Big Ten: Purdue Boilermakers

Big Ten morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
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Urban Meyer makes news when he thinks about the quarterback decision that he faces before next season. He actually talked about it Tuesday.

Meyer said the dilemma has started to "eat away" at him.

In this report by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer praised the Ohio State quarterbacks for their positive attitude in spring practice, specifically mentioning a compliment offered by Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones. Miller and J.T. Barrett talked a little football at practice, he said.

These are insignificant details, though they remain fascinating in the context of the OSU QB race, especially when offered by Meyer. The battle won't actually hit its stride until August of course, when all three accomplished players presumably will enter preseason camp in good health.

Meyer said Tuesday that he was moved to feel this way about the quarterbacks because he has "such great respect for all three guys."

He also offered a dose of reality. "The negative: Two people are going to have to watch."

This storyline has already taken on a life of its own. It's in danger of spinning out of control at some point before August, at least in the uncontrolled environment away from the Ohio State campus. Twelve practices remain for the Buckeyes this spring -- more time for the media and fans to anticipate and overanalyze every minor twist.

And if Meyer is already feeling a burden now, imagine how he'll feel in August.

Let's get to the links:

Big Ten morning links

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19
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Here in the throes of March Madness, football takes a temporary backseat, especially for the Big Ten schools involved in the NCAA tournament.

(In 30 seconds, name the league’s seven men’s basketball teams vying for the big prize. Scroll down for the answer.)

They’re still talking football in Iowa, even as the state’s three basketball programs compete in the tournament. The cost of football recruiting, to be more exact.

The Des Moines Register examined recruiting costs associated with campus visits and coaches’ travel, finding that Iowa nearly doubled its spending over a five-year period that ended in 2013. The 98.7-percent increase ranked second in the Big Ten to Penn State over that same time.

Interestingly, the Hawkeyes still trailed rival Iowa State by more than $100,000 on recruiting expenditures in 2013, and spent 35 percent less than ISU over the five years.

Of the spending increase, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told the Register: "It’s really a national trend. I think everybody’s being a little more aggressive than they used to be."

It’s a good sign for Iowa that it’s trying to keep pace. The Hawkeyes and Ferentz, entering his 17th season, are too often slow to adjust at times. Over the five years of gathered data, Iowa ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total spending on recruiting.

To reverse its current trajectory on the field, Iowa would be well served to rank higher than 10th over the next five years.

Here’s the full list of schools nationally, as compiled by USA Today. Just wondering, but how did Auburn spend nearly $1.4 million on recruiting in 2013 when more than 80 percent of its signees in 2013 and 2014 lived within the SEC footprint?

A final aside on recruiting expenses: Though they offer an excellent window into these programs, be careful about comparisons.

Air travel, the most significant recruiting expense, is classified by programs in different ways. Some schools own planes, jetting coaches from coast to coast; others receive donated private air time; others rely solely on commercial travel.

And here is your answer to the above question: Ohio State and Purdue play Thursday. Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin take the court Friday. Enjoy the basketball.

Let's go around the rest of the league:

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Historically, the Big Ten hasn’t been a great passing conference.

How bad has it been? Well, when it comes to producing 2,500-yard passers, we crunched the numbers and found that no Power 5 conference has had fewer -- either in 2014 or over the past five seasons -- than the ground-and-pound conference.

Over the past five years, there has been a wide gulf between the B1G and everybody else. Even when you take all the B1G realignment into account, a B1G team produces a 2,500-yard quarterback at less than a 40 percent clip. Compare that to the Pac-12 (68.3 percent) or even the SEC (48.6 percent), and it’s not too pretty.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg leads a group of Big Ten QBs expected to surpass 2,500 passing yards in 2015.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the Big Ten. This season should put an end -- at least temporarily -- to those poor passing numbers. Three returning Big Ten signal-callers reached the milestone last season and are near-locks to surpass 2,500 yards again: Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong.

Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett also surpassed 2,500 yards in 2014, although there is no telling what his numbers might be with a crowded race under center. Still, boasting three NFL-caliber quarterbacks on the same roster should merit some extra credit.

On top of those four returners, healthy quarterbacks like Nate Sudfeld and Wes Lunt have great opportunities for 2,500 yards, and Iowa was just 64 yards shy last season after C.J. Beathard split time with Jake Rudock. With Rudock seeking a transfer, that passing mark seems more attainable this season. Maryland also would have achieved the feat last season if C.J. Brown had remained healthy, so Caleb Rowe could very well end the Terps’ seven-year drought this season.

