Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans

Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.

Big Ten morning links

February, 27, 2015
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The best quote from the first week of spring practice at Michigan, surprisingly, came from someone other than Jim Harbaugh.

Of course, it was about Harbaugh.

“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever been around,” U-M offensive coordinator Tim Drevo told reporters Thursday night after the Wolverines’ second practice of the spring.

What, not the smartest man in the world?

It should be noted that Drevno, 45, worked with Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007 to 2010. If you take him at his word on Harbaugh, it’s safe to assume Drevno didn’t get out and about much on the Stanford campus, which is full of its share of smart people.

Otherwise, in this opening week, Drevo said he likes what he’s seen from Michigan, which returns its entire offensive line.

Drevno, who will call plays next season and coaches the line, told the Detroit News:

“There’s something special in there. Are we there yet? No. It’s Day 2, but there’s something special in there, and I’m excited about it.”

Ah, the optimism of spring.

Some intriguing data and excellent analysis here by Joseph Juan of numberFire on the NFL combine results of Melvin Gordon.

According to the numbers, the former Wisconsin All-American compares favorably to many of the great running backs of this generation.

Juan’s findings:
Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. ... As a testament to the rarity of Gordon’s collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth for (build, speed, power and explosiveness.)

The writer finds, in conclusion, that Gordon “appears that he’s primed for a breakout rookie season.”

Full disclaimer: While I enjoy the NFL draft, I’m not sold on the predictive ability of the combine, pro days or individual workouts. I think a player’s body of work in college serves as the best indicator of his NFL potential -- and Gordon couldn’t have done much better in that category.

Stats and measurements can be interpreted to make just about any argument. Nevertheless, the numberFire breakdown of Gordon is solid.

I agree that he’s got a chance to join the backs to whom he’s compared in this article. But the organization that drafts him in May likely ranks as the top factor in determining his shot to make a rookie splash.

A Friday trip around the rest of the Big Ten:

And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.
Our spring examination of position groups in the Big Ten continues with the defensive backs. For others in the series, click here.

Best of the best: Wisconsin

The Badgers lose only safety Peniel Jean from a group that held opponents to a 49 percent completion rate, fourth nationally, and led the league at 28.4 percent on an opponent's third-down conversion rate. Back are Michael Caputo as a senior, the expected defensive leader, and Lubern Figaro, who started five games as a true freshman at safety, cornerbacks Darius Hillary, a second-team All-Big Ten choice, and Sojourn Shelton. A bit undersized at 5-foot-9, Shelton took a step back after a breakout freshman season with four interceptions in 2013. If he regains form, the Badgers can field a secondary without a weakness. And they may need it after key losing contributors among a front seven that helped bolster the pass-defense numbers last season with 37 sacks and the Big Ten’s highest sack rate at 9.7 percent.

Next up: Ohio State and Minnesota

The OSU secondary played a huge role in the Buckeyes’ January success, helping hold the likes of Amari Cooper and Marcus Mariota well under their respective averages. Cornerback Doran Grant is a big loss, but Eli Apple, after a solid true freshman season, should fill his spot, while sophomores Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell emerged as reliable figures at the safety positions. Gareon Conley and Damon Webb will battle in the spring to start at corner opposite Apple.

Meanwhile, at Minnesota, the secondary featured a foursome as strong as any group in the league last year. And all return but safety Cedric Thompson. Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun form arguably the best pair of corners in the Big Ten. Safety Damarius Travis is back to start, likely to be joined by Antonio Johnson. Again, the backfield figures to rank as the Gophers’ defensive strength.

Sleeper: Nebraska

The Huskers ranked No. 2 nationally in opponent completion percentage and second in the Big Ten to Penn State in allowing 6.07 yards per passing attempt. Defensive co-captains Corey Cooper at safety and cornerback Josh Mitchell are gone, along with the whole coaching staff. New secondary coach Brian Stewart, formerly the defensive coordinator at Maryland, inherits a group that returns safety Nate Gerry as a junior after he led the Big Ten with five interceptions in league play, and corner Daniel Davie. Just as important, the Huskers get versatile defender Charles Jackson back from injury and safety LeRoy Jackson, slated to start last year, back from a suspension. Nickel Byerson Cockrell also returns, giving the Huskers an experienced group.

