College Football Spring Practice: Big Ten Storylines

College Football Spring Practice: Big Ten Storylines

This article is part of our Spring Practice Storylines series.

Big Ten Conference Spring Storylines

As the 2024 season draws nearer, a new era for the Big Ten has arrived with the addition of the former powerhouses of the PAC-12: USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. Combining the addition of the West Coast powers with the reigning national champion Michigan Wolverines makes the Big Ten one of the most intriguing conferences in college football, particularly from a fantasy perspective. Along with the major structural changes, many programs within the conference are entering new territory themselves, introducing new coaches and players at several key positions. Without further ado, let's take a look at some key storylines to follow for each team this spring.

 Illinois Spring Storyline

Skill position turnover

2023 was a disappointing season for the Fighting Illini as they finished just 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the third time in the last four seasons. Consistency appears to be heading their way from the quarterback position for the first time under head coach Bret Bielema as he returns his starter from last season, Luke Altmyer (1,883 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2023), though question marks remain throughout the skill position groups. 

The Illini will look to replace last season's leading rusher, Reggie Love III (567 yards and four touchdowns in 2023) following his transfer to division rival Purdue, and with returning sophomore Kaden Feagin sitting out spring practice with a shoulder injury, the running back room appears to be wide open for business in the spring session. Redshirt junior Josh McCray and redshirt sophomore Aidan Laughery will likely get additional opportunities as a result. That said, Feagin seems the presumed favorite to head the room in 2024.

The receiver room is another question mark for Illinois as they look to replace their two leading receivers from last season, Isaiah Williams (82 catches for 1,055 yards and five touchdowns in 2023) and Casey Washington (49 catches for 670 yards and four touchdowns in 2023), with returning senior Pat Bryant likely to lead the way for the Illini in 2024.

 Indiana Spring Storyline

New beginnings on offense

Coming off a tough-to-swallow 3-9 season, the Hoosiers hired new head coach Curt Cignetti from James Madison to help revamp the program. Cignetti did not come alone, bringing along his top rusher and receiver from JMU in Kaelon Black (637 yards and one touchdown in 2023) and Elijah Sarratt (82 catches for 1,191 yards and eight touchdowns in 2023), respectively. 

Cignetti also brought in transfer quarterback Kurtis Rourke (2,207 yards, 11 touchdowns, and five interceptions in 2023) from Ohio to help completely reconstruct the Indiana offense, as well as tight end Zach Horton from JMU. With the new additions likely to lead the Hoosiers across the board, a new era of Indiana football appears set to kick off in 2024.

 Iowa Spring Storyline

Can McNamara and the new offense provide consistency?

The 2023 season was much of the same for Iowa, with the Hawkeyes struggling on offense and relying on a strong defense on their way to their second Big Ten West division title in three years. Despite the division title and another double-digit win season, the Hawkeyes decided to make some changes, namely firing former offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Should new hire Tim Lester prove more capable of leading a modern offense, the Hawkeyes have the capability to make 2024 an exception to the standard and field an offense worth keeping an eye on. 

Former Michigan transfer quarterback Cade McNamara appears to be on track to make his full return to action in the summer after suffering a leg injury last season and should provide a more consistent presence under center. The Hawkeyes also return leading rusher Leshon Williams (821 yards and one touchdown in 2023) along with junior receiver Kaleb Brown (22 catches for 215 yards and one touchdown in 2023) and tight ends Luke Lachey (10 catches for 131 yards in 2023) and Addison Ostrenga (31 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns in 2023). If McNamara provides consistency at the quarterback position, the Iowa offense could be worth monitoring in 2024.

 Maryland Spring Storyline

Moving on at quarterback

With four-year starter Taulia Tagovailoa leaving for the NFL, the Terrapins will have to address the quarterback position for only the second time in the Mike Locksley era. While Locksley has made it clear that no decisions have been made yet regarding the starting job, the likely candidates are MJ Morris, Billy Edwards, and Cameron Edge

Morris (719 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions in four games in 2023), a transfer from North Carolina State, has the most in-game experience of the three and can likely be looked at as the early favorite, though Edwards and Edge both have the advantage of having been in the Maryland offense longer. Edwards and Edge also played in Maryland's bowl game victory over Auburn, and while neither separated themselves as the clear frontrunner, they both showed flashes of solid quarterback play. 

