Big Ten: Adam Breneman

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Jesse James is a freak of nature.

Really, there's no other way to describe the 6-foot-7, 272-pound tight end. Coaches and teammates tried their best Saturday to brainstorm other fitting adjectives or ways to encapsulate the junior's ability. But, without fail, they kept returning to that same phrase.

"Jesse is just a freak of nature," fellow Penn State tight end Adam Breneman said. "I don't know how else to describe him."

Added strength coach Dwight Galt: "He's a freak. ... Athletically, talent-wise, there's not another tight end in the country better than him, for sure. He's got speed, he's got strength, he's got agility, he's got size. He's got everything."

Jesse James
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsThe 6-foot-7 Jesse James can bench-press 225 pounds 27 times and he runs the 40-yard dash in about 4.6 seconds.
James lived up to that billing during Saturday afternoon's annual Lift for Life event, which pit the offense and defense against one another in seven strength competitions while helping raise money to fight kidney cancer. During the 225-pound bench press, the weights exploded off James' chest so quickly it was as if they came from a balloon stand. The tight end's spotter called out "Seven!" before his defensive end opponent reached three.

The reps came so quickly, it was easy to lose count. Once finished, a Penn State trainer turned to James' spotter and asked about the final tally. Upon hearing the answer, he just shook his head and looked confused: "What? ... Twenty-seven?" James' teammates alternated between head-shaking and patting him on the shoulder.

Had James reached that number in any of the last 10 NFL combines, he would've placed within the top five at his position -- and he would've been at the very top in 2008 and 2011. Compared to the most recent combine, his 27 reps were two fewer than first-round offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and one more than first-round defensive tackle Dominique Easley.

"He'll surprise you every day. You never know what's coming with Jesse," Christian Hackenberg said. "It's actually interesting when you get out there with what he does, just how good he is and how fast he is and how strong he is."

It's not easy to overthrow James, who reportedly runs in the 4.6 range and stands as the second-tallest player on the 121-man roster. That might have something to do with his recent addition to the Mackey Award watch list. Of course, the fact he's Penn State's leading returnee with 25 catches and 333 yards doesn't hurt either.

Put simply, yes, the guy's a freak.

"To get a guy that big that does what he does, I haven't seen that," Galt said. "I've been really lucky. I had five tight ends in the NFL at one time, including Vernon Davis and Dan Gronkowski, Rob's brother, and I'll tell you what -- I'll put Jesse James up there with any of them. The kid is really that athletic and that good of a player."

Players spoke in such revered and hyperbolic fashion about James that, at times, it seemed as if they were discussing Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Tailback Akeel Lynch just laughed when asked about what impressed him most about James and cautioned that it might not sound believable.

While most players dead lift with five or six plates and let out painful groans between each lift, Lynch said, Penn State's tight end takes it a step further. Lynch smiled, bent his knees and pantomimed lifting up and down with ease. "And he puts the max weight you can on a bar," Lynch said. "He's a freak. He's a good guy, but he's a freak."

On Saturday, James performed 12 reps on the dead lift at 495 pounds. And he promised before the event that he planned to take it easy since this was for charity. ("I won't put too much on today, but it'll be fun.") So what exactly is the max weight the junior can dead lift?

"I have no idea," he said matter-of-factly, with a slight shrug. "We haven't found it."

James is one of the last players who would exaggerate his talent. The aw-shucks kid from the small, blue-collar borough of Glassport, Pennsylvania, didn't mind dissecting Hackenberg's improvement or waxing poetic on how the freshman receivers were coming along. But it was as if his white T-shirt grew itchy whenever he was asked about himself.

"I'm not really the person to talk to about that," James said. "That's just how I was raised."

Added offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach: "That's the way he is. Modest guy, really good guy."

Humility might serve him well, but the Nittany Lions need someone to step up in a big to make up for more than 125 receptions of lost production from last season. (Allen Robinson, who caught 97 balls in 2013, is now in the NFL.) James is certainly a candidate to be that player, at least in the end zone, and expectations are soaring for the junior.

It's still to be determined how James' speed and strength will transfer over to the gridiron this season. But at least one thing is for certain.

"He's a freak," Dieffenbach said. "A freak of nature."
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3
5:00
PM ET
Coming at you from an undisclosed Big Ten campus. Can you guess which one?

Twitter!

A lot of good responses to what you would do to improve college football.

To the inbox ...

Jeff from Chicago writes: What would I like to see in college football: A Big Ten-SEC Challenge every season, the first weekend of October. Just like the B1G-ACC Challenge in basketball, you make the pairings by perceived quality, play half the games in each conference's stadiums. Alabama-Ohio State. Texas A&M-Michigan. Michigan State-Auburn. Florida-Penn State. Wisconsin-Georgia. All on the same day. Would that be compelling TV or what? (And yes, I know it's not going to happen!)

Adam Rittenberg: It would be extremely compelling TV and, unfortunately, it will never happen. Although SEC teams will have more nonleague games to schedule than their Big Ten counterparts, I could never see that league getting on board with a scheduling agreement like this one. There are other nonleague rivalries (Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech) that would take priority, and I just can't see too many SEC teams leaving the comforts of the South to play Big Ten opponents on the road. Maybe the playoff and its purported emphasis on schedule strength changes things.


Bill from Indianapolis writes: While it would never happen, the big improvement would be to take the 4 nonconference games and reduce it to two. Then take those two games and have them played after the conference championships. Each team would get one home game and one road game against a team from another conference that finished in a similar place in the standings. Thus when the playoff teams are picked there are more quality games to choose well and it, in a way, expands the playoff by two extra weeks. A full write up on this idea can be found here ...

