Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini

Big Ten morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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After an eight-win season that included the historic four-game winning streak in Big Ten play and a victory over Nebraska, Minnesota had a right to feel pretty good about itself in the offseason. Instead, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill had this message for the team after its loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl: "You guys should be starving right now."

"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."

One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.

"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."

Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."

"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."

Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."

That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.

"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."

We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.

East Division
West Division
Other stuff

Best case/Worst case: Illinois

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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We are a week away from football, and as the season preview winds down, we are taking a look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

As a reminder, these aren't actual predictions or even projections of probable outcomes this fall. They are designed to show the potential high point and low point for a team, within reason. Also, we are trying to have some fun here, so don't take things too seriously.

Up next: the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Best case

Oskee wow-wow, indeed. Illinois is going bowling again and surprising the Big Ten along the way. The Illini ride the transfer train and the development of several young players to an extremely satisfying 2014 season.

Quarterback Wes Lunt shows immediately why he is the right man to lead Bill Cubit's offense, shredding Youngstown State and Western Illinois for a combined 750 passing yards and seven touchdowns. The Block I shouts "Geronimo!" as wide receiver Geronimo Allison hauls in two long scoring passes in his first game for the Orange and Blue.

Illinois heads to Seattle at 2-0 but still concerned about how its defense will hold up. Turns out, the D is the biggest reason for a huge "W" at Husky Stadium, as Illinois stuns Chris Petersen's Washington team. T.J. Neal and Jihad Ward force second-half fumbles and the Illini prevail 20-17.

After an easy win against Texas State, the Illini fall just short at Nebraska but rebound the next week with a 50-point performance against Purdue, as Josh Ferguson runs for 200 yards. Illinois pushes Wisconsin to overtime before falling in Madison, but the defense once again stands tall in a win against Minnesota. The Illini are bowl-eligible, and they are nowhere near finished.

Following a 3-point loss at Ohio State, Illinois wins its final three Big Ten contests, two against rivals (Iowa and Northwestern). Iowa's first game against Illinois since 2008 is a disaster, as the Hawkeyes lose by 14 at a packed Memorial Stadium and cameras catch coach Kirk Ferentz chewing tobacco on the sideline. In the Northwestern contest, freshman wideout Mikey Dudek has three touchdown catches and Ward levels Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald on the sideline. A mostly Illinois crowd cheers as offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic scores on a two-point conversion to seal a 50-17 win. The Chicago papers declare Illinois as the city's real Big Ten team, while Northwestern finishes 2-10.

Tim Beckman wins Big Ten Coach of the Year. Allison wins the Big Ten's Richter-Howard award as the top receiver, while "Geronimo!" T-shirts can be spotted all around campus. Illinois sells out its final three home games. Cubit turns down three higher-paying offensive coordinator jobs to stick with the Illini. The nation's top three junior-college players sign with Illinois, and the high school recruits roll in. The Illini advance to the Holiday Bowl and beat UCLA to finish 10-3.

Worst case

Oskee ow-ow. It's another gloomy fall in Champaign, where Illinois fans quickly begin counting the days until basketball season. They don't show up in the stands and, most Saturdays, neither does the team. Cover your eyes, Illini Nation ...

After two unsatisfying wins to open the season, Illinois gets pummeled at Husky Stadium. Lunt throws three interceptions and Washington's running back committee racks up 250 yards. Beckman has to be separated from his defensive assistants in the second half.

Illinois improves to 3-1 against Texas State but suffers another road beating at Nebraska, as Ameer Abdullah runs for four touchdowns. The following week, Purdue records its first Big Ten win under Darrell Hazell as Illinois can't find the end zone in a 21-6 loss. Beckman announces a quarterback change two days later. Several starters come down with food poisoning after eating beans and weenies.

It gets uglier in Madison as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement run wild on a defense that clearly hasn't improved from 2013. Wisconsin leads by 40 after three quarters, but cameras catch some Illini players smiling and doing the "Jump Around." They incur Beckman's wrath during practice the next week.

Only 26,000 fans show up the next week for the Minnesota game, and those in Illini colors wish they hadn't. Minnesota rushes for 330 yards and wins 28-3. Beckman draws a penalty for obstructing an official on the sideline -- again.

More blowouts follow against Ohio State and Penn State. Following the loss to Penn State, several Illini players ask Nittany Lions coach James Franklin if they can transfer to PSU.

The season ends with another lopsided loss at Northwestern, which clinches the West Division title before a sold-out Ryan Field. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel attends the game in a purple leotard. A smiling Dick Butkus poses for pictures afterward with Fitzgerald.

Ward finishes with no sacks and Allison fails to record a touchdown catch. Beckman seems done at Illinois but athletic director Mike Thomas, who hired him, says the coach will return in 2015. Cubit won't as he's off to the SEC. Attendance continues to nosedive. Northwestern wins the Big Ten. Iowa wins the Orange Bowl.

