CHICAGO -- Illinois hopes Deion Sanders was right when he famously stated, "If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good."

The Illini unveiled their new look this week, part of a rebrand with Nike for all the school's athletic teams. I'm a fan of the white uniforms with white helmets and the sleek shield on the collar. Athletic director Mike Thomas said the new threads give Illini teams the consistent look they had lacked. Football coach Tim Beckman wants more consistency on the field this fall after back-to-back losing seasons.

The Illini finished spring practice on Saturday, and I caught up with Beckman on Thursday at Niketown to recap the session.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMITim Beckman likes the experience his Illinois team will have in 2014.
What were your main objectives for the spring, and did you achieve them?

Tim Beckman: We always have three goals. First, we wanted to become more physical up front, and we were much more physically and mentally tougher this spring than we've been. We wanted a competitive edge. You've got to compete against yourself, against your fellow players. And then position-wise, we knew we had to strengthen up on the defensive front. We knew defensively, we had growing up to do. We know why: We had a bunch of freshmen playing for us, sophomores playing for us. Offensively, we had to find wide receivers to step in. We moved in the right direction. We still have some guys who have been in our program, who were there before I came, who still haven't played. The time has come.

Who is growing up for you on defense?

TB: T.J. Neal. He has probably the best linebacker spring that we had. He's gotten bigger, stronger. Even Mason [Monheim], when he was starting for us [as a freshman], he was benching around 315 pounds. He's around 375-380, so his whole body's changed. Austin Teitsma is where he needs to be. He's playing better. We needed to work on our pass rush and D.J. Smoot, he has a great motor. DeJazz Woods has grown up. They should never have had to play, should have been redshirted. Now they're juniors and sophomores and they look like different guys.

Did you get what you needed out of the wide receivers?

TB: The junior-college players have come in and helped. Martize Barr just turned a year older. Geronimo Allison had a great spring. Justin Hardee had a good spring. Mikey Dudek surprised us all. If you had to pencil in a starter right now, Mikey Dudek would be in there.

When you reviewed the quarterback play, what stood out?

TB: Each guy has a very good talent. Wes [Lunt] has got very, very good arm strength. And arm strength to me isn't about throwing a 60-yard bomb, it's about getting that comeback or putting that seam route 18-25 yards right on that seam. He has a very, very good arm. Aaron Bailey has very, very good feet. He can run, he can make people miss, he's an athlete. Reilly [O'Toole] has played more and he's got experience, and he's kind of between them. His arm's a little better than Aaron's, but his feet are better than Wes'. All of them are outstanding competitors, and they get along.

When would you like to decide on the starter?

TB: I've talked to [offensive coordinator Bill Cubit] about it. I don't think there's a time frame that we've got to do it right now, but as we go through the summer and they get a feel for where they're going to be, we talk to them honestly. I would say when two-a-days get humming, we've got to get where this guy's going to be doing most of it.

What are the team's strengths at this point?

TB: We've got a lot of guys who have played. Were they ready to play back then? No, but they did. If you do it by position, we've got an offensive front that is experienced, and they're very, very good leaders. To be in a Big Ten game, you better win up front. Defensively, we're making definite strides with guys like Teko Powell, Jarrod Clements, Joe Fotu. We expect some big things when Jihad Ward gets here. The players are getting some maturity.

What areas still must be improved?

TB: We can't let negativity absorb our program. We've got to be positive, we've got to believe. At times, there's too much questioning. We need to believe it can be done. Last season, we didn't start well a lot of times, but we gave ourselves opportunities to come back and win. We've can't start that way. We've got to go out there and know we can play with people in the Big Ten.

Wide receivers definitely got to step up. The offensive line depth is important. On defense, the young defensive backs have to come through for us and the front. But I feel better about it because they are getting bigger, they are getting stronger. They're not 18-year-olds. They're 20-year-olds now. And they play like it.
The Big Ten's 11-season national championship drought, coinciding with the SEC's ascent to the top of college football, has placed the spotlight on recruiting in both leagues.

[+] EnlargeMeyer
espnWHas Urban Meyer's SEC roots helped him on the Big Ten recruiting trail?
SEC fans point to crystal footballs, surging population and dominance in the national recruiting rankings. Big Ten fans counter with criticisms of SEC oversigning, low academic standards and shady recruiting tactics.

And then we have Urban Meyer and James Franklin.

