Big Ten: Big Ten shoes 2012

Big shoes to fill: Iowa

March, 7, 2012
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Today we wrap up our big shoes to fill series, where we look how each Big Ten team plans to replace two key departed stars.

Last but not least in the rundown is Iowa. The obvious pick here is running back Marcus Coker, whose offseason transfer leaves the Hawkeyes with little to no experience in the backfield. That will be a major storyline all spring and summer, but since we've already written a lot about that, I decided to focus this piece on two other guys who leave large voids in the lineup:

[+] EnlargeKeenan Davis
Reese Strickland/US PresswireMuch is expected from Iowa receiver Keenan Davis after his strong 2011 season.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Marvin McNutt, WR

Why: McNutt was named the Big Ten's top receiver last season, and with good reason, as he had 82 catches for 1,315 yards and 12 touchdowns. When defenses were able to slow McNutt, as they did in the final two games, Iowa's passing game struggled.

Replacement candidates: Keenan Davis (6-3, 215, Sr.); Kevonte Martin-Manley (6-1, 205, Soph.); Steven Staggs (6-3, 195, Sr.); Jordan Cotton (6-1, 185, Jr.); Jacob Hillyer (6-4, 195, RFr); Cameron Wilson (6-1, 190, incoming freshman); Tevaun Smith (6-2, 186, incoming freshman); Greg Mabin (6-1, 190, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Iowa really needs Davis to take his game up a notch and become the go-to receiver. Davis has plenty of talent, and he made 50 catches for 713 yards and four touchdowns last season. But he has struggled with drops and injuries throughout his career, and must become more consistent. Martin-Manley showed lots of promise as a redshirt freshmen with 30 catches and 323 yards, though most of his production came early in the season. Hopefully another year of development will help him blossom. After that, the Hawkeyes don't have much experience and might need to rely on a guy like Hillyer breaking out, or even a true freshman contributing, so quarterback James Vandenberg has enough targets.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Reilly Reiff, LT

Why: We've paid a lot of attention to the holes Iowa has to fill at running back, receiver and defensive line, but the offensive line is a concern as well. The Hawkeyes lose three starters and both tackles. One of the best linemen in the Big Ten, Reiff skipped his senior year and is expected to be selected in the first half of the first round of the NFL draft.

Replacement candidates: Andrew Donnal (6-7, 302, Soph.); Brandon Scherff (6-5, 310, Soph); Brett Van Sloten (6-7, 292, Jr.); Nolan MacMillan (6-6, 290, Jr.); Ryan Ward (6-6, 270, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Donnal was a highly regarded recruit who backed up Reiff last season as a redshirt freshman. He is clearly being groomed to take over at left tackle. Scherff has seen some time at guard and tackle, but needs to improve. Van Sloten is more likely to push for the starting job at right tackle. McMillan started at guard as a freshman in 2010, but missed all of last season with an injury. Ward has potential, but it would be surprising to see a true freshman play a significant role at left tackle. While Reiff leaves some literal and figurative big shoes to fill, Iowa has been very good at developing offensive linemen under Kirk Ferentz, and has some big bodies to work with this offseason.

Big shoes to fill: Northwestern

March, 5, 2012
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We're nearing the conclusion of our series looking at two departing stars players from each Big Ten team whose shoes need to be filled this spring. Today we focus the lens on Northwestern, which started spring drills over the weekend. We already know that Kain Colter is the top choice to replace the large void left by quarterback Dan Persa, so we'll take a look at two other spots.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ebert
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJeremy Ebert accounted for 137 receptions and 2,013 receiving yards for Northwestern over the past two seasons.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jeremy Ebert, WR

Why: Ebert was the Wildcats' leading receiver and one of the best in the Big Ten each of the past two seasons. He caught 75 passes for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011.

Replacement candidates: Christian Jones (6-3, 225, Soph.); Demetrius Fields (6-0, 210, Sr.); Tony Jones (6-0, 185, Soph); Rashad Lawrence (6-2, 185, Jr.); Kyle Prater (6-5, 215, Soph-Tr).

The skinny: The big X-factor here is Prater, the USC transfer who is hoping to gain immediate eligibility for this season. He will enroll March 26 and will have to wait for an NCAA ruling this summer. Christian Jones played in all 13 games last year as a true freshman, catching 16 passes for 195 yards. He's got the physical tools to be a No. 1 receiver. Fields had a career-best seven catches in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, perhaps signaling he's ready to take off. Tony Jones sat out last year because of injury but has a lot of speed. Northwestern has a lot of depth here, but can anyone produce at a consistently high level like Ebert?

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Brian Peters, S

Why: Peters was one of the leaders of the Wildcats' defense, a three-year starter who had 92 tackles and five interceptions last season. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media.

