New head coach Paul Chryst will have to rely on Corey Clement to be the new main man for the ground game now that Melvin Gordon is gone, but the bigger early problem could be the line that has to replace Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstein off the right side and Dallas Lewallen at left guard. Will the Badgers finally have a passing game? Quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy are both back, as are receivers Alex Erickson, Jordan Fredrick and Reggie Love, but they all have to be far better.
The defense that had to undergo an overhaul lose Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch on the inside, but get back Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel on the outside, The line should be fantastic despite the loss of end Warren Herring, and the secondary should be among the best in the Big Ten with CB Sojourn Shelton and all four starters returning. PK Rafael Gaglianone returns after a decent year, but P Drew Meyer has to get more of a blast.
The Mike Riley era needs to hit the ground running with more from Tommy Armstrong at quarterback and without Ameer Abdullah to hand off to. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby will handle the rushing workload behind a good-looking line that should be able to overcome a few key losses, including guard Jake Cotton. De’Mornay Pierson-El is a dynamic receiver leading a good, strong corps that should improve as Armstrong gets more and more comfortable.
The much-maligned defense comes back loaded with experience up front, even with Randy Gregory jumping to the NFL and with linebackers Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach gone. The secondary loses corner Josh Mitchell and safety Corey Cooper, but big-hitting Nate Gerry is back at one safety spot. P Sam Foltz is a good one, returning after averaging close to 42 yards per kick. The placekicking needs some help, needing Drew Brown to be more consistent in his sophomore year.
And the quarterback will be … ? Clayton Thorson might be too good to keep off the field, but Zack Oliver got a little bit of time in late in the season and is more like the QB the team is used to. Runner Matt Alviti is a good option, too. The receiving corps that was so banged up last year should be better even without Tony Jones and Kyle Prater, but the offense is going to work around Justin Jackson and the running game behind a line that gets three starters back.
The woeful pass rush needs a whole bunch more, and it should come with four senior starters returning along with promising former star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo. Leading tackler Chi Chi Ariguzo is gone on the weakside, and Jimmy Hall is done on the strong, but Anthony Walker is back in the middle and should be among the team’s leading tacklers. Ibraheim Campbell was a tone-setter in the secondary, but there’s more than enough talent returning to hope for more production with three starters returning. P Chris Gradone is back after a lousy year, averaging under 38 yards per punt, and PK Jack Mitchell returns after hitting 14-of-18 field goals.
Iowa has plenty of positives and lots of good things to work around, but it has to be far more consistent offensively. Jake Rudock is back for another year at quarterback, but C.J. Beathard was the far better performer in the bowl loss to Tennessee. They need Jordan Canzeri to turn into a main man at running back – or someone else has to step up. The line can’t replace LT Brandon Scherff, and it also loses two other starters. Leading rusher Mark Weisman is gone along with Damon Bullock, and leading target Kevonte Martin-Manley is gone, too. The offense has to find new targets and new playmakers for Rudock to work with.
The defense doesn’t have to undergo the overhaul it did this last offseason when the whole linebacking corps was gone, but three of the top four tacklers are done including Louis Trinca-Pasat up front. Jordan Lomax is a good free safety to start with, and Desmond King is certainly a keeper at corner, but SS John Lowdermilk has to be replaced. The interior is the big issue with Carl Davis gone with Trinca-Pasat, but Drew Ott and Nate Meier are back on the outside. The linebacking corps should be fine despite the loss of Quinton Alston in the middle. Dillon Kidd is back at punter, but he needs to average more than 40 yards per pop, and PK Marshall Koehn returns after a decent year.
The Gopher offense has to figure out a way to replace RB Daniel Cobb, but QB Mitch Leidner is back along with big back Rodrick Williams and slippery speedster Berkley Edwards. The line returns three starters, losing LG Zac Epping and C Tommy Olson, and the receiving corps has a few nice options in KJ Maye and Donovahn Jones returning to make up for the early NFL departure of TE Maxx Williams.
There are just enough losses on defense to be annoying, but nothing that should be devastating. Steven Richardson is back on the nose and Theiren Cockran returning at one end. However, the two top tacklers – LB Damien Wilson and S Cedric Thompson – are gone. De’Vondre Campbell should be the star of the linebacking corps, and Eric Murray and Damarius Travis lead a good-looking secondary. PK Ryan Santoso had a good first year, but not a great one, while P Peter Mortell is back after cranking out close to 46 yards per punt.
Was 2014 really the breakthrough season the program has been hoping for under Tim Beckman? The health of QB Wes Lunt will be the key to the 2015 plans not that Aaron Bailey has transferred. Josh Ferguson will become a bigger part of the running game, but the holes might not be there with three starters gone off the line. TE Jon Davis is finished, but the receiving corps should be a plus with all the key parts back including Mike Dudek.
The secondary has the potential to be the team’s biggest strength with depth, talent and playmakers. Now the Illini D has to come up with a pass rush after doing next to nothing for most of the year. The pressure will be on DE Jihad Ward to do more, but there are several prospects waiting to show what they can do with a bigger role. Leading tackler Mason Monheim is back in the linebacking corps along with T.J. Neal. Kickers David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski are back, but terrific punter Justin DuVernois is gone.
There’s potential to improve in a big way if the quarterback situation is settled. Is it going to be Danny Etling or Austin Appleby? It’ll be an open competition this spring, with David Blough also getting a shot. Finding a running back to replace Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert will also be a big key, hoping for Keyante Green to become the No. 1 guy behind a line that gets back all five starters. The top six wide receivers are returning with Danny Anthrop and Cameron Posey each ready to do more.
DT Jake Replogle and DE Ryan Watson are back up front as two of the team’s best pass rushers around NG Ra’Zahn Howard. The young linebacking corps is experienced with all six players on the two-deep back – they were all underclassmen last year – and three starters return to the secondary. However, the one loss is S Landon Feichter – the leading tackler by far. PK Paul Griggs is back after hitting 16-of-20 field goals, and P Thomas Meadows returns after averaging fewer than 40 yards per kick.
2015 Pre-Preseason Big Ten West Rankings
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