Big Ten: Aaron Gress
As a reminder, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for the 2011 and/or the 2012 seasons.
Linebacker: Martez Wilson's early departure to the NFL leaves a void at middle linebacker, and Illinois also says goodbye to playmaker Nate Bussey and reserve Aaron Gress. Ian Thomas comes back and Jonathan Brown showed a spark, but Illinois has to rebuild some depth in its defensive midsection.
Wide receiver: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to run the ball, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showed in the Insight Bowl that he can be an effective passer. A.J. Jenkins returns to serve as Scheelhaase's No. 1 option in 2011, but Illinois needs other pass-catching options to emerge.
Quarterback: The Illini have lost two scholarship quarterbacks (Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer) in each of the past two seasons, creating a depth issue behind Scheelhaase. Given Scheelhaase's style of play, Illinois needs other options under center and must address this position with this class.
Secondary: The Hoosiers simply haven't had enough Big Ten-ready defensive backs in recent seasons. This might be a recruiting need for several years as Indiana has to begin building a talent base in the secondary.
Quarterback: Kevin Wilson has done wonders with quarterbacks at his previous coaching spots, but he needs talented players who can flourish in his system. Ben Chappell's departure leaves Indiana with no proven options at quarterback. Although the Hoosiers bring back all of their reserves, they should keep looking for the right answer under center.
Wide receiver: All-Big Ten receiver Dane Sanzenbacher departs, and DeVier Posey is suspended for the first five games of 2011, pending appeal. Ohio State hasn't developed much depth at wideout in recent seasons, and a capable freshman could put himself into the mix.
Quarterback: Ohio State needs someone to take the snaps during Terrelle Pryor's suspension, and it's unknown whether Joe Bauserman or Kenny Guiton will be the answer. The Buckeyes also must address life after Pryor in this recruiting class.
Offensive line: The Lions began addressing this need with last year's class and will continue to do so with the 2011 crop. Getting the offensive line in order is the biggest key to Penn State reclaiming a place among the Big Ten title contenders. Penn State loses standout guard Stefen Wisniewski and will have more departures after the 2011 season, so building depth is paramount.
Defensive line: Penn State lacked a dynamic pass rusher in 2010 and could bolster the end spot, but it can't neglect the defensive tackle position, either. Ollie Ogbu departs and Devon Still will be gone after the 2011 season. Although Jack Crawford returns at end, the depth there could be enhanced through recruiting.
Running back: The Boilers should avoid a depth disaster like the one they endured in 2010, but they can't take any chances, either. Coach Danny Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord want to run the ball a lot and they need more options to emerge around Ralph Bolden and Al-Terek McBurse. There are opportunities for freshmen to emerge here.
Tight end: Purdue should be fine at receiver in 2011, but it loses starting tight end Kyle Adams, the team's top pass catcher, as well as backup Jeff Lindsay. Expect the Boilers to address the tight end position in the 2011 class, as it is a big part of the plan on offense.
Secondary: The Badgers lose a multiyear starter at safety in Jay Valai this season, and three more starters (safety Aaron Henry and cornerbacks Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith) will depart after the 2011 season. It's important to start building depth with this class.
Wide receiver: Wisconsin benefits from Nick Toon returning for his senior year, but the overall depth at receiver isn't great. David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson all depart and with Toon gone after the 2011 season, the Badgers need to find playmakers to complement Jared Abbrederis.
Pass rusher: J.J. Watt's early departure to the NFL draft creates a potential depth issue at defensive end. Returning starter Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both are good options, but the Badgers are young and unproven after those two. Young players like Beau Allen will take on bigger roles in 2011, and the team could use an incoming player or two to emerge.
The defense controlled the first part of the scrimmage before the offense came on strong late behind running backs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford, who combined for 228 rushing yards and three touchdowns. LeShoure, who finished the 2009 season on a strong note, finished spring practice the same way, elevating hopes for Illinois' rushing attack this fall.
Not surprisingly, the quarterbacks took center stage but had mediocre to poor results. Nathan Scheelhaase, the clear front-runner for the starting job, completed 11 of 20 passes for 126 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Jacob Charest, the only candidate with game experience, really struggled with two picks and just two completions on eight pass attempts. True freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee who the coaches say is behind both Scheelhaase and Charest, had the best performance, completing 7 of 8 passes for 43 yards and a touchdown for the Blue team. Whitmer also took four sacks.
