Biggest Shoes to Fill in the Big Ten in 2021
Ohio State Quarterback
It will be no easy task replacing first-round pick Justin Fields, who spent two years as the Buckeyes' starter and led them to multiple playoff appearances and conference championships while becoming one of the premier players in the country. He unseated the incumbent Jacob Eason at Georgia as a freshman before being replaced by Jake Fromm and transferring to Columbus. He was a difference-maker for the offense, and his best game was last year's semifinal performance against Clemson. The next signal-caller needs to be a similar player who can play his best on a national stage. That shouldn't be a problem for a recruiting powerhouse like this, but it has been a while since OSU had to break in a new quarterback.
Indiana Running Back
Stevie Scott finished his career in the top-10 in Hoosier history in nearly every running back statistic and became just the third player in program history to run for at least 10 touchdowns in three consecutive seasons. He was a bruising back--particularly near the goal line-- and kept the offense balanced. He could run over people with deceptive elusiveness. Samson James has a similar profile but hasn't had the chance to build up a decorated career. The team will also welcome in USC transfer Stephen Carr, who has over 1,000 career rushing yards.
Michigan State Outside Linebacker
The Spartans should be in good hands talent-wise at this position with all the transfers they landed, but you can't overlook the departure of Antjuan Simmons. While undersized and not overly athletic, Simmons constantly made plays that no one else would. He was the leader and best player for the Spartan defense and his presence will be sorely missed. Again, there are plenty of talented linebackers on this roster. The question will be who steps up and takes that leadership role.
Part of the reason Northwestern struggled in 2019 was poor quarterback play. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey steadied the ship last year, and the team went to its second conference championship game in three years. Obviously, there is more turnover on the roster than just quarterback, but Pat Fitzgerald's team will need to find their new signal-caller quickly. Senior Hunter Johnson was the original starter in 2019 and may be the favorite., but South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski also has starting experience and may make a push for the spot.
Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher were staples in the middle of the WIldcats' defense for years and consistently earned All-Big Ten honors. The pair will be nearly impossible to replace and the players on the roster have little game experience. Grad student Chris Bergin is the only returnee who has started games, and senior Peter McIntyre is the only other significant contributor coming back.
Ohio State Linebacker
The Buckeyes lose four key linebackers from last year's squad (Pete Werner, Baron Browning, Tuf Borland, and Justin Hilliard), two of whom were selected on Day 2 of April's NFL Draft. Browning was named to the coaches' 2020 All-Big Ten team, while Werner was chosen as an All-Conference performer by both the coaches and media. Going into 2021, seniors Dallas Gant and K'Vaughan Pope are the only linebackers on the team to have previously played anything more than special teams at the college level. Safe to say the Buckeyes have some holes to fill.
Ohio State Offensive Line
The Buckeyes also had a fantastic offensive line last season--placing all five starters on an All-Big Ten team. However, they do lose starting center Josh Myers and right guard Wyatt Davis to the NFL. Ourlads currently projects a competition between redshirt junior Matt Jones, sophomore Paris Johnson, and redshirt freshman Luke Wypler. Of the three, only Jones has made an appearance in a collegiate game. Left guard Harry Miller can also play center if need be.
Iowa Defensive Line
The Hawkeyes will be missing three of the four starters along the defensive front from their 2020 opener. Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Golston, and Austin Schulte have all moved on--leaving defensive end Zach VanValkenburg as the lone returning starter. The team website currently lists key reserves John Waggoner, Noah Shannon, and Yahya Black as the starters after spring practice. The Hawkeyes averaged just under three sacks per game with Golston and Nixon tying for the team lead with 5.5 each. Iowa also had a top-10 run defense. While Iowa tends to have talented defenses, it will be hard to repeat that performance with so much change upfront.
Iowa Offensive Tackle
Center Tyler Linderbaum and guards Kyler Schott and Cody Ince all return after starting last year, but the Hawkeyes will need to replace both offensive tackles. Alaric Jackson leaves for the NFL after an accomplished college career that included 42 starts and many national and conference awards. Mark Kallenberger has ended his football career after one year as a starter and earning All-Conference Honorable Mention. Junior Jack Plumb and sophomore Nick DeJong ended spring practice as the projected starters.
Wisconsin Offensive Line
Wisconsin has become an offensive line factory and will be replacing Cole Van Lanen and Jon Dietzen. The duo made up the left side of the Badgers' line and had a combined 58 starts and 87 game appearances between them. Former backups Josh Seltzner and Tyler Beach are expected to take over the roles.
Illinois Wide Receiver
Although he only spent two years with the team, Josh Imatorbhebhe was the best Illini receiver in quite a few years. He was a physical and athletic receiver who had tremendous size for his position. He used those traits to play his way to just under 1,000 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 18 games. The roster is light on experience and lacks a legitimate number one receiver entering 2021, which may cause the passing game to suffer.
Nebraska Running Back
Markese Stepp transfers from USC but only has 505 career rushing yards over three seasons. The man he will be attempting to follow, Dedrick Mills, ran for over 1100 yards in just two years that also included injuries. Although Stepp's numbers do not appear to be great, it is worth noting that USC used three running backs with regularity. Getting the chance to be a feature back on a team that finished second in the conference in yards per carry could be fantastic for him, but Mills is no easy player to replace.
Nebraska Offensive Line
Unfortunately for the Huskers, they will be missing some key players on the offensive line. Boe Wilson and Matt Farniok both graduate after spending most of the last four seasons contributing on the right side of the offensive line. Also gone is tackle Brenden Jaimes, who started games in each of his four seasons and set the school record for most consecutive starts. All that experience will be difficult to replace as all three players are projected to be replaced by redshirt freshmen.
Derrick Barnes was quietly one of the most productive and versatile defensive players in the Big Ten. He could line up as a middle linebacker and as a pass rusher off the edge, He had unique quickness for his size, was a sure tackler, and covered well for a big linebacker. Barnes was a key contributor for the Boilermakers for four seasons and consistently finished among the team's top tacklers. Jalen Graham and Khali Saunders are expected to compete for his spot, while the other three starters return.