Monday, August 15, 2022

Big Ten Media Days 2022: Ohio State’s bold expectations, Manny Diaz’s transition at Penn State among takeaways

The second day at Big Ten Media Days was for the heavyweights, as three of the projected top four finishers in the East Division took the stage along with Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin. With Wednesday marking one month until the league’s season begins — a trio of teams will be in action for Week 0 — the sense of urgency was real as the conference seeks to produce its first national title winner since Ohio State in 2014.

The Buckeyes were among the programs under the spotlight Wednesday, and fifth-year coach Ryan Day addressed his program’s expectations head on, noting that Ohio State’s aspirations are, as always, to “beat the team up north, win the Big Ten Championship, win the National Championship.”

“Those are our goals,” he said, “and those things didn’t happen last year.”

To return to Big Ten supremacy, the Buckeyes will likely have to beat that team up north, but they face more obstacles than just Michigan. Among the challengers will be Penn State, Michigan State and the Badgers, each of which were represented on Day 2 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

As the conference turns the page from talking season to the beginning of actual football, here are the takeaways from part two of Big Ten Media Days: 

Ohio State’s scars

Day said he thinks his players are “a little scarred … a little calloused” after an 11-2 season that featured a Rose Bowl victory but no Big Ten East title and no College Football Playoff appearance. One of the program’s biggest moves this offseason to remedy the shortcomings of 2021 was bringing in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to help improve a Buckeyes’ unit that ranked tied for 59th nationally last season in total defense.

If there was any doubt over the expectations for Knowles’ unit in 2022, Day cleared that up.

“New scheme, new coaches, all of those things are new,” Day said. “I think going up against them in the spring and seeing what’s happened this summer and now into the preseason, it’s been exciting to watch. There’s just an aggressiveness about them. But in terms of expectations, yeah, we expect a top-10 defense. That’s what we want. When we’ve played our best football, it’s because we played really good defense, and we’ve been balanced and played complementary football. We want to obviously stop the run to begin with and then go from there, but we expect a top ten defense.”

Manny Diaz’s fit at Penn State

The Buckeyes aren’t the only Big Ten East power with a new defensive coordinator after Penn State coach James Franklin tabbed Manny Diaz to replace Brent Pry, who took the Virginia Tech head coaching job. The Nittany Lions finished tied for sixth nationally in scoring defense last season, allowing just 17.3 points per game, leaving Diaz with some big shoes to fill after a three-year run as Miami’s coach.

“He’s done it at a high level at a bunch of different places, but then also has been a head coach,” Franklin said on the Big Ten Network. “There’s value in those experiences from a leadership standpoint, from a big picture perspective.”

Franklin said he called Diaz the day after he was fired at Miami and wasn’t sure whether he’d be interested in talking about the Penn State gig so soon — but he was, perhaps due in part to a preexisting relationship between the two.

“He’s a guy that we also spent time with in the offseason with my previous defensive coordinators talking,” Franklin said. “That’s what we do in the offseason, you talk to other coaches that come from a similar philosophy and tree. That helped as well because when you go out and hire somebody who has a completely different philosophy, there’s going to be growing pains with that. He’s hit the ground running.”

Aidan O’Connell poised for spotlight

Diaz’s first challenge at Penn State will be containing one of the league’s top quarterbacks, as the Nittany Lions take on Purdue and a budding star quarterback in Aidan O’Connell to begin the 2022 season in a Thursday night showdown on Sept. 1. O’Connell made the All-Big Ten West preseason team after throwing for 3,712 yards and 28 touchdowns last season. 

Now, the sixth-year senior and former walk-on enters 2022 as the unquestioned starter for the Boilermakers after guiding Purdue to a 9-4 record and Music City Bowl win last season.

“Aidan has done a great job,” said Purdue coach Jeff Brohm. “It’s unfortunate his head coach didn’t start him at the beginning of the year, but we were able to figure that out. He’s really earned his spot from Day 1. He continues to work hard every single day. He’s become a great leader.”