Problem for a contender: Michigan State

Dare we say that the Spartans’ pass defense could be a weakness in 2015? Several MSU foes, in fact, penetrated the “No Fly Zone” last year, though MSU opponents threw on 60.2 percent of their plays, the highest figure nationally. The Spartans lose All-Big Ten cornerback Trae Waynes and star safety Kurtis Drummond. Receiver Tony Lippett, who doubled as a corner late in the season, is gone, too, leaving safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Darian Hicks, who lost his job in November, with experience. Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox appear to own the inside track to start in 2015. There’s plenty of youth on hand also through which Harlon Barnett, promoted to co-defensive coordinator, can search this spring.
As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Defensive line is up now. For others in the series, click here:

Best of the best: Michigan State

Shilique Calhoun's return guarantees the Spartan Dawgs will retain their bite up front. Starting defensive tackles Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath also will be back, and Malik McDowell could be ready to take a leap forward after getting his feet wet as a true freshman. Michigan State does have to replace four-year starter Marcus Rush, but it has Demetrius Cooper groomed to take on a much larger role. This is a deep and talented bunch anchored by a potential NFL first-rounder in Calhoun.

Next up: Ohio State

You could consider the Spartans and Buckeyes Nos. 1 and 1A here. Ohio State still has reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year Joey Bosa at defensive end, along with Adolphus Washington at defensive tackle. But the Buckeyes did lose All-America defensive tackle Michael Bennett and defensive end Steve Miller, and they weren't very deep at the position last season. Incoming true freshmen Dre'Mont Jones and Jashon Cornell could be asked to contribute right away at end, and the hope is someone from a group of redshirt sophomores -- Donovan Munger, Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle -- can move in next to Washington.

Sleepers: Michigan and Minnesota

The Wolverines replace both of their starting defensive ends from last season in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, though Clark was dismissed from the team before the season ended. Michigan should be in very good shape at defensive tackle with Willie Henry, Bryan Mone, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley, and it could be Taco Charlton's time to shine at defensive end. New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin had players on the front four gain weight this offseason in anticipation of possibly some more 3-4 looks this fall.

Minnesota lost two starters in tackle Cam Botticelli and Michael Amaefula, but remember the line dealt with some early injuries last season and still excelled. Defensive end Theiren Cockran returns, along with promising rising sophomore Steven Richardson at tackle, while Scott Ekpe and Alex Keith are back from their injuries. The Gophers like their depth here, too.

Problem for contenders: Nebraska and Wisconsin

These may not be problems as much as question marks, but both the Huskers and Badgers need some new players to step up this spring.

Nebraska looks all set in the middle with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, but Randy Gregory's departure leaves a huge hole at defensive end. Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish return starting experience there, but they won't remind anyone of Gregory nor scare many opposing offensive tackles the same way he did.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, must replace two members of its three-man starting front in departing seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski. Chikwe Obasih and Arthur Goldberg gained a lot of experience, but the Badgers will probably need a young guy like Alec James to improve this spring to solidify the entire unit.

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
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ESPN.com this week ranked the Power 5 college football coaching jobs, from No. 1 to 65. While those national takes on the Big Ten hit the mark, we'll offer a few minor changes in our Big Ten rankings, No. 1 through 14, of the league seats.

1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.

2. Michigan
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.

3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.

4. Nebraska
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.

5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?

6. Wisconsin
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.

7. Maryland
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.

8. Iowa
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.

9. Minnesota
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.

10. Illinois
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.

11. Rutgers
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.

12. Northwestern
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.

13. Indiana
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.

14. Purdue
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.

B1G roundtable: Biggest surprise on the coaching job list?

February, 25, 2015
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What's the best coaching job in the country? ESPN.com has been ranking all the Power 5 coaching seats all this week.

Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.

Wednesday's roundtable topic: What's the biggest surprise among the Big Ten coaching job rankings?

Dan Murphy: Wisconsin at No. 24

The Badgers checked in at No. 24, which seems a little bit high given the recent turnover rate in Madison. In the past three years, Wisconsin has lost head coaches to Arkansas (No. 21) and Oregon State (No. 50). At least part of the reason for that attrition has been tougher recruiting requirements than most places and a smaller budget to go find players. The program has had plenty of recent success because of stability that goes beyond the head coach, but there are uphill battles to be fought when it comes to attracting talent to a Northern school with fewer resources than its competitors. If we're going to get nit-picky, I would drop the Badgers just a few spots.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State at No. 20

I don't disagree with this ranking, but it's still a bit jarring to see the Spartans as a top-20 job, one spot ahead of a traditional power like Nebraska and three spots ahead of Miami. I don't think there's any way we would have considered Michigan State one of the 20 best jobs even 10 years ago, so this speaks volumes about the job Mark Dantonio has done. His program has been rolling along, finishing in the top 5 of the final wire-service rankings in each of the past two years while winning a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl and piling up at least 11 victories in four of the past five years. Facility upgrades have helped as well. Lots of people like to forecast a future drop-off for the Spartans, but Dantonio has built this into a program with staying power.

