Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Big Ten mailbag

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
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We took last week off from the mailbag because you guys didn't come up with enough questions. So keep sending them in, either via Twitter or this link. And then you'll get whip-smart answers like these:

Brian from Portland writes:Is it hard having the greatest name in the world? Also, looking at the Nittany Lions' schedule this year, they play only one true away game (at Ohio State) over their first nine games. Am I crazy to think that even a not-still-at-full-strength Lions team could manage 10 or 11 wins?

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions should get off to a fast start in 2015.
Brian Bennett: Having this name is probably as difficult as it is for you to live in Portland with all those brewpubs and great restaurants.

As for Penn State, when you look at the first six games in 2015 -- at Temple, then home against Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and Indiana -- it's not very tough to envision a 6-0 start if the Nittany Lions play close to their potential. That trip to Columbus looms on Oct. 17, and I'm not sure anybody in the country would be able to go and win in the Horseshoe this fall. But that's followed up by games at Maryland, at home vs. Illinois and then at Northwestern, before a closing stretch vs. Michigan and at Michigan State.

There's only two games on that schedule right now -- vs. the Buckeyes and Spartans -- that I'd make Penn State a definite underdog. James Franklin and his staff have a lot of work to do, particularly with a very young offensive line and in making do with leftover effects from the sanctions. But the schedule sets up very well, and with a bounce-back year from Christian Hackenberg, I could see nine wins or even more here. The margin of error, however, remains very small as we saw last year in losses to Illinois, Maryland and Northwestern and a great escape at Rutgers.

Dan from Carefree, Arizona, writes: On this freshman ineligible topic, I am very confused about the number of players who suit up for a game. If you have 70 players on scholarship and 18 graduate you are left with a team of 52 players and no recruits to replace those who left -- not to mention any RS sophomores/juniors that leave early for the NFL. What am I missing here?

Brian Bennett: Dan, your hometown sounds like a wonderful place, especially as I wait in vain here for spring to arrive. But to your point, the "year of readiness" idea really couldn't work without additional scholarships for football. Let's say you have an incoming freshman class of 20 players. Teams are limited right now to 85 scholarships, so that's nearly a quarter of your roster that would be ineligible. You'd probably have to have at least 100 scholarships to make it work. The additional cost of those scholarships, not to mention Title IX implications, is another reason why this probably will never happen.

Mitch C. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: The opener at VaTech is scary. Will the helmets be too small for Ohio State heads? Will the QB competition be more a distraction and divisive even? Obviously, the level of intensity, sharpness of execution, will be lower than the end of last season. Will the new coaching staff fit their assignments smoothly and at the level of the former coaches who moved on? Is Ezekiel Elliot's surgery a portend of other little mishaps and irritants that erode karma? And in Columbus, it is expected that the Buckeyes start right where they left off and get better. Do the fans have any feel for how difficult that will be?

Brian Bennett: There's nothing like fans worrying about their team after they won a national title in convincing fashion. Look, it's not easy to win in Lane Stadium, and I expect that place to be absolutely buzzing on Labor Day night. It will not be an easy atmosphere for Ohio State to play in, and the defending champs will have a huge target on their backs.

But, I'm not too concerned about the Buckeyes losing that game. For one thing, the Hokies simply weren't very good last year (I can't get that 6-3, double overtime win over Wake Forest out of my mind no matter how much hypnosis therapy I undergo) and I'm not sure Frank Beamer can stop the program downturn. Sure, Virginia Tech beat Ohio State 35-21 in Columbus last year, but that's exactly why Urban Meyer's team won't be complacent for this rematch. The Buckeyes will be hungry to avenge their only regular season loss under Meyer (which is still an amazing thing to say).

Some places already list Ohio State as a 17-point favorite in this year's opener. And with good reason.

