Big Ten: Aaron Curry
The Cornhuskers will scrimmage, but instead of breaking into two teams, they’ll pit the No. 1 offense against the top defense, the No. 2 offense and the No. 2 defense, and so forth. The offensive and defensive units will be awarded points for good plays.
“I’ve never done this format before,” the seventh-year Nebraska coach said, “but I think it makes a lot of sense, obviously, for where we are as a football team right now.
“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to function and really be able to protect certain guys that we want to protect. Trying to field two teams wouldn’t happen right now. We don’t want to put kids in position to get hurt.”
A breakdown of the scoring system will be posted on scoreboards in the stadium and perhaps distributed to fans on a flyer, Pelini said.
Nearly 50,000 tickets have been sold. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT.
Pelini said the Huskers would run approximately 100 plays in the scrimmage, which will be telecast by the Big Ten Network on tape delay. Don’t expect to see anything too innovative.
“We’re not going to put that on display for everybody to see,” he said, “so it’ll be a little more basic than what we’ve done (in practice), really, on both sides of the football.”
I-back Ameer Abdullah, the nation's top returning rusher, and defensive end Randy Gregory, another first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2013, likely won’t see much action.
The Huskers won’t hit quarterbacks in the pocket. If they run free, they can be tackled. Cut blocking by offensive linemen is also out.
Pelini said he was pleased with the Huskers’ work on Wednesday in their final practice of the spring before the celebrated finale on Saturday.
“I thought the last two days were really good practices for us,” he said. “I thought it went back and forth a lot. I thought the competition was good.
“We went into this spring planning to lay a foundation for the fall. I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve identified a lot of guys. I think we’ve identified areas that we need to grow. I think we’ve identified areas where I feel like we’re pretty strong. We learned a lot. We, as the coaches, learned a lot about our football team.”
Also from Wednesday:
- Defensive tackle Aaron Curry, who suffered a neck sprain on Monday in practice, will not participate on Saturday. Linebacker Marcus Newby hurt his back on Wednesday, though Pelini said he expected Newby to return for the final workout of the spring.
- Nebraska gained notice nationally a year ago in the Red-White game by involving 7-year-old brain-cancer patient Jack Hoffman in the festivities. Dressed in full uniform, Jack scored on a 69-yard run in the second half. In July, he won an ESPY award for best moment. Asked if the Huskers had any unorthodox plans for Saturday, Pelini offered a tease. “We have a couple things that we’re going to throw out there and have a little fun,” he said. “But we don’t want to lose sight of why we’re there -- to get better as a football team and execute. At the same time, we want to make sure it’s fun for the fans.”
- Two years ago, the spring game at Nebraska was canceled because of severe weather. The Saturday forecast calls for a high temperature near 80 degrees and a chance of thunderstorms. If problems surface, Pelini joked that he would just place a call to Tom Osborne, the legendary former Nebraska coach and athletic director. “He can part the skies,” Pelini said, “and we should be good to go.”
Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.
Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)
Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.
Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."
Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.
The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.
Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.
The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).
After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.
The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.
Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.
The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.
Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.
The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.
In particular, tackles Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice and Aaron Curry matured in 2013 as the air turned cool in November.
Improvement among the interior linemen has continued this spring. The Huskers are off this week for spring break. Practice resumes on Monday, building to the April 12 Red-White game at Memorial Stadium.
“You’re just talking about a group across the board, end to end, who are way ahead of where they were, obviously, during the season last year,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I think they’re a lot more comfortable.”
The emergence, in particular, of Valentine, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound sophomore, and the 6-2, 300-pound Collins is evident in spring workouts.
And the presence of Maurice, who, like Collins, played last fall as a true freshman, plus juniors Curry and Kevin Williams eases concern about depth on the defensive line in 2014.
Yes, the Huskers are thin on the edge, with All-America candidate Randy Gregory in charge, but they ought to be stout in the middle.
