Big Ten: Alex Lewis

Backups emerge on Nebraska O-line

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Givens Price was 16 years old when he showed up to play football at Nebraska in 2011.

So you’d expect that he might need more time than most to find his way. Seven games into his fourth season, things may have just clicked for the offensive tackle.

And it looks like he’s intent to lead a group of teammates on this ascension.

Price, the Cornhuskers' backup right tackle, reserve guard Chongo Kondolo and No. 2 center Ryne Reeves stepped to the forefront on Saturday, as Nebraska overcame a halftime deficit to win 38-17 at Northwestern.

The emergence of Price, Kondolo and Reeves came after a bye week that followed a 27-22 loss to Michigan State in which none of the backup linemen played a snap. The starters struggled as Nebraska rushed 37 times for 47 yards, a low in coach Bo Pelini’s seven seasons at the school.

The backup linemen made their move in practice. And Price led the way.

“Everybody noticed,” left tackle Alex Lewis said. “He was very energetic, emotional at practice. I think it also helped guys like Chongo to see that it doesn’t always have to be the starters who step up and have that energy.”

Saturday started like Nebraska’s first six games -- with Lewis and Jake Cotton on the left side of the line, Mark Pelini at center, guard Mike Moundy and Zach Sterup on the right side.

The reserves got their feet wet in the first half, as planned. The Huskers trailed 17-14, rushing for just 79 yards in the first 30 minutes.

On the second possession of the third quarter, Moudy moved to the left side. Reeves entered. Kondolo and Price took the right side.
The next three drives produced 185 yards and three touchdowns.

Nebraska rushed for 155 yards in the second half and cruised to the easiest victory against Northwestern in four meetings since joining the Big Ten.

“It was really just everybody doing their jobs,” Price said, “listening to the coach and playing as hard as you can, as fast as you can, finishing blocks.”

Each of the three backups brings a compelling backstory.

Price, who turned 20 this month as a fourth-year junior, played little until this season. He said he understood the reasoning of offensive line coach John Garrison to go without subs against Michigan State.

“I wasn’t consistent in my game preparation,” Price said.

Price told himself and his fellow reserves that “we need to play like we’re playing a game.”

During the bye week, they did it, he said.

“The fact that it was acknowledged put more emphasis on it to do the little things right,” Reeves said. “There was a sense of urgency.”

Reeves, also a fourth-year junior, came to Nebraska as a heralded recruit from Crete, Nebraska. He was expected to contribute early but battled injuries, including a fractured ankle in the spring before his sophomore season, and has shifted between guard and center.

Last spring, Reeves was taken from the practice facility by ambulance after suffering a neck injury. He returned in April but missed more time with an ankle sprain.

Kondolo counted offers from Florida State and Tennessee out of high school in Carrollton, Texas. He failed to reach academic standards and landed at junior college in California before redshirting last season.

They’re an odd mix, but the trio works well together. Rarely does one enter the game without the other two.

“It’s nice throwing the second team in there and to still go down and score touchdowns on the first-team defense,” Lewis said. “It’s going to help us down the road. We’re such a close-knit group that you could see how it works. We’re all on the same page.”

This week as Nebraska hosts Rutgers, the backups are sure to play big roles again -- that is, if Price, Kondolo and Reeves remain on the second unit.

“I don’t know if we created a spark,” Reeves said. “We went out there, ran some good plays and moved the football.”

The Huskers will take that every week.

Big Ten morning links

September, 26, 2014
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Week 5 in the Big Ten is nearly upon us, with five conference matchups to digest. As the preparation comes to a close, here’s a peek inside my mind in advance of Saturday.

If it looks like a quarterback controversy, and it sounds like a quarterback controversy . . . Look, coaches would often rather talk about injuries -- and they hate to talk about injuries -- than an uncertain situation at quarterback. But that’s just what Brady Hoke and Kirk Ferentz face this week. Based on recent play of the Michigan offense, neither Shane Morris nor Devin Gardner appear likely to resurrect the Wolverines. But Hoke and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, as a visit nears from Minnesota, continue to keep their strategy under wraps. At Iowa, Jake Rudock has a leg injury. C.J. Beathard has a live arm, showcased in the second half last week as he led the Hawkeyes back on the road to beat Pittsburgh. So what you do? My suggestion: Give the backups a shot. Morris might provide a spark at the Big House. As for Iowa, it should win at Purdue with either guy. The Hawkeyes know what they’ve got in Rudock. Beathard has never started a game. Let's see what he can do.

