Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska’s three participants at the recent NFL combine headlined pro day at the school on Thursday as nine former Huskers worked out before representatives from 26 NFL teams.

Randy Gregory, Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell, as expected, drew the most attention from scouts. In particular, Gregory, who pulled off his T-shirt for position drills to reveal a physique noticeably larger than last fall, attracted a crowd at every turn.

At 6-foot-4, Gregory added three pounds since the combine last month, weighing in at 238. After a two-year Nebraska career at defensive end, the first-round prospect showcased his skills primarily Thursday at linebacker.

Some former teammates watched in awe as Gregory shined in drills with linebackers Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
AP Photo/David J. PhillipRandy Gregory, shown at the NFL combine on Feb. 22 in Indianapolis, was watched by several scouts Thursday at Nebraska's pro day.
“He’s big-time,” safety Corey Cooper said. “He’s a freak. But it’s just Randy. He’s a better athlete than everybody on the field.”

Gregory has received a lot of attention since his declaration in January to leave Nebraska after his junior season. Some analysts question his ability to hold up physically at the next level, especially in a 4-3 defense similar to what he played in college.

“I’m used to it, being here,” Gregory said of the spotlight. "Any athlete at this level, at this point in their life, they’ve dealt with that. Just knowing me as a player, I think I’m my biggest critic. Nothing that’s said in the media or from anybody else hasn’t been said in my own mind.

"I know what I need to get better at. I don’t need anybody to tell me that. I think I’m doing a good job of self-evaluating.”

Gregory did not participate in testing at pro day, He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds at the combine.

Abdullah, the second-leading rusher in Nebraska history, appeared to improve upon his combine performance of 4.60 in the 40 with a time, he said, in the 4.4- to- 4.5 range.

He posted 24 bench-press reps at the combine and ranked first among running backs in vertical leap (42 inches), broad jump (130 inches), three-cone drill (6.79 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (3.95 seconds).

“I’m a competitor, man,” Abdullah said Thursday. “I like to just compete. Any time you can get in front of scouts and get in front of the professional eye, you should take advantage of the opportunity. I didn’t do everything today, but I felt like I came out here and did what I wanted to show.”

Abdullah said he believed he could have “done much better” at the combine.

“I know what kind of athlete I am,” he said. “I think I’m the best back in this class.”

Abdullah is represented by his brother, Muhammad Abdullah, an attorney who also attended pro day.

Other Nebraska pro day notes:

  • Nebraska coach Mike Riley attended a portion of the pro day in addition to several other coaches from his new staff and a crowd of current Huskers, who watched from the balcony at the Hawks Championship Center. Former Nebraska assistants Rich Fisher, who coached receivers under Bo Pelini, and Rick Kaczenski, the defensive line coach for the past three seasons, also attended.
  • Anderson, who led Nebraska with 103 tackles last season, and Cooper said they were motivated after not receiving invitations to the combine. Both defenders said they believed they tested well Thursday before the scouts. Anderson, at 229 pounds, ran a 4.6 40-yard dash, he said, posted 18 reps on the bench press and a 34-inch vertical. Cooper said he ran 4.57 in the 40 with a 34-inch vertical and 21 reps on the bench.
  • Others at the workout included cornerback Josh Mitchell and offensive linemen Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy.
  • Bell, Nebraska’s all-time leader in receiving yardage and catches, attempted to improve on his 4.42-second combine time in the 40. Bell and Abdullah caught passes from Joe Ganz, who started at quarterback for Nebraska in 2008.
LINCOLN, Neb. – First-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley looks forward to connecting faces to the names of many of his players as spring practice opens Saturday.

Riley has had a whirlwind of experiences in three months on the job. The first 60 days were largely devoted to recruiting. In weeks since signing day, he’s fulfilled obligations with Nebraska’s fan base, donor community and the media. He completed his staff recently with the hiring of Brian Stewart as secondary coach.

When time permitted, Riley spent time on evaluations and relationship-building with his 121-player roster. Most of his assistant coaches, in fact, have spent more time with the Huskers than Riley.

“The one that’s behind on all that is me,” Riley said. “I don’t like this feeling.”

He’s planning to focus almost exclusively on personnel and teaching during the upcoming 15 practices that conclude April 11 with the Red-White game -- expected, as usual, to draw a huge crowd to Memorial Stadium.

The coach and several Huskers met Wednesday with the media to discuss expectations and plans for the spring.

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Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesNebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong is looking forward to getting work in the pocket in Mike Riley's offense.
News and notes:

• Riley said the Huskers who filled starting roles last season, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., will enter spring practice with the edge to win jobs.

“I think it’s important for every player to have an opportunity to win a job,” Riley said. “[But] those guys have earned spots in this program. We owe it to every player to evaluate in closely as we go.”

Armstrong started all 13 games for the Huskers in 2014, completing 53.3 percent of his passes (184 of 345) for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 705 yards and six touchdowns.

Armstrong offers a different style of quarterback for Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who spent nine seasons together at Oregon State before Langsdorf coached quarterbacks for the New York Giants in 2014.

Armstrong said his new coaches informed him soon after their arrival that he’s not a running back. The rising junior said he expected to spend more time in the pocket this spring than in the past and will operate out of the shotgun and under center.

“Footwork is going to be the key to my success,” Armstrong said.

• Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has made a positive impression on senior linemen Givens Price and Alex Lewis. Price said Cavanaugh asked the linemen to list for him their preferred positions. Price, who has played guard and tackle at Nebraska, figures to work this spring at right tackle.

“It’s exciting to get a fresh start,” Price said, “but it’s also an opportunity to get better.”

Of Cavanaugh, Lewis said: “He’s going to coach you hard and love you harder.”

• Riley said he plans to try a style of practice new to him through the first half of drills. The Huskers have been divided into two teams – both with a mix of experience – and will rotate in drills. The idea, he said, is to maximize repetitions and allow the new coaches to better evaluate.

“I did not want a team period where 22 guys were playing and 100 guys were watching,” Riley said. “I just don’t like standing around. We’re going to give guys opportunities.”

Depth at linebacker and center presented a problem in dividing personnel, Riley said.

The coach plans to mix scrimmaging into workouts this spring about every third practice, though some of the live work might last for as few as 10 minutes.

• Several defensive players said they were excited in anticipation of practicing under coordinator Mark Banker.

“It’s a lot simpler,” junior safety Nate Gerry said. “Coach Banker wants us to emphasize flying around. Last year, we had a lot of people thinking. Banker’s just letting us loose. That’s one thing, as a defense, that’s going to help us out.”

Gerry said he welcomed the expected fierce competition for spots as the new coaches assess the roster.

“Everybody sees it as all doors are open,” he said.

• Defensive back Charles Jackson, who missed last season with a knee injury, safety LeRoy Alexander, suspended in 2014, and I-back Adam Taylor have all been cleared to start practice on Saturday.

Linebacker David Santos, according to media reports, remains out after undergoing knee surgery after Nebraska’s National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC. Offensive tackle Zach Sterup and center Ryne Reeves are not ready to practice.

The Huskers limited by injury include receiver Jamal Turner, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, guard Corey Whitaker and defensive end A.J. Natter.

Riley described the impending practices as “the dawn of a new day.”

“We’ve got a lot to do,” he said. “More to do than normal.”
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
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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
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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
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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.
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.
Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, in step with other Big Ten administrators, supports a discussion in college athletics to bolster academics, though he's not ready to endorse freshmen ineligibility.

The Big Ten issued a statement Tuesday after its annual joint meetings in Chicago, confirming its circulation of the "White Paper," a memo that details a potential year of readiness that would keep true freshmen from participating in competition.

The league, at this point, supports only a dialogue on the topic and not a legislative proposal.

"More than anything," Eichorst said, "I give the Big Ten a lot of credit for at least stepping up and saying, 'Let's talk about it.' Why not? I've had conversations with people who thought autonomy was never going to happen.

"I'm really interested in something that will help us improve what it is we're doing from an academic perspective."

Nebraska has long been a leader nationally in integrating academics in the athletic arena. It leads the nation with 314 academic All-Americans in all sports and 107 in football. Its five-person delegation, which included Eichorst and chancellor Harvey Perlman, was among the most vocal of any school in the first Division I autonomy session in January at the NCAA convention.

Any proposal on a change to freshman eligibility would go before all of Division I -- not just the Power 5 conferences that make autonomous decisions.

Some Big Ten administrators, including Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, have more strongly favored freshmen ineligibility. Conversation has also been initiated by leaders in the Big 12 and Pac-12.

Eichorst said he has anecdotally discussed the topic with Nebraska football coach Mike Riley and men's basketball coach Tim Miles.

"For me, it's been thought provoking," Eichorst said, "and I hope we can play a leadership role in the conversation -- and nothing more. I'm supportive of any conversation that helps us advance the ball to center academics and make sure it's the part that we're the most focused on."

Eichorst said he'd like to see analysis of the potential impact on college athletics of freshmen ineligibility.

"How can we get better in areas that will ultimately improve the academic balance without going that far, without going in the direction of a year in readiness?" he said. "Quite frankly, the conversation at this juncture is pretty premature."
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
Feb 25
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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, 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 ...
Nebraska head coach Mike Riley announced Tuesday the hire of former Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart as the Huskers’ secondary coach.

Stewart completes the rebuilt Nebraska staff, replacing Charlton Warren, who left the school this month for North Carolina. Warren was the lone holdover from Bo Pelini’s former staff in Lincoln.

Stewart, 50, agreed to a mutual parting last week with the Terrapins after three seasons that followed a stint at the University of Houston and eight seasons in the NFL with four organizations. He was the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys in 2007 and 2008.

“I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the Nebraska football program,” Stewart said in a statement released by Nebraska. “The opportunity to coach at Nebraska is awesome. My first impression is ‘wow.’ From the weight room to walking down the hallway and seeing the national-championship trophies, Nebraska is what you think it is -- a football powerhouse.”

He is the fifth secondary coach at Nebraska in the past six seasons.

Riley, hired by the school in December, said Stewart “brings a record of success in both the collegiate and professional ranks and will be a great fit” at Nebraska.

"He has experience coaching and recruiting in all parts of the country," Riley said in a statement.

Stewart’s two seasons in Dallas coincided with time spent there by Nebraska special-teams coordinator Bruce Read. Eight Nebraska coaches, including Riley, former head coach of the San Diego Chargers, own a combined 30 years of NFL experience.

Riley also announced the hire of Jon Clark as a defensive graduate assistant. Clark formerly coached the secondary at East Texas Baptist University and served as a student assistant at Arizona State.

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:

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