Big Ten: A.J. Jimmerson

My basketball responsibilities caused me to fall behind on monitoring pro days at Big Ten schools, but I'm back in football mode now. Four Big Ten schools -- Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State and Northwestern -- all held their annual pro days on Wednesday, and here are some highlights.

ILLINOIS

  • Wide receiver Arrelious Benn certainly helped himself by clocking a 4.36 in the 40-yard dash, more than a tenth of a second faster than his time (4.48) at the NFL combine.
  • Wide receiver/tight end Jeff Cumberland clocked a 4.46 in the 40. Cumberland boasts excellent size, but his pass-catching ability has been questioned.
  • Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui ran a 4.83 in the 40.
  • Quarterback Juice Williams had his first chance to work out before NFL scouts, while guard Jon Asamoah sat out pro day with a shoulder injury that has limited him since Senior Bowl practice.
MICHIGAN STATE

  • Wide receiver Blair White continued a strong pre-draft performance by running the 40 in 4.46 seconds, improving on his time from the combine (4.5). He also recorded a 33.5-inch vertical leap and a broad jump of 10 feet.
  • Defensive end Trevor Anderson ran a 4.66 in the 40, had a 37-inch vertical leap and a broad jump of 10 feet, 7.5 inches.
  • According to The Detroit News, cornerback Jeremy Ware ran an unofficial time of 4.37 in the 40, while safety Danny Fortener, running back A.J. Jimmerson and cornerback Ross Weaver all ran better than a 4.5.
PENN STATE

  • Quarterback Daryll Clark said he clocked a 4.61 in the 40-yard dash after not running at the combine because of a hamstring injury.
  • Linebacker Navorro Bowman said his 40 time improved to 4.61 seconds (he had a 4.72 in Indy).
  • Linebacker Josh Hull improved substantially on his poor 40 time at the combine (4.91 seconds) by clocking a 4.71 on Wednesday.
  • Linebacker Sean Lee improved his 40 time from 4.74 seconds in Indianapolis to unofficially 4.55 Wednesday.
  • Defensive tackle Jared Odrick said he improved on his 40 time, recording several attempts below five seconds after clocking a 5.03 at the combine. He also improved on his broad jump.
  • Tight end Andrew Quarless said he ran the 40 in the 4.5 range Wednesday after recording a 4.69 in Indianapolis.
  • Tackle Dennis Landolt and defensive end/linebacker Jerome Hayes both said they had 24 reps in the 225-pound bench press.
  • Former Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli worked out for scouts Wednesday as he tries to revive his pro career.
NORTHWESTERN

  • Quarterback Mike Kafka continued a strong pre-draft performance on pro day, reportedly hitting on almost every throw.
  • Wide receiver Andrew Brewer recorded a 4.60 in the 40, a 39-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot broad jump and a short shuttle run of 4.08 seconds.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State's quarterback competition remains virtually deadlocked, but the Spartans are seeing some separation in the race to replace All-American running back Javon Ringer.

The team has several veteran options at running back -- senior A.J. Jimmerson and sophomores Ashton Leggett and Andre Anderson all have played -- but the coaching staff expects youth to be served this fall. Heralded true freshmen Larry Caper and Edwin Baker have been as advertised so far in camp, and redshirt freshman Caulton Ray is continuing his progression after a strong finish to spring ball.

Last year, Ringer was the Spartans offense, accounting for nearly 41 percent of the team's production. A committee system is likely this fall, but the top group seems to be taking shape.

"There's some players that have stepped out a little bit," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "The freshmen running backs have done a nice job. Caulton Ray has done a nice job. Those three guys right now have separated themselves a little bit, but things can change pretty quickly."

Both true freshmen feel ready to contribute immediately, and running backs coach Dan Enos calls Ray arguably the team's most improved player. After being slotted behind Ringer and several others last fall, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Ray came on strong during winter conditioning and impressed the coaches with his knowledge of the offense in spring ball.

Though the 220-pound Caper has a size edge over Ray and Baker, both of whom are closer to Ringer's frame, all three backs demonstrate their toughness in camp.

"We practice very hard and very physical," Enos said. "All of our backs have been given the ball a bunch in camp because it's been a priority for us to find out who the guys are going to be. Those three guys, in particular, they've hung onto the ball, they've ran hard and they've been put in some tough situations, where they needed to get a tough yard or two tough yards, and they've shown the ability to do that."

The three young backs all finished among the stat leaders from Friday's controlled scrimmage at Spartan Stadium. Caper led the way with 68 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, while Ray (37 yards) and Baker (32 yards) also contributed.

Readiness is the big question surrounding all three players, but Enos likes what he sees.

"One of the reasons we [scrimmaged] in the stadium against our [first-team] defense, we wanted to see how they would respond," Enos said. "And they loved every minute of it. They were all itching to get back in the game when we took them out. They all ran really hard. We think they're going to be ready."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If Monday's situational scrimmage at Spartan Stadium is any indication, Michigan State's passing attack should be more dynamic this fall.

The offense beat the defense in the 124-play scrimmage by a score of 73-61 -- don't ask me to explain the scoring system -- and several wide receivers stood out. Michigan State continued to split things pretty evenly between quarterbacks Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins, though it appears that Nichol, the Oklahoma transfer, delivered the better performance.