Illini name Wes Lunt starting QB

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
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In what has to be one of the least surprising resolutions ever to a quarterback competition, Illinois has named Wes Lunt as its starter for the 2014 season opener against Youngstown State next Saturday.

Head coach Tim Beckman made the announcement after Wednesday's practice.



Oh, sure, the Illini officially held a three-way competition for the job this offseason, with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey pushing Lunt. O'Toole, a senior, had the experience edge and played very well at times this spring. Bailey is an excellent athlete who's a little raw as a pocket passer, but his playmaking skills can't be ignored.

Still, just about everyone expected Lunt to be the 2014 starter for Illinois the moment he transferred in from Oklahoma State after the 2012 season, and it became increasingly apparent in preseason practice this month that he was The Guy. The former heralded recruit from Rochester, Ill., opened 2012 as the Cowboys' No. 1 quarterback and ended up starting five games as a true freshman; his transfer was seen as one of the best personnel coups Beckman has registered in his tenure.

At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds with a strong arm, Lunt very much looks the part as a future star at the position. He should fit in very well in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, which helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's leading passer a season ago. Lunt has better pure tools than Scheelhaase; it remains to be seen if he has Scheelhaase's poise and moxie, and if he has enough weapons around him at receiver, where Illinois is young and inexperienced.

So, Lunt will open 2014 as the Illinois starter. And there's a good chance he stays there for the next three years.

Big Ten morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
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Tis the season to name starting quarterbacks, not to lose them.

News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.

Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
  1. Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
  2. Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
  3. Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
  4. Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
  5. Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
  6. Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
  7. Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
  8. Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
  9. Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
  10. Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
  11. Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
  12. Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
  13. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
  14. Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
Around the league ...

East Division
West Division
And finally . . .

Big Ten morning links

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
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Apologies to the rest of the league, but there's one story that is going to be dominating the coverage today. And it might for the next couple days after suddenly appearing overnight as word trickled out about Braxton Miller's injured shoulder.

If you missed it, the two-time Tribune Silver Football winner, one of the most decorated individuals in Big Ten history and the key to Ohio State's bid for a conference title and a potential run to the College Football Playoffs, left the second practice of a two-a-day session on Monday with what appears to be a new injury to his already surgically-repaired shoulder. A source confirmed to ESPN.com late on Monday that trainers attended to Miller on the field after a throw that the Buckeyes expected to be a barometer of progress as he regained strength in the muscles around his shoulder.

There's no word yet on the severity, but obviously the workout didn't go as planned. The program hasn't confirmed the injury or released any information about medical tests at this point, but it has a previously-scheduled media availability slated for this morning. Stay tuned for more information as the story continues to develop.

As for the rest of the conference?

Depth chart shuffling
East Division
  • A cross between a "mad scientist" and a movie character, Bob Shoop impressed his boss at Penn State from the moment he met James Franklin.
  • One secret to Steve Longa's success at linebacker for Rutgers? Ritually watching film of Ray Lewis.
  • A string of injuries ended the playing career of lineman Nate Clarke, but he's making a quick transition to coaching as a student assistant for Maryland.
  • Indiana is trying to keep the ball rolling with recruits.
West Division
  • Nebraska held a handful of players out of their most recent scrimmage, but there's no reason to be alarmed as the program tries to stay fresh ahead of what could be a taxing September.
  • Wes Lunt appears to still be in the lead at quarterback for Illinois, but official word is expected on Wednesday after practice.
  • Where can Iowa improve? It could probably start in the red zone.
  • In another look at how Northwestern could handle its nonconference schedule, Kevin Trahan asks if the Wildcats should pursue neutral-site games.
  • Wisconsin might wind up putting freshman quarterback D.J. Gillins on the field this season after another solid outing in Monday's scrimmage.
  • There are plenty of pass-rushers in the well-stocked Big Ten looking to make an impact. Count Minnesota's Theiren Cockran among the defensive ends looking to be "the guy" this season.

Big Ten morning links

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
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Actual college football returns next week. Huzzah.

And players are likely celebrating as well, because training camps are winding to a close. Depth charts are also shaping up as well as teams move nearer toward preparing for Week 1. But some key jostling for jobs remains. Let's take inventory of a few of the more interesting position battles left in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin quarterback: By most accounts, incumbent starter Joel Stave has looked like the better option over Tanner McEvoy so far this month. At this point, I'd be surprised if Gary Andersen started McEvoy over the far more experienced Stave in the opener against LSU, though McEvoy could see some time in special packages. The Badgers have practiced some option, and that just doesn't seem like Stave's cup of tea, now does it? Where some battles stand for the Badgers.
  • Illinois quarterback: Tim Beckman has said he could name a starter on Wednesday. Most everyone expects it to be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. A big question, in my mind, is how the Illini can best use Aaron Bailey's talents.
  • Michigan State linebacker: Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen isn't cut and dry, but it's not because of a lack of options. Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are coming on strong and pushing Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris for playing time. Mark Dantonio described the situation on Saturday as "sort of a linebacker group by committee right now."
  • Iowa cornerback: It's a three-man scrum between Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin to see who starts opposite Desmond King. Mabin might have been set back by a minor injury. But Kirk Ferentz said the position is "up for grabs right now." Ferentz still has a lot of questions to answer.
  • Ohio State left guard: Darryl Baldwin seized the right tackle job, but there's far less clarity at left guard, a position that Urban Meyer has said concerns him. Doug Lesmerises breaks down the fight for playing time there and elsewhere on the Buckeyes.