Brian Bennett: I like what C.J. Beathard brings to the Iowa offense with his big arm, flair for the dramatic and fearlessness. This attack has been far too bland and predictable for the past few seasons, and Beathard can help stretch the field. The Hawkeyes will also need him to rein in some of his more reckless tendencies. Jake Rudock is the safer choice who has much more experience, but a change might be worth it just to shake things up a bit. I still believe, however, that the key to Iowa's success still starts with a powerful running game, and we didn't see that enough last year. Brian Bennett: Lara Croft? Well, I wouldn't put anything past her. Have you seen those biceps? Oh, you probably mean freshman Demry Croft. Well, maybe in 2017. I'm surprised people are still asking about Mitch Leidner's job security. There's no question he's the guy for the Gophers and he's one of the team's best leaders. He's still not a great passer by any means, but he made strides in the bowl game and certainly hasn't had a lot of help at receiver during his career so far. Jerry Kill and his staff are extremely high on Croft, but it seems like a redshirt year would make sense for him in 2015.
The opening of spring practice around the Big Ten brings competition to each of the league’s 14 programs. Departing top players and the maturation of others lead to fights for practice reps that will help shape depth charts and summer conversation topics.

At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.

So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?

Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.

Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJunior C.J. Beathard is in a battle with senior Jake Rudock to quarterback the Hawkeyes.
Iowa quarterbacks: Junior C.J. Beathard dodged rumors of a transfer in December and senior Jake Rudock did the same recently. Both remain in Iowa City, ready to resume the battle that ended in a bowl defeat against Tennessee with Beathard in charge of the offense. Soon after, the Hawkeyes placed him atop the depth chart. But any edge over Rudock, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, is small and could disappear quickly this spring.

Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.

Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.

Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.

Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.

Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.

Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.

Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.

Big Ten morning links

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
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Cost-of-attendance stipends were one of the first major reforms Power 5 conferences pushed through the NCAA as a result of autonomy. Pretty much everybody agreed that closing the gap between what a scholarship pays for and the actual cost of going to a university -- including things like living expenses -- was a smart way to give some assistance to players.

But like so many other issues in college sports, those stipends may also carry unintended consequences. Because the amount each school offers can be very different, some people are afraid it will become a recruiting incentive.

PennLive.com's David Jones covered this situation well on Tuesday. Based on current cost-of-attendance data, as determined by university financial aid departments, Penn State will offer the highest cost-of-attendance stipend in the Big Ten when it goes into effect next school year, at $4,788 per year per athlete. The next highest would be Wisconsin at $4,265.

Compare that to Michigan State, which would offer $1,872 per year, or Michigan at $2,054. OK, you might say, that's only a difference of about $2,000 or $3,000, so why would a recruit choose a school based on that? But add that figure up over the four or five years of a player's career, and you're talking about a difference of maybe $15,000. That's not exactly peanuts.

Some coaches are worried about how this is all going to play out.

"To me, it's going to get into being like free agency in college," Maryland coach Randy Edsall told me on signing day. "What we've heard is that some schools might have a cost of attendance of up to $6,000. Now, will kids opt to go where they can get more money? Have we opened up a can of worms, where now it becomes, 'How much money can I get at this school, compared to the other one?'"

The stipends haven't gone into effect yet and are still so new that it's hard to say for sure what will happen. But Penn State's James Franklin, who looks for every edge he can find in recruiting, has said he would use cost of attendance as a selling point.

"I know people were already selling that this year," Edsall said. "It's going to be bigger as we move forward."

The disparity in the stipend amounts isn't going to change, because those numbers are based on individual schools' tuition costs and other factors. Power 5 conference leaders have always known that the figures would vary from program to program.

But were they actually ready for this measure -- however well-intentioned -- to become a recruiting tool? We'll probably find out the first time a team loses a player who chose to go with a rival because of its higher stipend. Just another reminder that almost every change in college sports leads to another issue.

Around the league ...

Big Ten morning links

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
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Minnesota opens spring practice Tuesday without a quarterback problem. Mitch Leidner, though far from prolific, brings 16 games of starting experience, a level of efficiency and style of play to the position that fits the Gophers well.

The same cannot be said of at least five teams in the Big Ten this spring.

Ohio State -- clearly not on any quarterback-deprived list -- and Michigan made this rundown by Ben Kercheval of Bleacher Report on the top QB battles of spring. It includes predicted post-spring leaders at the position.

Michigan practice is already underway, though on break this week.

Maryland and Nebraska get started before the end of the week in addition to Minnesota. The Terrapins, while likely set with Caleb Rowe, who's expected back from knee surgery in plenty of time for fall camp, are splitting time between Shane Cockerille and Perry Hills in the spring.