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting proposal, Bill. It could provide a more comprehensive gauge on which teams truly deserve to be part of the playoff. I actually like having nonleague games sprinkled in later in the season as some teams improve gradually. Some early season nonleague contests are really misleading. If logistics didn't matter, maybe this plan could work. I wish there was more flexibility to do short-notice scheduling in college football, but when you have big stadiums and big money on the line, it's difficult, if not impossible.


Rob from Morristown, N.J., writes: Adam, you can mark this down for a "bold prediction" but I seriously (homer alert) think you are missing any one of the PSU tight ends in your mystery man option for B1G 1,000-yard receivers. My pick, C-Hack's best friend on the team Adam Breneman. All three PSU tight ends have shown they are more than capable of being reliable pass catchers, Kyle Carter in 2012, Jesse James and Breneman in 2013. With the lack of a true No. 2 receiver to compliment Geno Lewis, and an inexperienced O-Line that may cause a lot of dump off passes to a tight end, this could be a year that multiple tight ends push the receiving yards race.

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, I certainly considered the possibility of a Penn State tight end breaking out this season, although 1,000 yards is a very lofty mark. Ultimately, Breneman would really have to separate himself to have a chance to catch so many passes from his buddy Christian Hackenberg. Breneman was hurt when I watched PSU practice this spring, and James looked like the best receiving option on the field. He's a beast at 6-foot-7 and 257 pounds -- a matchup nightmare. So while Breneman could become a superstar, I don't know how Penn State ignores James. And then there's Carter, who has 54 receptions in his first two seasons. I expect all the tight ends to play and likely limit one from producing way more than the others.


Joe from Ames, Iowa, writes: As a Big Ten (Minnesota) alum, here are a few ideas on how to improve college football:

1. Ban oversigning. Eat it, Team SEC.
2. Create an early signing period.
3. Quit tinkering with rules just for the sake of tinkering. Touchback placement comes to mind. "Safety" has become the catch-all justification for every bit of tomfoolery the rules committee wants to try.
4. Expand playoff to 8 teams.
5. No polls until after Week 4.
6. USC, Texas, Nebraska, PSU, Miami, etc. return to normal and help beat some humility back into the University of SEC. A thousand years of darkness for Michigan. Reversion to pre-1993 historical means for Wisconsin and Minnesota.
7. Honestly wouldn't mind Boston College in the B1G, albeit for selfish hockey reasons.

Adam Rittenberg: Wow, a lot of thoughts here, Joe. I'll tackle a few of them. I agree on the early signing period, but as I'll write later this week, moving up official visits to a prospect's junior year is even more important, especially for Big Ten schools. I can't agree more with pushing back any sort of poll or getting rid of them entirely. They have way too much significance in shaping the way teams and leagues are viewed. Looking at your list for No. 6, it's amazing how college football's power structure has shifted. You likely won't see any of those teams mentioned as likely playoff contenders this season. Times have changed.


Isaac from Stevens Point, Wis., writes: I’d just like to throw in my two cents regarding receiving threats for the Badgers for the upcoming year. Many people are worried, and for good reason. I feel like many people have failed to notice one man: Sam Arneson. I have never seen the guy drop a ball and his touchdown catch against Ohio State last year was incredible. The guy has size and athleticism in an offense that features pass-catching tight ends. I wouldn't be surprised if he led the Big Ten in receiving for tight ends. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Bold statement, Isaac. I like Arneson, too, and he could have a much bigger role in the offense this season. I don't know if Wisconsin will pass the ball enough for any player to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, but the uncertainty at wide receiver creates opportunity for players like Arneson, who has only 10 career receptions, four for touchdowns. I'd be surprised if he has more yards than Michigan's Devin Funchess (still technically a tight end), Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and possibly several others, but his numbers will go up.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:00
PM ET
Sure looked like Eddie Johnson was onside to me. I'll count it as another rivalry win.
  • Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner joined in the tradition of poking fun at a rival during a fundraising event with fans. Should anybody be offended by his canned jokes?
  • Michigan coach Brady Hoke responded to Warinner's comments with a bit of humor of his own.
  • Mark Dantonio doesn't usually hold press conferences to talk about one player, but the recruitment of Malik McDowell called for some discussion of how it all went down for Michigan State.
  • Penn State tight end Adam Breneman will be on the shelf for the rest of spring practice thanks to a bone bruise in his knee.
  • Nebraska wide receiver Sam Burtch is a no-nonsense guy, and his businesslike approach could be a boost for the offense this fall.
  • Mark Weisman saw plenty of room to grow after reviewing every carry from last season, and the Iowa running back might need to improve to keep getting most of the carries in a crowded backfield.
  • Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert's speed isn't up for debate based on his times on the track. The next thing he has to do is prove he can be physical on the football field.
  • Illinois is looking for more team speed on defense, and the early returns from spring practice suggest the unit might be getting faster.
  • Yet another Big Ten tight end is currently stuck on the sideline during spring practice, and like the others, Tyler Kroft is trying to make the most of it.
  • Deon Long is now "90 percent" healthy, but he's well on the way to getting back and helping Maryland at wide receiver.
video
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The young and curious are approaching Christian Hackenberg more often these days, peppering the Penn State quarterback with questions about game speed and other topics.

It will slow down, Hackenberg tells his teammates. Just keep working. Everything's going to be alright.

Hackenberg is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's in the spring semester of his freshman year. He celebrated his 19th birthday on Valentine's Day.

He's also a graybeard at Penn State, as crazy as it sounds.

"The guys look at me as one of the older guys, especially the early enrollees," Hackenberg told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "'I still look at myself as the just-turned-19-year-old freshman."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIEven though he's merely a rising sophomore, Christian Hackenberg has become a player that his younger Penn State teammates look up to.
That a Penn State quarterback going through his first spring practice -- remember, Hackenberg was in high school at this time last year -- could be labeled an old guy seemed laughable not long ago. In 2010, Rob Bolden became the first true freshman quarterback at Penn State to start the season opener since Shorty Miller in 1910. Future Nittany Lions coach Rip Engle was four years old at the time. Joe Paterno wouldn't be born for another 16 years.