He completed 17 of 26 passes for 241 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, including a 52-yard scoring strike to Chris D. Rucker. Cousins, the team's primary backup last year, tossed two touchdowns and an interception but completed just 13 of 30 attempts. The sophomore completed 74.4 percent of his passes last season.

Rucker had a scrimmage-high 90 receiving yards, though true freshman tight end Dion Sims led in receptions with seven for 60 yards. Michigan State is extremely excited about Sims, a two-sport star in high school, and he'll only add to a loaded group of tight ends. Sophomore Keshawn Martin also had five receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown.

As for the running back race, sophomore Ashton Leggett, who briefly inched ahead in the competition this spring, had 91 rushing yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, including a 63-yard burst. Senior A.J. Jimmerson had 36 rush yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

Redshirt freshman defensive end Tyler Hoover stood out on defense with two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Junior linebacker Eric Gordon recorded a sack and two pass breakups, and senior cornerback Ashton Henderson had an interception and two pass breakups.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Forget about that other draft taking place at Radio City Music Hall this weekend. The real draft will be held at 2:15 p.m. ET today in the Skandalaris Football Center, as Michigan State picks teams for its annual Green-White Game, which will be played Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has borrowed the idea from former boss Jim Tressel -- Ohio State, by the way, has its own spring game draft today -- and it sounds like a pretty fun event for players, coaches and all involved.

"It makes it a little bit more fun," Dantonio said Tuesday. "It makes it competitive. I actually started doing it at Youngstown State back in 1986, and we've done it ever since, whether I was with coach Tressel or since I've been a head coach."

From what I've gathered about the draft format, here's how it works:

  • The Spartans seniors are divided and pick the teams.
  • Assistant coaches are also assigned to both squads.
  • When a player is picked, a teammate who plays the same position goes to the other team. So if quarterback Kirk Cousins is selected first, Keith Nichol in all likelihood would go to the opposing team.
  • Dantonio has the final say and can move players to the other team to even things out.
  • At stake, steak. The winning team eats it, while the losers get franks and beans.

Things apparently got pretty heated last year between quarterback Brian Hoyer and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. With senior offensive lineman Mike Bacon already on his team, Hoyer drafted starting center Joel Nitchman for the White squad. That left the Green team with no experience at the center spot, so Narduzzi demanded a trade and Dantonio eventually sent Nitchman to the Green team.

Let's hope there are some similar fireworks today.

Though the spring game is all about fun, it does provide some hints about the team.

It will be very interesting to see which quarterback candidate -- Cousins or Nichol -- gets drafted first. Same thing for the running backs -- Ashton Leggett, Andre Anderson, A.J. Jimmerson and Caulton Ray.

Last year, Cousins was picked ahead of Nick Foles. Cousins went on to back up Hoyer during the season, while Foles transferred from the school.

Check the blog later this afternoon for a full draft recap.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- There are several predictable words to describe the way a 235-pound man runs the football.

 
  AP Photo/Al Goldis
  Ashton Leggett, left, looks to succeed Javon Ringer as the Spartans' starting tailback.

Smooth is usually not one of them.

"I tease him sometimes, because he's one of my closest friends," Michigan State wide receiver Mark Dell said. "He's real smooth, kind of effortless. I love to see him run. He's a smooth running back."

Perhaps Dell is confusing sophomore Ashton Leggett with one of the other Michigan State running backs immersed in a competition to replace All-American Javon Ringer. At 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds, Leggett has drawn comparisons to former Spartans back Jehuu Caulcrick, a boulder in the backfield who scored 21 touchdowns in 2007.

Terms like powerful, downhill and punishing would seem more appropriate for a player like Leggett.

But Dell's claim is backed up by a pretty good source.

"Ashton is the smoothest running back out of all of us, even when I was here," said Ringer, who watched Michigan State's practice on Tuesday and even helped the running backs during individual drills. "A lot of people say he resembles Jehuu a lot, but no. He's a completely different runner than Jehuu was.

"The way Ashton's footwork is, he's one of the smoothest runners."

Former NBA player Sam Perkins owns the rights to the "Big Smooth" nickname, but Leggett might need to borrow it this fall for Michigan State. Though the competition at running back remains extremely tight this spring, Leggett inched ahead last week before being slowed for a few days by a sprained knee.

Head coach Mark Dantonio likes Leggett's ability to break tackles and move laterally and singled out the sophomore for his play. But Leggett doesn't get wrapped up in the spring separation buzz.

"As soon as you perceive that, you drop to fourth on the depth chart," he said. "I just come in here, ready to work hard every day and hope I stay ahead. ... I see us as four, three guys all on one line and any given day, any one of us can break right through and take one 80, 90 yards. So we're pretty much all there still."

Leggett is competing with senior A.J. Jimmerson, sophomore Andre Anderson and redshirt freshman Caulton Ray. Two heralded incoming freshmen, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper, also will be in the mix during preseason camp.

Jimmerson has by far the most experience in the group, but his carries have dropped from 37 in 2007 to only eight last fall.

While Jimmerson brings a good blend of speed and size, Anderson most resembles Ringer. He's a bit undersized at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds but boasts excellent quickness and runs hard. Ray fits a similar mold at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds.

Though Leggett clearly boasts a size edge, he's not your typical big back. Asked what area he needed to improve most during spring ball, Leggett's answer came as a bit of a surprise.

