Ranking Big Ten WR/RB/TE situations: Michigan football, Michigan State near the bottom

Chris Solari
Detroit Free Press

The Big Ten lost a number of its biggest offensive stars after last season.

Rashod Bateman and Rondale Moore, gone. Trey Sermon, gone. Pat Friermuth, gone.

But there remains a number of talented playmakers at wide receiver, running back and tight end who will make an impact for their teams.

Headlining the returnees are Ohio State receiver tandem Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, two of the Big Ten’s top NFL prospects – even though Purdue’s David Bell is the reigning conference receiver of the year. And Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim is back after being the only rusher to eclipse 1,000 yards in the shortened 2020 season to earn league running back of the year honors.

Here is a look at each team’s handy men going into preseason camp, with Big Ten media day set to kick off the season July 22-23 in Indianapolis.

14. Illinois

Illinois quarterback Isaiah Williams (1) fights for yardage against Rutgers on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J. Illinois won 23 - 20.

Key returners: RB Mike Epstein, RB Chase Brown, WR Brian Hightower, WR Isaiah Williams, TE Daniel Barker.

Key losses: WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe (Kansas State), WR Casey Washington (Wake Forest), RB Ra’Von Bonner (Temple), RB Kenyon Sims (San Jose State).

Key additions: RB Chase Hayden (East Carolina), WR Jafar Armstrong (Notre Dame), FB/TE Max Rosenthal (Michigan State).

BIG TEN QB SITUATIONS:Michigan State and Michigan have question marks

The buzz: New coach Bret Bielema loves to operate with a power run game, and Brown returns his 5.19 yards per carry average from a year ago (540 yards, 103 carries, three TDs), and Epstein decided to come back after flirting with leaving for much of the offseason. It also will be interesting to see how Bielema uses Williams, a dynamic quarterback who was the team’s second-leading rusher as a freshman last year and is moving to receiver. That is partly because the coaching change hampered the Illini’s pass-catching depth, particularly losing the productive Imatorbhebhe, but grad transfer Armstrong should use his size and versatility as a former running back to become a target quickly for former Michigan QB Brandon Peters in his second season.

13. Nebraska

Montana wide receiver Samori Toure (82) scores a touchdown against North Dakota in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Missoula, Mont. (AP Photo/Patrick Record)

Key returners: WR Zavier Betts, TE Austin Allen, WR Omar Manning.

Key losses: RB Dedrick Mills, TE Jack Stoll, WR Wan’Dale Robinson (Kentucky), WR Kade Warner (Kansas State), WR Marcus Fleming (Maryland), WR Jamie Nance (Utah State), TE Kurt Rafdal (Boise State).

Key additions: WR Samori Toure (Montana), RB Markese Stepp (USC), WR Oliver Martin (Iowa), RB Gabe Ervin, TE Thomas Fidone.

The buzz: It was a fluid offseason for coach Scott Frost, particularly with the loss of  receiver Wan'Dale Robinson. The hope is Toure — a 2019 All-American in the Football Championship Subdivision — can emerge as a breakout candidate while stepping up a level for his final year in college. Manning also returns after an injury-plagued 2020. While QB Adrian Martinez continues to propel the run game, the hope is Stepp can, well, step in and provide a physical component that has been lacking in recent years, even though Mills signed as a free agent with the Lions. Freshman Fidone also should be an immediate contributor at tight end with a ready-made body and good hands and feet as a former basketball player.

12. Northwestern

Citrus Bowl: Auburn defensive lineman Jaren Handy (55) chases Northwestern running back Cam Porter (20).

Key returners: RB Cam Porter, WR Malik Washington, WR JJ Jefferson, WR Bryce Kirtz.

Key losses: WR Riley Lees, TE John Raine, WR Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, WR Kyric McGowan (Georgia Tech), RB Drake Anderson (Arizona), RB Isaiah Bowser (Miami, Ohio).

Key additions: WR Stephon Robinson (Kansas), RB Andrew Clair (Bowling Green), WR Jordan Mosley, RB Anthony Tyus III.