Now the Lions have had two freshman opening-game starters in four seasons. Hackenberg's accelerated ascent isn't a huge surprise given the hype that surrounded him in high school. Anyone who watched him last season, especially in his final performance in an upset win at Wisconsin on the Badgers' senior day (339 pass yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), knew he was no ordinary freshman.

But after starting all 12 games for the Lions in 2013, Hackenberg has both the credentials and the credibility to claim a larger leadership role in an offense facing significant depth challenges along the line and at wide receiver.

"It's tough to try and claim that as a sophomore, but I'm one of the most experienced guys returning on this offense," said Hackenberg, who passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last fall. "What I went through last year has prepared me to be able to step into that role more than if I would not have played or just played a little bit.

"I'm trying to be a leader through my actions."

His actions this spring include absorbing a new offense described as personnel-driven, pro-style. There are similarities to the system Hackenberg operated under former coach Bill O'Brien, especially the protections and some terminology.

But there's also a lot to learn.

"Some games we may come out in heavy tight end sets, some games we might come out in empty sets," Hackenberg said. "It's more multiple."

Hackenberg boasts the strongest arm in the Big Ten and is lauded for being able to make just about any throw. But it's the simple throws -- the underneath routes, which he "babied" at times last season, or the comeback routes -- where he wants greater consistency.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore-to-be has formed a quick connection with new Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan, whose approach reminds him of O'Brien's. Hackenberg also has been in touch with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., with whom he worked at the Elite 11 high school camp. Whitfield has tutored other Big Ten quarterbacks such as Michigan State's Connor Cook and Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the offseason.

Nothing is set yet, but if Hackenberg seeks outside assistance, he'd pick Whitfield.

"He's worked with the best of the best the past couple years coming out," Hackenberg said, "so being able to get comparisons to that and see what they did to prepare, that would be good."

Hackenberg also must vary his targets in 2014. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who had more than three times as many receptions (97) as any other Penn State player last season, is preparing for the NFL draft. There are capable options like tight end Jesse James, who shined during Wednesday's practice, as well as tight ends Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman and wideout Geno Lewis, but none likely can come close to Robinson's production.

"Allen was a guy I really leaned on because I honestly didn't know what to expect a lot of the times last year," Hackenberg said. "I was seeing things for the first time -- going to the Horseshoe for the first time, going against Ohio State’s defense for the first time, seeing Michigan here in a whiteout for the first time. So when you're in those situations, you tend to lean on guys you’ve worked with, and Allen and I worked really hard in the summer together.

"Now I look at myself as filling in Allen's shoes because we have a lot of guys coming in. I just want to be a guy who can help put those guys in situations to succeed. I really want to spread the ball around this year."

New PSU coach James Franklin sees Hackenberg as a smart, demanding player who brings more athleticism to the field that many believe. Hackenberg clocked a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash during Penn State's recent testing.

Franklin and his staff face plenty of challenges on offense, primarily a line with glaring experience and depth issues. But the Lions undoubtedly have their centerpiece.

"He's got a chance to be a special player," Franklin said of Hackenberg. "We're just going to have to keep developing him here over the next three years."

Phase 2 begins this fall.
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Football Recruiting, Maryland Terrapins, Jacob Pedersen, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Devin Smith, Tony Jones, Tony Lippett, Corey Brown, Jeremy Gallon, Duwyce Wilson, Keith Mumphery, Justin Sinz, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Evan Spencer, Gabe Holmes, Kofi Hughes, Jared Abbrederis, Kyle Carter, Nick Stoner, Jordan Fredrick, Sam Arneson, Matt LaCosse, Ted Bolser, Steve Hull, Kenzel Doe, Christian Jones, Jon Davis, Jamal Turner, Shane Wynn, Josh Ferguson, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess, Josiah Price, Cody Latimer, Drew Dileo, Quincy Enunwa, Stefon Diggs, Jordan Westerkamp, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, MacGarrett Kings, Austin Appleby, Michael Thomas, Adam Breneman, Tevaun Smith, Isaiah Roundtree, Isaac Fruechte, Drake Harris, Cameron Dickerson, Dominique Booth, Jalin Marshall, Jake Duzey, Danny Etling, Allen Robinson, Dan Vitale, Danny Anthrop, Martize Barr, Damond Powell, Dontre Wilson, James Clark, Robert Wheelwright, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Taariq Allen, Richy Anderson, Sam Burtch, Chris Godwin, Deon Long, Garrett Dickerson, Johnnie Dixon, Saeed Blacknall, Alex Erickson, Maxx Williams, Geronimo Allison, Cethan Carter, Cameron Posey, DeAngelo Yancey, Geno Lewis, Brandon Felder, Brandon Coleman, B1G spring positions 14, Jordan Fuchs, Miles Shuler, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, Amba Etta-Tawo, Dave Stinebaugh, Marcus Leak, Tyler Kroft, Quron Pratt, Leonte Carroo, Ruhann Peele, Carlton Agudosi, Andre Patton

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
5:00
PM ET
There was no mailbag on Monday because of Presidents Day, but I still plan on doing one that day in the future. So keep your questions coming.

On to the latest 'bag ...

Barry from Sheboygan, Wis., writes: Purdue fans had a renewed hope when Darrell Hazell was hired (I still believe in him). We took it on the chin when Purdue went 1-11 with mostly blowout losses (strangely enough except for Notre Dame and a very good MSU team). Then signing day comes and Purdue signs the lowest-rated recruits Insider in the B1G (including Maryland and Rutgers). I haven't given up on Hazell or Purdue. I know they are rebuilding and it is not reasonable to expect too much next season. What would be considered the best, worst and most likely record next season? If you feel up to it, what would be the highlights? I would rather Purdue be competitive in all games and win four games then win five and be blown out of most of the rest.