The two coaches serve as links between the leagues, as both came to the Big Ten from SEC programs. Both coaches also have brought different recruiting approaches to the Big Ten that many label as "SEC-style." Both coaches also have been very successful on the trail early in their Big Ten tenures.

Fans can quarrel all offseason about the recruiting differences between the leagues. But what do top recruits think?

Colleague Tom VanHaaren decided to find out, interviewing several prospects about the Big Ten and the SEC. It's a fascinating Insider piece that you should definitely check out.

I won't give too much away, but the comments by top defensive end recruit Jashon Cornell are particularly interesting. He attributes Franklin's and Meyer's recruiting success directly to their SEC roots.
"The Big Ten needs to recruit harder. They need to really go after the recruits they really need," Cornell said. "They have to hassle you a little bit, on you every single day. That makes recruits think the coaches really want me and I could go there because the coaches want me so bad. That's what the SEC does."
Cornell is from Big Ten country (St. Paul, Minn.) and has multiple scholarship offers from both Big Ten and SEC programs.

There's no doubt Big Ten coaching staffs devote time to recruiting. But are they working hard enough? Are they making the right sales pitch to bring in top players? Do head coaches have the right type of assistants to get it done on the trail?

Check out VanHaaren's piece and send me your thoughts.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The tempo trend sweeping through college football has, for the most part, skipped over the Iowa Hawkeyes.

While teams such as Oregon and Baylor operate at a breakneck pace, Iowa continues to shape its offense around power and play-action, ball control and sustained drives. Huddling is still encouraged.

In 2012, the Hawkeyes ran fewer offensive plays than any Big Ten team. In 2011, an Indiana team that played 12 games ran more plays (870) than an Iowa team that played 13 (866). In 2010, Iowa ran 136 fewer plays than Big Ten-leader Northwestern in the same number of games.

But a shift began taking place last season. Iowa eclipsed 900 plays in 13 games. The offense ramped up the tempo late against LSU in the Outback Bowl, leading some to question whether the Tigers were faking injuries to slow down the Hawkeyes. Process that for a minute: LSU's defense trying to slow down Iowa's offense.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock and Iowa are joining the trend toward a faster tempo on offense.
But tempo at Iowa is here to stay. In fact, it's getting ramped up even more this spring.

"We would like to be able to play fast with any group, be it two backs, two tight ends, three tight ends, three wide receivers," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "We played at a faster tempo last year than the year before, and we're playing at a faster tempo this spring than last year."

Iowa isn't going to turn into Auburn by Aug. 30. That's not Davis' intent. He recognizes the perils of pushing the tempo. At times, he wants his quarterbacks to have enough time to survey the defense before the ball is snapped.

More than anything, however, he wants defenses to be unsure about Iowa's pace.

"We're just trying to kick it up another notch," tackle Brandon Scherff said. "Once we get used to it, it'll be a good advantage for us."

Davis' ultimate goal is more explosion plays. Iowa averaged only 5.3 yards per play and 6.8 yards per pass play last season, ranking 10th in the league in both categories. There were some flashes, such as Tevaun Smith's spectacular catch and run for a 55-yard touchdown against Michigan.

But the Hawkeyes need more and could have the personnel to get it done. There are more options at receiver with veteran Kevonte Martin-Manley, Smith and Jacob Hillyer, along with Damond Powell, who averaged 24.3 yards per reception in limited action in 2013. Several redshirt freshmen are emerging this spring, including 6-foot-4, 210-pound Derrick Willies.

"If you don't have explosive plays, it's tougher to get the win at the end of the day," quarterback Jake Rudock said. "Every team needs to have those, whether it's running or whether it's passing."

Although running back will be a strength -- bruiser Mark Weisman returns alongside Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock and exciting sophomores LeShun Daniels and Barkley Hill -- the pass game should be enhanced this fall. Iowa returns two quarterbacks with game experience (Rudock and C.J. Beathard), depth at receiver and tight ends Jake Duzey and Ray Hamilton. Iowa will miss tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz's blocking, but Duzey is a superior athlete with a higher ceiling as a pass-catcher, as he showed with 138 receiving yards against Ohio State last fall.

"The ball's going to be in our hands more. I feel like they're going to call our number," Martin-Manley said. "A few more plays downfield, and we've also been adding new plays to get us open and use the tools we have at receiver."