Other teams need to settle on their quarterbacks first. And no one is expecting Wisconsin or Minnesota to become pass-first teams overnight. But trends like this tend to happen in cycles, and it looks as if the Big Ten is finally on an upswing in 2015.

It’s basically the opposite message from last week, with the 1,000-yard rushing club. The Big Ten had a great 2014, and it likely won’t equal that rushing performance again in 2015. With passing, it saw only five of 14 starting quarterbacks surpass 2,500 yards last season -- again, the worst among the Power 5, by far -- but it would be a huge surprise if it didn’t improve upon that number.

Now, our most recent chart doesn’t necessarily measure passing success. Two- and three-quarterback systems, signal-caller battles and injured players tend to blur those numbers, but this should be a memorable year for the B1G through the air. If Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern or Rutgers can settle on a starter and get off to a quick start, it could be even better.

Big Ten morning links

March, 16, 2015
Mar 16
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Even with every NFL team represented at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, there was a noticeable lack of fanfare as Ohio State showcased its seniors for scouts, coaches and general mangers on its pro day.

Clearly the Buckeyes must be saving it up for what promises to be a circus at this time next year.

There were a couple guys making a final push to try to sneak into the first round. Wide receiver Devin Smith drew ample attention during his positional workout as teams weigh their options with one of the most successful collegiate deep threats in recent memory. But for the most part, Friday inadvertently served as just one more reminder of how much talent Ohio State has returning to defend the national title. The buzz is already building for what figures to be a more meaningful pro day in terms of shaping the early rounds of the the 2016 NFL draft.

There will probably be a couple quarterbacks to evaluate. Ohio State will have a pair of multi-year starters on the offensive line working out, plus a couple defenders with three years of first-team experience. But the real show could be put on by a handful of blue-chip prospects who could be foregoing their final year of eligibility, with defensive end Joey Bosa, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell all looking like potential options to jump to the next level at this early stage.

The collection of talent Urban Meyer has recruited for the Buckeyes since taking over the program is staggering, though NFL teams are still going to have to wait a little longer to get their hands on most of it. And while Ohio State has long been a pipeline for the pros, the floodgates might really open up next season with one more year to develop for the core of last year's title team.

The roles Smith, defensive tackle Michael Bennett, cornerback Doran Grant and tight end Jeff Heuerman played for the Buckeyes obviously shouldn't be overlooked, and all of them have the tools to be valuable assets at the next level even if they don't have their names called early in the draft. But it seems pretty clear that some of the most coveted Buckeyes were just watching the festivities from the sideline on Friday, and their chance to show what they can do next year is going to draw a crowd that just might test the capacity of the practice facility.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten

There's no use for a depth chart when the slate is being wiped clean.

[+] EnlargeAustin Appleby
AP Photo/AJ MastQuarterback Austin Appleby will get his shot to win the QB job for Purdue.
 Instead, Purdue has what amounts to a rotation in spring practice, shaking up the order every day during the opening week of camp to give each of its options at quarterback a chance to lead the first-team offense and balance the playing field.

That leaves a day for Austin Appleby, who had the first crack on Tuesday after he closed last season as the starter. The next day was reserved for Danny Etling, with the former starter taking his shot on Wednesday. And when the Boilermakers wrap up a binge of three straight practices on Thursday afternoon, David Blough will have his long-awaited chance to show what he can do surrounded by first-stringers.

Just in case there was any doubt that Purdue was serious about having a true competition at the most important position on the field, the daily spin cycle of reps should make it clear it has an open mind about the candidates.

"We're looking for a guy who can just make good decisions and run the offense efficiently," offensive coordinator John Shoop told reporters after practice Wednesday. "All the guys have to do some things."

They're all going to get their shot this spring, and the Boilermakers aren't exactly keeping it a secret what they're really looking for out of their next starting quarterback.

Purdue took some steps forward in the passing attack last fall and was able at times to put pressure on defenses horizontally, but stretching the field vertically remained a weakness that Shoop and Darrell Hazell clearly want addressed. They have stressed "50-50" deep balls with both the passers and the wide receivers, Shoop is putting the quarterbacks through the paces in pocket work to potentially buy extra time for plays to develop and, of course, they're leaving no stone unturned to try to figure out exactly who has the right physical and mental mindset to open up the Purdue offense.

And if that means working with a different unit each day, that doesn't seem to be an issue at all for the quarterbacks right now.