What Big Ten team most needs a win on Saturday? This made for a fun discussion last week as Iowa, Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers faced important bounce-back opportunities. They all won, as did Indiana, which didn’t even receive much consideration in this discussion before its trip to Missouri. I chose Michigan last week as the team most in need of a win. And you know what happened against Utah. Well, this week, I’m eliminating U-M as a candidate here, because I think a victory over Minnesota simply delays the inevitable crash and burn. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State also don’t get a chance in this category; as favorites of more than two touchdowns, their situations are clear. Same goes for Rutgers, which ought to roll against Tulane. I’m going with Indiana, amazingly. The Hoosiers face a tough test at home against Maryland in what looks like an entertaining matchup. After the win at Mizzou, IU needs to validate its legitimacy as a bowl contender and continue to distance itself from the loss to Bowling Green.

Setting the table. Don’t look now, but if things go according to form in Lincoln and East Lansing on Saturday, there's a big one on tap next week at Spartan Stadium. A visit from the undefeated Cornhuskers would rank Nebraska-Michigan State as the marquee early-season conference game in the league and likely the best intra-division matchup of the season -- if not the game of the year in the Big Ten. Nationally, next week isn’t exactly the best day in college football history, but it’s pretty good, with Alabama-Ole Miss, Arizona State-USC, Texas A&M-Mississippi State, Stanford-Notre Dame and LSU-Auburn. The Huskers and Spartans can give the Big Ten a seat at the table.

Around the league:

East Division
West Division

Nebraska could be Big Ten's best shot

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Think of Nebraska as a football program that fell into a 15-foot hole, shallow enough to see the light from above but too deep to climb out easily.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say the Cornhuskers disappeared from ground level -- the plane on which championships are contested -- on a January night in 2002, courtesy of a swift uppercut from the Miami Hurricanes.

Several times, this program has scaled the slippery walls, seemingly ready to leap out before Texas or Oklahoma or Wisconsin shoved it back into the darkness. With each fall, the likelihood of another fast climb diminished.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah rushed for 229 yards and two touchdowns as the Huskers pounded Miami.
On Saturday night, as most of the nation focused elsewhere, the Huskers reached a collective hand over the edge of that hole and grabbed hold of flat ground.

Nebraska is 4-0, its first unbeaten nonconference finish since 2011, after a 41-31 win over its postseason rival from the glory years in Lincoln. The Huskers churned for 343 rushing yards and generally pummeled Miami, save for the first and last five minutes at Memorial Stadium.

Now, this was not vintage Miami. And Nebraska still needed a last-minute escape this month to beat McNeese State.

But the Huskers, who open Big Ten play on Saturday at home against Illinois, look set to head to Michigan State as an underdog next week with a chance to make a major statement.

It’s too soon, yes, to declare that Nebraska gives the Big Ten its best chance at the College Football Playoff. Nebraska hovers on the far edge of the national radar. But a win in East Lansing would distinguish it as a contender.

Are the Huskers ready to carry the torch for the Big Ten at the end of the league's dispiriting month?

“Our goal is to win them all,” defensive tackle Maliek Collins said. “We’re just going to take the momentum and keep going with this.”

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Nebraska a 1.1 percent chance to win out. The Huskers’ probability to win the Big Ten, according to the FPI, is 9.3 percent. By comparison, Wisconsin sits at 40.1 percent, which makes the Badgers a huge favorite in the West. And Nebraska must visit Madison in November.

“We’ve got four tough road games in the conference,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said on Saturday night. “Hopefully, the resolve that we showed [against Miami] will translate when we go on the road. It’s going to be a battle all the way through, but I think our offense is good enough to score points on anyone. And I think we’re good enough to stop anyone that we play.”

The Huskers showed that resolve twice in the second half on Saturday as fights erupted following interceptions of Miami QB Brad Kaaya.

The first pick was overturned by a roughing-the-passer penalty. Nebraska stiffened defensively to force a field goal. After the second scuffle, Nebraska marched 40 yards for a touchdown to go up 17 with less than five minutes to play, icing the win.

“We just played as Nebraska plays,” left tackle Alex Lewis said. “We didn’t care about Miami.”

The Huskers remain deficient at spots on defense. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has performed spectacularly at moments, but his consistency must improve.

Still, reasons exist to believe Nebraska will respond differently to adversity this season. The Huskers have broken even in the turnover category after forcing three against Miami, a huge improvement. Special teams look solid, another important change over last year.

Primarily, though, Nebraska has Ameer Abdullah, who offers an answer in most every situation. He ran for 229 yards against Miami, “a man possessed,” according to coach Bo Pelini.