Valentine progressed perhaps the most of any interior lineman last fall as a redshirt freshman out of Edwardsville, Ill. He collected eight tackles in the final two games of the regular season against Penn State and Iowa.
The strong finish boosted Valentine’s confidence, he said. This spring, he said, he’s working to develop into a big-play defender.
“There were a couple times I showed it out there on the field last year,” Valentine said.
He enjoys a healthy competition with the other linemen. Last week, they discussed in a meeting who would lead the Huskers in sacks next season. It seems Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition last season for collecting 10 ½ sacks, should rank as a runaway favorite.
But Valentine won’t concede anything. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski encourages the competition, Valentine said.
“He wants us to have the mentality that we’re going to go out there and get the sack,” Valentine said.
Kaczenski, entering his third season at Nebraska after a five-year stint at Iowa, uses the success of former pupils to motivate the young Huskers.
According to Collins, Kaczenski constantly references his 2010 Iowa group in film study and in conversation. Adrian Clayborn earned All-America honors that season. Christian Ballard and Karl Klug also figured prominently in the Hawkeyes’ success up front.
“It’s just how they practiced and how they played,” Collins said.
Collins received praise from Pelini this spring. During the opening eight practice sessions, Nebraska shifted him along the line from tackle to end. The moves were made out of necessity as teammates missed practice time. Don’t expect Collins to play extensively at end in the fall, though if it’s required, Pelini said he wouldn’t hesitate.
“Maliek has great quickness and agility, change of direction for a big guy,” Pelini said. “And he’s got the power to go with it. He’s got all the tools.”
In some ways, Pelini said, Collins reminds him of a young Glenn Dorsey, whom the seventh-year Nebraska coached tutored at LSU. Dorsey, the 2007 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, also won the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, under Pelini.
“That’s high praise,” Pelini said, “but I think he’s got that kind of upside if he continues on his progress.”
Collins said he appreciates the compliment and that he’s aware of the gravity of Pelini’s words. Dorsey, a first-round NFL draft pick of the Chiefs in 2008, played in Kansas City for five seasons as Collins watched closely.
“That’s a dominant force, man,” Collins said. “It makes me want to keep working, to want to keep being coachable.”
Motivation runs high among the Nebraska defensive linemen, set to make an impact in 2014 that grabs attention regardless of happenings elsewhere on the field.
Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.
Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.
Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.
Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.
Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.
Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.
Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.
Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.
Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.
Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.
Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.
Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.
Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.
Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
- Penn State's quarterback battle is drawing near its conclusion, though Bill O'Brien says it's still very even. True freshman tight end Adam Breneman will play this season.
- Wisconsin coaches are debating whether to use a pair of talented freshman linebackers now or redshirt them. Defense dominated a Badgers scrimmage, so much so that Gary Andersen called out the offense. Jim Delany was impressed by Wisconsin's updated facilities.
- Analyzing the competition at cornerback for Nebraska. Defensive lineman Avery Moss had his indecency case continued. Aaron Curry is focused on getting better in a heated defensive tackle competition.
- Shoulder surgery will likely end the career of Ohio State's Adam Griffin. The Buckeyes' defensive linemen don't act like freshmen. A closer look at freshman safety Vonn Bell.
- The pressure is on Michigan's defensive line to get more sacks. James Ross played on instinct last year but is striving for perfection this season at linebacker.
- Loren Tate tries to get at the root of the problem for Illinois football. Some Illini camp updates.
- Purdue's Jordan Roos likes to eat and could help the offensive line be more physical. Notes from the Boilers practice on Thursday. USA Today makes a camp stop in West Lafayette.
- Michigan State's Micajah Reynolds was instrumental in saving a shooting victim's life, police say. Andrew Maxwell continues to look like the Spartans' starting quarterback. MSU's receivers have played well so far in camp.
- Minnesota's Jon Christenson has given up social media and is concentrating on playing center. The Gophers feel good about their progress. The offense is ahead of the defense right now for Jerry Kill's team.
- Tyler Scott is now the veteran mainstay on the Northwestern defensive line. Ifeadi Odenigbo benefited from redshirting last year.