After starting every game last season, Rudock has done nothing to harm his standing this spring, showing greater comfort with the scheme, the signals and a leadership position. But that coaches also like Beathard, who should have a role even if Rudock tightens his grip on the starting spot.

"He has a little more lateral quickness than Jake," Davis said, "so the discussion [among coaches] could carve out a package for him, a little more zone-read. At the same time, he can really spin the football."

The skill position depth is there, especially if the receivers keep making strides. Scherff's return to the line is huge, and Davis likes the starting five, which includes veterans Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh and Andrew Donnal. Sean Welsh has emerged this spring as the starting left guard.

Line depth is a significant concern, Davis said, but beyond that there's a lot to like about an offense that will operate faster and should put more points on the board.

"The first year, new system, last year, new quarterback," Davis said. "We have more than we have in the past. I feel better about this spring than I have in any spring. We have the opportunity to be the best offense we've been in the three years I've been here."

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
12:00
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Make up your mind, Mother Nature.
  • Connor Cook now has the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage for Michigan State, another sign of confidence in the quarterback heading into his second season as the starter.
  • If the problem for Michigan last season was a lack of chemistry, Brady Hoke has a feeling that won't be a problem this fall he leaves spring.
  • Penn State showed off a Wildcat package in its spring game, but James Franklin won't reveal how much he'll use it -- or whether it's got a unique nickname.
  • Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz isn't usually one for hyperbole, so he means it when he calls Brandon Scherff the best player at his position in the country.
  • The Ohio State defense is leaving spring practice with a much better feeling than it did when it left the field after the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • After a long, difficult road, Rutgers offensive lineman Bryan Leoni is pushing for a starting role and a happy ending for his journey.
  • The Purdue offense has undergone a transformation this spring, and the roster has also added some talent to run the system.
  • The union seeking to represent Northwestern football players offered its response to the school's appeal, calling the university's case a "castle built on sand."
  • No matter how big the league gets, the Big Ten is keeping its name.
  • The rebrand of Illinois athletics appears to be a hit, writes Loren Tate.

Video: Indiana QB Tre Roberson

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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video

Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson talks about the Hoosiers' offense this spring and the continuing QB battle with Nate Sudfeld.
video

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ezekiel Elliott never has to go too far to be reminded of the tradition he's hoping to uphold.

Inside the Ohio State running backs meeting room are pictures of legends like Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Chris "Beanie" Wells.

"I'm very aware," Elliott said. "Every day, [running backs] coach [Stan] Drayton reminds us. When you see those guys every day, you know you have to continue the legacy."

[+] EnlargeElliott
Trevor Ruszkowksi/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott is hoping his versatility will make him Ohio State's primary ball-carrier in 2014.
Elliott doesn't even have to think back that far in history to know what he's trying to replace. Last year, Carlos Hyde led the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, finishing with 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns despite serving a three-game suspension to start the year.

Hyde's departure leaves a seemingly gaping hole in the Ohio State backfield. Elliott, a sophomore, will get the first crack at filling it.

He ran 30 times for 262 yards last year, with most of that production coming in a 162-yard performance in mop-up duty against Florida A&M. There’s certainly a difference carrying the ball against an overmatched opponent like the Rattlers and doing it in the heart of Big Ten play, but Elliott says that brief experience as a true freshman was beneficial.

"Getting out there and playing helped a lot, just getting those jitters out," he said. "Hopefully this year, I'll be ready to go.

"I think I've improved a lot. I've gotten a lot bigger, I'm faster and I anticipate the game a lot better."

Urban Meyer has stopped short of anointing Elliott as the heir to Hyde, but Elliott practiced with the first unit almost the entire spring. He had only three carries in last week's spring game, as the Buckeyes know by now what they've got with him. Senior Rod Smith, who missed spring practice because of academics, and sophomores Warren Ball and Bri'onte Dunn also are in the mix for carries. Midyear enrollee Curtis Samuel also impressed the coaches this spring.

Still, it's pretty clear the Buckeyes see Elliott as the starter in 2014. Elliott has the pedigree; ESPN Recruiting ranked him the No. 11 running back in the Class of 2013 after he piled up 3,061 all-purpose yards and 50 touchdowns as a high school senior in St. Louis. He also won three Missouri state track and field titles.

"He probably has some of the best quick-hip explosion of anybody on the team," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "You see it in his pass protection. You see it in his quick, sudden burst cuts. He has good vision, and he's a great team guy who just wants to win and go hard. There's a lot to like."

