The return of Simmie Cobbs gives IU a huge boost. [Bryan Fuller]
The opponent position group previews continue with a look at enemy pass-catchers, which includes both wide receivers and tight ends for the purpose of this exercise. This isn't a strong year for proven talent among receivers in the Big Ten; eight of the top ten leaders in receiving yardage from conference play last year have moved on, including NFL talents like Chris Godwin, Curtis Samuel, Amara Darboh, and Austin Carr.
There's a fair amount of young talent, however, and the team that gets one or two first-year starters to break out could vault to the top of this list.
|Simmie Cobbs Jr. (2015)||110||60||1035||4||17.3||9.4|
|Danny Friend (TE)||13||7||65||2||9.3||5.0|
|Ian Thomas (TE)||5||3||28||0||9.3||5.6|
While the Hoosiers lose two productive, reliable slot-types in Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige, they boast last year's best big-play threat outside of Godwin in junior Nick Westbrook. They also get a huge boost from the return of Simmie Cobbs Jr., who broke the thousand-yard mark as a sophomore in 2015 before missing all but one snap last year due to a one-game suspension and an ankle injury. Cobbs and Westbrook form the best 1-2 tandem in the league and it may not be particularly close; both are big-bodied outside receivers with big-time playmaking ability. Unfortunately, Cobbs' status for next Thursday's opener against Ohio State is up in the air after an offseason arrest.
Former walk-on Luke Timian impressed in limited snaps last year and is in line to start in the slot. There may be some dropoff from the Jones/Paige duo but it won't be by much. The major weakness here is at tight end, where Danny Friend underwhelmed as both a receiver and blocker last year; we'll see how important that position is to the IU offense as they transition from Kevin Wilson to Mike DeBord.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the list.]
2. Penn State
|Mike Gesicki (TE)||71||48||679||5||14.2||9.6|
Losing an NFL talent and contested catch specialist like Chris Godwin will hurt any team, especially one that looks to chuck it downfield as often as Penn State. This is still a deep and talented group of receivers, however, led by a tight end who might as well be a wideout. Mike Gesicki can't block worth a damn, but he's 6'6" and hauled in more than 2/3rd of the passes thrown his way last year—and he was targeted on much more than simple underneath stuff. When he's in a route, he's as dangerous as any TE in the country.
There are plenty of options at wide receiver, too. Senior DaeSean Hamilton can play outside or in the slot, and while he hasn't matched his freshman-year numbers, much of that had to do with Godwin's emergence as an elite talent. DeAndre Thompkins is speedy and shifty. Saeed Blacknall, spring star Juwan Johnson, and Irvin Charles are all bigger receivers who could step into Godwin's role. This team could easily rank first if one of those three has a breakthrough season.
|Troy Fumagalli (TE)||66||47||580||2||12.3||8.8|
|Kyle Penniston (TE)||9||6||102||2||17.0||11.3|
There's a significant dropoff after Penn State, at least for now. Wisconsin is top-heavy, boasting a solid big-play receiver in Jazz Peavy and arguably the nation's best all-around tight end in Troy Fumagalli. Peavy isn't the most consistent player, however, and after him there's not a ton to get excited about in the receiving corps. George Rushing, the targeted receiver on the Jourdan Lewis pick, was expected to step into a starting role, but he's been out of fall camp with a leg injury and is doubtful for the opener.
That leaves very little experience to start the season. Sophomore Quintez Cephus saw five starts last year but was barely targeted; AJ Taylor had a similar freshman year. Four-star freshman Danny Davis looks like he'll get some early run.
4. Ohio State
OSU TE Marcus Baugh's production hasn't yet matched his talent. [Fuller]
|Marcus Baugh (TE)||48||24||269||2||11.2||5.6|
Last year's group of Ohio State receivers wasn't particularly dangerous save for H-back Curtis Samuel, who lined up in the backfield about as often as he did the slot. Nominal top receiver Noah Brown, who fell off dramatically after his standout game against Oklahoma, left early for the NFL and went in the seventh round—he's fighting for a roster spot. Given OSU's recent recruiting, this unit could, and really should, improve on the outside; replacing Samuel at H-back will be much more difficult.
