Big Ten: Ben Kline

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
10:00
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It's the second-to-last week of the season, and it's the first time all year that all 14 Big Ten teams are in action against one another in conference play. (Still hate you, double bye.) And there are no night games, so you'll have to be on top of your remote control game in the early afternoon.

Here's a look at what's on tap Saturday (all times ET):

Noon

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon and Wisconsin are looking to punch their tickets to Indianapolis in Iowa.
No. 25 Minnesota (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) at No. 23 Nebraska (8-2, 4-2), ESPN: The Gophers can win the Big Ten West by winning their final two games. But first they'll have to get through a Nebraska team that should be fighting mad after last week's embarrassment in Madison. Bo Pelini said this week that Ameer Abdullah might not be 100 percent the rest of the year.

Rutgers (6-4, 2-4) at No. 11 Michigan State (8-2, 5-1), Big Ten Network: League championship dreams are all but over for the Spartans, but they can still win 10 games and get to a major bowl. The Scarlet Knights are looking to score an upset over one of the upper-tier teams in the league, but they're going bowling regardless.

Indiana (3, 7, 0-6) at No. 6 Ohio State (9-1, 6-0), BTN: The Buckeyes are around a five-touchdown favorite, and understandably so. This one might be about style points for the selection committee, and not much else.

Northwestern (4-6, 2-4) at Purdue (3-7, 1-5), ESPNU: After a surprising upset in South Bend, the Wildcats now have a bowl game in sight if they can win this one and close out the season against Illinois. But Purdue had a week off to prepare, and Northwestern has had a habit of playing up or down to its competition.

Penn State (6-4, 2-4) at Illinois (4-6, 1-5), ESPN2: Tim Beckman's last stand? The Illini have to win here to have any hope of getting to a bowl game and potentially saving their coach's job. Christian Hackenberg is scuffling for Penn State, but is Illinois' defense enough to lift his doldrums?

3:30 p.m.

No. 16 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) at Iowa (7-3, 4-2), ABC/ESPN2: The Heartland Trophy game has enormous West Division implications. If Wisconsin wins, it can do no worse than tie for the division title and could clinch a spot in Indianapolis with a Minnesota loss. Melvin Gordon, who originally committed to Iowa, will look to add to his Heisman Trophy credentials after his 408-yard day last weekend.

Maryland (6-4, 3-3) at Michigan (5-5, 3-3), BTN: Can Brady Hoke lead Michigan to a bowl game? He'll almost certainly have to win this one to do so, since the Wolverines' finale is in Columbus. Maryland already has wins over Penn State and Iowa, and would solidify a nice first season in the Big Ten by winning in the Big House.

Required reading
Week 13 predictions | Bold calls

Ohio State offensive line again rises from the ashes

J.T. Barrett speeds toward Heisman race

Minnesota, Nebraska fight to move forward

Revised image suits Michigan's Jake Ryan

Rutgers not satisfied with bowl eligibility

'Chevy Bad Boys' power Wisconsin's No. 1 D

The cold truth: Embrace the B1G weather

Big Ten's second act worth watching

West Division title scenarios

"Dilly Bar Dan" enjoys his brush with fame

Bowl projections

Awards race tracker

Big Ten lunch links

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
12:00
PM ET
Every pitch is grooved for the links.
  • Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash weighs in on the progress of the defense and his relationship with Luke Fickell.
  • There was already plenty of attention on Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones before he was named to a preseason watch list.
  • James Franklin provided some insight on a pair of injuries Penn State is dealing with during the offseason, updating the progress for Miles Diffenbach and Ben Kline.
  • Maryland is trying to use LeBron James' decision to go home to its advantage in recruiting.
  • The jump to the Big Ten has produced a bump in ticket prices for Rutgers and Maryland.
  • Another hot ticket: Nebraska's visit to Fresno State is generating excitement for both fan bases.
  • Loren Tate writes that academic standards at Illinois are part of the reason the program is falling behind competitively.
  • An in-depth look at Northwestern asks if the program is really trending upward.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
12:00
PM ET
USMNT, let's do this.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
12:00
PM ET

It's OK, these links don't bite.

