Devy Fantasy Football Conference Breakdowns: Big Ten (2021)
Welcome to the second of a series exploring the college football landscape from a Devy perspective. Christian Williams will join me as we journey conference by conference and look at the fantasy-relevant positions and prospects. On deck is the Big Ten.
Ohio State dominates this conference on the field, and from a Devy perspective, it is no different. A three-way quarterback competition between CJ Stroud, Kyle McCord, and Jack Miller will dominate the spring practice season’s headlines and potentially last into the fall. The prize is tempting, a chance to helm a Ryan Day offense that will have produced back-to-back first-round quarterbacks. From a Devy perspective, the uncertainty creates depressed prices and an opportunity to buy low. Despite the lack of tradition at the position, Coach Day has the Buckeyes poised to become a quarterback factory.
Elsewhere the conference is a mixed bag. Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana) provided excitement as a dual-threat quarterback, but a torn ACL will offer a steep obstacle. Freshman Graham Mertz (Wisconsin) was the #3 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2019. He burst onto the scene with a five-touchdown performance in his first career game, but the rest of his season was rocky. Uncertainty or low upside options lead the way at programs like Michigan, Penn St., and Iowa.
Christian, who are you taking in the Ohio St. quarterback race? The second-best quarterback in the conference may be the runner-up in the Ohio St. derby, but outside of that, is your guy Penix Jr., Mertz, or someone else?
As of right now, I’m taking CJ Stroud to win the Ohio St. QB race. I think his game mirrors Justin Fields’ a little bit, and while the vertical offense could dictate starting any of those guys, I expect that Stroud will take a big step forward in 2021. Regarding the rest of the conference, I have a lot of intrigue in Michael Penix Jr. I have him ranked inside my top-15 Devy quarterbacks; I saw a ton of NFL-level throws on tape before his injury. Will he bounce back quickly from the ACL? Maybe not, but I’m keeping a close eye on it.
Mertz generated a ton of buzz, but some of what he put on film was worrisome in 2020, and while I still think the tools are there, I have lowered expectations for him, at least in 2021. I do need to mention one guy: Tanner Morgan (Minnesota). I had him ranked highly headed into 2020. While he had some disappointing outings, I think having Chris Autman-Bell back and operating within the same offense for a consecutive year will have him taking a significant step forward.
The B1G is full of the unknown at the running back position. I don’t want to make this strictly an Ohio State article, but incoming freshman TreVeyon Henderson piques my interest the most. The #1 running back recruit in the nation should hit the ground running with CJ Stroud and crew in 2021. Outside of Henderson, I like Jalen Berger (Wisconsin). He was a 4-star 2020 recruit that entered as the 15th-ranked RB in the nation. He’s got a good amount of burst and has shown ability as a pass-catcher.
Other guys I’m eyeing are the tandem of Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee (Penn State). They each put up around 450 yards in their featured seasons (Cain in 2019, Lee in 2020). Lee is as big a running back as you’ll find and profiles as a true workhorse at the next level. Cain is no small fellow, either. Both have receiving ability, and one of them will probably separate themselves from the other in 2021. Lastly, I am a big fan of Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota) and thought he’d declare early and enter the 2021 NFL Draft.
First, how high will you have TreVeyon Henderson ranked by the end of 2021, assuming he takes the lead back role? Second, are there any other Big Ten running backs that intrigue you?
If Henderson is the clear lead back for the Buckeyes, he will be on the shortlist for the number one running back in Devy. The combination of his recruiting profile, the upside within Day’s offensive scheme, and his skillset will warrant such consideration. That said, Texas’ Bijan Robinson thriving in Najee Harris’s role in new coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense would set a high bar to clear. If it is Henderson’s job, he will be a top half of the 1st Devy pick, and we will be eagerly counting the days until his NFL debut.
A guy who could pop onto the draft radar is Iowa’s, Tyler Goodson. He finished third in the conference in rushing yards; while his frame is slender, he showed utility in the passing game and explosive ability when he hits a seam. One back outside of Henderson I cannot wait to see is Michigan’s, Donovan Edwards. Edwards is 247’s number three RB in the 2021 class. Like Henderson, he is entering a backfield filled with uninspiring veterans and has the opportunity to claim the top spot.
