Big Ten Thursday mailbag


Mere hours now until teams around the Big Ten hit the practice fields. We're answering questions daily here on the blog as the preseason gets underway. Got something for me? Send it here. The latest offerings:

Mitch Sherman: That's an excellent observation, Jay, and an aspect of the Scarlet Knights largely overlooked in this transition to the Big Ten. Rutgers has blocked 35 kicks over the past five seasons, nine more than any other FBS program, and it's consistently won the battle on special teams. While Kyle Flood, his staff and players must prepare for eight new league opponents this fall -- a tall task -- perhaps they can surprise a few foes with strong play in the kicking game. It's a powerful card to play; few plays in football change momentum like blocked kicks. Facing a brutal league schedule, Rutgers will likely get more aggressive than ever in going after kicks.

Mitch Sherman: Start with the schedule. Three of Purdue' five most difficult games -- against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa -- are at home. A fourth is to be played at a neutral site (perhaps better labeled off-campus) against Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Ryan Russell is primed to enjoy a big senior season. Among a stacked group of Big Ten defensive ends, he is perhaps the most underrated. Seniors Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt possess legitimate speed. If Purdue can create space for them to run, the big-play threat is real. And while the quarterback spot is not entirely settled, Danny Etling showed real improvement toward the end of his true freshman season. Mark it down: the win total will rise from last year's one. I'll place the max figure at six, though four or five looks more likely.

Mitch Sherman: I'm not going to overthink this. It looks like Derrick Willies, and I think it will be Willies. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman starred in spring scrimmages. I expect his strong play to carry over to this season. Iowa features veterans in Kevonte Martin-Manley, Damond Powell and Tevaun Smith, but none possess the athleticism of Willies. He may not start from the outset, but look for his playing time to increase as Willies shows his big-play potential. For quarterback Jake Rudock, the presence of a big target who can make plays on the ball provides a great comfort. If Willies emerges as expected, the Iowa offense -- already solid if not flashy -- gets an added dimension.