Big Ten: Ben Herbert

On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.

Big Ten chat wrap: Dec. 20

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
2:30
PM ET
My Big Ten chat took place one day later than usual, but you guys didn't seem to mind the delay. Some really good questions today, and hopefully some decent answers.

Did you miss the chat? No worries, I've got the complete transcript for ya.

Some highlights:

Ben from Columbus: Adam, which position group on the Buckeyes needs to have the best offseason? Which individual player?

Adam Rittenberg: Definitely the defensive line, Ben. It loses Big Ten DPOY John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Nathan Williams, Garrett Goebel ... the list goes on. There's a lot of youth up front -- a lot of talent, too. That group really needs to grow up and make progress for Ohio State to compete for a national title in 2013.

Colin from Lansing: Regardless of how the B1G sets up the new divisions, do you agree that ALL regular-season finales should be against divisional opponents?

Adam Rittenberg: Colin, this is a good point brought up by several fans. There do seem to be too many cross-division matchups on the final Saturday because of the rivalries. If you put Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, it would solve that one. I think it's something the Big Ten must consider going forward.

Dale from Minneapolis: In terms of recruiting, is it important to look at a select player's recruiting rankings or what kind of offers that player is receiving?

Adam Rittenberg: Really good question, Dale. I'd definitely look at the offers more than the rankings, which can be all over the place depending on which service you use. Nebraska, for example, just landed an offensive line recruit (David Knevel) who also had an offer from Alabama. That's very significant in my view.

Mike from Paris, Ohio: Adam,There was recently an article on ESPN.com talking about the ACC vs. the Big Ten and which conference is in worse shape. in the article it talked about how both teams need to win some marquee games to help their repuation and how Wisconsin beating Stanford would be a big help.However, the BIg Ten is already 4-2 in their last 6 BCS games on the field (3-2 when you take away OSU) and it hasn't helped their reputation one bit. Why is that?

Adam Rittenberg: Hey Mike, I actually wrote that article. ... Although the Big Ten's recent BCS record isn't as lousy as it was from 2006-2008, the New Year's Day results have been particularly damaging. Going winless on Jan. 1, 2011, was really bad, and last year's results (only one win in triple overtime) weren't much better. The Big Ten rolls the dice a bit with putting so many bowl games on the same day -- it has lost the last two years, and that's why the league has taken some heat.

Jon from Colorado: If Alvarez can keep three of the five coaches being targeted (Miller, Strickland, Hammock, Partridge, and Herbert) how big of a coup is that? To me Herbert is one of if not the biggest loss of the offseason given what he has done for the strength program.

Adam Rittenberg: Herbert is outstanding, Jon. I'd say Miller and Strickland are the likeliest to remain, but if Wisconsin can get two of the other three -- Herbert, Hammock, Partridge -- it would be really big.

Thanks again for all your questions. If I didn't get to you, my apologies. Let's do it again soon.

Wisconsin could keep some assistants

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
9:45
AM ET
The Gary Andersen hire still hasn't been made officially official, and Wisconsin is expected to formally introduce him Friday after digging out of a snowstorm today.

But already there is much speculation about who will be on Andersen's Badgers staff. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that athletic director Barry Alvarez has targeted some current assistants for Andersen to retain, including two who have already accepted jobs with Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

Those are co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and strength coach Ben Herbert, both of whom took the same roles with the Razorbacks. But the paper reports Partridge has only a $50,000 buyout in his contract if he decides to stay and work for Andersen instead of going to Fayetteville.

Alvarez reportedly would also like to hold onto offensive line coach Bart Miller. He was a graduate assistant until after the second game of this season, when Bielema fired Mike Markuson and elevated Miller to a full-time role. The Badgers' offensive line play greatly improved, and Miller is seen as a rising star.

Andersen's offensive coordinator at Utah State, Matt Wells, has interviewed for the head coaching job for the Aggies and has a great chance to get the gig. If so, that would leave Andersen needing a playcaller. The Badgers' current offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, has accepted that same job at NC State under former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren. Could Canada be convinced to stay if Andersen wanted some continuity on the offensive side?

The assistant carousel is still spinning. Stay tuned.

Big Ten lunchtime links

July, 16, 2012
7/16/12
12:00
PM ET
I can foresee a lot of possible outcomes to this thing, and not a single one of them involves "Miller Time."