Another major position battle should be cleared up on Monday, when Purdue is expected to name its starting quarterback. But that's one where Danny Etling has been a big front-runner all along.

On to the links:

Weekend scrimmages

1. Jabrill Peppers is going to play a lot, the offensive line still needs work and other observations from Nick Baumgardner on Michigan's open scrimmage before an estimated 25,000 fans.

2. Rutgers' Saturday scrimmage, dominated by the offense, provided answers to some key questions.

3. Wide receiver Deon Long was one of the stars of Maryland's open scrimmage.

4. Defense won the day at Michigan State's scrimmage.

5. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson sees improved depth on his team after the Hoosiers' latest scrimmage.

6. The running game was the main attraction in Purdue's scrimmage.

7. Northwestern held an open scrimmage, but hardly anyone of note participated.

West Division
East Division

Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
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Very soon, college football will occupy your weekends. Until then, here's an extra-large mailbag to help you make it through. Continue to submit questions for our team of reporters.

Mitch Sherman: Joe took issue with my analysis of Minnesota, which included some humor, in our Best case/Worst Case series. We traded a few messages on Twitter. I invited him to submit a question for the mailbag, and he did, with a well-constructed email on the Gophers. Now we're buddies, though he's not convinced me that a best-case scenario for Jerry Kill's team equates to more than nine wins. Joe notes that Minnesota, from its eight-win team a year ago, trades Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana for Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. I see that as a wash -- 2-1 for 2-1. And though Minnesota may not be more than a slight underdog during a four-game, midseason stretch against Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa, I don't see it as a team with enough talent to run the table against that group. As Joe tells me, the Gophers feature veteran lines and a strong defense overall. Best case, QB Mitch Leidner and the receivers make a big jump to support a solid running game. That's a 10-win team, he says. I'm not so sure. I think the cards fell about as perfectly as possible last year. Minnesota won a pair of games by a field goal in 2013, and each of its losses by came by double digits. TCU is an upgrade in the nonconference. The Gophers have to go to Michigan again and also get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Nine wins sounds pretty optimistic. But thanks, Joe, for the conversation.

Mitch Sherman: It's not good. The Wildcats, as expected, are staying optimistic about the loss of arguably their two most potent offensive weapons. Yes, Northwestern can handle this from a personnel standpoint, with capable players set to fill the shoes of Venric Mark and Christian Jones. But this is another blow to the psyche of Pat Fitzgerald's club one year after a season of disappointment followed by a distracting offseason. What happens when more adversity strikes? It threatens to send the Cats more easily into a downward spin. In the end, I think the recent developments could contribute to a season with one or two fewer victories.

Mitch Sherman: In the Big Ten East? Perhaps, though I find it premature to write off Michigan. Despite James Franklin's hot start, the Wolverines will keep up with Penn State and Michigan State in recruiting. And moderate improvement on the field would allow Brady Hoke to beat Ohio State for a fair share of the prospects over which the rival programs go head to head. Penn State needs time to prove that Franklin's early results in recruiting will elevate the program to an elite level. If you're asking about the Big Ten as a whole, the Buckeyes and Spartans stand atop the heap today, but Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West possess the infrastructure to compete long term with any program in the league. Read more from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst granted a rare interview this week, and while he said nothing of great significance, simple statements from Bo Pelini's boss are enough to make news. I'm not sure stability is the goal of Husker football; if so, things have changed more than I realized. And Nebraska's relevance is debatable. Sure, the Huskers are relevant in Nebraska, as always, and regionally. But on a national level, I don't notice much discussion about the program, unless it involves the coach's cat. Still, it's good for Nebraska when Eichorst offers an occasional comment, if just for the sake of appearance, even if he remains guarded in his opinions.

Mitch Sherman: I sense irritation from Nate and fans of many Big Ten programs over the hype that surrounds Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's freshman defensive back. Hey, Peppers is good, and he's starting to prove it in practice. But no one in an important position at Michigan is set to award him with anything until he does it consistently on Saturdays. Peppers will get his shot first at nickelback in Greg Mattison's system, though the Wolverines are likely to try the talented rookie in many roles. 
video
Illinois isn't trying to be Kansas State. The Illini would love to replicate K-State's on-field results, but their recent influx of junior college players isn't an effort to model what Bill Snyder has done in the Little Apple.

It boils down to basic math and basic needs.

"We needed depth, man," coach Tim Beckman told ESPN.com. "We just needed a bunch of depth."