"We're very tight," Appleby said. "The most important thing is our morale. If we're tight, if we're cheering on each other, our teammates are going to see that, and they're going to feed off that. For one of us to sit here and pout because the other one is doing well, that's negative, a dark cloud over our team that people don't need to see.

"Our job as quarterbacks is, No. 1, to be the leaders of the team and set an example. To see us encouraging each other, it's genuine. We truly want the best for each other because we want the best for this team. If that means Danny or David or Elijah [Sindelar] throw a dime down the middle, that's awesome. That's exciting, because it means we're getting better. And as we continue to encourage each other and push each other, that's going to make us better as a team."

Eventually, it should also help somebody emerge and allow Purdue to settle on a guy who will try to lead the team back to bowl contention. And, obviously, provide some stability to the practice rotation.
Last season was undoubtedly the "Year of the Running Back" in the Big Ten.

We've talked about it ad nauseam around here, but in case you need a refresher course, the league featured such star tailbacks as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Northwestern's Justin Jackson. When you have two 2,000-yard rushers and five others go over 1,100 yards -- including the offensive MVP of two playoff games -- then there's no debate which position is the strongest.

The running back position isn't going to drop off a cliff this year, either, as Elliott and Jackson return and new stars like Wisconsin's Corey Clement will emerge. But 2015 is going to be the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook has a 23-3 record as a starter at Michigan State.
That might sound silly, just based on recent history. Elite quarterback play in this league has been hard to find at times in the past few years, and the conference has not produced a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. That streak won't end with this spring's draft, either.

But the drought almost certainly will change with the 2016 draft. In fact, there's a good chance the Big Ten will have multiple quarterbacks taken in the first round next year -- and we're not just talking about all of Ohio State's guys.

The Buckeyes are a great place to start in this discussion, as one of their three candidates for this year's starting job -- Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- instantly will become a Heisman Trophy front-runner the second he earns the gig. Assuming all three stick around until the fall, that will be a continuing topic of conversation and curiosity in Columbus and beyond.

There's zero quarterback controversy in East Lansing, as Connor Cook decided to return to Michigan State for his senior year. He's got a 23-3 record as a starter (and is 16-1 in Big Ten games) and already has led the team to victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. If Cook can shore up some of his footwork and decision-making, he could be the first quarterback off the board next year ... unless, that is, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg comes out as a junior.

Hackenberg had major struggles last season as a sophomore, owing a lot to an offensive line held together with spit and string. But his natural talent is undeniable, and he reminded everybody of that by throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. With better protection and more experience at receiver, Hackenberg could bounce back in a big way in 2015.

There aren't as many household names under center at other Big Ten campuses. But Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has long been viewed as a pro prospect. His 2014 season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and he should be fully healed by the start of 2015. Illinois' Wes Lunt also was hampered by injuries last year, but when he was healthy, he threw for at least 266 yards four times. Both Sudfeld and Lunt are listed at 6-foot-5 and have the classic quarterback builds.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. has the perfect last name for a quarterback and could take the next step in his development as a junior for Nebraska. He'll play in a more passer-friendly offense under Mike Riley, and Armstrong gave a hint of his potential with a 381-yard, three-touchdown showing against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Questions abound at other places, like Wisconsin, Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan. But each team has talented options that could be unlocked. Mitch Leidner moves into his third year of starting for Minnesota and had one of his better games in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. C.J. Beathard appears to be the man moving forward for Iowa, and his big arm and fearlessness gave the offense a spark last year.

The Big Ten looks like it's on an upswing, especially after a strong showing in the postseason. Improved quarterback play is a big reason why. This will be the best crop of signal-callers throughout the league in a long time, which is why 2015 will be the Year of the Quarterback.

Big Ten morning links

March, 12, 2015
Mar 12
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Gary Nova is fast?

The former four-year starting quarterback at Rutgers ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds Wednesday at pro day in Piscataway, part of an overall solid performance before scouts from every NFL team.

Nova gained 141 rushing yards as a senior and lost 146. He was sacked 69 times in his career and was rarely known as a threat to escape the pocket.

Apparently, though, he can run. Nova clocked a 4.65 in his second shot at the 40. His best mark Wednesday would have ranked fourth among quarterbacks -- behind Marcus Mariota, Nick Marshall and Blake Sims -- at the NFL combine last month.

Nova was not among 15 quarterbacks invited to the combine after he threw for 9,258 yards and 73 touchdowns at Rutgers over four seasons. He measured 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds at pro day.