Brian Bennett: The transition from Danny Hope to Hazell was rougher than most people expected. But Hazell is trying to play a much different style on offense, with bigger, more physical players, and the talent on the defensive side -- especially at linebacker -- has been lacking for a while. Couple that with a very difficult 2013 schedule, and the recipe for disaster was complete. I don't worry about recruiting rankings; it's much more important for Hazell to get his type of player into the program. His success in landing talented quarterbacks is encouraging, but there are a lot of other holes to patch. With Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois on the nonconference schedule, Purdue has a chance to triple its 2013 win total before even getting to Big Ten play. The conference schedule is mostly unforgiving, but I think the goal has to be getting at least one league win. A 4-8 record seems likely to me, with five wins probably the ceiling and a two-win season the floor.


Jim H. from Albany, NY, writes: I am so pumped for July 1, when Rutgers finally enters the B1G. Thanks for adding them to the blog now, rather than wait until then. I've been reading the blog for the past year, and am looking forward to articles about RU here. One question: How well/poorly do you expect Rutgers to fare in the B1G East this coming season?

Brian Bennett: I'll have a better idea once we get more familiar with the Scarlet Knights' personnel and hopefully see them in spring practice. Though I covered Rutgers a few years ago in the Big East blog, I didn't follow the team that closely the past couple of seasons because there simply wasn't time. I do know this: The Scarlet Knights' schedule, which has been weak at times in the past, is a bear in 2014. Nonconference games on the road against Washington State and Navy will be tough, while the inaugural Big Ten slate includes crossovers against Wisconsin and Nebraska in addition to the rugged East Division slate. Rutgers could have a rough go of things in 2014, especially if the quarterback situation does not improve significantly. If the team can get to six wins this season, that would be a nice accomplishment, in my opinion.


Brian from New York writes: Having gone to Maryland for my undergrad studies and Rutgers for graduate school, I am very excited about having both join the Big Ten. What kind of interest will the games against the Western teams, like Nebraska and Iowa, generate?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question, and one that can be asked from both sides. I believe there will be a curiosity factor at first, and you never have to worry about Nebraska fans showing up for a road game. Big Ten West Division schools such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern have more brand-name appeal than many of the programs Rutgers would have played in the American Athletic Conference, though it will take Maryland fans more time to get used to being out of the ACC. A bigger question I have is how much interest teams such as Nebraska and Iowa -- or even many teams in the East, frankly -- will have in Maryland and Rutgers coming to their turf. The only real way to generate and maintain interest is for those teams to be competitive and score some key victories.


Eli from New York writes: How Penn State was able to get the third best class in the B1G Insider is beyond me. Discuss.

Brian Bennett: When you consider the NCAA sanctions and the coaching change, it really is quite amazing what the Nittany Lions achieved on the recruiting trail. I think that speaks to a few things. One is the enduring appeal of Penn State because of its tradition, huge fan base and emotional resonance with players and families. Another factor is that the Lions remain in a strong area for recruiting, even if it's not as talent-rich as it was 20 years ago. And lastly is the job that both Bill O'Brien and James Franklin did. O'Brien set the tone early in his tenure by luring top prospects such as Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman. Franklin, with his recruiting prowess, could take it to the next level.


Jack from Ann Arbor writes: Interesting article on the declining student attendance. I wanted to comment from the perspective of a current student at Michigan. I believe the overlying issue is the rise in ticket prices every year. This year our ticket package was over $330 with taxes and fees, which doesn't even include a T-shirt anymore! To me it feels like the university cares more about making money than they do about the students who actually attend the school and they need to make tickets more affordable to students. How is the university going to expect us to pay for season tix as future alumni if we can't even afford tix as a student?

Brian Bennett: That's pretty steep, Jack. When I was in college, football tickets only cost $5. (Of course, I went to Kentucky in the early- to mid-1990s. I should have been paid to go to games.) I'm sure students don't mind shelling out a little cash to see Ohio State come to the Big House, but to do the same for Central Michigan and Akron is not quite as appealing. Every program looks to maximize its revenues, but to charge high prices to students doesn't seem right. Then again, it's also a supply-and-demand issue.
We've been enjoying the nostalgia of the 2013 season by highlighting the best individual performances by Big Ten players, and now we've reached the top five.

Our list takes into account the difficulty of opponent and stakes of the game and tries to identify record-breaking, honor-winning, jaw-dropping games from league players. Players are limited to one entry on this list for variety's sake.

Our next entrant saved his best for last ...

No. 5: Hack attack at Camp Randall

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChristian Hackenberg finished his freshman season with a spectacular performance at Wisconsin.
Who and against whom: Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg led the way in a shocking 31-24 road upset of Wisconsin in the regular-season finale on Nov. 30.

The numbers: Hackenberg completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and a career-high four touchdowns.

A closer look: Hackenberg showed off his talent throughout his freshman season, including a solid opener against Syracuse and his comeback overtime victory against Michigan. But he was never better than he was against the Badgers, who entered the game as a BCS at-large hopeful and a 24-point home favorite.

Wisconsin's defense had been one of the Big Ten's best all year and had done a great job limiting big plays. Hackenberg chewed that defense up with a 68-yard touchdown pass to Adam Breneman less than two minutes into the game. He threw for 221 yards in the first half and connected on a 59-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to Geno Lewis.

Hackenberg's 339 yards were one shy of his previous season high, and he put up by far his best passer rating of the year vs. Wisconsin while avoiding any turnovers. He cemented his Big Ten freshman-of-the-year trophy with his final 2013 performance and gave Nittany Lions fans plenty of reasons for optimism for 2014 and beyond.