“Our running game is what won this football game for us,” Pelini said. “That’s what Nebraska football is all about.”

Abdullah, a two-year captain, provides a strong voice in the locker room. His message to the Huskers as the Miami game approached figures to apply for as long as the Huskers continue to play well.

“Don’t believe the hype,” Abdullah said. “Don’t buy into anything that you hear.”

Miami poked the bear and paid for it on Saturday, said Papuchis, the defensive coordinator. We’ll learn soon if that bear is ready to crawl out of his hole.
LINCOLN, Neb. – Five months ago during his first work on the practice field at Nebraska, Alex Lewis clashed with star defensive end Randy Gregory.

“I was hungry for Randy,” Lewis said.

He heard much about Gregory’s QB-sacking exploits in 2013, and Lewis realized that no better way existed to measure his progress than against the Huskers’ best defender. Early in spring drills, teammates had to separate Lewis, taking over at left tackle, from Gregory after the whistle. The competition befit an October Saturday, not a March Wednesday.

Off the field, though, they developed an understanding, then a mutual respect and a kinship.

This is what Lewis gained in season away away from football -- a mechanism to harness his aggression.

“I like to talk and play rough on the field,” he said, “but I’ve found my little place of Zen.”

Lewis transferred to Nebraska last year from Colorado amid a tumultuous and transformative period in his life. Convicted of third-degree assault for a May 2013 altercation in Boulder, Colorado, he saw his scholarship pulled and his association with the Cornhuskers temporarily severed.

Lewis served a prison sentence this spring, and now’s he’s starting on the offensive line as No. 19 Nebraska hosts McNeese State on Saturday.

Of coach Bo Pelini, who offered a chance at redemption, Lewis said, “I owe my life to him.”

For the full story, click here.
The acceptance of Damore'ea Stringfellow at Nebraska presents more evidence that coach Bo Pelini and the Huskers are willing to take new risks in their attempt to construct a championship-caliber program.

[+] EnlargeDamore'ea Stringfellow, Michael Davis
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesNebraska will keep a close watch on wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow, who transferred from Washington this weekend.
Stringfellow, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound receiver, said on Saturday that he’s transferring from Washington to Nebraska. In 2013, Stringfellow was ranked the nation’s No. 51 prospect in the ESPN 300 and the fourth-best recruit in California out of Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley.

Rancho Verde is a prep program familiar to the Huskers for producing former linebacker Eric Martin and ex-wideout Quincy Enunwa, who caught a school-record 12 touchdowns last fall.

The circumstances of Stringfellow’s transfer also look a bit familiar in Lincoln.

He pleaded guilty in April to three misdemeanors related to a post-Super Bowl altercation with two Seahawks fans in Seattle on Feb. 2. Stringfellow and Washington quarterback Cyler Miles were suspended by UW coach Chris Petersen. Miles was later reinstated.

Stringfellow was ordered to pay a fine, serve on a work crew and attend anger-management counseling.

A year ago at this time, Nebraska coaches contemplated the transfer of offensive lineman Alex Lewis. Lewis, days after settling his move from Colorado to Nebraska, was arrested for his role in a fight in Boulder, Colorado, that left an Air Force cadet unconscious.

Lewis pleaded guilty to third-degree assault. Nebraska allowed his transfer but denied Lewis access to the team last fall. He joined the program as a walk-on in January and performed well in spring practice, earning the inside track to start at left tackle after he serves a 45-day jail sentence in Colorado this summer.

Will Stringfellow, recruited by the likes of USC, Ohio State and Michigan out of high school, face similar parameters in Lincoln?

Has Pelini compromised the standards of Nebraska football, which has prided itself under the seventh-year coach for running a clean program as others nationally appear to run amok?

The answer to both questions, likely, is no.

Stringfellow’s situation differs from the case of Lewis in that the receiver faced his punishment from the court before Nebraska pursued him as a transfer.

Expect the Huskers to keep him under watch but close to the team and a part of practices this fall as he sits out to satisfy transfer rules. In 2015, Nebraska must replace prolific receiver Kenny Bell. Stringfellow gives the Huskers a legitimate option to step in and compete against the best in the Big Ten.

Stringfellow caught eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown on Nov. 15 in Washington’s 41-31 loss to UCLA.

The Huskers see his potential. He possesses the talent in a receiver rarely recruited at Nebraska. Stringfellow visited Lincoln as a high school senior, along with USC and Washington.

Upon news of his decision this weekend, several Nebraska coaches rejoiced on Twitter, offering thinly veiled references to the big-bodied wideout. Nebraska already knew plenty about Stringfellow and researched him additionally in recent weeks.