Let's take a look at the best Big Ten spring QB battles, sans Ohio State, where it won't get all that interesting until closer to summer:

Michigan candidates: Shane Morris (junior next season), Wilton Speight (redshirt freshman) and Alex Malzone (true freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Morris, simply because of his experience. But this race will extend into the spring, when true freshman Zach Gentry joins the mix. And don't go to sleep on a summer surprise.

Iowa candidates: Jake Rudock (senior), C.J. Beathard (junior)

Predicted post-spring leader: Beathard. He'll get the benefit of the doubt this spring -- treatment to which Rudock has grown accustomed over the past two years -- after the Hawkeyes placed the junior atop the depth chart in January.

Rutgers candidates: Chris Laviano (sophomore), Hayden Rettig (sophomore), Giovanni Rescigno (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Rettig. He's got an upside that the other two can't match, and with a season to acclimate after his transfer from LSU, look for Rettig to emerge this spring as one of the league's top newcomers.

Northwestern candidates: Zack Oliver (senior), Matt Alviti (sophomore), Clayton Thorson (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Oliver, who's tall and strong and maybe a bit underappreciated this spring because of his turnover-prone play to finish last season. He'll enjoy a nice spring, but the battle will continue in August, and don't count out Thorson.

Purdue candidates: Austin Appleby (junior), Danny Etling (junior), David Blough (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Appleby, in perhaps the league's toughest spring call. He faded in November, and both competitors will apply pressure in the spring. But Appleby will draw strength from his best moments of 2014.

Around the rest of the league:
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
Feb 27
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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.
Since spring practice opened at Michigan and Northwestern this week, we’ve been ranking position groups around the Big Ten. For previous entries in the series, click here.

We come now to the end, with special teams. Since it's virtually impossible to predict what kick coverage units will look like several months from now or project how new starters will fare on field goals and such, we're basing these rankings mostly on who's coming back at place-kicker, punter and returner.

Here we go:

Best of the best: Maryland

The Terrapins return the 2014 Lou Groza Award winner in Brad Craddock, who missed only one field goal all of last season. They also bring back an elite return man in Will Likely, who led the Big Ten in kickoff return average and was third on punt return average last year. Punter Nate Renfro is also back, giving Randy Edsall both experience and trust at the key specialist spots.

Next up: Ohio State

It's entirely possible that Cam Johnston is a wizard, as his rugby-style punts somehow both cover a ton of distance yet seem to stop at the right places. He was brilliant in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes also have a boatload of speed they can use in the return game, including Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. Place-kicker Sean Nuernberger is back after a respectable freshman campaign, but it's not like Urban Meyer really wants to kick field goals, anyway.

Sleepers: Nebraska and Minnesota

"Sleeper" isn't really the right word here, but we wanted to give a shout out to both of these special-teams units.

The Huskers have one of the nation's most electrifying punt return men in De'Mornay Pierson-El, who averaged 17.5 yards per attempt and scored three touchdowns last year. Punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown also return and could improve with experience.

Minnesota has the reigning Big Ten punter of the year in Peter Mortell, plus highly productive returners Jalen Myrick and Craig James. More accuracy from kicker Ryan Santoso (12-of-18 as a freshman) would solidify the Gophers as one of the best special-teams groups around.

Problem for contenders: Penn State and Michigan

Again, it's nearly impossible to predict how new kickers will fare, as you don't really get to see how they will fare in pressure situations until the games begin. Both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have some big shoes to fill.

Place-kicker Sam Ficken was far and away the best thing about Penn State's otherwise highly shaky special teams in 2014, and now he's graduated. The team doesn't have a scholarship kicker on the roster and may turn to walk-on Joe Julius. Punt and return teams must make major strides as well.

Michigan lost both its place-kicker (Matt Wile) and punter (Will Hagerup) to graduation, and its return game was no better than average last season. New special-teams coach John Baxter will have his work cut out for him this spring in bringing some new names -- like freshman kicker Andrew Davis -- along.
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.

Big Ten morning links

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
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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.

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 ...