Although there’s been plenty of good news on the recruiting trail for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, injuries and depth issues sure seem to be stacking up for the program this offseason.

According to a report from Lions 247, linebacker Ben Kline is the latest to succumb to a serious injury -- a torn Achilles tendon that should make him miss “significant time,” according to the outlet’s sources.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Ben Kline
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBen Kline's reported injury further depletes a thin group of Penn State linebackers.
The injury comes about seven months after Kline suffered a torn pectoral that required surgery. He also underwent a second shoulder surgery shortly after that. At the time of those surgeries, then-coach Bill O’Brien remained hopeful that Kline would be ready in time for kickoff this season.

Now? Well, with Franklin’s philosophy to not discuss injuries, it’s anyone’s guess as to when -- or whether -- Kline will return for his redshirt junior season.

Regardless of the severity, the injury obviously sets Penn State back. Depth issues along the offensive front have been well-documented, but the corps of linebackers are also extremely thin. Penn State now has just four linebackers who played last season and entered the university on scholarship: Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Gary Wooten.

Kline, a team leader who penned an articulate open letter in January about the program, could’ve challenged for a starting job had he been healthy. At the least, he would’ve played a crucial role as a backup. Last season, he battled through injuries but eventually won the starting job later in the season -- before the torn pectoral ended his year.

Kline offered this team a safety blanket of sorts at his position. He was a solid player who would’ve contributed in some manner -- but now that production will have to come from elsewhere, which likely either means a lot more Wooten, time split among non-scholarship players or an immediate impact from the two true freshmen, Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder.

Linebacker for Penn State just went from a potential issue to a real concern. The rest of these players need to stay healthy -- or Penn State’s defense could end up being in almost as much trouble as the offensive line.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

Penn State LB Kline out for season

November, 12, 2013
11/12/13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Ben Kline, who overcame offseason shoulder surgery in time for the 2013 season, will miss the rest of the year with a torn pectoral that will require surgery.

The redshirt sophomore will also undergo a second shoulder surgery that will come after the pectoral surgery, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.

"I think he can definitely come back from those," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon. "I brought him in and had this exact conversation with him. I told him, 'We look forward to bringing you back next year.'

"He's still at the meetings. I look at Ben Kline as a tough kid."

Kline tore his pec on the second play of Saturday's game against Minnesota but played the rest of the game. He finished with four tackles.

Depth at linebacker was among O'Brien's chief concerns this season, and Kline played in every game, starting the last two. He finished the season with 18 tackles and one sack.

Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will likely compete for the starting job in his place.

Kline addressed the media last week and said his shoulder continued to bother him this season. He said he had finally gotten his confidence back and praised the trainers for getting him prepared.

"It's been a little more trying than other seasons," Kline said last week. "But I'm just trying to do what I can to help the team."

Kline has two years of eligibility remaining.

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.

Sanctions, depth impact Penn State defense

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's fiery defensive coordinator, John Butler, just crossed his arms and stared up at the big screen after UCF's third touchdown Saturday.

Maybe he just needed to make sure this was real, that he wasn't trapped in a nightmare. Maybe he couldn't believe how his players missed tackles, moved in slow motion or struggled in coverage. Whatever Butler was thinking, it didn't get any better for a defense that surrendered 34 points and 507 yards.

The game's been over now for nearly three days, but answering the questions has only just begun. Some fans have already, tongue-in-cheek, called for PSU to reinstate former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Others are blaming thud practices, in which no player is tackled to the ground.

In a valley that's never happy after a loss, Bill O'Brien did little to ease concerns when he deflected talk Saturday by saying he'd need to watch the film. But Penn State's struggles, to a great extent, don't need to be viewed on a flat-screen to be explained.

Just look at the roster. Look at the numbers.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State defensive coordinator John Butler is receiving some blame for the Lions' poor day on defense, but the problem runs a lot deeper.
This isn't the 2012 team led by two Butkus Award semifinalists at linebacker. This isn't the 2009 squad with three future NFL players at defensive tackle. And it's certainly not the 2010 group that ranked No. 16 in pass defense.

"We knew what we had to to do to stop them," Butler said. "And, to be honest with you, we couldn't stop what we needed to stop."