There's more of Elliott to like this season, too. Last year, he played between 210 and 215 pounds. This spring, he said, he weighs about 225 pounds. He doesn't look as thickly built as Hyde, who was listed at 236, but he still packs some power in his carries.

"He's a very strong runner," Herman said. "On a scale of 1-to-10, if Hyde is a 10, then he's an 8.59. He's not there, but he's still pretty darn good when it comes to running between the tackles, putting his shoulder down and making the tough two-, three- and four-yard runs."

Elliott, however, won't have the veteran offensive line that Hyde enjoyed running behind the past two seasons. Only one starter -- tackle Taylor Decker -- returns from last year's unit, and the Buckeyes spent this spring trying to find the right combination up front. That remains a concern heading into the summer, but Ohio State remains dedicated to establishing a physical ground attack.

"We're never going to abandon our core principles and tenants and beliefs offensively in terms of being a downhill, A-gap, tight zone and power running team," Herman said. "Now, will we need to get the ball to the perimeter a little more to take the heat off the guys up front? Probably."

That's another reason the Buckeyes like Elliott. He can get those tough yards in between the tackles, but he's also got the speed to do more than just that, as evidenced by his 8.7 yards-per-carry average in limited duty last season.

"I can take it outside, run tight zone, power and catch the ball out of the backfield," he said. "So think it helps a lot that I'm versatile."

Elliott will need every tool at his disposal to live up to the standards set by some of his Ohio State predecessors. Good thing he's got a lot of them.

Video: Iowa DT Carl Davis

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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video

Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis talks with Adam Rittenberg about the expectations for himself and the Hawkeyes defensive line this season.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
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It's Wednesday. There's nothing good on TV (except for this). It's mailbag business time.

Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.

Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Flood could face a difficult first season in the Big Ten, but it might not be enough to cost him his job.
Tier 2 would be the guys who are most likely safe but who could feel some rising temperatures if the season goes awry. That would include: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who seems to have the Hoosiers on an uptick but who needs to get the team to a bowl soon; Purdue's Darrell Hazell, who almost certainly won't get canned after just two years but can't afford another season as awful as last season's 1-11 debacle; and Michigan's Brady Hoke, who isn't on the hot seat now but who would definitely feel the wrath of fans and boosters if the Wolverines have another 7-5 type year and lose to Ohio State.

Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:

  • Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
  • Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
  • Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.

George K. from Pittsburgh: Brian, I'm disappointed in what you wrote about Joe Paterno winning [the Big Ten coaches' tournament]. There was way too much conjecture in what you said. Please think about it. Then issue a factual restatement, please.

Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.

Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?

The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.


Andrew from Columbus, Ohio, writes: While it is still possible that Ohio State-Michigan State could be a night game, what prevented it from being in the first batch of announced games? Since it would feature the two most compelling teams in the league from last year, it seems to me that it would be the marquee matchup the B1G has been looking to highlight.

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...


Mike K. from Penn State writes: With Penn State losing Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder at the WR position, along with some great O-linemen to the draft, do you think the team can still succeed in the Big Ten solely based on defense?

Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.


Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: March Madness is one of the greatest times of the year, most people live for it. Why wouldn't the NCAA FBS decision makers want something like that with those ratings over the course of a few weeks? Definitely not 68 teams, but eight or 16 teams with a selection show, bracket challenge, Cinderellas, and endless coverage and hype. They already do it for FCS.

Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.

Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.
These days in college sports, how you look seems almost as important as how you play.

Illinois has undergone a "re-branding" effort with Nike that resulted in uniform changes for several of its sports teams, including football. The official unveiling of the new uniforms is scheduled for Wednesday night, but some photos of the new gear can be found here.

Marty Kaufmann, Illinois' assistant athletic director, told the News-Gazette that Nike spent 18 months working on the re-branding, which included talking to Illini coaches, players and staff.

"They spent time in the archives and talked to archivists on campus," Kaufmann told the paper. "They really tried to get an understanding of the history and tradition, as well as kind of what we're hoping to achieve and what the future Illini may want as well."

In the photos that have come out, the basketball uniform redesign is more striking than the football version. But the football gear looks sleek and modern, and those orange helmets are pretty sweet. Expect some more combinations and designs as well.

None of this will help the Illini play better on the field, but new uniforms seem to always get the attention of recruits. And a program that hasn't had much success or national relevance of late can use any buzz it can possibly generate.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For nearly a season and a half, Michigan State leaned hard on its defense to try to win games while the offense sputtered.