Big Ten lunch links

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
12:00
PM ET
In honor of the celebrity I saw this weekend in New York, I give you today's quote.

"Cameron's moment went on for a really, really long time. Turns out I could've run to the party and made it back for the end of his moment."

Football strength training is the flavor this week on ESPN.com, as we attempt to pump ... you up! Sorry, couldn't resist.

Head coaches get most of the credit -- and, to be fair, most of the blame -- but strength coaches spend more time with players than anyone else on campus. They play major roles in developing personnel for the season.

So who are these guys? Here's a quick look at the Big Ten strength coaches.

ILLINOIS
Name:
Lou Hernandez
At Illinois since: 2005
The skinny: Hernandez made the transition from Florida to Illinois with Fighting Illini head coach Ron Zook, for whom he has worked since 2003. A native Texan, Hernandez received both his bachelor's and master's from the University of Houston, where he worked from 1992-2001 as both an assistant strength coach and the head man. Hernandez spent 2002 as the assistant strength and conditioning coach for the New York Jets. Despite being just 5-foot-8, Hernandez was a competitive power lifter who could bench 507 pounds and squat 720 in his heyday. He also consults Illinois players on nutrition and helped defensive end Will Davis add to his frame in 2008.

INDIANA
Name:
Mark Wateska
At Indiana since: 2002
The skinny: Wateska has spent nearly a quarter century as a strength and conditioning coach, including the last eight seasons with the Hoosiers football program. He played football at Penn State and was part of the 1986 national championship team. Wateska received both his bachelor's degree and his master's degree in exercise and sports science from Penn State and started his career there. He eventually left for Boston College, where he served as an assistant strength coach for four years before he took his first head job at Maine. Before Indiana, Wateska spent seven years as Stanford's head strength and conditioning coach. After his first year at The Farm, Wateksa was named Pac-10 Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA).

IOWA
Name:
Chris Doyle
At Iowa since: 1999
The skinny: Doyle has been in Iowa City for every step of the program's resurgence under Kirk Ferentz. He made his mark right away, earning Big Ten Strength Coach of the Year honors from the NCSA in 1999. Doyle has helped 149 players who have reached the professional ranks in the NFL, NHL and NBA, including 24 Iowa players selected in the last six NFL drafts. A native of Quincy, Mass., who earned two degrees at Boston University, Doyle came to Iowa after a year at Utah but was no stranger to the Big Ten. He served as Wisconsin's assistant strength and conditioning coach from 1996-98. Doyle worked both the football and hockey teams in Madison.

MICHIGAN
Name:
Mike Barwis
At Michigan since: 2008
The skinny:
Barwis followed Rich Rodriguez to Michigan after spending 14 years at West Virginia, where he worked with the school's Olympic sports programs before taking over strength and conditioning for football in 2003. Rodriguez is extremely loyal to Barwis and gives Barwis a lot of credit for the Mountaineers' rise to national prominence from 2005-07. Barwis has coached 24 NCSA All-Americans since 1999 and received the Bronze Award from the NCSA certification commission in 2004. A former mixed-martial arts fighter, Barwis' workout regimes at West Virginia became legendary, and the Philadelphia native has developed quite a reputation among Michigan players and fans.

MICHIGAN STATE
Name: Ken Mannie
At Michigan State since: 1994
The skinny: Mannie made the transition with Nick Saban from Toledo to Michigan State in 1994, but while Saban moved on, Mannie remained a fixture in East Lansing. He has received numerous awards and honors during his Michigan State tenure, including being named Master Strength and Conditioning Coach by the NSCA in 2002 and being inducted into the Varsity S Club as an honorary member in 2007. Mannie, who oversees the strength and conditioning programs for all of Michigan State's sports, is a regular contributor to the Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director publication. He first met Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio at Ohio State, where they both served as graduate assistants in 1984.