[+] EnlargeWes Lunt
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsIllinois quarterback Wes Lunt isn't lacking major college football experience.
Illinois brought in six junior college players in 2013 and six more for the 2014 season. Add in quarterback Wes Lunt, who transferred from a four-year school (Oklahoma State) and will be eligible to play this fall, and the depth chart is filled with transfers in key roles. There are some non-transfer standouts, such as running back Josh Ferguson, but if you're studying up on the 2014 Illini, get to know the jucos -- wide receiver Geronimo Allison and defensive linemen Jihad Ward and Carroll Phillips, among others.

The program-building model isn't ideal, but if the transfers pan out, Illinois could get the bowl boost it sorely needs.

"Some people who feel like, 'We're building a program, we've got five, six years to do this,' they may not go that junior college route," said Alex Golesh, Illinois tight ends and running backs coach, and the team's recruiting coordinator. "We felt, 'Hey, we've got to get this thing going right now,' and this was our answer."

Beckman first realized the depth desperation after his first season, when the team reconvened for practice in March 2013. He and his staff had inherited a large senior class in 2012, but the subsequent two classes had atrophied. There were only about a dozen players left in each.

The coaches had a choice: start a bunch of freshmen and sophomores or look for immediate help elsewhere.

"You want to know how bad the number situation was here?" Beckman asked. "We didn't have enough defensive backs to be two deep."

So they picked up Zane Petty, a junior college safety from California who made seven starts last season. They added another California juco, Eric Finney, to play the Star position (safety/outside linebacker), and Martize Barr, a former New Mexico receiver/safety who landed at Iowa Western Community College. Barr originally was pegged for the secondary but moved to wide receiver.

The wide receiver and defensive line groups Illinois trots out this fall will reflect the junior college push. Barr and Allison should start, and Tyrin Stone-Davis, a Philadelphia native who played juco ball in California, will be in the rotation. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound Ward is expected to be a major contributor on the defensive line, along with Phillips at the Leo (rush end) and Joe Fotu and Abe Cajuste.

"This defensive line is like a different group," Golesh said. "Talk about dudes that look like they're supposed to look like and play like they're supposed to play."

Junior college recruiting isn't nearly as common in the Big Ten as it is in other leagues, but things are shifting. Teams that never used to bring in jucos, such as Wisconsin and Penn State, suddenly have a few on the roster.

Before initiating the push, Beckman consulted with Illinois' admissions office to gauge who could get into school. The coaches received transcripts from about 120 players, and the university identified who could make it academically. Only 25 to 30 players received the green light.

[+] EnlargeGeronimo Allison
Courtesy University of Illinois AthleticsReceiver Geronimo Allison is one of 12 junior college players to transfer to Illinois in the past two seasons.
Golesh pinpointed which junior colleges had strong enough academic reputations and curriculums. Illinois almost only recruits junior colleges in California, Iowa (particularly Iowa Western in Council Bluffs, which regularly sends players to FBS programs) and a handful in state and in the Northeast.

The approach reduces the risk often attached to junior college players.

"We're recruiting a high-academic, junior college kid," Golesh said. "Those kids who are right on the border, we're not recruiting them because we can't get them in school. So there's one of your red flags that you cross off."

As Golesh dove deeper into junior college recruiting, he realized something else. Like Bill Snyder says about juco players: The perception out there is something went wrong in his high school career. Young people are young people. What's the quality of their character?

"You go recruit the California junior colleges and it's amazing how many high school qualifiers are out there that were just overlooked because there are so many kids and the state is so big," Golesh said. "The misconception is the kid committed a crime or didn't qualify out of high school. That's not the case anymore."

Ward didn't qualify academically coming out of high school in Philadelphia, so he spent two years at Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in New York. He connected with Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, a fellow Philly native, and signed with Illinois in February.

"For two years, I've been grinding," Ward said. "I always think the time is now. A lot of juco players, they're hungry. If you're not hungry, then I don't know what to say. We come here to eat."

Jucos arrive with ticking clocks, and Illinois coaches see the urgency in practice. Another benefit, according to Golesh, is how they push older players expecting to inherit, not earn, starting jobs.

The integration with the non-transfers seems to be going smoothly, too. Ward calls his new teammates "brothers for life."

"It's not a two-year thing," he added.

One challenge is leadership, especially for transfers in command positions. Like Ward, Lunt has blended well with his teammates since transferring from Oklahoma State.

But leading them "is a little harder," he said.

"To be a leader that everyone looks up to, you have to get on the field and play," Lunt said. "That's a big part of it."

Plenty of Illinois' transfers will play significant roles this fall on both sides of the ball. Asked how much Illinois will rely on the imports, Golesh replied, "A ton."

It won't always be this way. Beckman anticipates only one more year of heavy juco recruiting before Illinois will have the numbers it needs.

But to secure his future after two bowl-less seasons, Beckman needs the transfers to step up right now.

"They've come in ready to play, ready to try to give us some immediate impact," he said. "They've been unbelievable."