As for Pelini, his standards remain in place.

The Huskers value character as much as two years ago -- before Lewis and Stringfellow, before defensive end Avery Moss was banned from campus for a year in relation to a 2012 public-indecency charge, before linebacker Josh Banderas entered a diversion program last month for his role in the theft of seven bicycles from a campus rack. The charge was later dismissed.

Since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, recruiting competition has intensified. Ask anyone who encountered James Franklin’s Penn State staff on the trail this spring.

Urban Meyer, of course, has raised the stakes.

Nebraska must continue to take risks to improve its standing in the conference hierarchy. Or even to keep pace.

A fine line exists, but the Huskers can navigate it -- with informed decisions like the Stringfellow case -- and maintain the integrity Pelini and Nebraskans so value in their program.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- In 6 years at Nebraska, Bo Pelini has run a tight ship.

He holds his football players to a high standard. They perform well academically. The Huskers represent their program admirably in the community, creating more headlines for their acts of goodwill and outreach than for encounters with law enforcement.

[+] EnlargeJosh Banderas
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIJosh Banderas made a mistake, but is it one worth being outcast of the Nebraska program?
Most in this state can agree that Nebraska football, of late, has stayed largely above the fray that too often engulfs programs rife with distraction.

Nebraska football is a source of pride that extends beyond Memorial Stadium to the streets of Lincoln and Omaha and the rural communities that send their high school stars to play for Pelini and his coaches, with a scholarship or not.

The culture creates tremendous expectations and, as we’ve seen this week, an occasional lack of tolerance for mistakes -- more so off the field than on it.

Josh Banderas, the 19-year-old linebacker who started four games as a true freshman and the lone Nebraskan in the Huskers’ 2013 recruiting class, was stopped by Lincoln Police on Monday and charged Tuesday with felony theft for stealing seven bicycles from a rack on campus.

Banderas and Nebraska distance runner Lucas Keifer, a former high school classmate who drove the getaway truck, face preliminary court dates next month.

A reduction in charges -- even entry into a diversion program -- appears possible.

None of that erases the stupidity of their alleged actions. According to police, Banderas and Keifer, in broad daylight, used bolt cutters to remove the bikes. They were apprehended minutes after the crime occurred.

Since the news broke Tuesday, it’s been a hot topic around town. Generally, disbelief has trumped outrage.

Banderas told police, according to an affidavit, that he and Keifer planned to sell the bikes. Banderas told an officer that they took the bikes after noticing signs posted on the racks that the university would soon confiscate the property as abandoned.

He knew better. More than most in the football program, Banderas should understand the significance of his actions. He grew up in the shadow of Nebraska football; Banderas’ father, Tom, lettered as a tight end at the school from 1985 to 1987.

The Huskers, seeking a return to the football elite, have been riding an offseason hot streak in part because to Pelini’s public personality makeover.

Observers wondered if this incident might derail that momentum.

By my gauge, the temperature in the state is astonishing on the Banderas situation. While Pelini and the Nebraska administration have stayed quiet, fans and media are speaking out, many in in knee-jerk fashion. Some are ready for the Huskers to cut ties with Banderas for a full season, if not for good.

In January, defensive end Avery Moss was banned from campus for one year, stemming from a 2012 public-indecency charge. Offensive tackle Alex Lewis is set to serve a 45-day jail sentence this summer for a 2013 assault committed before he enrolled at Nebraska.

Lewis was not allowed to work out with the team last fall after his transfer from Colorado but has faced no additional discipline since joining the program in January.

Banderas’ actions, which pale in comparison, have more significantly raised the ire of Nebraskans. This is a slippery slope. Let’s remember that he is 19 and a productive citizen by all previous accounts.

Pelini has time to make a decision, time to monitor Banderas’ reaction, time to determine appropriate discipline.

