Big Ten: Ben Kuznia

Big Ten position rankings: WR/TE

August, 10, 2009
8/10/09
4:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The preseason position rankings march on with the wide receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten wasn't known for its air show last year, as only Illinois ranked among the top 25 nationally in pass offense. But most would agree the league boasts two of the nation's elite wide receivers in Illinois' Arrelious Benn and Minnesota's Eric Decker, as well as a good crop of tight ends led by Wisconsin's Garrett Graham. The overall landscape at wideout/tight end should improve this fall.

1. Illinois -- An easy choice for the top spot as Illinois boasts by far the league's best crop of wide receivers. Benn aims for a second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season and hopes to increase his touchdowns total. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson enters the mix and should make a major impact along with Jeff Cumberland. Senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is one of the league's more underrated players.

2. Minnesota -- Decker certainly headlines the group and will finish his career as arguably the most decorated wide receiver in team history. But he's not alone. Junior college stud Hayo Carpenter arrives and will play alongside Brandon Green, Ben Kuznia, Da'Jon McKnight and Troy Stoudermire, who should play a much bigger role in the passing game after working more at receiver this spring.

3. Michigan State -- The Spartans return virtually everyone from a receiving corps that had some decent moments last fall. Blair White and Mark Dell both have All-Big Ten potential, and the team will look for more production from Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham. The real story here is the depth at tight end. No Big Ten team boasts more as Charlie Gantt and Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum lead the way.

4. Wisconsin -- Much like Michigan State, Wisconsin brings back the core from a group that endured ups and downs in 2008. Graham enters the fall as the Big Ten's premier tight end and has Lance Kendricks and Mickey Turner behind him. The improvement at wide receiver should be the biggest difference for Wisconsin. Nick Toon could be a star this fall, and Kyle Jefferson, Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath all return. 

5.  Ohio State -- The Brians (Robiskie and Hartline) are gone, but Ohio State could be more explosive at wide receiver this season. Though Ray Small's academic situation creates some uneasiness, DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher form a nice 1-2 punch. Ohio State should be better at the tight end position with the Jakes (Ballard and Stoneburner).

6. Michigan -- This group didn't have much of a chance to shine last fall, but things should be different in 2009. The big-play potential is there with Martavious Odoms, Greg Mathews and Darryl Stonum, and redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree had a solid spring. Tight end Kevin Koger could be a very effective weapon if Michigan throws to him more. 

7. Iowa -- There are some question marks here, namely Tony Moeaki's health and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' practice performance, but it wouldn't surprise me if Iowa climbed the list. Moeaki could bring a huge spark at tight end after the loss of Brandon Myers. Johnson-Koulianos will be motivated after his depth-chart demotion, and converted quarterback Marvin McNutt has impressed the coaches.  

8. Penn State -- I'm sure I'll hear it from Nittany Nation (as I usually do), but the loss of three multiyear starters takes a pretty big toll. It wouldn't shock me one bit if Derek Moye, Graham Zug, Brett Brackett and Chaz Powell don't miss a beat, but I need to see them excel in more featured roles. Tight end Andrew Quarless has tons of talent but needs to put it all together this fall.

9. Purdue -- The Boilers usually find a way to succeed at wide receiver, but they lose a lot in Greg Orton, Desmond Tardy and running back Kory Sheets, an excellent pass-catcher. Keith Smith steps into the No. 1 spot after recording 49 receptions last fall, but he'll need help from Aaron Valentin, converted cornerback Royce Adams and junior college import Keith Carlos. Purdue should be much better at tight end as Kyle Adams returns. 

10. Northwestern -- The program needs to prove it can reload after losing three multiyear starters (Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, Rasheed Ward). Northwestern has had high hopes for converted quarterback Andrew Brewer, but he's struggled to stay healthy. The Wildcats will lean on Brewer, junior Sidney Stewart and sophomore Jeremy Ebert, who performed well last fall. The superback position might finally be featured as Drake Dunsmore returns from a knee injury.

11. Indiana -- Last year's leading receiver (Ray Fisher) likely will start at cornerback, while the man expected to be the No. 1 (Kellen Lewis) was dismissed after spring ball. There are some major questions here, but you've got to like Indiana's young wideouts Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss. Sophomore tight end Max Dedmond could be a player to watch this fall.  

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

1. Eric Decker will lead the Big Ten in receiving yards for the second straight year -- The Gophers senior will have more help around him this fall as junior college transfer Hayo Carpenter joins a mix that includes Brandon Green, Ben Kuznia, Da'Jon McKnight and Troy Stoudermire. Opposing defenses will have a hard time doubling Decker, and quarterback Adam Weber will consistently find his good friend for 8- to 12-yard completions. Decker will contend for the Biletnikoff Award and leave Minnesota as the most accomplished receiver in team history.