The buzz: It is an offensive overhaul for coach Pat Fitzgerald. WR Riley Lees and TE John Raine are off to the NFL, while losing WR Kyric McGowan (Georgia Tech) hurts. However, getting Jefferson back after he opted out of last season, returning Washington out of the portal and adding Robinson from it should help ease the transition for South Carolina transfer QB Ryan Hilinski. Mosley also should become an immediate contributor. Porter became the go-to running back last season, finishing with five TDs and 333 yards on a team-leading 81 carries. That prompted Anderson and Bower to leave, opening a spot for Clair, who started his first two years at Bowling Green before an injury in 2019 limited him the past two seasons. It will be a competition at tight end between seniors Charlie Mangieri and Trey Pugh and sophomore Thomas Gordon for snaps.

11. Rutgers

Michigan's Gemon Green, right, tackles Rutgers' Bo Melton during the third overtime of an NCAA college football game Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J. Michigan won, 48-42.

Key returners: RB Isaih Pacheco, WR Bo Melton, WR Aron Cruickshank, WR Shameen Jones.

Key losses: RB Kay’Ron Adams (UMass).

Key additions: WR Josh Youngblood (Kansas State), WR Brandon Sanders (Bucknell), RB Al-Shadee Salaam.

The buzz: The Scarlet Knights were among the nation’s worst in total offense last season, but they also showed improved competitiveness and ability to post points in coach Greg Schiano’s return to the sideline. Melton finished tied for third in the Big Ten with nine total touchdowns and emerged as a top target for QB Noah Vedral with 47 catches for 638 yards and six scores through the air. Jones and Cruickshank, a Wisconsin transfer before the 2020 season, combined for 71 catches and more than 600 receiving yards, and the arrival of Youngblood makes this group among the fastest in the Big Ten. Pacheco produced a solid season with 57.2 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry with three TDs, but Rutgers needs more from his young backup Aaron Young.

10. Michigan State

Michigan State receiver Jayden Reed makes a catch during the Spring Game Saturday, April 24, 2021 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Key returners: WR Jayden Reed, WR Jalen Nailor, RB Elijah Collins, RB Jordon Simmons, TE Tyler Hunt.

Key losses: TE Matt Dotson, WR Tre’Von Morgan (Kentucky), TE Tommy Guajardo (Bowling Green).

Key additions: RB Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest), RB Harold Joiner III (Clemson), WR/TE Maliq Carr (Purdue), WR Christian Fitzpatrick (Louisville), TE Kameron Allen, WR Keon Coleman, RB Davion Primm.

The buzz: Scoring is a major priority after averaging a Big Ten-worst 18.0 a game in 2020. Receivers Reed and Nailor are burgeoning stars, who along with Ricky White flashed downfield playmaking ability that should help whoever wins the QB battle between Payton Thorne and transfer Anthony Russo. The group already was deep, with Tre Mosley, CJ Hayes, Terry Lockett and Montorie Foster all competing for time, and the additions of Fitzpatrick and Coleman increase that. Coach Mel Tucker added depth and talent from the transfer portal in the backfield, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten and 122nd nationally in rushing offense at just 91.4 yards a game. Walker is a bruising back who scored 17 touchdowns in two years over 20 games at Wake Forest — something the Spartans’ running backs have struggled to do the past two seasons. Collins, who nearly ran for 1,000 yards in 2019, appears back to full health and strength after COVID-19 limited him last season, which allowed Simmons to emerge as the starter. Joiner arrived this summer and could team with senior Connor Heyward as passing targets out of the backfield. With oft-injured Dotson retiring from football after trying to make it one more year, former kicker/punter Hunt is back as starter after emerging as a sure-handed target last season. Junior Trenton Gillison also returns after an injury-hampered 2020, and they’ll be pushed by Purdue transfer Carr and freshman Allen.

9. Michigan

Michigan State Spartans cornerback Chris Jackson (12) and Michigan State Spartans safety Emmanuel Flowers (20) tackle Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins during the second quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Key returners: RB Hassan Haskins, WR Ronnie Bell, WR Cornelius Johnson, RB Blake Corum, TE Erick All.