O'Brien is ESPN's reigning coach of the year and Butler is considered a rising defensive coordinator, but they're not King Midas. The Nittany Lions have fewer scholarship players than every team they're facing this season, and the Knights peeled back any illusion that PSU would cruise through this schedule unscathed.

Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong acknowledged he initially feared he was too small for his new role -- but he fared well in the first two weeks. The 5-foot-10 senior was exposed Saturday. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams earned praise after stopping an Eastern Michigan passing attack that's about as a high-powered as a water pistol. He was exposed Saturday.

Penn State really doesn't have anywhere else left to turn. It's a Whack-a-Mole of depth problems. Butler can move Adrian Amos back to cornerback, but then he might have to move Obeng-Agyapong back to safety ... and then who takes over at linebacker?

Mike Hull appears to be fighting a lingering injury, Ben Kline has seen limited time after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and Gary Wooten is ... well ... just not ready for prime time. Butler has MacGyver-ed his way to even fielding a defense, calling upon first-year starters to pick up the slack.

Four defenders made their first career starts this season. Another two had just one career start before the 2013 season. Butler doesn't have a deep defense to choose from. He's not a bad coach; he's a handicapped coordinator -- not unlike Bradley, the same coach some might prefer, earlier in his career.

Bradley, affectionately known as "Scrap," didn't fare too well in Year 2 as coordinator, either. (And, in his first season in 2000, he lost to Toledo.) In 2001, the Johnstown native's defense gave up 443 yards a game. Only 17 teams fared worse that season, as Penn State's defense finished behind the likes of Hawaii, UTEP and New Mexico State.

It was an era when fans were bluer than the Penn State home jerseys. But Scrap just didn't have the players early in his tenure. PSU finished No. 98 in total defense in 2001. Afterward? PSU never finished worse than No. 50 and, during the next 10 seasons, finished within the top 20 a total of seven times.

That's a lot of numbers -- but it goes to show that Bradley was a good coordinator who simply didn't have a lot to work with. Give the best poker player in the world a bad hand and you can't expect them to rake in fistfuls of chips.

So it's a bit early to jump on Butler. Yes, these were the cards that Penn State was dealt -- but that doesn't mean the wrong man's playing the hand.

It's just one game, and PSU could rebound. It did after poor showings last season. But the Big Ten slate is loaded with high-powered offenses, such as Indiana (50 ppg), Michigan (42.7 ppg) and Ohio State (44.7 ppg) -- and those are just Penn State's opponents in October.

It's too early this season for Chicken Littles to proclaim the sky's falling over Beaver Stadium. But it's not too early to remind that this defense is short on depth. It will struggle at times, and Butler will be blamed for it.

But it's not Butler, it's not thud and it's not the game plan. It's primarily the depth -- and it's these sanctions.
2012 record: 8-4
2012 conference record: 6-2 (second, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, OG John Urschel, OT Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Glenn Carson, CB Adrian Amos

Key losses

QB Matt McGloin, FB Michael Zordich, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Zach Zwinak* (1,000 yards)
Receiving: Allen Robinson* (1,018 yards)
Tackles: Gerald Hodges (109)
Sacks: Deion Barnes* (6)
Interceptions: Michael Mauti (3)

Spring answers

1. "Tight End U." If there's one position the Nittany Lions don't have to worry about, it's this one -- and that's probably why some PSU players have taken to dubbing the university "TEU." Kyle Carter's injured wrist should be just fine once the season rolls around, and there's plenty of depth here. Teammates have pointed to the offseason work of 6-foot-7 target Jesse James, who really came on strong in the second half of last season. He was also the receiving star in the annual spring scrimmage with five catches and 77 yards. Couple him with Matt Lehman, Brent Wilkerson and Adam Breneman, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see quite a few formations with multiple tight ends on the field.

2. Versatility at a premium. Bill O'Brien doesn't mind moving players around. Wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched over to the secondary, and Williams has especially picked up the position quickly. But those two aren't the only to play at different positions. Adrian Amos can play safety or cornerback, and a lot of Penn State's younger DBs have the ability to slide between those two. Penn State's trying to combat a lack of depth with versatile players here, so players who can play at multiple spots are especially valuable.