 Michigan Spring Storyline

New era under center

The reigning national champions understandably face quite a bit of roster attrition following the departure of beloved head coach Jim Harbaugh and the program's first national title in over 25 years, but the elephant in the room is, without question, the quarterback situation. 

The candidates to replace program legend J.J. McCarthy (2,991 yards, 22 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2023) include Alex Orji, Jayden Denegal and Jack Tuttle. Although Tuttle, a former Indiana transfer, has the most in-game experience of the trio and, as a graduate senior, could provide the stability and maturity to hold down the position, the primary battle appears to be between the two redshirt sophomores. Orji has the athletic upside to become a game-changer, though questions remain about his consistency and accuracy through the air, while Denegal appears to be more at home as a pocket passer but lacks the explosiveness Orji provides in the run game. 

Add in that the Wolverines are also looking to replace three of their top four pass-catchers in terms of production from last season and leading rusher Blake Corum (1,245 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2023) and you get all the ingredients for what should be a very interesting spring session.

Donovan Edwards seems the heir apparent to the lead role on the ground, while his backup will likely be settled during spring and fall camp. Semaj Morgan also showed some flashes of intrigue as a freshman and could post a breakout campaign in 2024 if things fall right.

 Michigan State Spring Storyline

New look offense

Following what many called one of the best coaching hires of the off-season in new head coach Jonathan Smith, Michigan State is a program looking to turn over a new leaf in 2024. The addition of highly-touted transfer quarterback Aidan Chiles was an excellent start for the Spartans, though question marks remain when it comes to pass catchers for the talented redshirt freshman.

 Returning senior wideout Montorie Foster Jr. (43 catches for 576 yards and three touchdowns in 2023) should lead the way for a young receiving core that includes sophomores Jaron Glover and Antonio Gates Jr. Glover and Gates both showed flashes of explosiveness in 2023 and will look to compete for the attention of Chiles. 

Tight end is one of the most intriguing position groups for the Spartans this spring as they look to replace the production of Maliq Carr (30 catches for 352 yards and three touchdowns in 2023). Junior tight end Jack Velling (29 catches for 438 yards and eight touchdowns in 2023) is the favorite to lead the group after following Coach Smith from Oregon State, though underclassmen Brennan Parachek and Jack Nickel could see a number of reps this season as well.

 Minnesota Spring Storyline

Can Brosmer adjust to Big Ten play?

Coming off a disappointing 6-7 season after winning nine games in each of the previous two years, the Golden Gophers were likely looking to make a change. As it turns out, that change was made for them when starting quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis decided to transfer to Rutgers. Kaliakmanis transferring, along with the graduation of backup signal-caller Cole Kramer, means that a new face will lead the offense in 2024. 

The likely candidate for the job is transfer quarterback Max Brosmer, who joined the team after transferring from FCS New Hampshire. Brosmer had a productive season with the Wildcats last year, throwing for 3,464 yards, 29 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 2023. Along with the addition of Brosmer, the Golden Gophers return several key playmakers from last season, including leading rusher Darius Taylor (799 yards and five touchdowns in 2023) and leading receiver Daniel Jackson (59 catches for 831 yards and eight touchdowns in 2023). If Brosmer is able to make the adjustment to Big Ten play, the Minnesota offense could be one to keep an eye on in 2024.

 Nebraska Spring Storyline

Will Raiola start?

The first season of the Matt Rhule era in Lincoln went about as well as anyone could expect, given the situation left by previous head coach Scott Frost. Rhule followed up his inaugural season with a recruiting bombshell, locking in five-star quarterback prospect Dylan Raiola. The addition of Raiola makes the quarterback situation in Lincoln very interesting, as returning starter Heinrich Haarberg (967 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2023) will likely have to fight to keep his job from the talented freshman. Haarberg struggled through the air last season, completing just 49 percent of his passes, and although his talent on the ground (477 yards and five touchdowns in 2023) provided a spark for the Huskers, Raiola will likely get a fair shot to win the starting job in 2024. 

Outside the quarterback spot, another position monitor is in the backfield. With top running back Anthony Grant gone, the top spot will likely be contested between Gabe Ervin, Emmett Johnson and Oregon transfer Dante Dowdell. Ervin appeared set to be a contributor in the backfield last season, but following a season-ending injury, Johnson saw his role increase over the latter half of 2023. With the addition of Dowdell through the transfer portal, the running back situation will be one to keep an eye on moving forward.

