Big Ten: Arrelious Benn

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

June, 10, 2014
Questions, answers and Twitter. What could possibly be better on a Tuesday in June?

Let's begin ...

Virgel from Valdosta, Ga., writes: Adam, do you think that if this season ends the Tim Beckman era at Illinois, they would go after a high-profile coach on the bench right now, like a Mack Brown? Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting thought, Virgel, as it's hard to know where athletic director Mike Thomas would turn. He has a track record of hiring MAC coaches -- Butch Jones, Brian Kelly, Beckman -- but I'd be shocked if he went that route again. Brown will be 62 in August, has a ton of money and likely a lengthy TV career ahead, so I'm not sure how much he would want to coach again. And if he did, for how long?

Illinois doesn't want to keep changing coaches. But thinking outside the box could be a good approach. Or Thomas could hire a guy like Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is ready to lead a major-conference program.

Kyle from Hamilton, Ontario, writes: We all have heard how "weak" Iowa's schedule is. It has even been rumoured that they could be favoured in every game. Given the fact they don't play Ohio State, a scenario exists that they both could go undefeated. That could have happened in 2002 if Iowa didn't blow the lead against Iowa State that year. My question is this: If both Ohio State and Iowa go undefeated do both teams make the playoffs?

Adam Rittenberg: Man, I love that Canadian spelling. This would be a fascinating scenario, Kyle. A lot depends on what happens in other conferences and how the Big Ten performs in marquee nonleague games. But I don't think Iowa makes the playoff with a loss in the league championship game, primarily because of the seemingly soft regular-season schedule.

In this scenario, Ohio State would have a road win against a preseason top-10 team in Michigan State. The Buckeyes also play Virginia Tech in nonleague play. Will the Michigan home win help or hurt Ohio State? How much credit will Iowa get for beating Wisconsin and Nebraska at home? All these questions factor into the playoff decision. Ultimately, I doubt the Big Ten gets two teams into the initial playoff. Fairly or unfairly, the league will pay for its recent shortcomings. But Ohio State has a better chance as a one-loss team than Iowa.

Dave from Marietta, Ohio, writes: The Big Ten should've gone to North-South divisions instead of East-West. I'm not sure about the exact locations of the schools, but a North-South alignment could look something like this ... North -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa. South -- Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska.

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting idea, Dave, as this proposal appears to create more historical balance than the current East-West alignment. But if you look at the Big Ten's recent expansion, the idea is to live in a second region along the East Coast. It's not a northern expansion but an eastern one. Another factor to consider is geography. Nebraska would be a major outlier in the South division -- nearly an eight-hour drive from its closest division competitor (Illinois) and a loooong way from Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Would Husker fans care? Maybe, maybe not. They would get annual games with both Penn State and Ohio State.

I like how your proposal satisfies the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry triangle/dilemma, but it also would require at least one extra protected crossover, Ohio State-Michigan, which would reduce the overall schedule rotation for two of the league's marquee programs. I definitely see value in the North-South model, but East-West is here, at least for now.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Paul VernonOhio State's Braxton Miller is one of just two early enrollees to be Big Ten Freshman of the Year in the last seven years.
Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wondered if you've seen any data comparing early enrollees and players who enroll in the fall. Do early enrollees start sooner, play in more games, have better drafts or have better graduation rates than players who enroll in the summer/fall? My thought is if the player works hard enough to graduate high school early, maybe there's a bit of a better work ethic.

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, David, and there's not a great answer yet as this trend remains somewhat new. The number of early enrollees really spiked in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that early enrollees are contributing faster in their careers than those who arrive in the summer. We've seen examples in the Big Ten such as Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who earned a starting job as a true freshman. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller enrolled early and has started since the middle of his freshman season.

Then again, a 2009 ranking of top early enrollee groups Insider showed more misses (Tate Forcier, Kevin Newsome, Will Campbell) than hits (Gerald Hodges) in the Big Ten. Penn State had seven early enrollees in 2010 but only one, running back Silas Redd, became a star for the Lions.

Of the Big Ten's last seven Freshman of the Year recipients, just two -- Ohio State's Miller and Illinois' Arrelious Benn -- were early enrollees. So it's hard to draw clear conclusions.

Peter from Boston writes: Would be interested to hear your thoughts on a recent article by John U. Bacon about attendance issues at Michigan (Ivan Maisel referenced it in his latest 3-Point Stance). Personally, I think you could insert any major program in the country (including my alma mater Penn State) and write roughly the same article. ADs constantly point the finger at high-definition TV and other tech as the reason for slipping attendance, and it's definitely a factor, but Bacon makes some very good points about the in-game experience and costs of attending a game at a major university. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: There are some very valid points in Bacon's story, especially about rising ticket prices. As Ohio State AD Gene Smith recently told me, "The reality is a lot of our ticket pricing, some of us are at the top of the pyramid." And it seems like the branding push, especially in the Big Ten, is turning off some fans. Has the sport sold its soul in some ways? No doubt. Is branding too much of a priority in the Big Ten, which makes a lot of money but doesn't really win anything? There's a case to be made. ADs are devoting a lot of energy to improving the gameday experience, but two solutions are pretty simple: scheduling better opponents and charging less for tickets.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We’ll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We’ll let you decide which blogger is right.