Key losses: WR Nico Collins, RB Chris Evans, TE Nick Eubanks, FB Ben Mason, RB Zach Charbonnet (UCLA), RB Christian Turner (Wake Forest), WR Giles Jackson (Washington), RB Gaige Garcia (Lehigh), WR Xavier Worthy (Texas).

Key additions: WR Daylen Baldwin (Jackson State), RB Donovan Edwards, RB Tavierre Dunlap, WR Andrel Anthony.

The buzz: The ground game proved to be disastrous last season for coach Jim Harbaugh, as the Wolverines finished 11th in the Big Ten and 95th nationally in rushing offense at 131.5 yards. The departures of Zach Charbonnet, Chris Evans and Christian Turner opens the door for Haskins to up his production after averaging 62.5 yards a game and 6.1 yards per carry with a team-high six TDs in 2020. With Corum entering as the backup, a pair of four-star freshmen in West Bloomfield product Edwards and Dunlap should battle to contribute immediately as well. Bell, who combined with Johnson for four TDs and 655 yards on 42 catches, provides a veteran target. Baldwin, a Southfield product and two-time transfer, is an intriguing prospect who showed some ability in his first stop at Morgan State in 2018 and ’19. Worthy would have been in line for significant playing time, but the four-star freshman was released from his letter of intent and instead signed with Texas. That could open the door for East Lansing product Anthony and/or fellow freshman Cristian Dixon to contribute early. Getting back All and Luke Schoonmaker should help replace the steady play and blocking from Eubanks at tight end.

8. Maryland

Nov 7, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Maryland Terrapins wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. (7) catches a pass for a touchdown in front of Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (9) during the second quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Key returners: WR Dontay Demus Jr., WR Rakim Jarrett, TE Chigoziem Okonkwo, RB Tayon Fleet-Davis.

Key losses: RB Jake Funk.

Key additions: WR Marcus Fleming (Nebraska), TE CJ Dippre, RB Colby McDonald, TE Weston Wolff.

The buzz: Former MSU star and assistant coach Dan Enos, the Terps new offensive coordinator, inherits a dynamic tandem of potential pros at receiver in Demus and Jarrett for QB Taulia Tagovailoa to throw to. They combined for 617 yards and six TDs catches while averaging 136.0 yards on 9.0 catches between them. Add in Jeshaun Jones, the solid hands of Okonkwo and the ability of Fleet-Davis to catch out of the backfield, and Maryland’s offense should improve. It remains a question mark at running back, though, with Fleet-Davis returning from suspension that cost him almost all of last season and Funk off to the NFL. Sophomores Isaiah Jacobs and Perry Boone should see expanded roles as a thunder-and-lightning, power-speed tandem behind Fleet-Davis.

7. Wisconsin

Tight ends coach Mickey Turner acknowledged UW needs at least one member of his unit to emerge as a pass-catching threat to complement Jake Ferguson, who is entering his final season.Jack Eschenbach played on special teams in 2019 and last season caught two passes for 27 yards.

Key returners: TE Jake Ferguson, WR Danny Davis, RB Jalen Berger, WR Kendric Pryor.

Key losses: RB Garrett Groshek, FB Mason Stokke, RB Nakia Watson (Washington State).

Key additions: RB Chez Mellusi (Clemson), WR Markus Allen, RB Loyal Crawford.

The buzz: The Badgers are coming out of one of their worst offensive seasons in recent memory, ranking 103rd nationally in total offense and 108th in passing as they worked Graham Mertz in as their new QB and he then contracted COVID-19 and injuries to his receiving corps. But Ferguson emerged as the league’s premier tight end, catching 30 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns to earn first-team All-Big Ten by the media and second-team by the coaches. He should help Mertz continue to grow, and Davis and Pryor are veteran wideouts who have histories of making plays. Of course, Wisconsin’s run game did remain its strong point, with Berger emerging in his four games as a big-play threat in running for 301 yards and two TDs while sharing time with since-departed Groshek and Watson.

