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Nine things Iowa football's Big Ten opponents said at Media Days


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Iowa was one of the featured teams Tuesday on Day 1 of Big Ten Football Media Days in Indianapolis. While Hawkeye fans are most interested in the state of the offense, questions about special teams and excitement around the defense, there were other notable storylines around the Big Ten.

The Hawkeyes will have nine Big Ten games this fall. Outside of their usual West Division slate, they drew the East Division's biggest powerhouses in Ohio State and Michigan.

What are the state of these programs entering the fall season? Here are nine takeaways from this week's Media Days. 

More: Iowa picked second in West in Big Ten football media poll; Jack Campbell receives big honor

Rutgers will have a quarterback competition 

It's rare that a two-year starting quarterback is suddenly challenged for his position, but that's the situation with Rutgers football entering 2022. Incumbent and sixth-year senior Noah Vedral has 32 games under his belt but just 16 touchdown passes to 15 interceptions over the last two years. 

The Scarlet Knights have competition for Vedral in a pair of sophomores: Gavin Wimsatt, a former four-star recruit and Evan Simon, who appeared in six games last season. 

Coach Greg Schiano admitted that Vedral is the early leader due to his experience but also noted that the competition will carry on into the fall and potentially into the season. 

"When you have good players, you've got to let them compete," Schiano said. "If it doesn't sort itself out by game one, then we'll play more than one guy. If it does, then we'll play one guy and we'll have another guy ready to go and a third if he had some issues. I'm not concerned about it. I'm not going to make it happen. I'm going to let it happen and observe it and make the decision based on that." 

Michigan has a two-quarterback situation 

A Big Ten Championship Game rematch with Michigan is one of Iowa's most anticipated games of 2022. When the teams face off in early October, Iowa will have to account for multiple quarterbacks. 

Michigan played two quarterbacks all last year in senior Cade McNamara and sophomore JJ McCarthy. McNamara is considered the regular starter but both will have a large place in the Wolverines' offense this year, and coach Jim Harbaugh seemed to hint at an open competition. 

More: Leistikow: With upbeat outlook on offense, Kirk Ferentz might have a really good Iowa team

"They ask sometimes at other positions, who's going to play?" Harbaugh said. "I mean, the best player is going to play. We're going to know who the best player is by who plays the best. Cade McNamara is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job. J.J. McCarthy is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job." 

McNamara was present at Media Days and didn't shy away from potential uncertainty at his position with the former five-star recruit McCarthy at his heels. If anything, he's embracing it as an opportunity to improve. 

"I think I'm only growing through competition," McNamara said. "I think I am getting better faster than if I were to be sitting at a quarterback room comfortably." 

Illinois has found its program identity

Bret Bielema knew he had to establish a new identity at Illinois when he accepted the coaching job in 2021. One year later, the foundation of that new identity has been established. 

It started with in-state recruiting, after signing zero Illinois natives in the 2020 class, Bielema reeled in 11 in-state prospects in his first class. This year's class has five more signed and is ranked No. 48 nationally. 

Illinois won just five games last year but two of them were against ranked opponents Minnesota and Penn State. This year Bielema hopes to take another step forward due to familiarity with the roster and a team that's more experienced dealing with the highs and lows during a season.  

"I just know our roster so much more," Bielema said. "We've had moments of adversity and moments of success and added players now that we've recruited. So there's a really good vibe in the Smith Center right now." 

A Rose Bowl trophy isn't enough for Ohio State 

Ohio State's 2021 season included 11 wins and a Rose Bowl victory, but the lack of a Big Ten championship or a college football playoff appearance has the players wanting more this year.

"We fell short of our goals and we weren't too happy with it," wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba said. "We've been preparing our offseason to change and have a different outcome. We want to go 15 weeks, be (in the national championship game) with a ring on our finger."

Subscriber content: Smith's thoughts on Iowa football's 2022 depth chart, which names Tyler Linderbaum's successor

Ohio State is the preseason pick to win the Big Ten and returns 76% of its total production from last year, the most of any team in the conference. Quarterback CJ Stroud has seen the leadership improve this off-season and hopes that will make the difference in achieving their goals. 

"I definitely think that the leadership has definitely risen ahead of the season," Stroud said. "Not saying that it wasn't there last year, but it's been night and day. The brotherhood is definitely growing and will continue to grow. I just think this year we'll show everybody that we're really about." 

Northwestern is looking to get its edge back 

After a Big Ten West championship and Associated Press Top 10 finish in 2020, Northwestern football fell short of expectations in 2021 with a 3-9 record. Their players addressed the disappointing season, pointing to complacency as the reason for the slide. 

