CHICAGO — Hope springs eternal.
Before the season begins, that applies to every coach of the Big Ten. Every team is tied in the standings and every coach sees a path to a Big Ten title and possible national championship.
And as the coaches in the conference stand up at the podium for the first time, at arm’s length away from the three Big Ten trophies, the Big Ten Media Days provide the coaches their first opportunity to lay out their vision for the rest of the season.
Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
The first topic Chryst discussed was the promotion of Jim Leonhard from the defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator. A former walk-on safety at Wisconsin, Leonhard held the Big Ten record for career punt return yards and was named to the first team All-Big Ten thrice. Chryst addressed the three close losses during the past season and said his players have learned from those close losses and know this season they can compete with anyone on a given day. He added that while he has a ton of respect for Ohio State, it is too early to deem the Buckeyes the favorite in the conference seeing as how they have yet to play a game.
Tom Allen, Indiana
The replacement to now-Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson as head coach at Indiana, Allen began by laying out three numbers that are written on his board: 50, 26 and 10. Fifty years since Indiana won the Big Ten, 26 years since it won a bowl game and 10 seasons since Indiana posted a winning record. He said that the key to erasing all three numbers will be to have a top-25 defense. Allen was also outspoken in his criticism towards playing Big Ten games on Friday night and said that he wants to keep it a special night for high school football games.
And Allen wasn’t shy about displaying his excitement for his first regular season game against Ohio State.
“We’re going to be bringing our players in August 1st to report, start practice on the 2nd, to prepare for the biggest opener in the history of Indiana football on August 31st when we play the Ohio State Buckeyes in Bloomington for an 8:00 kickoff,” Allen said. “It’s going to be a very exciting opportunity for me to be in my first home game as the head coach in my home state.”
Lovie Smith, Illinois
Smith began his opening remarks by highlighting plans to improve the facilities in Champaign, Illinois, to bring them up to the level of the other teams in the conference. The second-year coach announced his starting quarterback will be redshirt junior Chayce Crouch, who served as the backup to Wes Lunt last season before requiring shoulder surgery after sustaining an injury. Smith also said he expects the healthy return of redshirt junior wide receiver Mike Dudek, who has missed the past two seasons due to an injury, but set school records for receiving yards by a freshman in his first year (1,038 yards).
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Coming off the worst season in Dantonio’s 13 year coaching career, the Michigan State coach discussed the steps necessary to have a rebound season. He compared the Spartans’ new starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore Brian Lewerke, to former Michigan State quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook, and believes Lewerke’s past experience, size and arm strength has him established above the rest of the pack. Dantonio added a key to the turnaround for the Spartans will be to regain a positive turnover ratio as that proved to be an issue for his team. He also noted that though his team could be young heading into 2017, they have several veteran leaders like senior offensive lineman Brian Allen, senior linebacker Chris Frey and senior running back Gerald Holmes.
He added that between several off-the-field issues this past offseason, his team will have to battle through some adversity. But he believes they are up to the task.
“There will be challenges along the way,” Dantonio said. “But we established ourselves as a championship program inch by inch. There was nothing ever given to us. And that’s how we’ve handled it. That’s how we’ve taken it. We have to go back to that mindset, understand that things don’t come easy.”
D.J. Durkin, Maryland
Durkin began his time speaking about the opening of the Cole Field House, a new facility his team will begin utilizing as early as this week. He later talked about how big of a recruiting class this current group of freshmen is for the Terrapins, and how he’s found success over his first two seasons recruiting by not only selling the product of Maryland, but by involving his players in the process of hosting prospects at the school.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Now the longest-tenured head coach in the FBS after the surprising retirement of former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, Ferentz discussed what it meant to have known Stoops when the two were at Iowa (Stoops a player, Ferentz the offensive-line coach) and to have maintained that friendship throughout their years of coaching. Turning to the players on his team, Ferentz said he feels confident in the depth he has at the tight end position and went so far as to list a pair of tight ends he figures will have starting roles in 2017.
Urban Meyer, Ohio
P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
A month before his inaugural season as head coach of Minnesota, Fleck — beaming with excitement and energy — talked about how honored he is to be joining the Big Ten as a first-year head coach and how excited he is to kick off the season. In addition, he spoke about the opportunity he had to hire former Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ed Warriner to be his offensive line coach.
“Ed has brought a ton of knowledge to our offensive room,” Fleck said. “He’s a phenomenal recruiter, wonderful person, and just brings a plethora of knowledge. Anytime you can hire an offensive coordinator at The Ohio State University, bring him up, be a part of an experience he’s had and bring him a part of your program, you jump on it.”