6. Indiana

Michigan defensive back Vincent Gray attempts to tackle Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle during the second quarter of U-M's 38-21 loss on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Bloomington, Indiana.

Key returners: WR Ty Fryfogle, TE Peyton Hendershot, RB Sampson James, WR Miles Marshall.

Key losses: RB Stevie Scott, WR Whop Philyor, WR Jordan Jakes (UNLV).

Key additions: WR D.J. Matthews (Florida State), RB Stephen Carr (USC), WR Camron Buckley (Texas A&M), TE James Bomba (Miami (Ohio)), WR Jaquez Smith.

The buzz: The loss of Stevie Scott to the NFL after rushing for 70.1 yards per game and 10 TDs leaves a big hole in the backfield. The hope is Carr can step in and make an immediate impact, though James is a former four-star recruit who has been roadblocked much of the past two seasons. Hendershot is an underrated pass catcher and blocker. The return of Big Ten receiver of the year Fryfogle (37 catches, 721 yards, seven TDs) offsets the NFL departure of dynamic playmaker Whop Philyor, while 6-foot-4 junior Marshall could emerge as a weapon. Transfers Matthews and Buckley (who sat out last season) along with incoming freshman Smith should become immediate top targets for returning QB Michael Penix to keep the high-octane offense moving.

5. Iowa

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson is tackled by Michigan State cornerback Kalon Gervin during a 71-yard run during the second half of MSU's 49-7 loss on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Key returners: RB Tyler Goodson, TE Sam LaPorta, WR Tyrone Tracy, WR Nico Ragaini.

Key losses: TE Shaun Beyer, RB Mekhi Sargent, WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR Brandon Smith, WR Oliver Martin (Nebraska), RB Shadrick Byrd (Charlotte).

Key additions: ATH Arland Bruce IV, ATH Keagan Johnson.

The buzz: Goodson seized the starting job last fall, running for 762 yards and seven touchdowns and becoming a first-team All-Big Ten selection. The departure of Sargent to the NFL should increase Goodson’s workload as a junior in 2021 from the 143 carries he got last season, and Iowa needs senior Ivory Kelly-Martin to return from offseason ACL surgery and absorb some of the burden to keep Goodson fresh. With Smith and Smith-Marsette gone to the NFL and former Michigan receiver Martin moving across the Missouri River to his third Big Ten school, Nebraska, there is a vacuum of wide receivers for QB Spencer Petras to target. Ragaini, Tracy and injury-prone Max Cooper are next up at receiver, but incoming freshmen Johnson and Bruce could assert themselves into the offense quickly. That dearth of experience likely will put added emphasis on LaPorta, who caught a team-high 27 passes last season for 271 yards.

4. Penn State

Michigan defensive back George Johnson tackles Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson during the second half of Michigan's 27-17 loss at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Key returners: RB Noah Cain, RB Devyn Ford, RB Keyvone Lee, WR Jahan Dotson, WR Parker Washington, TE Brenton Strange.

Key losses: TE Pat Friermuth, WR John Dunmore (Florida Atlantic), WR TJ Jones (UAB).

Key additions: RB John Lovett (Baylor), WR Lonnie White Jr., TE Khalil Dinkins.

The buzz: The departure of Big Ten tight end of the year Pat Friermuth is a big loss, but Washington was among the nation’s best freshmen last season and Dotson is a game-breaker on the outside who led the Big Ten with 884 receiving yards and eight TD catches in 2020. Sophomore KeAndre Lambert-Smith also should help returning QB Sean Clifford, and White could become a big-time threat if he doesn’t bypass college football for pro baseball. Sophomores Strange and Theo Johnson have big shoes to fill but got significant playing time last fall after Friermuth’s season-ending injury. The Nittany Lions’ backfield-by-committee also returns, with Cain (who suffered a season-ending injury on the first drive of 2020), Ford and Lee bringing different skills along with the dual-threat Clifford in the run game.