Big Ten morning links

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
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We’re now a week removed from “The Season” and the best performances from the best players in college football history, but I have to get something off my chest, Big Ten nation.

We talked about Illinois’ Red Grange and Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. We even mentioned modern players like Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Purdue’s Drew Brees. But there’s one guy I feel we skipped over, one player who has never really gotten the due he deserves.

Michigan running back Willie Heston (1901-1904).

Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe not. BTN’s Dave Revsine wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and mentioned player compensation and past precedents like “Willie Heston Cigars.” Adam Rittenberg recently alluded to the same anecdote, as well. But Heston is not exactly a household name.

Sure, you’ve heard plenty about other old-time legends, like Yale’s Walter Camp and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. But what about Heston? Why should you care? Well, Camp named him to four of his All-American teams (two on his first team). And Heston was so good, give a listen as to what Rockne had to say about him:
“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all-time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”

That’s right – one of college football’s coaching legends just said Heston was better than Grange. That’s high praise. But look at the numbers. In Grange’s career, which spanned from 1923 to 1925, he finished with 2,071 rushing yards, 5.3 yards a carry and 34 total touchdowns. Heston? 2,339 rushing yards, 8.4 yards a carry and 72 touchdowns.

Still not impressed? Well, did I mention most of Heston's rushing stats only came from 17 – let me emphasize that again, 17 – of Heston’s career games, since the NCAA couldn’t confirm numbers from them all? Some estimate Heston actually rushed for 5,000 yards in his career; others go as high as 7,000 yards.

Heston’s on-field exploits read like a comic book hero's. He could reportedly outrun gold medalist Archie Hahn in short races, he helped Michigan win four national titles and outscore opponents – this isn’t a typo – during his career by 2,326 to 40. He went 43-0-1 in four years and was just as tough on defense.

I’ll stop listing details before you start accusing me of hyperbole. But I’m sure by now you’re wondering why on earth you don’t know the Wolverines’ Superman. Well, when Heston played, we were still nearly 20 years away from the official start to the NFL. Heston tried his hand at coaching following his U-M career, then went into law and real estate.

In many ways, his football career – at least the most important part of it – lasted just four seasons. That counts for something when it comes to seeping into the national consciousness. If that's incorrect, Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz – who played incredible college ball but sparingly in the NFL due to an injury --would still be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Ham.

My point is simply this: There are a lot of great players in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of unsung heroes. None tower above Heston. And he deserves to be remembered.

Who do you think is an unsung hero? List him in the comments. But let’s move on to more current football now …

East Division
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall voiced disappointment with his receiving corps last week. Now? It's a different story in Week 2 of practice.
  • Indiana coach Kevin Wilson says this has been the Hoosiers' best summer and believes his team could be poised to break out.
West Division
  • Northwestern is remaining mum on the surprise transfer of Venric Mark but, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, "it seems apparent Mark would have faced more discipline beyond the two-game suspension ..."
And finally ...

Big Ten morning links

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
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The hyperbole hits a high point in February on signing day.

For the early enrollees, some over-the-top praise and projections of early impacts might keep going through April. Around July and media days, the optimism from coaches about their talented, athletic, mature-for-their-age freshmen usually gets a second wind.

But then reality hits when training camp arrives, and with just two weeks until the season starts, by now it's pretty easy to tell if the hype was legitimate and time to start picking out a handful of newcomers truly capable of making a splash right away this fall.

At Ohio State, the indicators were there on the opening day of camp when linebacker Raekwon McMillan and versatile offensive weapon Curtis Samuel were thrown in with the veterans instead of the rookies during split-squad workouts. A stronger suggestion arrived when they were the first two players to have their black stripes removed to be considered bonafide Buckeyes.



At Michigan State, the confirmation comes straight from the head man. When the midway point of camp arrives and Mark Dantonio is still willing to include players such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Chris Frey in his two-deep, it's safe to assume those two will be on the field.

The same is true elsewhere around the league, with Minnesota praising its new talent at wide receiver or Maryland tinkering with five-star lineman Damian Prince's position presumably to ease his transition to the lineup at guard. Sometimes it's not quite as obvious, with Michigan coach Brady Hoke trying to temper expectations about defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- although the occasional first-team reps that he's received according to coordinator Greg Mattison might have spilled the secret.

Sure, there's still time for the hype machine to dial back up. There are some overmatched opponents to play during the first month of the season, and more than just the surefire impact freshmen will get to see the field and raise expectations for what they are capable of providing.

But by now, coaches have typically seen enough to get a reasonably good idea of who can help their team right away. And if there are names which haven't been mentioned much lately, it's probably safe to hold off on getting to know them until next season.