The image of Nebraska football is important, perhaps more so now than ever. But Banderas, still with a promising future, ought not to be sacrificed for it.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 9, 2014
May 9
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Fourteen Big Ten programs combined to produce four first-round NFL draft picks. Louisville, Northern Illinois and Buffalo together had five. Eleven of 32 came from the SEC. Discuss.
  • A big night at the NFL draft for Michigan's Taylor Lewan, who landed with the Titans at No. 11 to lead off a better opening day for the league.
  • Ohio State's defensive duo, Ryan Shazier at No. 15 to the Steelers and Bradley Roby at No. 31, went to the Broncos.
  • And Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard found a home with the Bengals at No. 24.
  • Michigan’s other offensive tackle, Michael Schofield, has used a family struggle as his motivation to prepare for this draft.
  • Former Indiana receiver Cody Latimer went to New York to hear his name called at the draft. He’s still waiting.
  • Also waiting, defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hagemen of Minnesota, which hasn’t had a player drafted since Eric Decker in 2010. And the wait is almost over, too, for Wisconsin’s Chris Borland.
  • Tracking the Maryland prospects for the second through seventh rounds.
  • Meanwhile, Purdue’s 15-year streak of landing at least one player in the draft is in jeopardy.
  • Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel lands the presidency at Youngstown State after he was bypassedat the University of Akron.
  • What to do this offseason? Shane Morris can play catch ... with himself.
  • Michigan State appears interested in the younger brother of tight end Dylan Chmura.
  • James Franklin and the Penn State coaches continue their 17-stop caravan in Pittsburgh. Can the grayshirting of recruits help PSU overcome its scholarship limitations.
  • Former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage earns the endorsement of ex-coach Greg Schiano.
  • Former Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz will remain on staff in 2014 as a graduate assistant. An appeal is deniedfor the summer jail sentence in Colorado for offensive tackle Alex Lewis is denied.
  • Minnesota loses a backup defensive lineman to North Dakota.
  • Kirk Ferentz marches to the beat of his own drum in recruiting, but even he occasionally extends a scholarship offer to a high school freshman.

Nebraska spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Nebraska.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Nebraska boasts an embarrassment of riches at running back: If there’s a better group of backs in the Big Ten, good luck to any defense tasked to stop it. The Huskers return the nation’s top yardage producer in Ameer Abdullah with a stacked group of runners behind him, led by Imani Cross.
  • Nathan Gerry’s position shift solidifies the secondary: After an inconsistent freshman season at linebacker, Gerry moved to safety, a more natural fit, and looked comfortable from the first practice. With Corey Cooper sidelined, Gerry and LeRoy Alexander more than held their own. That trio offers an upgrade over 2013.
  • The left side of the offensive line looks nasty: Jake Cotton at left guard already fits as the line’s leader. Cotton brings a mean streak. But the addition of Colorado transfer Alex Lewis at left tackle gives the Huskers an attitude that has long been missing up front.
Three questions for the fall

  • Who’s going to step up at linebacker?: Coach Bo Pelini challenged this group after the spring to find a big-time player or two. Nebraska has plenty of depth in the heart of its defense and a few potential stars in the making. But who’s going to do it now? Keep an eye on senior Zaire Anderson.
  • Who’s the backup QB?: Tommy Armstrong Jr. diffused the top storyline at the start of the spring by taking control at quarterback. While Johnny Stanton or Ryker Fyfe could still challenge Armstrong in August, their battle offers more intrigue. Stanton shows the higher ceiling, but Fyfe was more consistent through the spring.
  • Can the fun feeling carry over?: Pelini unveiled a side of his personality seen in the past only by Nebraska staffers and players. He was inviting and open to fun. The fall will surely bring a return of buttoned-up Bo, but can the lightened atmosphere of spring help the Huskers deal with scrutiny and pressure situations?
One way too early prediction

Nebraska’s streak of four-loss seasons will end in 2014. Six straight years of 9-4 or 10-4 have led to some feelings of unrest about the program’s direction. This is the year the Huskers move out of neutral. Will they shift into drive or reverse? The pieces are in place to make a run at the Big Ten title, but a stretch of five consecutive night games that starts on Sept. 13 at Fresno State could prove treacherous.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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Is this heaven? Nope, still Iowa. But happy to be back.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
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Coming at ya from Happy Valley. Dropping in on James Franklin and the Nittany Lions on Wednesday.

To the inbox ...

Ken from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Hey Adam! I loved the "dictator for the day" thread. I just have one suggestion ... since everyone was worried about some teams getting five home games and other teams getting four in a nine-game schedule, and with two bye weeks now due to extending games beyond Thanksgiving, how about every team has one of their conference games played internationally each year, following a bye week? This would: increase international exposure for the B1G, be a cool perk when it came to recruiting -- "your son will get to visit four or five foreign countries during their years at our university" -- and leave everyone with an even 4-4-1 split on conference game locations and make for some cool travel options for the fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Ken, a couple things here. The double-bye thankfully won't be an annual occurrence in college football. It takes place only when Aug. 30 or Aug. 31 falls on a Saturday, as was the case last year and again this fall. Also, Big Ten schools don't want to part with home games, especially for an international site that, while appealing to some, prevents many others from attending. It also disrupts the players' schedule. I like the way you're thinking because exposure is the name of the game, and occasional international events like Penn State's opener this fall make sense. But not every year.