That pattern finally changed midway through last season, as Connor Cook settled the quarterback position, Jeremy Langford developed into a star at running back and the receivers started making tough catches. Heading into 2014, a new paradigm could be in play. The offense returns the vast majority of its production while the defense must replace stalwarts such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis.

Nobody is expecting the Spartans defense to fall off a cliff, especially with Pat Narduzzi back at coordinator and plenty of fresh talent ready to step forward. But if that side needs time to find its footing early in the season, things could be OK.

"Our defense has obviously been very, very strong," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "But as an offense, we want to be able to carry this football team if need be. And do it right from start, rather than wait until four or five games into the season to get it figured out."

Michigan State isn't suddenly going to turn into Baylor or Oregon -- "I still think you've got to play well on defense to win championships," head coach Mark Dantonio says -- but there's reason to believe that an offense that averaged a respectable 29.8 points per game during Big Ten play could continue moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Langford and several key players returning on the Michigan State offense, the defense doesn't have to carry the Spartans anymore.
Cook is back and should ride a wave of confidence following his MVP turns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl games. The Spartans did lose Bennie Fowler, who led all receivers with 622 yards and six touchdowns, but they return every other pass-catcher of note and expect bigger things out of guys such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton, as well as DeAnthony Arnett. Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards and scored a Big Ten-best 19 total touchdowns, added about five pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I think it helps with my durability," he said. "I can take a hit and bounce off a couple tackles. I still feel fast, and I feel stronger now."

Michigan State was young at tight end last season and didn't utilize that position a lot, though Josiah Price made a crucial touchdown catch against Ohio State in the league title game. Tight end could become a strength this year with Price back and spring head-turner Jamal Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound potential difference-maker.

"We're better right now at tight end than we were at any time last year," Warner said.

Warner also wants to find ways to use tailbacks Nick Hill, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. And don't forget quarterback Damion Terry, whose athleticism could lead to several possibilities.

"We're experimenting a little bit right now," Cook said. "I feel like some new things will be added to our arsenal on offense."

The biggest question marks for the Spartans on offense are on the line, where they must replace three senior starters (Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti) from what might have been the best O-line in Dantonio's tenure. The line doesn't have as much depth this spring as the coaching staff would like, but veterans Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen provide a nice starting point. Donavon Clark and Connor Kruse have played a lot as backups, and Kodi Kieler is expected to make a move up the depth chart.

"We need to get that offensive line back in working order," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said.

Overall, though, Michigan State feels good about the state of its offense. So good that maybe the defense can lean on it for a change, if needed.

"Last year, we got off to a horrible start and didn't really get going until Week 5," Cook said. "We don't want to have that happen ever again. With the offense we have and what we proved last year, we want to get off to a hot start and get the rock rolling early. That's what everyone on our team offensively has in mind."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 16, 2014
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Is this heaven? Nope, still Iowa. But happy to be back.

ESPN 300: Top Big Ten targets 

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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video
The top-ranked prospects tend to wait out the process, so there are still some huge names at the top of Big Ten recruiting boards. The top targets will be fought over by most teams within the conference, which will make for some interesting recruiting battles.

Here is a look at the top five targets within the Big Ten in the 2015 ESPN 300.

DE Jashon Cornell
6-4, 270 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: No. 16



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Video: Michigan OT Erik Magnuson

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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video Michigan offensive tackle Erik Magnuson talks to Brian Bennett about the Wolverines' offensive line and running game.
MADISON, Wis. -- Most Wisconsin players had disappeared into the northeast tunnel of Camp Randall Stadium, leaving behind another spring workout. But Melvin Gordon remained, running routes and catching passes from walk-on quarterback Thad Armstrong.

It's the type of image college football fans covet but can't always count on: their team's best player being the last to leave the practice field. In this way, Wisconsin fans are spoiled with their recent running backs. Montee Ball set records on fall Saturdays, but he was even better, teammates and coaches say, during practices. James White forged a 4,015-yard, 48-touchdown Badgers career on production, versatility and unselfishness. Those qualities showed up every time he practiced.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon said he came back this season to lead Wisconsin to a national championship.
Now comes Gordon, the flashiest of the recent Badgers backs. Ball mass-produced touchdowns; Gordon mass-produces highlight-reel runs. Last season he led the FBS in runs of 60 yards or longer (4) and 70 yards or longer (3), while ranking in the top five for rushes of 30 yards or longer (9) and 40 yards or longer (6).