MINNESOTA
Name:
Mark Hill
At Minnesota since: 2007
The skinny: A 1999 graduate of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Hill already has worked as a high-level strength coach in the Big 12, Pac-10 and Big Ten. He joined Minnesota's staff in head coach Tim Brewster's first season after spending three years as associate director of performance enhancement at Arizona. Hill worked closely with Antoine Cason at Arizona, helping the defensive back win the Thorpe Award. He has mentored six All-Big Ten players at Minnesota and helped coach 13 All-Americans and 28 NFL draft picks as the assistant strength and conditioning coach at Oklahoma from 2000-03. Hill was an All-Southern Conference wide receiver at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

NORTHWESTERN
Name: Larry Lilja
At Northwestern since: 1981
The skinny: Lilja is the dean of Big Ten strength coaches and counts current Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald among the many Wildcats players he tutored during his lengthy run in Evanston. He was a three-year starter at Northwestern from 1973-75, serving as a captain in 1974, before returning in 1981 to run the school's strength and conditioning center. Lilja played a major role in helping Northwestern transform its football program by winning Big Ten championships in 1995 and 1996. He earned Big Ten Conference Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year honors in 1996. The Lilja family has deep roots in the Big Ten, as Larry and his brothers George (Michigan) and Dave (Indiana) are the only siblings in league history to serve as captains for three different teams.

OHIO STATE
Name: Eric Lichter
At Ohio State since: 2006
The skinny: Lichter built his reputation in the private sector by opening the Speed Strength Athlete Training Center in Euclid, Ohio, where he trained athletes in many sports, including Ohio State NFL draft prospects like Donte Whitner and Bobby Carpenter. He served as a consultant to Ohio State's 2002 national championship team and brought Power Plate technology to the program. Head coach Jim Tressel hired him in 2006 to oversee the strength and conditioning program. Lichter has trained six Top 10 NFL draft picks and has worked with LeBron James, Ron Dayne and others. His mother, Linda Lichter Witter, is Ohio State’s synchronized swimming coach, and Eric served as a consultant for the synchronized swimming team before joining Tressel's staff.

PENN STATE
Name: John Thomas
At Penn State since: 1992
The skinny: Like pretty much every member of Joe Paterno's staff, Thomas has been in State College for quite some time, making his mark on the Penn State program. In 2002, Thomas was named a Master of Strength and Conditioning Coach by the NSCA, one of only 27 people to carry the title at the time. He also was named National Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 1997. Thomas is a staunch supporter of the High Intensity Strength Training System (HIT), which early last decade created some discontent that has since subsided. Thomas came to Penn State from Army, where he served as head strength and conditioning coach in 1990-91. He played both offensive and defensive line at Muskingum College.

PURDUE
Name: Jim Lathrop
At Purdue since: 1998 (sixth year as director of strength and conditioning)
The skinny: Lathrop made the trek with Joe Tiller and Danny Hope from Wyoming to Purdue after being named the WAC's strength and conditioning coordinator professional of the year in 1996. He spent seven years as strength and conditioning coordinator before being promoted to oversee strength and conditioning for Purdue's entire athletic program. Lathrop designs specific training programs for football, wrestling, and men's and women's track. A former offensive guard for Northwest Missouri State, Lathrop served as both an assistant and a director of strength and conditioning at Georgia Tech from 1988-92. Georgia Tech won the 1990 national championship during his first year as director.

WISCONSIN
Name: Ben Herbert
At Wisconsin since: 2002 (named head strength and conditioning coach in January 2009)
The skinny: Herbert cut his teeth under longtime Wisconsin strength coach John Dettman before working his way into the top football job last winter. A two-year starter on the defensive line for the Badgers, Herbert helped Wisconsin reach back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1998 and 1999. He joined Wisconsin's strength and conditioning staff as an intern in 2002 before being promoted to an assistant the next year. Herbert shook things up after becoming the head strength coach, introducing position group workouts, innovative competitions and some unique motivational props, including a WWE replica belt and two potted plants.

Big Ten mailbag

May, 26, 2009
5/26/09
3:49
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A week's worth of mail to sift through today ...

Vincent from Westerville, Ohio, writes: Hi Adam, do you think that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney is unfairly criticized or attacked? It seems like every time there's a topic, it's his comments that get pointed out (already realizing he may be the most powerful commissioner in the NCAA). And why is it always the Big Ten that has to expand? No one is asking the Pac-10, Big 12 or SEC to expand, and the Pac-10 doesn't have a championship game either.

