Big Ten’s best defenses come out of spring in rebuild mode

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Coordinator changes and heavy player personnel losses made it a spring of uncertainty for the top Big Ten defenses.

Start with Wisconsin, which has been in the national top five in total defense three straight years and lower than that just twice since 2014. The Badgers must replace eight of their top 10 tacklers.

Penn State, in the top 10 in scoring defense three of the last five seasons, has a new coordinator in Manny Diaz. The former Miami coach spent the spring fitting pieces together to compensate for the loss of as many as six players who could be drafted.

Defending conference champion Michigan, coming off its first College Football Playoff appearance, hired Jesse Minter as its coordinator after Mike MacDonald left after one year for the Baltimore Ravens. Minter must replace seven starters, including possible No. 1 draft pick Aidan Hutchinson.

Ohio State also is retooling its defense after it got exposed early last season against Oregon and again in a 42-27 loss to Michigan. Coordinator Kerry Coombs was fired and Jim Knowles, who excelled as Oklahoma State’s coordinator, was hired and began installing a 4-2-5 scheme.

“The biggest revelation of the spring was that regardless of talent, these players that we have, they want to learn. They soaked up everything I did,” Knowles said. “They’re just into it; into football, into us, into culture change and the way we run meetings. They picked it up. I mean, they picked it up at a high speed.”

QUARTERBACK QUANTITY

There is plenty of starting quarterback experience around the league. Ten of the top 11 passers return, including the top three – C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, Aidan O'Connell of Purdue and Taulia Tagovailoa of Maryland.

Six teams, at most, are exploring their options.

New Indiana offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Walt Bell will continue auditioning Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak, Jack Tuttle and Donaven McCulley in preseason practice.

Iowa, which won the West despite having one of the least productive offenses in the nation, opened up the competition between Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla.

Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito stood out in Illinois’ spring game but will be pushed in the preseason when Artur Sitkowski returns from injury. Ryan Hilinski is first in line at Northwestern, though he had some shaky performances last season.

With J.J. McCarthy still recovering from a shoulder injury, an expected competition at Michigan didn’t materialize between him and incumbent Cade McNamara.

At Nebraska, all signs point to Texas transfer Casey Thompson taking over for Adrian Martinez, the four-year starter who transferred to Kansas State.

NEXT WALKER?

Kenneth Walker III was a revelation right away for Michigan State, running 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the opener against Northwestern. The Wake Forest transfer went on to lead the Big Ten in rushing and win the Doak Walker Award.

With Walker gone, the Spartans are hoping to have similar results with another transfer, either Jalen Berger or Jarek Broussard.

Berger was Wisconsin’s leading rusher in 2020 before he lost his job to Braelon Allen and was dismissed from the team a month into the 2021 season.

Berger appears to have come out of spring No. 1 on the depth chart, but more competition in one the way. Broussard is scheduled to arrive next month from Colorado, where he was Pac-12 offensive player of the year in 2020 and received All-Pac 12 honorable mention last year.

GOPHER HOLES

Sixth-year center John Michael Schmitz is Minnesota’s only returning starter from a unit that led the country with 235 combined career starts and is expected to produce multiple draft picks.

Line coach Brian Callahan began the rebuild this spring. Two transfers will figure prominently, with guard Chuck Filiaga from Michigan and tackle Quinn Carroll from Notre Dame.

Alex Ruschmeyer, who can play guard and tackle, is the second-most experienced lineman behind Schmitz. Tackle Aireontae Ersery might have the highest ceiling.

“Brian Callahan is one of the best developers of talent when we’re talking about offensive line play and if there is anybody who needs a challenge like that, Brian Callahan can nail it and crush it,” coach P.J. Fleck said.

2022 SEASON OPENERS

The season opens Aug. 27 with Nebraska playing Northwestern at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, and Wyoming visiting Illinois.

Other openers: Sept. 1, Penn State at Purdue; New Mexico State at Minnesota; Sept. 2, Illinois at Indiana; Western Michigan at Michigan State; Sept. 3, Notre Dame at Ohio State; South Dakota State at Iowa; Rutgers at Boston College; Buffalo at Maryland; Colorado State at Michigan; Illinois State at Wisconsin.

Notable: Nebraska was supposed to play Illinois in Ireland last year but the trip was canceled because of the pandemic. … The Illini get only five days between their first and second games.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.