- A preview of Iowa's opening opponent, Northern Illinois. A Hawkeyes season preview.
- Linebacker Flo Hardin could be a key part of Indiana's defense (subscription required). The defensive line must improve for the Hoosiers to move forward.
Coach: Bo Pelini (49-20, fifth season)
2012 record: 10-4 (7-1 Big Ten)
Key losses: RB Rex Burkhead, LB Will Compton, DE Eric Martin, DE Cameron Meredith, S Daimion Stafford, TE Kyler Reed, K/P Brett Maher
Key returners: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell, OG Spencer Long, DB Ciante Evans, OT Jeremiah Sirles, DE Jason Ankrah, WR Jamal Turner
Biggest games in 2013: Nebraska has it relatively easy in September and October, aside from a visit from UCLA on Sept. 14. The first three weeks of November will decide the Huskers' season and likely the Legends Division, as they open the month with Northwestern at home before going to Michigan and then hosting Michigan State.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Defense, defense, defense. The Huskers got steamrolled in losses at UCLA, at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, allowing 214 points combined in those defeats. Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis have an extremely young defensive front seven and must replace both starting safeties. The coaching staff is optimistic that the defense will be much more athletic, especially on the perimeter and at linebacker, and that that improved speed will make up for some youthful mistakes. But there are only a handful of proven players, and the defensive line in particular must take a step forward.
Forecast: The expectation at Nebraska is that the team wins championships, and it has been a long 13 years in Lincoln without so much as a conference title.
The Huskers have come close under Pelini, and they played in the Big Ten championship game last season (though saying they actually competed in that game -- a 70-31 Wisconsin whitewash -- might be too kind). They will be one of the top contenders again in the Legends Division this year, but they'll need a young defense to rise up if they're going to clear that last hurdle.
The good news is that Pelini doesn't need his defense to be a top-10 national unit. That's because the offense, which averaged 34.8 points per game and led the Big Ten in total yards in 2012, returns most of its key pieces, including senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, 1,100-yard back Ameer Abdullah, a deep receiving corps led by Kenny Bell and an experienced offensive line captained by All-American guard Spencer Long. Turnovers have been a problem for Martinez and the offense as a whole, but ball security was an area they emphasized heavily in the spring.
"I wouldn't trade our offense for anybody's," Pelini said at Big Ten media days. "I really like what we're doing."
With that high-powered attack, the Huskers just need their defense to play respectably, especially in the big games away from home where things have been very shaky the past two years. Luckily, Nebraska gets its first five games at home, plus two byes in the first eight weeks of the season. That should help young players, like linebackers David Santos and Jared Afalava and defensive linemen Avery Moss, Aaron Curry and Greg McMullen, gain some early confidence.
That schedule should allow the Huskers to come roaring out of the gate. If they can handle UCLA at home, the team has a great chance of being 7-0 by the time that key November stretch arrives. Pelini's team should once again be right in the thick of the conference race. Nebraska still needs to prove it can separate itself from the pack.
The Blackshirts finished fourth nationally in pass defense and ninth in pass efficiency defense in 2012, but they struggled against the run (90th nationally) and hemorrhaged points in Nebraska's four losses, surrendering 63 to Ohio State, 70 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and 45 to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska must replace all three starting linebackers and its top pass-rusher, Eric Martin, among others. The Huskers return an experienced secondary led by nickelback Ciante Evans.
ESPN.com caught up with Papuchis earlier this month to discuss the state of the Nebraska defense.
After looking at the unit during spring practices, what were some of your big takeaways from their performance?
John Papuchis: That's an interesting question because what I've been doing the last couple weeks is going back and looking at our spring cutups. One thing that jumped out to me, after having a little bit of time away from it, was that we improved pretty significantly and steadily as the spring went on. From the first practice to the 14th practice leading up to the spring game, we were much crisper in our alignments and understanding our assignments, we played faster. There was just a lot of development that took place over the course of those 14 practices. We're a young group, and we're going to need all 29 practices before we kick it off against Wyoming.