3. Young standouts. Several true and redshirt freshmen could contribute heavily this season, and O'Brien has praised multiple first-year players for picking things up quickly. On defense, DT Austin Johnson looks to be a starter after a redshirt season, and LB Nyeem Wartman has a leg up on an injured Ben Kline. On offense, WR Eugene Lewis made a one-handed grab in the spring scrimmage to show he can make the tough catches, and RB Akeel Lynch has also made a strong case for playing time. PSU doesn't historically have many four-year starters, but this year could change that.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback question marks. Neither option, early enrollee Tyler Ferguson nor incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, has ever thrown a pass in the FBS -- and one of those two players will be the Penn State starter. Inexperience is a big concern, and the QB will have to learn a complicated offense in a short period of time. Hackenberg has a lot of potential and Ferguson showed glimpses, however inconsistent, in the spring game. But the offense's strength last season was the quick no-huddle offense -- and it remains to be seen whether either of these signal callers can pull the fast playing style off.

2. Withstanding lack of depth. O'Brien has gotten this team down to about 67 scholarships in preparation for 2014 when the 65-scholarship limit kicks in, so depth is a real concern this season. If a quarterback or linebacker becomes injured, PSU could be in trouble. The Lions need to remain healthy to have a shot at repeating last year's success. And one injury could really have a ripple effect on this team. Health is one question, one uncertainty, that can't be answered anytime soon.

3. Kicking game. Sam Ficken was just 14-of-21 on field goals last season and didn't make a single kick over 39 yards. He did wind up converting his last 10 attempts, but his inconsistency carried over in the spring game when he missed a 37-yard field goal and an extra point. O'Brien was known for leaving the special-teams unit on the sideline a lot on fourth downs last season and, if Ficken struggles again, that would put even more pressure on the young quarterbacks. Or force O'Brien to use incoming walk-on kicker Chris Gulla.
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.
Spring practice will be underway at every Big Ten school when Iowa hits the practice field tomorrow. So we're taking a look at one potential breakout player for each team this spring.

We're spotlighting players who could take a major step forward, so those who have started multiple seasons or earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 aren't eligible. Let's turn our attention to State College and Bill O'Brien's Penn State Nittany Lions:

Nyeem Wartman, LB, redshirt freshman, 6-foot-1, 236 pounds

Wartman was in line for some playing time last year as a true freshman, serving as Glenn Carson's backup at middle linebacker. He saw action in the first two weeks but suffered a knee injury at Virginia that prematurely ended his season.

The good news is that he's healthy this spring -- and there's even more opportunity for minutes. With Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges moving on, Wartman is getting a long look for one of the starting outside linebacker spots this season. O'Brien told ESPN.com earlier this month that "we think he's got a bright, bright future."

Wartman was a three-star recruit, according to ESPN.com's Recruiting Nation, which offered this assessment of him out of high school: "[He] is an impressive looking linebacker prospect with a striking blend of size and straight-line speed. Potential sleeper with the physical tools he presents to develop."

With Ben Kline (shoulder) out this spring, Wartman will get a lot of reps to prove he's ready to make the next step. And to show that he can help keep the Linebacker U. tradition going.
Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill O'Brien is excited about his team as he heads into his second season at Penn State.
The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College.

ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.

What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?

Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.

And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.

What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?

BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.

Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?

BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.

Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?

BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.

(Read full post)

When the NCAA leveled severe sanctions against Penn State last summer and made it easy for players to transfer, roster depth became an immediate short-term concern.

It almost certainly looked to be a long-term problem. How would Penn State fare with a reduced roster and a limited number of scholarships to pass out for the 2013 recruiting class?

Early indications suggest the Lions will do just fine. After an 8-4 season under first-year coach Bill O'Brien, Penn State will open spring practice Monday in good shape, both depth-wise and health-wise.

Like every team, the Lions have some holes to fill, most notably quarterback, but they return playmakers on both sides of the ball like wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Deion Barnes, cornerback Adrian Amos and three seasoned tight ends (Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James).

