When he believed he was retiring from football, Jon Dietzen was appreciative of his time in the University of Wisconsin’s program.
“This was not an easy decision, as I have enjoyed every second of my football career, especially those as a Wisconsin Badger,” Dietzen tweeted Feb. 11, 2019.
“... It was an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of the Wisconsin football team and to be able to call myself a Wisconsin offensive lineman. I will always cherish my time at this university. The bonds and relationships I’ve formed over the last four years are irreplaceable and I am forever grateful for everyone who’s been a part of this experience.”
That experience will now continue — Dietzen is listed on the Badgers’ fall roster, which was released Wednesday. The Black Creek product stepped away from football due to injuries he described as “ankles, hips and other things,” after splitting playing time in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Players weren’t made available to the media Wednesday, but took part in drills and skill work at Camp Randall Stadium. UW coach Paul Chryst said Dietzen felt healthier last fall and has spent the past year-plus training. When COVID-19 shut down UW’s campus in the spring and summer, Dietzen would check in with trainers about his progress.
“This has been kind of a year in the works,” Chryst said. “The more time we’ve had, ‘Dietz’ is probably the one that’s probably benefitted from it in many ways. He’s trained, but he hasn’t played for a while; it was the Pinstripe Bowl (in Dec. 2018 that) was his last game.”
This will be Dietzen’s sixth and final year of eligibility.
Dietzen has played in 35 games for the Badgers, and made 32 starts — 20 at left guard and 12 at tackle. Dietzen split time at left tackle in 2018 with Cole Van Lanen, who assumed the starting role last season. Dietzen gives an experienced option at both positions for the Badgers, who may have new starters at every position besides Van Lanen at left tackle.
“It’s been fun to see him, truly, healthy as he’s ever been, quite honestly. ‘Dietz,’ he’s a talented football player. I think the question will be … the thing he hasn’t done is played football. So maybe not just that (first) day, what’s it feel like the day after that? Or when you start stacking two or three together?” Chryst said.
“How does he feel not necessarily on the first practice, but on the second of a back-to-back, or two or three weeks into it? But just through all the training he was doing, he’s able to bend probably better than he’s been before.”
Chryst said he’s excited for Dietzen to return because he knows how difficult the decision to step away was for Dietzen.
“Football meant a ton to him, the team meant a lot to him. … So to see him healthy, that’s been really fun to see,” Chryst said.
Chryst was less forthcoming about the health concerns surrounding safety Reggie Pearson. The redshirt sophomore was listed on the team’s spring roster, but not the fall list, with Chryst saying he wasn’t cleared to play by doctors.
“In the offseason, found something that was a concern. For this year, he wasn’t cleared to play. That’s why he’s not on the roster right now, because he wouldn’t be cleared,” Chryst said.
Pearson — who started 12 games last season and was fourth on the team with 60 tackles — is still in school at UW, but “something would have to change for him to be cleared” to play football again, Chryst said.
Pearson’s father, Reggie, tweeted on Wednesday: “For the Record, (Reggie Pearson) is fine and feeling better than ever and will return to the field in due time. Thank you for all the concerns and love. God Over Everything.”
The roster release also showed two players who switched positions. Sophomore Jaylan Franklin moved to tight end from outside linebacker, and sophomore Brady Schipper moved to safety from running back.
Franklin was originally recruited as a tight end and his body size (6-foot-4, 228 pounds) gives the tight end group a different dimension, Chryst said.
“His skill set and his body type lends (itself) to playing a number of positions, and he’s got a chance to impact the tight end position,” Chryst said. “Be a little bit different for us, kind of complement that group.”
On-field issues facing each Big Ten team
Illinois: Will focus on transfers yield wins?
Simply put, the Fighting Illini have had little success recruiting high schoolers in recent seasons.
Coach Lovie Smith’s last three classes have ranked in the bottom three of the Big Ten — 14th in 2020, 13th in 2019 and 12th in 2018. Of the 56 high school recruits in those three classes, only five were rated above a three-star prospect by multiple recruiting sites.