JP: Each position group has its own learning curve. Defensive line, we are relatively young, so for a lot of those guys, it was their first opportunity to really get coached. Where I saw the improvement had more to do with technique than it ever had to do with scheme. They had a pretty good feel of the scheme; it's a little bit simpler in terms of what they're asked to execute. Linebacker, another young group, and where I really saw their improvement was just better understanding of alignment and where they fit in the run game and the pass game. And then in the secondary, where we are a little bit more mature, Ciante Evans, Stanley Baptiste, Mo Seisay, Harvey Jackson, Corey Cooper, where I really saw those guys make a jump is just a better feel of the nuances of the defense. They were kind of a little bit ahead, the linebackers and D-line, and they showed improvement as spring went on, but it was kind of Level 2 and Level 3 improvement, as opposed to just the basics.
Who do you look for to be leaders up front and with the linebackers, and how much competition do you anticipate with those groups?
JP: There's going to be a ton of competition, and that's going to be a good thing for us. Really since I've been here, the way things have fallen, a lot of times going into camp, you have a pretty good idea of who your core guys are going to be. And although we have an idea right now, there are some spots that need to be ironed out. In terms of leadership, Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle across the front. Both of those guys are fifth-year seniors and have been in the program a long time. Jason has started and played a lot of games for us. Thad has been a little nicked up the last two years. But both of them have done a nice job of being leaders through the offseason.
Linebacker, we're young, but the one guy who has some pretty good playing experience is David Santos. He's done a good job of taking that leadership role. And another guy who has been in the program for a while and has played on special teams, and has always been one play away from having a more significant role is Trevor Roach. He's done a nice job of being a leader and more of a veteran guy with that group.
That has been arguably the conference's deepest and strongest position in the past two years, filled with stars like Devon Still, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Jordan Hill, Kawann Short and Johnathan Hankins, to name a few. In an otherwise slow NFL draft for the league, the Big Ten saw four defensive tackles get selected last month, including two underclassmen (Hankins and Akeem Spence). In 2012, the conference had five defensive tackles get drafted.
That's why it's notable that, heading into the 2013 season, the Big Ten has no established stars on the defensive interior. Several schools lost top players to either graduation or the draft, including Ohio State (both starters, Hankins and Garrett Goebel are gone), Penn State (Hill), Purdue (Short), Michigan (Will Campbell), Indiana (Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr.), Illinois (Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster), Nebraska (Baker Steinkuhler), Northwestern (Brian Arnfelt) and Michigan State (Anthony Rashad White).
That's a big talent drain for one position. None of the returning defensive tackles in the league have ever made first- or second-team All-Big Ten. The top veteran tackles in the conference look like this (in alphabetical order):
- Beau Allen, Wisconsin, senior: An underrated player, the 330-pound Allen has what you'd call a low center of gravity, with calves that look like a normal man's thighs. He's a big reason why the Badgers were able to keep teams from running the ball effectively up the middle last year.
- Bruce Gaston, Purdue, senior: Overshadowed at times by Short, Gaston has the ability to disrupt things up front as well and will be asked to do more this season. He was slowed by injuries last year.
- Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota, senior: As athletically gifted as any Big Ten D-tackle, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Hageman started to figure things out last season and had a strong spring. He looks like a guy who can take his game to the elite level if he stays focused and driven.
- DaQuan Jones, Penn State, senior: The 330-pounder is hoping to break out as a senior the way Hill and Devon Still did the past two years. He's been more of a run-stopper than a big-time playmaker so far in his career.
- Quinton Washington, Michigan, senior: He moved into a starter's role last year and will be the most experienced tackle on the Wolverines following Campbell's graduation. With the Michigan coaching staff's expertise on defensive line play, he could take a step forward this year.
All of those guys have been solid contributors, but hardly superstars. They're also all seniors, so maybe they'll go out with a bang.