 Northwestern Spring Storyline

New starting signal-caller

Heading into what many thought would be a lost season in the wake of the hazing scandal that resulted in longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald's dismissal, first-year head coach David Braun led Northwestern to a remarkable 8-5 season and a second-place finish in the Big Ten West. The 2024 season has a chance to be even better for the Wildcats, as they return key starters at nearly every position group on offense - except under center. 

The Wildcats will test out a new starting quarterback in 2024 following the departure of Ben Bryant (1,807 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2023). Coach Braun appears ready to look inward for Bryant's replacement, as former backups Brendan Sullivan and Jack Lausch seem to be the favorites for the job. Sullivan served as the primary backup last season and has the experience advantage, though the younger Lausch showed his athletic upside in spots in 2023, including a 46-yard touchdown run against UTEP. 

Outside the quarterback room, the Wildcats return a lot of production from last season, bringing back leading rusher Cam Porter (651 yards and four touchdowns in 2023) along with their top three leading receivers, Calvin Johnson (54 catches for 715 yards and six touchdowns in 2023), Bryce Kirtz (49 catches for 701 yards and five touchdowns in 2023) and A.J. Henning (45 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns in 2023), respectively. If the quarterback situation stabilizes, Northwestern could be in for another productive season.

 Ohio State Spring Storyline

Does Will Howard secure the QB job?

It looks like Ohio State has a true-blue quarterback competition on its hands this spring. Everyone knew the Buckeyes would need to find a new starting signal-caller when Kyle McCord hit the transfer portal shortly after last regular season. Many assumed it would be Kansas State transfer Will Howard when he enrolled exactly one month after McCord entered the transfer portal. But, the team is still splitting quarterback reps between the starting and backup units, and last year's No.2 quarterback, Devin Brown, is making a real push for the job. 

Brown regularly worked his way onto the field as a rushing quarterback in various short-yardage and specialty packages last season. However, he was denied an opportunity to play a full game after starting the Cotton Bowl versus Missouri, as he was forced out with an injury early on. Howard started 27 games over his four years with the Wildcats, and he boasts similar upside as a rusher, logging 81 carries for 351 yards and nine touchdowns across 12 games last season. It will be interesting to see if new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly builds the offense more around the running game, given the talents of either potential starter. The 1-2 punch at running back with returning senior TreVeyon Henderson and Ole Miss transfer Quinshon Judkins adds even more firepower on the ground. Both running backs have logged at least one 1,000-yard rushing campaign in their respective careers. 

Here's also the obligatory mention of wideout Jeremiah Smith. It feels like a foregone conclusion that Smith, who was rated the No.1 overall player in the 2024 recruiting class, will be the Buckeyes' next superstar wideout. Early reports this spring say that the 6-foot-3 wideout is already turning heads as an early enrollee, so it's likely that he'll make an impact this season. But is it possible he's already the Buckeyes' best, or at least most talented, wideout as a true freshman?

 Oregon Spring Storyline

How high can Gabriel fly?

Quarterback Dillon Gabriel joined the third program in his collegiate career when he transferred from Oklahoma to Oregon this offseason. The 23-year-old veteran logged 6,823 passing yards and 73 total touchdowns over the past two seasons with the Sooners, but there are big shoes to fill in Eugene following the departure of 2023 Heisman finalist Bo Nix. Nix set multiple single-season school passing records during his 2023 Heisman finalist campaign. The Ducks also lost their top two offensive skill players in wideout Troy Franklin and running back Bucky Irving to the 2024 NFL Draft. Nevertheless, there's still plenty for Gabriel to work with this spring. 

Highly touted transfer wide receiver Evan Stewart arrived on campus following spring break and is participating in spring practices. He'll augment a bevy of receiving talent, including Tez Johnson, who was one of the team's two 1,000-yard receivers alongside Franklin last season. Fellow returning wideouts Gary Bryant and Traeshon Holden also combined for 67 catches and 894 yards. The running back stable remains solid, with Jordan James back for his third season in Eugene and senior Noah Whittington participating this spring after missing the last 10 games of last season with a foot injury. 

Offensive coordinator Will Stein took Oregon's offense to new heights during his first season on the job last year. Assuming that Gabriel can adapt to Stein's offense, the Ducks will be in a position to compete for a conference championship during their first season in the new-look Big Ten.

 Penn State Spring Storyline

Will a WR1 finally emerge?

