Who are X-factors for every Big Ten team? Evan Stewart, Aidan Chiles, C.J. Hicks lead list (2024)

Who are X-factors for every Big Ten team? Evan Stewart, Aidan Chiles, C.J. Hicks lead list (1)

By The Athletic College Football Staff

Jun 28, 2024

By Ari Wasserman, Chris Vannini and Scott Dochterman

The majority of fans are familiar with the most important players in the Big Ten. It might be a big-time addition in the transfer portal, a star quarterback or a potential first-round NFL Draft selection.

We wanted to dig a little deeper, so we have selected an X-factor at every program — an under-the-radar player who will go a long way in determining his team’s success in 2024.

We will publish a story for each power conference to complement an episode of “Until Saturday.”

Let’s get started.

Illinois: Pat Bryant has everything a team wants in a receiver — he can beat one-on-one coverage, attack downfield and deliver in the red zone. Bryant tied for fourth in the Big Ten with seven touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 560 yards last year. It would not be a surprise if he finishes the season as one of the Big Ten’s top five receivers. — Scott Dochterman

Indiana:It’s Kurtis Rourke. The Ohio quarterback transfer was a three-year starter and former MAC Offensive Player of the Year. Some fans don’t get excited about MAC transfers, but the quarterback position is the most important in college football, and MACtion watchers know Rourke can spin it. First-year head coach Curt Cignetti’s offensive background should help Rourke transition to a team that has a host of new additions at the skill positions. — Ari Wasserman

Iowa: Can an Iowa tight end count as an X-factor? Luke Lachey, the latest star from “Tight End U,” had 10 catches in Iowa’s first two games then suffered a gruesome broken leg early in the third game. The 6-foot-6, 253-pound Lachey, the son of former Ohio State All-America offensive lineman Jim Lachey, can do it all and is Iowa’s most complete tight end perhaps ever. Yes, that includes the who’s who list of current NFL tight ends. — Dochterman

Maryland:With the graduation of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland will need to lean on the running game again. Roman Hemby had 1,287 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns in 2022, but the numbers and usage slipped in 2023. Hemby should be a greater focal point of the offense this season. — Chris Vannini

Who are X-factors for every Big Ten team? Evan Stewart, Aidan Chiles, C.J. Hicks lead list (2)

Maryland needs a big season from running back Roman Hemby. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

Michigan: I did not expect Michigan to get to this point in the calendar and still have such a wide-open QB competition with so many contenders. It seems like Alex Orji is the favorite, but whoever wins the job will have a good running game, elite tight end play and a really strong defense. If the Wolverines can just figure out the right QB. — Vannini


Michigan State: Michigan State lost every scholarship quarterback to the transfer portal after last season. In comes the highly touted Aidan Chiles, a former four-star recruit and Oregon State transfer. He knows new coach Jonathan Smith and the offensive system, and he’ll be the focal point of a rebuilt offense. — Vannini

Minnesota: The Gophers’ shot at a quality season starts with quarterback Max Brosmer, whom Minnesota snagged before dawn when the transfer portal opened in December. Brosmer was the AFCA first-team All-America quarterback and Walter Payton Award finalist at New Hampshire in 2023, throwing for 3,464 yards, 29 touchdowns and five interceptions while completing 64 percent of his passes. — Dochterman

Nebraska:All eyes are on true freshman quarterback Dylan Raiola, but who is he going to throw to? How about Wake Forest transfer Jahmal Banks, who joined the Cornhuskers this offseason after four years with the Demon Deacons? He’s expected to be Nebraska’s No. 1 receiver, which is important when the college football world is on pins and needles waiting to see whether the program-changing quarterback prospect can deliver. — Wasserman

Northwestern: Built like a bowling ball, running back Cam Porter (5-10, 220) is more than just a power back. He’ll have to use that versatility (618 rushing yards, 21 receptions in 2023) to help Northwestern build its scheme under new offensive coordinator Zach Lujan and likely starting quarterback Jack Lausch. Porter averaged 3.9 yards per carry last fall. — Dochterman