Or maybe it's younger guys who emerge as the next wave of great Big Ten defensive tackles. Iowa's Carl Davis had a huge spring game and has always had talent but not health. Injuries have also held back Nebraska's Thad Randle and Ohio State's Michael Bennett. Michigan State's Lawrence Thomas, Michigan's Ondre Pipkins, Nebraska's Aaron Curry and Penn State's Austin Johnson could be on the rise. Recruiting and developing stud defensive tackles may be one of the hardest things to do in football, however.
On paper, the Big Ten defensive tackle situation looks to be down from the past couple of years. But new stars are sure to step forward in the fall. Several of them will have to do if the league's recent strong tradition at the position is to continue.
Santos is a redshirt sophomore linebacker with one career start under his belt. Yet this spring, he was the guy many of the other Huskers linebackers were turning to for answers.
"It's kind of strange," he said. "This is only my second year, and a lot of guys helped me out last year. Now I guess I'm the veteran in the room. I don't feel old."
So, even though Santos is still young and Ankrah is hardly a household name, both players are being asked to lead this spring and summer.
"It's been cool," Ankrah said. "I've always had somebody older than me be the vocal guy who takes control when things go wrong, and now I'm taking on that leadership. I've had some film sessions with [the other defensive linemen] one-on-one and a couple as a group. They'll ask me how to play a certain technique and other stuff."
Ankrah doesn't just want to lead with his words. The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has shown glimpses of his ability, with six tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and two forced fumbles as a junior. He's eyeing the same kind of breakout senior season that Eric Martin had in 2012.
"I've been out there and I've been playing," he said. "Now, I want to be out there to make plays and change games."
Ankrah had to move down and play defensive tackle some last year as injuries hit the line. With a more set role this season and a little more freedom to get after opposing quarterbacks, he could flourish.
"Jason has played a lot of football for us the last three years, and there have been times when he's played really well," Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "But he feels like there's so much more in his game, and he knows he hasn't reached his potential yet. We want him to go out and have that hunger to have a great year, and I think he's set himself up to have a pretty good senior year."
The Huskers have been expecting good things out of Santos, an athletic linebacker who recorded 10 tackles in his lone start last season against Michigan. He played mostly weakside linebacker last season, but spent the bulk of the spring at the middle spot, where he helped instruct the young players around him on where to lineup. An arm injury near the end of spring practice kept Santos out of the spring game, but he's expected to be back for summer workout.
"He's pretty good at taking command of the guys and at making the calls," Papuchis said. "He's a bit ahead in terms of development from the other guys, and that means we're going to put more responsibility on him."
That responsibility includes not only learning a new position and adjusting to a full-time starting role, but also leading everyone else.
"I can't get lackadaisical, because I want to get to the next level," he said. "But while I'm doing that, I've got to help the young guys little bit."
Santos should get a little help in the leadership department when redshirt junior Zaire Anderson gets healthy. With Anderson at the weakside spot and Santos in the middle, Papuchis likes the speed his linebackers have. Redshirt freshman Jared Afalava drew rave reviews for his spring performance, and could step in at the strongside spot.
The defensive line is more of a mystery, though Papuchis liked what he saw this spring out of guys like Greg McMullen, Avery Moss and Aaron Curry. He thinks Thad Randle can be a force inside if Randle can ever stay healthy, and highly touted junior college defensive end Randy Gregory is coming. The Nebraska defense showed during the spring game that it has a long way to go, but there is some athleticism to work with.
"The one thing about them is they can all run, and that makes up for some inexperience," Papuchis said. "If our guys play hard and they run to the ball and be physical, I think we'll be a pretty good defense."
And Santos and Ankrah will need to lead the way for the front seven.
Joe J. from Tipp City, Ohio, writes: Will Tyler O'Connor or Connor Cook replace Andrew Maxwell as the starting QB for MSU?
