Big Ten: Andrew Rodriguez

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.”
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
National signing day is less than 48 hours away, and Big Ten fan bases are preparing to officially welcome the 2014 class. My interest in recruiting has increased during the years, but I likely will never reach the mania of many fans.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston
Zuma Press/Icon SMIWilliam Gholston played three seasons for Michigan State, recording 142 tackles and 10 sacks.
The reason: There have been so many examples of supposed top recruits who go bust, and under-the-radar guys who become stars, especially in a largely developmental league like the Big Ten. Recruiting evaluation is an inexact science.

As we prepare for the faxes to roll in, especially from the Big Ten prospects in the ESPN 300, it's always interesting to take a look back at how the top Big Ten recruits from four years ago performed. There wasn't an ESPN 300 back in 2010, just an ESPN 150, which included 15 Big Ten players. Some became stars, some never got started and others haven't closed the book on their college careers.

Let's take a closer look (positions listed according to ESPN recruiting profiles):

Top 50

  • No. 12: Demar Dorsey, S, Michigan -- Although Dorsey signed with Michigan, he was denied admission to the school. He had a checkered past but reportedly was given no specific reason for the denial. Dorsey appeared headed to Louisville but never made it and played for Grand Rapids Community College in 2011. He planned to transfer to Hawaii in 2012 but never played for the Warriors.
  • No. 42: William Gholston, DE, Michigan State -- Gholston played three seasons for the Spartans, recording 142 tackles, including 30 for loss and 10 sacks. He started 24 games and stood out in bowl wins against Georgia and TCU. After a big performance in the 2012 Outback Bowl, Gholston appeared on several preseason watch lists but underachieved at times during the 2012 campaign. He skipped his final season and was a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Nos. 51-100

  • No. 56: Rod Smith, RB, Ohio State -- Smith redshirted the 2010 season and has been in a reserve role the past three seasons, playing briefly at linebacker in 2012. He has 83 career rushes for 448 yards and four touchdowns. Smith once again will compete for the starting job this fall.
  • No. 66: Khairi Fortt, LB, Penn State -- He played two years for Penn State, recording 50 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, before transferring to Cal in 2012 when the NCAA imposed sanctions on PSU. Fortt sat out the 2012 season because of injury and had 64 tackles (3.5 for loss) in nine games last season before suffering an arm injury. He declared for the NFL draft last month.
  • No. 70: Dakota Royer, DE, Penn State -- Royer didn't play at linebacker in his first two seasons, moved to tight end after spring ball in 2012 and moved back to linebacker early in camp. He then decided to walk away from football, remained on scholarship and graduated in May.
  • No. 80: James Louis, WR, Ohio State -- Louis redshirted the 2010 season and then opted to transfer from Ohio State to Florida International. He never played for FIU and is no longer listed on the roster.
  • No. 82: C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa -- He appeared in every game during the past four years and started the past two-and-a-half seasons, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches as a senior in 2013. Fiedorowicz had 91 career receptions for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns, including six this past season.
  • No. 88: Evan Hailes, DT, Penn State -- Hailes redshirted in 2010 and played two games in 2011, recording two tackles. A series of blood clots, which first surfaced in the spring of 2011, ended his career in 2012. He remained with the team in a coaching role.
[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe reviews have been mixed for Devin Gardner, who passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013.
Nos. 101-150

