On Monday, the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft passed. Meaning most of the major personnel changes to a football team that will happen in an offseason have all already happened. Coaching staffs are getting finishing touches across the Big Ten. Most recruiting classes are full or close to it with a few weeks before the February signing day and early enrollees are already on campus.
So, we got the Hail Varsity staff together again to give their thoughts on all the changes that took place within the conference over these last few months.
From the highest-profile coaching change of Urban Meyer to Ryan Day at Ohio State to Maryland landing Mike Locksley to assistant changes, who made the best coaching hire in the Big Ten this offseason?
Brandon Vogel: Ugh. This is a tough category as I don’t really love any of the major hires in the Big Ten so far. I’m sure Day is fine, though he has an impossible standard to maintain. Say the Ohio State job just comes on the market, instead of how it actually unfolded, and the hire is Day from somewhere else. Is anyone hailing that as a home run? For a first-time head coach? At Ohio State? Probably not. I do think it’s better than Locksley at Maryland. The coordinator hires as a whole sort of underwhelm me, so I guess it’s Day’s day by default.
Erin Sorensen: I’m with Brandon. No hire feels that significant to me, but Day feels fine enough. I was just looking at an article that said Ohio State won’t lose its “legendary” status under Day, which is maybe true. It’s always hard to say until words are put into action. So, like Brandon, I’ll take Day by default.
Greg Smith: It’s Day by default but count me as someone who is skeptical of that hire on the front end. If he turns out to be Lincoln Riley then I’ll look bad but those types of seamless transitions just don’t happen very often. Time will tell.
Jacob Padilla: I’ll go with Ryan Day hiring Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison as his co-defensive coordinator. Mattison has an extensive resume and was part of arguably the best defense in the country last season. But beyond that, I love a school hiring away a coach from one of its fiercest rivals.
Derek Peterson: For the sake of mixing it up, I’m going to take a slightly different approach (though it’s the one I was most likely taking regardless), because outside of Day, I’m not a big fan of Locksley and I don’t know what Day will be. For a traditional hire, though, I think Day got maybe the most underrated hire in the country by pulling Mike Yurcich away from Oklahoma State to be his passing game coordinator and quarterback coach. In six years at Oklahoma State, Yurcich turned in four of the program’s best statistical seasons on offense, turned Mason Rudolph into the program’s record-holder for just about every quarterback statistic and was a Broyles Award nominee in both 2016 and 2017. Big win for the Buckeyes.
Who made the strangest personnel decision?
BV: Michigan State’s reshuffling of roles was a bizarre thing to call a press conference for. Mark Dantonio’s track record has earned him the right to reward loyalty while trying to show renewed effort to improve a weakness, but I think MSU needed more help on offense than a simple reorganization might provide.
ES: I swear I’m not just trying to copy Brandon, but I agree here too. I remember getting that notification from the Big Ten about a Michigan State press conference and thinking very different things were going to happen than what actually happened. I guess if you think reshuffling your staff around will change the success in certain areas, by all means, go for it. Still weird.
GS: It has to be Michigan State. That program looks like they are in desperate need of new ideas and fresh voices especially on offense. Instead the Spartans just rearranged the deck chairs. It would be strange if this actually worked but college football is weird.
JP: It has to be the Michigan State reshuffling. I realize a lot of coaches end up handling different positions throughout their careers, but this still seems strange. Are these guys really going to coach better with different responsibilities? If so, why did they have the roles thay’ve had in the first place? Maybe it will work, but it seems like a desperate move from a guy that just doesn’t want to fire anyone.
DP: Michigan State is my answer, too, but not because of what Dantonio did. He’s an old-school guy and loyal to his own. If given the opportunity, no coach is going to fire their guys if they aren’t forced into it. And the fact he went the “rearrange the chairs” route tells me he had free reign from the administration to do so. That’s the strange part. Since getting embarrassed in the 2015 College Football Playoff, Michigan State is 20-18 under Dantonio. Is that good enough? How was there no mandate from higher-ups that things have to get turned around or Dantonio’s job is in jeopardy? Greg said something important, it’s a program in need of new ideas; that doesn’t come from assistants, that comes from the top down. Going into bowl season, I said I wouldn’t be surprised if Dantonio isn’t the head coach there in two years. Instead, it looks like he has the clout to stay as long as he wants.
Ohio State and Penn State each had five serious contributors declare early for the NFL Draft. Penn State’s also dealing with a pretty strange string of transfers out of the program. Nebraska lost 1,000-yard skill guys. Which Big Ten team was the biggest loser in terms of departing players?
BV: Penn State lost more than 2,000 yards of rushing power between running back Miles Sanders (draft) and quarterback Trace McSorley (graduation). Add in everything McSorley added in the passing game. Then the second- and third-leading wide receivers. Then three of the top-four tacklers. Then two more defensive linemen who declared for the draft. See where this is going?
ES: The Penn State situation is so odd. They’ve had a total of 11 players explore transfers, and another five declare for the draft. That’s . . . not great for Penn State. However, from looking into it, some of the transfers were expected (so it’s not a complete shock to PSU fans). It’s more the number, especially with more expected to depart, that’s alarming. And that’s going to be worth keeping an eye on.
GS: I’m actually going to go with Iowa here. Ohio State is always expected to lose players and just reload. Penn State certainly has an odd situation brewing and lost a lot of production. However, Iowa losing Fant, Hockenson, Hooker and Nelson early is something Kirk Ferentz hasn’t had to deal with this much and it throws off the Hawkeyes typical schedule of devolving players for a couple years. I can see Iowa taking a major step back in 2019.
