We have already covered the respective backfields in the Big Ten, starting with the quarterbacks of the East and the West, then moving on to the running backs and fullback(s), though fullbacks don’t really exist in the East anymore.
Now it is time to move on to the wide receivers and tight ends, of which there are boatloads.
We will start with the Big Ten West, which features the return of the top two yard-producers from last season in Purdue’s Rondale Moore (1,258) and Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson (1,169).
Of note, there are only 11 pass catchers in the Big Ten West that were rated as 4-star prospects or better in the 247Sports Composite.
For comparison’s sake, Ohio State has 12.
The numbers in parentheses next to the team is the total number of recruiting stars on the roster at wide receiver and tight end.
1. Minnesota Golden Gophers (46)
Five receivers with starting experience return from last season, including the three guys who started the majority of the games. This group is led by All-Big Ten senior Tyler Johnson, who finished third in the Big Ten with 78 receptions last season and second with 1,169 yards. His 12 touchdowns were tied for most in the conference and his 20 receptions of 20 or more yards led the Big Ten. Only two of those catches went for more than 40 yards, however. He had six 100-yard games on the year. Sophomore Rashod Bateman caught 51 passes for 704 yards and six touchdowns last season as a true freshman. His three receptions of 60 yards or more were tied for the most in the conference. Bateman was a Third-Team All-B1G selection. Sophomore Chris Autman-Bell finished third on the team with 28 receptions for 449 yards as a redshirt freshman. Tight ends Jake Paulson and Ko Kieft combined for nine starts and three catches last year. This is a receiver-driven passing game.
2. Purdue Boilermakers (50)
Jeff Brohm signed four wide receivers in the 2019 class and two tight ends. Those four wideouts will join three redshirt freshmen wide receivers to give Purdue an incredibly young group of pass catchers. They do lose some experience, but no Big Ten defensive coordinators will be shedding tears for the Boilers as long as Rondale Moore is on the field. Moore led the nation last season with 114 receptions as a true freshman. His 1,258 yards were 11th in the nation and tied for the most in the Big Ten over the last five seasons. He is small, but has more strength and explosion per square inch than anybody else in the county. Moore led the conference with nine plays from scrimmage of 40 yards or more last year. Jared Sparks (28-274) and Jackson Anthrop (8-54) are veterans. Freshmen David Bell and Milton Wright were 4-star signees with several major offers. Senior tight end Brycen Hopkins caught 34 passes for 583 yards last year, including a 74-yarder. These dudes are going to be busy.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers (49)
Nebraska will need to replace last year’s leading receiver Stanley Morgan, who put up over 1,000 yards on the season. Junior JD Spielman returns. He is very dangerous out of the slot, putting up 66 catches for 818 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Spielman had four plays of 40 yards or more from scrimmage in 2018. California grad transfer Kanawai Noa has transferred to Nebraska and has 96 career receptions, including 56 for 788 yards in 2017. He is an experienced player who will give quarterback Adrian Martinez another target. Senior Mike Williams (12-122) and sophomore Kade Warner (17-95) don’t provide big plays, but combined for nine starts last year. Freshman slot receiver Wan’Dale Robinson was the No. 1 all-purpose back in the 2018 class and there have already been comparisons to Purdue sophomore Rondale Moore. Junior tight end Jack Stoll is a productive receiver (241-245-3) who started every game last season.
4. Wisconsin Badgers (41)
Wisconsin went the last nine games of 2018 without having 200 yards passing in a game, and it would be tough to pin those numbers on the veteran corps of Badgers receivers that returns this year. Senior AJ Taylor has been around forever and has nine career starts. He led the team with 521 yards receiving last year. Junior Danny Davis had a strong freshman season with 418 yards receiving, but followed that up with the same 418 yards receiving on 14 more catches. Davis needs to become a more threatening receiver this season. Junior Kendric Pryor (23-273-3) is no longer a mystery at this point. There are a handful of experienced tight ends on the roster. Sophomore Jake Ferguson started twice last year, yet finished second on the team with 36 catches for 456 yards. Overall, it may take some time for the passing game to come together as the Badgers may go through some growing pains at quarterback before they turn to the future of the program in true freshman Graham Mertz.
5. Northwestern Wildcats (45)
This is your annual reminder that Northwestern’s tight ends are called “superbacks” and that everybody should adopt this nomenclature. The Wildcats will need to find a new superback this year, but they have options in junior Trey Pugh, sophomore Charlie Mangieri, and freshman Thomas Gordon. They will be hard-pressed to put up the 57 receptions that the departed superback Cameron Green put up last year, however. Starting receivers Kyric McGowan (16-283-2) and Bennett Skowronek (45-562-3) return. This will be the third year as a starter for Skowronek, so new quarterback Hunter Johnson may look his way quite a bit this season. Junior Ramaud Chiaokkiao-Bowman started four games last year and caught 20 passes for 237 yards. Junior Riley Lees caught 22 passes for 214 yards. There is a sizable number of experienced receivers on this roster. With Hunter Johnson now at quarterback, perhaps this group will make more plays downfield.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini (43)
The Illini return three of their top four receivers and add a pair of transfers from USC. Both Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe were 4-star signees for USC, but have combined for just 12 receptions in their two years as Trojans. Junior Ricky Smalling led the team with 33 receptions for 406 yards and five touchdowns last season. He did the best he could without a quarterback to get him the ball. That may change this year with the recent addition of Michigan transfer Brandon Peters. Only four of Smalling’s receptions went for more than 20 yards. Senior Trenard Davis was second on the team with 30 receptions last year, but averaged under 10 yards per catch. Tight end Daniel Barker started three games last year and caught nine passes. There are 11 former 3-star recruits on this roster, and only a couple of them have touched the ball. This group needs to make more big plays. Having a downfield thrower should help.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes (44)
The Hawkeyes lost two tight ends to the first round of the NFL Draft back in April, so that’s gonna be a tough loss to overcome. Because this is Iowa, however, there are still tight ends on the roster, and four of them were former 3-star recruits. Senior Nate Wieting only caught two passes last season, but has seven career starts. Leading receiver Nick Easley is gone, but the next two wideout pass-catchers return. Junior Brandon Smith caught 28 passes for 361 yards last year and junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette caught 23 passes for 361 yards. Both players are experienced and have started plenty, but Smith-Marsette is the bigger play guy of the two. Iowa’s slot receiver has led the team in receptions four years in a row, which is where Easley played last year. Redshirt freshmen Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini impressed in the slot this spring. Michigan transfer Oliver Martin could also factor in on the outside or inside if he is granted immediate eligibility.