Mitch Sherman: Michigan at No. 14

Recent performance, of course, belies the notion that Michigan is a top-10 job, but history confirms it. Even after two straight losing Big Ten seasons -- the Wolverines have finished under .500 in league play, amazingly, five times in the past seven years -- this remains an elite job. Yes, it's his alma mater, but Jim Harbaugh wouldn't pass on the NFL for the 14th-best college opportunity. Really, there are six jobs in the SEC better than Michigan, the winningest program in college football history? No. With the right coach, it doesn't matter to Michigan that so much of the prep talent has migrated to the South. The Wolverines can recruit anywhere. Their brand is iconic, on par with Ohio State (No. 4 on this list). The Buckeyes deserve a higher spot than Michigan because of the current state of both programs, but U-M belongs in the top 10.

Big Ten morning links

February, 25, 2015
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Hurry up and get out of here, February. No one likes you.

1. It's great to have football back, even if it's only spring practice. Michigan was the first Big Ten team to open spring drills on Tuesday, and Northwestern hits the field for the first time Wednesday.

What's also great is the, uh, unique way Jim Harbaugh answers questions. While Michigan likely will never be much of a fountain of information under its new head coach (or the previous one, or ...), at least Harbaugh gives some unorthodox quotes. Like his response to a Q&A on the school's website about what it's like to start spring drills:
It's like Thanksgiving. It's like New Year's Day. It's like a family reunion. And having it all rolled into one. Most people think of Jan. 1 as the start of a new year. To people who espouse to Catholicism and Christianity, they might correlate that with the birth of Christ. Us in football, the start of spring practice and the first day of summer training camp are what you look at as the New Year with fireworks going off, it's your birthday. It's being born back into football, it's a happening.

Q: So it's the birth of a new team?

Yeah, it's like coming out of the mother's womb. You're in a nice, warm, cozy environment -- safe. And now you are out into the chaos and bright lights. It's a happening. It's all those things rolled into one.

And it's also like the first day of school. You're so excited for that first day of school, and the night before you set out your clothes, you stuff your lunch into a lunch box, and off you go. It's the start. It's laying down a benchmark. Now we have a place to start from. We have a place to improve from. We have a place to go forward from, and you hope to lay that benchmark halfway up the mountain -- and not way down on the flat land.

Love it.

Michigan's first practice was full of enthusiasm and energy, Harbaugh said.

2. Now that the NFL combine's over and we know who the top performers were, who rose and who fell from the Big Ten?

Much of that is subjective, of course, but just about everybody agrees that Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes helped himself the most. With his ridiculous 4.31 time in the 40-yard dash and other great showings in the drills, Waynes is rocketing up draft boards. According to NFL.com's Charles Davis, "Waynes has put himself in the top 10-15 territory."

Our Todd McShay is not as bullish as Waynes' former high school teammate, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. McShay writes that Gordon "had a decent workout but not a great one, putting up results that were average or above-average in every category." Still, our Scouts Inc. says Gordon still has a good shot to go late in the first round and adds that Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah emerged as a sleeper "who should land somewhere in the Day 2 range."

But analyst Mike Huguenin writes that Abdullah was one of five players who hurt his stock, thanks to his 4.6 time in the 40. Huguenin also includes Michigan's Devin Funchess in the stock down.

You know what they say: It only takes one team to fall in love with you.

Around the league ...
Blocking for the nation’s best group of running backs, Big Ten offensive lines fared well last season. Will 2015 serve as a reality check around the league?

As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Offensive line is next on the list. For others in the series, click here:

Best of the best: Michigan State

The linchpins are back in rising junior left tackle Jack Conklin and senior center Jack Allen, both of whom will land on preseason All-America teams. The pair of Jacks spearheaded the line last year as the Spartans allowed a Big Ten-low 11 sacks, converted 49.7 percent on third down (second to Ohio State) and operated more efficiently in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations than any other Big Ten team. Donavon Clark also returns at tackle. The Spartans lose left guard Travis Jackson, a second-team all-conference pick, and versatile mainstay Connor Kruse. Brian Allen, Kodi Kieler and Miguel Machado appear ready to compete. And these guys will look even better with Connor Cook in command of the offense.