JP: Iowa lost a lot, but at least it still has its quarterback in Nate Stanley and a defensive game-changer in AJ Epenesa. Penn State is just a mess right now. When you combine the sheer number of departures with the fact that their quarterback was one of them, I’m having a hard time seeing Penn State even getting back to where they were last year at a relatively disappointing 9-4.
DP: Iowa lost so much. Like, so much. The top three pass-catchers are gone, the top four tacklers are gone, one of the top two run-stoppers and pass-rushers is gone and all three starting interior linemen are gone. Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson on the defense were heart-and-soul type guys and Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson on offense were about as reliable as it gets (no returning receiver had a catch rate over 50 percent in 2018). I think the Hawkeyes are in for some rough early weeks in 2019 as they try and figure out who fits into new roles on both sides of the ball.
Who landed the best recruit?
BV: Mark me down for Daxton Hill, the 5-star safety from Oklahoma who is headed to Michigan. The Wolverines have a pretty good track record under Harbaugh with guys like this.
ES: Hill is a great pick, and probably one of the best gets by anyone in the Big Ten. If we want to focus on Nebraska for a minute, I think the Huskers picked up some solid picks too. That includes Wandale Robinson and Luke McCaffrey. Robinson was the splash commitment for Nebraska and has a lot of promise. McCaffrey comes from a long line of excellent athletes, and he’s forging his own way too. I guess this sort of moved away from the original point of the question, but I just wanted to mention what Nebraska did as well.
GS: Defensive end Zach Harrison who is heading to Ohio State is a name you’ll hear a lot about in the coming years. Him choosing to stay in Ohio and not go to Michigan was big too.
JP: I’ll go with Daxton Hill, both for his talent and for the way they were able to hold onto him. Late in the process, Hill flipped from Michigan to Alabama only for the Wolverines to win him back 11 days later and get his letter of intent on the early signing day.
DP: This is all about potential, right? Three years from now, which of these new guys has had the best career? To me, that answer is Wandale Robinson. That’s not being a homer, that’s not sucking up, that’s looking at the offensive system this kid is walking into, knowing Scott Frost’s track record with small, speedy guys (LaMichael James, De’Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner, Adrian Killins) and knowing the kind of skillset Robinson has is as close to a perfect fit as you can find. I’ve heard a bunch of people say Dax Hill, Brandon’s pick, is the best high school kid they’ve ever covered and he’s probably more like a 1B for me than a No. 2, but I think Robinson is going to be an absolute star in this offense.
If the new season started this weekend, who would be the favorite to win the East?
BV: Ohio State would be the pick, but maybe Michigan should be. Yeah, I know, the whole Harbaugh thing, but the Wolverines return enough on offense, I think, and (minus the last two games of 2018 at least) defense has never really been much of a problem. The season-opener at Washington could dull any buzz about Michigan right away, but that doesn’t have anything to do with winning the East.
ES: Again, Day allegedly will not lose any of the “legendary” status for Ohio State (sorry, I keep quoting that same article but linking it). Again, I have no idea what will happen with Day now at the helm, but those articles are probably right. He probably won’t completely botch anything. So, Ohio State is probably the pick. Michigan, as Brandon said, should be. I think you could probably flip a coin between the two and be fine with whichever way it falls.
GS: I’m going to go Michigan. This is the year that Harbaugh and his re-tooled staff of former Ohio State coaches get it done. It will be interesting to see Michigan in 2019 be an offensive led team since their defense may take a little time to round into shape.
JP: I’ll go with Ohio State. It’s hard to put faith in Michigan to get it done based on, well, pretty much every season the last few years, and the Wolverines lost two of the key pieces in their dominant defense in Rashan Gary and Devin Bush. Michigan State and Penn State are trending in the wrong direction. We have no idea if Ryan Day is actually a good enough coach, but if he is the Buckeyes ahould be set up to win the division once again.
DP: I bet against Ohio State last year and said Michigan would get it done. Look how that turned out. I’m not going to make the same mistake again, especially considering all that Michigan lost.
Who would be the favorite to win the West?
BV: I would’ve said Iowa prior to the draft deadline, but with some key early departures I think things will default back to Wisconsin. But look for Nebraska and Northwestern to pick up at least a couple of votes when people actually start voting on things like this.
ES: Wisconsin is always the safe bet. Nebraska is the dark horse pick. Northwestern might get a little attention too.
GS: It’s hard for me to not pick Nebraska. They have the best QB in the division and I really think we will hear a lot about their version of a “revenge tour” that will be fun.
JP: I still have no idea how Northwestern won it this year, and they’re losing Clayton Thorson now too. Iowa’s got Stanley and Epenesa back as I mentioned above, but they lose four total game-changers and that’s going to be hard for a team like Iowa to replace. Nebraska has a ton to replace as well (and wasn’t great in the first place), but I guess I’ll bank on the year two Scott Frost bump. Give me Nebraska.
DP: Nebraska has the best quarterback in the division, the best offensive coach in the division and a pissed off defense. I’d put my money on them. If Wisconsin goes with Graham Mertz at quarterback, it’s a legit three-man race at the top between Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern. If the Badgers decide to give Alex Hornibrook his swan song, it’s Nebraska and Northwestern.