As the 2013 season kicks off this week, we’re making our picks for the four major Big Ten individual awards.

Today’s Take Two topic: Who will win Big Ten freshman of the year honors?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

The options are plentiful, as some very talented true freshmen enter the league, and you can't discount redshirt freshmen. Deion Barnes was a redshirt freshman last year when he won the award at Penn State, and I say the Thompson-Randle El trophy stays in State College -- this time on the offensive side.

Head coach Bill O'Brien still hasn't named a starting quarterback for Saturday's game against Syracuse, but I continue to believe that Christian Hackenberg will pilot the Nittany Lions offense for the majority of this season. And the player who was ranked as the No. 1 pro style quarterback in the Class of 2013 will have an outstanding supporting cast around him, with receiver Allen Robinson, a deep group of tight ends, some experienced running backs and a solid offensive line. We shouldn't expect Hackenberg to throw for 3,000 yards like Matt McGloin did last year, but he will put up strong numbers in that offense. Playing such a high-profile position will surely help his candidacy with voters, which is why I see Hackenberg beating out other candidates like Ohio State's Dontre Wilson, Michigan State's Riley Bullough and Michigan's Derrick Green.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Hackenberg is a good call, Brian, and if he can steady the ship on offense for the Lions, he'll have an excellent chance to win the award. I might have picked Michigan's Green before preseason camp, but senior Fitz Toussaint really took control of the running back spot in recent weeks. Ultimately, the race comes down to Hackenberg and Ohio State's Wilson.

There's no doubt Hackenberg plays a more high-profile position, but I'm going with Wilson because of the "SportsCenter" factor. I expect the Buckeyes' H-back to be a transformative type player, not only for Ohio State but in the Big Ten, piling up highlight-reel touchdowns. Wilson will have three or four jaw-dropping touchdowns that get replayed over and over on ESPN and the Big Ten Network. He'll get noticed very early in the season, and it'll help that he plays for a national championship contender. Wilson is a different player than former Illinois standout Arrelious Benn, the last wide receiver named Big Ten freshman of the year (in 2007). But like Benn, Wilson will contribute in different ways and get the attention he needs to win the award.

More major awards picks
The book on Ron Zook when he got to Illinois read like this: phenomenal recruiter, average coach.

The description didn't change much when Illinois canned Zook in November following seven seasons. Zook signed several nationally elite recruiting classes, including the 2007 crop (headlined by Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson), and he continued to recruit well until the on-field results took a dive. Illinois' recent NFL draft success -- the Illini have produced five first-round picks since 2008, more than any other Big Ten team during the span -- underscores the fact that Zook and his assistants knew where to find talent.

Tim Beckman arrived in Champaign with a similar recruiting profile to Zook's. He was known for his recruiting efforts at previous stops. Although the class Illinois signed in February didn't earn high marks regionally or nationally, it didn't seem fair to judge Beckman until he had more time to put his stamp on a class.

So far, the new coach is delivering.

Illinois has added four recruits in the past week as defensive end Dawuane Smoot gave his pledge on Tuesday night. The Illini already have 14 players committed for the 2013 class, the third highest total in the Big Ten behind national leader Michigan (22) and Iowa (15), which also has surged in recent days.

According to ESPN Recruiting, the Illini have two four-star recruits -- quarterback Aaron Bailey and cornerback Darius Mosely -- along with 10 three-star prospects.

I reached out to Jared Shanker, ESPN's Midwest Recruiting Coordinator, for some thoughts on the Illini's early recruiting success under Beckman.

"That is a little surprising," Shanker writes in an email. "For some, Illinois was their biggest offer at the time and they jumped on it, but the Illini have beat out some very good programs for a number of their commitments. Aaron Bailey was also high on Nebraska and Wisconsin, and Darius Mosely is a four-star corner who had offers from several BCS programs. The two four-star commits already on board is already half the number Illinois had in the previous three classes when they picked up only four.

"As for the three-star guys, Jarrod Clements was one of the top defensive line performers at the Columbus NFTC; Caleb Day is a versatile athlete the previous Ohio State staff was high on; and Kenton Gibbs was very good this spring competing at a few camps."

Beckman, who came to Illinois from Toledo and grew up in Berea, Ohio, not surprisingly has made his home state an emphasis in recruiting. Six Illini commits hail from Ohio.

"Beckman had a reputation for not being scared to compete with the BCS programs for recruits despite being at a MAC school," Shanker writes. "That mentality is going to serve him well at Illinois as the Illini are often considered a team in the bottom half of the Big Ten. A lot of the credit goes to recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh, who really worked the Ohio area hard."

Shanker added that while Illinois' class is shaping up well, the true test will be how well the staff scouted prospects who didn't receive much interest from the rest of the Big Ten. That's where the development component comes in.

"It won't matter who else offered them if they turn out to be as good as the Illini staff believes they are," Shanker writes, "and that is really all that matters."
Some unfortunate news out of Champaign as Illinois senior LB Trulon Henry was shot in the hand at an off-campus party early Sunday and will miss the remainder of the regular season.

According to the school, an Illini teammate called Henry to come to the party and help get other players to leave. He arrived there and was one of three people injured when shots were fired into a crowd. Henry underwent surgery Sunday and his status for a possible bowl game is unknown.