  • No. 112: Rob Bolden, QB, Penn State -- Bolden in 2010 became the first freshman quarterback in 100 years to start a season opener at Penn State. He made 16 starts in two years at Penn State but transferred to LSU after the NCAA imposed sanctions on the program in 2012. Bolden has yet to play for the Tigers and has one season left.
  • No. 118: Miles Dieffenbach, C, Penn State -- Dieffenbach redshirted in 2010 and didn't play in 2011 before starting 23 games the past two seasons at left guard. He'll likely enter the 2014 campaign in the same spot.
  • No. 128: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan -- Gardner appeared in 12 games as a reserve quarterback in his first two seasons before alternating between wide receiver and quarterback in 2012, starting the final four games under center. He started 12 games at quarterback in 2013 and passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns, delivering several huge performances and also some duds. Gardner, who received a medical redshirt for the 2010 season, returns for his final year this fall.
  • No. 131: Darryl Baldwin, DE, Ohio State -- Baldwin worked as a reserve defensive lineman in 2011 before moving to offense in the spring of 2012. He played mostly special teams in 2012 and backed up left tackle Jack Mewhort the past two years. Baldwin could move into a starting role in his final season.
  • No. 137: Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State -- After recording just 22 receptions in his first two seasons, Brown emerged as the Buckeyes' top option in the passing game as a junior and senior. He combined to record 123 catches for 1,440 yards and 13 touchdowns and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2013 from the coaches.
  • No. 147: Andrew Rodriguez, G, Nebraska -- Rodriguez played mostly in a reserve role for his first three seasons and then started every game as a senior in 2013, alternating between right tackle and right guard for an injury-plagued Husker line. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media.
  • No. 148: C.J. Olaniyan, DE, Penn State -- After redshirting in 2010, Olaniyan recorded 18 tackles and a sack during his first two seasons. He started every game last fall at defensive end and led Penn State in both sacks (5) and forced fumbles (3), recording 11 tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery. He'll enter his final season projected as a starter.

More misses than hits in the group, although several players still could finish their college careers as stars.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Only twice in its illustrious history has Nebraska averaged 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season.

Only once – last season – has it reached 250 rushing and 200 passing.

Through six games this fall, the Huskers sit at 285 rushing and 205 passing. Granted, three of the Big Ten’s top four rushing defenses – Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan – await Nebraska in November, and the other top unit against the run, Ohio State, might well be there for the Huskers in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 if things go as planned in Lincoln.

Regardless, credit the Nebraska offensive line, whose members talked in August of ranking as a vintage Huskers group. That’s a mouthful at a school that won six Outland Trophies and 13 NCAA rushing titles in the 1980s and 1990s alone.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Long
Reese Strickland/US PresswireSpencer Long will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, forcing a shift on the Nebraska offensive line.
These guys have held their own, though, allowing a FBS-low three sacks in the season’s first half.

Now they meet their biggest challenge, the test the Nebraska linemen hoped they would never face: the loss of Spencer Long. How they respond will define the way they are remembered.

“From here on out, we’re playing for Spencer,” said junior Mike Moudy, Long’s likely replacement at right guard next Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. “We’ve got the drive to compete for him. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. But everyone’s just taking that in stride and saying we’re going to give our all to Spence.”

Long meant so much to his teammates. He was a throwback to the great linemen of Huskers past – a walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., who toiled on the scout team, earned his scholarship, then all-conference honors and a recognition as a captain in his fifth-year senior season.

He started 33 games. He remains a top student, majoring in pre-med. He’ll probably be a doctor, even if the NFL delays his continued studies.

He went down on the fifth play from scrimmage last week in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue. Long was hustling around the backside of a rush by Imani Cross and fell over the legs of defensive end Ryan Russell. Long’s left knee buckled.

Coach Bo Pelini was among the first to reach him on the ground. Long underwent surgery Thursday to repair a torn MCL. Don’t bet against his return in time to work for NFL scouts ahead of the May 8-10 NFL draft.

“What happened to Spencer sucks,” senior left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “There’s no way around it. His career got cut short here at Nebraska, but a lot of young guys have got great opportunities now.

“We’re going to honor Spencer with our effort. We’re going to honor Spencer with the way we play, because he was our captain. We followed him.”

Who will they follow now? Perhaps Sirles, a veteran of 34 starts, fellow seniors Andrew Rodriguez at right tackle and center Cole Pensick. With Moudy and junior Jake Cotton at left guard, the offensive line is still a seasoned group.

Coaches have talked this week of shifting Pensick, using untested Ryne Reeves or Givens Price or even pulling the redshirt from junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo.