Brian from Baltimore writes: So far PSU and James Franklin are "walking the walk"' as far as dominating recruiting. How surprising is this? After this torrid pace of commitments slows down, how do you see Penn State faring overall for 2015 recruits?

Rittenberg: Brian, while the sheer number of early commits is noteworthy, Franklin's recruiting success certainly is not. He has been regarded as a nationally elite recruiter since his time as a Maryland assistant, and the enthusiasm he brings to Penn State -- and a region where he and several of his assistants already have familiarity -- translates on the trail. Franklin did really well with early commitments in Vanderbilt's 2013 class, as 16 players pledged before the season. If Penn State hangs onto all these recruits and continues to add solid pieces, Franklin will bring in a nationally elite class next February.


Brian from West Michigan writes: If the Northwestern unionizing efforts succeed, are they aware of the unintended consequences that are coming from their actions? For instance, now that they are considered "employees," their scholarship value (upwards of 50K/year depending on the school) is considered compensation and eligible to be taxed. You hear stories of kids being able to use athletics to get them a degree that otherwise they couldn't have afforded. How does a college kid who is now "making" $50K/year scrape up the cash to pay Uncle Sam?

Rittenberg: Brian, the tax question looms large in the debate, and there are different opinions on what the players would be required to pay. Kevin Trahan addresses it well here, quoting several tax experts who say the players will have to pay taxes on their scholarships. College Athletes Players Association president Ramogi Huma, meanwhile, cites a provision in the tax code that states scholarships for "degree candidates" are not taxable. It doesn't sound like tax status will factor into the NLRB's final ruling on whether players are employees, but it's certainly a significant factor for the players as they pursue this route.


Jim from Virginia writes: A lot is made of "skill" positions (top three backfield, etc). Yet, when looking at the offensive and defensive lines, Nebraska seems to be able to make a case for turning a four-loss year last year -- when the offensive line got experience through injuries and the defensive line matured -- into maybe Bo Pelini's best campaign.

Rittenberg: Jim, I agree that Nebraska's ceiling this season largely depends on line play. Randy Gregory provides a major edge-rushing threat for the defensive line, and if Nebraska can stay healthy and generate more from the inside tackles, it should be pretty stout up front. There are more questions along the offensive line, which loses key players such as Spencer Long, Cole Pensick and Jeremiah Sirles. Alex Lewis is a key addition because he brings experience from Colorado. Lewis and Jake Cotton should anchor the left side of the Husker line. Nebraska must build depth and chemistry with the group the rest of the spring and through fall camp. It likely needs younger players such as Givens Price to blossom.


Keith from Kunming, China, writes: Hey Adam,You didn't like the Premier League model for B1G and MAC, but I do. You said it's not realistic to move between leagues, but it is if the B1G and the MAC have a contractual relationship, and the MAC is essentially absorbed into the B1G as a sort of junior league. B1G doesn't "own" MAC programs but it effectively subsidizes them. Michigan will continue to fill its stadium when relegated (oh! the joy in East Lansing!), which will be financially great for the MAC opponents. My only change to the model proposed is that relegation should happen every years, as in England. Why wouldn't this work?

Rittenberg: Keith, first off, thanks for reading from so far away. Although the Big Ten and the MAC have a strong relationship when it comes to scheduling, officiating and other areas, your proposal requires the Big Ten to shoulder a major financial and structural burden, while embarrassing its members in the process. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun for fans, but does the Big Ten want to be so closely tied with the MAC, which has schools with profiles that differ markedly from those in the Big Ten? Scheduling would be a huge headache because you wouldn't know where certain teams would be. Money would be a problem on several levels, from television audience to stadium size.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
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It’s April Fool’s Day. Resist the urge.

Enjoy some spring football:
  • A feel-good story as a group of players from Rutgers continue to use their spring breaks to help rebuild infrastructure in Haiti. A grim outlook for Rutgers in the Big Ten, courtesy of a former long-time New Jersey legislator.

  • Penn State’s initial recruiting success under James Franklin is gaining notice nationally and on the local scene.

  • Ohio State looks forward to a deeper rotation on the defensive line, which means fewer snaps for Michael Bennett. As for the Buckeyes' offensive line, depth is still a concern.

  • The pursuit of defensive tackle Malik McDowell, once a Michigan State pledge, remains unsettled despite the passing of a deadline. The Spartans look for 5:30 a.m. workouts to build mental toughness.

  • Meanwhile, Michigan is also in search this spring of that elusive element of toughness, writes Jeremy Fowler. Michigan offensive lineman Ben Braden developed his athletic skills as a hockey player.

