The Big Ten West has long been thought of as “the other division” of the Big Ten. Since the conference realigned in 2014, no team from the West division has won the Big Ten Championship and, in fact, the gap between the two divisions appears to be growing.
In the two most recent championship games, the Michigan Wolverines outscored their opponents —Iowa and Purdue— by a combined score of 85-25. So, how does the Big Ten West catch up to the East to at least command respectability?
It starts at the top with the hiring of Matt Rhule to Nebraska and Luke Fickell to Wisconsin. The division finally has a bevy of proven head coaches who can recruit high-quality players to their program. But even with these known commodities joining the ranks of Bret Bielema at Illinois and PJ Fleck at Minnesota, can the Big Ten West consistently recruit with the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State from the East?
Let’s take a look at the top incoming freshman for each Big Ten West team in the 2023 cycle. If the West is able to claim the conference crown in the future, more than likely one of these players was a factor.
Illinois - WR Malik Elzy
Malik Elzy was one of only three four-star recruits for the Illini, but the talented freshman could see the field as early as this season. Listed at 6’2, 200 pounds, this big-body receiver is a 50/50 ball specialist who could help make this Illinois team multi-dimensional in the red zone.
Iowa - LB Ben Kueter
Ben Kueter was only recruited by four teams because every recruiter knew the Iowa City native was going to Iowa to wrestle and play football. Kueter is an exceptional athlete and one of the most decorated wrestlers in the history of the state. Kueter is only the seventh athlete to finish his Iowa prep career undefeated with a perfect record (111-0).
While also a four-star football prospect, the only concern for Hawkeye fans is if Kueter will be able to continue to focus on both sports, especially with the 2024 Olympics just around the corner.
Minnesota - RB Darius Taylor
Out with the Mo, in with the new. Darrius Taylor has the unenviable task of replacing All-American and numerous school record-holder Mo Ibrahim. Taylor is a downhill back who can also complement the passing game as a receiver. But with so much offensive turnover, it could take Taylor some time to gain his footing in Minneapolis.
Nebraska - WR Malachi Coleman
Nebraska finished with the best recruiting class in the Big Ten West and that is in large part due to the commitment of top 100 recruit Malachi Coleman. Coleman is LONG, listed at 6’4, 185 pounds, and possesses blazing speed. It will take Coleman a season or two to fill out his frame, but the former No. 1 player in the state of Nebraska might have the highest ceiling of all Big Ten freshmen receivers.
Northwestern - LB Nigel Glover
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald knows the linebacker position as well as anyone and he wasted no time converting former star high school safety Nigel Glover to linebacker. Glover is a hard-hitting player with great change of direction speed, which will make him as valuable in coverage as in stopping the run. While only currently listed at 215 pounds, Glover is not projected to start until at least his second season in Evanston.
Purdue - OLB Will Heldt
The former three-star recruit showed some warts on tape as a linebacker, but Will Heldt is undeniably a missile when in pursuit. Heldt routinely displayed good instincts and physicality when chasing down quarterbacks and ball carriers. Listed at 6’6, 240 pounds, it remains to be seen if head coach Ryan Walters will keep him as a linebacker or convert him into an EDGE.
Wisconsin - S Braedyn Moore
Bradedyn Moore will be an essential piece to an already talented Badgers defense in the coming years. Moore is a ball-hawking, 6’2, 190 pounds safety who could even add size to fill out his frame if he wants to become a hybrid linebacker at Wisconsin.