It will work best if Moudy sticks. He fits the pedigree at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, another top student who has worked in the program for four years. As recently as last season, Moudy spent time on the scout team. Pelini said he noticed a big jump in the spring.

What happened?

“Probably just wanting to play, “Moudy said. “The desire to play. I kind of got tired of sitting on the scout team. I had to take another step mentally.”

Long, with Cotton and offensive line coach John Garrison, aided Moudy in his ascent.

He began to prove himself at Purdue. Moudy allowed one sack but otherwise played well.

The other linemen chided him for the mistake.

“He did a great job,” Sirles said, “but he’s going to held to the same standard Spencer was held to. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair.' But we all hold ourselves to a high standard. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing.”

Injuries such as this one are all too common over the past two seasons at Nebraska. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler went down last year during the Huskers’ regular-season finale against Iowa.

The defense did not respond well as Wisconsin and Georgia gouged Nebraska for 115 points in subsequent games.

I-back Rex Burkhead, a leader and motivational figure in the same vein as Long, missed six games of his senior year with a knee injury last season. In his place, the Huskers found a new star, Ameer Abdullah, and hardly missed a beat.

Which path will the offensive line take over the next six weeks? It figures to define their legacy.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
12:00
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I'm Carlos Danger, and I approved these links.
It's time to jump back into our preseason position rankings with a look at the offensive line units.

On Friday, we ranked the top individual players at the position. These unit rankings reflect star power as well as depth. We're heavily weighing these on last year's performance, along with potential for the 2012 season.

Away we go:

1. Wisconsin: Sure, the Badgers lost two All-Americans (Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz) from last year's line. But they've earned the benefit of the doubt for their ability to reload up front. Left tackle Ricky Wagner is an Outland Trophy candidate, and center Travis Frederick should be one of the best in the Big Ten. The key will be how the new-look right side with Rob Havenstein and likely Robert Burge moving into starting roles.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US Presswire With top tackle Taylor Lewan returning, Michigan fields one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines might have the top tackle in the league with junior Taylor Lewan, and guard Patrick Omameh is a three-year starter. Senior Ricky Barnum is taking over for David Molk at center. Michael Schofield should be solid at right tackle, though the left guard spot remains a competition. It should be a strong starting group, though depth here is a major concern.

3. Michigan State: This could be the best offensive line Mark Dantonio has had in East Lansing. Six players who started games last year are back, and there will be depth and competition at several spots. Third-year starter Chris McDonald is one of the league's top guards, while tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti are dependable.

4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers lost three starters from last year's line, but much like Wisconsin, this is a group that usually reloads. Guards Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi provide nice building blocks, with Tyler Moore, Jeremiah Sirles and Andrew Rodriguez solidifying the tackle spots. The big question here is center and who will replace Mike Caputo.

5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had their problems up front last year and now are implementing a new offensive system. Urban Meyer wasn't happy with the group's work ethic in January but felt much better about them by the end of spring. Jack Mewhort replaces Mike Adams at left tackle, while Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall try to live up their potential at guard. Corey Linsley earned Meyer's praise for his work at center. Keep an eye on the right tackle spot, where former tight end Reid Fragel is now the first-stringer. But true freshman Taylor Decker is pushing him.

6. Purdue: Injuries kept the Boilers from building much cohesion this spring, but this can be a sturdy group when healthy. Three starters are back, with Trevor Foy moving from right to left tackle. This is an experienced bunch, but Danny Hope wants to see more dominance. Senior center Rick Schmeig should be a leader

7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes must replace three starters, including NFL draft picks Reilly Reiff and Adam Gettis. But Iowa usually fields good offensive lines, and hopes are high for this year's edition. The leader is center James Ferentz, who now will be coached by his older brother, Brian Ferentz. Much will depend on how players like Brett Van Sloten and Brandon Scherff develop.

8. Northwestern: The Wildcats lost two valuable starters in tackle Al Netter and Ben Burkett but return three-year starter Brian Mulroe at guard and promising sophomore center Brandon Vitabile. There should be good depth up front, but can the Wildcats generate a consistent rushing attack?