"We feel really good about our depth," O'Brien told ESPN.com on Friday. "Is it exactly the way we would want it? No. We were only able to sign a certain amount of guys, but at the same time, we've got a lot of quality, tough [players]. I really enjoy this football team, being around these kids.

"Obviously, these guys have to go out and play well for us, we have to stay healthy. But we feel like we'll field a very competitive football team in the fall."

Sophomore linebacker Ben Kline is the only key player who will miss spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The Lions are looking for bodies at linebacker after losing Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull are virtually assured of starting spots, and with Kline out, O'Brien sees Nyeem Wartman opening the spring with the first-team defense. Wartman was limited by injuries as a true freshman in 2012.

"We think he's got a bright, bright future," O'Brien said.

Two quick notes:
  • O'Brien reiterated that he won't name a starting quarterback after spring practice. Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will compete this spring, and heralded recruit Christian Hackenberg arrives in the summer.
  • Penn State made two offseason position changes: tight end Garry Gilliam moves to offensive tackle, where he can play on either side, O'Brien said. Wide receiver Malik Golden moves to defensive back.

Spring previews: Leaders Division

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
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Spring practice is under way in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what's on tap for the six teams in the Leaders Division.

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. Coaching staff makeover: Illinois players are used to coaching changes, and Tim Beckman's staff received a significant overhaul during the winter as five assistants departed the program (four voluntarily). The biggest change comes at offensive coordinator, as former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit takes over. Cubit has to implement his system and identify more playmakers with a unit that finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense last season.

2. Lines in limbo: The Illini not only lost significant pieces on both the offensive and defensive lines, but they have new position coaches at both spots as well. Defensive line has been Illinois' strongest spot, but the team must replace two future NFLers in Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Glenn Foster is also gone, so the front four will have a very different look. The offensive line struggled mightily in 2012 and needs young players such as Michael Heitz and Ted Karras to take steps this spring.

3. Getting healthy: Illinois lost so many starters to injury in 2012 that it became difficult to get an accurate gauge on what Beckman could do with a healthy roster. Although linebacker Jonathan Brown and receiver Darius Millines will be limited this spring, the rest of the team is ready to go and Illinois added several potential big contributors from the junior college ranks. If Illinois has any chance of taking a major step in 2013, its best players must stay on the field this spring and allow the coaches a chance to evaluate and scheme for the season.

INDIANA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Quarterback cluster: While some Big Ten teams (Penn State, Purdue) have hardly any experience at quarterback, Indiana has three signal-callers who have logged significant field time. Tre Roberson, who started the 2012 season before suffering a broken leg in Week 2, returns this spring, and it will be interesting to see how he looks and whether he outperforms Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld. Coffman started the final 10 games last fall and passed for 2,734 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Sudfield added 632 passing yards and seven TDs. Indiana's quarterback depth is a good problem to have, but it would be good to see some separation this spring.

2. Defensive leadership: Fielding a Big Ten-level defense remains Indiana's top priority, and the Hoosiers need leaders to develop this spring. Top linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. depart, and Indiana needs to build depth up front after allowing a league-worst 231.3 rush yards per game in 2012. Linebacker is another spot IU must upgrade, and David Cooper should be ready to take the reins after recording 86 tackles in 12 starts a year ago. Like Illinois, Indiana also welcomes several junior college defenders, including tackle Jordan Heiderman.

3. Secondary surge: All the question marks in Indiana's defensive front seven make it even more important for the secondary to make strides this spring. The Hoosiers have no shortage of experience in the back four with players such as Greg Heban, Mark Murphy, Brian Williams (12 starts last season) and Antonio Marshall (started final seven games). There's potential for the secondary to be a strength for IU in 2013, but the group must make more plays after recording a league-low seven interceptions last fall.

OHIO STATE

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13 (at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati)

What to watch:

1. Taking a pass: The highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten returns every starter but two, and all that experience, talent and familiarity with the spread attack heading into Urban Meyer's second season with the Buckeyes figures to make them even more dangerous. The key will be how much more efficient Braxton Miller can become as a passer.

