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Big Ten Spotlight: How teams are addressing biggest needs

Ben Christman
Ben Christman (Rivals.com)

The recruiting cycle for the class of 2021 continues to churn on, despite in-person recruiting being banned for more than six months. Within the Big Ten Conference, some programs have fared better than others when it comes to meeting their needs. Here is a look at all 14 programs and how well they are addressing the most pressing positional needs.

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CLASS OF 2021 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | Position | Team | State

CLASS OF 2022 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | Position | Team | State

COVERAGE: Rivals Transfer Tracker | Rivals Camp Series

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ILLINOIS

Biggest 2021 need: Offensive Line

Progress: After signing just 27 prospects over the previous two classes, Illinois came into the 2021 cycle with needs throughout the roster. Head coach Lovie Smith and his staff have been active in the transfer market the last few years, but still needed to build long-term depth, especially along the offensive line. So far, that effort has been successful. They landed St. Louis tackle Brody Wisecarver, still the top-rated prospect in the class, back in May, and have added three in-state linemen since, including center Josh Kreutz, son of former Chicago Bears all-pro Olin Kreutz.

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INDIANA

Biggest 2021 need: Safety

Progress: Both safety and offensive line were areas of need for Indiana coming into the 2021 recruiting class, and so far they have addressed both to some degree in what is currently a small class of just 13 prospects. The Hoosiers went into Florida and grabbed three-star safety Aubrey Burks in June, but he decommitted last month. The Hoosiers then beat out East Carolina for Georgia three-star Jordan Grier, whom they project as a safety in their defense, and added Virginia athlete Maurice Freeman, another prospect they project to safety, in August. The door may be open for Brooks to come back and other options could emerge, so Indiana may not be done at safety in 2021.

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IOWA

Biggest 2021 need: Offensive Tackle

Progress: Iowa had needs across the offensive line they were looking to fill in the 2021 cycle, but offensive tackle was a particularly pressing need with a pair of starters in Alaric Jackson and Coy Cronk playing out their final seasons in Iowa City this fall. As he has been known to do, head coach Kirk Ferentz knocked out those issues early and impressively. In-state four-star Connor Colby was locked up prior to his junior season, and Rivals250 Chicagoland tackle David Davidkov joined this past spring. Additionally, the Hawkeyes have commitments from three-star guard Gennings Dunker and versatile Kansas City lineman Beau Stephens.

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MARYLAND

Biggest 2021 need: Defensive Line

Progress: When it hired Mike Locksley to be its head coach after the 2018 season, Maryland expected to get an immediate boost to its recruiting, and that has come to fruition. The Terrapins currently have a top-25 class going in 2021, and have cleaned up at several positions of need, including tight end and defensive line. The latter position was probably most pressing going into the 2021 cycle. Locksley and staff landed local four-star defensive tackle Taizse Johnson back in January, and have since added a second four-star defensive tackle in Marcus Bradley to go along with four three-star defensive ends.

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MICHIGAN

Biggest 2021 need: Defensive Line

Progress: Michigan signed a class of four defensive ends in 2020, but that group shrunk before the season started when Aaron Lewis announced he was transferring closer to home to play for Rutgers. Michigan already had considered defensive line a need, and the Lewis departure only reaffirmed that need.

The first defensive line commitment in the class was a bit of a surprise in two-star Dominick Giudice, but he provides positional versatility. Additions since then consist of three-star TJ Guy and four-stars KeChaun Bennett and Quintin Somerville. Among their top remaining targets at the position is four-star Rayshaun Benny, who recently postponed a planned Oct. 25 decision.

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MICHIGAN STATE

Biggest 2021 need: Offensive Line

Progress: New head coaches usually have needs throughout the roster to address in their first, full recruiting class, and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker is no exception. The Spartans continue to push for defensive backs in this class, but offensive line was a clear need to start the class and one they are well on their way to addressing. Local tackle Ethan Boyd and New Jersey guard Kevin Wigenton were locked up back in April, but the biggest addition came in August when four-star tackle Geno VandeMark committed. The Spartans are not done yet, and would like to include in-state lineman Ru’Quan Buckley on their signing list.