However, Illinois has been able to acquire talent through the transfer market. Its top two receivers last season — Josh Imatorbhebhe and Donny Navarro — were transfers, as were its leading pass-rusher (Oluwole Betiku Jr.), starting quarterback (Brandon Peters) and starting guard (Richie Petitbon).
Illinois’ 2020 recruiting class features 13 high schoolers and seven transfers — former UW linebacker Christian Bell announce Monday he was decommitting from the program after planning to graduate-transfer there. At least four of those transfers are immediately eligible.
After upsetting the then-No. 6 Badgers, the Illini tallied three more wins before falling off and ending the year on a three-year skid. If the transfers can make an immediate difference again for Illinois, .500 will no longer be the ceiling.
Indiana: Can the defense match the offense?
Moving the ball and scoring points wasn’t an issue for the Hoosiers last season. Their 31.8 points per game were fifth-most in the Big Ten and in the top 45 nationally, and their 432.8 yards per game was third in the conference and 41st nationally.
Indiana was strong on offense despite making multiple quarterback changes. Redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. beat out redshirt junior Peyton Ramsey for the starting role midseason, but was injured in early November. Ramsey finished out the season, going 1-3 in the team’s final four games against Penn State, Michigan, Purdue and Tennessee. Ramsey transferred to Northwestern after the season.
Indiana’s defense was another story. It allowed 28.6 points per game in conference play, including 51 to Ohio State, 39 to Michigan, 28 to Maryland and 41 to Purdue in double overtime.
Facing an uphill climb in the Big Ten East already, getting the defense to a point where the offense can avoid shootouts is necessary. Indiana did well recruiting on defense in 2019, landing two four-star prospects and nine three-stars. Getting those players up to speed to contribute this year may help build on the momentum of going 8-5 last year.
Iowa: Who replaces Nate Stanley?
In three full seasons as the Hawkeyes’ quarterback, Menomonie native and Badgers recruiting target Nate Stanley was consistently good. He never reached extreme highs, but he was a dependable player who rarely made bad mistakes and elevated some less-than-stellar skill players his senior year.
But with Stanley gone — he was picked by the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round of the NFL draft — a new signal-caller must take over. The smart money in Iowa City is on redshirt sophomore Spencer Petras, Stanley’s backup from last season. Petras, who came to Iowa from San Rafael, Calif., is 6-foot-5, 231 pounds and has a strong arm that will help Iowa’s pro-style offense stretch the field.
With tackle Alaric Jackson returning to anchor the offensive line and the receiver position’s young core getting reps last season, Petras could be in position to succeed immediately with the Hawkeyes.
Maryland: Who emerges in QB race?
Things were bleak for the Terrapins last season.
They ended the year on a seven-game losing streak and only one of those games was competitive. Coach Michael Locksley enters his second year with some recruiting momentum on his side — the No. 6 class in the Big Ten in 2020 and a strong start to the 2021 class — but a major question at quarterback.
Josh Jackson and Tyrrell Pigrome split time under center last season, with Pigrome adding more of a rushing threat to the position, but neither had great results. Only Pigrome returns after Jackson opted out, but Maryland also has Lance LeGendre, a four-star recruit as a dual-threat QB who redshirted last season and will compete for the job.
Maryland also brought in Taulia Tagovailoa, a transfer quarterback from Alabama, who was granted a waiver to be immediately eligible. Tagovailoa is the brother of Tua Tagovailoa, the former Alabama quarterback who was drafted fifth by the Miami Dolphins this spring.
Michigan: Will the spread offense take hold?
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh gave up the reigns to his offense last year and hired Josh Gattis to modernize the Wolverines’ approach. Gattis’ spread system was shaky early in the season but seemed to find footing later on.
Inconsistent quarterback play from starter Shea Patterson plagued a talented receiver group, but enough come back to give to Patterson’s replacement — redshirt sophomore Joe Milton after junior Dylan McCaffrey's opt out and potential transfer — good talent to throw to.
If Milton isn't the answer, Michigan has one of the top 2021 recruits in the country — five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy — committed to the program.