2. Getting defensive: For all the pieces the offense retains, the defense is a completely different story heading into spring camp. The Buckeyes have to replace the entire defensive line after losing three seniors and junior Johnathan Hankins to the draft, two starting linebackers are gone and the graduation of cornerback Travis Howard leaves an additional hole in the safety. There will be no shortage of competition for first-team reps.

3. Looking for leaders: Meyer and the senior class that has since departed quickly forged a deep bond, and he has gone out of his way to praise those players' leadership as integral in the unbeaten season that started his tenure with the Buckeyes. Now he needs a new wave of emotional speakers and relentless workers to take the torch from the likes of John Simon and Zach Boren, and Meyer will be making a point to identify his best candidates over the 15 workouts leading into the summer.

-- Austin Ward, BuckeyeNation

PENN STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Quarterback competition: With the departure of fifth-year senior Matt McGloin, quarterback is now the biggest question mark on this team. Sophomore Steven Bench has a head start and will compete against juco early enrollee Tyler Ferguson. Christian Hackenberg won't join the team until summer. Can this no-huddle offense be as effective?

2. Replacing LBs Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges: Mike Hull, who usually played inside, will have to make some adjustments as one of the expected replacements for the All-Big Ten linebacker tandem. The other spot is up for grabs, and fans should expect to see a battle between Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman.

3. New faces at WR, TE: Redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis, the headliner of PSU's 2012 class, could challenge Brandon Moseby-Felder as the No. 2 WR target. Adam Breneman, the No. 1 tight end recruit in the country, is also hoping to be recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in time for the Blue-White Game. Both could be stars down the road for PSU.

-- Josh Moyer, NittanyNation

PURDUE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Behind these Hazell eyes: Yes, I'll justifiably take the abuse for the Kelly Clarkson reference, but new Purdue coach Darrell Hazell has his first chance to evaluate his team on the field this spring. Hazell brings a completely new coaching staff and a new approach to Purdue, which fell short of expectations in 2012 and has significant questions on both sides of the ball. He seems to be getting good buy-in from the players so far, but it'll be interesting to see how things progress during the 15 workouts this spring.

2. Quarterback race: If you like mysteries, you'll enjoy Purdue's quarterback competition this spring. The combination of a new coaching staff and unproven but talented candidates makes the race virtually impossible to predict. Hazell and new offensive coordinator John Shoop will study redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, who could have a slight edge to win the job, along with redshirt freshman Bilal Marshall and early enrollee Danny Etling, a decorated recruit. Don't forget about Rob Henry, who started in 2010 and would have been the top quarterback in 2011 if not for an ACL injury weeks before the season.

3. Short stopper: Purdue has to find a replacement for standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, the centerpiece of the defensive line the past few seasons. Bruce Gaston Jr. will continue to occupy the other top tackle spot, but there will be plenty of competition to join him in the starting lineup. Purdue's defensive line underachieved in 2012, and while Gaston and ends Ryan Russell and Ryan Isaac all return, the Boilers will really miss Short's production if they don't build more depth up the middle.

WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. New era dawns: Consistency is the norm at Wisconsin, but players will have to adjust to a dramatically different coaching staff for the second consecutive season. This time, it includes a new leading man in Gary Andersen, who gets his first chance to work with the players on the practice field. Andersen doesn't plan to overhaul the schemes, but he and his coaches will put their spin on things and see what works. He'll also bring a different personality to practice but one that athletic director Barry Alvarez thinks will fit the program's culture.

2. Intrigue at quarterback: Arguably no team in America has a more interesting quarterback race than the Badgers do this spring. They have three players with starting experience -- Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien -- plus a talented redshirt freshman (Bart Houston) who arrived as a decorated recruit and a junior college addition (Tanner McEvoy) brought in by the new coaches. Add in a new system under coordinator Andy Ludwig, and it's anyone's guess who will separate himself this spring. Be sure to tune in.

3. Secondary in the spotlight: The Badgers lose three of four starters in the secondary from the 2012 squad, including top cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie. The new staff is aware of the numbers issue and signed junior college All-American Donnell Vercher earlier this month. Other players who will compete for starting spots include cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean and safeties Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo. Wisconsin hopes to have some answers in the back four by the end of the spring.

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