"After (2020) we just lost the respect that we had going into going into it," cornerback Cameron Mitchell said. "We just didn't have that fight that we had when you saw us in this building a couple years ago. And I just think that was our main problem. That's our main focus going into this season, just trying to get that back." 

Mitchell, joined at Media Days by defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore and offensive lineman Peter Skoronski, said the team's emphasis is returning back to a "relentless mindset" that helped the Wildcats win in years past. It's manifested itself in the off-season by focusing on the little things such as showing up to workouts on time, finishing strong on drills and staying fully engaged in every activity. 

The annual Big Ten preseason poll projects a last-place finish for Northwestern in the West Division. With a renewed motivation to win, the players have much higher expectations. 

Purdue has special plans for Charlie Jones and Tyrone Tracy Jr. 

Purdue is returning the best quarterback in the Big Ten West in Aiden O'Connell but the Boilermakers will be without their two top receivers from last year. They sought help through the transfer portal and found a pair of options from an emerging conference rival: Iowa.

Head coach Jeff Brohm spoke publicly about Charlie Jones and Tyrone Tracy Jr. for the first time at Media Days. It appears that their plans are to use the former Hawkeyes in creative ways. Brohm said Tracy will play both receiver and running back this season. 

Jones, who is the returning Big Ten Returner of the Year, will also have a big role for the Boilermakers. 

"I think (Jones) will play a great role in our offense," Brohm said. "(He) will play on the outside at receiver, on the inside, and return kicks. 

"He's just very smart. He understands. He's picked up things well. He's got a great rapport with our quarterback Aidan O'Connell, who I think they knew each other growing up. So we're fortunate to have him. Really I think he'll be a great leader as well." 

Wisconsin is seeking offensive balance

The Badgers' strong rushing attack, led by sophomore Braelon Allen, is a big reason why they're the preseason pick for Big Ten West champions. To attain their goals, the Badgers will need a more balanced offense with quarterback Graham Mertz. 

Mertz started every game during last season's nine-win campaign but threw 11 interceptions to 10 touchdowns and Wisconsin finished 13th in the Big Ten in passing offense. 

Wisconsin will have a new offensive coordinator this year: Bobby Engram, who spent the last seven years with the Baltimore Ravens as the wide receivers and tight ends coach. The players present at Media Days expressed a new energy around the offense and expect more balance. For Mertz, he feels like he's in a better space to contribute this fall. 

"I'm in a great spot and I'm ready to rock," Mertz said. "For me personally, using the saying, 'You grow through what you go through,' and if you don't learn from that stuff then you're just gonna get you're gonna get buried in the dust. But I know personally that I've learned from all that stuff." 

Minnesota hopes to re-capture offensive magic

The last time Kirk Ciarrocca was the offensive coordinator at Minnesota was in 2019. That year they had a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and one 1,000-yard rusher. He's spent the last two years away in other jobs but has returned to the same role this year. 

"He's really smart, really intelligent," Minnesota coach PJ Fleck said. "Makes me a better head football coach. I hope we make him a better coordinator. We're really excited to have him." 

Under Ciarrocca, Minnesota will search for more balance in 2022. The Golden Gophers finished ninth in the Big Ten in total offense but it was largely due to their running game, which ranked third while the passing offense ranked 12th. Injuries at skill positions severely hampered them last season. With a clean bill of health, Fleck hopes to build on the nine wins they had last year. 

"Last year we lose five tailbacks, four of our receivers miss three to four-plus games," Fleck said. "Everybody says, 'What happened?' We still won nine games.

"When you look at the balance, when we're at our best, we are balanced. I think any team would want that in a perfect world. But balance to me means you do exactly what you have to do to win that game and have the ability to do that on a weekly basis." 

Nebraska is tired of being a punchline

Nebraska was one of college football's biggest enigmas in 2021. The Huskers ranked second in the Big Ten in total offense, seventh in total defense and scored 239 points in Big Ten football games last fall and allowed 239. Yet at the end of the season they held a 3-9 record with every loss by single digits. 

At Media Days, the players appeared ready to rewrite the narrative in 2022. 

“I'm finally ready to have everybody stop trashing on my coach and my coaching staff and our team and us as players,” defensive end Garrett Nelson said. “It's been going on for too long.”

There have been some changes in Lincoln this off-season. The Huskers have added a special teams coach for the first time under coach Scott Frost. Frost has relinquished play-calling duties to new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. And the Huskers are welcoming 15 players via the transfer portal. 

Will that be enough for their first winning season since 2016? For more on Nebraska's 2022 optimism, click here

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Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com.