The 2023 recruiting cycle is all but complete. Five Big Ten teams signed classes that rank in the top 25 nationally, headlined by No. 5 Ohio State.
Ari Wasserman, Grace Raynor, Manny Navarro and Audrey Snyder of The Athletic’s recruiting staff share their thoughts on some of the most intriguing storylines in the Big Ten. Here are our roundtables on the ACC and Big 12.
Snyder: Penn State signed four offensive linemen in a class for the first time since 2015. That 2015 group included one junior college transfer, and this year’s haul of O-linemen — all rated as four-star prospects — is much more impressive. This group is headlined by J’ven Williams, who is ranked No. 40 nationally in the 247Sports Composite. Classmate Alex Birchmeier checks in at No. 52 while Chimdy Onoh (No. 257) and Anthony Donkoh (No. 412) round out Penn State’s most complete class of offensive linemen signed during James Franklin’s tenure. Three of the linemen are already enrolled. It’ll likely take a year or two until these players factor in, but this class — coupled with an improved showing from the line last season — has helped change the narrative surrounding the position group that’s been the most problematic during Franklin’s tenure.
Wasserman: Though Penn State didn’t sign a five-star prospect in this cycle, the Nittany Lions inked a 23-man class that consisted of 18 blue-chip prospects. It’s the only Big Ten class other than Ohio State with an average player rating over 90 (91.15). The thing I also love about Penn State’s class, other than its depth, is that Franklin took care of business in Pennsylvania, signing four of the top six players in the state. This class isn’t going to be the reason Penn State wins a national championship, but there’s no question the Nittany Lions feel good about their work in the 2023 cycle.
Raynor: I agree that Penn State had a strong showing and signed a class that should have the Nittany Lions excited. But Ohio State is still the recruiting king of the Big Ten, even if Ryan Day and company didn’t sign as many five-stars as we’ve come to expect. The Buckeyes still signed 20 prospects, including 19 blue-chippers. And Ohio State’s average player rating of 93.62 is still almost 2.5 points higher than Penn State’s. With three of the nation’s top 10 wide receivers signed, offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline continues to bolster his resume as one of the best recruiters in the country.
Navarro: With all due respect to the usual suspects in the conference, I’m going with Michigan State and Mel Tucker. A year after going 11-2 and winning the Peach Bowl, the team was 5-7, and yet Tucker still signed Michigan State’s biggest collection of blue-chip recruits (eight) since 2016 and had a top-25 class. That requires being a head coach who can sell a vision. The top-end talent is pretty good, too. The top five recruits in the class are ranked in the top 230.
Snyder: Ohio State signed just one five-star prospect, per the 247Sports Composite. In fact, wide receiver Brandon Inniss is the only five-star recruit who signed with a Big Ten school in the 2023 cycle. That’s unusual both for Ohio State, which continues to recruit at a clip that’s out of this stratosphere, and this conference. The last time the Buckeyes signed only one five-star was in 2016 (Nick Bosa), and the last time the league signed only one five-star was in 2015 (Justin Hilliard to Ohio State). Fret not, Buckeye faithful. Ohio State still has an extremely talented class, ranked fifth nationally, and the receiving corps is well-stocked for years to come.
Wasserman: Michigan didn’t sign a single top-100 player after breaking through its ceiling, beating Ohio State and making the College Football Playoff in the 2021 (and 2022) season. Yes, Jim Harbaugh flirted with the NFL, but he had the entire cycle to rebound from that. I understand that Michigan had done very well in the transfer portal, but I thought for sure we’d see an uptick in incoming high school talent in the 2023 class.
Raynor: Things aren’t great at Iowa. Northwestern, which went 1-11 in 2022, finished with a higher player rating (86.95) than Iowa (86.78). I suppose it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Iowa’s disastrous offense is costing the Hawkeyes on the recruiting trail, but it’s still stunning nonetheless given the contrast between the histories of the two programs.
