Welcome back to my ongoing Big Ten positional ratings as I try to predict the two teams who will face off in the Big Ten Championship Game this December. We’ve made it through quarterbacks, running backs, and pass catchers already and now we move to the offensive lines. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
If games are won up front, then the Big Ten West will be able to start off on a good foot. Every team in the division returns multiple starters on the offensive line, and all but Iowa return at least three.
Sure it will take more than just an offensive line to win the division, but with as even as the division tends to be, every yard is going to matter. The team that can get that yard more often than not is going to have a leg up on everybody else.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin loses two starters, but they still return seven players who have started at least one game. Third-Team All-Big Ten guard Logan Bruss is back for his fourth year as a starter. He has spent entire years of his college career switching from guard to right tackle. Right tackle should be fine this year with Tyler Beach back again. He was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year. Left tackle will be redshirt sophomore Logan Brown, who has yet to start a game but is the third-highest-ranked Wisconsin recruit ever. Josh Seltzner is a new starter at guard, but he has seven career starts at left and right guard over the last two years. Center Kayden Lyles started four games last year and two other centers combined to start three other games. It’s a deep group, as always. Last year’s group was fifth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed (1.71) and eighth in yards per carry (3.93). The latter number will be better this year, but the former may not.
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Minnesota offensive line comes into the 2021 season with 182 career starts. They have eight players with extensive starting experience. The Gophers return all five starters from last year, as well as two starters from 2019 who missed last year. They also added Karter Shaw, a Utah State transfer, who has 19 career starts and will help on the interior. Sixth-year senior right guard Conner Olson (45 career starts) will be the rare five-year starter. He was a Third-Team All-B1G selection last year, as was left guard Blake Andries (33 career starts). Fellow sixth-year senior left tackle Sam Schlueter has 34 career starts. Center John Michael Schmitz was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten pick last year. He’s almost a rookie with just 10 career starts. Right tackle Daniel Faalele opted out last year but returns with 19 career starts. Curtis Dunlap is a former starting guard who missed 2020 with an ACL tear. There’s depth, but is that enough?
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes will need to replace four experienced players, but they have plenty of career starts returning. Everything starts up front with Second-Team All-American Tyler Linderbaum at center. He is one of the favorites for the Rimington Award this year. Two new starting tackles must be found, but Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz likes his team’s options. Jack Plumb is the likely left tackle. He started two games at right tackle last year and has played in all but two games over the past two seasons. Versatile Cody Ince was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten pick at guard last year, but is the possible starter at right tackle this year. Veteran Kyle Schott has started nine games over the past two years. The other guard spot should shake out well enough. Iowa has a new offensive line coach, so that may be something to watch this year. Iowa finished fifth in the Big Ten in yards per carry last year (4.62) and third in sacks allowed per game (1.38).
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois only loses one starter from last year’s offensive line, and even better than that, they have nine linemen on the current roster with starting experience. Left tackle Verderian Lowe is going to be a five-year starter for the Illini. He comes into this season with 34 career starts at the position. Lowe was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten tackle last year. The other tackle is probably going to be Alex Palczewski, who missed last year with an ACL. He has 40 career starts as he heads into his fifth year of starting for Illinois. Center Doug Kramer is another five-year starter for Illinois. He was also an Honorable Mention All-Conference pick last year. Guards Verdis Brown and Julian Pearl have starting experience, as does former Wofford center Blake Jeresaty. This is a deep group and head coach Bret Bielema generally has decent offensive lines. This unit helped produce 4.82 yards per carry last year, which was third in the Big Ten.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
People are saying that this is going to be Jeff Brohm’s best offensive line at Purdue since he arrived. That would be a very good sign if true, but compared to what? The Boilermakers only lose one starter and they add back a 2019 starter who missed last year. They also add Tyler Witt, who started 43 games at guard for Western Kentucky. He could replace a returning starter, but will at the very least increase the competition on the interior. Center Gus Hartwig was a true freshman last year but played well enough to be named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. Sam Garvin is also an experienced starter on the interior with 13 career starts at guard and center. Senior offensive tackle Greg Long has 20 career starts, though 14 of them came at UTEP. Spencer Holstege and Cam Craig both started games as redshirt freshmen last year. There are a number of options, but fall camp will still be required to figure it all out.
6. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The bad news is that Nebraska lost two starters from last year’s offensive line, but the good news is that they were the first two Husker offensive linemen to be drafted in five years. Cameron Jurgens is back for his third year as a starting center. His career has been up and down, but now that he’s a veteran upperclassmen, more can be expected. Right tackle Bryce Benhart started every game last year as a redshirt freshman. Turner Corcoran got a start at left tackle as a true freshman and hopes are high for him this year. Left guard Ethan Piper started seven of eight games last year as a redshirt freshman. Right guard may still be up in the air, but the bulk of the first-team reps in the spring went to senior Matt Sichterman. It’s been a while since Nebraska has had a great offensive line. They gave up two sacks per game last year (8th in Big Ten), but finished second in the B1G in yards per carry (4.82). Something good needs to happen here.
7. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern loses two starters from last year — right tackle Gunnar Vogel and left guard Nik Urban, but return plenty of experience elsewhere. Left Tackle Pete Skoronski was a Second-Team All-Big Ten pick last year as a true freshman. He was a former 5-star offensive lineman in the 2020 recruiting class. Right tackle is likely going to be fifth-year senior Ethan Wiederkehr, who started at right guard last year but also has starting experience at tackle. Senior Sam Gerak returns at center. This is his third year of starting, though his first year came at left guard. The probable starters at guard are third-year junior Charlie Schmidt and sophomore Josh Priebe. Together they combined to play 15 games last year. They may be new starters (Schmidt started once last year), but they do have some experience. The Wildcats finished fourth in the B1G last year in sacks allowed (1.44), but they also had a veteran quarterback.
Rating the Big Ten
[Wisconsin offensive line header photo courtesy of UWBadgers.com.]