East Division
  • Ohio State's planned home-and-home with North Carolina in 2017-18 has been cancelled. No money exchanged hands. Could this be an opening for a neutral-site game Urban Meyer suggested at media days might be in the works?
  • What is James Franklin Time? A look at the new work week for Penn State.
  • The linebacker unit remains unsettled for Michigan State. Details from Mike Griffith after an open practice for the Spartans.
  • A look at the captains for Rutgers this season.
  • Even Maryland's defense had to concede that the offense has been looking good in camp.
  • Indiana safeties coach Noah Joseph is still looking for more consistency from his unit.
  • Ross Douglas is on the move for Michigan again, this time moving to wide receiver.
West Division
  • There is speed to burn in the Minnesota secondary, where a former state-champion sprinter is adding depth in the defensive backfield.
  • Purdue is shaking things up at practice and keeping players on their toes.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst called the football program "stable" under Bo Pelini and talks about his priorities for the coach.
  • Wisconsin is looking to fill critical leadership roles on defense, and Gary Andersen still feels like the Badgers have something to prove.
  • Iowa safety John Lowdermilk finds himself as one of the most experienced players on the team, now charged with bringing along some younger guys and helping turn them into contributors.
  • An interesting look at potential attendance problems for Northwestern and two possible solutions in the future.
  • Illinois is keeping things light at camp, and cooling coach Tim Beckman down in the process.
And finally ...
  • Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.

Big Ten morning links

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
8:00
AM ET
Let’s talk about your new favorite subject and mine: autonomy.

What, you don’t even fully understand the ramifications of the decision last week by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that grants power to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to create policy on a wide range of legislative topics designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Coaches at many schools in the Power Five conferences appear to remain in the dark about what’s to come next year and beyond.

Really, most of us are waiting with curiosity. I talked to several Big Ten coaches about the subject last month in Chicago and came away unsure if they knew what was really afoot, beyond the primary talking points.

We know the cost-of-attendance topic -- basically a stipend for student-athletes at the Power Five schools -- is atop the agenda.

From there, it gets a bit murky. All of it, though, stands to positively impact the Big Ten, with its many rich athletic departments funded by football programs with giant stadiums and fruitful TV contracts.

Predictably, the cries have already begun that autonomy will simply serve as a tool for the power players to push their agenda.

Colleague Jeremy Crabtree wrote this week of a Big 12 recruiting coordinator who said he feared that the autonomy vote would open “Pandora’s box” for biggest schools to reshape rules in their favor.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told me at Big Ten media days that he hoped autonomy would lead to official recruiting visits in the summer, currently off limits. But Andersen said more.

“Let’s just throw it out there,” he said. “I’ll be the guy to say it, that’s fine. Certain people don’t want recruiting trips to take place to the Big Ten in the summer -- certain conferences.”

Newsflash: He’s talking about the SEC. They’re all talking about the SEC. If they’re not talking about the SEC, they’re at least thinking about the SEC.

How long before a coach or administrator flat-out blames the SEC for all that could potentially go wrong with this first go-round of autonomy? It’ll happen before Oct. 1, when potential rule changes must be submitted for vote at the NCAA Convention in January.

And what are the chances that coach or administrator resides in the Big Ten?

Look, the SEC can’t change college football alone. The rules of autonomy require a 60 percent majority of the 80-member voting panel -- which includes 15 student-athletes -- and approval from three of the Power Five leagues, or a simple majority of the panel and approval from four of the five league.

So what the SEC wants, the SEC can’t get without help from other leagues.

Remember that if you hear someone from the Big Ten complain over the next six weeks about who’s running football. The vote last week ensures that the Big Ten and others in the Power Five are offered the same opportunity as that league down south to initiate and steer change.

Around the league ...

East Division
West Division
Overtime
Last link . . .

Big Ten morning links

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
8:00
AM ET
I asked Doug Nussmeier on Sunday what he felt his role will be for Michigan this season.

"Coach [Brady] Hoke brought me here to be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks," Nussmeier said.

(Well, if this guy needs a stand-in, we know where to find him.)

Yes, that's literally the job description. But there's more to it. The word savior isn't in Nussmeier's contract, but many Michigan fans hope he saves a unit that veered off track too often last season. It's up to Nussmeier to have Michigan's offense operating with the consistency and toughness that Hoke envisioned when he returned to Ann Arbor in January 2011.

Like any head coach, Hoke will have to answer for Michigan's performance this season. Rutgers' Kyle Flood and Indiana's Kevin Wilson find themselves in the same boat. The three coaches are facing varied degrees of scrutiny after seasons that fell short of expectations.

All three also made key coordinator hires this winter. It's the year of the running back in the Big Ten with the likes of Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah on the field, but it also could be the year of the savior coordinator.

Ralph Friedgen doesn't like the savior label, although many Rutgers fans hope The Fridge will work his magic with quarterback Gary Nova and a Scarlet Knights offense that struggled to move the ball and gave it away far too often last season.

From The Star-Ledger:
"Trust me, that is not me," Friedgen said. "I only can coach what I've got. They've got to play. My job is to put them in a position to make plays, but they've got to make them. Remember, I'm the guy that got fired."