Big Ten morning links

February, 19, 2015
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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:
As spring practice approaches, we're taking a snapshot of the state of each Big Ten program. We're looking at recent performance, won-loss trends, coaching, current personnel and future personnel.

Up next: the Minnesota Golden Gophers

2014 record: 8-5 (5-3 Big Ten)

Three-year record: 22-17

Coaching situation: This can be summed up in one word: stability. Jerry Kill and his chief lieutenants -- offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys -- are approaching two decades of working side by side. Kill appears to have found the right way to manage his epilepsy, and he was named Big Ten coach of the year in 2014.

Roster situation: Kill has added a little more size and speed to the roster each year, and now in Year 5 he likes how the roster shapes up. The Gophers have struggled to develop big-play threats at wide receiver, which has limited their offense. But some young players with length and athleticism should start to see the field this fall and perhaps remedy that. Even with talented tight end Maxx Williams leaving early for the NFL draft, Minnesota returns a lot of key players from last year's team.

Recruiting situation: Minnesota isn't located in a football recruiting hotbed and often has a hard time keeping home the blue-chippers who do come out of its state. So the Gophers have traveled far and wide for prospects, hitting Texas and Florida and many parts in between. The promise of a new, much-needed athletic facilities complex on the horizon should help recruiting efforts, as well as continued on-field success. Minnesota is probably never going to reel in top-10 classes or even crack the top 20 with consistency. But the good news is that Kill and his staff do a great job evaluating and developing players, with Williams and David Cobb recent shining examples of that.

Trajectory: Up. The Gophers finished with the same record (8-5) in 2014 as they had the year prior but clearly were improved. They went down to the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to win the Big Ten West Division and made their first New Year's Day bowl game since the JFK administration. They gave Ohio State a test late in the season and won back rivalry trophies from Michigan and Iowa, along with beating Nebraska on the road. Things are clearly trending in the right direction in Minneapolis, though Kill must prove that this program can break through the eight- and nine-win ceiling. They'll get great measuring sticks in 2015, with games against TCU and Ohio State, who might start the season as the nation's top two ranked teams. Winning a bowl game is clearly part of the next step for the Gophers as well.

Big Ten morning links

February, 18, 2015
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Jim Harbaugh ... quarterback whisperer?

Such was the implication when it was revealed on Tuesday that the new Michigan coach was in Ann Arbor helping former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and ex-Baylor star Bryce Petty prepare for this week’s NFL combine.



It turns out that Winston and Petty were directed to Michigan via quarterback guru George Whitfield after training in San Diego in order to get acclimated to the time zone and weather and throwing in an indoor facility before they head to Indianapolis. (Though why they'd need to adjust to the weather is a mystery). Harbaugh and Wolverines quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch met with both players on campus.

Though it was a bit odd to see players from other schools get advice from Harbaugh, it was also brilliant in many ways. Harbaugh has a great and well-deserved reputation for developing quarterbacks and understanding the position, given his playing career and previous players he has coached. This will merely enhance the perception of him as a teacher of quarterbacks, especially given that Winston could be the No. 1 player taken in the draft.

And what's Michigan's biggest need right now? Developing a quarterback, naturally. Despite getting a very late start in recruiting this year, Harbaugh was able to flip Zach Gentry away from his Texas commitment based no doubt largely on Harbaugh's track record. The Wolverines are in hot pursuit of more star quarterbacks in the 2016 class. It sure doesn't hurt for prospects out there to see these images of Harbaugh bestowing his wisdom on future NFL quarterbacks. (And it was probably also no coincidence that Petty and Winston were at the Michigan State-Michigan game in Crisler Arena at the same time as a bunch of important in-state recruits).

Of course, the guy who Harbaugh will be chasing, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, is viewed as one of the best developers of quarterbacks in the business. If there was ever any doubt about that, Meyer showed it last season with how both J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones were able to take over at a moment's notice.

Two other new head coaches in the Big Ten, Nebraska's Mike Riley and Wisconsin's Paul Chryst, have earned praise in the past for their ability to teach quarterback play. That's a great harbinger for the league's future, since the most important position on the field seemed to slide a bit in recent years throughout the conference. Now, though, the Big Ten might just be flush with quarterback whisperers.

Around the league ...

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