Even with a new coordinator and focus offensively, the Wolverines would often drift back to Harbaugh’s run-first style — Michigan had nearly a 70-30 run-pass split a year ago. The question is whether a full recruiting cycle with the spread in mind nets the Wolverines enough talent to beat Big Ten rivals like Ohio State, Penn State and UW.
Michigan State: Who becomes an offensive playmaker?
The Spartans took a step forward after an ugly 2018 season with a 7-6 campaign a year ago, but Mark Dantonio’s resignation and the hiring of UW alum Mel Tucker brought needed change to the program.
Michigan State lacked spark on offense last year. Only running back Elijah Collins made an All-Big Ten team, a third-team pick by the media, and he averaged less than 100 yards per game of total offense. If he can add more explosive plays to his game, Michigan State can utilize him behind an experienced offensive line.
Receiver Cody White also showed flashes last season with multiple 100-yard games and six touchdowns, but he’ll have to get up to speed with a new quarterback after experienced starter Brian Lewerke graduated.
A new playmaker will need to emerge for the Spartans to have success next season, whether it’s someone on the roster now like receivers Tre Mosley or Julian Barnett or a new face.
Minnesota: Can Tanner Morgan do that again?
The Golden Gophers were one of the biggest surprises in college football last year. After going 7-6 in 2018, Minnesota rattled off nine wins to start the 2019 season. A tough loss at Iowa and UW rolling the Gophers at home ended their chances at the Big Ten title and a possible College Football Playoff berth, but it was still a breakthrough season.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan, a redshirt sophomore who wasn’t projected to start until an injury to Zack Annexstad thrust him into the role, was a big reason for Minnesota’s success. He set school records for passing yards (3,253), touchdowns (30), completion percentage (66%) and passing efficiency (178.7).
Receiver Tyler Johnson graduates and takes 86 catches, 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns with him. Rashod Bateman (60-1,219-11) is back to the program after opting out this summer, which is a major boost to the receiving corps. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca left for the same role at Penn State, but one would assume that the run-pass option scheme Morgan utilized so well will remain.
If Morgan can put together another season like he did in 2019, the Gophers could again make a run in the Big Ten West.
Nebraska: Will strong recruiting finally pay off?
In the past four seasons, the Cornhuskers are a good example that success in college football goes beyond landing good recruits.
Since 2017, Nebraska hasn’t had a recruiting class rank outside of the top 25 in the country, and has signed 22 four-star prospects. Conversely, since 2017, the program has spent just two weeks in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Scott Frost is entering his third season after going 5-7 in each of his first two years at his alma mater. Frost, who won a national championship as the Cornhuskers’ quarterback in 1997, needs the work he’s done recruiting to translate into wins.
Nebraska arguably pushed the hardest for football's return, with eight of its players suing the Big Ten. We'll see if they wanted to play so badly because they had a successful team waiting.
Northwestern: Can Pat Fitzgerald get the program back on track?
Let’s preface this with a fact — Pat Fitzgerald has done a tremendous job at Northwestern. Since taking over in 2006, Fitzgerald’s Wildcats are 99-79 with a 4-4 record in bowl games. He’s the only coach in Northwestern history with multiple 10-win seasons. His teams have consistently been tough to beat in Big Ten play.
All that said, the wheels fell off last year. The team’s 3-9 finish was Fitzgerald’s worst in his tenure with the program and at multiple times Fitzgerald questioned publicly the dedication of his players. Quarterback and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson struggled, and the team had just six passing touchdowns last season.
“The lack of success is completely, totally unacceptable,” Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune in February.
Andrew Marty started at QB for the team’s season-ending win against Illinois and took first-team reps in spring practices before the pandemic. TJ Green is a sixth-year senior that expects to be ready before training camp after breaking his foot last season, Johnson is still in the mix, and the team brought in grad transfer Peyton Ramsey from Indiana.
Fitzgerald and Co. had an extremely down year in 2019 — let’s see if they can limit it to just one.
Ohio State: How far does the defense fall?
Before Buckeyes fans freak out — Ohio State’s defense is still going to be good next season.
But to expect it to reach the heights of last year when you consider seven defenders were selected in the NFL draft this year is wrong. Two keys to the Buckeyes’ defense last season, edge rusher Chase Young and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, went in the top three picks.