"Definitely pass protection," he said. "Last year, my head was running wild, not knowing who to block, everybody coming from different angles. But this year, keeping my head in the playbook, I feel like my pass protection is improving."

Should pass protection be a cinch for a 235-pound back?

"They would look at [me] and say it's easy," Leggett said, "but on any given play we could have four different people to pick up."

Running the ball, meanwhile, comes naturally for Leggett, a Muskegon, Mich., native who had only six carries for 17 yards with a touchdown and a fumble lost last season. Ringer led the nation with 390 carries, limiting the chances for Leggett or the other reserves to get in the game.

Though his body type would suggest a back who can take a good deal of pounding, Leggett expects the carries to be spread out this fall.

"I won't have the stress on my body like Javon," he said. "I thank God for that."

A few feet away, a smiling Ringer watched intently as Leggett spoke with reporters. The future NFL draft pick likes what he's seeing from the backs this spring.

"Things are going to sort themselves out, but I kind of already have an idea [on who will start], I have my own opinion," Ringer said. "I like what I'm seeing from all of them. They're going to be good."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It's pretty miserable outside right now, so thankfully Michigan State held practice Tuesday afternoon on its indoor field. Media were allowed to stay for nearly 13 practice periods, the most all spring, so I clearly picked a good day to visit Sparta.

The quarterback competition is clearly the burning issue in these parts, so let's get right to it.

Head coach Mark Dantonio said before practice that sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol would split reps evenly in Saturday's Green-White Game, as they have throughout the spring. Michigan State is a long way from choosing a starter, but there's still an opportunity for both players to distinguish themselves.

"You can inch somebody ahead of the other guy, but they've both performed very well this spring," Dantonio said. "They both have strong arms. They both can create and have running ability, some a little bit more than the other. They both have good leadership skills and they're extremely hard workers. And they both have three years left.

"With that being said, you don't want to name somebody and then all of a sudden, have to reverse your thinking later on."

Both players had their moments during team periods and 7-on-7s at Thursday's practice. Cousins, who performed well as Michigan State's backup last fall, has excellent mechanics and a strong arm. He looks a little smoother on his passes than Nichol, who has a bit of an awkward motion but still get the ball out fairly quickly.

Many have characterized Cousins as the pure passer and Nichol as the versatile athlete, but offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said it's a misperception.

"It's deceptive," Treadwell said. "It's not like one guy's a runner and one guy's a pocket passer. Those guys both are able to move their feet very well, get out of trouble and keep their eyes down the field at the same time."

The competition is neck-and-neck, but Cousins looked a little more impressive at Tuesday's workout.

The sophomore showed good zip on his passes, hitting Mark Dell on several deep out routes during team drills and 7-on-7s. Dell definitely appeared to be his favorite target. After overthrowing wideout Cam Martin on a deep post, a disgusted Cousins muttered, "That's six points."

Cousins also had a nice gain on an option keeper, taking a rare hit (he and Nichol wore red "no contact" jerseys) and popping back up and nodding his head. His run delighted starting left tackle Rocco Cironi, who is out for spring ball following shoulder surgery.

"It's fun to get in there, run and get hit," Cousins said. "You feel like a football player instead of a quarterback."

Nichol had a bit of a slow start in team drills, but he heated up during 7-on-7s, hitting Chris D. Rucker on a go route and finding Keshawn Martin on a deep out. It would have been nice to see Nichol run more, but he moves his feet well.

The quarterbacks traded off on each play during 7-on-7s. There were no interceptions, though Cousins fumbled a snap during red-zone drills.

Other observations from Michigan State's practice:

  • The competition at running back also remains tight, and a fourth player, redshirt freshman Caulton Ray, has entered the mix. Sophomore Ashton Leggett created some separation a few weeks ago before being slowed by a knee sprain, but he was back at practice Tuesday. Leggett, Ray and senior A.J. Jimmerson each had nice gains during team drills.
  • None of the running backs had much success during red-zone drills, as Jones, Wilson, Neely and others recorded tackles for loss. Sophomore Andre Anderson, who most resembles Javon Ringer in body type and running style, had a nice burst. He runs very hard for a smaller guy.
  • I got the best look at the backs during a 1-on-1 drills against the linebackers. Anderson looked particularly impressive in the open field, juking All-Big Ten performer Greg Jones and reserve Jon Misch.
  • Cousins and Nichol both rotated with the first-team offense, but the top offensive line consisted of: left tackle Brendon Moss (in place of Cironi), left guard Joel Foreman, center Joel Nitchman, right guard Jared McGaha, right tackle J'Michael Deane. Dantonio singled out the offensive line as a group that has progressed more than he had envisioned during spring ball, though there's still a long way to go.
  • Dell, Blair White and B.J. Cunningham took most of the reps as first-team wide receivers. Michigan State will use the tight ends a ton this fall, and several players made catches during team drills, including Garrett Celek and Brian Linthicum, a transfer from Clemson who looks impressive. There's also some buzz about third-team wideout Milton Colbert, a 6-5, 211-pound walk-on who might just work his way into the rotation. Colbert definitely passes the eye test.
  • The first-team defense: defensive end Colin Neely, defensive tackle Kevin Pickelman, defensive end Trevor Anderson, nose tackle Oren Wilson, outside linebacker Eric Gordon, outside linebacker Brandon Denson, middle linebacker Greg Jones, safety Danny Fortener, safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Chris L. Rucker, cornerback Ross Weaver. Several players are banged up in the secondary, including safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and cornerback Jeremy Ware.
  • The option might not be a major part of the offense next fall, but it will certainly be used more with Nichol and Cousins taking snaps. Michigan State ran several option plays Tuesday and also could incorporate more misdirection into its scheme.
  • Individual practice periods are usually pretty boring, but Michigan State's running backs were worth watching because of a familiar face. Ringer, who remains in town leading up to this weekend's NFL draft, was on the field helping running backs coach Dan Enos in a direction drill. The All-American wore a New York Jets T-shirt but told me afterward he dons apparel from all the teams for whom he worked out. So don't get too excited, Jets fans. Former Spartans right tackle Jesse Miller also attended practice.
  • Place-kicker Brett Swenson, an All-America candidate, looked solid on field goals and even took a pitch on a fake and raced around right end.
  • The Spartans paid homage to Michigan native Kid Rock and played his version of "Sweet Home Alabama" to simulate crowd noise during team drills.