Week 0 advantage for Illinois

Aside from the obvious Week 0 headliner between Nebraska and Northwestern in Ireland, the only other Big Ten team in action on Aug. 27 is Illinois, which hosts Wyoming in a tune-up game before playing at Indiana the following Friday. The game was originally scheduled for Week 3, but was eligible for the Week 0 slot since Wyoming is playing at Hawaii this season.

Teams that make the trip to Hawaii are allowed to start the season earlier as a means of incentivizing the trip to such a far-flung locale. In this case, that rule happened to benefit the Illini even though they aren’t the ones playing Hawaii, and Illinois coach Bret Bielema credited athletic director Josh Whitman with helping facilitate the change.

“You see a huge amount of improvement from players who have never played the game from Week 1 to Week 2,” Bielema said. “So that’s kind of why I was lobbying .. I thought if we could play one game at home, get our feet underneath us and play one game at home and get our feet underneath us in Week 0 that was a huge benefit.”

Kenneth Walker’s lasting impact

A season after Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker emerged as a breakout college football star with 1,636 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns, Michigan State is looking to another transfer to help in the run game. The Spartans are bringing in 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Jarek Broussard from Colorado to position Michigan State again as one of the biggest potential benefactors from the portal.

With former four-star running back Jalen Berger also transferring in after averaging 4.6 yards per carry on 84 attempts in two seasons at Wisconsin, it’s clear that Walker’s progression with the Spartans into a second round NFL Draft pick is resonating with running backs looking for new homes.

“We just tell a story,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “I’m not sure how many people knew about him nationally. He saw an opportunity to come to Michigan State and get better. His goal was to play in the National Football League and play against great competition.”

Rutgers in limbo

One of the pressing topics for Rutgers in advance of the 2022 season is the status of linebacker Drew Singleton, who is awaiting a ruling on a petition that would allow him to play one more season. Singleton declared for the NFL Draft and hired an agen,t but then opted to participate in the Scarlet Knights’ bowl game after they received a late berth to the Gator Bowl.

Ultimately, he went unsigned as a free agent, perhaps due in part to an ankle injury sustained in the bowl loss vs. Wake Forest. Had he not declared for the draft, Singleton would be eligible for a sixth season because of the extra year of eligibility provided by COVID-19. As preseason camp approaches, however, the Scarlet Knights are still awaiting word on the status of a player who helped stabilize their defense with 54 tackles last season.

“We’re hopeful that cooler minds prevail,” said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. “We have an appeal in. I’m hopeful he will be able to come back. He wants to seek his graduate degree. I believe that — he does so many great things. He’s a kid from inner city Newark who’s overcome a lot. The guy is trying to do the right thing. I hope that we’re able to do the right thing and get him back, but we’re waiting to hear.”

Wisconsin gets new offensive look

With Jim Leonhard as defensive coordinator and Bobby Engram as its first-year offensive coordinator, Wisconsin now has former NFL veterans calling the shots on both side of the ball. Engram comes to the Badgers after eight years on the Baltimore Ravens’ staff and is tasked with rejuvenating a Wisconsin unit ranked 120th nationally last season in passing offense. 

It’s his first stint in college football since he coached receivers for two seasons at Pittsburgh under current Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst. But Engram, who played 14 seasons in the NFL, has some Big Ten roots as a Penn State alum and former star for the Nittany Lions.

“I’m really excited about Bobby Engram having a chance to be with us and for me to get back and coach with him,” Chryst said. “Had a chance to coach a couple of years with Bobby, and just a tremendous amount of respect. I think one thing that I always feel is important when you add a coach is you kind of think about your players. That’s where I’m most excited, for our players to be around Bobby. I think that it’s as much the chance for — the timing was right for really both of us, but for Bobby to come. I think that with Bobby we’re a better team.”

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