Ohio State’s defense has a new coordinator in Kerry Coombs, who came from the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, but still had Madison native Greg Mattison as co-coordinator. While Ohio State’s roster has the depth to sustain draft/graduation losses, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to replace Young, Okudah and Co.’s production, even if cornerback Shaun Wade is allowed to come back after opting out.
The question is how much of a drop off will there be from last season’s nation-best defense (259.7 yards allowed per game). If it’s not too significant, the Buckeyes will again be pushing for the College Football Playoff championship.
Penn State: Who breaks out on defense?
Breaking through in the Big Ten East for the Nittany Lions means having to beat Ohio State. For that to happen in 2020, that means finding defensive playmakers to slow down the Buckeyes’ high-powered offense.
Perhaps the best inside linebacker in the country, Micah Parsons, opted out, but could return to the Nittany Lions. Parsons led the team with 109 tackles and four forced fumbles last year, and safety Lamont Wade, who had five pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
Safety Garrett Taylor and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos are gone, but there’s enough returners from last season’s unit to remain a good defense. Finding a replacement for Gross-Matos’ pass-rushing will be key for Penn State.
One major factor will be securing more turnovers — Penn State created 22 turnovers last year, which was tied for 23rd nationally, but 15 more fumbles caused by the Nittany Lions were recovered by their opponent.
Purdue: Can the QB fully utilize Rondale Moore?
When Rondale Moore injured his hamstring last season against Minnesota, which forced him to miss the final eight games of the season, college football lost one of its most electric players. Not having the first consensus true freshman All-American in Big Ten history was too much for the team to absorb, along with a rash of injuries on offense.
Moore’s healthy now, and participated in Purdue’s spring practices before COVID-19 shut them down. Moore originally opted out of the season, but announced Sept. 24 he's going to play for the Boilermakers this fall.
Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell manned the QB spot for most of the season after Eljiah Sindelar was hurt. Sindelar graduated and won’t return, and Purdue brought in UCLA transfer Austin Burton to compete with Plummer and O’Connell for the starting job.
Whomever wins the spot must get Moore back to the explosive, playmaking heights of his freshman season. Moore is projected as one of the top wide receiver prospects in the 2021 NFL draft, so it is likely his last season in West Lafayette. If the quarterback does his job, Moore should make defensive coordinators nervous all season.
Rutgers: Can Greg Schiano turn things around?
In six seasons of being in the Big Ten Conference, Rutgers is 21-52 overall and 7-45 in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights haven’t won a conference game since 2017.
The struggles convinced Rutgers administration to turn back to coach Greg Schiano, who turned Rutgers into a Big East power during his first stint with the program from 2001-2011. Getting the team out of the cellar is a tougher task when considering the stiff competition in the division and conference overall.
Schiano got a jump on 2021 recruiting when he got the job with 20 commitments already, and is bringing in nine D-I transfers — including former UW receiver Aron Cruickshank — into the 2020 class. It will take years for Rutgers to seriously contend in the conference, but if Schiano’s work in recruiting bears fruit, it might not be a doormat much longer.
Wisconsin: How do you replace Jonathan Taylor?
Notice this question isn’t, “Who replaces Jonathan Taylor?” because it’s not going to be a one-man job.
Backfield options on the roster already include Garrett Groshek, Nakia Watson, Julius Davis and Isaac Guerendo. Add in four-star tailback Jalen Berger from the 2020 recruiting class and the Badgers have a stable of backs that could cobble together the 2,500-3,000 total yards rushing the program is accustomed to.
A running-back-by-committee approach has worked for UW before, like in 2015’s 10-win season in which no player eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing but the team had nearly 2,000 total.
However, the home-run threat Taylor provided on a play-to-play basis hasn’t been shown by anyone in that running back group. So creating explosive plays in the passing game may be required in order to match the offensive output of 2019.
Depth behind the top duo of receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor is a question mark, so more responsibility may fall to quarterback Jack Coan to elevate new players to make plays in the passing game.
This story will be updated after a noon news conference with UW coach Paul Chryst.