 
  MSU Sports Information
  Michigan State running back Andre Anderson will be one of three Spartans backs looking to pick up where Javon Ringer left off last season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There were times last fall when A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett could only huddle on the sideline and shake their heads in amazement.

Michigan State kept giving the ball to Javon Ringer, and Ringer kept taking it, leaving his three understudies to watch and wait.

"After a while, you start thinking, 'This can't keep going on forever, not the whole season,'" Jimmserson said.

"You've always got that in the back of your mind, like, 'Alright, he just ran about 60 yards, maybe he'll come out,'" Leggett said. "But it never happened."

Ringer was college football's Ironman, carrying the ball 390 times, 23 more than any back in the country. The All-American and Doak Walker Award finalist had 20 or more rushing attempts in 11 of 13 games and had 32 or more carries in seven contests.

Given Ringer's production and consistency -- 1,637 rush yards, 22 touchdowns -- there was little reason to remove him from the field. So Michigan State didn't.

Opportunities were extremely scarce for Jimmerson, Anderson and Leggett, who combined for just 40 carries all season, less than Ringer's game totals against Florida Atlantic (43) and Indiana (44).

"It got a little frustrating, but then again, you've got to know your role," Leggett said. "Everybody's got to pay their dues. You've got to wait your turn sometimes."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After performing well as Brian Hoyer's backup in 2008, sophomore Kirk Cousins is listed as Michigan State's starting quarterback entering spring practice, which began today in East Lansing.

Cousins and Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol will compete throughout the spring, and possibly much longer.

"I'm in no hurry," head coach Mark Dantonio said when asked when a decision will be made about a starter. "Both of those guys have been in positions of leadership their entire lives. There's no egos."

Dantonio praised Cousins' performance last year on the field and Nichol's on the scout team.

"They're going to get a lot of reps, a lot of live reps, a lot of reps with the [first team], both of 'em," Dantonio said. "So you have a little bit of a feel coming out of spring practice. You'll go into August with the same idea. One guy may completely reverse that in August.

"I see using both quarterbacks until one clearly becomes the guy."

Some other quick notes from Dantonio's pre-spring news conference.

  • Defensive tackle Antonio Jeremiah will be auditioned on the offensive line for at least two weeks. Patrick White and Donald Spencer will see time at both wide receiver and defensive back.
  • Returning running backs Andre Anderson, Ashton Leggett and A.J. Jimmerson each will get about 20 carries during the team's spring scrimmages.
  • With All-American running back Javon Ringer gone, Dantonio considers All-Big Ten linebacker Greg Jones "a little bit of the face of the program right now." Jones has led the team in tackles his first two seasons.
  • Dantonio didn't comment further about running back Glenn Winston, who was indefinitely suspended after pleading guilty to assault charges stemming from an off-campus fight that left a Michigan State hockey player seriously injured.
  • Safety Roderick Jenrette, who left the team in August for personal reasons, remains off the squad this spring. Dantonio didn't rule out Jenrette's return at some point.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As spring practice approaches, it's time to take a look at the strongest and weakest positions for each Big Ten team. A team could have several strengths or weaknesses, but this series will identify the least and most questionable areas entering a crucial evaluation period this spring.

And rather than go in alphabetical order or reverse order, I'll choose teams completely at random, to keep you guessing. Important to note: these rankings will only include freshmen if they're already enrolled and on the official roster for spring ball.

The Michigan State Spartans are up first.

Strongest position -- Linebackers

Key returnees: Junior Greg Jones, senior Adam Decker, junior Eric Gordon, senior Brandon Denson

Key departures: Ryan Allison (50 tackles 2.5 TFLs, forced fumble)

The skinny: Michigan State's defense should be an improved unit in 2009, and the linebackers are the biggest reasons why. All three starters return, led by All-Big Ten honoree Greg Jones, the team's leading tackler the last two seasons. Adam Decker provides a veteran presence in the middle, and Eric Gordon quietly had a very solid sophomore season with three sacks, a forced fumble and 7.5 tackles for loss. The Spartans' wide receivers would have been the pick here, but I need to see fewer dropped passes from them. Cornerback also should be a strength in 2009.