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MINNESOTA

Biggest 2021 need: Defensive Line

Progress: Few teams were hotter than Minnesota on the recruiting trail in the first two months after COVID shut down recruiting visits, and the Gophers were well on their way to addressing defensive line needs with commitments from a pair of Texans in April to join four-star in-state defensive end Deven Eastern, who had committed back in December. Neither Albert Regis, nor D’Marion Alexander, an outside linebacker the Gophers recruited to be a rush end, lasted long on the commitment list, however. Minnesota was able to add three-star Austin Booker shortly after Regis decommitted and picked up Washington defensive tackle Jacob Schuster over the weekend. They are still recruiting the position with Andre Porter and Davon Townley among their remaining targets.

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NEBRASKA

Biggest 2021 need: Tight End

Progress: There are several positions that could contend for being the most important need for Nebraska in the 2021 class, but tight end is certainly up there. Despite a wealth of talent at the position locally, Nebraska was sweating the outcome until a productive six-week period at the end of summer and early fall when they were able to land Rivals100 tight end Thomas Fidone, as well as in-state three-stars A.J. Rollins and James Carnie. Three is a big number at the tight end position, but Scott Frost’s staff always planned on taking multiple players at the position in this cycle and will battle with the likes of Florida, Tennessee and Texas for 2021’s top tight end recruiting haul.

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NORTHWESTERN

Biggest 2021 need: Quarterback

Progress: The impact of losing four-year starter Clayton Thorson was realized immediately when Northwestern struggled offensively throughout the 2019 season, despite having former five-star QB Hunter Johnson. The Wildcats went back to the transfer market and added former Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey for the 2020 season, but that is just a stopgap. Pat Fitzgerald is looking for long-term stability at the position, and hopes Michigan native Brendan Sullivan is that guy. A Thorson lookalike, Sullivan is a plus-athlete for the position who has the arm strength to make all the throws.

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OHIO STATE

Biggest 2021 need: Offensive Tackle

Progress: If there has been one recurring need for Ohio State over the last several classes, it is offensive tackle. There have been some notable wins, including five-star Paris Johnson in the 2020 class, but long-term stability continues to be elusive for the Buckeyes. Despite a recruiting machine that is consistently hauling in top-three classes, Ohio State still seems to just miss on a number of top targets that would alleviate the issue. After watching top targets like JC Latham and Garrett Dellinger opt for other programs, Ohio State went deep and was able to flip three-star Zenuae Michalski from Louisville to pair with an earlier commitment from four-star Ben Christman.

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PENN STATE

Biggest 2021 need: Defensive End

Progress: The defensive end position has been one of strength for Penn State recently, but after losing Yetur Gross-Matos early to this past April’s NFL Draft, and with current starters Jason Oweh and Shaka Toney both possibly gone after the 2020 season, the Nittany Lions need to restock the cupboard. The problem is, after missing out on a few top targets earlier in the process, Penn State may have to reach if they really want to address the position in 2021. They do have a commitment from three-star end Rodney McGraw, whom they were able to flip from Indiana, and are still pursuing Minneapolis’ Davon Townley.

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PURDUE

Biggest 2021 need: Versatile Front Seven Defenders

Progress: Following Purdue’s 2019 season, head coach Jeff Brohm made a change at defensive coordinator, bringing in former UConn head coach Bob Diaco and his 3-4 defense. Diaco’s unique defensive scheme means that Purdue needs versatile defenders who are capable of bouncing between roles, like linebacker and rush end, or end and defensive tackle. Those type of players are not necessarily found on most rosters, so Purdue is trying to find recruits who fit the bill. Linebacker Tristan Cox and defensive end Khordae Sydnor are two solutions, but they really want to add more like four-star Yanni Karlaftis.

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RUTGERS

Biggest 2021 need: Offensive Line

Progress: Offensive line was the biggest need coming into Greg Schiano’s first, full recruiting class at Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights are on their way to filling that need. They landed four commitments at the position in May, and another in Philadelphia three-star Tyler Needham in June. However, one of those May commitments came from Canadian transplant Albert Reese, who is listening to some late pitches from SEC programs. Ideally Rutgers adds 1-2 more offensive linemen, but they do not appear enamored with the remaining crop of talent and may look to the transfer market to fill those final spots.

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WISCONSIN

Biggest 2021 need: Defensive Back

Progress: Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is a former safety, so he certainly has an appreciation for defensive back play. The Badgers signed just one defensive back in the 2020 class, however, which made it a priority for the 2021 class. That task has largely been accomplished, with a pair of four-star safeties to go along with four-star cornerback Ricardo Hallman and three-star cornerback Al Ashford. Four-star Hunter Wohler fits the mold of a Wisconsin safety – rangy and a big hitter – while fellow in-state four-star Braelon Allen could end up outgrowing the position.

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