9. Penn State: The good news is that the Nittany Lions played better than expected last year on the offensive line. The bad news is four starters are gone, not to mention some potential transfers in the wake of the NCAA sanctions. There is still talent here, including guard John Urschel and tackle Donovan Smith. But the least experienced line in the league will have to learn a new offensive system.

10. Illinois: There was little excuse for the Illini O-line to play as bad as it did last year with standout players Jeff Allen and Graham Pocic in the mix. Pocic is back this year at center, though he might take some snaps at tackle as well. Young players like sophomore Simon Cvijanovic and redshirt freshman Ted Karras will need to come on. This unit should be improved, but it ranks low based on last year's finish.

11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill shuffled this group last year and played a lot of youngsters. It's still a relatively inexperienced unit, but there is hope for improvement. Junior left tackle Ed Olson has the best chance to be a star.

12. Indiana: Center Will Matte is one of the most experienced linemen in the league. But beyond him are several young players, including three true sophomores who started as freshmen last year. There's nowhere to go but up.

Nebraska-Penn State kickoff notes

November, 12, 2011
11/12/11
11:41
AM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Back to football. Finally.

Both teams went through normal workouts. I didn't see any signs of a Paterno tribute on the Penn State players' uniforms, wrist bands or shoes. But that could change when they come back out for kickoff.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden will serve as co-defensive coordinators with Tom Bradley acting as head coach. Terrell Golden is working for the receivers with Mike McQueary on administrative leave and reportedly finished as a Nittany Lions coach.

For Nebraska (remember the Huskers?), guard Andrew Rodriguez didn't make the trip because of an undisclosed injury. Seung Hoon Choi will make the start in his place. Choi has started this season, and the Huskers play a lot of guys on the offensive line, so it shouldn't be much of an issue. Defensive lineman Chase Rome was banged up last week but practiced and should be good to go. Nebraska rarely operates in the shadows, but the focus has clearly been away from the Huskers this week.

Penn State had its bye last week, so the team is about as healthy as it could be at this point in the season. Backup running back Derek Day had his foot stepped on in practice this week and is not available, but he wasn't expected to contribute, anyway. The Nittany Lions' mental and emotional health is the real question.

Nebraska-Washington warm-up notes

September, 17, 2011
9/17/11
3:14
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Greetings from Memorial Stadium on a chilly, overcast day.

The big news from warm-ups: Alfonzo Dennard went through drills. He was expected to miss his third straight game with a leg muscle pull and still might. Is Bo Pelini simply playing cat and mouse?

But if he's able to go, his presence could be key, because Dennard is good at run support as well as being a top-flight cornerback. Nebraska could use him against a strong Washington ground game led by Chris Polk. The Huskies also have some talented receivers, especially Jermaine Kearse.

Washington will be without starting safety Nate Fellner. Can Taylor Martinez take advantage of the secondary? The Huskers' passing game has been shaky through the first two weeks.

Also for Nebraska, Seung Hoon Choi will start at left guard instead of Andrew Rodriguez.

Much more to come ...

Q&A: Nebraska DT Jared Crick

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
11:00
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The Friday Q&A checks in with the Big Ten's No. 1 player in the preseason rankings, Nebraska standout defensive tackle Jared Crick. Nebraska opened its season with a 40-7 win against Chattanooga, and while the offense had some ups and downs, the defense performed as advertised.

Here are Crick's thoughts on Week 1, the depth of the Huskers' defensive line and what to expect Saturday night against Fresno State.

How did you feel about the defense's performance in the opener?

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJared Crick swatted away this throw by Chattanooga quarterback B.J. Coleman.
Jared Crick: I thought we played well, but after watching the film, I feel a whole lot better. I didn't see what I would want to see, but it's a good sign knowing what you've got to work on and knowing the exact points you've got to sharpen. We didn't play bad as a defensive front; we didn't play bad as a defense as a whole. I thought we played pretty well, it being our first time out there, but I'm definitely very excited after watching the film. In the past, you watch a game and you know you've got a whole lot to work on. Going into this week, we've just got to sharpen up a few things. And once we get that sharpened, we're going to be a whole lot better defense.