Illinois likely won't officially name a starter until August, but if Scheelhaase holds onto the top job, he should have some help on offense with the two running backs and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, who capped a strong spring with six receptions for 95 yards in the spring game.
The Illini defense played without several key pieces -- linebacker Martez Wilson, end Clay Nurse, cornerback Miami Thomas -- but received a strong performance from the line. Tackle Glenn Foster ended a very good spring with nine tackles, including three for loss and two sacks.
Illinois also got production from its new "Bandit" position, an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid spot. Michael Buchanan, the team's projected starter at the Bandit, recorded nine tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks, while backup Nate Palmer added two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Other Illini nuggets:
- The big negative from Saturday was the knee injury to starting offensive tackle Corey Lewis, who tore his ACL and will undergo surgery. Lewis' status for the 2010 season is unknown, and Illinois will have to fill his spot.
- Head coach Ron Zook saw growth from linebacker Aaron Gress this spring, and the senior finished strong with seven tackles, one for loss, and an interception in the spring game.
- Safety Nate Bussey and cornerback Tavon Wilson both recorded interceptions, and linebacker Justin Staples had two tackles for loss, including one sack.
- Former backup quarterback Eddie McGee is playing wide receiver these days, but he saw some time at his old position Saturday. Illinois introduced the "D.C. package" -- McGee is a Washington D.C. native -- and had McGee take the snap with the quarterback lined up as a receiver. Scheelhaase certainly has the athleticism to excel as a receiver, so this could be a dangerous weapon for Illinois this fall.
- Ball security will continue to be stressed after Illinois committed seven turnovers (four interceptions, three lost fumbles) in the spring game. Jenkins, return man Terry Hawthorne and Charest all coughed up the ball.
- Derek Dimke continues to lead the competition at kicker and connected on the only field goal attempt of the spring game, a 44-yarder in the second quarter.
But it's clear that the attitude has changed around here, thanks mainly to the new assistants that head coach Ron Zook hired during a tumultuous winter. I'll have more on this next week, but new coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning have increased the level of accountability for a team that has, quite frankly, been one of the nation's biggest underachievers the past two seasons.
I had a chance to speak with players and coaches and watch a portion of practice Wednesday afternoon -- a scrimmage session was closed to media -- and here are some quick thoughts.
- Zook likely won't officially name a starting quarterback until fall camp, but it's very clear that Nathan Scheelhaase is the guy. Scheelhaase brings excellent athleticism to the position -- Petrino likens him to former Louisville star Stefan LeFors, a player he helped coach -- and is making strides as a passer. Jacob Charest also has done some good things, and while Chandler Whitmer is a bit behind the other two, Zook said the early enrollee has really benefited from going through this spring session.
- Zook said Illinois' defensive leaders are linemen Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas at linebacker and cornerback Tavon Wilson, who has had a "superb spring," in the secondary. The head coach also recognized defensive linemen Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew for their play this spring. Linebacker Aaron Gress also has come on strong the last week or so. "A lot of times, those junior college guys, it's that the second year that they turn it on," Zook said. Wilson and Nurse are being held out of contact following surgeries, but both have performed well.
- The secondary has a few question marks, but Zook said sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne, nicknamed "black cat," continues to step up, along with corner Patrick Nixon-Youman. Cornerback Miami Thomas has started doing some individual work as he works his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee. Sophomore Joelil Thrash is seeing time at both safety and corner and has been impressive.
- Petrino thinks the offensive line can be a strength this fall and recognized tackle Jeff Allen and sophomore Graham Pocic, who moved from guard to center, for their play this spring. "He gives us some size and some strength in there that helps us both in the running game and the passing game," Petrino said of Pocic. "That's been a pleasant surprise."
- I'll touch on this more next week, but the defense is really getting back to the basics. "The fundamentals were so far out of whack," Koenning said. "Our tackling leaves a lot to be desired, and every day we have a normal practice, we're spending an exorbitant amount of time not on X's and O's. There's so many things we've got to cover, but if you can't tackle, it doesn't really matter."
Zook held his spring news conference Wednesday, and here are a few takeaways:
- Illinois is experimenting with a "bandit" position this spring, which Zook describes as a hybrid rush end/outside linebacker. The Illini have two solid defensive linemen in Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget but need more help up front. Sophomores Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples are among the players being considered at the bandit spot. Staples earned high marks with his winter performance in the weight room. "[The bandit] can be a drop guy, he can be a rush guy, he can be a blitz guy," Zook said.