More top performances

Christian Kirksey vs. Nebraska

Jared Abbrederis vs. Ohio State

Braxton Miller vs. Penn State

Ryan Shazier vs. Indiana

Shilique Calhoun vs. South Florida

Penn State recruiting roundtable

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
11:00
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- National signing day is finally in the books, so we decided to take a closer look at the Nittany Lions' 2014 recruiting class.

Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren and I got together to discuss and answer these questions:

What surprised or impressed you the most about this class?

Tom VanHaaren: I know it's not surprising for prospects to follow a coach to the new school when there's a coaching change, but I was somewhat surprised in this case. James Franklin got five former Vanderbilt commits to join him at Penn State, which is significant. One of those commitments, Chance Sorrell, committed to Penn State essentially sight unseen. That says a lot about how these prospects feel about Franklin.

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
Courtesy of IntersportESPN 300 ATH De'Andre Thompkins has major upside, but he might take time to adjust to playing WR.
Josh Moyer: By far, I'm most impressed with the receivers. It's one of the best groups in the nation; Penn State has three wideouts in the ESPN 300 (De'Andre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall, Chris Godwin) and another prospect (Troy Apke) who's on the cusp of being a four-star prospect. Last January, a lot of recruiting analysts expected PSU to pick up one -- maybe two -- receivers. Nobody quite saw this coming.

Who is Penn State's best commit outside of the ESPN 300?

TVH: I really like four-star running back Johnathan Thomas and tight end Mike Gesicki, a three-star commit. Gesicki was targeted by some big schools, including Ohio State, and should eventually be a contributor on offense. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Gesicki has really good size and should fit in well at Penn State.

JM: Count me in on the Gesicki bandwagon. Former coach Bill O'Brien felt he was the best tight end in the nation, and James Franklin emphasized he wouldn't pigeonhole his personnel. His system will fit the players, not the other way around, and that should be great news to a talent like Gesicki. Linebacker Troy Reeder is also a big-time player and, because of Penn State's depth, could see considerable time by 2015.

Who is most likely to contribute as a true freshman?

TVH: I think it's probably Thompkins or Blacknall. Both are really good receivers, and Thompkins is already enrolled and on campus. With Allen Robinson leaving for the NFL there is opportunity to get some playing time early, so I think those two have a chance.

JM: I think it's definitely going to be a receiver -- but I'm going with Godwin and Blacknall. I think Thompkins is in a similar position that Geno Lewis was in as a true freshman. Both were highly ranked in the ESPN 300, both were athletes playing wideout, and neither played wideout in high school. Lewis needed a redshirt season to get accustomed to the position and, in a similar vein, Thompkins is just not as polished as some of his counterparts right now. Thompkins enrolled early and has a lot of upside, but I think Godwin's a safer bet right now.

Moving forward, how does James Franklin compare to Bill O'Brien as a recruiter?

TVH: It's tough to compare the two because of a few factors. O'Brien was dealing with the sanctions when he was hired and had to overcome those issues. He also held on to Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman, which was a big deal looking back on it. Franklin is coming in with a lot more positive vibes and excitement around the program. Franklin has already said, though, that he will focus on keeping the in-state prospects home and dominating the region as well. That was an area where O'Brien struggled, whether it was because of the sanctions or not. Franklin should have more success there.

JM: O'Brien wasn't a salesman. He tried to be straightforward, was a great evaluator of talent and an even better coach. Franklin is a salesman. He's charismatic, confident and isn't afraid to go after players in Florida or California. He's definitely casting a wider net than O'Brien. If both coaches were on a level playing field, with no sanctions, I'm not sure who would come out on top. But, because of the foundation O'Brien built, I have no doubt Franklin will have more success recruiting than his predecessor.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide who is right.

James Franklin took over as Penn State's third head coach in the last 48 years on Saturday. So today's Take Two topic is: How long until Franklin has the Nittany Lions in serious contention for a Big Ten championship?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

No discussion of Penn State's championship aims can begin without first discussing the sanctions. The school had some of its scholarships restored last year but still won't be playing with a full roster next season, and the gaps initially created by the penalties will really start to show up in the next couple of seasons. So Franklin, like Bill O'Brien before him, will essentially be playing with one hand tied behind his back.

What O'Brien was able to do in luring recruits like Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman despite the sanctions was truly remarkable. If Penn State can recruit like that with far more uncertainty than it has right now about its future, then Franklin -- an ace recruiter with strong connections on the East Coast -- could very well clean up. It remains to be seen whether he and his staff will "dominate the state" and "dominate the region" as promised, but they should stock the cupboard full of talent in short order.

It still takes time for that talent to arrive and for it to develop, however. Penn State will also be competing in a much tougher division now that Michigan State and Michigan will join Ohio State in the new East Division. Franklin did amazing work at Vanderbilt, but the Commodores never really threatened to win the SEC East title and feasted on the mediocre to bad teams in the league. That's understandable, given Vandy's resources, but Franklin still has to prove he's a championship coach. Given his early limitations, I think it will take a while. By the time Hackenberg is a senior -- assuming he stays four years -- Penn State will be removed from the bowl ban and recovering from the scholarship reductions. So 2016 is my pick for when Franklin's Nittany Lions will make a serious title push.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg could help the Nittany Lions compete for a Big Ten title sooner than later.
Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

The sanctions certainly are a factor, but I don't know if I buy into their delayed effect as much as others, especially when counteracted by Franklin's superior recruiting ability. There's also the possibility, perhaps likelihood, that the bowl ban is reduced either before the 2014 season or before the 2015 campaign. We'll see if the NCAA budges, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Penn State eligible for postseason play in the 2015 season.

I'm going with 2015 as the season when we see Penn State make a serious push in the East Division. Franklin will have more of his recruits in place, Hackenberg will be entering his third season and some of the depth issues, especially on defense, could be fixed. Penn State will undoubtedly need a few more impact freshmen like Hackenberg was in 2013, but I could see it happening under Franklin.