Navarro: Maybe this shouldn’t count as a surprise considering how bad folks want to win in Lincoln, but I’m going with Matt Rhule’s instant impact on the trail and in the portal at Nebraska. Sure, he was the Big 12 Coach of the Year before taking an NFL job a couple of years ago. But when was Rhule ever mistaken for being an elite recruiter when it came to battling for players at Temple and Baylor? He came in and instantly beat out Deion Sanders for top-100 recruit Malachi Coleman, a Lincoln, Neb., native who decommitted from the Huskers and could have been swayed to Boulder if not for Rhule. Now the 48-year-old has folks trying to solve his emoji riddles on Twitter, and very talented prospects are interested in playing for a program that’s had six consecutive losing seasons. I count his pickup of three Georgia transfers, including talented tight end Arik Gilbert, as big trail victories.
Snyder: Coleman, a four-star wide receiver prospect, is someone Rhule and his staff can build around. A former track and field standout, Coleman could at the very least help stretch the field right away. The debate over whether teams saw him as an edge rusher or wide receiver speaks to his unusual skill set. He should be fun to watch in years to come, but we may not need to wait to see him play.
Wasserman: Minnesota had to say goodbye to one of the best running backs in program history when Mo Ibrahim turned his sights to the NFL. But the Gophers had a nice pickup in four-star running back Darius Taylor of Walled Lake (Mich.) Western. Michigan made a push at the in-state running back late in the process, but Minnesota held on. Maybe it’s because he sees a path to the field? He’s definitely good enough.
Raynor: Illinois also had to say goodbye to its star running back, Chase Brown — the first Doak Walker Award finalist in program history. We’ll see if true freshman Kaden Feagin is ready to step up, but his size alone makes him an intriguing option. Feagin doesn’t turn 18 until March, and yet he’s already 6 foot 3, 240 pounds. The 2022 Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois rushed for 1,637 yards and 27 touchdowns with an average of 11.1 yards per carry as a high school senior.
110% Committed‼️ @IlliniFootball @Coach_CPatt @BretBielema @ALAHFootball #FamILLy23 #DHBG pic.twitter.com/Chv0MLQPS8
— Kaden Feagin (@FeaginKaden) March 23, 2022
Navarro: In a conference starving for offense (not including Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, of course), you’d think more true freshmen might get the chance to play receiver, but that didn’t really happen last season. Maryland’s Octavian Smith Jr. led all true freshman receivers in the Big Ten with 12 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns. This year, Illinois’ Kenari Wilcher, a three-star and three-sport athlete from Moore Haven, Fla., should exceed that. He caught 58 passes for 1,516 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior and is enrolled early in Champaign.
Snyder: It’s hard to miss Wisconsin defensive lineman Jamel Howard, a Chicago native who is 6-3 and 305 pounds. Luke Fickell had to re-recruit Howard, who decommitted from Wisconsin in November as LSU, Michigan, Miami and Ole Miss entered the picture. Those other offers speak to just how talented the three-star prospect is. Wisconsin had to be elated to land Howard when he made it official Feb. 1.
Wasserman: One of the more exciting signees in the Big Ten was three-star linebacker Ben Kueter out of Iowa City (Iowa) High. This is a player who could potentially be an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling one day, and that mean streak translates to the football field. Though it’s not clear whether he’ll progress enough to start on defense, he could be a nasty player in all four special teams units for the Hawkeyes. And if anyone has spent any time watching Iowa play football, that’s a pretty big role. He has all the tools to be the next great Iowa linebacker if he doesn’t transition into being a full-time wrestler.
Raynor: Linebacker Tony Rojas at Penn State. PSU is in good shape with its starting linebackers in 2023, but Rojas — who at some point in his high school career picked up all-district honors at running back, defensive end and wide receiver — is a unique athlete. He was a standout running back who rushed for more than 2,200 yards as a senior, and there was a case to be made that he could have been a running back with the Nittany Lions. But he’ll stick on the defensive side of the ball, where Penn State has not been shy about getting freshmen on the field, as shown by the way Franklin used Abdul Carter in 2022.