You hate to hear about this, especially for a player like Henry, who has turned his life around after serving nearly five years in prison for armed robbery. The older brother of former Illini star WR Arrelious Benn, Henry resumed his football career upon his release and transferred to Illinois after spending two years at a junior college near Chicago. I was very impressed talking with Henry and hearing his candor about his mistakes and his desire to be a better man.

Some will see this latest incident and Henry's past and conclude he relapsed, but the details show otherwise, and Henry had avoided any trouble since his release from prison.

He has two interceptions and 39 tackles this year for Illinois, which has dropped four straight games after a 6-1 start.

Here's hoping Henry has a speedy recovery.

Big Ten recruiting rewind to 2007

January, 31, 2011
As signing day approaches, it's fun to take a look back at how some of the Big Ten's top recruits from years past fared on the college stage.

ESPN Recruiting took a comprehensive look back at the 2007 recruiting class: how the top players fared, who met expectations, who exceeded them and who turned out to be a bust. It also revised the team recruiting class rankings.

Here's how some of the Big Ten recruits in the ESPNU 150 fared:

Illinois LB Martez Wilson (No. 5 nationally): After recording 73 tackles as a sophomore for the Fighting Illini, Wilson's junior season was cut short due to a herniated disc and he was granted a medical hardship. In 2010, he had 104 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

Michigan QB Ryan Mallett (No. 12): As a true freshman, he played in 11 games for Michigan before transferring to Arkansas. After sitting out a year due to transfer rules, Mallett started all 13 games in 2009 and threw for more than 3,600 yards and 30 touchdowns. He completed an Arkansas single-season record 242 passes in 2010 and is expected to be drafted in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft.

Illinois WR Arrelious Benn (No. 17): He was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and followed that up in 2008 by earning first-team All-Big Ten honors, as well as being named team MVP. He was given honorable mention All-Big Ten as a junior and drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is currently the team's No. 2 WR.

Michigan WR Junior Hemingway (No. 19): Hemingway played in 10 games as a freshman and redshirted in 2008 due to mononucleosis. Hemingway was the Wolverine's fourth-leading receiver in 2009 and third-leading receiver in 2010. He has started 18 contests at wideout in his career.

Wisconsin T Josh Oglesby (No. 28): After redshirting in Oglesby he played in 13 games as a sophomore and started every game in 2009. However, a knee injury in Week 2 ended his 2010 season.

Ohio State S Eugene Clifford (No. 37): After playing in four games for the Buckeyes in 2007, he was suspended for violating unspecified team rules and then kicked off the team before the 2008 season after being charged with assault. He transferred to Tennessee State where he finished his career with 204 tackles and was named as a first-team FCS All-American in 2010.

Minnesota QB Clint Brewster (No. 45): After redshirting in 2007, Brewster went to the College of Sequoias in 2008. He joined the Tennessee Tech roster in July 2008, but has sat on the bench since.

Illinois DT D'Angelo McCray (No. 64): McCray redshirted at Illinois in 2007, before transferring to Eastern Illinois. After playing in 2008 for Eastern Illinois, he transferred to Coffeyville Community College in 2009 and then transferred to Memphis University in 2010 totaling six tackles.

Michigan CB Donovan Warren (No. 86): In 2007, he played in all 13 games and totaled 35 tackles and one forced fumble. He was on the Freshman All-America Team and was named the Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year. In 2008, he started 10 games at corner and one at safety, recording 36 tackles. As a junior, he started all 12 games at corner, totaling 66 tackles, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

Michigan S Mike Williams (No. 94): After not seeing any game action in 2007, he played in 11 games in 2008, including nine at safety. In 2009, he started nine games at safety and played in 10, registering 56 tackles. In 2010, he appeared in two games before missing the rest of the season due to a head injury.

Iowa T Bryan Bulaga (No. 96): He played in seven games as a true freshman, starting five. In 2008, he started all 13 games at left tackle, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. As a junior, he made 10 starts at left tackle and was named Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year. He was drafted No. 23 overall by the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and is the team's starting right tackle.

Ohio State moved up to No. 7 in the revised class rankings, while Michigan fell out of the top 10.

Michigan's Hemingway and Jerimy Finch, a safety who signed with Florida before transferring to Indiana, are listed among the recruiting busts of the 2007 class.
Time will tell whether the Great Experiment of Champaign works or not, but one big piece of the puzzle seems to fit.

First-year coordinator Vic Koenning is having a positive effect on the Illinois defense.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanCoach Ron Zook has seen results after taking steps to improve the Illinois defense.
Yes, it's still very early, but the Fighting Illini defense is showing promising signs after two games. Illinois limited Missouri to 23 points in the opener -- the Tigers' had averaged 43 points in its previous three games with the Illini -- and kept Southern Illinois out of the end zone last Saturday in Champaign. Despite losing three projected starters in recent weeks -- defensive backs Supo Sanni and Terry Hawthorne to injury, defensive end/linebacker Michael Buchanan to suspension -- the Illini are receiving production from a variety of sources.

Again, there's long way to go, but so far, so good.

"We're playing so much harder, we're tackling better, we're chasing the football better and we're not giving up the big plays," coach Ron Zook said. "That was the biggest problem we were having last year, the big plays. They're playing as a group, they're playing as a unit, they're flying around.

"It's hard to find a play where there's not at least eight guys around the football. It's team defense."

