INDIANAPOLIS — Despite many offers, Big Ten Conference commissioner Kevin Warren wouldn’t take the bait on Thursday.
Warren, the conference and half of its football coaches were gathered at Lucas Oil Stadium for football media days, but they all were quiet on how the league will handle COVID-19 issues should they arise this season.
After stating the Big Ten will have a “decentralized” COVID-19 protocol this season, allowing the conference’s 14 institutions to manage their procedures, Warren said the conference will collect the schools’ policies in early August and determine how the conference will handle the virus this fall.
Dr. Ann Sheehy, a University of Wisconsin Athletic Board member and the university’s representative on the infectious disease task force assembled last season, told the UW athletic board last month the conference won’t mandate testing athletes who are vaccinated.
That could change given a recent rise in COVID-19 cases, especially those connected to the Delta variant of virus and the impact it’s having on both vaccinated and unvaccinated populations.
Warren did not answer a question regarding teams forfeiting games they’re unable to play due to COVID. The Big 12 and SEC have announced such policies in the past week.
“I don’t have an opinion on that and I won’t,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said when asked if teams should forfeit games due to COVID.
“We fought hard for football last year because we thought it was the right thing. I’m really grateful to the people that helped make it happen so that we could get a chance to play last year. Where we landed last year was a good place. I thought the season came off well with the Big Ten and was managed well. We’re going to trust them to make those types of decisions.”
Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State were three of the most outspoken schools urging the conference to play the season last fall despite the virus risks. Nebraska’s game against UW was canceled due to the Badgers’ COVID outbreak.
There are five Big Ten campuses mandating the COVID vaccine for all students: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Rutgers. Terrapins coach Michael Locksley said since the state’s mandate came down his job has been easier and about 93% of his team is vaccinated.
Illinois senior center Doug Kramer said he wouldn’t push vaccination on anyone, but he had a personal reason to get the shot outside of Illinois’ mandate.
“I got contact-traced out of two games last year and it was the worst two weeks,” he said. “I had to sit in a hotel and watch our team play and I couldn’t do anything about it and that drove me crazy. Getting the vaccine was an easy decision for me and I’d do it 10 out of 10 times.”
NIL deals dominate conversation
Pat Fitzgerald admitted he was jealous of his Northwestern players’ current circumstance.
“I mean, think about the mid-90s, the dough I would have made? I mean, come on,” Fitzgerald said with a laugh.
Athletes being able to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) was a hot topic for coaches and players. Players discussed some of the deals they had, exchanging Instagram posts for products and navigating the new world of college athletics on the fly after NIL deals were allowed July 1.
One of Fitzgerald’s best players — sophomore safety Brandon Joseph, who was an All-American last season and earned Big Ten preseason honors — said he keeps his NIL deals close to home.
“My mom is my manager and my attorney,” Joseph said through a wide smile. “She’s an attorney at Texas A&M … I’ve been blessed enough to go, ‘Mom, please take care of this,’ and she takes care of it for me.”
Some coaches, notably Frost and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, said their programs were in good situations to have players take advantage of NIL opportunities — Frost discussed the rabid nature of the Cornhuskers’ fan base and Fleck rattled off facts about the Fortune 500 companies that call the Minneapolis metro area home.
Not all NIL deals will be for big dollars, but players are embracing the ability to add to their lives through these sponsorships.
“This NIL stuff is really changing a lot of young men’s life out here, before they even touch a field,” Maryland defensive back Dontay Demus Jr. said. “Really changing their family’s lives out here.”
PSU excited for UW, but game ‘means the same’
One of the headlining games of the early season schedule is UW’s home opener against Penn State. The 11 a.m. kickoff Sept. 4 will be featured on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff and both teams are likely to be ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said having a big conference matchup to start the year is good for college football.
“I see a lot of this, not just in the Big Ten but across the country, so that there’s tremendous games, what people would consider primetime-type games throughout the entire schedule and throughout the entire season,” Franklin said.
“We have had a countdown clock going on in our facility like we do every single year, but I must admit, having Wisconsin’s logo up there, I think has really kind of raised the standard for our guys and they understand we better be ready to go.”
Some of those emotions might translate more to PSU players when camp begins.
Star wide receiver and return man Jahan Dotson, a Big Ten preseason honoree, said having the Badgers first on the slate means the same to him as a non-conference game.
Senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said he knows the atmosphere at Camp Randall Stadium will be intense, but his emotions will be the same as any season debut.
“The first game, you’re automatically going to be excited because you haven’t played in a year,” he said. “I think we’re just super excited to play Wisconsin. Going on the road … I can’t wait.”
Ibrahim ready to be workhorse again
Coming off his consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and a Big Ten Running Back of the Year Award, Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim said he wasn’t good enough for the team last year.
Ibrahim averaged 28.7 carries and 153.7 rushing yards per game a year ago, but after evaluating his play he doesn’t think he showed enough consistency.
“Being more patient,” Ibrahim said of his focus this offseason. “I’m not consistent right now with my runs. And I need to get those long plays — those 10-yard (runs), make them 50 yards.”
He’ll again be the focal point of the Gophers offense, so he’ll likely have plenty of chances to show where he’s improved this season. As the conference has already seen, a motivated Ibrahim can be a load to handle.
Goodie bags a hit
Players were appreciative of the Big Ten’s rolling out the red carpet in Indianapolis this week.
Their jerseys were hung in lockers in their waiting room, along with a goodie bag featuring a Bluetooth speaker and other swag as a thank you for participating in media days.
The Colts’ home locker room was converted into a game room and lounge for players while they waited to address reporters.
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.