Penn State has not had a wideout record over 700 yards in each of the past two seasons. The need for a go-to guy was painfully evident in the passing game last season, as the Nittany Lions ranked 81st in the nation in yards per play (5.46). Head coach James Franklin looked to address this deficiency first by hiring new offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki from Kansas and second by grabbing Pennsylvania native Julian Fleming in the transfer portal. The Ohio State transfer was the top-rated wideout in the 2020 recruiting class, but he got lost in the shuffle of highly-talented receivers for the Buckeyes. The 6-foot-2 Fleming recorded 60 catches for 803 yards in 23 appearances over the past two seasons.

Fleming has reportedly performed well in practices leading up to Penn State's spring game April 13. But, it sounds like he still hasn't cemented himself as the clear No.1 wideout, as Franklin said about the team's wide receivers this spring that, "The whole group, from what I've seen, is improved. … I still would like to see a group of guys really separate themselves from the pack." Fifth-year wideout KeAndre Lambert-Smith is coming off a career-best 2023 season with 53 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns across 12 games. If Fleming, Lambert-Smith, or others can take their game to the next level, it would certainly help the development of starting quarterback Drew Allar, who is heading into his second season under center.

 Purdue Spring Storyline

Turnover at wide receiver

Purdue's passing game left a lot to be desired during conference play last season. Texas transfer quarterback Hudson Card struggled to remain healthy in 2023, leading to an overall mediocre passing game for the Boilermakers. His main goal will be to get stronger this spring so as to remain healthy this fall. But, he'll have to operate with an entirely new starting receiving corps. 

Wideouts Deion Burks, TJ Sheffield, Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen and tight end Garrett Miller all hit the transfer portal at the end of last season. This overall group wasn't very impressive last season, but Burks flashed enough game-changing potential to land with Oklahoma in the portal, and his absence will certainly be felt. Either way, this turnover represents a significant opportunity for new wideouts to emerge. Purdue landed three transfer wideouts, C.J. Smith and De'Nylon Morrissette from Georgia and Kam Brown from UCLA. However, these three have combined for less than 1,000 career receiving yards, so it's worth monitoring if any returning wideouts can also carve out a role this spring.

 Rutgers Spring Storyline

Battles at quarterback and wide receiver

There's a new offensive coordinator in New Brunswick, with Kirk Ciarrocca coming over from Minnesota. Former Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis also followed via the transfer portal, and he's slated to compete with returning starter Gavin Wimsatt for the job under center this spring. While neither quarterback logged a completion percentage above 55 percent last season, Kaliakmanis started 13 games while playing for Ciarrocca at Minnesota, so his familiarity in his system should go a long way in the competition this spring. Meanwhile, Wimsatt has the advantage of being a better dual-threat quarterback, with 497 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground last season. 

Whoever starts will be working with an unproven corps of wide receivers. Returning wideout Christian Dremel caught a team-high 36 passes for 468 yards last season, so he'll be locked into a starting role. The remaining spots in the two-deep should be up for grabs, though. Watch out this spring for Monmouth transfer Dymere Miller, who led the FCS with 1,295 receiving yards during his 2023 senior season.

 UCLA Spring Storyline

Life after Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly displayed his pedigree as one of college football's best offensive minds while serving as UCLA's head coach, fitting the team's offense to complement whatever personnel was available. While Kelly reportedly butted heads with members of UCLA's administration, his departure left significant uncertainty as the program headed into its first season in one of the two "superconferences." Worries were tamped down when new head coach DeShaun Foster hired Eric Bieniemy as offensive coordinator. Bieniemy is best known for winning two Super Bowls as the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs' high-flying passing game, but this spring will be about doing what Kelly always did so well: finding the offensive scheme that best fits his new players. 

Quarterback Ethan Garbers is in line to start again after Dante Moore and Collin Schlee both transferred out. Last year's leading wide receivers, Logan Loya and J. Michael Sturdivant, are also back. Of note, Bieniemy plans to employ a true fullback with former Army transfer Anthony Adkins, according to Ben Bolch of the LA Times. Top returning running back TJ Harden logged 156 carries for 827 yards and a team-high eight rushing touchdowns while splitting carries last season with Carson Steele, who departed for the NFL Draft. If Bieniemy opts for a rushing-centric approach in 2024, then the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Harden should have a good chance to put up career numbers during his third year with the Bruins.

 USC Spring Storyline

Will any new stars emerge?