Next up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

A temptation exists to rank every OSU unit as the Big Ten’s best, and the Buckeyes aren’t far off on the offensive line. They lose only right tackle Darryl Baldwin from a group that turned dominant late last season en route to clearing a path to the national title for Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. Left tackle Taylor Decker, the lone returning starter last year, ranks among the nation’s best at his position, and right guard Pat Elflein earned all-conference honors. Center Jacoby Boren and left guard Billy Price are also back as starters.

At Wisconsin, the cupboard is considerably more empty with the departure of right guard Kyle Costigan, right tackle Rob Havenstein, both All-Big Ten picks, and left guard Dallas Lewallen. Alongside the brilliance of Melvin Gordon, this was the league’s best unit last year. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz return to anchor the line in 2015. Michael Deiter is ready to go as a redshirt freshman, and the Badgers will find two more starters among a promising group of youngsters.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines weren’t bad on the line last year. Seriously. OK, at least, it was an improvement over 2013, and all five starters are back to go with, presumably, a much more well designed offensive system. With left tackle Mason Cole, who played as a true freshman, guards Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis, center Jack Miller and right tackle Ben Braden, Michigan looks the part. New offensive coordinator and O-line coach Tim Drevno has plenty of tools with which to work. Reserves Erik Magnuson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Blake Bars and Patrick Kugler give Michigan a chance to develop solid depth this spring. The Wolverines should be better at running back with the addition of Ty Isaac. A breakthrough season across the front isn’t out of the question.

Problem for a contender: Penn State

It was flat-out ugly last year as the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks, last in the Big Ten and 121st nationally, and averaged 2.94 yards per rush – 122nd nationally. PSU lost left tackle Donovan Smith early to the NFL and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Center Angelo Mangiro and tackle Andrew Nelson lead the group of returnees, and Penn added a pair of potential difference-makers in January in freshman Sterling Jenkins and juco transfer Paris Palmer. Four freshmen redshirted last year. Really, there’s nowhere to go but up, but Penn State needs fast improvement from its line to allow QB Christian Hackenberg time to operate. If growth here is slow, so will be Penn State’s offensive progress.

Big Ten morning links

February, 24, 2015
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Spring football starts Tuesday at Michigan, where temperatures are forecast to dip below zero each of the next three nights.

Why do I feel like everyone on Twitter is talking to Jim Harbaugh these days?



The Wolverines will be warm and cozy at practice inside Al Glick Field House. Northwestern also starts this week. Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska open drills next week, which makes now as good a time as any to review staff openings around the Big Ten.

Presumably, all 14 programs will get back to full strength for spring practice. For now, three teams remain down a man.

Since we last took a divisional look at offseason changes in the East and the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin lost assistant coaches. Brian Stewart left Maryland as defensive coordinator to take the opening at Nebraska.

And Purdue hired Terry Malone over the weekend to coach tight ends.

Malone made it to a 6 a.m. workout Monday with the Boilermakers.

He is an intriguing hire for Purdue. Most recently the tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints, where he was instrumental in the development of 2013 first-team All-Pro pick Jimmy Graham, Malone coordinated Michigan's offense from 2002-05 and also worked under Lloyd Carr as offensive line coach.

Michigan won five league crowns in Malone's nine seasons. He brings an NFL pedigree and a history of success in the Big Ten. Pretty good place to start for the Boilermakers, who have won one Big Ten game in two seasons under coach Darrell Hazell.

The imminent Stewart hire at Nebraska, to replace Charlton Warren as secondary coach, also makes sense for Mike Riley, who generally picks coaches that he or his assistants know. Stewart served a solid stint in 2007-08 with the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator. Also on that Dallas staff was Bruce Read, Nebraska's special teams coach and a longtime Riley assistant.

Stewart is a San Diego native and coached the secondary for the Chargers before his stint in Dallas; Riley, former head coach of the Chargers, and his staff have numerous San Diego ties.

Of little relevance, Stewart, as the Cowboys coordinator, succeeded Mike Zimmer, who -- after the 2003 season -- interviewed for the Nebraska head-coaching job. It went to Bill Callahan, who spent 2012-14 with the Cowboys.

And of minor relevance, Stewart would be the only full-time member of the Nebraska staff to coach a game at Memorial Stadium. He spent three seasons at Missouri, losing to the Huskers in 1996 and 2000 in Lincoln and in 1999 at Mizzou.