Brian Bennett: Well, that's kind of the story of the offseason for the Spartans, isn't it? Adam was at Michigan State last week, where not much has been decided yet. All three quarterbacks are getting looks with the first team this spring, and Mark Dantonio is putting the pressure on the candidates by allowing the defense to hit them during practice. I don't think anyone knows for sure how this is going to play out. Maxwell still has a big, big edge in game experience, though Cook gained some momentum in the bowl game. O'Connor and incoming freshman Damion Terry present intriguing options with their athleticism and running ability. I find the idea of a two-quarterback system very interesting and perhaps the way to go. A bold prediction: Maxwell begins the year as the starter, but he's not the only quarterback who starts a game this year for Michigan State.
Jeff from Whitewater, Wis., writes: With the videos I've seen this winter/spring about the Badgers, I feel like the players are very comfortable with Gary Andersen. That being said: do you think that this transition will be a lot better than last year's? Even though they had to replace more as a coaching staff?
Brian Bennett: We won't really know, of course, until we see it. But I've got a feeling the transition could go more smoothly, even with completely new systems on both sides of the ball. I have two reasons for that assumption. No. 1, I think Andersen really relates well to the players, and everything I've heard out of Madison is that the players have really responded to him. And No. 2, which might be even more important, is that the Wisconsin players should be more accepting of change now. When you have the same head coach and virtually the same systems but different position coaches with different ideas of how to do things, I think that can cause some confusion and resistance. Now, the Badgers know that it's basically a clean slate and an entirely different way of doing things, and they have no choice but to get with the new program. Sometimes it's hard for players to accept change after they've had a lot of success, but I think the Badgers are used to that by now. We shall see.
Zach T. from Lincoln, Neb., writes: I am absolutely sick about hearing how everything in the SEC is better than the other conferences. The SEC brags about 7 consecutive national championships when a middle of the pack Big 12 team comes into their league and drops 400 yards of offense on their unstoppable defense. Two 4/5-loss Big Ten teams play close games against 2-loss SEC teams that could have gone either way while the league's best team is home for the holidays and Wisconsin is 6-points behind Stanford despite their HC bolting for the door. Also since the Huskers' spring game is Saturday I feel like I have to ask: With much of the offense returning, who would you watch the most to step up and make plays on defense? GBR!!
Brian Bennett: I agree that the SEC love-fest is over the top, but until somebody beats them when it matters, it won't stop anytime soon. That's the unfortunate reality. I didn't get to your question before the Huskers spring game, where defensive playmakers were a little hard to find. But I can tell you from talking to defensive coordinator John Papuchis that the guys he likes that we haven't heard a whole lot from before include: defensive linemen Greg McMullen, Avery Moss and Aaron Curry, linebackers David Santos and Zaire Anderson, safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Josh Mitchell. He also thinks Thad Randle can be a force on the defensive line if Randle can just get healthy. Papuchis also acknowledges that more playmakers have to develop for the defense to succeed.
JT from Newark, Del., writes: With the recent events at Rutgers and Auburn, what do you think the NCAA will do in terms of investigation? As a lifelong Penn State fan, I can't help but think the NCAA would be incredibly hypocritical if they didn't impose some penalty on both schools, especially considering both incidents are directly related to the student athletes.
Brian Bennett: The Auburn situation is way more likely to get the NCAA's attention, as accusations of abusive treatment of players by a coach has never seemed to be on the NCAA's radar. Rutgers broke no NCAA rules that I am aware of. Of course, the NCAA has also not shown a lot of interest in pursuing Auburn despite some pretty inflammatory accusations in the past few years. But you make a good point about the Penn State case. Mark Emmert's actions there created a precedent for the NCAA to A) punish a school without doing its own investigation and B) issue major sanctions for administrative missteps that did not break specific rules. As a Penn State fan, you're justified in asking why the NCAA would do that for one school but not others.