Zook's last phrase is the important one. Illinois never has lacked individual talent during Zook's tenure on both sides of the ball.

The two-deep on defense features heralded recruits like Martez Wilson, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus. But since the Rose Bowl run in 2007, Illinois hadn't played well as a defensive unit, slipping to 67th in points allowed in 2008 and 96th last fall.

Although much of the criticism in 2009 was directed toward Mike Schultz and an offense that took eight weeks to get on track despite a fourth-year starter at quarterback (Juice Williams) and an All-America candidate at receiver (Arrelious Benn), the defense didn't hold up, either. Illinois allowed 102 points in its final two games, losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State.

As part of a major staff overhaul in December, Zook demoted co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory and brought in Koenning (Mallory left for Akron, while Disch remains on staff as linebackers coach). Illinois beat out Georgia for Koenning's services, and the move seems to be paying off.

Here's what cornerback Tavon Wilson told the (Decatur) Herald & Review this week.
"Coach Vic is more of an enforcer. If the [team] leaders are not taking charge, he will. He won't sit around and let practice go mediocre. He will make sure everyone is running to the football on every play. He'll run to the football with you if he has to. That's probably the biggest difference from coaches in the past. Past coaches wouldn't let it slide, but they weren't enforcing it as much as coach Vic would. He doesn't take a play off just like he expects you not to take a play off."

The Illini are receiving strong performances so far from safety Travon Bellamy (19 tackles, 3 tackles for loss), linebacker Ian Thomas (17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) and Martez Wilson (14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble.

Five players already have recorded multiple tackles for loss in the first two contests.

"Everyone's involved," Zook said. "It's not just one player that's playing hard. They're all playing hard."
The Illinois-Missouri series goes on hiatus after Saturday's clash in St. Louis. For the men wearing orange helmets, it seems like the break can't come soon enough.

Illinois has opened its season against the rival Tigers five times since 2002, including each of the past three years. All five games have produced the same result for the Fighting Illini: 0-1.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Jason Miller/US PresswireRon Zook had a few surprisingly good recruiting classes in his first years at Illinois, but they haven't equaled wins for the Illini.
Many forecast another opening loss for Ron Zook's crew Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. Translation: there's no better time for the Illini to step up and get some revenge.

If Illinois wants to make a statement that things are turning around, the Missouri game provides the perfect platform.

"They're all important, but this one has an awful lot of importance on it," Zook told "Obviously, we haven’t had a lot of success against them."

The Missouri game has been a buzzkill for Illinois in each of the past two seasons. After a run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, preseason No. 20 Illinois entered the dome to face No. 6 Missouri in one of the more anticipated matchups of the 2008 opening weekend.

Game result: Missouri 52, Illinois 42

Illinois season result: 5-7

Optimism had been restored by the time Illinois made the trip to St. Louis last year. Quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn had returned, linebacker Martez Wilson seemed on the brink of a huge season and the team had gone through a very successful preseason camp. Plus, Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin were no longer on Missouri's roster.

Game result: Missouri 37, Illinois 9

Illinois season result: 3-9

"We were healthy, we were fresh, no one was beat up, we put a big emphasis on it," Zook recalled. "And we get over there and the second play of the game, it was like somebody threw a blanket over us."

Benn and running back Jason Ford both went down with injuries. Wilson suffered a neck injury in the first quarter but remained in the game, only to learn days later that he needed season-ending surgery.

The team never fully recovered, plummeting to a 1-6 start.

As Zook prepares his team for another tough opener against Mizzou, he doesn't stiff-arm what has taken place the past few years.

“Traditionally, Missouri’s probably played if not their best, one of their best games of the year against us," Zook said. "That's the one thing we've tried to stress to our guys. You look at Missouri in the first game of the year, you look at them in the end, and they're not the same team.

"We've got to match the way they're playing."

Illinois isn't as healthy as it was a year ago, as two projected starters in the secondary, safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, will miss the game. Missouri will play without running back Derrick Washington, but the Tigers still have quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who torched the Illini for 319 pass yards and three touchdowns last year.

Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase makes his first career start for the Illini, who debut a new offense under coordinator Paul Petrino.

"I'm like everyone else, I want to see him play, too," Zook said. "I'm not going to say he’s going to be perfect, but he’ll learn from his mistakes and he'll do a great job."

After last year's loss, Zook and his players lamented that something happened on the bus ride from Champaign to St. Louis. No one could pinpoint the problem, but it zapped Illinois' mojo from a strong camp.

Saturday is a chance to get the momentum back.

"We all have something to prove," defensive end Clay Nurse said. "You can dwell on what your season was like last year, but I'm not one to dwell on that.

"I'm just ready to go out here and show people we can produce and be successful."
Illinois entered training camp feeling pretty good about its depth in the secondary, but the Illini have suffered a significant blow.

Junior Supo Sanni, projected to start at strong safety this fall, will miss the 2010 season after rupturing his Achilles tendon in practice Wednesday. Sanni is scheduled to undergo surgery today. He has a redshirt season available and will have two years of eligibility remaining.
"Supo is a great young man who was on track for an outstanding season," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said in a statement. "He was really coming into his own and I was very excited about seeing him play this year."