Are you ever worried to watch the film, even after a win?

JC: You're not worried, but you're always critical. You're always looking for the finer details, even if it's the littlest thing because sometimes that's what wins and loses games. You're very critical of yourself, you're very critical of your teammates. We played a good game. We only allowed seven points and that came on a bust on our part. But knowing the exact precise things we need to work on going into this next Saturday, it's very positive for us. It's a great feeling.

How much help will you have up front from guys like Cam [Meredith]?

JC: It was good, but we expect that of Cam. Now that Cam's healthy, he's got a year of experience under his belt and he did that all through fall camp, he made plays. So we expected that from him. But it was definitely nice to see him come out Saturday and just have fun. Last year, at times he worried a little too much about his responsibility instead of just relaxing and letting the game come to him. That's exactly what he did Saturday and he did a great job for us.

Did you expect him to score on the interception?

JC: I would have liked him to, but I'm just glad we got the turnover inside the 5. We always want to score as defensive linemen because we don't get that opportunity too much, but it was special enough that he got the pick.

Who else stood out to you along the defensive line?

JC: [Jason] Ankrah played well for us, his first start. This was really the cornerstone of his career of seeing how good he can really be, going against some different competition finally. This is only going to build his confidence throughout this year, and I expect big things from him. And also the new guys who played, Joe Carter, Eric Martin, Chase Rome. I saw a lot of good things out of T-Mo, Terrence Moore. I feel good knowing where we're at as a defensive line right now.

Did you feel Jason was coming on strong in camp? When did he turn the corner?

JC: Last spring he started to really come around. We asked him to gain a lot of weight. He came in at 240 and I think he's now up to 265, so he had to adjust to that weight change. He's playing a lot more physical. We saw it through this spring and he's progressed through the summer, into fall camp and definitely into the game. He's got to keep progressing.

You've only played one game, but do you have a sense of how offensive lines are going to approach you this year?

JC: Hard to say. Chattanooga ran a lot of two-step drop, they got rid of the ball quick. I saw a couple double-teams, slide pro. We saw it all, so we're going to watch the film again, see what kind of protections we didn't do so well on, what we did do well. We don't expect offenses to run the same kind of protection that Cam had pressure on, that I had a lot of pressure. We're looking for the protections we didn't do so well on. We're going to anticipate that a lot more and have to prepare for how to beat it.

(Read full post)

Nebraska releases depth chart

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
2:21
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Nebraska has released its depth chart for Week 1 against Chattanooga. You can find it here.

A couple things stand out:
  • One, we knew Nebraska would be young at spots on the offensive line, but that's really brought home by the two-deep. The starting right tackle is a true freshman (Tyler Moore), while the right guard (Spencer Long) is a sophomore walk-on who has never appeared in a game. The Huskers also have another sophomore (Andrew Rodriguez) at left guard.
  • Alfonzo Dennard is listed as the starting right cornerback, even though he probably won't play because of a pulled hamstring. Sophomore Andrew Green is his backup.
  • Nebraska fans were excited about the trio of freshman running backs that entered the program, and all three -- Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Aaron Green are listed as co-backups to Rex Burkhead. There's a good chance we see all of them Saturday if this game goes as expected.
  • Courtney Osborne and Daimion Stafford are listed as co-starters at one of the safety spots. Jason Ankrah and Eric Martin are co-starters at one defensive end position.
  • Coach Bo Pelini is not revealing much about his special teams. Both the kickoff and punt returners are listed as "To Be Determined," while there's an "OR" situation for the kickoff specialist.
  • Another place where the Huskers are young, at least in terms of depth, is at receiver. Freshmen Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner are listed as top backups, while sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste backs up senior Brandon Kinnie. Sophomore Quincy Enunwa won one of the three starting positions.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 24, 2011
8/24/11
12:00
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I am the one who knocks!
  • Will Dan Persa be ready for the opener? Pat Fitzgerald now says Kain Colter is all but pulled even with Persa at quarterback.
Being one of the top-rated recruits in the country is a double-edged sword. You get all the attention and hype you'd ever want coming out of high school. But there is also more pressure on you to succeed once you step foot on campus. And there's more pressure on coaches and programs to get the most out of their big-time prospects. As the old saying goes, potential will get you fired.