Here's a rundown of the programs with open positions:
  • Illinois still has an opening after the January firing of two assistant coaches. The spot yet to be filled was vacated by special teams coach Tim Salem, though coach Tim Beckman might hire for a different position. Beckman said recently that he had interviewed internal candidates and likely would assign Alex Golesh, the Fighting Illini recruiting coordinator who worked last season with running backs and tight ends, to handle a heavy load on special teams next season.

  • Maryland needs an assistant to replace Stewart. Inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski was promoted to defensive coordinator.

  • Wisconsin must hire a running backs coach to replace Thomas Brown, who left for alma mater, Georgia. John Settle, who coached the position for the Badgers from 2006-10 and for Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh last season, has been mentioned in reports as a candidate.
Let's get to the links:
Last season was the year of the running back in the Big Ten. But now many of those stars -- Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, Tevin Coleman, Jeremy Langford, David Cobb -- have moved on.

How does the position stack up around the league as spring practice is set to begin? Glad you asked. For others in the series, click here.

Best of the best: Ohio State

This will come as a big surprise: The Buckeyes are loaded at an offensive position. Ezekiel Elliott is the league's leading returning rusher, as the offensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl and national title game finished strong last year to post 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns -- while playing with an injured wrist. He's an early Heisman Trophy contender in 2015. Ohio State also returns the extremely talented Curtis Samuel, who made an impact as a true freshman, and brings top recruit Mike Weber into the fold. Stan Drayton left as running backs coach, but new position boss Tony Alford has an enviable array of assets.

Next up: Wisconsin and Minnesota

It's highly doubtful that anyone will approach Gordon's 2,587-yard season, but the Badgers simply plug and play at tailback. The next man up is Corey Clement, who ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns in an understudy role. Don't be surprised if he ends up leading the Big Ten in rushing this year. There will be some competition for Clement's backup spot, but redshirt freshmen Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw are talented guys returning from injury, and Wisconsin brings in two intriguing signees in Jordan Stevenson and Bradrick Shaw.

Minnesota also has to replace a school record-breaker in Cobb, but the Gophers feel great about the position. Rodrick Williams Jr., Berkley Edwards, Rodney Smith and redshirt freshmen Jeff Jones will compete for playing time this spring and beyond. This could become more of a committee approach, but options abound.

Sleeper: Rutgers

True, the Scarlet Knights didn't have a player rush for even 500 yards last season. But the Scarlet Knights fit the sleeper bill because of what they have coming back. If Paul James can ever stay healthy for a full season, he could put up some big-time numbers. Even if not, Kyle Flood has a pair of promising rising sophomores in Josh Hicks and Robert Martin, who both went over 100 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. And Desmon Peoples, who started four games last year, is also back. Rutgers has a lot to sort out this spring but likes what it has at the position.

Problem for a contender: Michigan and Michigan State

Will the next great Mitten State running back please stand up? You know Jim Harbaugh wants someone to mash out yards on the ground, but does he have that guy among returning backs De'Veon Smith, Derrick Green and Drake Johnson or USC transfer Ty Isaac? Each has shown flashes of ability, but none has had sustained success. Running back has been a surprisingly weak position in Ann Arbor for several years now.

Similarly, the Spartans' picture is a little jumbled after the departure of ultra-productive workhorse Langford. Junior Delton Williams could be next in line but will be pushed by redshirt freshman Madre London and quite possibly incoming freshman L.J. Scott. We expect Michigan State to figure this out, but some questions linger heading into spring practice.
It's here. Spring practice in the Big Ten starts this week. Michigan opens Tuesday; Northwestern begins Wednesday. Right on time, we’ll examine the Big Ten’s position groups.

Let’s get started with a look at the league’s quarterbacks – always the premier position but especially in 2015 as the Big Ten looks likely next year place a quarterback in the opening round of the NFL draft for the first time since Kerry Collins in 1995. Only Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern are replacing starters, and nine teams return a quarterback with more than one year of experience as the man in charge.

Intriguing storylines abound.

Best of the best: Ohio State and Michigan State

Any conversation about Big Ten quarterbacks begins with the Buckeyes and their three-headed monster of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. We won’t go in depth on the trio, but know this: Ohio State would be favored by many to repeat as national champion with any of three at the helm next fall. Miller and Barrett, of course, must return to good health after the spring. Health is not a concern for the Spartans, who have a bonafide star in rising senior Connor Cook. Cook could have made a splash in the draft this year but opted to return after throwing for 24 touchdowns and 3,214 yards last season in leading MSU to a second straight top-five finish. As long as he’s at the helm, Michigan State won’t be far from the national spotlight.