Weakest position -- Running backs

Key returnees: Sophomore Andre Anderson, sophomore Ashton Leggett, senior A.J. Jimmerson

Key departures: Javon Ringer (390 carries, 1,637 rush yards, 22 touchdowns)

The skinny: After losing a smallish senior class, Michigan State doesn't have a clear-cut weakness entering 2009. But you can't underestimate what Javon Ringer meant to the Spartans' offense last year. He carried the team at times and had 23 more rushing attempts than any other FBS back. Michigan State didn't develop a true backup, and while Anderson and others have shown flashes during practice, this group is questionable entering the spring. Other potential weak spots include defensive line and offensive tackle.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
  Scott A. Miller/US Presswire
  Iowa running back Shonn Greene's production will not be easy to replace.

As we continue to preview Big Ten spring football, which begins March 14 at Michigan, it's time to look at five key replacements around the conference.

The Big Ten took the biggest hit at running back with the departures of Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells, P.J. Hill, Tyrell Sutton and Kory Sheets, among others. There also were key losses on both lines (Mitch King, A.Q. Shipley, Aaron Maybin, Willie VanDeSteeg) and in the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Otis Wiley), though the quarterback crop returns mostly intact.

The league's lone head-coaching change was pre-planned, as Danny Hope takes over for Joe Tiller at Purdue. But several key assistants depart the league, creating some holes to fill.

Here's a look at five sets of shoes to fill before Sept. 5.

Big shoes: Iowa running back Shonn Greene

The replacement: Sophomore Jewel Hampton

All Greene did last fall was win the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back, set Iowa's single-season rushing record (1,850 yards) and eclipse 100 yards in all 13 games. As the team switched quarterbacks, identified playmakers at wide receiver and jelled up front, Greene was the constant. Hampton earned high marks as Greene's backup, rushing for 463 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman, but he'll take on a much bigger load this fall. The 5-9, 200-pound Hampton lacks Greene's brute strength and size, but he provides a different look for an Iowa offense that will always be based around the run game.

Big shoes: Penn State center A.Q. Shipley

The replacement: Junior Stefen Wisniewski

The defending Big Ten co-champs lose the undisputed leader of the league's best offensive line in Shipley, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center last year. Wisniewski started at guard in 2008, but he's expected to shift to center and replace Shipley in the heart of the Lions' line. Expectations will be high for Wisniewski, a talented junior whose father and uncle both were star offensive linemen for Penn State.

Big shoes: Michigan State running back Javon Ringer

The replacement(s): Senior A.J. Jimmerson, sophomores Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper

No running back in the country had a heavier load than Ringer last fall. He led the nation with 390 carries and tied for the national lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. Michigan State benefited from his tremendous durability, but the coaches didn't develop a reliable backup. The competition to replace Ringer features several young players, including two heralded incoming freshmen. The Spartans could use more of a committee system in 2009, blending speed (Anderson, Caper, Baker, Jimmerson) with size (Leggett). The freshmen should help the situation, but head coach Mark Dantonio wouldn't mind if Anderson, Jimmerson or Leggett emerged in spring ball.

Big shoes: Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley

The replacement: Mike Schultz

Not only was Locksley one of the best recruiters in the country, but he had a strong bond with quarterback Juice Williams, wide receiver Arrelious Benn and other key members of the Illinois offense. Despite a very disappointing 5-7 season, Illinois still led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense. Schultz comes from a program (TCU) known for defense, but his system produced several standout quarterbacks and running backs. He needs to gain Williams' trust right away and maintain the explosiveness Illinois featured at times last season. There also will be pressure for Schultz to bring in top high school players from Texas and other areas.

Big shoes: Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins

The replacement: Sophomore Chimdi Chekwa

Some will point to the oft-injured Wells or hyped linebacker James Laurinaitis as Ohio State's biggest losses, but Jenkins was the team's most consistent performer the last two seasons. Shutdown corners don't come around very often, and Jenkins' play-making skills helped him win the Thorpe Award last year. Chekwa beat out Donald Washington for a starting job in 2008 but will take on a greater load this fall as he'll be assigned to mark top opposing wideouts. He had an interception and four pass breakups last year.

Ringer works overtime for Spartans

September, 18, 2008
9/18/08
12:17
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 AP Photo/Al Goldis
 Javon Ringer has emerged as the top back in the Big Ten.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If Dan Enos wasn't a reliable source, you wouldn't believe him.

How could Michigan State's Javon Ringer possibly ask to come out of a game?

Ringer is becoming the Kevin Bacon of running backs, doing it all at a feverish pace for the Spartans in the first three games this season. The 5-foot-9, 202-pound senior already has 104 carries, 25 more than any other FBS running back. He leads the nation in both rushing touchdowns (9) and scoring (18 ppg), ranks third in rushing (166 ypg) and fourth in all-purpose yards (327.7 ypg). Plus, he returns kickoffs for the Spartans, averaging 22.2 yards per return.

Notre Dame is the next team to get a heavy dose of Ringer on Saturday at Spartan Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

"He's truly a workhorse," Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

Such a Herculean workload affords few respites, but Ringer sneaked one in last week against Florida Atlantic, a game in which he set career highs for carries (43) and rushing yards (282). After catching a screen pass in the fourth quarter that was nullified by a holding penalty, Ringer spotted Enos on the sideline.