Mentored by former NFL QB Jay Fiedler, Nova is viewed as a likely free-agent signing after the draft. Clearly, if he makes a roster, Nova -- who turns 22 the week of the draft -- won't be asked to showcase that 4.6 speed at the next level.

Perhaps the knowledge that he's more athletic and mobile than his time at Rutgers indicated, though, will convince more organizations to give him consideration. It can't hurt.

David Jones of PennLive.com offered a thought-provoking comparison this week between Penn State football and Syracuse basketball, recently hit with sanctions by the NCAA for widespread violations.

Both programs achieved huge success under iconic coaches and built brands known nationally.

While it may not be the case for a variety of reasons at Syracuse, Jones suggests that PSU was well equipped to weather its sanctions because of the Nittany Lions’ reputation as a football power.

He writes:
Even though the Sunbelt has transcended this area as the nation's talent honeypot, gifted athletes and players across the country know the brand name. They know it as a place where you can play with other great talents which means everything in this age of herding.

It takes a lot to undo that name recognition and resultant power. Even the Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno's dismissal and NCAA sanctions could not unplug Penn State's cachet.

So the next question: Are some brands in college athletics too big to fail? It’s a sobering thought, but one worth considering as the powerful programs gain even more power in this era of autonomy.

We hit the final installment of the Omaha World-Herald's four-part series on Mike Riley Wednesday in the links with this story on the influence of the new Nebraska coach on the career of Paul Chryst.

The earlier articles, also worth a look, documented Riley's courtship at the college and pro levels of Tom Brady and the how the rise of Oregon’s money-driven powerhouse cast a shadow over Riley at Oregon State, playing a role in his departure.

Dirk Chatelain's anchor piece, which details Riley’s upbringing and his long path to Lincoln, is a must-read for those interested in learning more about the man in charge at Nebraska.

Riley’s hire in December stunned many observers, primarily those who knew little about the 61-year-old coach. Now, the more Nebraskans learn about Riley -- and nothing published in the past three months revealed more than a small fraction of the detail offered in this series -- the more this move makes sense.

On to the rest of the links:

Big Ten mailbag

March, 11, 2015
Mar 11
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March mailbag madness:

Eric from Mequon, Wis., writes: Will Paul Chryst pick up right where he left off in Madison? Is there a QB that fits in the system or are we 2-3 years away from having "his" QB? What can we expect out of the Badgers in 2015?

Brian Bennett: If by picking up where he left off you mean coming close to replicating the 2011 season -- Chryst's last at Wisconsin as offensive coordinator -- then no, not at all. That was a historically great Badgers offense that averaged 44.1 points per game and had two of the best individual seasons of all time from Russell Wilson and Montee Ball. So, yeah, the bar is pretty high.

Still, Chryst inherits a very good situation in Madison. Sure, Melvin Gordon is gone, but Corey Clement is a star in the making, and running the ball shouldn't be a problem. The defense is in excellent hands with the return of Dave Aranda as coordinator. It really all comes down to the quarterback situation, and that is a big question mark. I think Chryst can work with and improve Joel Stave to a certain point, but he is pretty much what he is (and with a 20-6 career record, he's better than most people believe). If a youngster like Austin Kafentzis or D.J. Gillins is going to emerge, it probably will take him at least a year or two to realize his full potential, and the receiver options are slim.

But given the returning talent and the schedule, I think Wisconsin is the likely favorite to repeat as West Division champs.

Brian Bennett: I really like De'Mornay Pierson-El, and there is a lot of potential at the running back spot. But the obvious and correct answer is Tommy Armstrong Jr. He showed what he's capable of doing in the Holiday Bowl against USC, and with noted quarterback developer Mike Riley as his new head coach, Armstrong should take another step forward. With Abdullah gone, there's little doubt this is Armstrong's offense.


Faiz from Canterbury, Kent, U.K.: Would Purdue be relevant in the next 2-3 years? Are they just a coach away from becoming one? Or is it due to the whole structure of the program, that leads to most prospective athlete not wanting to be associated with the program?

Brian Bennett: Can we go back and give Joe Tiller some more coach of the year awards? In hindsight, what he accomplished at Purdue is pretty remarkable, and the program hasn't been nearly as good since he left. It may have just been a case of the right coach at the right time, because the Boilermakers job is not an easy one for anybody. The facilities aren't among the best in the league, there aren't a lot of players in the Boilers' backyard and the school has rigorous academics. I like and respect Darrell Hazell a lot, but this is a tough mountain to climb. Probably the worst thing Purdue can do right now is have an itchy trigger finger. Give Hazell time to build something.


