CHICAGO — Six teams got the chance to talk about why they’re going to go undefeated this season on the opening day of the Big Ten Conference football media gathering here.
Coincidentally, all six (Nebraska would have been the seventh but stayed home to grieve as a team after punter Sam Foltz was killed in a car crash Saturday) are on Iowa’s schedule this fall.
Here’s what we learned Monday about the teams that will try to keep the Hawkeyes from another perfect regular season:
On a defense loaded with talent, Jabrill Peppers may be called on to do it all. Coach Jim Harbaugh was asked Monday about Peppers’ versatility, and he listed the junior defensive back as the best at virtually every position on his team.
“Put him in a corner, put him in a safety. Put him in a nickel. Put him in a linebacker. Ultimately, probably nickel is his best position. He can be a returner of the punts, returner of the kickoffs. He could be a gunner. He could be a hold-up guy,” said Harbaugh, who was just getting started.
“Offensively, probably right now could probably be our slot receiver and would give De'Veon (Smith) and all of our running backs a run for their money to be the best running back on the team. Could be a wildcat quarterback. Could be an outside receiver. Can run all the reverses and fly sweeps. So I think you get the picture. He is a tremendous athlete.”
Peppers was in on 45 tackles last year, broke up 10 passes, ran for 72 yards and two touchdowns, caught eight passes for 79 yards, returned eight kickoffs and 17 punts. How much of that he will be asked to at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 12 will be an intriguing mystery that whole week. Harbaugh wouldn’t lie, would he?
Tracy Claeys is in his first season as head coach of the Gophers, but his fifth overall with the team. He has been telling everyone that it’s the most talented squad he’s seen in Minneapolis.
Minnesota is coming off a 6-7 season that somehow culminated with a postseason victory (21-14 over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl). But Claeys pointed out that six of the seven losses were against teams that won at least 10 games. The schedule does ease a bit for Minnesota this year.
But the offensive line needs to get more push than a year ago and avoid negative plays, especially on first downs, Claeys said. That will be an area to watch when the Hawkeyes visit on Oct. 8.
“Some of those are self-inflicted with penalties. But a lot of times it's missing a block here, letting somebody run through,” Claeys said. “We need to be more consistent on first and second down of not having negative-yardage plays and make third down much more manageable. Because I do think with the wide receivers and Brandon Lingen at tight end and our two running backs, I think for the first time we'll be able to be balanced and spread the field and make people defend a bunch of different options. In order to do that, we'll have to play better on the offensive line.”
More from Big Ten Media Days:
- Chad Leistikow explains Iowa's life as the hunted team in the West
- What we learned about Iowa's Big Ten opponents
- Jim Harbaugh's quirks a good thing for buttoned-down Big Ten
- Media Days takeaways from Monday's sessions
- Depth chart breakdown: What we learned about Iowa
- Drake product Chris Ash tackles Rutgers rebuild
The Wildcats desperately need to develop a passing game to keep defenses from keying on junior tailback Justin Jackson. Jackson ran for 1,418 yards while averaging 24 carries per game last year. This year, Northwestern’s offense lacks a quality quarterback after Clayton Thorson had a bumpy debut season, and the Wildcats have no proven wide receivers.
That could spell trouble when Northwestern comes to Iowa City on Oct. 1.
“We've got to have more balance offensively to get people out of the box,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think most games we saw eight, nine guys in the box and we've got to be able to throw it more efficiently to be able to loosen some people up to respect our passing game, to be, quite frankly, more explosive offensively this year.”
If not, Northwestern cornerback Matthew Harris has no doubt that Jackson will be the workhorse again. Jackson is so important to the Wildcats’ fortunes that the defense isn’t even allowed to tackle him in practices.
“We don’t want to do anything to put his playing time in jeopardy,” Harris said. “The kid is an amazing athlete, amazing player, amazing running back, and his vision is something I’ve never seen before.”
Back-to-back seven-win seasons have not sat well in Happy Valley. Third-year coach James Franklin noted the pressure to win, but pointed to a rather unusual aspect of his team as its strength.
“The area that I'm probably as excited about as anywhere is on special teams,” Franklin said. “We're returning every single one of our snappers, kickers and punters, and we were able to go out and add a few more through recruiting.”
The kicking game is a question mark for the Hawkeyes, so perhaps that will be a key factor when Iowa plays a night game at Penn State on Nov. 5.
Senior linebacker Brandon Bell knows it will take more than special teams for the Nittany Lions to climb back toward the top of the Big Ten, though.
“You’ve got to have high expectations,” he said. “You don’t go out and plan to be 7-6. But that’s reality.”
“We’re at a great place right now,” coach Darrell Hazell said early in his remarks Monday. That’s a bold statement for a fourth-year coach with a 6-30 record and a retiring athletic director. But Hazell maintained an air of optimism throughout the afternoon.
“Our morale is off the chart,” he said.
“I don't look at it as a three-year funk, I look at it as a growing process,” he repeated later.
Hazell hasn’t decided on a quarterback. But having junior linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley back from a knee injury will help that side of the ball when Iowa comes calling on Oct. 15.
Bentley echoed his coach’s positive tone.
“This has been building for the past three years. Now, I think we’re at a place where results will show,” he said. “We’re going to show you by our actions. We have to make it happen.”
The strength of the Scarlet Knights might be in first-year coach Chris Ash, an Ottumwa native. Ash inherits an offense in disarray and will have only three games to try to get it up to speed before Iowa visits for the Big Ten opener Sept. 24.
Senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick said it was the way players are reacting to Ash that is giving him the most confidence that this year will be better than the 4-8 record of a year ago.
“At the end of the day, we’re on the field, we’re going to be giving the effort, we’re going to be making the plays,” Pinnix-Odrick said. “I think the buy-in to a coach who consistently follows through on what he says he’s going to do is awesome. And it’s good to see players young and old taking a front seat to what he’s trying to do.”