The division isn't getting any easier. Ohio State and Michigan continue to recruit at a very high level, and Michigan State's recruiting should improve after the Rose Bowl run. If Michigan gets its act together in 2014, it could be tough for Penn State to rise up. But I don't think the Nittany Lions are too far away, especially with Hackenberg at quarterback for two more years. The key is developing depth on a defense that wasn't very good this past season. But if we've learned anything from Auburn, it's that teams can improve rapidly, especially with the right coach and the right recruiting approach. Penn State seems to have that in Franklin.
Now that the 2013 season is merely a memory, it's time to start looking toward 2014 and identifying some potential breakout performers.

Options are plentiful, but we are limiting ourselves to five on each side of the ball. We're looking for players who will take that next step into greatness, like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb did in 2013. As such, players who earned first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list. We're focusing instead on those who can make a big leap.

Let's kick it off, while going in alphabetical order:

Adam Breneman, TE, Penn State: ESPN rated Breneman the No. 1 tight end coming out of high school last year, so the talent is obviously there. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder got off to a slow start in 2013 after recovering from a knee injury, but he finished strong with touchdown catches in each of Penn State's last three games. The tight end group will be crowded again in State College, but Breneman should give Christian Hackenberg a prime target.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin: When trying to find new stars, it's always smart to look toward the Badgers backfield. Clement made a strong impression as a true freshman, running for 547 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. Most of his work came in garbage time, as he was behind James White and Melvin Gordon. Now that White is graduating, Clement should see a much bigger role alongside Gordon, and Wisconsin has shown it has plenty of carries to hand to two backs.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Someone has to replace Carlos Hyde's production in the Ohio State running game, and Elliott seems like a logical choice. He ran for 262 yards as a freshman, including a 162-yard game vs. Florida A&M. The Buckeyes also have Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith, Warren Ball and Brionte Dunn, but Wilson might be too small to be an every-down back, and Elliott got more carries than the other three combined in 2013.

Donovahn Jones, WR, Minnesota: The Gophers desperately need some playmakers to emerge on offense, and perhaps Jones will be that guy. The Georgia native turned down SEC offers to come to Minnesota, where he was promised a chance to play quarterback. Instead, he moved to receiver as a true freshman and showed flashes of his athleticism. He still needs to learn the finer points of the position, but at 6-foot-3 with good speed, he has all the tools the Gophers need

MacGarrett Kings Jr., WR, Michigan State: The Spartans' wide receivers took a big leap forward as a group in 2013, and with Connor Cook and the passing game coming on strong, it might be time for one of them to become a star. Kings is a strong candidate after catching 43 balls for 513 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore. He can also make things happen on punt returns.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
5:00
PM ET
One week until Christmas. My early gift to you all: this mailbag.

Grant from San Francisco writes: I couldn't be happier about the news that Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi are apparently staying in East Lansing, and with Dantonio's desire to turn the MSU coaching job into a destination position as Tom Izzo has done with the basketball coaching job. With our dominating defense last year, and some pretty good recruiting wins on that side of the ball moving forward, the perception of stability that this decision gives to the program will be a great motivation tool for the squad heading into the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Max Bullough
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State loses several senior defenders in 2014, including linebacker Max Bullough.
My question is regarding the players that will remain on the defensive roster next year after the departure of seniors Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis, Micajah Reynolds, and Tyler Hoover. That means that almost half of our defensive starters will be replaced by their understudies. Of that group, who do you think will be the toughest to replace, given the future candidates for those positions?

Brian Bennett: Grant, Michigan State will have the best coaching move of the offseason if Narduzzi stays. I say "if" because the coaching carousel is far from over, and if the dominoes fall he could still be picked to lead another program. But as of right now, it looks as if Narduzzi will come back because there's not a great fit for him out there.

As for the players departing, the Spartans do lose a lot on defense. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun says he won't leave early for the NFL, which is a boost. The great thing for Michigan State is that the program has been able to build depth and move forward when players leave. Look at how Calhoun filled in for William Gholston, for instance. Trae Waynes has a chance to be the next great cornerback. Young guys like Ed Davis, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas show a lot of promise.

This is a special group of seniors, however, so it won't be easy to simply plug in new guys. I think the biggest void will be left by Bullough. Narduzzi will tell you he's the on-field brains of the defense and makes checks and adjustments on his own before the coaching staff does. A guy like that is difficult to find. Maybe Riley Bullough, who's moving back to defense, can begin to fill his older brother's shoes.

Rob from New York writes: After a legendarily humiliating season of nothing but complete failures and disastrous breakdowns in front of bleachers where tickets to the half-full first row cost a mere 40 cents at one point, just about the only thing Purdue fans have to be thankful for is that we didn't have any NCAA violation-related scandals this year, and that we managed to spend an entire year without one player tearing their ACL. Please give us Boilermaker fans some pointedly-lowercase hope: First, name one on-the-field task or position (other than punting, since Cody Webster is graduating) where Purdue's football team was at least able to consistently compete at the level that a Big Ten team is expected to do so. Second, if Purdue seems likely to win at least two games next year, name two reasons why this is so. Third, name three reasons why Morgan Burke shouldn't fire Darrell Hazell if he fails to garner a single victory against a Big Ten opponent or against Notre Dame next year.

Brian Bennett: Thanks for asking a Purdue question, Rob, since we haven't gotten many of those around here lately. I sense you're not exactly optimistic, and understandably so since the Boilermakers were just dreadful this past season.

The area of hope for the Boilers is in the passing game. Danny Etling showed a lot of promise as a freshman quarterback despite not having a great offensive line. He threw for 241 yards against Northern Illinois, 223 yards versus Penn State and a whopping 485 yards and four touchdowns vs Indiana. Granted, none of those defenses were actually very good against the pass, but for a 19-year-old to do that in his first collegiate season was still pretty impressive. Purdue also has some decent young receiving targets in DeAngelo Yancey, B.J. Knauf and Danny Anthrop. This program needs to get back to the Joe Tiller days of being able to chuck the ball all over the field.