Donald from Connecticut writes: Is there any realistic scenario under which newcomers Rutgers or Maryland could ever climb to the top of the East Division standings in the next 10 years? It just seems that there is such a huge gap between these schools and the top of the division that it is insurmountable.

Brian Bennett: Is it possible? Yes. The right blend of players and a season where everything comes together could result in one of those programs winning the East in the next 10 years. The best reason for optimism for both teams is that plenty of high school talent comes from their areas, so a couple of good recruiting classes could have a dramatic impact. Now, here's the bad news: Ohio State isn't going to go away any time soon and certainly not as long as Urban Meyer is around. Michigan State has established itself as a national power, and Michigan and Penn State are definitely on the rise. That makes the East one of the most competitive divisions in football, and finding a way up that ladder will be incredibly difficult.

Brian Bennett: How about a side step? I need to see some tangible proof that the defense has improved before I believe that the Illini are going to take a major step forward. The team doesn't start spring practice until this weekend, so the jury won't be returning a verdict on that for a long time. There is potential here, starting with an offense built around Wes Lunt, Mikey Dudek and Josh Ferguson and including a nonconference schedule with four very winnable games (Kent State, Western Illinois, at North Carolina, Middle Tennessee). If Illinois takes care of business in September and simply matches its Big Ten win total from last year, that would be seven victories. Very doable.

Big Ten morning links

March, 11, 2015
Mar 11
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The Big Ten men's basketball tournament begins today. Remember when one of these things didn't take five days to complete?

1. The defending national champions opened spring ball on Tuesday. While everybody was understandably talking about the quarterback "battle" on the first day -- it's not much of a battle right now, of course, with J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller recovering from injuries -- that's more or less a sideshow.

Sure, it's going to be utterly fascinating to see whether Cardale Jones can hold off the previous starters for the job. In the long run, however, it won't matter if Jones, Barrett, Miller or even Stephen Collier or Stephen Colbert starts for the Buckeyes. Quarterback is really the least of Urban Meyer's concerns.

He doesn't actually have many on this loaded roster. Yet if there's anything that could hold back Ohio State from making a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff, it's the defensive line. That might sound funny, since we were singing the praises of that unit as a dominant one all last year. But the Buckeyes had very little depth on the line last year and lost senior All-America tackle Michael Bennett, as well as senior defensive end Steve Miller.

Incoming freshman defensive end Dre'Mont Jones, whom we'd tabbed as one of five instant impact signees in the Big Ten last month, may not be able to contribute at all this year because of a recent knee injury.

It's going to be extremely important that holdover players like Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis, Donovan Munger and Jalyn Holmes make a difference to keep this defensive line playing at a high level. And it's telling that none of them made much of a dent on the team last year even though Meyer isn't afraid to play rookies.

"I'm very disappointed in the young defensive linemen we brought in here," Meyer said, according to Cleveland.com. "Not with what kind of people they are, just with performance."

Spring practice is just beginning in Columbus and the pads haven't even come on, so there's no good way to tell yet if some of those players have made improvement. But watching for that will be more critical to Ohio State's 2015 prospects than whatever happens with the quarterbacks.

2. Student attendance is an issue for several Big Ten schools and one Adam Rittenberg addressed in the blog a year ago. Recently, Iowa and Michigan lowered prices on their student season tickets in part to lure students back in.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette's Marc Morehouse has a look at student ticket prices throughout the league and how Iowa compares. After Michigan's reduction, Ohio State tops the conference at $272 for student season tickets, while Penn State is second at $218. Supply and demand appear to be at work here, as those two schools have the largest and most energetic student sections in the Big Ten.

Six other schools have remaining ticket packages that top $100 for the season. Maybe I'm old (check that: I am really old) but I don't remember having that kind of extra spending money lying around when I was a college student. Maybe we shouldn't criticize student for not turning out at some of these places but applaud the ones who make the effort and pay the expense to do so. Just a thought.

Around the league:

Purdue spring preview

March, 10, 2015
Mar 10
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Purdue made progress in 2014, albeit slight. Under second-year coach Darrell Hazell, the Boilermakers identified young talent and committed to it. There were rough moments, of course, but a win at Illinois -- Hazell’s lone Big Ten victory -- showed the capabilities of this group, which also played competitively in losses to Notre Dame, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

This spring provides an opportunity to build on the growth of last fall and eliminate the inconsistency that stands between Purdue and notable improvement.