Sanni and junior college transfer Trulon Henry, the older brother of former Illinois star receiver Arrelious Benn, had been working as the starting safeties in camp. Senior Travon Bellamy is expected to move into Sanni's starting spot.

Sanni appeared in 11 games last fall, recording 11 tackles and a pass breakup. He looked good during the recent practice aired on the Big Ten Network.

Illinois recently moved Justin Green from running back to cornerback to help with depth in the secondary, and receiver Steve Hull also might see some work at safety.

Opening camp: Illinois

August, 4, 2010
Schedule: First practice takes place Thursday at Memorial Stadium. First group hits the field at 4 p.m. ET and the second group at 5:30 p.m. ET. Team practices three times in Champaign before moving to Rantoul, Ill., on Aug. 9, for 15 workouts.

What's new: Uh, like, everything. Ron Zook is still the head coach, but he has six new assistants, including coordinators Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense). Illinois is breaking in new systems on both offense and defense, and redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase takes over at quarterback following the departure of four-year starter Juice Williams. The new-look staff has some familiarity, as Petrino, quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and tight ends coach Chip Long all worked together at Louisville during the Cardinals' juggernaut days. Illinois needs a No. 1 wide receiver to emerge after Arrelious Benn's departure to the NFL.

Sidelined: Strong-side offensive tackle Corey Lewis, a projected starter this spring, sustained a torn ACL in spring ball and likely will miss the season. Illinois needs a strong camp from Ryan Palmer as he steps into a featured role.

Key battle: Illinois has two experienced defensive line pieces in Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget, but the other two spots should bring plenty of competition. Glenn Foster had a nice spring and could be the answer at the second defensive tackle spot, while several players, including Michael Buchanan and Nate Palmer, compete at the "bandit" position.

New on the scene: Although veteran Eddie McGee can shift from wide receiver to quarterback if needed, true freshman Chandler Whitmer likely is a play away from the field. Whitmer enrolled early and impressed the coaches with his knowledge this spring. He enters the fall as Scheelhaase's backup. Also keep an eye on safety Trulon Henry, a junior college transfer and Benn's older brother. He enters camp as the backup to Supo Sanni at free safety.

Breaking out: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins nearly left Illinois in the winter before deciding to stay and turn around his career. Zook and Petrino raved about Jenkins this spring, and he'll likely be Scheelhaase's top target. Running back Mikel LeShoure will carry the load after a very impressive finish to 2009. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne also could have a big year after making an impact as a freshman last fall.

Back in the fold: Illinois really missed Martez Wilson, and the middle linebacker finally gets to hit people again in camp after being fully cleared by doctors. Wilson suffered a herniated disk in his neck in the 2009 opener against Missouri and underwent season-ending surgery. The one-time, can't-miss recruit has one final chance to break out. Cornerback Miami Thomas also returns after tearing his ACL in camp last year.

Quoting: "The players, we didn't execute. People want to jump on the coaches and blame the coaches. The last time I saw coach Zook catch a pass or make a tackle, they were wearing leather helmets. It is on us now. They brought in new coaches, but at the end of the day, we're the ones playing." -- defensive end Clay Nurse
Let it be known that I'll have no objections if the Big Ten ends its expansion study tomorrow.

The Big Ten already improved itself with the addition of Nebraska, and a 12-team structure provides the chance to have a championship game while maintaining the intimacy of a league built on long-standing rivalries. If commissioner Jim Delany and the Big Ten presidents and chancellors decide 12 is enough, so be it. I'll go back to blogging about actual football, and we'll all survive.

But the Big Ten says it will continue to examine expansion for the next year or so, and Delany could "act and act again," he said earlier this month.

So here's some advice to the league: If Phase 2 of expansion becomes a reality, make recruiting a top priority.

Nebraska adds a lot to the Big Ten: great football tradition, great fans, a program that matters nationally. But what Nebraska doesn't bring is a new area rife with recruits. According to an in-depth study by, the state of Nebraska produced only 43 BCS-conference players between 2004-08.

The Big Ten's recent recruiting challenges have been well documented, and Delany has listed the shifting population to the south as a driving force for the expansion push. The Big Ten wants alums, but more importantly, it wants access to recruits.

Texas obviously would have been a great addition for recruiting. Every Big Ten team spends some time in the Lone Star State looking for prospects. But the Longhorns aren't leaving the Big 12.

So where should the Big Ten look to improve its recruiting? Here are two possibilities:

Rutgers: Besides its location near the nation's top media market -- a potential huge boost for the Big Ten Network -- Rutgers would help the Big Ten get a better foothold in New Jersey, a very good state for high school prospects. Plenty of Big Ten programs already recruit in New Jersey, including Penn State and Wisconsin (primarily during Barry Alvarez's tenure). Having a permanent presence in the Garden State would boost Big Ten recruiting efforts there.

Maryland: The Washington D.C. and Baltimore markets appeal to the Big Ten Network, but the real benefit here could come in recruiting. Penn State has plucked top prospects from Maryland for many years, and Illinois built its recruiting success in 2006 and 2007 on a pipeline to Washington D.C. that landed players like Arrelious Benn and Vontae Davis. Northern Virginia is right there as well and produces top players like Penn State's Evan Royster. By adding the University of Maryland, the Big Ten would have a greater chance to reel in recruits from the state and the Beltway.