But on this day, as afternoon spills into evening, Gordon works on catching passes. He recorded only one reception in 2013 and has just three in his career.

"I always try to do a little something after practice," Gordon told ESPN.com. "People ask me what specific thing I'm working on, what one thing, but as a back, you have to work on everything, feel like everything is your weakness and make it a strength."

There is a next level for Gordon. He sees it. If there wasn't, he would have gone to the next level. Instead, he's back at Wisconsin, hoping to take the program to the next level.

Gordon finalized his decision in December before receiving a grade from the NFL draft advisory board. He was projected as a second-round pick and could have climbed higher with a strong pre-draft showing.

"It was very clear what Melvin wanted to do," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "He wanted to come back. He never seemed one bit distracted, nor has he seemed one bit distracted since that time. If you ask Melvin right now, it's clear-cut for him: He wants to be in a position to help the team reach a high level of elite football, and be the featured tailback.

"That is his goal."

Gordon specified his objective last week on a conference call with reporters.

"I want to get our team to the playoff," he said. "I have a paper posted on my wall of the College Football Playoff. I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman, people talk about that, I don't really feel like that's important. The goal right now is a national championship.

"Wisconsin's never had one before, so that's my goal and that's our team goal."

Gordon undoubtedly will enter the Heisman picture if he builds upon a sophomore season that included 1,609 rush yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. He led the nation and set a team record in yards per rush (7.81). With a career average of 8.1 yards per rush, he needs just 12 attempts to set the Big Ten record held by former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter (7.27 YPR).

[+] EnlargeGary Anderson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesWisconsin coach Gary Andersen has no doubt about Melvin Gordon's significance.
The big runs should come, but Gordon wants to be a pass-catching back, a role White held last season (39 receptions). Gordon also knows he must improve his pass-blocking. The spring helped him in these areas, as Andersen held Gordon out of contact this spring and limited his ball-carrying reps, taking no chances with Wisconsin's best weapon or his talented backup, Corey Clement.

"Melvin plays so well with the ball in his hands," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "This spring, he's had great opportunities playing without the ball, and has made the most of those opportunities."

The reduced role posed a challenge at times. Wide receiver Kenzel Doe, one of Gordon's best friends, said Gordon often told him, "Man, I know they don't want me to get the reps, but I want to be out there so bad."

Gordon maximized the reps he received during practice and stayed after to work more.

"Montee always told me, 'Practice is harder than games,'" Gordon said. "Everything you do in practice, you get to the game, you’ll be in the same situation, and you'll be able to make that cut. You practice how you play. I believe in that."

Gordon has known he would be back at Wisconsin for four months. Three of those months have featured incessant NFL draft coverage, from the scouting combine to pro days to individual workouts to daily rumors. A later draft means three more weeks of chatter.

You wouldn't blame a player who easily could be part of the process for completely tuning it out. But Gordon watches "all of it." He loves the NFL Network as much as the next draftnik.

"When they're talking about this running back or that one, you can't help but think about it," Gordon said of his potential pro path. "It's human nature. But you can't dwell on it too much. When you give your commitment, that's what it is. You can't go back, even if you wanted to."

Andersen doesn't undersell what Gordon's return means. "Huge," he said, "is probably not a big enough word." Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver after losing Jared Abbrederis and remains unsettled at quarterback coming out of the spring.

No matter who lines up under center, the unit will lean on Gordon and Clement, who Andersen calls Wisconsin's two best offensive players. At times, they'll play together. Other times, they'll spell one another. Gordon and White formed the most productive single-season rushing tandem in NCAA history last fall (3,053 yards), and hopes are high that Clement complements Gordon just as well, if not better.

But Gordon returned to be the lead ball carrier, to be more involved in the pass game, to be a complete player and a better leader. He'll reach the next level soon enough.

He wants to get Wisconsin there first.

"His mentality is, 'I came back for a reason,'" Doe said. "He has that eagerness to win, so he's going to do whatever he has to do."

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
5:00
PM ET
It's tax day and you owe me some emails. No refunds granted here, unless you follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: What's your take on where B1G recruiting stands at the moment, and where do you think it will be, come signing day? I'm not sure which is more surprising, that Penn State is as strong as it is at the moment, or that Ohio State and Michigan aren't that high in the lists. Granted, there is still quite a bit of time to go until signing day, but momentum is important. Do you think this all evens out by signing day and Ohio State takes the No. 1 spot within the B1G?