Rich from Des Moines writes: Way back on last Monday's mail you answered a question about conference loyalty and how there seems to be less among Big Ten fans than SEC fans. I get the same sense. And I want to weigh in as a Michigan State alumnus. I will never, ever root for Michigan to win anything. The rest of the conference? I want them to win all their non-conference games. But, I wish Michigan would lose every game in every sport in perpetuity. I grew up a Buckeye fan (Dad graduated from there). I wanted badly for OSU to beat UM when they played. But, I rooted for Michigan out of conference, especially the Rose Bowl and the NCAA tournament, for the sake of conference pride. That changed when I went to MSU in the Fall of 1984. I lived in Michigan from 1976 to 1995. Michigan fans treat MSU with contempt and disrespect. Most of the media favored UM and treated MSU as a joke or a glorified MAC team. I understand why. Michigan has a better tradition of winning. But when MSU would break through and win, especially in football, it was never that MSU was better. It was ALWAYS because Michigan played below par or gave the game away.
Brian Bennett: Some interesting points, and of course it's much harder to root for your conference brethren when they're also your biggest rival and you have live next to their fans 365 days a year. So I have to ask all of you non-Michigan fans, especially Michigan State and Ohio State supporters: Will you be pulling for the Wolverines tonight? Or does conference pride only go so far?
Just a redshirt freshman, Rome made two starts and saw action in 10 games. He started the first two games this fall alongside veteran DT Baker Steinkuhler.
But Rome's future with Nebraska is in doubt after coach Bo Pelini announced Wednesday that Rome has left the program. Pelini said Rome's "personal goals and personal perception of where he should be on this football team doesn't match the team goals." Rome won't be with the Huskers for the "foreseeable future," Pelini said, and Pelini will make an announcement when Rome's status is finalized.
Rome played sparingly in Nebraska's 36-30 loss to UCLA last Saturday as freshmen Kevin Williams and Aaron Curry saw increased field time. Todd Peat Jr. also could be in the mix. Although Rome's departure leaves the Huskers with only two veteran options on the interior line -- Steinkuhler and Thad Randle -- line coach Rick Kaczenski doesn't sound too concerned.
From the Lincoln Journal Star:
"I don’t think it affects anybody," the coach said. "You look at last week [at UCLA], Thad Randle played 31 plays. Kevin Williams played 43 plays. Aaron Curry got in there and he's going to continue to play more. We've been trying to get him on the field more and more."
Nebraska returns to the field Saturday against Arkansas State.
There were a few surprises in the Big Ten on national signing day, but things went mostly as expected. That meant banner days in Columbus and Ann Arbor, as Ohio State and Michigan brought home what every analyst agrees were the league's top two classes. But final judgments on these recruiting efforts won't be passed until a few years from now, when the blue-chippers and the under-the-radar guys prove themselves on the field.
For now, though, we look back and hand out some awards for the Big Ten's big recruiting day:
Top class: Ohio State
Michigan put together a terrific crew, too, but the Buckeyes take top honors. Urban Meyer secured the services of five ESPNU 150 players and 12 prospects rated at least four stars by ESPN. It's a class loaded with potential stars on the defensive and offensive lines, which should form the foundation of Meyer's program. Ohio State got pledges from six players who were originally committed to another Big Ten school, meaning Meyer weakened other teams while strengthening his own. Add in the fact that he got a late start on recruiting after his November hire, and this looks like one of the more impressive efforts in recent league history.
Player you'll see next season: Michigan LB Joe Bolden
In our recruiting roundtable discussion on Tuesday, all three ESPN.com experts picked Bolden as someone who could make an immediate impact. While Bolden just made the cut for the ESPNU 150, checking in at No. 142, he's got excellent size (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) and instincts for the game already. And Michigan will likely have playing time available as it searches for more playmakers at the linebacker spot.
Biggest surprise: Nebraska missing out on Andrus Peat
While the Huskers were never a lock to land this Top 10 overall prospect, Nebraska fans felt good about their chances with the star offensive tackle. Understandably so, since his older brother, Todd, is a defensive lineman for Bo Pelini. But the younger Peat went his own way and chose Stanford, a choice that would have seemed inconceivable 10 years ago. Nebraska still had a good signing day as defensive tackle Aaron Curry and athlete Alonzo Moore made last-minute choices to come to Lincoln. But Peat was the one who got away.