For additional primers, check out our pre-spring reports on the state of the program at Purdue and key position battles.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Hazell
AP Photo/Andrew A. NellesPurdue coach Darrell Hazell has a major decision to make at quarterback, with four players potentially in the mix.
Schedule: The Boilermakers open the spring Tuesday afternoon and will practice Wednesday and Thursday before an 11-day break. Scrimmages are planned for March 28 and April 11. The spring game draft is April 15, and the spring finale is set for 1 p.m. April 18 at Ross-Ade Stadium. All practices and scrimmages are open to the public.

What’s new? Hazell lost receivers coach Kevin Sherman to Pitt, shifting Gerad Parker’s responsibilities from tight ends to the receivers. Former Michigan offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Terry Malone was hired to coach the tight ends. Malone spent the past nine seasons with the New Orleans Saints.

Biggest question: Who’s the quarterback? It’s pretty obvious this looms above all else in Purdue camp. Yes, Purdue faces equally weighty decisions at other positions, but this is the most pressing so that the Boilermakers can move forward on offense behind a leader. Rising junior Austin Appleby, after accumulating 1,449 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season upon taking over in October, enters spring as the favorite, but the race is far from settled. Classmate Danny Etling started in 2013 as a true freshman and for the first month of 2014, and David Blough, who redshirted last fall, brings strong credentials as a prospect. Elijah Sindelar, a 6-foot-4 true freshman who enrolled in January, joins the mix for spring while recovering from a knee injury. All four quarterbacks have a shot. They will address the media Wednesday in West Lafayette.

Three things we want to see:

1. A maturing group of receivers. Without the production from departed backs Akeem Hunt, a dangerous receiving threat, and Raheem Mostert, Purdue needs its pass catchers to step into bigger roles. Yes, the quarterback play dipped in November last season, but it coincided with the absence of top receiver Danny Anthrop, who is returning from a knee injury. DeAngelo Yancey must rebound from a disappointing sophomore season. Cameron Posey, Gregory Phillips, Trae Hart and transfer Anthony Mahoungou add options.

2. Better overall depth on defense. Defensive end Ryan Russell and safety Landon Feichter are gone from key roles last season, but the Boilermakers were young across the board defensively. Despite the ugly numbers -- Purdue ranked 10th in the Big Ten in total defense, 12th in scoring and lacked a consistent pass rush -- talent exists. Juniors Jake Replogle and Ra'Zahn Howard form a strong duo up front. Now’s the time for Gelen Robinson and Evan Panfil to develop up front. Behind senior corners Frankie Williams (out this spring), and Anthony Brown, sophomore Da'Wan Hunte">Da'Wan Hunte gets a shot. Purdue needs more youth to emerge.

3. Additional growth from the linebackers. Credit linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and coordinator Greg Hudson for improvement throughout last season in the heart of the Purdue defense. Danny Ezechukwu and Ja'Whaun Bentley -- the man in the middle who had a strong list of Power 5 scholarship offers out of the Washington, D.C., area a year ago -- flashed their potential as freshmen. Jimmy Herman is also back as a junior. If the group stays healthy, no doubt it ranks in the top half of the West Division.

Big Ten morning links

March, 10, 2015
Mar 10
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The experiment almost certainly won't lead to a permanent change, and there's a decent chance it might not even become a regular part of the offense.

But if nothing else, Jerry Kill and the rest of the Minnesota staff are offering a reminder that just because they're old-school coaches doesn't mean they won't mix in a little forward thinking as well.

Sure, a no-huddle system isn't frequently associated with a power rushing attack or quarterbacks taking snaps under center, two things the Golden Gophers aren't likely to be abandoning any time soon. But there's no harm in pushing the tempo during spring camp when there's no game plan to install, which at a minimum can test the offseason conditioning program and add some urgency on the practice field.

In the best-case scenario, Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover might just find something that clicks and expands the playbook for the Gophers, giving these test runs in March virtually no downside even if they never see the light of game day.

"It's not that we're going to do it exclusively, but it's hard to get it in at the last minute," Limegrover told reporters over the weekend. "What we want to do is build a foundation and get a good foundation of a lot of different things we can do. Coach [Kill] wanted to do it, wanted to work something a little bit different, so we did some visiting, did some research and felt like we came up with something that fits us.

"It's just in the infant stages."

If the no-huddle system is going to grow up and become something useful for the Gophers, it makes sense to install it in a lower-pressure situation and in time for the players to still work on it during summer workouts.