"He looked over at me like, 'Coach, how bout this one?'" Enos said."He just kind of gave me that look. It was funny. So we got him out on that one. When he comes over, I'm like, 'Get some water. Catch your breath. Because you're not going to be standing here very long.'"

While backs on other Big Ten teams compete for carries, Ringer has the luxury -- or burden, depending on how you view it -- of knowing that he'll get the ball as much as he possibly can handle it. The Spartans have other runners available -- Andre Anderson, A.J. Jimmerson and Ashton Leggett, to name three -- but they don't hide their intention to feature Ringer.

"When you've got a guy with his ability," Enos said, "as many as times he's got the ball in his hands, we feel it makes us a better team."

(Read full post)

Big Ten internal affairs

September, 3, 2008
9/03/08
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Welcome to the first edition of internal affairs, which will take an inside look at five key developments around the Big Ten every Wednesday during the season.

Penn State -- Josh Gaines moved from defensive end to defensive tackle on several plays against Coastal Carolina and could continue to do so the rest of the season. It freed up Aaron Maybin (two sacks) for more pass-rushing opportunities, though Jerome Hayes got most of the playing time at Gaines' usual end spot. The Lions are a bit thin at tackle after the summer dismissals of Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, and the broken leg suffered by Devon Still. Gaines, the team's most experienced defensive lineman, collected four solo tackles in the opener.

Iowa -- Junior A.J. Edds is without a doubt Iowa's best linebacker, but his coaches are resisting the temptation to move him to the middle spot, where most top backers play. Edds says he can play all three linebacker positions but feels most comfortable on the strong side, where he can showcase his playmaking skills. "My natural home is the outside backer spot," said Edds, who recorded a safety and deflected a pass that led to an interception against Maine. "It's kind of a hybrid, playing on the D-line over a tight end a lot of the time, but you're also playing out there in coverage over some of the wide receivers. If the coaches didn't have faith in the other backers, I'm sure they would put me in the middle."

Indiana -- Mitchell Evans' days as a nomad appear over as the sophomore has found a home at wide receiver. Kellen Lewis' return from suspension and the decision to move Evans from quarterback to wideout is paying off already. As top receiver Ray Fisher battles a shoulder injury, Evans, a former safety, can step in and contribute. His size (6-3) and excellent hands give Indiana another option in the passing game. Also keep an eye on freshman Damarlo Belcher, who Lewis likens to a young James Hardy.

Michigan State -- The Spartans' depth on the defensive line and in the secondary helped produce lofty preseason expectations, but they're struggling to find capable bodies at running back and along the offensive line. Coach Mark Dantonio will use Javon Ringer as much as possible, but A.J. Jimmerson was held out of the Cal game and Ashton Leggett didn't touch the ball. Ringer is a horse, but he'll wear down fast if the Spartans don't find another back. The Spartans can't afford attrition up front, where Mike Bacon is listed as a possible starter at two positions (center and left guard).

Northwestern -- Don't be surprised to see junior offensive lineman Desmond Taylor in the starting lineup Saturday against Duke. Taylor has earned rave reviews throughout preseason camp and performed well in place of injured right tackle Kurt Mattes against Syracuse. Now Taylor could take Mattes' job or the one belonging to guard Joel Belding. Though Mattes and Belding are Northwestern's only two returning starters on the line, Taylor has plenty of experience and will see significant time at tackle or guard.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The first Big Ten teleconference is complete. Here are some notes from the call:

OHIO STATE

  • Defensive tackle Doug Worthington will play Saturday against Youngstown State but will not start the game, coach Jim Tressel said. Worthington was arrested last month for DUI and had a pretrial hearing continued on Monday. Worthington started 11 games last fall but will play behind senior Nader Abdallah. "Exactly how much he'll be playing, I don't know," Tressel said, "but he'll be suited up and ready to go."
  • Terrelle Pryor might be listed as Ohio State's third-team quarterback, but the gap between the heralded freshman and backup Joe Bauserman is negligible. "I wouldn't go so far as to say one is the third guy and one is the second guy," Tressel said. Expect Pryor to make his collegiate debut Saturday, and not only in mop-up time. "What we've done at the beginning of nearly every season is we've had multiple quarterbacks play in the first half," Tressel said. "I don't think we're looking at waiting till the end of games."

MICHIGAN STATE

  • The Spartans' Week 1 depth chart is out and there are some surprises at defensive end, where four potential starters are listed. Senior Brandon Long and Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Cincinnati, had been projected to start but could share time with fifth-year senior Dwayne Holmes and sophomore Colin Neely. I can't see any way Anderson doesn't become the full-time starter, but it's interesting that he hasn't been given the job yet.
  • Senior Kendell Davis-Clark will start at free safety as the Spartans are still without projected starter Roderick Jenrette, who recently was asked to leave the team to address personal matters. Davis-Clark moves over from cornerback, where he started 14 games during the last two seasons. Talented sophomore Chris L. Rucker will start in Davis-Clark's old spot, and players like Ashton Henderson provide depth. "We could play six corners right now," coach Mark Dantonio said, "so we felt like we could make that change and not suffer any problems."
  • Fifth-year senior Mike Bacon beat out redshirt freshman Joel Foreman for the starting spot at left guard.
  • Sophomore Mark Dell and redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham are listed as the starting wide receivers ahead of Blair White and Deon Curry. True freshman Keshawn Martin is listed as the third-stringer behind Cunningham, while classmate Fred Smith is fourth string behind Dell.
  • Safety Otis Wiley will handle punt returns. Backup running back A.J. Jimmerson and Davis-Clark are on kickoff returns as Michigan State tries to replace superstar Devin Thomas.