Hey, look, more Ohio State players! Chris Olave’s surprising return paired with my Devy WR1 Garrett Wilson head college football’s best WR room. Earlier I mentioned Ryan Day’s impending quarterback factory; the WR room coach Brian Hartline assembled is a significant reason to build that belief. Rounding out the group is Jaxon Smith-Njigba, 247 2020 #1 WR Julian Fleming, Gee Scott Jr., Marvin Harrison Jr., and 247 2021 #1 WR Emeka Egbuka. The room is so deep that NFL Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison’s son blends into the crowd.
Elsewhere in the conference, two names stand out: Purdue’s David Bell and Maryland’s Rakim Jarrett. Both are premier Devy targets. I am a sucker for same school comps, and Jarrett’s run after the catch ability brought back memories of former Maryland greats D.J. Moore and Stefon Diggs. He torched Penn St for 144 yards and two touchdowns. David Bell’s size (6’2″) and ability to make plays on balls in the air present a package we have seen time and time again succeed in the NFL.
Christian, who are you putting on top in the group? Who am I missing?
David Bell is my Devy WR1 right now. He’s an alpha that snagged a 25% College Dominator as a true freshman back in 2019. He followed his 12-game debut with a 12-game pace (in a shortened COVID season) of 106 receptions, 1,250 yards, and 16 touchdowns. A few guys from the SEC Conference Review have a case, too, but I’ll take the Purdue standout.
Regarding the Ohio State group: yes, absolutely, they’re outstanding. Wilson profiles as more of a traditional alpha, but Olave’s smooth route running and him being perceived as Option 1A could shoot him to some incredibly high draft capital, as well. I am keeping an eye on Smith-Njigba and Fleming taking a step forward in terms of target share. The Big Ten won’t be able to stop this position group, though.
I have a name that we haven’t mentioned yet: Zavier Betts. The 6’2, 200-lbs Nebraska receiver didn’t see the field a ton as a freshman in 2020 but certainly has an intriguing build and couples it with some plus-burst after the catch. He’s absolutely a name I have starred for 2021.
Do you want to talk through some more Ohio State players? Because that’s where we’re going to start at the tight end position, too. Jeremy Ruckert graded as a top-5 tight end for me while residing in a class with Kyle Pitts, Brevin Jordan, and Pat Freiermuth. And then he decided to go back to school, probably to show NFL scouts that he can be a receiving threat. He’s a guy that’s vital to Ohio State’s success, either way.
Aside from Ruckert, Theo Johnson (Penn State), Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin), and incoming freshman Thomas Fidone (Nebraska) all have Devy value. Ferguson was a surprise return to school like Ruckert, but Johnson and Fidone have yet to make a mark.
Jeff, do you think that Ruckert will get the target share to get fantasy managers excited? Are there any guys I’m leaving out here?
Ruckert was a high school WR, and in limited college targets, he has already accumulated an entire highlight reel. In terms of increased workload, it would surprise me to see him materially involved more. We just discussed the depth in the WR room, and there is only one ball. One factor working to his advantage is an inexperienced quarterback potentially looking for open underneath targets. I have already seen enough and buy his ability as a pass-catching tight end.
As for a guy you did not mention, I’m intrigued to watch Daniel Barker at Illinois this year. New coach Bret Bielema has turned out several NFL tight ends between previous stints in Arkansas and Wisconsin. Barker flashed some big-play ability last year, fitting the mold of tight ends we have seen rise to NFL fantasy relevance. He is a deeper dig at the moment.
Now, this is a conference where I feel comfortable projecting a winner well before the season starts. Ohio State has proven itself time and again to be at the top of the class. A new quarterback presents a hurdle but the other signal-callers in the conference present questions themselves. Past Ohio State, I see the conference possessing good but not great teams. It will be interesting how the extra year of eligibility from the 2020 Covid Nightmare season will impact some more experienced teams.
Christian, I would have to believe you are on Ohio State as well, true? Can you close us out with a dark horse contender?
Yes, I think anyone who doesn’t pick Ohio State as preseason conference champion is fooling themselves; there’s way too much talent on both sides of the ball. I think if Michael Penix Jr. recovers in time to play most of the season, Indiana will be a good football team. He is expected to be back for fall camp, and it seems as though that will be the case. Outside of that, I don’t think there is a Big Ten team that can contend with Ohio State. The conference has never been so top-heavy, and while I think Ohio State may be challenged in a few games simply due to a new starting quarterback, the 2021 B1G Champions are in Columbus, Ohio.
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