Again, the Big Ten doesn't need to add any more teams. But if there's a move to be made, it must be strategic and keep recruiting very much in mind.

The Revolving Door: Illinois

June, 15, 2010
Eighth in a series examining key players departing, staying and arriving at Big Ten schools.

Going ...

Arrelious Benn, WR: He never reached the heights many thought he would after winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2007, but Benn still led Illinois in receiving yards for three consecutive seasons. Illinois' inconsistent offense hurt Benn last season, but his obvious talent and presence on the perimeter will be missed as the Illini transition to a new system under coordinator Paul Petrino this fall.

Jon Asamoah, OG: Like Indiana's Rodger Saffold, Asamoah was one of the Big Ten's more underrated linemen, in large part because his team struggled. But Asamoah provided a veteran presence up front and had the combination of superior skill and intelligence. The NFL clearly liked what it saw in Asamoah, a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in April.

Staying ...

Martez Wilson, LB: Wilson's 2009 season never got on track as he missed all but one game with a herniated disk in his neck. He seemed to be settling in well as the team's middle linebacker last summer and has a chance in 2010 to have the breakout season many have been waiting for. Wilson has the size and the skills to be special, but he's got to get it done on the field.

Clay Nurse, DE: Nurse was a presence on the defensive line down the stretch last season, leading Illinois in sacks (5.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and quarterback hurries (3). He's got the personality and attitude to be a valuable leader along the front four this fall, as Illinois tries to improve a group that ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks (19) in 2009.

Coming ...

Chandler Whitmer, QB: Jacob Charest's post-spring departure puts Whitmer, a true freshman, in the backup role behind Nathan Scheelhaase. Good thing that Whitmer enrolled early and went through spring practice with Petrino and the other quarterbacks. He drew praise from the coaches and displays good maturity both on and off the field.

Earnest Thomas, S: The one-time UCLA commit could be a factor right away in a secondary that has some competition but few lock-down certainties. The 6-1, 195-pound Thomas was highly recruited coming out of Michigan and will help Illinois at a position (safety) that hasn't be secure since Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell departed following the 2008 Rose Bowl.

More revolving door ...

Illinois spring wrap

May, 5, 2010

2009 overall record: 3-9

2009 conference record: 2-6 (9th)

Returning starters

Offense: 5, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Mikel LeShoure, WR Jarred Fayson, LT Jeff Allen, DT Corey Liuget, DE Clay Nurse, LB Ian Thomas, LB Martez Wilson, CB Tavon Wilson

Key losses

QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, LG Jon Asamoah, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, WR Jeff Cumberland, DE Doug Pilcher, S Garrett Edwards

2009 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Mikel LeShoure* (734 yards)

Passing: Juice Williams (1,632 yards)

Receiving: Arrelious Benn (490 yards)

Tackles: Ian Thomas* (95)

Sacks: Clay Nurse* (5.5)

Interceptions: Garrett Edwards, Tavon Wilson*, Russell Ellington*, Doug Pilcher, Terry Hawthorne* (1)

Spring answers

1. Scheelhaase steps up: Illinois didn't announce its starting quarterback this spring, but anyone who watched practice or talked with the coaches knew that redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase took the lead. Scheelhaase is an exceptional athlete who shows good maturity and made big plays in several spring scrimmages. He still needs work as a passer but brings some dynamic skills to the backfield.

2. Jenkins emerges at receiver: A.J. Jenkins nearly left Illinois after a disappointing 2009 season. He comes out of spring practice as the team's No. 1 wideout and a potential successor to Arrelious Benn. Jenkins was "a changed man," according to head coach Ron Zook, and clicked immediately with new offensive coordinator/receivers coach Paul Petrino. He should be a major asset for the new starting quarterback this fall.

3. Defensive line builds depth: Illinois loses veteran defensive lineman Doug Pilcher but the squad should be better and deeper up front in 2010. Zook singled out defensive tackles Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew for their play this spring. They join returning starters Corey Liguet and Clay Nurse, who participated in everything but full-contact drills this spring following shoulder surgery. Liuget and Nurse are natural leaders up front, and if Josh Brent returns from his academic struggles, Illinois could be very good along the line.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback: Jacob Charest isn't out of the race for the top job, but he'll need to close the gap with Scheelhaase during the summer and early in preseason camp. True freshman Chandler Whitmer is also in the mix, though the coaches say he's behind Charest and Scheelhaase. Illinois has some good leadership at other spots (receiver, defensive line, linebacker), but it must identify the No. 1 guy at the top position on the field.

2. Offensive line: Corey Lewis' torn ACL could be a big blow for a group adjusting to a new offense and new assignments for the guards and tackles (strong side/weak side). Illinois needs a strong preseason camp from Ryan Palmer, the favorite to fill the starting spot opposite Jeff Allen. The Illini need to run the ball with their talented backs and protect their young quarterbacks as well as they can, so building chemistry along the line is huge.

3. Safety squeeze: I still think Illinois' defense hasn't been the same since safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison departed following the 2007 season. The Illini look pretty solid at cornerback with Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and several others, but the safety spot remains a question mark. Travon Bellamy and Supo Sanni are the top options coming out of spring, but they must continue to be pushed, especially if Walter Aikens isn't reinstated.

Big Ten mailblog

April, 27, 2010
Bring it.