WISCONSIN

  • Star tight end Travis Beckum will dress for Saturday's game against Akron, but it's unclear whether he'll play because of a lingering hamstring injury.
  • Coach Bret Bielema said decision-making was never Allan Evridge's problem, but the quarterback had to learn to be more patient with his reads and progressions in the pocket. Evridge has made those adjustments to earn the Badgers' starting quarterback job. "Here's a guy who was so anxious to be The Guy, who put a lot on himself," Bielema said of Evridge, who started seven games for Kansas State in 2005. "We've calmed him down."
  • Bielema also is spearheading a proposal made by Big Ten coaches to implement an early signing day on the recruiting calendar. The date would be the first Wednesday after the last active recruiting weekend in December.

PURDUE

  • Jaycen Taylor's season-ending knee injury has put Purdue on notice to find a second option at running back to complement starter Kory Sheets. Four players are in the mix, but sophomore Dan Dierking could have the inside track after playing in all 13 games (starting one) last fall and racking up 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns. "We really felt like Sheets and Taylor would split playing time there," coach Joe Tiller said. "What we have to do from a management point of view is make sure we don't use Kory Sheets so much that he wears down."
  • Tiller said having a Week 1 bye might actually help Purdue given all the injuries it had in the spring and the uncertainty at running back and other spots. The Boilermakers' Big Ten bye fell in Week 4, but they had to play Notre Dame that week. Tiller said Purdue also won't have a normal bye week next season before getting one in 2010.
  • A secondary that has added Dwight Mclean and a healthy Torri Williams has impressed Tiller thus far in camp. "It might be the best-looking secondary that we've had since maybe 2001, something like that," he said. "I look for us to be much improved."

MICHIGAN

  • Coach Rich Rodriguez has been pleased with the progress of the wide receivers, who along with the running backs can pick up his offense a bit quicker than quarterbacks or linemen can. In addition to older players like Greg Mathews and LaTerryal Savoy, freshmen Martavious Odoms and Roy Roundtree have been impressive in practice. "We hope to have six or seven guys ready to play on Saturday," Rodriguez said.
  • Michigan can't afford any added confusion on offense, but Rodriguez isn't concerned about adjusting to the new clock rules this season. "We usually go at a pretty good tempo anyway," he said. "Conditioning is a bigger factor than it's ever been."

IOWA

  • The Hawkeyes' streak of 30 consecutive home sellouts is in jeopardy, which coach Kirk Ferentz attributes partly to economic impact of the floods that ravaged the state earlier this summer. "The challenges of our state are paramount to our challenges on Saturday," Ferentz said.
  • The coach added that he expects to announce
    Iowa's new player development coach in the next month. The position was added in response to a wave of off-field problems involving first-year Hawkeyes players.

NORTHWESTERN

  • Coach Pat Fitzgerald praised wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, the only true freshman on Northwestern's Week 1 depth chart. Ebert, a quarterback in high school, quickly stood out in preseason camp because he arrived in peak conditioning level, not usually seen among true freshmen.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue's media day begins later Thursday morning, and I'll be there to check in with Heisman candidate Curtis Painter, coach-in-waiting Danny Hope and the rest of the Boilers.

First, I give you the links on the other 10 teams. 