True, he was fired at Maryland despite a rebound 2010 season. But he also has overseen successful offenses and quarterbacks throughout his career at both the college and NFL levels. As columnist Steve Politi writes, "It's hard to look at Friedgen's résumé and not come to this conclusion: He is the most accomplished football coach to ever walk into [Rutgers'] Hale Center."

If Nova and the Rutgers offense rebounds, the team could hold its own despite a potentially brutal schedule. And the heat surrounding Flood could subside a bit.

Offense is undoubtedly the overarching question at Michigan, too. The defense figures to be good and potentially better than good, but the progress Hoke needs in Year 4 won't come if Michigan can't block anyone. The Wolverines can't have games like last year's clunkers against both Michigan State (minus-48 rush yards) and Nebraska (minus-21 rush yards).

Although Hoke's job isn't in jeopardy -- athletic director Dave Brandon recently told me the hot-seat talk is "crap" and "baloney" -- the Michigan faithful want to see an offense that looks like the one they remember, and the one Hoke promised when he took the job. That's where Nussmeier comes in.

His track record might not be as extensive as Friedgen's, but the 43-year-old succeeded as a coordinator at Fresno State, Washington and, most recently, Alabama. While Friedgen becomes the highest-paid assistant in Rutgers history ($500,000), Nussmeier signed a three-year contract with Michigan worth at least $2.57 million.

"We want to be a physical and explosive offense," Nussmeier said. "It's a mind-set. It's not about the plays."

Like Friedgen, Nussmeier downplayed his role, saying he doesn't feel any extra pressure. But he added that he knows about expectations, and Michigan fans still set the bar high despite the team's drought since its last Big Ten title.

Indiana's expectations might not be as high as Michigan's, but the Hoosiers expect a bowl appearance in Wilson's fourth season. To get there, they need Brian Knorr to do what so many others could not: make the defense respectable. That's why Wilson brought in Knorr from Wake Forest after dismissing Doug Mallory, a decision that didn't sit well with Mallory's father, former Indiana coach Bill Mallory. It likely will be the most significant move of Wilson's IU tenure, the one that will show whether he's the right guy or another offensive-minded coach who couldn't fix the other side of the ball.

IU's defense doesn't need to become Michigan State's this fall. Minimal to moderate gains should be enough, given the offense's expected productivity, to get the Hoosiers over the bowl eligibility hump. IU needs to make that extra stop it couldn't against Navy and Minnesota last year, which could have been the difference in bowl or no bowl. But the unit has been very bad for a very long time, and while recruiting has improved and there's more experience, Knorr is fighting history.

The early returns are good with Knorr and his 3-4 scheme, as the defense has claimed the coveted crimson jerseys at most of the first few practices.

"We want to see who is going to be our dynamic playmaker," Knorr said following Saturday's scrimmage. "Who can we count on when things are tough?"

Wilson is counting on Knorr for immediate results, just like Hoke is counting on Nussmeier and Flood is counting on Friedgen. Saviors or not, the three coordinators will play large roles in whether their teams -- and possibly their bosses -- sink or swim in 2014.

Taking a spin around the Big Ten ...

M*A*S*H Report
Camp connection: East Division
Camp connection: West Division
Behind the scenes
And, finally ...

Big Ten Monday mailbag

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
5:00
PM ET
Back from vacation and on 'bag duty. If you haven't done so already, be sure and follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg).

Let's do this ...
Adam Rittenberg: Matt, we know this much: the Pitt game will be easier from a logistical standpoint than the Arizona trip was in 2010. It's a shorter flight, a friendlier kickoff time (it hasn't been set yet, but the Iowa-Arizona game started at 9:41 p.m. Iowa time) and, most likely, better weather (it was 97 degrees at kickoff in Tucson that night). Iowa didn't look ready to play against Arizona and paid a price. I also think the 2010 Wildcats are better than the 2014 Panthers, although Pitt cannot be overlooked. Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, knows Iowa well and will have his team ready to go.

This is a game Iowa cannot overlook. Pitt has an explosive young wide receiver in Tyler Boyd and other weapons. The Panthers should be 3-0 when Iowa comes to the Steel City. This could be a sneaky good matchup, but it's not nearly as scary as the Arizona game, which had letdown written all over it.

As for "GameDay," I have no idea and have zero input on where they go. But potential late-season showdowns against both Wisconsin and Nebraska, Iowa has a chance to host.

Tim from Raleigh writes: From my count, the B1G plays 15 non conference games against the power 5 conferences, 5 of which are against teams ranked in the preseason top 25 with a few others close (TCU, Mizzou, Miami, Va Tech). How many of these games do we need to win to get the respect of the rest of the NCAA?

Adam Rittenberg: It's a good question, Tim, as the Big Ten has more riding on nonleague performance than most major conferences. Two games really jump out as perception shapers: Wisconsin-LSU in Houston and Michigan State at Oregon. Lose both of these, especially by wide margins, and it might not matter what happens in the other games. The Big Ten is supposed to pick up wins against Miami (Nebraska) and Virginia Tech (Ohio State), so I'm not sure how much credit the league would get. The recent wins against Notre Dame haven't done much to boost the Big Ten's rep.