3. Purdue

Dec 5, 2020; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Purdue Boilermakers wide receiver David Bell (3) runs the ball for a touchdown after catching a long pass under coverage from Nebraska Cornhuskers safety Deontai Williams (8) during the second half of the game at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Nebraska Cornhuskers defeated the Purdue Boilermakers 37 to 27.

Key returners: RB Zander Horvath, WR David Bell, TE Payne Durham, WR Milton Wright, WR TJ Sheffield.

Key losses: WR Rondale Moore, WR Amad Anderson (Temple), WR Jared Sparks (Louisiana Monroe).

Key additions: RB Dylan Downing (UNLV), TE Drew Biber.

The buzz: Rondale Moore returned to play sparingly the past two seasons after a breakout freshman year, then left for the NFL after playing three games in the fall. His absence allowed Bell to blossom into a premier target and potential pro as well, leading the Big Ten with 104.2 receiving yards and 8.8 catches per game and tying for the league lead with eight TD catches. Horvath also emerged as a versatile weapon with 5.5 catches and 9.5 yards per reception out of the backfield to go with 73.7 rushing yards a game. The senior will team with junior King Doerue to provide experience behind whoever ends up starting at quarterback. And QBs Jack Plummer and Adrian O’Connor will need to make fast friends with tight ends Durham and Garrett Miller, because depth beyond Bell and Wright at receiver is down. Sheffield, who like Moore is a dangerous kick returner, could emerge with his speed and elusiveness in the slot.

2. Minnesota

Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim rushes for a touchdown as Michigan Wolverines defensive backs Makari Paige (7) and Daxton Hill (30) attempt the tackle in the first half at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020.

Key returners: RB Mohamed Ibrahim, WR Chris Autman-Bell, TE Bryce Witham, WR Daniel Jackson.

Key losses: WR Rashod Bateman, WR Seth Green (Houston).

Key additions: WR Dylan Wright (Texas A&M), RB Mar’Keise Irving, WR Lemeke Brockington.

The buzz: After finishing fifth nationally in all-purpose yards despite playing just seven games in the shortened season a year ago, Ibrahim alone makes the Gophers’ skill players among the best in the league. He's back after 1,076 rushing yards — the only Big Ten player to eclipse 1,000 — and 15 TDs on 201 carries to earn a third-team All-American nod and win the league's running back of the year. Finding a second option to minimize the wear and tear on Ibrahim over the longer season this fall will be necessary, and four-star freshman Irving will challenge vets Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley for the job. Witham leads a cadre of tight ends used primarily for their strong blocking but who have shown the ability to score in the red zone. Returning QB Tanner Morgan lost top target Bateman and has a thin receiver group beyond Autman-Bell, Jackson and Clay Geary, which gives three-star freshman Brockington a chance to make an immediate impact.

1. Ohio State

Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave (2) makes a catch against Michigan State cornerback Kalon Gervin (18)  during the second half at the Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

Key returners: RB Master Teague, WR Chris Olave, WR Garrett Wilson, WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, TE Jeremy Ruckert.

Key losses: RB Trey Sermon, TE Luke Farrell, TE Jake Hausmann, WR Jameson Williams (Alabama), WR Mookie Cooper (Missouri).

Key additions: WR Emeka Egbuka, WR Marvin Harrison Jr., WR Jayden Ballard, RB TreVeyon Henderson, RB Evan Pryor.

The buzz: Olave (104.1 yards per game) and Wilson (90.4) are two of the top returning receivers in the nation, let alone the Big Ten in which they ranked No. 2 and 4 in receiving yards per game and combined to catch 13 TD passes. The spoils of being Ohio State means replacing a four-star who leaves for another powerhouse program (WR Jameson Williams) with two highly touted incoming freshmen in Eguka and Harrison to continue the embarrassment of riches in a deep receiver room. Oh, and Ruckert is a potential pro at tight end. An injury-laden season forced Teague to take somewhat a backseat to the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher Sermon last fall, though the returning junior still scored eight TDs and averaged 73.4 yards rushing. The arrivals of Henderson and Pryor will push Teague in a crowded backfield.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.