  • My appearance at Camp Rantoul made Bob Asmussen's daily practice recap in The [Champaign, Ill.] News-Gazette. Thanks, Bob. Much more newsworthy items include a note on Illinois center Ryan McDonald and the fact several projected starters will appear on special teams this fall. Zook's best recruits at Illinois have come from the Washington, D.C., area, but he's also going back to his Ohio roots for talent. No big secret here, but the 2008 season hinges heavily on quarterback Juice Williams.  
  • Forget about Iowa's history of bouncing back from bad seasons on and off the field. Want a reason to be optimistic about the Hawkeyes? Wide receiver Andy Brodell is back in the fold, Susan Harman writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Brodell is a difference-maker. Forbes magazine calls Iowa's Kirk Ferentz the worst value in college football, given his salary. I still think Iowa had to finalize Ferentz's contract at the time.
"The most overpaid coach is Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who made $3.4 million last year despite lackluster results on the field, for a score of 71. Just how lopsided is Ferentz's deal? During the last three years he's pocketed $10 million, including a record $4.7 million in 2006, but has led the Hawkeyes to just a 19-18 record."
  • Mitchell Evans came to Indiana with an open-minded attitude about where he'd play. The Hoosiers are putting that approach to the test by moving Evans to wide receiver, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. A couple of more previews on Indiana, which wants to get back to a bowl game and win it this time.
  • Rich Rodriguez might not be beloved on the practice field, but he also keeps his door open for his new players, the AP's Larry Lage writes. Nebraska's Bo Pelini isn't the only big-time coach looking to rebuild the walk-on program at his school. RichRod wants all the help he can get, John Heuser writes in The Ann Arbor News. 
  • Michigan State running back A.J. Jimmerson is no stranger to competition at his position, Chris Solari writes in the Lansing State Journal. A nationally televised opener at Cal gives the Spartans a chance to make an early statement, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press.
  • Running back is a big concern at Minnesota, but a healthy Jay Thomas should help matters, Myron Medcalf writes in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. Two years ago, Jeff Tow-Arnett and Adam Weber worked on the quarterback-center exchange as young scout teamers at Minnesota. Now they're in the spotlight as starters, Marcus Fuller writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times' Jim O'Donnell checks in from Camp Kenosha, where Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees his defense improving and his new-look offensive line coming together. The Wildcats' bowl hopes hinge heavily on senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, Jay Taft writes in the Rockford Register Star.
  • Despite two national title misses, Ohio State's coaches aren't concerning themselves with the past, Rob Oller writes in the Columbus Dispatch. Probably a good thing. Defensive tackle could be a weak spot for the Buckeyes, but defensive coordinator Jim Heacock likes what he has, The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog. Buckeyes center Jim Cordle could fool defenders at the line by snapping the ball with both hands, Ken Gordon writes in the Columbus Dispatch.
  • Tyrell Sales is filling some big shoes as Penn State's linebacker leader, Ron Musselman writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The starters look set in Penn State's secondary, but watch out for reserve safety Drew Astorino, The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News' Bob Flounders writes in his blog. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane has a rundown of the improvements at Beaver Stadium this fall.
  • Wisconsin cornerbacks Allen Langford and Aaron Henry have walked parallel paths following ACL surgery. Both men are back in the mix for starting jobs, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Defensive end O'Brien Schofield, a projected starter opposite Matt Shaughnessy, will miss 1-2 weeks of practice after suffering an ankle injury. End Kirk DeCremer remained out of both Wednesday practices, while quarterback Allan Evridge could return today, Potrykus writes in the Badgers Blog.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- I just got back from watching Michigan State's practice and touring the new $15.5 million Skandalaris Football Center, a very impressive facility that officially opens Aug. 21.

Here are some items of note from each one:

PRACTICE

  • Media were allowed to view the first seven periods of Tuesday's practice, which consisted mainly of special teams and individual drills. Unlike Michigan, which piped in Motown tracks on Monday, the Spartans' music selection varied from Stevie Wonder's "Very Superstitious" to some rock song I couldn't recognize. Jay-Z apparently was featured on Monday.
  • Ryan Allison's position journey has brought him to weak-side linebacker, where he's a primary candidate to start. Allison came to Michigan State as a wide receiver and appeared in nine games as a freshman before starting two contests his sophomore year. He moved to safety during Champs Sports Bowl practice before switching to linebacker this spring.
He's competing with junior Brandon Denson for the top job.
"He had a great offseason," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "Wait till you see what he looks like. He put on about 20 pounds. So I'd say he has a sense of urgency, may have the upper hand as far as maturity goes."
  • Freshman wide receiver Fred Smith looks physically ready to compete for playing time right away. He's listed at 6-2 and 218 pounds and seemed every bit that big as he worked out with the wideouts Tuesday. Several Michigan State beat writers I spoke with said the coaches are also high on another freshman wideout, Keshawn Martin, a sparsely recruited speedster from Inkster, Mich.
  • I tried to get a glimpse of the running backs to see who would complement Javon Ringer in the backfield. Junior A.J. Jimmerson was getting reps as the second-team back and also completed a halfback option pass. There's also some buzz about redshirt freshman Andre Anderson.
  • When Mark Dantonio came over to say hello to me, I was surprised to see a piece of tape across his chest with the words "Coach Dantonio." Does the head coach really need a name tag? Evidently, everyone does at Michigan State, and Dantonio is making no exceptions for himself. A team official told me Dantonio was writing several players' names on their helmets with a Sharpie at Monday's practice.
  • Place-kicker Brett Swenson was getting razzed about his light blue shoes, which looked like they belonged to a North Carolina player. Swenson colored over the blue with green, but you could still tell. Kickers.
  • Dantonio spent the latter part of the viewing period working with the safeties.
  • Several players rotated on punt returns, including freshman running back Caulton Ray.

SKANDALARIS FOOTBALL CENTER

  • As expected, this place is a major upgrade for the Spartans, who had their offices in trailers before moving in recently. The lobby includes several displays highlighting team history, including panels featuring Michigan State players that won national awards. Butkus Award winner Percy Snow and Outland Trophy winner Ed Bagdon are among the players featured.
  • A display honoring Michigan State's two outright national championships will also be placed in the lobby.
  • Two of my favorite touches were the main elevator, which is in the shape of the football, and hashmarks in 5-yard increments that line the building's hallway.
  • The hallway contains displays honoring Michigan State's College Football Hall of Famers, first-team All-Americans and all-time NFL roster. A picture of former Spartans wideout Plaxico Burress catching the Super Bowl-winning touchdown and hoisting the championship trophy is prominently displayed.
  • The main meeting room is bisected by an aisle with a divider above, so coaches can meet with the entire team, then split up into offense and defense before breaking off into position meetings. The setup should save a ton of time. The smaller meeting rooms for players and coaches also looked first-rate.
  • Dantonio's corner office has an impressive view of campus, including Spartan Stadium, the Breslin Center and several practice fields.

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