Next up: Penn State and Nebraska

The numbers aren’t over-the-top great for Christian Hackenberg, who took a step back statistically as a sophomore with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. His completion percentage of 55.8 also dropped, but Hackenberg remains arguably the most physically gifted Big Ten QB. And if Penn State improves on the offensive line, a breakout season would surprise few. The situation is more murky for Tommy Armstrong Jr. and the Huskers. He must first win the job over inexperienced contenders as new coach Mike Riley takes stock of talent in the spring. But for Armstrong, the ceiling is high. He started eight games as a redshirt freshman, then threw for 2,695 yards and rushed for 705 last year. Armstrong still fought consistency but displayed big-play skills in accounting for more than 400 yards in the Huskers’ Holiday Bowl loss to USC.

Sleeper: Indiana

Don’t forget about Nate Sudfeld, back from surgery on his non-throwing, left shoulder to reclaim the starting position for a third season. He threw for 2,523 yards in 2013 and started well last fall, leading a late drive to beat Missouri before he was hurt against Iowa. Sudfeld’s absence crippled the IU offense, which got a boost this offseason with the transfer of a Jordan Howard and Marqui Hawkins, a dynamic running back-receiver combo from UAB. It’s up to Sudfeld to make the pieces fit and carry the Hoosiers back to a bowl game.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

New coach Paul Chryst inherits an interesting situation with Joel Stave, who missed the first four games of his junior season with a case of the yips. After his Octoer return, Stave rarely showed the poise from his first year as a starter in 2013. He completed 61.9 percent of his throws as a sophomore; it was just 53.4 last year with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. For some, patience has worn thin for Stave, who must adjust to life without Melvin Gordon in the backfield. Still, he looks like the Badgers’ best option unless someone emerges this spring from the group of Tanner McEvoy, who could move back to defense, Bart Houston or freshmen Austin Kafentzis and Alex Hornibrook.

Ultimate ESPN 300 rountable: Who's next?

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
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We've reached the end of our week of deliberation over the Ultimate ESPN 300, a list of the 300 most impactful players since 2006, based on both high school and college production. The list featured players evaluated by ESPN at both levels.

We've covered the biggest omissions in the Big Ten and the league's most impactful recruits.

Friday's rountable topic: What player in the Big Ten can we expect to see on this list next year?

Mitch Sherman: Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan

As the No. 1 inside linebacker and 13th-ranked prospect overall in the Class of 2014, McMillan has an inside track to a spot in the Ultimate 300. He’ll get there, and I think it’ll happen next year as he steps into a starting role upon the departure of middle linebacker Curtis Grant. McMillan contributed 54 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a true freshman, playing meaningful snaps on the Buckeyes’ national-title team. With another offseason, he’ll be primed for a monster sophomore year and take a big step toward claiming his spot among the many OSU linebacker greats. With little time to adjust to the college game, McMillan, at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, offered many glimpses at his star potential last year. He had a pick-six against Maryland and made 6.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Surrounded by the likes of fellow linebacker Darron Lee, defensive end Joey Bosa (No. 58 on the list) and a stacked secondary, McMillan won’t attract more than his share of attention from offenses in the Big Ten -- bad news for Ohio State opponents that plan to operate in the middle of the field.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesConnor Cook already has a stacked resume and another strong season would cement his status as one of the very best quarterbacks in school history.
Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook

Cook should be on this list already, despite a mostly quiet recruitment out of Walsh Jesuit High School in Ohio, which doesn't play in Ohio's top prep division. ESPN RecruitingNation had him as just the No. 57 quarterback in the 2011 class. But Cook has been one of the nation's most successful signal-callers since taking the Spartans' starting position early in the 2013 season. He's 23-3 as MSU's starter. He won top individual honors in both the 2013 Big Ten championship game and 2014 Rose Bowl. He has guided the Spartans to consecutive major bowl wins and consecutive top-5 finishes. Cook led the Big Ten in passing last season (3,214 yards) and was a semifinalist for two national awards (Maxwell, Davey O'Brien). A strong senior season could cement Cook as the best quarterback in team history and one of the better quarterbacks in recent Big Ten history. I can't imagine him not making the Ultimate 300 at the end of his career.

