CHICAGO – The first of two Big Ten Media Days is in the books as coaches and players from Illinois, Indiana, Maryland Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio State met with assembled media in downtown Chicago.
Here’s a notebook of some significant story lines from Thursday.
Is it time for division realignment?
A team from the Big Ten East has won the Big Ten Championship in all five seasons of the current division format in the Big Ten – Ohio State three times, while Penn State and Michigan State have won once apiece.
The Spartans also won the conference crown in the final year of the Leaders and Legends divisions.
The year before that, Wisconsin defeated Nebraska in the conference championship game but the Badgers only qualified because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for the postseason.
Sensing a trend?
That’s six consecutive years that a team that’s currently in the Big Ten East has won the conference championship and it could’ve been seven if not for extenuating circumstances.
Several coaches were asked about potential division realignment on Thursday due to perceived imbalance.
For the record, I don’t think it’s perceived. I think it’s real, and I wrote about the issue in December.
Here are Indiana Coach Tom Allen’s thoughts on the issue:
“You know, I’ve been asked this several times and I know when I was in the SEC, they had the big discussion if (there were) too many good teams in the West and they need to move somebody to the East and all that. But if you look at it when I was a high school coach in Florida in the mid-90s, it was the other way around…our divisions aren’t as longstanding as theirs and so I think if you let time unfold itself, then it’ll probably balance itself back out. I just know this, since I’ve been here, I think we’ve played everybody in the conference and they’re all tough.
“They can slice it however they want, we’ll just play who they tell us to play.”
Illinois Coach Lovie Smith was also asked about whether it’s time for the Big Ten to change its divisions.
“The division setup, I can’t necessarily say that,” he said. “I like the way it is right now. I like, of course, the division that we’re in. There are good football teams on both sides, both sides of our conference.”
The Fighting Illini have finished in last place in the weaker of the Big Ten’s two divisions in each of the last two years, so don’t expect Smith to support making his conference schedule any tougher.
Ohio State’s young quarterback room
The likely starting quarterback for Ohio State this season, Georgia transfer Justin Fields, arrived in Columbus in January with 39 pass attempts in college to his name. His presumed backup, Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak, has 26 career attempts and he only joined the team in April.
“The quarterback room, there’s not a guy in that room that was on the roster last year,” Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said. “There’s not in a guy in that room that was on the roster in December, other than Chris Chugunov.”
And Chugunov, a grad transfer by way of West Virginia, only enrolled at Ohio State last fall.
He has attempted just 95 passes in his career.
“So it’s an interesting situation,” Day said. “Whoever is playing in that first game will be the first time. Justin and Gunnar are going to compete like heck to go win the job. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to who can play the game.
“Our schedule is funny this year. We have six games, a bye week, two games, a bye week, and then we play four games. And so in those first six games, the quarterback is going to be green. He’s not going to have a lot of experience. So the guys around him, our defense, the running game, the receivers on the end, they’ve got to pick up the slack there, and so as we go and grow throughout the season, we kind of get into that middle season hitting our stride on offense.”
Even though Fields has yet to take a meaningful snap in a Buckeyes uniform, he has already made a profound impact on Ohio State’s 2019 outlook. That’s because his commitment via the transfer market secured the return of wide receiver K.J. Hill, who could finish among the program’s all-time leaders in numerous statistical categories.
He has 144 receptions, 1,696 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, after a 70-catch, 885-yard, six-touchdown campaign last fall.
Hill may have been the first person outside of Day and Fields’ immediate family that knew the former 5-star quarterback was transferring to Columbus.
“I kinda knew before anybody,” Hill said. “Coach Day told me when we was in California because I had a decision to make.”
It’s not like the whole team found out that way, either. Defensive lineman Jonathan Cooper found out, out of the blue, simply by scrolling on Twitter.
“I just needed to know what the quarterback situation was like,” Hill said, referring to his stay-or-go decision about his professional future. “Do I need to leave with Dwayne (Haskins) or if I want to stay, will I have a quarterback? Because there were talks about (former Ohio State quarterback) Tate (Martell) transferring, all this stuff, so I just didn’t know what it was and that’s how found out.”
Hill said he knew Haskins was leaving – not knew knew, but he realized his quarterback was talented enough to – after Ohio State squeaked past Maryland 52-51 in overtime in Week 12.
Haskins threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns in the game.
“I didn’t talk to him, I just knew, like, he could leave,” Hill recalled. “Right before the Rose Bowl I knew [Fields] was coming because I had a decision to make and Coach Day was honest with me. He sat me down and said this was what it’s going to be.”
“I needed to know my quarterback. There was nobody here. They said Tate was finna leave and there was nobody else in the room and Dwayne was gone. I was just hearing rumors. Making decisions about my life, I can’t depend on a rumor or even bet myself on that.”
Day hasn’t named a starting quarterback and he stood by that stance at Big Ten Media Days but Hill spoke of Fields like he’ll be QB1 on the Buckeyes’ depth chart.
“He can be really good. He can bring a lot to our offense, just because he can run the football a little bit. He got legs. Dwayne didn’t have that. We can do passing game, we can do a lot more in the running game with RPOs and it’ll make it easier on us.