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Coming off only his second-ever bowl win in 11 seasons with Northwestern, Fitzgerald addressed how his team built up momentum towards the end of the last season and carried that into their win at the Pinstripe Bowl. He also looked ahead to his team’s opener against Nevada — a team with a new coach, quarterback and overall offensive scheme. Lastly, he was asked about the school’s plans to build new facilities for athletics.
“This is for our program, from the standpoint of university support, one of the last few pieces of the puzzle we really need,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re far from the finished product in Evanston, and now to have the Walter Athletic Complex and Ryan Field and Hutcheson Field and Wilson Field and the indoor all the great facilities we’re about to have give us a chance to compete for a recruit maybe we never had an opportunity to get.”
James Franklin, Penn State
Speaking as the coach of the reigning Big Ten champion Nittany Lions, Franklin began by talking about how important it was for a team as young as his squad was last season to gain valuable experience playing in both the Big Ten Championship Game as well as the Rose Bowl. He said gaining that experience should help it going into 2017 when it is bound to receive more national recognition and no longer be viewed as the sleeper it was the past season.
Franklin also said that though he has junior running back Saquon Barkley and redshirt junior quarterback Trace McSorley on his team, it is not those guys who get him the most excited.
“I would make the argument the thing we’re most excited about on both sides of the ball but specifically on offense is the offensive line,” Franklin said. “Saquon Barkley has done some great things so far, but to think about him having a chance now this season to play behind what I make the argument we feel like has got a chance to be one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten, there’s so much value in that.”
Jeff Brohm, Purdue
The third new head coach to speak at the media days, Brohm said even though the Boilermakers are coming off a 3-9 season, he believes there is talent on the roster and a fire in the players to be competitive in 2017. He talked extensively about the offensive side of the football, saying he expects his team to play exciting football with a strong group of running backs and several junior college transfers at the wide receiver position to help spark the team. Defensively, he believes Purdue boasts a strong group of linebackers and a stout defensive line that should help to create the same run-stopping defense he had last season while he was the coach at Western Kentucky.
Mike Riley, Nebraska
Riley began his podium session addressing the quarterback situation in Nebraska with Tommy Armstrong no longer around to guide the Cornhuskers behind center, and instilling confidence in his new quarterback, redshirt junior Tanner Lee — who sat out last season per the NCAA transfer rules after arriving from Tulane.
“The good thing for Tanner and us is he has played in college football games. And the other part of it is he’s been with our team for about a year,” Riley said. “His entry has been impressive in just the simple fact that he became a good teammate. Became immediately well liked and through time became very well respected, enough so to be elected at one of our — not our seasonal yet, but our offseason captains for our offseason conditioning program.”
Looking toward the defense, Riley talked about his hire of Bob Diaco as the defensive coordinator, citing Diaco’s 3-4 defensive scheme as a reason for hiring him (Riley also claimed to be a 3-4 defensive coach). He also discussed losing senior cornerback Chris Jones and the challenges in replacing him, mentioning senior defensive back Joshua Kalu as a candidate to shift from safety — his position last season — to cornerback.
Chris Ash, Rutgers
The former co-defensive coordinator for Ohio State and now Rutgers head coach began by expressing his disappointment in his first season coaching the Scarlet Knights went as the team finished 2-10 overall and 0-9 in conference play.
“It wasn’t fun,” Ash. “Been asked a lot about it. It was awful. But we’ve moved on. It’s behind us and we’re a lot better football team today because of what we went through a year ago. We went through a lot of adversity a lot of tough times, a lot of challenges. Brought our football team closer together.”
Entering his second season, Ash said he expects his secondary to again remain the strength of the team, but noted that in order for it to be as dominant as it was last season, the defensive line will have to step up to put enough pressure on the quarterback to force the opposing offense to make mistakes.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Wrapping up Tuesday morning’s media sessions with the coaches was Michigan’s khaki-wearing head coach. Harbaugh spoke extensively about taking his team to Rome, saying that it helps to put the “college” back in college football.
“It’s a chance to have the whole world be your classroom. And not all learning is done in a classroom or on a football field. It’s out there living, out there seeing and doing,” Harbaugh said. “It’s incredible to connect with somebody from a different country, to see something you’ve never seen before, taste food you’ve never tasted or hear a language that you’ve never heard and then experience it together as a team.”
Looking ahead to the year in front of him, he said that while his team has lost several key players, he is excited to see the continued development of his juniors — the first class he brought in as head coach — and believes they will be ready to step up in 2017. He added that redshirt junior Wilton Speight is currently tied for first with redshirt senior John O’Korn for the starting quarterback position as it stands today.