Brian Bennett: Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee and offensive tackle Taylor Decker

Neither guy made the Ultimate 300 this year, but they were a big reason why the Buckeyes earned championship rings. Both were ranked as three-star prospects by ESPN but have played well above that grade. Decker anchored the Ohio State offensive line as the left tackle this past season and should be a leading Outland Trophy candidate in 2015. Lee, who some initially thought might be too small to play linebacker, developed into one of the Buckeyes' top defensive playmakers as a redshirt freshman, recording 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. He was the defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Both Decker and Lee are already stars and champions, and next year they should be in the Ultimate 300.

Big Ten morning links

February, 20, 2015
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The Big Ten is gauging its member schools’ interest in making freshmen ineligible, joining other Power 5 leagues that have at least kicked the thought around.

Is it an idea whose time has come? Or an old approach that doesn’t reflect modern realities?

Unless and until more details emerge, I would lean toward the latter.

First of all, freshmen ineligibility in men’s basketball is a non-starter without a change in the NBA age-limit rule or the creation of a better non-college option than the D-league. You only have to look at Duke, Kentucky, or Ohio State to realize there are true freshmen right now who are plenty good enough to be in the NBA, and restricting them from playing in college or at that level for a year would be unfair.

Things are different in college football, where a lot of players redshirt their first year anyway. But it’s also true that many are ready to contribute as true freshmen. Justin Jackson, Mikey Dudek, Mason Cole, and De'Mornay Pierson-El are just a few names of true freshmen who made a major impact last season in the Big Ten. (No wonder Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith opposes freshmen ineligibility, since Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer says he doesn’t redshirt.)

Of course, the rule would be more about preparing players for the academic rigors of college than performing on the field. At the same time, however, teams are always going to bring in borderline students or even academic risks who have exceptional talent. Will a year off really make a huge difference for those types of players? How do you keep them engaged in school and the team when the reward of games has been removed for a year? Would players automatically get a sixth year if they need a medical redshirt later in their careers? What about transfers? And would you really want to see big-time stars -- like, say, Joey Bosa and Christian Hackenberg -- potentially jump to the NFL after only two seasons of playing for your team?

The sport's leaders should be lauded for trying to find ways to emphasize the college part of college football. Yet it's the uniquely American and mostly illogical practice of turning our universities into quasi-minor league teams that is the intractable problem. Making freshmen ineligible raises as many questions as it might solve.

Maryland changes defensive coordinators

Give the Terrapins points for stealth. Few people forecast the change Maryland made on Thursday, when it replaced defensive coordinator Brian Stewart with inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski.

The official Terrapins company line was that the team and Stewart agreed to "mutually part ways." But given that Stewart was handed a multi-year contract extension just 13 months ago, it’s hard to believe the decision wasn't more one-sided than that.

Stewart has a strong track record and was mentioned as a candidate for Tulsa’s head coaching job in December. Yet his defenses in College Park got a little worse each of the past three years. Despite some individual standouts on last season’s unit -- like defensive end Andre Monroe, cornerback Will Likely and linebacker Cole Farrand -- the Terps finished 95th in the FBS in yards allowed and tied for 87th in points allowed (30.2). The defense completely collapsed in the second half against Rutgers in the season finale, and gave up 45 points to Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl.

Stewart will land on his feet and might already have another job lined up. Dudzinski, a coaching veteran who ran defenses at smaller schools in the Northeast earlier in his career, now has the task of reshaping this Terrapins defense that will break in almost an entirely new starting front seven this spring.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten ...
By now, you've surely seen the Ultimate ESPN 300, a list of the 300 most impactful players based on both high school and college production since 2006. The list considered players whom ESPN evaluated at both levels, so while not all 300 players were highly rated in high school, they were all somewhat known commodities.

We're all about the Big Ten here, so in the next three days we'll debate how the Ultimate ESPN 300 factors into this corner of college football.

Thursday's roundtable topic: Which Big Ten player not on the list is the most egregious omission?

Brian Bennett: Kirk Cousins, Michigan State quarterback (2008-11)

You can't blame ESPN Recruiting too much for missing out on Cousins. Before he signed with Michigan State, after all, some of his best other options were with schools like Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Toledo. He looked kind of scrawny.

Yet Cousins finished his career as the all-time winningest quarterback in Spartans history, going 27-12 overall and 22-5 in his final two seasons. He also holds the school records for passing yards (9,131) and passing touchdowns (66) while being an exemplary leader on and off the field. Cousins has proved himself as a solid quarterback in the NFL as well. So while he may not have had the most stellar reviews coming out of high school, his college production demands complete respect. Michigan State should have more players in the Ultimate 300, anyway, and Cousins belongs in there.