With that in mind, today we're taking a look back at the top Big Ten recruits from the 2010 class and seeing where they stand. It's not fair to judge these guys until the end of their college careers, and in several cases these players haven't even gotten on the field yet. But it's never too early to take stock.

We're going to use the ESPNU150 list from 2010 as our guide. The Big Ten had 14 players make that elite list. We'll divide the players into three categories: those who've made the biggest impact so far, those who have played but for whom the jury is still out and those who haven't played yet. (One interesting thing to note: None of the 14 made Adam's 2010 Big Ten All-Freshman team):

Away we go ...

Biggest impact

Rob Bolden, QB, Penn State (No. 112 overall, No. 4 position rank)

[+] EnlargeRob Bolden
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, FileRob Bolden made a big impact as a freshman, but his future remains up in the air.
You all know the Bolden story. He started the first seven games as a true freshmen and eight games overall, throwing for 1,360 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Then he lost his job to walk-on Matt McGloin after suffering a concussion against Minnesota, and there was a heated quarterback battle this spring. The last we heard, Bolden hadn't decided whether he'll stay at Penn State or transfer before the 2011 season.

Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State (No. 137 overall, No. 20 position rank)

"Philly," as he's called, played in all 13 games last season and saw time on the kick and punt return teams as well as at receiver. He caught eight balls for 105 yards and a touchdown, which came in the win over Purdue. He won the outstanding first-year player award from the coaching staff. But he also had trouble with drops this spring. With the Buckeyes' lone returning starter at receiver, DeVier Posey, out for the first five games, Brown will need to become a consistent force.

Khairi Fortt, LB, Penn State (No. 66 overall, No. 2 position rank): Will Fortt be one of the next great players at Linebacker U.? He saw action in nine games last year, including a start against Illinois in which he recorded 11 tackles. Penn State is loaded at linebacker, but Fortt saw a lot of time with the first-team defense this spring and will be hard to keep out of the lineup this fall.

William Gholston, DE, Michigan State (No. 42 overall, No. 3 position rank)

The Big Ten's highest-rated recruit in 2010 served as the Spartans' backup left end and played in 10 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Minnesota. He collected 13 tackles and a half-sack as a true freshman and had five stops and an assisted tackle for loss against Iowa. The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder should slide into a starting role in 2011.

Jury's still out

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa (No. 82 overall, No. 6 position rank)

Fiedorowicz saw action in all 13 games but did not record a catch as a true freshman as he saw most of his time on special teams. The 6-foot-7 sophomore is expected to back up starter Brad Herman this season but could see time when the Hawkeyes use two tight ends.

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan (No. 128 overall, No. 5 position rank)

Gardner got to play in three games as a true freshman. He threw for 85 yards and a touchdown against Bowling Green and also ran for a score in that game. Then he hurt his back and missed the rest of the season, and Michigan is hoping to get a medical redshirt year for him. Of course, his opportunities were limited anyway and figure to be the same for the foreseeable future because he's stuck behind another pretty good quarterback. Fella named Denard. You might have heard of him.

Andrew Rodriguez, OG, Nebraska (No. 147 overall, No. 7 position rank)

The 6-foot-6 Rodriguez got his feet wet with five appearances in 2010, becoming the first true freshman to play on the offensive line for Nebraska since 2006. With starting guards Ricky Henry and Keith Williams now departed, there's a good chance Rodriguez fills one of those spots in 2011.

Look out for

Darryl Baldwin, DE, Ohio State (No. 131 overall, No. 13 position rank)

Baldwin took a redshirt year in 2010 and should see some snaps this year, albeit most likely in a backup role.