Adam Rittenberg: Brutus, although the recruiting cycle is accelerated, it's way too soon to draw conclusions about the Big Ten recruiting for 2015. Penn State's early surge is notable because coach James Franklin came in making bold declarations and so far has backed them up. Michigan typically has been a very fast starter and the Wolverines already have five verbals for 2015, led by ESPN 300 cornerback Garrett Taylor. Ohio State often makes its push later on, even before signing day, and has the luxury of being patient. There are pros and cons to racking up a bunch of early commitments.

It's a good thing for Penn State. As running backs coach Charles Huff recently told me, "We're the new girl in school, so a lot of guys want to date us." But I wouldn't worry about Ohio State and Michigan. They'll both be fine.


Brian from Atlanta writes: Adam, I've often seen you support more weeknight and Saturday night games for the B10. On the other hand, I've seen the presidents and ADs in the P12 complain incessantly about how many weeknight and Saturday night games they have. In 2013, they played 33 night games to our 18 (both split equally between ESPN/FOX and BTN/P12N/FS1). Is this a case of the grass always being greener, or is there a sweet spot in the middle?

Adam Rittenberg: Another great question, Brian. Keep 'em coming. It really comes down to what's best for each conference. The Big Ten boasts the biggest stadiums and some of the largest fan bases in college football. It still moves the needle even though on-field performance has been down for some time. The Big Ten should be competing for that Saturday night TV window as often as possible. Until recently, the league has been missing out.

The Pac-12, meanwhile, loses a huge audience when its games kick off after 5 p.m. local time. If you start a game at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time, most of the country has tuned out. There are pros and cons to weeknight games, and I understand the concern about an early weeknight kickoff -- like Oregon-Stanford -- as it’s hard to fill the stands. But TV is king here, and the Pac-12 needs to showcase its product.


Josh C. from Atlantic City, N.J., writes: Hey Adam, Big Rutgers fan here. Couldn't be more excited for the new season in the B1G. In fact lots of people in NJ are talking about the move and better competition. I've heard a lot of talk about "non-existent" RU fans. Do you think the rest of the B1G is underestimating the volume of fans? Whether it be quantity or quality.

Adam Rittenberg: I hope so, Josh, and it's good to hear the buzz is building in the Garden State for Rutgers' Big Ten arrival. I sense that there's a portion of Rutgers fans waiting to come out and support the team when things improve on the field. We saw a lot of enthusiasm for the program during the breakout season in 2006 (Who can forget Jeremy Ito?). Rutgers followed up with several solid seasons before taking a step back in 2013. The Big Ten move should generate excitement and support, especially when teams such as Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin visit Piscataway. But Rutgers needs to perform well to show the Big Ten that its fan base is significant.


Austin from Iowa writes: What are the chances Jake Rudock has the best Career of any quarterback in the Ferentz era with two years to go and a stacked offense matched with a decent Iowa defense in a division with no real power team at the moment? Is it possible for Rudock to really make a name for himself nationally and lead Iowa to a couple of division, maybe conference titles?


Adam Rittenberg: Austin, at first I thought it would be really tough for Rudock to eclipse other Kirk Ferentz-era quarterbacks Ricky Stanzi, Brad Banks or even Drew Tate. Banks had a phenomenal year in 2002 but struggled at times the previous season. Stanzi led Iowa to an 18-4 record as the starter in 2008 and 2009 and had his best statistical season by far in 2010, but the team massively underachieved that fall. Tate had good years in 2004 and 2005 but struggled in his final season in 2006. So yes, Rudock has a chance. I wouldn't say Iowa's offense is stacked, though, and the Hawkeyes must show more explosiveness at the skill positions. A favorable schedule gives Iowa a great chance to reach the Big Ten title game this year, which would put Rudock in the category with the other Hawkeyes QBs mentioned.


Tom from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Adam -- a few months ago a local TV station ran an interview with FauxPelini, but agreed not to show his face or reveal his identity. Turns out he lives in the Chicago area. So I gotta ask: Is it you?

Adam Rittenberg: I wish I were that funny, Tom. No, it's not me. But if I ever locate Faux in Chicago, I'm buying him a beer for bringing me a lot of laughs over the years. I'm quite happy that Bo has regained custody of the cat. I'm allergic to them.

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