Navarro: My buddy at 247Sports, Andrew Ivins, is a big fan of Michigan State edge rusher Bai Jobe, who was born in Senegal and is a freak athlete with very good basketball skills. Young pass rushers made an impact last season in the conference with Illinois’ Gabe Jacas and Penn State’s Carter and Dani Dennis-Sutton, among others, making a splash getting to the quarterback. Jobe (6-4, 230) has the size and feet to become a similar menace early in his career.
Snyder: Ohio State’s Lincoln Kienholz is the highest-ranked QB in the conference, but I don’t suspect we’ll see him at all given that Kyle McCord and Devin Brown are ahead of him. The transfer portal has resulted in Hudson Card going to Purdue, Luke Altmyer to Illinois, Jeff Sims to Nebraska, Cade McNamara to Iowa and a trio of quarterbacks to Wisconsin. Because of all this portal movement, I do not believe we’ll see any freshman QB start a game in the Big Ten this season.
Wasserman: Like Audrey pointed out, there aren’t a lot of clear paths to the field in the Big Ten this year after a ton of transfers entered the conference. And if Drew Allar couldn’t start at Penn State as a true freshman, who really can in this conference? I, too, don’t think we’ll see any true freshman starting at quarterback this fall.
Raynor: Oof, this is hard. The entire Big Ten signed zero five-star quarterbacks and just one top-15 QB this cycle in Kienholz. So I suppose I’ll pick him. He’s the most talented prospect in the event of an emergency.
Navarro: Card is the favorite to replace Aidan O’Connell as Purdue’s starting quarterback, but Ryan Browne, a postgraduate and a former Mr. Football in Florida, is a very polished passer who completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,931 yards, 29 touchdowns and three interceptions at Milford (N.Y.) Academy. He might be best-positioned among freshman backups to get into the lineup because he’s enrolled early and has already been out of high school for a year.
WE ARE PENN STATE 🦁 After further conversations with my family I have decided to commit to Penn State University! Thank you to God, my family and coaches @coachjfranklin @Coach_Yurcich #WeAre #107kStrong #PSUnrivaled pic.twitter.com/PE6qO1Nj6c
— Jaxon Smolik (@JaxonSmolik) August 12, 2022
Snyder: Penn State QB Jaxon Smolik. It’s a fantastic story in which Smolik, who dealt with a season-ending injury as a junior, became an alternate for the Elite 11. At the time, he was verbally committed to Tulane. At the last minute, he was awarded the final spot for the QB showcase and immediately flew across the country. Then, he didn’t just compete at Elite 11 — he stood out. That performance led to Penn State’s offer and his flip to the Nittany Lions. Sophomore Allar and redshirt freshman Beau Pribula are clearly ahead of Smolik, but the three-star QB will be one to monitor in a couple of years when — if all goes as projected with Allar — PSU will be searching for a new starting quarterback.
Wasserman: Audrey is onto something with Wisconsin’s Howard. He is ranked outside of the top 1,000 in the 247Sports Composite, but he got late offers from LSU, Ole Miss, Miami and others. He also took official visits to those programs — and Michigan — after decommitting from Wisconsin in November. In the end, though, Fickell closed the deal, and now it’s time to figure out what all of these schools see in this prospect. Clearly, his recruiting ranking is wrong.
Navarro: Wisconsin has quietly done a good job of turning three-star recruits — or even unranked recruits — into NFL linebackers. Six have been drafted since 2018 (all in the third round or later) and five have started NFL games. The six drafted: Leo Chenal (No. 639 in 2019), Zack Baun (No. 1,073 in 2015), Ryan Connelly (unranked in 2013), Andrew Van Ginkel (unranked in 2014), Jack Cichy (unranked 2012) and Leon Jacobs (No. 1,660 in 2013). This year, Wisconsin signed two high school linebackers: Tyler Jansey (No. 854) and Christian Alliegro (No. 1,257). I’m seriously going to follow these guys now and ask our Badgers writer, Jesse Temple, to find out what’s in the Gatorade in Madison.
Raynor: Three-star defensive lineman TaDerius Collins reported offers from Texas, Arkansas, Auburn, Baylor, Mississippi State and others before deciding to sign with Indiana. The Hoosiers punched above their weight class in landing him and should use him accordingly.
(Top photo of James Franklin: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)
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