Wildest signing day: Iowa
There were few dull moments for Iowa on signing day. The Hawkeyes made some late offers and made some late additions like wide receiver George Kittle, whose father, Bruce, played offensive line at Iowa. There was also buzz about defensive back Dinero Moss switching his commitment from Minnesota to Iowa, and offensive line target Alex Kozan didn't show up at a signing day ceremony at his high school. Another recruiting target said Iowa didn't have a scholarship for him after telling him not to worry. What a day in Hawkeye Country.
Future award winner: Ohio State DE Noah Spence
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Spence was rated as the No. 4 overall prospect in this class by ESPN.com and was the only five-star recruit to sign with a Big Ten school. He'll have a lot of competition on a now-stacked defensive line in Columbus, but Spence has all the tools to be a future star as an athletic pass-rusher for the Buckeyes.
Program on the rise: Minnesota
We're not predicting Big Ten titles in the Gophers' immediate future, but there's little question that second-year coach Jerry Kill has improved the overall talent and depth of his roster with his first full recruiting class. Minnesota needed offensive playmakers and appears to have addressed that with receivers Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald. Four of the team's six junior-college transfers should provide some immediate help to a defense in desperate need of bodies. Kill might have found his quarterback of the future with in-state star Philip Nelson and a potential offensive line anchor in blue-chipper Isaac Hayes. This 31-man class won't rocket the Gophers to the top of the Legends Division, but it should lead to better things than 3-win seasons.
Big-splash recruit: Northwestern LB Ifeadi Odenigbo
Northwestern has landed some solid offensive recruits in recent years, but Pat Fitzgerald hadn't made a big splash on the defensive side until now. Odenigbo is an ESPNU 150 prospect who brings speed and play-making ability to the edge, where Northwestern needs a lot of help in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The Wildcats need some game-changers on defense to take the next step, and Odenigbo helps in the process.
- Michigan got a nice surprise Wednesday morning as running back Dennis Norfleet signed with the Wolverines. Norfleet, a Detroit native, had committed to Cincinnati but made the switch after receiving an offer from Michigan last week. "I've been going to Michigan for four years in a row and I still hadn't heard anything," Norfleet told the Detroit Free Press. "For it to come this way, at this time at the beginning of the signing date is a really crazy situation."
- Ohio State's class is already loaded with pass-rushers and edge players, and you can add one more to the mix as Jamal Marcus signed with the Buckeyes. Marcus, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker/defensive end from North Carolina, joins a group of defensive ends and linebackers that coach Urban Meyer is calling the strength of the class. It'll be interesting to see how Ohio State manages its scholarship situation, as the team needs to have no more than 82 scholarships by August.
- It could be a very big day for Nebraska, and the Huskers are off to a good start as defensive tackle Aaron Curry picked the Huskers over Iowa. Athlete Alonzo Moore soon followed by signing with Nebraska. Several other big prospects could pick Nebraska by day's end.
- Cornerback Dinero Moss added some spice to the Iowa-Minnesota rivalry today. He had been committed to Minnesota but switched to Iowa at the last minute, announcing his selection on Twitter.
Much more to come throughout the day.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Ohio State senior linebacker James Laurinaitis, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, has been named one of four finalists for the Lott Trophy. Laurinaitis joins Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo, Florida State safety Myron Rolle and Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry on the list of finalists.
The Lott Trophy honors the defensive impact player of the year and recognizes a player's character attributes in addition to his athletic achievements.
"He's a talented yet humble young man who brings enormous credit to the game of college football," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said of Laurinaitis. "He represents Ohio State with poise and class."
Laurinaitis led Ohio State and ranked second in the Big Ten with 121 tackles this season.
The Lott Trophy winner will be announced Dec. 14 in Newport Beach, Calif.