Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Big Ten lunch links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:00
PM ET
Is this heaven? Nope, still Iowa. But happy to be back.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
PM ET
Heading to Hawkeye Country later today. Any recommendations?

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
12:00
PM ET
I missed all the spring games this weekend because I was busy attending Joffrey's wedding.

Spring game recap: Minnesota

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
10:30
AM ET
So much spring-game goodness on Saturday. We're recapping all the action today, and now it's time to review the Minnesota Golden Gophers' spring fling.

The team held a 70-minute scrimmage before about 5,000 fans at TCF Bank Stadium. You can find coverage of the day's events here, here and here.

Star of the game: Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards ran 11 times for 46 yards and had the day's only touchdown on a 19-yard scamper.

How it went down: Gophers fans were hoping to see major improvement from an offense that sputtered down the stretch last season but witnessed the team reaching the end zone only one time.

"That's why you get this out of your system now," head coach Jerry Kill joked about the poor offensive showing.

It was only a spring game, and Kill believes the team did make progress on that side of the ball during its 15 spring practice sessions. But that wasn't really evident on Saturday.

Starting quarterback Mitch Leidner led the offense on six drives against the second-team defense, which led to just two field goals and an interception. Jalen Myrick made the pick on a play in which Drew Wolitarsky was open but Leidner underthrew the ball.

“I thought at times we put good drives together; we’ve just got to finish,” said Leidner, who was 7-for-15 for 74 yards. "And there were a couple times when me and the receivers have to get on the same page. But I mean, that’s why we’ve got however many months to work on that.”

Edwards was a bright spot, and Rodrick Williams Jr. ran for 52 yards on nine carries. Sophomore tight end Duke Anyanwu led all receivers with three catches for 19 yards.

The defense had a solid day with four sacks and that interception by Myrick. Linebackers Chris Wipson, De'Niro Laster and Nick Rallis each had seven stops.

But more than half of the projected starters on defense didn't play, including tackle Cameron Botticelli. Kill said he is out for 5 to 6 weeks with a broken foot. With the defense down so many players, it was disappointing that the offense didn't take advantage. The passing game remains an obvious area of need this summer for the Gophers.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
12:00
PM ET
Have a great weekend, everybody, and enjoy all the spring games. Looks like some nice weather out there.

Spring game preview: Minnesota

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
10:00
AM ET
Ten league squads wrap up spring practice this weekend, and we’re taking a look at each spring game or scrimmage. Next up: Minnesota.

When: 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: TCF Bank Stadium

Admission: Free. Gates open at 1:30 p.m. ET. There will be a Gopher football alumni football game from 2-3 p.m. ET, and former players will sign autographs in the west plaza after the game.

TV: Streamed live on BTN2Go.com. The game will be also shown Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

Weather forecast: Mostly cloudy, with a high near 67. Chance of precipitation is 70 percent, though most of the rain is predicted for the morning.

What to watch for: One of the Gophers' biggest goals for this offseason was to develop more playmakers, especially in the passing game. So it would be very encouraging to see the offense come up with some explosive plays during the spring game.

Mitch Leidner has established himself as the clear No. 1 quarterback, and the team is hoping young receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones continue to make strides, along with a deep crew at tight end (Maxx Williams is out with a knee injury). The Gophers could also use a few more home runs in their rushing attack, and perhaps redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who broke off a 50-yard scoring run in last week's scrimmage, can provide that. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover knows he can still pound the ball with veteran backs David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, plus Leidner. Top recruit Jeff Jones is also on the way.

If Minnesota's offense can move the ball effectively against its own defense, that's a reason for optimism. Despite losing star defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen, coordinator Tracy Claeys can call on a pretty experienced crew. Claeys would like to see a leap forward from his linebacker group, which lost seniors Aaron Hill and James Manuel but returns guys like Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn who saw action last season. Replacing Hageman will probably require a group effort, but the coaching staff likes the potential of Scott Ekpe and Cameron Botticelli inside.

All in all, the team probably has fewer question marks going into this spring game than any previous ones under Jerry Kill. That's why hopes are high in Minneapolis.
The head coaches from the new Big Ten West Division, along with a player from each team, addressed reporters today on a teleconference. The East Division coaches and players will follow Thursday.