The league could use some surprising results, like Rutgers or Illinois beating Washington State and Washington on the road, or Indiana knocking off defending SEC champ Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. TCU would be a nice road win for Minnesota and Penn State should get some credit for beating Fiesta Bowl champion UCF in Ireland. You also want to see Michigan take care of Utah, Iowa to beat Pitt on the road, and Northwestern and Maryland to hold serve against Cal and West Virginia, respectively.

But the two nonconference opponents that really pop for the Big Ten are LSU and Oregon. The league needs one of those games.

Adam Rittenberg: Jared, making a third consecutive bowl game (and winning one) is a good start. But I think you're onto something here with setting the minimum bar at one signature win. It's important for Minnesota to get over the hump against Michigan, which has won six straight against the Gophers despite a down period in its history. But it's even more important for the Gophers to finish the 2014 season on a stronger note than they did last fall, when they dropped their final three games (and scored a total of 27 points).

I look at Minnesota's closing stretch -- Iowa (Nov. 8), Ohio State (Nov. 15), at Nebraska (Nov. 22), at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) as a defining period for Jerry Kill's program. Can these Gophers rise up and beat the big boys, especially those in the West Division? Or is Minnesota still not quite there and belongs in the second tier? You can't go 0-4 to finish the regular season and claim progress, so at least one win in that stretch is critical. Two would show things are definitely headed in the right direction.

Adam Rittenberg: It's crazy that we're talking about this before Franklin coaches his first game at Penn State, but it's a relevant question. Franklin's name came up in several NFL coach searches after the 2013 season. All but one season of his coaching career has taken place in the college ranks -- he coached the Green Bay Packers' wide receivers in 2005 -- and his personality seems to fit better at the college level, where he can shine as a recruiter. But the NFL can be tough to resist, not only from a financial standpoint but a competitive one.

It's all about timing, and Franklin needs to boost Penn State's program before he can look at the NFL. I see him staying for at least three years, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's there longer. He's an ambitious guy but seems like a good fit in State College. 

Big Ten Power Rankings: Preseason

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
10:00
AM ET
 

Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.

Big Ten morning links

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
8:00
AM ET
(Welcome to a new incarnation of the links, which have expanded and moved from lunchtime to the morning. With our apologies to Buster Olney).

With a little more than a week of preseason practice in the books at most Big Ten campuses, it's too early to say which teams are having the best August so far. But we can definitely point to the team that had the toughest opening week-plus in the league: Nebraska.

In a three-day period, the Cornhuskers lost three potential starters on defense. First, projected starting nickel back Charles Jackson went down with a season-ending knee injury. The nickel position has grown in stature with the rise of spread offenses, and Ciante Evans showed how important it can be in Nebraska's system the past couple of years.

A day after Jackson's injury, coach Bo Pelini announced that safety LeRoy Alexander, who was battling for a starting job, would be suspended for the season. Then on Friday night, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey informed the world via Instagram -- and later confirmed by Pelini -- that he would miss the season with a torn ACL.

Ouch.

Much of the optimism around Nebraska this season stemmed from what fans saw as potentially the best defense under Pelini during the Huskers' run in the Big Ten. The offense has a lot of potential, especially if quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can step forward. But defensive breakdowns have haunted Big Red in some of their biggest Big Ten games.

Rose-Ivey, who appeared to be really improving, is probably the easiest to replace, as defensive coordinator John Papuchis has a deep well of linebackers to call upon. Josh Banderas likely takes over his spot.

It's a little murkier in the secondary, where junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell now likely takes on an even larger role, and Nathan Gerry -- who played linebacker as a freshman in 2013 -- must make the adjustment to safety.

The Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple remains optimistic about the Nebraska defense despite the injuries.
"There's been predictable overreaction," Sipple writes. "But to say the three losses have decimated Nebraska's defense would be a significant overstatement. I spoke with Pelini late Saturday afternoon. As one might expect, he retained confidence. He said there was no reason to start holding anything back schematically. All systems go, he said.

"The Huskers still look excellent in the front seven and possess better-than-decent overall talent and depth in the secondary, but a handful of newcomers will have to step up quickly."

These injuries shouldn't make or break the Huskers' season. Pelini has built depth on that side of the ball. But that depth has taken a shot to its broad side, and Nebraska needs good health the rest of training camp or else some of that early optimism could start to fade.

Depth chart stuff
  • This has the makings of a potentially incredible story: Tom Hruby, a 32-year-old active Navy SEAL, is trying to walk on to Northwestern's team as a defensive end, Seth Gruen writes.
"I don’t feel like where I’m at today is some outstanding or amazing thing," Hruby told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It’s just more of a challenging route ... the way I kind of think about finding and accepting and trying to take on these challenges that most people would probably say are impossible, one, or very unlikely or just plain dumb."
Bumps and bruises
Weekend scrimmages
West Division
East Division

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