Adam Rittenberg: I think to a certain extent, you're right. Delany is often the target for criticism, and it's because to many folks, he represents the old guard in college football, the traditionalists who are resistant to change the game. But you hit on a great point about Delany being powerful. Whether fans want to acknowledge it or not, Delany holds tremendous power with the NCAA and throughout college sports. If his opinion didn't hold so much weight, there wouldn't be as much criticism toward him. As for expansion in other leagues, the Big 12 and SEC already satisfy the championship-game crowd, and the Pac-10 plays a true round robin and extends its regular season until the first weekend of December, unlike the Big Ten. There's less to criticize with those leagues.


Charles from Linden, Mich., writes: How does Norm Parker continue to put top defenses on the field, no matter how many guys he loses each year, no matter where he is (Michigan State, Vanderbilt or Iowa) his success doesn't waiver, Is this a question of system over talent and how come more DC's can't be as consistant.

Adam Rittenberg: Parker's success stems from an unwavering belief in his system. Many defensive coordinators are tempted to shake things up these days, especially with the rise of the spread offense, but Parker sticks to what he has run over the years. Opponents know exactly what they're getting from Iowa's defense, and they still have a tough time moving the ball. Iowa also is always very technically sound on defense, and polished techniques and fundamentals always make the scheme less essential.


Jason from Illinois writes: Adam, I happened to see the Big East blogger did its conference workout warriors are we going to see anything like that from you for the Big Ten? How was Martez Wilson, Matt Mayberry and Brandon Graham not on the original list by the way?

Adam Rittenberg: The Workout Warriors stems from a piece my colleague Bruce Feldman does every year at this time. This year's story did not include any players from the Big Ten, although Feldman did include Martez Wilson and Brandon Graham in the "just missed the cut" section. Since the Big Ten didn't make the rundown, I wrote instead about Wisconsin's strength program under new coach Ben Herbert. There certainly are some exceptional weight-room guys in the Big Ten, and I'd certainly include the three names you mention.


Chad from Parts Unknown writes: My question revolves around the depth Michigan State has at QB, with Cousins and Nichol going head to head for the starting job and Andrew Maxwell coming in the fall, how do you see this position working out over the mext few years and will the you see Maxwell or Cousins transfer if Nichol is named the starter.

Adam Rittenberg: It's a very interesting question, Chad. Kirk Cousins doesn't seem like the type of guy who would transfer if he didn't win the job. He's got other plans academically, and I'm sure he would still get some playing time even if Keith Nichol was the starter. As for Maxwell, he'll almost certainly redshirt this season, so I don't think you need to worry about a transfer scenario with him until a few years down the line.


Mike from Evanston, Ill., writes: Adam, Thanks for keeping Northwestern so well represented in your blog. One Wildcat who you have given a lot of hype has been sophomore Jeravin Matthews, the converted WR/special teams player who is now in the Cats' system as a RB. Im excited about Matthews potential out of the backfield, but I really question his ability to carry the load in the conference season due to his size (5'11'', 170). Simmons, who has seemed to assume the role of #1 back heading into the summer, is also a undersized at 5'8', 175. What do you think about the possibility of Alex Daniel or Mike Trumpy, the incoming freshman, assuming the role of featured back in '09? Daniel was a pleasant surprise in the spring game, and Trumpy seems to have gotten significant praise coming out of high school. Do you think Matthews could be better used as a secondary back who could also line up at receiver in the Cats no-huddle spread?

Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some excellent points, Mike, and size is a concern with both Simmons and Matthews. You would think that after seeing bigger backs like Jason Wright and Noah Herron perform well in this offense, Northwestern would be signing more big backs. I haven't seen enough of Daniel or Trumpy to brand them a serious candidate to start, but expect to see a larger rotation than normal at running back. Northwestern's best between-the-tackles runner might actually be quarterback Mike Kafka, so it's more important to have a guy who can pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. To me, Matthews is the perfect fit.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After suffering through one of the most disappointing seasons in the country last fall, Wisconsin needed to make changes, and everyone knew it.

The problem? Spring practice was more than three months away. 

 
  Elsa/ALLSPORT
  Ben Herbert, a former defensive end, has rejuvenated Wisconsin's strength and conditioning  program with his unconventional ideas.

The weight room provided the first platform to shake things up, and thanks to some creative ideas and favorable timing, that's exactly where the Badgers capitalized.