You should expect some improvement in 2014, though it's probably going to be a slow process. Purdue has Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois on the nonconference schedule, so that's much easier than this year's tough slate. Hazell's team will also compete in the West Division, which looks a little bit easier than the East on paper (though missing Rutgers and Maryland is a bummer).

This was Burke's hire, and much like Mike Thomas at Illinois, he's going to give Hazell every chance to succeed. Two years is too early to bail on any coach unless there's some sort of scandal or gross mismanagement. Hang in there, Rob.

Benny N. from West Palm Beach, Fla., writes: In regards to the Selection Committee next year, how will the season rankings be determined? Will the committee determine rankings from week 1 on, or similar to the BCS will the committee come in midway through the season and give the "official" rankings? Yes, my Buckeyes still have a game to play but my mind can only think about next season.

Brian Bennett: At least your Buckeyes are playing close to your home, Benny. I'm excited about going down there and enjoying some warm weather and what looks like a pretty fun Discover Orange Bowl.

Anyway, according to what the committee has said, it will release a collective Top 25 every other week during the second half of the season. I find this wholly unnecessary. Why do we need to know who the committee thinks is ranked No. 25 when the members will only select four teams? Why does the committee need to start forming opinions about how to rank teams in October when it should consider a team's full body of work in December?

We've seen how the pollsters become entrenched on teams they ranked higher than others earlier. The basketball selection committee does not release any kind of poll and picks 68 teams for its tournament. This seems like a bad idea that will only serve to generate controversy and fodder for sports columns and blogs.

Wait. I mean, it's a great idea!

Bob N. from Grand Ledge, Mich., writes: You don't think the Coach's Poll is valid because "there still would be inherent conflicts of interest involving teams in a coach's own conference, his opponents, friends, etc." That may be true, but I trust coaches' knowledge of football far more than I do sports writers' knowledge. In fact most AP voters vote for teams they have never seen play and, therefore, have zero knowledge of more than a few teams. The writers are also obviously extremely prejudicial also about the conferences they write for,e.g., the SEC and ACC writers are all in for teams below the Mason-Dixon Line, but have disrespected the Big Ten all year, especially MSU. If sports writers knew what they think they do, they would be football coaches.

Brian Bennett: Bob, I've never pretended to know anywhere near as much about football as the coaches. Nor do I want to be a coach, because I like sleeping for more than three hours per night. If the coaches spent time watching lots of games from around the country, they would do a great job voting in a poll (although there would still be ridiculous conflicts of interest).

But the fact is coaches have insane tunnel vision. They know their team, and they know their opponents, and that's about it. This has happened many times before: A reporter asks a coach about another team in his own conference during the season, and if that team either isn't on the schedule or doesn't appear on the schedule for several weeks, the coach will say he hasn't seen that team and knows nothing about it. The only time coaches really ever watch anyone outside of their own schedule is on bye weeks, and it's a known fact that many coaches have their sports information directors or operations guys fill out the ballot for them.

All polls are horribly flawed. The coaches' poll just happens to be the most flawed. And its usefulness has ended.

Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: If you had to a pick a "Freshman Future All American" team right now, who from the B1G would be on it? In other words, which freshmen can you see being All Americans in the next year or so? Joey Bosa just turned into a beast this year. Michigan's Butt seems like a really good player, too. Anyone else?

Brian Bennett: Bosa would be up there. I'm wildly impressed with him, and it's hard to not get a J.J. Watt/Ryan Kerrigan vibe while watching him. The obvious name here is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. He could wind up setting a bunch of career records if he stays four years with Bill O'Brien as his coach. His teammate, Adam Breneman, also has all the tools to be one of the nation's best tight ends if he keeps developing.

Watch out for Wisconsin's Corey Clement as well. If Melvin Gordon goes pro early, Clement would likely have the Badgers' starting tailback job next year, and that usually translates into big numbers. It was a solid year for freshmen in the league, as highlighted on our all-freshman team. And that doesn't even count the guys who redshirted this year.

PSU ends Wisconsin's BCS bowl hopes

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
8:45
PM ET


You can't underestimate Penn State.

The Nittany Lions stepped into Camp Randall as a 24-point underdog, as a struggling team that had just 61 scholarship players and was was set to face the nation's No. 15 team. But these Nittany Lions have become accustomed to overcoming the odds, and they again shocked Wisconsin in a 31-24 upset.

Christian Hackenberg played his best game as a Nittany Lion, as the freshman quarterback completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards, with four TDs and no interceptions. On the other end of the field, Penn State's defense shut down Wisconsin's rushing attack (121 yards) and forced turnovers at critical junctures. It held off a late Badgers comeback and put an end to Wisconsin's hopes for a BCS bowl.

The upset replaces the win over Michigan as Penn State's biggest of the season, and it will certainly give Bill O'Brien's team something to build from this offseason.

This gives the Lions another winning season in the face of unprecedented sanctions, and it again sends out a senior class with a victory. Just about everyone was surprised with Saturday afternoon's upset -- except for O'Brien and Penn State's players.

When everyone counted them out, they came right back to prove everyone wrong. What else is new for this bunch?

Where the game was won: Penn State didn't turn the ball over once, and Joel Stave threw three interceptions -- two of which led to PSU touchdowns. The Badgers simply couldn't overcome those mistakes.

Key play: With less than four minutes left, PSU faced a third-and-9 at its 18. The Lions were up by just a touchdown, and momentum was shifting to the Badgers' side. But O'Brien called a draw play and Zach Zwinak gained 61 yards before he was tackled. That didn't give the Badgers much left to work with.