- Jacob Charest took the first reps at quarterback Tuesday and has a slight edge in the competition because of his experience in 2009. Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase also is in the mix, and Zook praised the play of true freshman Chandler Whitmer at Tuesday's practice. Zook called Whitmer "a pleasant surprise" and marveled at his accuracy and quick release. "That's going to put him right in the thick of things," Zook said.
- Zook wouldn't consider any of the quarterback candidates as traditional drop-back passers. Charest fits the description more than others, but Zook once again noted that Charest is a better athlete than many folks believe. He might lack the mobility that both Scheelhaase and Whitmer have, but he's not a stiff, either.
- Sophomore Terry Hawthorne, who provided a lift at cornerback late last fall, will remain on defense. There had been talk that Hawthorne could see time at wide receiver as well as cornerback.
- Zook praised the practice performance of safety Supo Sanni, who has played extensively as a reserve the last two years. "We always felt he's got a lot of talent," Zook said. "He can do all the things you want a safety to be able to do."
- Aside from the quarterback spot, the offensive depth chart is fairly settled. Zook will spend much of his time focused on the defense, and the competition at linebacker should be interesting. Martez Wilson is back from a neck injury and will practice this spring but not take on contact. Ian Thomas is back after starting every game last fall, and Russell Ellington, Evan Frierson and Aaron Gress are all in the mix.
- Zook is relying on Wilson, Nurse and Liuget to be leaders on defense. "Corey’s had a great offseason," Zook said. "His whole mentality has changed."
- Junior college transfer Trulon Henry is an engaging personality with an interesting backstory, and the safety also has a sense of humor. According to Zook, after Henry dropped a few interceptions Tuesday, he joked that the last Illinois player to wear the No. 9 jersey also had the dropsies at his first spring practice. That player? Former Illini star wide receiver Arrelious Benn, who happens to be Henry's younger brother.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The position rankings march on with the linebackers, another position that looks fairly stacked throughout the Big Ten. Much like the D-lines, I don't see many truly weak groups here, though there's a drop-off after No. 4.
1. Penn State -- The Lions return the Big Ten's most explosive linebacker from a year ago (Navorro Bowman) and one of the league's most productive 'backers from 2007 (Sean Lee). If Lee returns to form, he and Bowman will form arguably the nation's best linebacker tandem and anchor a Nittany Lions defense that led the Big Ten against the run. Josh Hull adds experience at the third starting spot, while hopes are very high for sophomore Michael Mauti.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Greg Jones, the Big 10 preseason Defensive Player of the Year, leads Michigan State's linebacking corps.|
2. Iowa -- Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds lead a group that always seems to get it done. Angerer tied for the league lead in interceptions last year and led the team with 106 tackles in a breakout junior season. His production overshadowed the solid play of Edds, who should have a big senior season. Jeremiha Hunter also returns for his second year as the starter. Depth might be a bit of a concern here, but the top three are very good.
3. Michigan State -- Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones is the headliner, and he has a nice supporting cast around him. Jones has led the Spartans in tackles in each of his first two seasons and consistently finds his way into the offensive backfield. Eric Gordon has developed into a fine outside linebacker, and Brandon Denson takes on a bigger role this fall. The Spartans also can look to their bench for Adam Decker, who made the game-clinching tackle against Iowa's Shonn Greene last year.
4. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lose one of the more productive linebacker tandems in recent Big Ten history, as James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman move on to the NFL. The good news is Austin Spitler, Tyler Moeller and others have waited their turn and probably would have earned starting jobs on any other team. Spitler and Moeller step into bigger roles along with Brian Rolle, and Ohio State needs bigger things from Ross Homan in his second year as a starter. There are some question marks, but this should be a good group.
5. Michigan -- Linebacker figures to be Michigan's strongest area on defense. Obi Ezeh has proved to be a reliable Big Ten defender, and he'll benefit from having a healthy Jonas Mouton in the fold. The big question is whether Stevie Brown makes a smooth transition from safety and builds on a strong spring. If Brown steps up, the Wolverines should be fine here. Hopes are also high for Brandon Herron and Marell Evans.