2. Minnesota will be a better team with about the same record -- The Gophers boast loads of experience on both offense and defense, but their schedule looks significantly tougher than it was a year ago. None of the first three nonconference games (Syracuse, Air Force, Cal) are guaranteed wins, and Minnesota's Big Ten road schedule is brutal (Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa). Add in a new system on offense and a new coordinator on defense, and the Gophers will be a better team with the same record as last year, or worse.

3. MarQueis Gray will challenge Weber for playing time -- I'm a huge fan of Weber's and so is head coach Tim Brewster, but it will be tempting to get Gray more touches this fall. If the freshman continues to build on a strong spring, he'll see the field early at either quarterback or wide receiver. Minnesota will employ a special package of plays for Gray, but if the offense struggles for long stretches, the talented 6-foot-4 quarterback will get the opportunity to play more.

Minnesota spring wrap

May, 6, 2009
5/06/09
9:25
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2008 overall record: 7-6

2008 conference record: 3-5

Returning starters

Offense: 10; Defense: 8; Special teams: 0

Top returners

QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, WR Ben Kuznia, DT Garrett Brown, LB Simoni Lawrence, CB Traye Simmons, CB Marcus Sherels, LB Lee Campbell

Key losses

TE Jack Simmons, DE Willie VanDeSteeg, LB Deon Hightower, P Justin Kucek

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: DeLeon Eskridge* (678 yds)
Passing: Adam Weber* (2,761 yds)
Receiving: Eric Decker* (1,074 yds)
Tackles: Lee Campbell* (80)
Sacks: Willie VanDeSteeg (10.5)
Interceptions: Traye Simmons* (4)

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 at Syracuse
Sept. 12 Air Force
Sept. 19 California
Sept. 26 at Northwestern
Oct. 3 Wisconsin
Oct. 10 Purdue
Oct. 17 at Penn State
Oct. 24 at Ohio State
Oct. 31 Michigan State
Nov. 7 Illinois
Nov. 14 South Dakota State
Nov. 21 at Iowa

Spring answers

1. Gray day -- Heralded recruit MarQueis Gray finally got on the practice field for the Gophers this spring, and he lived up to the hype. Gray won't take the starting quarterback job away from junior Adam Weber, but he'll definitely be a part of the offense this fall. Minnesota likely will have some special packages for Gray, who completed 8 of 10 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

2. Defensive depth -- Minnesota loses only three starters from an improved defense, and new coordinator Kevin Cosgrove should have plenty of options this fall. Cedric McKinley appears ready to step into a primary pass-rushing role with Willie VanDeSteeg departing, and the defensive tackle spot will be a strength with co-captains Eric Small and Garrett Brown. Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston should see time at safety after a strong spring.

3. Troy's time -- After showing impressive speed on kickoff returns last fall, sophomore Troy Stoudermire will be asked to do much more for the Gophers in 2009. Stoudermire saw time as a wide receiver this spring and accounted for 274 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Head coach Tim Brewster is looking for playmakers, and Stoudermire fits the description.

Fall questions

1. Running back -- The Gophers will emphasize the power run in their new-look offense, but who carries the ball remains to be seen. Projected starter Duane Bennett was held out of contact this spring and both DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon missed time with injuries. Redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley showed some promise in the spring game with 63 rush yards and a touchdown, but the position remains a bit of a mystery.

2. Offensive line -- Not surprisingly, the offensive line endured some growing pains this spring as it adjusted to the new scheme being implemented by line coach Tim Davis and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. The Gophers return four starters up front, but several players have been moved around and two new tackles (Matt Stommes and Jeff Wills) likely will start the season.

3. Maresh musings -- Everyone in Minnesota is pulling for freshman linebacker Sam Maresh, who practiced this spring less than nine months after undergoing open-heart surgery. Maresh played a decent amount in the spring game and showed some potential. If he can avoid any further setbacks, he could be in the mix at linebacker this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota will open spring practice Tuesday with a new offensive coordinator (Jedd Fisch), a new run game coordinator (Tim Davis) and a new offensive philosophy (pro-style sets, power run, physical play).

Given all the changes, it doesn't seem like an ideal time to have star wide receiver Eric Decker playing baseball or veteran quarterback Adam Weber held out of contact drills.

Think again.

"People think I'm crazy, but I think it's a tremendous thing for our football team that Adam Weber is not going to get contact reps," head coach Tim Brewster said.