Miles Dieffenbach, C, Penn State (No. 118 overall, No. 1 position rank)

Dieffenbach redshirted in 2010 as senior Doug Klopacz held down the center spot. Dieffenbach is expected to back up junior Matt Stankiewitch in 2011.

Evan Hailes, DT, Penn State (No. 88 overall, No. 9 position rank)

It may be a while before we know anything about Hailes. He redshirted in 2010, and Joe Paterno said after the spring game that Hailes could miss the entire 2011 season with an undisclosed illness.

James Louis, WR, Ohio State (No. 80 overall, No. 12 position rank)

Louis redshirted in 2010 and was inconsistent this spring, like most of the Buckeyes' young receivers. At least the opportunity for playing time is there.

C.J. Olaniyan, DE, Penn State (No. 148 overall, No. 16 position rank)

Olaniyan redshirted last season and got some first-team reps this spring with starters Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore slowed by injuries. Those two will start when they get healthy, but Olaniyan should see time in the rotation along the defensive front.

Dakota Royer, LB, Penn State (No. 70 overall, No. 7 position rank)

A defensive end in high school, Royer is battling for playing time at the crowded linebacker position with the Nittany Lions. He redshirted in 2010 and will have to fight to get on the field behind an experienced crew this season.

Rod Smith, RB, Ohio State (No. 56 overall, No. 7 position rank)

Smith reported late to preseason camp last year while he worked on some academics and ended up redshirting. Now he's part of a group of tailbacks battling for carries while starter Dan Herron is out for the first five games. The 6-3, 230-pound bruiser impressed during bowl practice last year, had seven carries for 36 yards in the spring game and could become the featured back in Herron's absence. But the running back competition figures to continue into fall camp.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 19, 2011
4/19/11
12:00
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Coming at you from Madison, where I've learned how to Bucky ...
Nebraska is accelerating its offensive tempo and entering a league loaded with daunting defensive linemen.

What does that mean for the Huskers' offensive line? Hopefully more hands on deck.

Line coach Barney Cotton has wanted to establish an eight-man rotation up front. The past two seasons, Nebraska rarely used more than six in games. Cotton hopes the number can change this fall.

"This year, it’d be great to play 10," Cotton told me earlier this week. "I don't know if that's possible or not, but the spring is all about competition and development, and we've got a good start on that."

Nebraska returns two starters up front in center Mike Caputo and tackle Jeremiah Sirles. Tackle Marcel Jones missed most of last season with a back injury, but he has starting experience from 2009. The Huskers also bring back linemen like Andrew Rodriguez who saw a bit of time as reserves in 2010.

But the need to build depth is very real. Nebraska loses both of its starting guards, including first-team All-Big 12 selection Ricky Henry. The new offense largely eschews huddling and wants to stay a step ahead of the defense. There's also the matter of durability, especially after the poor end to last season.

"We're all about competing here and how we finish," Cotton said, "and we're certainly not happy up front with how we finished, especially those last two games.”

Conditioning will be a focal point in the summer months, but Cotton wants to have as many options as possible.

"Creating not just depth but playing depth is what’s really going to be important for us," Cotton said. "By playing depth I mean guys we feel comfortable putting in the game when the game's on the line."

Caputo fits into that category. The former walk-on started throughout last season and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors.

Cotton calls Caputo "the unquestioned leader" of the line, a role Caputo embraces.

"I’m working on that, trying to become more vocal," Caputo said. "Last year, we were all kind of old and now, me and [Marcel Jones] are really the only old guys left. It's a little different."

Caputo has seen several young linemen step up this spring, including Rodriguez, Brent Qvale and Brent Long, all sophomores. Nebraska's revamping of the coaching staff this offseason put a greater emphasis on the line as Bo Pelini promoted John Garrison to assist Cotton and coach the tight ends.

"This year, we’re very young," Cotton said. "We have three seniors in the top 10, so we've got kind of a youth movement here, but there are a lot of guys who look like they’re ready and willing to step up to the plate."

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