  • An op-ed from the New York Times on justice being served as Northwestern players bid to unionize. The leader of the newly-formed association is looking forward. But hold off on drawing major conclusions over all the recent union talk.

  • Minnesota linebacker Cody Poock reportedly has suffered a torn knee ligament.

  • Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says offensive tackle Alex Lewis has exceeded expectations and requirements in his transition to Lincoln after a troublesome time last year as he prepared to depart Colorado. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. must be pushed, writes Steve Sipple.




Big Ten's lunch links

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
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Spent the weekend hoopin' it up in Milwaukee. Good times. Back to the football grind, and the links.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- For the first 2½ years of his career at Nebraska, Givens Price heard voices.

Voices at practice. Voices in the meeting room. Voices when he entered the playing rotation at guard in the second half of last season as injuries nearly decimated the offensive line.

Five senior offensive linemen in 2013 -- gone from Nebraska after starting a combined 127 games in their careers -- spoke to Price even when he stood alone on the sideline.

“We are the voices now,” Price said on Monday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIZach Sterup (57) and Ryne Reeves (65) are among those competing for spots on the Huskers O-line.
The Huskers are rebuilding the line this spring. Through six practices, improvement is steady, according to the linemen and the quarterback they protect, sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr.

“They’re going to get better,” Armstrong said. “We’re expecting that. At the same time, you’ve got to understand that sometimes mistakes are going to happen. They’re all out there to win a spot. They’re all out there to improve and push each other. They come out there and they’re ready to work.”

Despite the departures, Nebraska returns experience, primarily in left guard Jake Cotton, a senior who started 11 games last season. Others show notable promise, and the line, as a group, appears just as physically impressive as the 2013 cast.

Perhaps more impressive, in fact.

“We’ve got to get the mental side down,” Cotton said, “if we want the size to matter.”

Six practices into this spring, Cotton at left guard and junior Zach Sterup at right tackle appear most entrenched. Price has taken the majority of snaps at right guard, though senior Mike Moudy, out with a shoulder injury this spring, figures to compete for the job in August.

At center, senior Mark Pelini and junior Ryne Reeves are splitting time. And at left tackle, Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, a junior who has emerged as a top spring storyline, and redshirt freshman David Knevel, continue to compete.

“I think our whole room is full of competitors,” Cotton said “Some of the guys have come so far in [two weeks]. I wouldn’t have guessed it would go this fast.”

Many of the new candidates to start received an unexpected jump start last season.

With seniors Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick set to anchor the line, all appeared settled.

But after Long, an offensive captain and All-Big Ten pick in 2012, went down with a knee injury in early October, the injuries mounted. Moudy started three games in place of Long at right guard before the shoulder injury hit.

Cotton missed two games with a knee injury. Sirles and Pensick also missed practice time, forcing position shifts among the experienced linemen and youngsters like Reeves, Sterup, Pelini and Price into action.

Production suffered. Nebraska averaged 42.4 points and 291.6 rushing yards in the five games before Long’s injury; after, it was 25.4 and 168.2.

Still, Armstrong credits the veteran linemen, especially Cotton, with easing the quarterback's transition into the lineup.

“They all sat me down and said, ‘Hey, this is your time,’” Armstrong said. “’We saw how you practiced. Just go out there and have fun. We’re going to have your back 100 percent of the way.’ Jake Cotton said, ‘You’re the guy we want right now, and you’re the guy we need.'

“He told me we were going to win games, and that’s what we did.”

Armstrong finished 7-1 as a starter last season, including a win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl.

Now it’s his turn to help nurture the young linemen.

The play of Lewis at left tackle grabbed Armstrong’s attention this spring. At 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, Lewis, who started 12 games at Colorado in 2012, has meshed well with Cotton to help protect the QB’s blind side.

Lewis and Cotton, to put in nicely, make their presence known on the practice field.

“That’s double trouble right there,” Armstrong said. “They work hard. They’re outgoing. They’re rowdy. They just keep going.”

Cotton said the group is quickly developing a chemistry.

“You go the extra step to make sure guys are on the same page,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. There’s just something about having open spots, with nothing guaranteed, that’s fun, because the competition is heated. Guys are gunning for spots.”

It will, no doubt, intensify in August as Moudy returns. Also set to join the mix are Nick Gates, D.J. Foster and Tanner Farmer, the most heralded group of linemen signees in coach Bo Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska. Another rookie, Mick Stoltenberg, could fit on the offensive or defensive line.

Regardless of the personnel, they’ll work without the guidance of veterans like Long and Sirles.