To the notebook:

WISCONSIN
  • Coach Gary Andersen has some concern about QB Joel Stave's lingering shoulder injury. Stave, who hurt the AC joint of his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl, has been shut down for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI. "The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process," Andersen said.
  • Wisconsin's blockbuster opener against LSU in Houston has motivated players during the offseason. The Badgers typically open seasons with FCS or lower-level FBS opponents, so this is different. "It would give me an edge if I were a player," Andersen said.
  • RB Melvin Gordon said he turned down the NFL draft to try to lead Wisconsin into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Andersen on Gordon's return: "Huge is not a big-enough word."
NORTHWESTERN
  • The two-quarterback system is dead, at least for the 2014 season, as senior Trevor Siemian has established himself as the clear starter this spring. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "This is Trevor Siemian's football team." Siemian added that while sharing time with Kain Colter had its benefits, he's excited for his moment. "It's been a long time coming," he said.
  • WR Miles Shuler, who transferred from Rutgers last September, will be an impact player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald said. Shuler spent last season in several roles, including mimicking Braxton Miller and other mobile quarterbacks on Northwestern's scout team. "You just have to get the ball in his hands," Siemian said.
  • Injuries along the defensive line will prevent Northwestern from having a true spring game Saturday. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will hold more two-a-day practices this summer to make up for the lost scrimmage time. Northwestern didn't have any two-a-days last year.
NEBRASKA
  • RB Ameer Abdullah has spent the spring trying to become a more complete back. It includes improving his pass-blocking by facing players like DE Randy Gregory and LB Zaire Anderson. Abdullah said Gregory is "the best that we're going to see in the conference, and luckily he's on our team."
  • Coach Bo Pelini described his epic Twitter interaction with alter ego Faux Pelini during the BCS national title game as "having a bit of fun." He didn't think it would go viral, although he's aware of Faux's strong following. Pelini doesn't follow Faux but his wife provides him updates "all the time."
  • Abdullah thinks WR Kenny Bell will have a breakout season after not getting the ball thrown his way as much in 2013. Bell's post routes and linear speed impress Abdullah.
  • The Huskers' spring game on Saturday will feature the offense against the defense and a modified points system.
PURDUE
  • RB Raheem Mostert and DT Ra'Zahn Howard both have stood out this spring. Mostert, who won two gold medals at the Big Ten indoor track championships earlier this year, has made a strong push for a starting spot. Howard is showing greater stamina and explosiveness after losing weight during the offseason, coach Darrell Hazell said. Veteran DE Ryan Russell also has emerged late in the spring.
  • Purdue's current lack of depth at tight end doesn't worry Hazell. Dolapo Macarthy (shoulder) will be fine by preseason camp, and Gabe Holmes should return after missing the spring because of academic issues.
  • The Boilers have dramatically reduced their turnovers and mental errors in practice this spring. "Last year, we couldn't even line up correctly," QB Danny Etling said.
ILLINOIS
  • Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, filling in for coach Tim Beckman, said new wide receivers Geronimo Allison (junior college transfer) and Mike Dudek (a freshman early enrollee) both have exceeded expectations so far this spring.
  • Cubit sees separation at times in the quarterback competition but is in "no rush" to name a starter, noting that some players take longer to develop than others. Although Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt has looked the part so far in the spring, it seems as though Cubit will let this play out a little longer.
MINNESOTA
  • Like Siemian at Northwestern, Gophers QB Mitch Leidner has taken ownership of the team this spring and appears to be the obvious starter. Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner "became a coach" during winter workouts. "Everybody sees me as the leader of this team," Leidner said.
  • Leidner admits he was fairly shocked when QB Philip Nelson decided to transfer to Rutgers after the season. Nelson and Leidner shared snaps last season, and Leidner said he came to Minnesota to compete with Nelson.
  • The running back competition already is heating up, as redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards has turned in a strong spring alongside David Cobb and others. Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards, redshirted last season because of an ankle injury. Kill sounds as if he can't get enough ball-carrying options, as recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith arrive this summer.
IOWA
  • Coach Kirk Ferentz said QB Jake Rudock is "perfectly healthy" after being bothered by knee injuries late in the season. The quarterback situation has a different feel this spring as both Rudock and C.J. Beathard gained experience in 2013. "It's a situation where both guys have to be at their best," Ferentz said.
  • Brandon Scherff had only played quarterback and tight end in high school when he committed to play for Iowa. He since has blossomed into an offensive tackle whom Ferentz said could have been a first-round draft pick had he decided to skip his senior season with the Hawkeyes. "My goal is to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation," Scherff said.
Michigan's defense controlled play throughout the spring game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, echoing a theme throughout most of the league that day.

Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.

Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)

WISCONSIN

Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

PURDUE

Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."

Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.

MINNESOTA

The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.

NEBRASKA

Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.

MICHIGAN STATE

The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).

After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

ILLINOIS

The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.

Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.

RUTGERS

The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.

NORTHWESTERN

Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM ET
Big Ten is desperate for a title. Which one of you is willing to make the sacrifice?

Links time ...

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
PM ET
Winter is coming ... but not soon enough.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:00
PM ET
It’s April Fool’s Day. Resist the urge.

Enjoy some spring football:
  • A feel-good story as a group of players from Rutgers continue to use their spring breaks to help rebuild infrastructure in Haiti. A grim outlook for Rutgers in the Big Ten, courtesy of a former long-time New Jersey legislator.

  • Penn State’s initial recruiting success under James Franklin is gaining notice nationally and on the local scene.

  • Ohio State looks forward to a deeper rotation on the defensive line, which means fewer snaps for Michael Bennett. As for the Buckeyes' offensive line, depth is still a concern.

  • The pursuit of defensive tackle Malik McDowell, once a Michigan State pledge, remains unsettled despite the passing of a deadline. The Spartans look for 5:30 a.m. workouts to build mental toughness.

  • Meanwhile, Michigan is also in search this spring of that elusive element of toughness, writes Jeremy Fowler. Michigan offensive lineman Ben Braden developed his athletic skills as a hockey player.

  • An op-ed from the New York Times on justice being served as Northwestern players bid to unionize. The leader of the newly-formed association is looking forward. But hold off on drawing major conclusions over all the recent union talk.

  • Minnesota linebacker Cody Poock reportedly has suffered a torn knee ligament.

  • Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says offensive tackle Alex Lewis has exceeded expectations and requirements in his transition to Lincoln after a troublesome time last year as he prepared to depart Colorado. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. must be pushed, writes Steve Sipple.




Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
12:00
PM ET
Hope your bracket is faring better than mine ...
In 2010, expansion dominated the Big Ten landscape. In 2011 and into 2012, turmoil at Penn State and Ohio State overshadowed everything else. More expansion then followed at the end of 2012.

There are certain themes that tend to blanket the Big Ten for certain time periods. This year, it has been money.

Although the Northwestern player unionization push could change the financial strategy schools take toward their cash-cow football programs, investment continues to rise. Minnesota recently approved a substantial raise for head coach Jerry Kill, who just completed his third season. Gophers fans awoke Thursday to some more exciting news, as the Star Tribune reports that construction on a football practice facility will begin in December. But the report has since been refuted here and here.

Minnesota's practice facilities have been a sore subject for some time. They're very outdated, and while TCF Bank Stadium is a gem, the Sunday-Friday facilities are more important for coaches, players and particularly recruits, who look to be impressed on their campus visits.

It remains to be seen what Minnesota will do. Lou Nanne, who chairs the fundraising project to generate $190 million for the athletic program, said the facility won't be $70 million, as the Star Tribune had reported.

While Minnesota's situation remains fluid, many Big Ten schools are making football investments:
It will be interesting to see how football investments evolve in the Big Ten, which is bringing in record TV revenues and soon will have a new deal.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
12:00
PM ET
Warning: Brackets are once again prone to be being busted.
  • Ohio State is auditioning students to see if anybody on campus can beat a speedster like Dontre Wilson in a race.
  • Michigan reshuffled its defensive coaching staff to get its line more hands-on attention, but that doesn't mean Brady Hoke will be staying away completely.
  • Taiwan Jones has the first crack at filling the vacant role at middle linebacker for Michigan State this spring, and the senior is embracing the move.
  • James Franklin is dialing up the intensity of workouts for Penn State, including reps in the Oklahoma Drill for just about everybody on the roster.
  • Rutgers is flip-flopping roles for two returning linebackers, trying to squeeze more production from the unit after a disastrous defensive season a year ago.
  • Wisconsin is looking to expand its recruiting footprint in the areas opened up by Big Ten expansion, and new recruiting coordinator Chris Beatty will lead the charge.
  • Randy Edsall is concerned about the kind of impact recruiting is having on kids these days, and he has a detailed plan to help take some pressure off and fix what he views as a broken system.
  • Replacing three senior linebackers is at the top of the priority list for Kirk Ferentz as spring practice gets rolling at Iowa.
  • A pair of notable injuries have opened up opportunities at wide receiver for Purdue, and Dan Monteroso is trying to make the most of his chance in the slot.
  • Ground will be broken this year on a sparkling new indoor practice facility at Minnesota, which is expected to come with a price tag of $70 million.
In the history of California high school football, no player has ever caught more passes for more yards than current Minnesota sophomore Drew Wolitarsky.