You're probably nodding your head about the crazy part. But let him explain.

"MarQueis Gray is going to get the contact reps," Brewster said. "MarQueis Gray is going to get forced development this spring. That's a great thing for our football team."

Gray, a heralded recruit from Indianapolis, enters spring ball as the team's No. 2 quarterback despite not taking a snap in a college game. An issue with Gray's ACT scores put his college career on pause last fall, but the 6-4, 215-pound freshman will be back on the field Tuesday.

Brewster said he wouldn't trade Weber for any quarterback in the country, but don't expect Gray to sit on the sidelines the next two seasons. He's going to get on the field some way, whether it's as a quarterback, wide receiver or even running back.

"MarQueis has got to put himself in a position where he can take control of our offense and execute our offense, and we don't miss a beat," Brewster said. "Because he's one play away from being our starting quarterback. He's an extremely gifted, talented football player."

Decker's absence with the Gophers baseball team opens up opportunities for other playmakers to develop. Minnesota relied on Decker at times too much last fall, and Brewster is looking for young players like Brandon Green, Xzavian Brandon and Ben Kuznia to step up.

"I didn't think we had enough dynamic playmakers [in 2008]," Brewster said.

Here are some other notes from Brewster's pre-spring news conference.

  • Former defensive lineman Matt Stommes will enter the spring as Minnesota's starting left tackle, as junior Dom Alford shifts from left tackle to left guard. Stommes emerged after Tim Davis became offensive line coach in November and started at right tackle in the Insight Bowl. The senior is listed at 6-7 and 284, but Brewster said he's closer to 300 pounds.
"He's our best athlete in the offensive line," Brewster said. "The pro scouts that have come in and looked at his prototype ... he's got outstanding measurables. We really feel good about him."
  • Linebacker Sam Maresh will be on the practice field Tuesday, which is an amazing accomplishment after he underwent open heart surgery last summer and discovered a non-cancerous growth in his calf this winter. Brewster isn't sure how much Maresh will do but said the freshman went through a rigorous conditioning session Monday morning with his teammates. "There's a chance that he can play [this season]," Brewster said. "I don't want to rush him back. I want to make sure he's 100 percent confident in the calf."
  • Starting cornerback Marcus Sherels will miss most of spring drills following offseason shoulder surgery. He should be fine for preseason camp. Offensive lineman Jeff Tow-Arnett also will miss spring ball after undergoing knee surgery in November. Brewster hopes to have him back for the summer.
  • Sophomore running back Duane Bennett, who started last season before suffering a torn ACL, likely will be held out of contact drills this spring. Same goes for Weber, who will participate in everything else as he grasps the new offense.
  • Expect heralded 2008 recruit Keanon Cooper to play a significant role this fall at one of the outside linebacker spots. Cooper is still listed as a free safety but boasts speed and decent size (6-1, 220). Brewster said Cooper ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash. Linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who Brewster said is on the cusp of becoming one of the Big Ten's top defenders, ran a 4.43 in the 40.
  • Brewster expects transfers Matt Carufel (Notre Dame) and Kim Royston (Wisconsin) to play major roles right away. Carufel projects as the starting right guard, while Royston will be in the mix at safety. Brewster said Kyle Theret, who recorded three interceptions and 11 pass deflections last fall, will be pushed to keep his starting job. There could be a hole at the other safety spot, as Tramaine Brock has left the team because of academic issues. Brewster didn't say much about Brock, only that he's waiting to see how everything plays out.
  • The team hopes to move into TCF Bank Stadium by July 1 and conduct several preseason practices on the field before the Sept. 12 opener against Air Force. "It's something that's been needed at the U. for a long time," Brewster said. "Fortunately, the dream, it's happened."
  • Minnesota's schedule gets tougher in 2009, as it faces Cal and Air Force and adds defending Big Ten co-champ Penn State and Michigan State to the conference slate. The Gophers will not play Indiana or Michigan, and in 2010 they begin a series with USC. "I was a big part of making the schedule a lot stronger," Brewster said. "It does a whole lot more good than it does harm. ... I don't want to play USC every week, but I want to play a schedule our fans are really excited about."

Decker's loss really stings Gophers

November, 11, 2008
11/11/08
2:53
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If Minnesota reclaims Paul Bunyan's Axe, it must do so without star wide receiver Eric Decker, who will miss the game with a high ankle sprain.