Promising second-year players Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack are both strong breakout candidates who will share snaps at X receiver. Terry McLaurin, who didn't do much last year, is currently holding the Z receiver spot over Johnnie Dixon. Parris Campbell, a high school running back who played somewhat out of position on the outside last year, is expected to get a major increase in workload at H-back, where he'll compete with converted RB Demario McCall. Sophomore KJ Hill, who had the best per-target average on the team last year, will figure into the mix somewhere.
Enigmatic TE Marcus Baugh hasn't put up numbers to match his talent yet, but he's still considered an NFL prospect, and there are some quality up-and-comers behind him. There's a lot of talent here; the question is whether someone can emerge as a true #1 target.
|Antonio Callaway (susp.)||85||54||721||3||13.4||8.5|
|DeAndre Goolsby (TE)||53||38||342||3||9.0||6.5|
|C'yontai Lewis (TE)||33||18||184||2||10.2||5.6|
Florida would rank higher if they caught Michigan at a different time of the year. Instead, they're the week-one opponent, and that means top receiver Antonio Callaway won't be available due to suspension after multiple off-field incidents this offseason, including a fraud scheme that involved six other Gators.
That leaves senior Brandon Powell, who averaged only 5.6 yards per target last year, as the top wideout. While those numbers were undoubtedly impacted by Florida's subpar quarterback play, there's no guarantee that gets better this year. The Gators boast a pair of solid tight ends and promising sophomore wideout Tyrie Cleveland, who was boom-or-bust as a freshman. This group has some decent talent but the loss of Callaway, by far their best big-play threat, is significant.
|Levern Jacobs (2015)||62||35||425||3||12.1||6.9|
|Derrick Hayward (TE)||5||4||17||1||4.3||3.4|
|Avery Edwards (TE)||3||1||23||0||23.0||7.7|
If we were separating this into tiers, there'd be a drop between Florida and Maryland. The Terps leaned heavily on DJ Moore last year, and he did about as well as you can expect given the quarterback situation. While they've lost some talent, they get agile playmaker Levern Jacobs back from injury.
Beyond those two it gets dicey. Slot Jacquille Veii transferred from Maryland to FCS Towson for the 2015 season, then made the rare transfer back to his original school last year; after sitting out, he's now a viable candidate to start in the slot—he was the team's fourth-leading receiver as a sophomore back in 2014. The Terps barely used the TE position last year and that shouldn't change under Walt Bell.
I like Moore's ability, but this team could really use a receiver who's taller than 5'11" to break into the lineup.
|Tyler Cogswell (TE)||6||2||42||0||21.0||7.0|
|Josiah Deguara (TE)||4||4||47||0||11.8||11.8|
Devin Gray and Kahlil Lewis were an impressive pairing last year, especially since Cincinnati really struggled at quarterback after Hayden Moore's injury. Gray was particularly consistent, catching at least four passes in all but two games and never nabbing fewer than two. He'll be the primary focus of Michigan's defense when these teams meet.
There isn't much behind those two but at this point having a pair of proven starting receivers is enough to beat out the rest of the teams on this list.
TE Brandon Lingen will be Minnesota's passing game binkie. [Patrick Barron]
|Brandon Lingen (TE) (2015)||49||33||428||3||13.0||8.7|
|Nate Wozniak (TE)||22||13||135||0||10.4||6.1|
|Colton Beebe (TE)||9||6||48||0||8.0||5.3|
Coupled with Minnesota's suboptimal quarterback situation, the lack of quality receivers could be an anchor on the Gopher passing attack this year. In 2016, Drew Wolitarsky led the team with 102 targets and 66 receptions; the next-closest receiver was Rashad Still with 39 and 19, respectively. Still did the majority of his damage in two games, against Northwestern and Purdue, and he's the #1 wideout by default.