Minnesota has made pretty clear, though, that tweaking the tempo isn't the same thing as shifting to the spread. That sort of overhaul would require much more than 15 workouts in the spring, and the Gophers are still an offensive team best suited to leaning on what should be a deep backfield while potentially taking a step forward in the play-action passing game under still-developing quarterback Mitch Leidner.

But just in case they need to add another gear to the attack, there's no better time to tinker than now.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten
The results are in … and the Big Ten is tied as the top Power 5 conference when it comes to producing 1,000-yard rushers.

Surprised? Didn’t think so.

The numbers back up the obvious: No conference fared better here last season, as half the B1G teams finished with a rusher that topped the 1,000-yard mark. With a lineup consisting of Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah -- along with 2015 Heisman front-runner Ezekiel Elliott -- talent and depth weren’t issues on the ground in 2014.

The bigger surprise? The B1G didn’t run away with the honor, as the Pac-12 also saw half its teams end the season with a 1,000-yard rusher. The conference out west even had nine of its 12 schools boast a runner who reached the milestone last year or the year before – more than the Big Ten.

Now, the list is meant to be more for fun than projecting, but it goes without saying that rushing is important in the hard-nosed B1G. After all, only one of the last 13 conference winners didn’t have a rusher who hit the 1,000-yard mark -- the 2009 Buckeyes, who boasted three players with more than 600 rush yards. Historically, in the B1G, feature backs trump the committee approach.

So, can the Big Ten keep producing those workhorse runners? It will undoubtedly get a little harder this season, with all but two of its 1,000-yard players heading to the NFL. The Pac-12 could be poised to knock the B1G off its perch in 2015; it returns all but two of its 1,000-yard players.

The good news for the B1G is it should get a boost from a healthy Paul James, who could end a two-year drought at Rutgers. Michigan State also generally likes to stick with a featured back, and Wisconsin’s Corey Clement shouldn’t have a problem reaching quadruple digits. But Minnesota? Without David Cobb on the roster, it could wind up going with the running-back-by-committee approach. Ditto for Michigan.

And all bets are off with the bottom-three teams in this category. Maryland and Purdue haven’t had 1,000-yard rushers since 2008, and both running back situations are muddled right now. Illinois is in the midst of a four-season drought, and that likely won’t end as long as Josh Ferguson is averaging about 11 carries a game.

So, sure, the Big Ten is king now -- and producing 1,000-yard rushers has been important to the conference in the past. But that trend could very well take a dip, albeit temporarily, in 2015.

Big Ten morning links

March, 9, 2015
Mar 9
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Four B1G teams -- Rutgers, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State -- will host their pro days this week, and the conference could be in for quite a memorable NFL draft this year.

In his latest mock draft, Insider ESPN.com's Mel Kiper Jr. predicted that five Big Ten players would be selected in the first round. And he tweeted Friday afternoon that another three B1G players barely missed the cut:
Only once in the past seven seasons has the Big Ten had at least five players drafted in the first round (2011). And it hasn't had eight players selected since 2006, when Ohio State accounted for five.

So, as long as everything goes as planned at these pro days, fans shouldn't have to wait long to hear B1G players' names called on draft day. Although, sadly, fans will have to wait a while for the actual draft -- which takes place April 30 to May 2 in Chicago.

Now on to the links ...
We have a hard enough time predicting what's going to happen in the games in the fall -- you've seen our picks records, right? So trying to forecast what's going to happen in spring practice -- not a game, we're talking 'bout practice -- seems especially futile.

But let's be bold. Here are 10 predictions for spring practice in the Big Ten:

1. Cardale Jones takes command: You might remember Jones from such previous performances as "Whipping Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game," "Mauling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl" and "Beating Oregon for the national championship." Now he'll be the headliner in Ohio State's star-studded quarterback battle as the only one of the three who will be healthy enough to participate fully in drills. Expect Jones to have a big spring and take the lead in the race, though J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller will have their say this summer.

2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads in Lincoln: Nebraska's starting quarterback will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. But while Johnny Stanton and, to a lesser extent, Ryker Fyfe have their supporters among the Big Red fan base, Armstrong's superior leadership skills and experience will ensure that he's the man for Mike Riley this spring.