Record breaker: Allen Robinson (eight catches, 122 yards) finished his junior season with school single-season records for receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,432). The two-year starter is also second on the career receptions list and third on the career yards list. He has one year of eligibility remaining, but it seems likely he will declare for the NFL draft.

Curious calls: Gary Andersen called a season-high 53 pass attempts -- compared to just 30 runs -- and while a lot of that can be attributed to Wisconsin trailing, there's definitely some question marks next to the third-down play-calling. The Badgers were faced with seven third downs that required four yards or fewer, and Andersen opted to pass on all but one of those. Wisconsin twice passed on third-and-1 and converted just one of those attempts.

Looking to the future: Twenty-three freshmen (11 true, 12 redshirt) made the travel roster for Penn State, and quite a few made an impact. Besides Hackenberg, tight end Adam Breneman (three catches, 78 yards) played well, and linebacker Brandon Bell earned his first start. Penn State is a young team, and it certainly flashed some talent Saturday.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
10:00
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Lessons learned from the weekend that was in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeOhio State Touchdown
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsTailback Carlos Hyde rushed for 246 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns in the Buckeyes' win over Illinois.
1. Michigan State vs. Ohio State is happening, so get ready: The Big Ten championship game is not signed, sealed and delivered yet. But it would take some major chaos for that game not to feature Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartans clinched at least a tie for the Legends Division title with their 41-28 win at Nebraska. All they need is to win one of their final two games -- at Northwestern and versus Minnesota -- or have Minnesota lose next week against Wisconsin in order to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. Coach Mark Dantonio's team has come too far to slip up two straight weeks. Ohio State needs one more win to clinch the Leaders spot in the title game because of its head-to-head win over Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes will be favored by multiple scores next week at home against Indiana. This is the matchup that the Big Ten should want -- Michigan State will be in the top 15 and possibly the edge of the top 10 if it wins out, and the Spartans' outstanding defense will test Ohio State's high-scoring offense. It hasn't been the most exciting Big Ten regular season, but things are setting up for a fantastic finish at Lucas Oil Stadium.

2. Wisconsin's defense deserves more notice: Indiana came into Saturday's game averaging 43.1 points and 527 yards. Whatever you think of the Hoosiers, their offense is legitimately explosive. Wisconsin completely defused that attack in a 51-3 win, shutting out Indiana in the first half while allowing 224 yards and a lone third-quarter field goal. The Hoosiers had scored in every quarter but three this year and hadn't been blanked in a half since September of last season. The point is that the Badgers' defense is outstanding, yet like the team as a whole, remains underrated. Everyone will notice how Wisconsin ran all over IU for 554 yards, second most in school history, but that pretty much happens every year in the Indiana game. The Badgers D is led by experienced players up front like Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly and is getting terrific play from less experienced guys like Sojourn Shelton and Tanner McEvoy on the back end. Don't forget that Ohio State turned in its lowest point total of the season (31) against Dave Aranda's defense. This is a complete team, even if the the voters in the major polls still somehow fail to recognize it.

3. Don't tell Michigan this season is over: We could have understood if Michigan would have mailed in the end of Saturday's Northwestern game. The Wolverines have been beaten up by opponents and piled on by fans and critics for their lackluster offensive performances. Their Big Ten title hopes are dead, and in coach Brady Hoke's own view, that means the season is a failure already. In the rain in Evanston, they found themselves down 9-6 in the closing moments of an ugly game. But Michigan pulled off a truly incredible effort to set up Brendan Gibbons' field goal at the very end of regulation, then ground its way through a triple-overtime win. Quarterback Devin Gardner, who has been battered and bruised countless times, appropriately scored the winning touchdown and two-point conversion. The Wolverines looked in serious danger of losing out for a 6-6 campaign before Saturday's gritty comeback. While wins at Iowa and against Ohio State the next two weeks won't be easy to come by, Michigan proved that it will not fold up shop. As for Northwestern, you can't fault the effort. But the Wildcats have now lost in just about every terrible way imaginable, including twice in overtime and on a Hail Mary. It's just one of those years for coach Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

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Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Glenn Carson and the Nittany Lions gave up just 264 yards to Purdue in the win.
4. It's wait 'til next year -- again -- for Illinois and Indiana: The best thing you can say about Illinois is that it has shown a lot of fight this year -- even if that sometimes means near fisticuffs between coach Tim Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini did not give up after falling behind Ohio State 28-0 and 35-7 on Saturday, battling back to keep it a two-score game throughout most of the second half. But like the games against Penn State and Indiana, the team simply couldn't finish the job. And so any slight bowl hopes were officially extinguished for Illinois, which now owns the nation's longest conference losing streak -- and second-longest in the long history of the Big Ten -- at 20 games. If Beckman can't lead the team to a win over hapless Purdue next week, he might not get a chance to finish his job, either. Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl. The Hoosiers can still technically get to six wins, but that would require a win next week in Columbus over Ohio State. If you believe that will happen, you are either incredibly optimistic or completely untethered from reality. Coach Kevin Wilson's team has made strides this season on offense and in the running game despite Saturday's showing in Madison, but the defense has failed to grow at all and has some historically inept performances this season. The Hoosiers' status won't change until that side of the ball develops any competency. So it's back to the drawing board for both programs, and they'll have all of December to rethink things.

5. Freshmen making strides at Penn State, Purdue: If you didn't watch Penn State's win over Purdue, we don't blame you. Neither team is going anywhere this season. But the game did provide some hope for the future, thanks to the play of true freshmen on both sides. Purdue quarterback Danny Etling took a step forward with the best start of his career, throwing for 223 yards and a touchdown. Both he and Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg finished with similar stat lines. And their first-year targets fared pretty well, too. DeAngelo Yancey was Purdue's leading receiver, with four catches for 83 yards, and Nittany Lions tight end Adam Breneman caught the first TD pass of his career. Both teams are looking forward for different reasons, and the play of their youngsters gave them some reasons for hope.

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