

These Gophers can throw again: When he was last at the helm of the Minnesota offense, Kirk Ciarocca helped lead Tanner Morgan to a season that saw him throw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns. The Gophers had two 1,000-yard receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman that year. After leaving, Morgan threw for 3,418 yards and 17 touchdowns over two seasons. Only one Gopher receiver cracked 500 yards in a season, and that was Chris Autman-Bell with 506. So you’ll have to forgive Gophers fans who got excited seeing Morgan dropping back and throwing passes during the team’s spring game. While the run game is what Minnesota’s offense will be built on, even a whiff of a passing attack will help everybody in 2022.

Doooooooooom! We’re all dooooooooomed!: Honestly, most spring practices wrap up with fanbases deluding themselves into thinking everything is going to be wonderful (it’s the foundation of this story!), but there weren’t many happy feelings surrounding the Cornhuskers this spring. Maybe the poor run of late has left one of the nation’s more fervent and friendly fanbases a bit jaded, but the fact that everything wasn’t perfect has everyone convinced disaster awaits. Instead of Casey Thompson, Logan Smothers or Chubba Purdy taking the reins and showcasing program-changing talent, an offense breaking in a lot of new faces looked like an offense breaking in new faces. There was some good, some bad and plenty of inconsistency. Thankfully, there are still nearly four months before Nebraska faces an opponent, which is plenty of time to get things figured out. But don’t tell Nebraska fans that.

It’s a two-horse race at QB: Northwestern didn’t have a spring game, so we only have quotes from coaches, but Pat Fitzgerald did hint about the battle at QB. While he mentioned all four players battling for the job, he also said Ryan Hilinski and Brendan Sullivan are the two “fighting for that No. 1 job going into training camp.” Hilinski transferred to Northwestern from South Carolina last season, and was one of four players to see snaps at QB. Sullivan was a three-star recruit in Northwestern’s 2021 class who has yet to see the field, so while it’s a good sign he’s being mentioned as fighting for the job, you have to assume the experience of Hilinski is winning as of now.

C.J. Stroud will win the Heisman: OK, so these are supposed to be exaggerations, and saying Stroud will win the Heisman is not crazy. But how can you not be excited? While Stroud split snaps with Kyle McCord and Devin Brown, it’s his show and he’s running one of the most explosive offenses in the country. Even with some key offensive players like TreVeyon Henderson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Emeka Egbuka watching most of the spring game, there are weapons everywhere, and Stroud did an excellent job getting the ball to him. Stroud will put up eye-popping numbers in 2022.

Christian Veilleux is the backup, Drew Allar will redshirt before transferring: There’s no question what Penn State fans wanted to see going into the spring game. Ever since five-star QB Drew Allar committed and signed with Penn State, fans have been counting the minutes until they had the chance to watch him firing lasers all over the field. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well as Lions fans had hoped in the spring game. Allar didn’t have a great game. He’s a freshman who has been on campus for a few months and is probably struggling to remember where his dorm room is and when it’s pizza day in the cafeteria, let alone master the playbook. It shouldn’t be a surprise. James Franklin has hinted that Christian Veilleux was the favorite to back up Sean Clifford this season, and the spring game reinforced that. Having QB depth is a good thing!

Tyrone Tracy Jr. is the new Rondale Moore: Rondale Moore was one of Jeff Brohm’s biggest recruiting wins at Purdue, and while he battled injuries during his college career, when on the field, Purdue never found a shortage of ways to get him the ball. Iowa transfer Tyrone Tracy Jr. played a similar role in Purdue’s spring game. He was used as a receiver, got the ball on jet sweeps and lined up in the backfield on some snaps as well. Tracy looks to be a favorite of Brohm already, and a versatile weapon in the hands of an innovative playcaller can lead to a lot of fun times.

These Knights are going to run wild on the Big Ten: Running back Isiah Pacheco led Rutgers in rushing with 647 yards last season, but he’ll be in an NFL camp this summer after being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s great for him, and it’s not as bad as you might think for the Knights. If there was anything evident this spring, this team has depth at the running back position. Despite Aaron Young missing the game due to injury, Kyle Monangai, Jamier Wright-Collins and Al-Shadee Salaam all impressed and showed the ability to run the ball effectively. Considering Rutgers’ problems at the QB position last year (problems I don’t know have been solved), having a solid rushing attack to lean on will be pivotal.

Wisconsin

We didn’t need Caleb Williams anyway: There was some interesting smoke that former Oklahoma QB Caleb Williams was going to transfer to Wisconsin before he went to USC, but it turns out the Badgers didn’t need him. They still have Graham Mertz, and with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram, this isn’t going to be your dad’s Wisconsin offense. Sure, they’re still going to run the ball with no-longer-only-17-years old Braelon Allen behind a giant offensive line, but this is a team ready to open things up in the passing game. There were hints of multiple receiver sets by the Wisconsin offense this spring! And I don’t mean two tight ends and two receivers. This team believes it has the talent at QB and receiver to open things up a bit.