3. Penn State finds some answers on the offensive line: The Nittany Lions can't possibly be as bad up front as they were last year, and now they have a lot more options. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will win the right tackle job and Andrew Nelson will take a step forward in a move to left tackle. Throw in some promising youngsters, and QB Christian Hackenberg will be feeling more secure heading into this fall.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Beathard enters spring as the starting quarterback at Iowa.
4. C.J. Beathard wins Iowa's quarterback competition: Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't abandon a two-year starter like Jake Rudock lightly. But Beathard seemed to give the entire offense a spark when he entered games last season, and the Hawkeyes could sure use some energy on that side of the ball. Ferentz surprisingly listed Beathard as the No. 1 quarterback on a rare January depth chart, so he's obviously serious about a possible change.

5. Joel Stave faces serious heat for his job at Wisconsin: Stave has a 20-6 career record as a starter, something few Big Ten quarterbacks can match. Yet, like Iowa, the Badgers need a jolt in their passing game. Either redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins or true freshman Austin Kafentzis will make this a real competition this spring, leaving the starting job up for grabs in fall camp.

6. Minnesota's receivers provide optimism: The passing games at Wisconsin and Iowa are prolific compared to the Gophers, largely because Minnesota has lacked playmaking wideouts the past few years. But Minnesota will emerge from the spring feeling much better about its options at the position as some redshirt freshmen make plays. Two names to watch: Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson.

7. Hayden Rettig has a big spring for Rutgers: Chris Laviano has an edge in experience in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback competition, but Rettig has the pedigree. A former four-star recruit who transferred from LSU, Rettig's big arm will make a large impression this spring.

8. Indiana doesn't miss Tevin Coleman ... too much: Coleman put up the best rushing season in the Hoosiers' history, but his absence won't create a crater this spring. That's because UAB transfer Jordan Howard will step in and immediately replace most of that production. He might not match Coleman's pure explosiveness, but the offense won't suffer too much.

9. New defensive stars emerge at Michigan State: This happens every spring. Even with Pat Narduzzi gone, the Spartan Dawgs will remain strong behind new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. And they've always got a wave of players ready to step in for departed leaders. Some names to watch include Demetrious Cox, Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks.

10. A couple of quarterbacks transfer: This has become a trend in college football -- a quarterback can be quick to bolt when he finds out he won't be the starter. Keep an eye on places where there are a lot of candidates bunched together, such as Purdue (Austin Appleby, Danny Etling, David Blough) or where the two-man competition is heated, such as Iowa. And, of course, Ohio State remains on high alert. But it's almost inevitable that there will be some quarterback transfers in the summer.

Big Ten morning links

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
9:00
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The well-documented Melvin Gordon-Ameer Abdullah rivalry, which pre-dates their years in college, was effectively extinguished on Nov. 15.

Remember that day?

Nebraska players and their fans prefer to forget it. Gordon rushed for 408 yards, then an FBS record, as Wisconsin stomped the Cornhuskers 59-24. That performance propelled him to a runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting

On one good leg on that snowy afternoon in Madison, Abdullah mustered 69 yards on the ground in a performance representative of the anticlimactic finish to his record-setting career.

They met again at the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, where both backs performed well enough to claim victory. The bigger Gordon ran a faster 40-yard dash (4.52 to 4.60), though Abdullah walked away with the best marks among an accomplished group at their position in the vertical leap, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.

Abdullah appeared to improve his 40 time -- pending official results -- Thursday at Nebraska’s pro day.

When it was over, Abdullah, typically reserved, did not mince words. He said he believes he’s the best running back in this draft class. Gordon included.

“I’m not real worried about Melvin,” Abdullah said. “He has his own agenda. I have my own agenda.”

But Abdullah, training this spring in Dallas, said more.

“I don’t know what he’s doing," Abdullah said. "He doesn’t know what I’m doing. Obviously, we want to compete, but it’s more of a mental edge than anything. When you’re working and you’re tired, I say, ‘Well, Melvin’s still working harder than me, so I’ve gotta go harder.’”

Clearly they remain linked, a salivating thought for fans of Big Ten football, anxious to watch continued competition between the talented duo play out on a new stage.

Analysts rate Gordon as the better prospect, and how can you argue with 2,587 yards -- a career figure for many that Gordon accumulated in merely 13 games last fall?

But here’s what I know about Abdullah: He’s at his most dangerous as an underdog.

The large chip on his shoulder that Abdullah carried to Nebraska out of high school in Alabama, where SEC schools declined to recruit him as a running back, fueled his journey to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Huskers history.

The chip is back. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard Abdullah speak with more conviction than Thursday after his workout.

“Whatever team that takes me,” Abdullah said, “I’m going to be in shape and ready to go when I get there.”

Whether he knows it or not, Gordon is providing a bit of fuel for Abdullah’s drive toward the draft.

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