Tim from Happy Valley, Pa., writes: Adam,After the Blue and White game this past weekend many questions still remain at quarterback and along the offensive line. While Matt McGloin and Kevin Newsome seem to be the front runners for the job they were very shaky at the game and it seemed to me Paul Jones gave the best performance. I know it wasn't against the first team defense but i don't understand why it seems Jay and Joe Paterno have written this kid off from starting next year. He seems to already posses the physical tools to perform at the next level and if its experience that is worrisome McGloin has never started a game plus Newsome has only played in garbage time. With three away games against top ten opponents i don't think we are making a run at a national championship this year, would it really be that bad if we started a freshman?

Adam Ritenberg: Jay Paterno sounded open to the idea of playing Jones after the Blue-White Game, and certainly Penn State can't close the door on any of its quarterbacks right now. I would give the coaches the benefit of the doubt. They've seen these guys every day in practice, Jay has charted every pass thrown and graded them out. Jones played well in the spring game, but how did he perform in the other 14 practices? While most of the players who spoke to reporters last week only talked about Newsome and McGloin, the opportunity for Jones seems to be there. True freshmen start at quarterback these days in the Big Ten, and I would hope Penn State coaches wouldn't be naïve to what's happening around them.

Ian from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Overall, I like MSU's new digs. The bronze is a little much and the fonts are overstyled, but really the changes aren't as dramatic as they could be. Football aside, I'm really disappointed that the basketball jerseys say "Spartans" and not "State." MSU basketball owns that tittle. New fonts, new colors aside, the basketball team deserves to be known nationwide as "State."

Adam Rittenberg: I agree, Ian. Things certainly could have been worse, and some of the changes provide a better look. I definitely agree with Michigan State's mission to get uniformity with its brand for athletics. The school can't please everyone with the changes, but overall, it did a good job. But I'm with you about the basketball jerseys. The "State" on the front was so recognizable and brought prestige with it.

Joe from Toledo writes: Hey Adam, what do you think of Donovan Warren not getting drafted? And now he signed with the Jets who have Revis Island, picked up Cromartie, and just drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round, will he make the team or even see the field??

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I was surprised that Warren went undrafted, and I feel bad for him. He got some poor advice along the way, but on the other hand, he seemed ready to move on. Of the six Big Ten underclassmen in the draft -- Bryan Bulaga, Amari Spievey, Arrelious Benn, Navorro Bowman and Thaddeus Gibson -- only Warren didn't hear his name called in New York. The five others went in the fourth round or higher. There was talk Warren could be a second-round selection at one stage, but his stock clearly dropped as the draft approached. It's never easy for undrafted free agents to make a team, particularly one stacked at cornerback like the Jets, but Warren has some ability and got plenty of good experience at Michigan going against top wideouts from the Big Ten.

Greg from Austin, Texas, writes: Does the absence of any Buckeyes drafted in the first three rounds finally put to rest any idea that Tressell wins the Big Ten mainly because he has more talent? Are some voters finally going to wake up and give him a richly deserved Big Ten Coach of the Year award? After all, both Iowa and PSU had more players drafted and I believe eight different Big Ten teams had a player drafted before the Buckeyes, yet the Buckeyes won another Big Ten title. Sounds like good coaching to me.

Adam Rittenberg: Greg, I have to agree with you that Ohio State's poor draft showing definitely strengthens the case that Jim Tressel should have been 2009 Big Ten Coach of the Year rather than Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. The problem for Tressel is he should have plenty of first-team, All-Big Ten players as well as first-round draft picks on the 2010 team, which will be the Big Ten preseason favorite. Could he finally win COY as a lifetime achievement award this fall? He deserves to, but I'd bet if a team like Michigan State or Purdue or even Penn State challenges for the Big Ten title, the award will go elsewhere again.

Bit Guru from Washington D.C. writes: One way to solve all the expansion problems and get the BTN into several lucrative TV markets is to simply merge the Big Ten and the Pac Ten. (Could even ruthlessly eject Northwestern, Stanford, and say Minnesota to yield two 9-team divisions for round-robin football perfection.) Sure it will never happen, but hypothetically what do you think?Seriously, one of the stories you linked to a while back made a good case for Colorado. Good enough that I was pretty much convinced. But is Colorado now off the expansion radar?

Adam Rittenberg: Uh, no. Not happening. The Pac-10 has much bigger problems than the Big Ten as far as marketing its teams on a national level and raising its overall profile. USC is a big deal, but how many folks who live East of the Rockies see Oregon, Cal, Oregon State or Arizona play much? I grew up a Pac-10/Cal fan, and I have to stay up until 2 a.m. to see the Bears finish night games. The Big Ten has no need to share its success with the Pac-10, which brings on more risks than potential rewards. And the idea of ejecting teams like Northwestern, Stanford and Minnesota is silly for both leagues. Colorado would be a good addition for the Pac-10, but I highly doubt the Big Ten would look to the Buffs for expansion.

