Position Confidence - The Offense
Let's do the Saturday practice thoughts this way: on a scale of 1-10, how confident am I in the depth of each position? Given what I saw on Friday and Saturday, and I feeling good about the linebackers or am I frightened of that position going into the season?
Let's break it down further than just "offensive line" too. I will go quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive tackles, offensive guards/centers, defensive tackles, defensive ends, linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties, and specialists. Offnese today, defense and specialists tomorrow. Right to it:
That's 4 out of 10, not 4 out of 5. In no way do I feel good.
Part of it, I'm sure, is not having one clear guy. I feel like we've had a clear starter for, like, 14 of the last 15 seasons. Either you expected the highly-ranked recruit to win the job (like Nathan Scheelhaase in 2010) or you had a guy coming back who, right or wrong, was going to be the starter (like Wes Lunt in 2016). Right now, honesly, no idea.
The favorite is obviously MJ Rivers. He performed quite admirably when he played last season, putting up solid statistics for a true freshman. But when I watch him in practice, for whatever reason, I'm stuck on "yeah, still a year away".
And sometimes when I watch Matt Robinson I think "you know, he might be the guy". He's better in the run game than Rivers (and faster), and as we saw last year, the key to this offense is the threat that the QB can run. So might be go with our best running threat? But what if that running threat can't throw?
Actually, it's probably not fair to Coran Taylor to say that Matt Robinson is the "best running threat". Robinson is quick but he's not going to run anyone over. Taylor is much stronger and, even though their not hitting, seems to be a guy who might run some people over in a live game. The problem: even in "live" scrimmages the quarterbacks are in different colored jerseys so they can't be tackled. So we won't know if Taylor can run people over until his first live game.
Overall, yeah - I'm stuck at "the quarterbacks are a year away".
Running Backs: 9
I considered a 10 here because in 11-on-11 drills, both Dre Brown and Ra'Von Bonner had a cutback run that sent them to the endzone untouched. Part of that was the defense, and we'll get to that later, but both cutbacks were of the "he just turned 7 yards into 64 yards by finding a hole that didn't appear to be there" variety.
And that's not even mentioning Reggie Corbin and his 1,000-yard season last year. And that's not mentioning Mike Epstein's career average of 6.5 yards per carry before injuries took away his last two seasons. This is how every position should look.
I'm not sure if I need to say much more here. There's top-end talent (the returning third-team-All-B1G tailback), there's depth in case of injuries, there's a junior who would certainly put up 1,000 yards as the feature tailback (Epstein), there's the chance for a senior breakout (Brown), and there's even two redshirt-freshmen who can be developed very slowly (Jakari Norwood and Kenyon Sims).
Everything you need. All that would be needed to push it to a 10 is a four-star coming in who looks like the star of the future once Epstein graduates.
Tight Ends: 5
I could go both ways here. When you watch Luke Ford (bigger/stronger/faster), you think that a 5 is way too low here. But Ford needs a waiver to be eligible to play, So he doesn't really "count" yet.
When you look for depth and don't see it (or when you watch the blocking), you think that 5 is way too high here. Austin Roberts did almost all of the blocking last year, and he graduated. Who is the blocker? Who is getting that kickout block to spring Reggie Corbin free?
And then you see Daniel Barker catch a pass an inch off the turf and remember "oh yeah, Barker was a nice surprise for a true freshman last year". So you feel a little better. And you start to talk yourself into it. "You know, if Barker progresses here and maybe redshirt junior Griffin Palmer starts to work his way into the rotation, we might be just fine at tight end".
So yeah - a 5.
Wide Receiver: 2
I'll be honest - I considered a 1. Part of it, sure, was "maybe everyone was lying and I really will see Jeff Thomas and AD Miller out on the field". When you go in expecting not to see much, you're not going to see much.