6. Minnesota -- This group could take a major step forward in 2009, but the Gophers must defend better against the run. Lee Campbell quietly had a nice junior season, recording 80 tackles and four sacks, and Simoni Lawrence proved himself as a playmaker with 10.5 tackles for loss (4 sacks), two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. Minnesota boasts a ton of speed at linebacker, and it'll be interesting to see how Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley perform. Sam Maresh could provide an emotional lift after his amazing return from heart surgery.
7. Indiana -- It's time for Matt Mayberry and his fellow 'backers to lead this defense to better results in 2009. Mayberry has the talent and the experience to turn in a monster senior season, but he needs to show up every week and make big plays. Will Patterson provides leadership at middle linebacker, and Tyler Replogle steps into a bigger role. If Indiana turns things around on defense, the linebackers must lead the way.
8. Northwestern -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald identified his top three linebackers in spring, which bodes well for a group that loses Malcolm Arrington and Prince Kwateng. Outside linebacker Quentin Davie has quietly put up some very impressive numbers, and Nate Williams will be more comfortable in a major role. Fitzgerald is excited about speedy sophomore Ben Johnson, and safety Brad Phillips might see more time in a hybrid role. There are some lingering questions here, but this group could make a big jump.
9. Wisconsin -- The jury's out on the Badgers after they lose DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas, who combined for 15.5 tackles for loss last year. I like what Jaevery McFadden brings at middle linebacker, but he'll need some help from Culmer St. Jean, who saw increased time down the stretch in 2008. Aside from McFadden and St. Jean, the group is unproven and needs to show it's not the weak link of the defense.
10. Illinois -- Ron Zook thinks this will be the year Martez Wilson emerges as an elite Big Ten defender, and history is on his side. The move to middle linebacker worked out well for Brit Miller last year, and Wilson showed some promise in the middle this spring. Illinois needs big things from Wilson because it lacks much experience around him. Junior college transfer Aaron Gress might be a key addition, but I'm far from sold on this group.
11. Purdue -- The Boilers lose an extremely productive and underrated linebacker in Anthony Heygood, and a lot of questions remain with this group. As much as Purdue wants to see Jason Werner healthy, the team can't rely on a guy with a history of back problems. Joe Holland and Chris Carlino need big seasons this fall, and Purdue must build some depth around them.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
These three newcomers should make a mark for the Fighting Illini this fall.
OFFENSE -- Jarred Fayson, WR, Jr.Fayson already is a familiar name to Illinois fans even though he hasn't caught a pass in a Big Ten game. The Florida transfer quickly made his mark in Champaign and likely earned a starting job this spring at wide receiver, a position where Illinois is already loaded. Fayson should draw defenders away from All-America candidate Arrelious Benn. He could become the bona fide No. 2 receiver Illinois is looking for this fall.
DEFENSE -- Aaron Gress, LB, Jr.
The junior college transfer should see the field immediately as Illinois tries to replace leading tackler Brit Miller and Rodney Pittman at linebacker. Gress auditioned at several linebacker spots this spring and drew good reviews from the coaching staff. He also could help in nickel packages and has the versatility to play safety if need be.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- Terry Hawthorne, WR, Fr.
Along with Fayson, Justin Green and several other newcomers, Hawthorne should play a big role on special teams this fall. He racked up 263 punt return yards as a high school senior and might be a good option alongside Benn on the kickoff return unit. And if Illinois really gets desperate for a punter, Hawthorne can step in. He averaged a whopping 44.8 yards per punt last year in high school.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It was a fairly quiet weekend on the Big Ten recruiting front, though things will definitely pick up this week as national signing day approaches. Offensive lineman Marcus Hall will announce his college choice today, as he decides between Ohio State, considered the favorite for his services, Tennessee and Miami.
Here's a quick weekend recap, courtesy of ESPN's Scouts Inc. national recruiting director Tom Luginbill and other sources.
- Indiana picked up a commitment from linebacker Griffen Dahlstrom of Roachdale, Ind. Rated as the nation's No. 40 linebacker by Scouts Inc., Dahlstrom is the third linebacker in Indiana's 2009 class.
- Indiana also picked up a commitment from running back Nick Turner of Indianapolis.
- The St. Petersburg Times is reporting that offensive tackle Jamar Bass, a junior college transfer, has not enrolled at Illinois and could be heading elsewhere. Bass was expected to begin classes at Illinois on Jan. 20, but the school has not announced his signing or the one of another juco, linebacker Aaron Gress. Gress is listed in the Illinois student directory as of this morning.