Think about that for a second. These aren't high school records in Alaska or Wyoming. They're from one of the most populous, talent-rich states in the country. Wolitarsky broke the records held by Baltimore Ravens wideout Steve Smith, who could be heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeDrew Wolitarsky
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith four catches for 94 yards and a touchdown, Minnesota's Drew Wolitarsky had a breakout game in the Texas Bowl vs. Syracuse.
So ... still think the Gophers lack talent at wide receiver? Of course, high school is high school, and Wolitarsky understands that.

"After high school, those records meant a lot to me," he told ESPN.com. "But once I got to college, it's time to forget about that and make a name for yourself at the next level. No one is really going to remember you from high school. They're going to say, 'Oh, that guy played really well in college and in the NFL.'"

He's working on becoming known for his performance in college, and the passing-game starved Gophers are counting on Wolitarsky taking the next step this season.

They threw him into the fire as a freshman last season, when Wolitarsky made four starts and caught 15 passes for 259 yards. That makes him Minnesota's leading returning wideout, just ahead of Donovahn Jones, another guy who played as a freshman in 2013. The youth at receiver and rotating door under center contributed to the team's passing problems last season, but Wolitarsky has seen improvement this spring with quarterback Mitch Leidner taking charge.

"We have a consistent quarterback now, one who we know is going to be the guy," he said. "So during the offseason, when we got together to throw with him and run all the routes, we didn't have to keep switching, keep wondering who was going to be the guy or who we should get closest with."

Wolitarsky didn't have to worry about those things in at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., where he starred for four years and maintained tight relationships with his quarterbacks. He finished with a record 281 catches and 5,148 yards in his career, and his 52 touchdowns are second-most in state history.

Despite those gaudy numbers, Wolitarsky's best in-state offers were from San Jose State and San Diego State. Arizona also recruited him. But few big-name programs came calling.

"It was a rough time at one point," he said. "I was pretty angry, pretty bitter. I don't really care any more because I chose a great school and am really happy with my choice. But it was frustrating."

Recruiting service scouting reports on Wolitarsky knocked him for his lack of top-end speed. Called him a possession receiver. He has heard it all before.

"A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed," he said. "If you can get open, you can play the position."

Minnesota doesn't dip its toes in California recruiting very often, but needed receivers and went hard after Wolitarsky. He said he fell in love with the campus and the city on his visit and that he liked the idea of trying to build something special under Jerry Kill's coaching staff.

A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed. If you can get open, you can play the position.

Minnesota wideout Drew Wolitarsky, who didn't receive many big-time offers out of high school.
Still, though Wolitarsky joked that he has "some Canadian blood" in him, adjusting to the harsh Minneapolis winters hasn't been easy on the Southern California native. He said he never even bothered to check the weather report back home, where it's almost always sunny. Now he does so every day.

"Having to wake up and put on three layers of clothes is a lot different," he said. "I'm used to putting on shorts and a T-shirt and being good for the whole day."

Last season proved to be an adjustment on the field, too, especially when going up against fast, physical cornerbacks such as Michigan State's in the season finale. But Wolitarsky, who at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds isn't easily bumped off his routes, gradually became more and more confident. In the Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, he set career-bests with four catches for 94 yards and his first touchdown.

Ironically, though, for a guy who caught so many passes in high school, Wolitarsky's best-known play right now is a ball he didn't grab. Leidner threw a Hail Mary to the end zone in the waning seconds, and the potential game-winning touchdown bounced off Wolitarsky's hands.

"I try not to think about that," he said. "But a lot of people ask me about it. I just tell them, I couldn't see it. The DB was right over me. I couldn't see [the ball] coming in, but I just felt it hit my hands. And I was like, 'That's going to look bad on the big screen.' And then I looked and was like, 'Oh, gosh.'"

That's OK. Given his track record and ability, Wolitarsky will likely make many more big catches before his college career is over.

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