Ohio State: With the entire team basically returning and big-time additions on both sides of the ball — from Will Howard to Jeremiah Smith to Caleb Downs — there are a lot of X-factors at Ohio State. But I’m going to go with someone the Buckeyes recruited out of high school, former five-star C.J. Hicks. Ohio State fans have been waiting patiently for him to get his chance, and if he plays at an all-conference level, it could be a game changer for the Buckeyes. — Wasserman


Oregon: Wide receiver Evan Stewart, a former top-10 recruit, was good-not-great in two seasons at Texas A&M, and he comes to an Oregon offense that should once again be rolling on all cylinders as Dillon Gabriel takes over at quarterback. Gabriel loves the deep ball, and if this offense can get the most out of Stewart’s ability, he could become one of the best receivers in the country. — Vannini

Penn State:You can’t talk about Penn State without discussing its receivers. Ohio State transfer Julian Fleming, a five-star from the state of Pennsylvania, has been the talk of the offseason. But another Penn State receiver is my X-factor: Harrison Wallace III. He is an explosive playmaker whom we haven’t seen much of because he was injured most of last year. If he emerges as a stud this fall, that could be the difference between a solid and a great season for the Nittany Lions. — Wasserman

Purdue: Can safety Dillon Thieneman do everything for Purdue on defense this year? Thieneman was the FWAA Defensive Freshman of the Year after intercepting six passes and collecting 74 solo stops, leading Purdue in tackles eight times. But teams picked apart the Boilermakers in the transfer portal, especially on defense. To have the same impact this fall, Thieneman will need to improve exponentially. — Dochterman

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights boast their best team since joining the Big Ten, and running back Kyle Monangai is the reason. Monangai elected to stay for his senior year at Piscataway after leading the league with 1,262 rushing yards. It was the first time a Rutgers runner had crossed 1,000 yards in a Big Ten season. Monangai is physical with great balance and vision. Overlook him at your own risk. — Dochterman

UCLA: A UCLA running back was selected in four consecutive NFL Drafts until this year — Carson Steele was an undrafted free agent — and the Bruins led the Pac-12 in yards per game in each of the last two years. T.J. Harden split time with Steele last season and should have a greater role this year. His former position coach, DeShaun Foster, is the new head coach. Expect UCLA to lean on that running game. — Vannini

USC:How does a program replace one of the best quarterbacks college football has ever seen? The Trojans don’t. They turn to Miller Moss with the hope he will provide steady production. But a lot of pressure is going to be taken off his shoulders by Mississippi State running back transfer Woody Marks. In four years with the Bulldogs, Marks rushed for 1,883 yards and added 1,225 receiving yards. He should be a versatile asset for Lincoln Riley to deploy. — Wasserman

Washington: With a roster that was gutted by graduation and transfers after the national championship game run, this is a team that needs to lean on veterans. Quarterback Will Rogers comes in from Mississippi State, where he left as the SEC’s all-time leading passer. New head coach Jedd Fisch has a strong track record with QBs, and this will be Rogers’ offense to guide as the program transitions to the Big Ten. — Vannini


Wisconsin:It’s impossible to think about a good Wisconsin team without first thinking of the Badgers running back. People are excited about the arrival of Tyler Van Dyke from Miami, but running back Chez Mellusi is a sixth-year guy who has shown a lot of potential but has suffered two season-ending injuries, including last year. It will be important to have a healthy veteran running back to help Van Dyke get comfortable in Phil Longo’s offense. — Wasserman

(Top photos of C.J. Hicks, Aidan Chiles: Ian Johnson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, Brian Hayes / USA Today)

Who are X-factors for every Big Ten team? Evan Stewart, Aidan Chiles, C.J. Hicks lead list (2024)


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