Longtime head strength and conditioning coach John Dettman, a key figure in the football program's resurgence during the 1990s, moved into an administrative position and turned the football responsibilities over to his assistant.

Ben Herbert's time had arrived, and the former Badgers defensive linemen, who had assisted Dettman since 2003, didn't waste a second in his new role.

It took a wrestling belt, two potted plants, plenty of hand-holding (not the kind you think), some nontraditional tests and a lot of tough love, but Herbert got the desired results.

"Guys, they were looking for something to spark them a little bit," Herbert said. "I thought I had some of the answers for that. You never know until you get through a training cycle and then full winter and spring ball. But looking back on it, I couldn't have it go any other way.

"It worked out exactly how I wanted it to."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

J.J. Watt's long, strange journey back to Wisconsin was almost complete, as head coach Bret Bielema offered him a chance to walk onto the Badgers' team. 

Watt just had one final item to address. 

"I had to look at his contract to make sure everything was OK," Watt said, laughing. 

You couldn't blame him for checking. Watt didn't exactly have the best luck with coaches early in his college career. 

The Pewaukee, Wis., native originally committed to Central Michigan, but reopened his recruitment after head coach Brian Kelly left for Cincinnati. Watt then committed to Minnesota in mid-December, only to see the axe fall on Gophers head coach Glen Mason two weeks later. 

He wound up back at Central Michigan and played in all 14 games as a true freshman tight end in 2007, catching eight passes for 77 yards. But with the tight end position not the focal point of Butch Jones' offense, Watt decided to return to familiar surroundings and a familiar position -- defensive end.

"It was definitely a crazy process I went through," Watt said, "but in the end it worked out for me, so I can't complain. Now I'm in a great position."

His arrival also has worked out well for Wisconsin, which loses three multiyear starters on the defensive line (end Matt Shaughnessy and tackles Mike Newkirk and Jason Chapman).

Watt stood out during spring ball and all but locked up a starting position on the defensive line for 2009. Named the Badgers' defensive scout team player of the year last fall, Watt continued to impress the coaches and was rewarded with a scholarship Friday night, hours before the spring game.

"He's a beast, man," said senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield, echoing the term defensive coordinator Dave Doeren used to describe Watt. "You see all the potential. He does all the right things that the coaches teach."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

OK, confession time.

I got really into pro wrestling during fifth and sixth grades, and refused to believe those who claimed it was fake. I still remember going to see the original Ultimate Warrior, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka and a casket match between The Undertaker and Sid Justice at the Cow Palace in South San Francisco, circa 1992. I also collected the (then-WWF) action figures, though I never got my hands on Andre The Giant. Good times.

Why do I reveal this? 

Well, Wisconsin's new strength and conditioning coach took a page from the WWE in shaping the team's winter program. Ben Herbert, who took over for longtime strength coach John Dettmann in January, decided players needed a new incentive in the program after a lackluster 2008 season that featured several late-game letdowns.

As The Capital Times' Jim Polzin writes, Herbert bought a WWE replica belt that became the prize for the group of players who tallied the most points in a series of strength and conditioning competitions, which included a backward sled pull. 

"The belt, which Herbert found using an internet search, includes faux diamonds and a spinning center plate with the WWE logo. It caught Herbert's eye because the logo resembles the Motion W. Engraved on the belt is the word 'tonesetters,' the theme of Herbert's message to the players in the wake of a 2008 season in which the Badgers failed to live up to high expectations."

The winning group included defensive linemen and linebackers, which bodes well because both units lost multiple starters in the offseason.

Herbert also did things to increase accountability among the players. If anyone showed up late to the team's bi-weekly 6 a.m. runs, the start time was pushed back 30 minutes. 

"At the end of each session, Herbert had the team form one giant circle and all but two adjacent players held hands, leaving a broken link in the chain. The player who was late had to stand in the middle of the circle 'just to make sure everybody saw who it was that they can't count on,' Herbert said. 'They'd look around and they'd know who they could, and then they also know who they couldn't.'"

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

"Last week, Maybin said he weighed in the 242-245 range. This week, he said he's gained eight pounds. Eat. Train. Sleep. There ain't nothing else to do here."

"Athletic director Joel Maturi said the Gophers still are negotiating to add Southern California to the schedule in a future home-and-home series. A decision should be made within a week."

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