Bill from Marshall: where's all the spring game coverage? Stop slacking off!!There were a bunch of spring games. You should have a TON of material ready. Get off your nerdy backside and do something

Adam Rittenberg: Hmmm, should I fire on Bill or let you guys handle him for me in the comments section ... tough decision. Bill, you can criticize me for a lot of things, and you'd be correct on some of them. But saying I don't work hard enough, seriously, dude? I've got a little assignment for you. Go back and read this blog. Then go and try to find another one out there with more content year-round. You won't. I'll recap all the spring games eventually, but I don't place nearly as much of an importance on them as the fans do. They're glorified scrimmages that rarely mean anything when the season rolls around.

John from Dominica, West Indies, writes: Love the blog! Nearly as good as the Caribbean weather...until I read your recent post! Does Michigan State have a REAL quarterback?! I just read that Cousins said "Football is not my life" and it irked me, especially since Keith Nichol was quoted as saying he would "rather be on the field than play quarterback" If neither one of them cares THAT much about it, how vulnerable are we at QB?

Adam Rittenberg: John, I think the island air is getting to you. Just kidding. But I do think you're misinterpreting comments from two very upstanding guys in Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol. Cousins meant that football isn't the only thing in his life. He has his faith, his education, his family, etc. The guy gives maximum effort in every area of his life, but he's not going to be a football robot or delusional about life after he's done playing. As for Nichol, he wants to help the team in any way he can, and right now that's at wide receiver. Trust me, he'd play quarterback in a heartbeat and give it everything he had if that's where the coaches wanted him, but he can best serve the team as a wideout. He could complain about it, but instead, he's taking it in stride. Lastly, can you send some of that Caribbean weather my way?

Your Big Ten NFL draft roundup

April, 26, 2010
The 2010 NFL draft is in the books, so let's take a look at the 34 Big Ten players who heard their names called in New York. When the full list of undrafted free agents comes out, I'll post it later in the week.

  • No Big Ten players selected

Here are the selections according to Big Ten team:

Illinois: 3
Indiana: 3
Iowa: 6
Michigan: 3
Michigan State: 1
Minnesota: 2
Northwestern: 3
Ohio State: 4
Penn State: 6
Purdue: 1
Wisconsin: 2

Quick thoughts:
  • Three of the biggest draft steals from the Big Ten were pass-catchers in 2009: Illinois wideout Arrelious Benn, Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker and Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki. Benn had first-round skills but a fourth-round college résumé. Decker most often was compared to former Broncos wideout Ed McCaffrey, and if healthy, he could do big things in Denver. If Moeaki stays healthy, the Chiefs might have found the next Tony Gonzalez. Kirk Ferentz puts Moeaki right up there with Dallas Clark in Iowa's top tight ends.
  • Love the Colts' pick of Angerer, who could be a very good pro in a great situation in Indy. With Angerer and Indiana's Fisher going to Indianapolis, the Colts now have drafted 26 Big Ten players under Bill Polian.
  • Northwestern's Kafka also goes to a very good situation in Philly, as the Eagles love to pass the ball and will run some shotgun.
  • Penn State's Lee, Purdue's Neal, Wisconsin's Schofield and Northwestern's Wootton and McManis could all be steals for their teams. Health has been an issue for Lee, Schofield, Wootton and McManis, so they need to find ways to get on the field and stay there.
  • It was interesting how one Big Ten left tackle, Indiana's Saffold, rose up the draft boards late in the process, while another, Iowa's Bulaga, dropped.
  • Ohio State had four players drafted, but this has to be the Buckeyes' weakest draft class in recent memory. I thought Gibson would go in the second or third round, but Worthington, Coleman and Spitler barely made the cut. Did Jim Tressel deserve Big Ten Coach of the Year over Ferentz? The case looks stronger now.
  • Draft snubs included Michigan State wide receiver Blair White, Michigan cornerback Donovan Warren, Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark and Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott. Warren was the only Big Ten junior not to get drafted. His decision to leave looked reasonable at the time, but he clearly could have used another year in Ann Arbor. All four players have reportedly signed free-agent deals.
Most mock drafts had Michigan's Brandon Graham, Iowa's Bryan Bulaga and Penn State's Jared Odrick being selected in the first round. So there were no major shockers as the first round played out.

The only mini surprise from Thursday night's NFL draft was the order of Big Ten picks.

Graham, the outstanding Michigan defensive end who will play outside linebacker in the pros, was the first Big Ten player drafted, going at No. 13 to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles landed the Big Ten's most dominant player of 2009, but Graham was surprised Philadelphia wanted him, telling, "The Eagles never showed any interest at all."

Bulaga had been pegged as high as No. 5 on some draft boards, and most prognosticators listed him as the first Big Ten player to be selected. But the Iowa left tackle, who won Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors last fall, had to wait until No. 23, when the Green Bay Packers picked him. Bulaga's stock certainly dropped in the days before the first round, but's Don Banks writes that he had a "soft landing" and should fit in perfectly with Green Bay.

Should Bulaga have stayed another year at Iowa? He could have helped himself a little, but I can't fault him for leaving, especially after his health scare early in the season.

There were too many teams at the bottom of the first round that loved Odrick, and Miami pulled the trigger at No. 28. Here's some reaction from Odrick and analysis from around the media. I'd be stunned if Odrick isn't an excellent pro, and he should be able to help the Dolphins right way in their interior defensive line.

Check out ESPN's analysis of the first round here, here and here.

Indiana left tackle Rodger Saffold and Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn were the Big Ten's other first-round possibilities. Their wait should be over early tonight as Round 2 begins.