“Nothing stops,” Price said. “We’ve got to pick up from where they left off. The dream they had is still the dream we have -- that’s to make it to the Big Ten championship and win the Big Ten championship. It starts in spring football.”

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
5:00
PM ET
Let's round out this Monday with another edition of the ol' mailbag. Remember to keep those emails coming or to hit us up on Twitter.

Michael from Remsen, Iowa, writes: Do you think that NEBRASKA's young but very talented linebackers will take that step up this year and be the best linebacking group in the Big Ten? Also, who do you think wins the starting left tackle spot?

Brian Bennett: Michael, the potential is certainly there. Not all of the linebackers are young; the coaches have loved senior Zaire Anderson's talent and potential for some time, but he's just got to stay healthy and in the lineup. Michael Rose looks like a rising star, Josh Banderas has turned some heads in spring practice so far, and David Santos gained a lot of experience last year. Throw in newcomers like Marcus Newby and Courtney Love, and this is a deep group with loads of athleticism. Best in the Big Ten? I'm not so sure about that, but the league did lose an abundance of star linebackers to the NFL draft. I still need to see the Huskers' defense deliver consistently, but the future looks really bright in that front seven.

As for left tackle, Alex Lewis has been getting reps with the No. 1 unit so far this spring. Lewis transferred in after playing two years at Colorado and withstood some legal troubles. The reshuffling of Nebraska's offensive line remains a big story to watch this offseason.


Ol' Red from Sandusky, Ohio, writes: In your "Ultimate B1G 2014 road trip: Week 9" pick of the Michigan-Michigan State game, you pointed out that Michigan has only scored 32 combined points the last three seasons. Just another tidbit I'd like to throw your way... Although Michigan has won four, the Spartans have held U of M to less points than the preceding year for 9 straight games (45, 34, 31, 28, 21, 20, 17, 14, 12, 6). If that trend continues, it will be awfully tough for the Spartans to lose giving up less than 6 points. This really shows the improvement in Mark Dantonio's defense year-to-year. I expect the Wolverines to score only three this upcoming season and be shut out in 2015.

Brian Bennett: A Rose Bowl victory followed by a Big Ten tournament title and seemingly every expert picking them to win the NCAA tournament understandably has Spartans fans feeling a bit chesty. Michigan State's defense has locked things down against Michigan the past few years. You need some bulletin board material, Doug Nussmeier?


Jase from Nebraska writes: I imagine most networks are doing something very similar to your fantasy trip planning, but on a much larger scale. My worry is at all the *meh* weeks we're racking up will mean few televised game and less exposure.

Brian Bennett: The return of the dreaded double-bye does make for some less-than-stellar weeks on the 2014 schedule. But the nonconference opponents this year are much better than they were in 2013, and there are still some excellent heavyweight matchups sprinkled throughout the conference season. Ohio State-Michigan State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Penn State-Michigan, Michigan State-Michigan, Ohio State-Penn State are just a few of those. The biggest question from the broadcast side is how many games will be picked up for primetime, especially in November? But the Big Ten isn't exactly hurting for exposure.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: I see that in the West Division poll, Minnesota is rated a distant fourth, barely over Northwestern. I guess most consider Minnesota's performance in 2013 to be a one-time occurrence. I think the team may have a difficult time improving on last year's win-loss totals though the team may be better than last year's.

Brian Bennett: No doubt there are still some doubters on Minnesota (and polls like that tend to favor the biggest fan bases). The Gophers had a great run in the 2013 season but have yet to really break through as serious division contenders. It's going to be tough to do that without some major improvement in the passing game, something the team is emphasizing this spring for sure. Minnesota has a tougher schedule this year with a road game at TCU, crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan and intra-division road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, a solid core returns from last year's team, and the arrow is pointing up in Minneapolis. I'm guessing Jerry Kill doesn't mind being the underdog right now.


Scott from Marinette, Wis., writes: Why is no one talking about Vince Biegel this year for Wisconsin on defense? I truly believe he will make a big difference for the Badgers on the front seven this year. He is an absolute animal and will create havoc for opposing offenses this coming year.

Brian Bennett: Biegel ... animal ... Jack Russell ... nope, I'm going to stay strong. Biegel made an impact as a redshirt freshman at outside linebacker in the 3-4 and will step into a much bigger role this season. He needs to because the Badgers lost so much talent and experience in that front seven, including linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly. At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Biegel has great size and a good chance to make some plays from that pass-rushing position. He's still a young guy, but he'll have to be an anchor for this rebuilt defense.

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July, 2, 2013
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