The good news is tight end Brandon Lingen, whose excellent 2015 was followed by an injury-plagued 2016, should be back at 100%, giving whoever wins the quarterback job a reliable safety outlet with some playmaking upside. He'll be needed quite a bit.
9. Michigan State
|Felton Davis III||29||12||150||1||12.5||5.2|
|Darrell Stewart Jr.||6||3||29||0||9.7||4.8|
|Matt Sokol (TE)||3||2||26||0||13.0||8.7|
If anything, I'm giving the Spartans too much credit here. They were already slated to lose three of their top four receivers, including slot RJ Shelton and TE Josiah Price, before also losing NFL-level talent Donnie Corley, who was charged with sexual assault over the offseason. Top returning receiver Felton Davis III caught only 41% of his targets last year, easily the lowest figure on a team that struggled to consistently move the ball through the air.
There's still some leftover talent from MSU's brief run of good recruiting, though. Sophomore Trishton Jackson and redshirt freshman Cam Chambers were both top-250 prospects in the 2016 class, and they added a couple solid in-state freshmen in Hunter Rison and Cody White. Tight end is similarly thin on experience but has junior Matt Sokol and freshman Matt Dotson, a one-time Michigan target, to take over for Price and Jamal Lyles. It takes quite a bit of projection to see this being a plus unit this year; that doesn't mean it's not possible. Think of this group as Michigan Lite. (Very Lite.)
|Matt Flanagan (TE)||11||6||29||0||4.8||2.6|
|Damon Mitchell (Ark 2015)||7||6||84||1||14.0||12.0|
Leading returning receiver Jawuan Harris was productive mostly by volume as a freshman, similar to Martavious Odoms in 2008. While he showed solid ability for a true freshman, he may not see an uptick in his numbers. That's an especially good bet with the return of electric athlete Janarion Grant, who posted the above numbers in only four games last year before injury cut his season short. If Grant can finally translate his ability to break into open space as a return man to offense, he'll get the lion's share of the targets; he probably will regardless.
Otherwise, there ain't much here. Rutgers is hoping Arkansas transfer Damon Mitchell can inject some life into this group.
|Cole Herdman (TE)||49||35||344||3||9.8||7.0|
|Brycen Hopkins (TE)||24||10||183||4||18.3||7.6|
|Corey Holmes (ND 2016)||21||11||96||0||8.7||4.6|
Cole Herdman would be better-regarded among the conference's tight ends if he wasn't stuck on Purdue. Gregory Phillips is a senior with plenty of game experience. Corey Holmes was a four-star recruit before getting buried on Notre Dame's depth chart. Thus ends the good things I have to say about Purdue's receiving corps.
12. Air Force
|Ryan Reffitt (TE)||23||8||173||2||21.6||7.5|
Yes, as those numbers indicate, Air Force's option offense created some ridiculous stat lines. Only in a run-run-run-run-run-BOMB-run-run-run offense can you average 9.5 yards per target while catching only 4-of-17 passes thrown your way.
Air Force lost a legitimate NFL talent in 6'4" WR Jalen Robinette, who was the only Falcon to surpass double-digit receptions or 200 receiving yards—he had 35 and 959, respectively. While his replacements had some big plays last year, they're all shorter than 6'0" and don't have Robinette's knack for hauling in jump balls. If these guys make plays against Michigan, it'll be because of the scheme and inexperienced secondary.
Where Would Michigan Rank?
Third, despite their inexperience. This year's freshman wide receiver haul is so absurd that at least a couple of players look poised to be exceptions to the freshman-receivers-suck maxim, and there's still plenty of talent left over from the 2016 class, too. Add in the depth and variety of targets at tight end and Michigan does well here despite losing their top three receivers from last year.