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 and running backs already and now we finish up the receivers and tight ends. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
The Big Ten returns its top seven receiving yardage leaders from last year, but six of them reside in the Big Ten East. On the West side of the line, only Wisconsin and Purdue return their top receiver from last year.
New players will have to step up, and whichever teams do that the best could challenge for the division crown this fall.
1. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue will take the field with the second-best pair of outside receivers in the Big Ten (behind Ohio State), as David Bell and Milton Wright are both talented playmakers (and both were recruited by the Buckeyes). Bell was a Freshman All-American in 2019 when he posted 86 receptions for 1,035 yards. Last year he caught 53 passes for 625 yards and eight touchdowns in just six games. If you project that over a 12-game season, you’re looking at 106 receptions for 1,250 yards and 16 touchdowns. Wright caught 24 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns last year. He’s big and fast and is going to be targeted a bunch this season. The slot receiver spot formerly manned by Rondale Moore will now go to Jackson Anthrop and TJ Sheffield. Anthrop is a vet while Sheffield is looking to prove himself. The tight ends aren’t bad.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin is one of the rare teams where the tight end might be their most dangerous receiver. Jake Ferguson led the Badgers with 30 receptions for 305 yards and four touchdowns in their seven games last year. It was his third-consecutive year with at least 30 catches. He will continue to be a valuable member of the passing game. Veterans Danny Davis (104 career catches) and Kendric Pryor (67 career catches) are talented and productive, but both missed games last year. In their absence, Chimere Dike stepped up as a true freshman last year with 12 catches for 189 yards. Jack Dunn is also back after a 28-catch season last year. True freshman Markus Allen was the No. 3 receiver in Ohio in the 2021 class and also a former Michigan commit. More plays need to be made by this group, but there’s talent.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa’s leading returning receiver is tight end Sam LaPorta, who caught 27 passes for 271 yards last year as a sophomore. As a freshman in 2019, he caught 15 passes for 188 yards. He could be in line for an All-Big Ten kind of season this year. The top two wideouts from last year are gone, but there is still experience returning. Tyrone Tracy was outstanding as a redshirt freshman in 2019, catching 36 passes for 589 yards and three touchdowns. He took a step back last year — as many did — with just 14 catches in eight games. He is a leader now and is talking about a 1,000-yard season this year. Nico Ragaini was also productive as a redshirt freshman in 2019 with 46 receptions for 439 yards, but posted just 18 receptions last year. There were almost no big plays last year from this group and that must change.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
There is some buzz surrounding the Nebraska wide receivers despite losing starters and returning all of about 30 receptions from last year’s group. The Huskers have added Montana transfer Samori Toure, who was a First-Team FCS All-American in 2019 following a season where he caught 87 passes for 1,495 yards and 13 touchdowns. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder is a playmaker, producing games of 188 yards, 193 yards, and 303 yards receiving. He transferred this winter and was at Nebraska for spring ball. Omar Manning is a 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior college transfer who got to Lincoln last year but wasn’t able to do anything. People expect that to change this year. Former Wolverine and Hawkeye Oliver Martin is back and will produce as well. Zavier Betts caught 12 passes last year as a true freshman. Tight end Austin Allen returns. He caught 18 passes for 236 yards last year. The potential is here for very big things.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Rashod Bateman and his 2,300+ receiving yards are finally gone for good, and it’s a considerable blow. Chris Autman-Bell returns for his fourth season as a starter for the Gophers. He caught 22 passes for 430 yards and a touchdown last year. He has 78 career catches for 1,250 yards. He finished fifth in the Big Ten with five receptions of 30+ yards last year. Daniel Jackson finished third on the team last year with 12 receptions for 167 yards as a freshman. More is expected of him this year as he moves up a spot. Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright has people talking, but he has not yet recorded a collegiate reception as he heads into year three of his career. Senior tight ends Ko Kieft and Bryce Witham have combined for 18 starts and 13 career receptions. There are some things to like here, but is there depth?
6. Illinois Fighting Illini
It has been an interesting offseason for Illinois at wide receiver. They lost Josh Imatorbhebhe to the NFL, but have added quarterback Isaiah Williams and defensive back Marquez Beason to the receiver room. Williams spent his first two years as a quarterback, but the 5-foot-10 playmaker is electric with the football. Can he be more than just a 9-yard-per-catch gadget guy though? Beason is also an explosive athlete, who was at one point the No. 5 athlete in his recruiting class. Casey Washington transferred to Wake Forest after the season and took part in spring ball with the Deacons before coming back to Illinois. Think of it as a study-abroad program if you want. Starters Donny Navarro and Brian Hightower return, but they combined for just 19 receptions last year. Tight end could be a position of strength.
7. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern must replace their three starting wide receivers and starting tight end from last year. The four of them represent the top four pass catchers on the Wildcats’ roster last year. Returnees JJ Jefferson, Malik Washington, Bryce Kirtz, and Berkeley Holman have all played, but together they have totaled just 60 receptions over the previous three seasons. Jefferson opted out of last season but returns this year to compete for a starting spot. Kirtz started twice last year, catching six passes for 67 yards on the season. Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson caught 45 passes for 727 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 as a sophomore. He could provide an answer here. Freshmen Calvin Johnson and Jordan Mosely have possibilities this year. Tight end Charlie Mangieri has 10 starts in his career and 12 career catches.
Rating the Big Ten
[David Bell header photo courtesy of Purduesports.com.]