The Big Ten returns its top seven receiving yardage leaders from last year, and six of them reside in the Big Ten East. There is a ton of experience returning and some adequate production as well.
In the East, Indiana is the only team that isn’t returning its top two pass catchers from last year. Some schools return almost everybody.
For clarification’s sake, this positional rating will also include the tight ends, and all seven teams in the division are returning tight ends with starting experience.
And even though every team in the Big Ten East is returning talent, there is only one place to start when it comes to breaking down who has assembled the most talent.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes return their top four receivers from last year. Senior Chris Olave (50-729-7) and junior Garrett Wilson (43-723-6) are the top receiving duo in the nation. Olave can score from anywhere and Wilson can catch anything. Wilson was moved outside this spring to make way for sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the slot. Everybody saw what kind of ball skills he has in the season opener against Nebraska last year. The slot receiver usually leads Ohio State in receiving, but that’s going to be a tall order this year. Sophomore Julian Fleming stepped in well for Olave when needed last year and he’s just getting started. Freshmen Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison impressed in the spring. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert is a matchup problem with great hands. There is depth behind him in Cade Stover, Gee Scott, and Joe Royer.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State returns all three of their starting receivers, but they do lose talented tight end Pat Freiermuth. Jahan Dotson has 26 career starts and is the Nittany Lions’ big-play guy. He led the team with 52 catches for 884 yards (17.0 ypc) and eight touchdowns. Dotson went over the 100-yard mark five times in nine games last year. Parker Washington caught 36 passes for 489 yards and six touchdowns last year as a freshman. He will be even better in 2021. Those are the only two PSU receivers who posted a catch of over 30 yards last year, so they’ll need more playmaking out of the rest of their roster. They were young last year and should be more explosive this year. KeAndre Lambert-Smith, Cam Sullivan-Brown, and Daniel George all have starting experience as well. Tight end Brenton Strange (17-164) has a bright future.
3. Indiana Hoosiers
Ty Fryfogle returns after being named the Big Ten’s Receiver of the Year for 2020. He finished the year ninth in the Big Ten in receptions (37), fourth in receiving yards (721), third in touchdowns (7), and fifth in yards per game (90.1). Fryfogle won the award for a three-game stretch of 142 yards against Michigan, 200 yards against Michigan State, and 218 against Ohio State. In his final three games he caught six passes for 79 yards and no scores. Junior Miles Marshall should step up even more this year following a 2020 where he caught 19 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown. Florida State transfer DJ Matthews (96 career receptions) missed last year, but likely steps into the slot this year. He’s never been a big-play guy, though. Tight end Peyton Hendershot (23-151-4) is talented and a possible All-B1G pick.
4. Maryland Terrapins
Every receiver who basically did anything for Maryland last year returns this year. Dontay Demus led the team with 24 receptions, 365 yards receiving, and four touchdowns in five games last year. Only three of those catches went over 30 yards, however. The big-play guy may be sophomore Rakim Jarrett, a former five-star signee. Jarrett caught 17 passes for 252 yards last year with a long of 62 yards. Jeshaun Jones has had an up-and-down career due to injuries, but early in his career he was looking like a very promising playmaker. Darryl Jones and Brian Cobbs have also made plays in their career. Tight end Chigoziem Okonwkwo missed last year but has been a pass catcher here when healthy. This is a very boom-or-bust receiver room. Consistency and health are key, but those have never been readily available here.
5. Michigan State Spartans
There are six receivers on this Michigan State roster with starting experience. Leading receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor return. Reed led the Spartans in catches (33-407-3) and Nailor led them in yardage (26-515-4). Nailor led the Big Ten last year as a sophomore with five receptions of 40 or more yards. Reed was a Freshman All-American at Western Michigan in 2018 when he led the Broncos with 797 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. Wolverine killer Ricky White is also back. White posted 10 catches for 223 yards last year, with eight of those catches and 196 of those yards coming against Michigan. Tight ends Trenton Gillison (5-49) and Tyler Hunt (8-78) have been around a while and both have starting experience. There is enough talent here to keep a secondary honest, especially in the Big Ten.
6. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan returns their top two pass catchers from last season in Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson. Bell has led the team in catches the past two seasons. Last year he posted 26 receptions for 401 yards and a touchdown. Johnson was a welcome addition to Michigan’s production last year, catching 16 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. He could be more than just a chain-moving outside possession receiver. Roman Wilson, Mike Sainristil, and AJ Henning are capable of being explosive and could have moments. Jackson State transfer Daylen Baldwin had some interesting offers before choosing Michigan. Keep an eye on him; he was productive at JSU. It’s been said Erick All is as talented as any tight end Michigan has had in a while, but he has to catch the ball more consistently than he did last year.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The Scarlet Knights bring back their top three receivers from last year and have two other receivers on the squad with starting experience. Bo Melton used the NCAA’s free year to return. He led the team with 47 receptions for 638 yards and six touchdowns last year. He was tied for second in the league with three receptions for 50 yards or more. Shameen Jones isn’t the big-play guy Melton is, but he still posted 34 receptions for 378 yards last year. Wisconsin transfer Aron Cruikshank is an effective slot receiver. Joshua Youngblood is an interesting guy to watch. He transferred from Kansas State. He had three kickoff returns for touchdowns as a freshman in 2019. Tight end Jovani Haskins started every game last year, but caught just six passes. If Rutgers has a QB this year, he’ll have some receivers to throw to.