“At the end of the day, people start playing us different, they knew (playing) man-to-man, Dwayne was going to torture them and they started zoning us and that’s when you saw those kind of games getting the score kinda coming down because they started zoning us but I feel like with a quarterback like Justin, it’s going to make you have to be honest with your defense.”
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Indiana’s pursuit of a breakthrough
If you spend enough time around Indiana Coach Tom Allen, who’s entering his third year as the head man in Bloomington and fourth year overall with the program, you’ll pick up on the words and phrases that are the pillars of the program and culture he’s trying to establish.
There’s LEO – “Love each other,” which was the last thing he said to the media before walking off the podium after his press conference on Thursday. “Grit” is the word he chose for the Hoosiers’ 2019 season; Allen and his players often pick a word in the preseason to define the upcoming campaign.
Another Indiana football buzz word is “breakthrough,” a word for which he admittedly doesn’t have a tangible definition. It’s not going 8-4. It’s not beating Ohio State. It’s not making a New Year’s Six bowl.
Well, not exactly. Those would obviously be breakthroughs for an Indiana team that’s coming off of back-to-back 5-7 seasons but the point is that Allen hasn’t tethered himself to a specific win total or concrete finish line that defines a breakthrough.
“That’s why I love ‘breakthrough’ because it’s not tied to one thing,” he said. “I talk about spiritual, mental and physical breakthrough but to me, the part that people see are the games. Well, you know what, it’s having a winning season. It’s winning a bowl game. Those are little simple things that’s a major breakthrough because that hasn’t happened in a long, long time.”
Indiana’s last bowl win came in the 1991 season, a decade before current recruits were born.
“To me, it’s about beating one of the big boys that we haven’t beaten in a while and all those games have been so close since I’ve been here,” Allen said. “That’s breakthrough. It’s all different levels, that’s why it’s a great concept because it’s not pigeon-holed into one thing.”
Both Ohio State and Michigan own 23-game winning streaks against Indiana, which means the issue of division imbalance in the Big Ten arguably affects Indiana – a program that has tip-toed along the fine line of bowl eligibility in the last four seasons, and could’ve potentially reached seven or eight wins with a friendlier schedule – as much as any program in the conference.
What does it take for the Hoosiers to finally beat the Buckeyes or Wolverines?
Last season they trailed Ohio State by nine on the road entering the fourth quarter and Indiana led Michigan by two at halftime in the Big House. They’ve given both programs scares in recent years.
“It’s depth, it’s being able to execute at critical times, which fatigue can limit that,” Allen said. “Obviously good players, guys making plays, you gotta be able to convert, you gotta get stops.”
That’s easier said than done, even if Indiana’s 36th-ranked 2019 recruiting class is elite in regards to the program’s historical standards, because the division’s blue bloods perennially enroll top-15 classes.
Mike Locksley’s ‘speed dating’ to preserve his roster
First-year Maryland Coach Mike Locksley was named to his current role in early December when he was still Alabama’s offensive coordinator and he had another month with the Crimson Tide as ‘Bama chased another national title.
That meant he got a late jump at building and retaining his roster in College Park.
“I think the big thing when I first took over was to manage our current roster,” Locksley said. “And I know when I took the job over, we had quite a few guys that had entered the transfer portal prior to me becoming the head coach.
“And one of the things I did the first day after being hired is I kind of – I called it speed dating. I met with every player for about 15 minutes, and I asked them what they liked about being a Maryland football player, and I asked them what they didn’t like. And I took great notes and really worked on starting to develop a relationship.”
Ultimately, Locksley’s quick work at building new relationships and utilizing past relationships with players from D.C., Maryland and Virginia allowed the Terrapins to use the transfer portal to a net-gain.
Maryland running back Anthony McFarland Jr. was one of the players who didn’t need an introduction to his new head coach.
“It wasn’t even a get-to-kn0w-me period because I been knowing Coach Locksley when I was in eighth grade, just knew me personally as a family friend,” McFarland said. “He didn’t start recruiting me until I got into high school in ninth, 10th grade. They were one of my first offers so he’s been a family guy for a long time, he’s known around the area.
“Like I said, he’s like a godfather to the DMV, knows the ins and outs of recruiting. It’s not even about recruiting with him, he’s going to let you know the real, so he’s a good dude.”
So seasoned relationships like that between Locksley and McFarland kept Maryland’s roster from atrophy after the coaching hire.
“Very fortunate that I was only three years removed from being a coach there, and we’d lost, I think, maybe one or two players through the transfer portal,” Locksley said. “And on the flip side of it, because of some of the relationships I’ve built throughout my career in coaching at other places, I’ve been very fortunate to take advantage of the transfer portal where we’ve got the likes of players like Josh Jackson coming in, a starting quarterback from Virginia Tech that has won a lot of games and has great game experience.
“Shaq Smith, transferring in from Clemson, Keandre Jones from Ohio State, Sean Savoy from Virginia Tech. So we’ve been able to maybe fill some gaps and fill some holes that will help us do the things that we need to do to try to become successful.”