It's inevitable that the Trojans will see a big dropoff at quarterback, as Caleb Williams is one of the rare no-brainer No.1 overall picks as a quarterback entering the NFL Draft. USC has a solid returning No.2 quarterback in Miller Moss, who logged a dominant performance when he started against Louisville in the Holiday Bowl. Transfer quarterback Jayden Maiava also showed exciting potential while starting as a freshman at UNLV last season. But it's impossible to replace everything Williams did to right the ship over and over again for the Trojans last season, as he had to make up for the loss of multiple key offensive contributors from the previous year. Whether or not USC gets more out of the supporting cast on offense will be crucial for the unit's success in 2024.

Veteran wideouts Tahj Washington and Brendan Rice are off to the NFL, and Mario Williams and Dorian Singer transferred following disappointing campaigns with the Trojans in 2023. But, the cupboard is far from bare at pass-catcher for Lincoln Riley. True freshman wideout Zachariah Branch showcased game-breaking multiple times when he got the ball in his hands last season, both as a receiver and a returner on special teams. Duce Robinson flashed similar potential as a hybrid wide receiver/tight end, as the 6-foot-6 Arizona native caught 16 passes for 351 yards in his 2023 true freshman season. If they continue to develop this spring, then Branch and Robinson have the potential to be one of the best sophomore receiving duos in college football. 

The running back room is also extremely young but with fewer obvious breakout candidates. This opens an opportunity for Mississippi State transfer Woody Marks. In 34 appearances across the past three seasons, the 210-pound back totaled 340 carries for 1,571 yards and 19 touchdowns.

 Washington Spring Storyline

Replacing a championship roster

Washington was a victim of its own success this offseason. Following the program's run to the national championship game, head coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb left for Alabama and the Seattle Seahawks, respectively. Washington made it to the national championship largely due to its passing offense built around premiere passer Michael Penix and a star-studded receiving corps, headlined by Rome Odunze. However, everything is different after Penix Jr., all three starting wideouts, the starting tight end, the No. 1 running back and both starting offensive tackles all departed for the NFL Draft. New head coach Jedd Fisch has to start over with an entirely new group of starters on both sides of the ball. The Huskies will undoubtedly take a step back in 2024, so this spring will be about finding which players could become the new centerpieces of the program heading into its first season in the Big Ten.

Quarterback Will Rogers returned to Washington after initially entering the transfer portal when DeBoer left for Alabama. His decision to return likely ensures that he'll be the starting signal-caller in 2024. Fisch brought running back Jonah Coleman over with him from Arizona, and the 5-foot-9, 225-pounder should compete with returning No.2 running back Cameron Davis for reps this spring. Fisch also landed one of the top transfer wideouts in junior Jeremiah Hunter from Cal, who totaled 123 receptions for 1,715 yards and 12 touchdowns while appearing in 24 games across the last two seasons.

 Wisconsin Spring Storyline

Dairy Raid ready for takeoff in Year 2?

After hiring head coach Luke Fickell last year, the Badgers made a seismic shift by pivoting the program's tried-and-true power offense to an air-raid scheme. However, new coordinator Phil Longo's offense never truly got off the ground during his first run in Madison. This offseason once again saw some significant comings and goings on the offensive side of the ball, but can another offseason with the program help Longo's unit establish more consistency in Year 2?

Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke transferred from Miami to Madison this offseason in hopes of reviving his career following back-to-back down seasons. While the 2021 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year is expected to be the Badgers' starting quarterback, Van Dyke still has to win the job outright and is splitting snaps this spring. Braedyn Locke is the other primary competitor for the job after he started three games last season. Wisconsin's offense was also at its best in 2023 when running the ball with power running back Braelon Allen and an adept scrambler in quarterback Tanner Mordecai. Running back Chez Mellusi returned after missing the last nine games of last season with a leg injury, and Oklahoma transfer Tawee Walker provides a complementary style as a physical running back. Still, Van Dyke is more of a true pocket passer than a scrambler. So, assuming that he is the Week 1 starter, it's possible that the Badgers will look more like a prototypical air-raid offense in 2024. Slot receiver Will Pauling and Bryson Green are the top two returning wideouts, while CJ Williams, Trech Kekahuna and Quincy Burroughs are intriguing breakout candidates. 

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Justin Walsh
Justin Walsh writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire
Ryan Wollersheim
2022 University of Wisconsin graduate and blind lover of all things college football. Also an unbiased observer of NFL, CFB, NBA and CBB for all teams not located in the cheese capital of the world.
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