But I was just so underwhelmed. No one stood out as "he's CLEARLY the guy", not even Ricky Smalling. It was only two practices, but there were no "hey, maybe we really have something here (like Edwin Carter in the Memorial Stadium scrimmage after Training Camp last summer)" moments. I saw one really eye-popping sideline catch from Valpo-transfer Donny Navarro (eligible this season), but that was it.
So now we're playing Yahtzee, and we need a large straight, and we kept a 3 and a 4 after the first roll and then rolled 3-4-4 (and we already have our full house). So now there's one roll left, and we have 3-4, and we basically have to roll 1-2-5 or 2-5-6. Any other number, or any number doubled-up, and we're screwed.
OK, I'll back off of that. We need four of these six things to happen:
- Ricky Smalling puts everything together and comes up with an All-Big-Ten type season
- Trenard Davis is the clear #2 receiver and pushes well past his 30 receptions last year to pull in 50+ for 500+ yards.
- One of the seniors with very few career catches (Caleb Reams, or Justice Williams) has a Miles Osei-like senior breakout with 35 catches for 350 yards.
- Edwin Carter returns from his knee injury in the summer and proves to be completely healthy and ready to contribute 15+ catches.
- One of the sophomores (Carlos Sandy or walkons Donny Navarro and Jordan Holmes) proves to be a reliable rotation receiver ready to catch (and block) in any formation.
- One of the newcomers (senior transfer Dijon Brissett or incoming freshman Casey Washington) proves to be a reliable Big Ten receiver starting immediately (like, from the first quarter of the Akron game).
Get four of those things to happen and we'll be OK. (I don't expect four of those things to happen, so I don't think we'll be OK.)
Offensive Tackles: 8
I feel great about tackle. Two junior starters (Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe), both entering their third season as the starter, both ready to make a push for maybe third-team All Big Ten (and then jump higher as seniors). And a reliable junior backup (Jake Cerny) who has played a decent amount and would be ready to come in if one of them is struggling or injured.
Maybe 8 is too high here, but the starters were both solid last year as sophomores as our running game flourished. With an expected junior leap, I think pass protection will improve, run blocking will remain the same or better, and depth will be developed. There's a chance that development is stunted by the switch in position coaches (from Luke Butkus to Bob McClain), but with the scheme staying the same, I expect Lowe and Palcho to be very strong. Not much more to say here.
Offensive Guards/Centers: 6
This is a generous 6. I'm confident in Doug Kramer at center, I'm confident in Kendrick Green at left guard, but beyond that things get shaky.
If Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon can step in and be the certain starter at right guard (big shoes to fill in replacing Nick Allegretti), then 6 might be a little low here. If he can be a "don't skip a beat" replacement, then we're fine. But if we do skip a beat, and then we look to the bench to see who might replace Petitbon, uh.......
The big loss here was Larry Boyd announcing his transfer. I was all set on Boyd being Allegretti's replacement. Boyd started nine games in 2017 (and then missed all of last year on an academic suspension), so he was the perfect choice. Now we're attempting to plug the gap with Petitbon (who didn't crack the lineup in his four years at Alabama). If it works, we're fine. If it doesn't work, then the options are:
- Junior Kurt Gavin, part of the Cubit recruiting class. He hasn't cracked the lineup in his first three years, but there are often 4th-year breakouts for offensive linemen.
- Redshirt-freshman Jordyn Slaughter, who was working as Petitbon's backup at right guard the two days I watched practice.
- Redshirt-freshman Kievan Myers, who arrived after school began last year and sat out the full season. Still needs to get in playing shape but has the best frame of any of the guards, starters included.
- Walkon Jake Stover, who is currently working as the backup center. He's a bit undersized, so center is his best spot, but last year he pushed past all the scholarship guys and played in four games at guard (while the others mostly all played in zero games).
That's why it's a bit shaky at guard. At tackle you need three certain names, and I think we have them. At guard you need four certain names, and right now we have two. Petitbon has to prove he's #3 and someone from that list needs to emerge as #4.