Adam Rittenberg: Ricky Stanzi, Iowa quarterback (2006-10)

Perhaps more than any other Big Ten program, Iowa has taken the overlooked and developed them into overachievers at the college level. It's not surprising that the Hawkeyes, despite only one losing season during the targeted time period, have just one player in the Ultimate 300 (offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, No. 117). There are several options of omitted Hawkeyes, including defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a first-round draft pick in 2011. But my pick is Stanzi, who engineered Iowa's rise at the end of the 2008 season and into 2009, when the Hawkeyes went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl, falling just shy of a Big Ten title.

Rated as No. 76 quarterback in the 2006 class by ESPN Recruiting Nation, Stanzi went 26-9 as Iowa's starter and set a team record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (21). The two-time captain became the first Iowa quarterback and just the third Big Ten quarterback to win three bowl games. He's also a damn fine American. Anyone who disagrees with the selection is just an America-hating hippie doing nothing on the Ped Mall. So Stanzi is my pick -- love it or leave it.

Mitch Sherman: Lavonte David, Nebraska linebacker (2010-11)

David sits one notch below Ndamukong Suh, ineligible for the Ultimate 300 as a 2005 high school graduate, on the list of greatest defensive players in the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska. In his lone year of Big Ten play, David earned first-team All-America honors and was named the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten linebacker of the year. He was unranked out of high school because of academic issues but well known as a star among a dominant Miami Northwestern team that included linebacker Sean Spence (No. 125).

Others who attended David’s high school include Amari Cooper (No. 18) and Teddy Bridgewater (No. 82), though David is arguably the most accomplished of the group as a first-team All-Pro pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. At Nebraska, after transferring from junior college -- where he again went relatively underappreciated -- David recorded two of the five highest single-season tackle totals in school history.

Among his many memorable moments in 2011, David stripped Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller (No. 115) to spark the largest comeback win in Nebraska history.

 

Big Ten morning links

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
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It's cold. I'm cranky. Let's get on with this. Seriously, is it almost spring?

Purdue is lowering season-ticket prices for nearly 90 percent of the seats at Ross-Ade Stadium in 2015. You can get a ticket to seven home games for less than $100 after attendance dropped in 2014 by 28 percent to 35,269 per game -- the lowest figure since 1951, according to the Lafayette Journal and Courier.

The university issued a news release Wednesday, quoting athletics director Morgan Burke, who opened with this: "We want our fans back."

Hey, at least he's not sugar-coating it.

The Boilermakers have won four games since Darrell Hazell took over two years ago, including one in Big Ten play – and it came on the road at Illinois last year.

If you wondered about the importance of next season for the third-year coach, wonder no more.

Meanwhile, at Ohio State, they're dropping ticket prices, too, though not quite like Purdue. The national champs are rolling prices to 2010 for the April 18 spring game to $5 per seat.

Five bucks to see the Bucks -- that's the best deal in the Big Ten. Apparently, this is happening in response to last year, when OSU tried to charge $20 a seat for the spring game, only to slash prices at the last minute.

Or maybe Ohio State is just preparing its fans for the letdown of a scrimmage without Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett.

I admit, if I followed Dwayne Haskins Jr., the nation's No. 2-rated pocket-passer quarterbacl, on Twitter, I would not have understood his reference to Maryland's tribute to a Drake album cover.

I thought Drake was an FCS program in Des Moines. So yeah, I'm out of touch with some of these kids. Fortunately, people exist in the media out there who can explain this stuff to me.

Now, Jameis Winston and Bryce Petty are talking up Michigan's facilities and coach Jim Harbaugh in a part-genius, part-propaganda campaign by the Wolverines with two of the nation's premier quarterback prospects for the NFL draft.

If you didn't already notice, Winston and Petty visited Ann Arbor this week to work out at Al Glick Fieldhouse and meet with Harbaugh in advance of the NFL combine.

They attended a basketball game, and Winston gushed over Harbaugh on camera for the school-run website, saying, "I wish I could have played for" the former 49ers coach.

Harbaugh and George Whitfield, personal coach for Winston and Petty, have some history together; Whitfield served as an intern with the 49ers last year.

Curious minds want to know: What do Jimbo Fisher and Art Briles think of this little exercise?

On with the rest of the links:

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