Rating the Big Ten - Receivers and Tight Ends
By Tony Gerdeman
There isn't really much separation among the receiver groups in the Big Ten this season. This is probably a political statement of some sort on the state of the playmaking talent in the conference.
There are possibly six or seven teams that could claim to be the top unit in the Big Tenn and one of them (Ohio State) has actually had a receiver guarantee it.
Still, the top ten receivers in terms of yards per game all return, including the conference's lone 1,000-yard receiver, Penn State's Allen Robinson. Of the top 30 wide receivers last season (in terms of yardage), 25 of them return this year.
This is hardly set in stone as there is plenty of room for movement.
1. Penn State
Allen Robinson led the conference in every significant receiving statistic last season. His 77 receptions for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns all led the Big Ten. Tight end Kyle Carter, as a redshirt freshman, was 10th in the Big Ten with 50.3 yards receiving per game. He was a constant mismatch, and it's hard to imagine him becoming easier to defend in his third season. Fellow tight ends Matt Lehman and Jesse James return after combining for 39 receptions for 572 yards and eight touchdowns. There are also receivers Brandon Moseby-Felder (31-437-1) and Alex Kenney (17-172), as well as redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis, who was highly-touted out of high school.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes return their top two receivers in Philly Brown (60-669-3) and Devin Smith (30-618-6). Smith's 20.6-yard average per reception was nearly two yards more than anybody else in the Big Ten. His focus this spring, however, was on becoming more consistent with the shallow routes, which he was. Brown, meanwhile, wants to become more of a threat after the catch. He will be in a slightly different role this year, as Jordan Hall will assume the H-back spot full time. Urban Meyer called Jeff Heuerman (8-94-1) and Nick Vannett (9-123) the best group of tight ends he's ever had. Brown thinks this will be the best receiver unit in the conference. There are also some highly-touted freshmen coming in, including five star Jalin Marshall.
The Huskers return their top three receivers in Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. Bell finished with 863 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. However, his 61.6 yards receiving per game was only good for fifth in the Big Ten. Enunwa caught 42 passes last season and is more of the physical possession type. Turner is a big-play threat, but averaged just 13.0 yards per reception last season. Their top three receivers can compete with anybody in the conference. However, they do lose their top two tight ends, and won't necessarily be able to replace them with similar production.
Last season, Indiana's wide receivers caught 216 passes. This season, 199 of those receptions return. And that's not even including tight end Ted Bolser (41-445-3), who returns following an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten season last year. Cody Latimer (51-805-6), Shane Wynn (68-660-6) and Kofi Hughes (43-639-3) return as the conference's most productive wide receiver trio. Nobody in the B1G caught more than Wynn's 52 passes in October and November. Five Hoosiers finished in the Big Ten's top 11 in November receiving yards. Yes, Indiana throws the ball more than anybody else in the conference, but they also have very capable hands catching those passes.
5. Michigan State
Michigan State returns all of their receivers from last season. The group caught 158 passes, though battled consistency and drops throughout the entire season. That battle extended into the spring as well. If this group could ever catch the ball, they could be the top unit in the conference. Bennie Fowler (41-524-4), Keith Mumphery (42-515-1) and Tony Lippett (36-392-2) are vets, but as a true freshman Aaron Burbridge finished with 29 receptions for 364 yards and two touchdowns. His 274 yards receiving in October were second in the Big Ten. He could have a very big year with a consistent quarterback. The loss of tight end Dion Sims (36-475-2) is huge, and shouldn't be overlooked.
The Wildcats' top three receivers (in terms of yardage) return from last season. Christian Jones (35-412-2), Tony Jones (29-335-4) and Rashad Lawrence (34-321-0) are all back. The three of them are very solid, but none are known for big plays. Jones only averaged 11.8 yards per catch last year, with a long of 47 yards. Collectively, they averaged 10.9 yards per catch a year ago. Yes, they can move the chains, but they aren't making defenders miss. Perhaps the biggest playmaker in the group could be superback (tight end) Dan Vitale. As a true freshman last year, Vitale caught 28 passes for 288 yards. When the right guy is manning the position, the superback is a spot that finds mismatches all over the football field.
The Badgers have a solid #1 receiver in Jared Abbrederis (49-837-5) and talent at tight end in Jacob Pedersen (27-355-4). However, they are still looking for a second receiver. Jordan Frederick caught 17 passes last season as a redshirt freshman. He's a fair complement to Abbrederis, in that he is a bigger receiver (6-3 210) who could conceivably be a chain mover. Slot receiver Kenzel Doe had a productive spring. He's still not David Gilreath, like some have hoped, but the potential is there. Abbrederis has a pretty good chance to lead the conference in catches and yards this season with a more consistent passing game.
Michigan returns four of their top five pass catchers from last season, though one of them is quarterback Devin Gardner. Jeremy Gallon (49-829-4) is back, and with a full season of Gardner at QB, could have a 1,000-yard season. Devin Funchess is one of the more athletic tight ends in the country, and he should top his 15 catches from last season. Drew Dileo caught 20 passes out of the slot last year. Other than that, however, there isn't much else here in terms of experience. Second-year receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson need to show that they can produce in the Big Ten. The passing game should be solid, but Gallon and Funchess will need some help.
The fact that Kirk Ferentz brought in five wide receivers in the 2013 recruiting class should tell you just about all you need to know. Leading receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley (52-571-2) returns, as does tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (45-433-1). This is a nice base, but they need to become more productive. They scored just three combined touchdowns in 97 catches last year. Jordan Cotton (12-172-1) is a receiver with speed, and he could be a big-play threat that this offense won't bother to use. The coaches also like the ability of Tevaun Smith, who caught three passes last season. Fiedorowicz may be the best tight end in the conference, but he was hamstrung by offensive coordinator Greg Davis's shallow passing game last year.
The Gophers return three of their top four wide receivers from last season. Derrick Engel (18-375-1), Isaac Fruechte (19-256) and Devin Crawford-Tufts (16-189-1) are all back, and they will give the Minnesota quarterbacks some familiar targets to throw to. Engel's yards-per-catch (20.8) is impressive, but can he keep it up for an entire season as one of the Gophers' main targets? Jamel Harbison started the season opener as a true freshman last year before tearing his ACL in the first quarter. He was back this spring and impressed. He could certainly push any of the top three receivers for playing time. There is also Andre McDonald (10-121), who played as a true freshman as well. He is not currently enrolled, as he is working out some personal issues. He could return, however. The tight end spot features Drew Goodger, who caught 13 passes and three touchdowns last season.
Ryan Lankford (37-469-5) and Spencer Harris (21-252-2) are the top two returnees for the Illini. It's a good start for new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who likes to throw the ball. Lankford and Harris should both be ready for an uptick in work, though both will need to be better than they were last season. Justin Hardee (17-192) is also another name to watch. There will be room for three receivers in this offense. Tight end Jon Davis is a tremendous athlete, and he could certainly benefit from a more pass-friendly system. Head coach Tim Beckman also brought in a handful of receivers in the 2013 recruiting class.
Purdue loses their top two receivers, but returns Gary Bush (41-360-7), Dolapo McCarthy (28-252-1) and tight end Gabe Holmes (25-158-2). However, the longest reception by any of those three was just 35 yards. Raheem Mostert could provide some field stretching. He didn't catch any passes last season, but his versatility could be put to good use by new coach Darrell Hazell. Redshirt freshman B.J. Knauf had a solid spring, so there may be something here as well. More is expected out of Bush and McCarthy, and they should improve on their numbers, provided a quarterback is found. If Rob Henry does not win the QB job, he could also factor in at receiver.
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