Judging by the way the Golden Gophers looked on offense against Michigan, this is really not good. Decker barely played in the game and was sorely missed, as Minnesota didn't score a touchdown for the first time this season. Minnesota is hardly a juggernaut to begin with, ranking seventh in the league in scoring offense (24.9 ppg), but the Gophers could always rely on the connection between quarterback Adam Weber and Decker, who leads the league with 74 receptions and ranks second with 892 receiving yards.

Several young wide receivers must step up Saturday at Wisconsin (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), namely freshman Brandon Green and sophomore Ralph Spry. Green will be a top-end wideout very soon in this league, but Minnesota needs him to grow up fast. Ben Kuznia is solid on the other side, but Weber needs a second option.

More important, the Gophers need to generate some semblance of a running game. They rank last in the league in rushing offense (116.4 ypg), and Weber still remains the most viable option.

And finally, Minnesota needs to go back to its formula of forcing turnovers and playing solid red zone defense. The Gophers have allowed a league-low eight touchdowns in the red zone this season.

Decker's loss hurts, but if the Gophers can get production from multiple wideouts, generate a running game and force a few turnovers, they should be in this game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Now we know how No. 17 Minnesota got to this point.

After a slow start, the Gophers rallied in the second quarter and showcased the characteristics that have led to their 7-1 start. Minnesota's opportunistic defense came up with a game-changing turnover, and quarterback Adam Weber and the offense continue to play mistake-free football. But undermanned Northwestern is hanging in there, and it's been an entertaining game so far.

The Wildcats have to feel good to be tied after their worst fears came true. With a new starting offensive backfield, Northwestern's game plan focused on limiting turnovers. It worked for a litte more than a quarter. But after failing to get good first-down yardage, backup quarterback Mike Kafka showed his inexperience on a hitch pass to Ross Lane. Minnesota cornerback Traye Simmons read the route, stepped in for the interception and took it 23 yards to the end zone.

But Kafka responded nicely and sparked a touchdown drive with a 53-yard run to the Minnesota 2-yard line. The Gophers are clearly trying to take away running back Omar Conteh, which has opened up lanes for Kafka, who has 97 rushing yards on nine carries. Kafka completed his first eight pass attempts before slowing down a bit in the second quarter.

Minnesota's offense settled in nicely in the second quarter. Weber's ability to scramble and make throws on the run has spurred the Gophers. And though junior wide receiver Eric Decker broke his own single-season school record with his 68th reception, Weber is getting other receivers involved (Nick Tow-Arnett, Ben Kuznia, Brandon Green, Jack Simmons), completing 15 of 23 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown.

Both offensive lines have looked suspect at times, but Northwestern likely needs to force a turnover from Weber to pull out the upset.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It was a heavy news day around the Big Ten, so my regularly scheduled mailbag will be pushed back to Wednesday. From here on out I'll have mailbags on Tuesdays and Fridays, so make sure to send in your questions.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced this afternoon that junior Jake Christensen will start at quarterback Saturday against Maine. Sophomore Ricky Stanzi, who has come on strong toward the end of preseason camp, also will see action. Christensen threw for 2,269 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions as the starter last season, completing only 53.5 percent of his passes.

"He came in as a starter, and I think he's practiced well," Ferentz said of Christensen. "It's not a matter of his performance. He's elevated his performance from the spring. I thought he was better in the spring than he was in the fall [of 2007], and I think he's continued to improve, which is what we're hoping for."

Here are some notes and links I didn't get to earlier:

  • Ferentz announced that reserve running back Nate Guillory will transfer. Guillory had been competing for the starting job this month but fell behind opening-day starter Shonn Greene and emerging sophomore Paki O'Meara. Freshmen Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton are also in the fold, so Ferentz isn't concerned about depth despite the losses of Albert Young and Damian Sims. "The jury is still out because we haven't played a snap that counts," he said, "but based on what we've seen, we're pretty optimistic."
  • Ferentz also announced that tight end Tony Moeaki and Michael Sabers, wideout Trey Stross and offensive lineman Dan Doering will miss the opener with injuries. Doering, a possible starter at left guard, has a hand injury but should be back by next week. Moeaki will miss 1-2 weeks with a foot injury. Sophomore linebacker Jeff Tarpinian has a hamstring injury but could play.
  • Wideout Brian Gamble and offensive lineman Mark Jackson are no longer with Illinois' team, coach Ron Zook announced today. Gamble had been expected to contribute at receiver this fall.
  • Minnesota's Week 1 depth chart is out, and not surprisingly, there are some notable changes. Junior college transfers Tramaine Brock and Traye Simmons are listed as starters at safety and cornerback, and former wideout Marcus Sherels has won the other starting cornerback spot. Sherels also will serve as the team's primary return man on kickoffs and punts.
  • Sophomore Ralph Spry and emerging junior Ben Kuznia have joined star Eric Decker as the Gophers' starting wideouts. Freshmen Brandon Green and Brodrick Smith are listed as backups. Minnesota's starting spots at left guard and right tackle remain undecided. Sophomore D.J. Burris is competing with Ryan Orton at left guard, and redshirt freshmen Ryan Wynn or Jason Meinke will start at right tackle.
  • Penn State safety Nick Sukay will miss the season with a broken bone in his foot, Ron Musselman writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Starting cornerback Tony Davis expects Lydell Sargeant to win the other top CB job, Jeff McLane writes.
  • Ohio State running back Brandon Saine is healthier but must leapfrog several players on the depth chart, The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog. Also check out the list of Buckeyes true freshmen likely to play this fall (besides Terrelle Pryor, of course).
  • Maybe RichRod is fooling all of us, but he seems fine with playing two quarterbacks in the season opener, the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder writes in his blog.
  • Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio praises the play of defensive end Dwayne Holmes, who could start the opener.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It's Big Ten preview day, so check back for updates about the league's top stories this season. If my flight to O'Hare arrives relatively on time -- famous last words -- I'll be chatting today at 4 p.m. My opening act is Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, who chats at 1:15 p.m. ET. He'll do. After finishing up a few things in Bloomington, I'm on to Ohio State tomorrow, where Beanie Wells, Brian Robiskie and others will be available. 

Let's link:

  • Illinois coach Ron Zook thinks Williams can complete 70 percent of his passes this fall, CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd writes. The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette's Bob Asmussen hands out his Camp Rantoul awards for Illinois. Wideout Chris Duvalt takes home MVP honors.
  • Investigators in the sexual assault case involving two former Iowa football players questioned the alleged victim and her family, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reports. The Hawkeyes' receiving corps is healthy and deep, Eric Page writes in the Quad City Times.
  • Indiana's depth at the skill positions has kept expectations high, LaMond Pope writes in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.
  • Michigan offensive lineman Elliott Mealer is struggling to regain a sense of normalcy after the car crash that killed his father and girlfriend and seriously injured his brother last Christmas Eve, Mark Snyder writes in the Detroit Free Press. Guard Cory Zirbel's injury has prompted John Ferrara to move from defense to offense, John Heuser writes in the Ann Arbor News. Wideout Terrance Robinson is also out for several weeks with an injury.
  • Greg Jones is Michigan State's best linebacker, but which spot will he occupy this season? The Spartans are still figuring it out, Andrew Mouranie writes in the Lansing State Journal. Michigan State got a wonderful surprise Wednesday as Arthur Ray Jr., the offensive lineman who battled cancer last season and is still working his way back, visited practice, Eric Lacy writes in The Detroit News.
  • Playing college football is all in the family for the Tow-Arnett brothers at Minnesota, Dennis Brackin writes in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. Quad injuries have dogged Ben Kuznia, but the Gophers wideout now finds himself running with the 1's, Scott Thoma writes in the West Central Tribune.
  • Northwestern hopes for a defensive resurgence with Malcolm (Arrington) in the middle, Jim O'Donnell writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. Arrington will replace standout Adam Kadela, who still stings from missing a bowl game last season.
  • Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith sent a letter to fans lamenting Time Warner's decision not to pick up the Big Ten Network and asking subscribers to switch their cable providers, Jeffrey Sheban writes in the Columbus Dispatch. Here's Smith's letter. Turning back to the field, the Buckeyes hope to regain their trademark excellence on special teams, Matt Markey writes in The (Toledo) Blade. Former Texas and Arizona coach John Mackovic picks Ohio State to knock off USC.
  • Special teams is also on the brain at Penn State, which struggled on kickoff coverage last year, Ben Brigandi writes in The Altoona Mirror. Lions coach Joe Paterno is looking for a leader at linebacker. Todd Sponsler of the 50-yard Lion blog reveals his preseason Top 25, which includes Penn State at No. 14. Bleacher Report ranks its top 12 surprise blowouts in college football history, and Penn State's 48-14 trouncing of No. 1 Pitt in 1981 tops the list.
  • Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller weighs in on the NCAA's decision to ban horse-collar tackles.
  • Allan Evridge is Wisconsin's starting quarterback, but the No. 2 job remains open, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Wisconsin fullback Chris Pressley welcomes the responsibility of being a captain this fall, Jim Polzin writes in The Capital Times. Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt can't wait to suit up for the Badgers, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal.  

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here are a few items I found while waiting for player interviews to start at Indiana.

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