Replacement candidates: Hunter Bates (5-10, 180, Sr.); Jared Carpenter (6-0, 205, Sr.); Davion Fleming (5-10, 200, Jr.); Matt Carpenter (6-2, 200, R-Fr.); Jimmy Hall (6-2, 205, Soph.); Terrance Brown, (6-1, 195, incoming freshman); Traveon Henry (6-1, 200, incoming freshman); Joseph Jones (6-1, 200, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Bates has learned as Peters' backup and should be ready to challenge for a starting spot this spring, though he struggled at times in 2011. Jared Carpenter served as the backup at the other safety spot, which will be manned by sophomore Ibraheim Campbell, but Carpenter is injured and won't go through spring drills. Fleming and Hall are promising athletes who just need more experience. Defensive back in general is a concern for the Wildcats this spring after a subpar 2011 on pass defense and the loss of both Peters and top cornerback Jordan Mabin. Several young players could earn playing time with strong performances in practice.

Big shoes to fill: Indiana

March, 2, 2012
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Indiana opens spring practice on Saturday, joining Northwestern as the first Big Ten teams to hit the practice field this spring. So today we take a look, as we're doing with every league team, at the big shoes the Hoosiers need to fill from the 2011 season. This one's a little relative, since IU didn't have any all-conference players last year and needs a talent upgrade in a lot of places, but head coach Kevin Wilson still has some bigger gaps than others.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jeff Thomas, LB

[+] EnlargeJeff Thomas
Cal Sport Media via AP Images)Linebacker Jeff Thomas led the Hoosiers in tackles last season with 80.
Why: Thomas was one of the few reliable anchors on a defense that mostly struggled. A two-year starter, he led the team with 80 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss from his middle linebacker spot.

Replacement candidates: David Cooper (6-1, 230, incoming junior college transfer); Jacarri Alexander (6-1, 235, incoming junior college transfer); Jordan Wallace (5-11, 215, incoming freshman); Nick Mangieri (6-4, 230, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Wilson went looking for immediate help from the junior-college ranks this offseason, so expect Alexander and Cooper to push for starting roles right away. Both have excellent size for the position and just need to adjust to the major-college level. Wallace and Mangieri will be green, but Wilson showed no hesitation in throwing true freshmen into the fire last season.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Andrew McDonald, LT

Why: McDonald was a two-year starter at left tackle, providing stability to an offense that saw lots of upheaval in 2011.

Replacement candidates: Charlie Chapman (6-6, 292, Jr.); Peyton Eckert (6-6, 295, Soph.); Bill Ivan (6-4, 282, Soph.); Dimitric Camiel (6-6, 290, incoming freshman); Jason Spriggs (6-6, 240, incoming freshman).

The skinny: The Hoosiers unfortunately aren't blessed with a plethora of experienced options at the tackle spot. Eckert started six games at right tackle as a true freshman and could make the switch to the left side this spring. Chapman was McDonald's backup last season but played only sparingly. It's quite likely that at least one of the true freshmen will crack the depth chart at one of the tackle positions. Camiel is a Texan who is Texas-sized, but who knows how quickly he can make the adjustment to Big Ten football.

Big shoes to fill: Minnesota

March, 1, 2012
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To get you ready for spring practice, which kicks off this month, we're taking a look at how each team might fill the roles of two key contributors who are no longer on campus.

Up next, Minnesota.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Kim Royston, S

[+] EnlargeKim Royston
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidReplacing Kim Royston will be a tall order for the Minnesota defense.
Why: Royston was one of few bright spots for a Minnesota defense that struggled mightily for much of the season but finished well. He recorded 123 tackles, the fourth-highest total in the Big Ten and the most on the Gophers by 36 stops. He recorded one of the team's four interceptions on the season and had 3.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, and two pass breakups. Royston's 71 solo tackles were 18 more than any other Gophers player in 2011. He provided leadership for a secondary that lacked it and earned the Carl Eller Award as Minnesota's top defensive player.

Replacement candidates: James Manuel (6-2, 214, Jr.); Derrick Wells (6-foot, 191, Jr.); Jeremy Baltazar (6-foot, 190, Jr.); Michael Carter (5-11, 185, Sr.); Steven Montgomery (5-10, 195, Fr.)

The skinny: The return of cornerback Troy Stoudermire should help Minnesota replace Royston's production, but the team remains extremely unproven at safety. Will this be Manuel's time to shine? Minnesota certainly could use a big season from the junior, who had only 11 tackles in 10 games this past season. Wells had similar numbers (8 tackles, 11 games) in a reserve role but could challenge for a starting spot. Baltazar and Carter both are more natural cornerbacks but could help at nickelback. Montgomery, who isn't afraid to hit people, could be a factor here. The concern is Minnesota lacks many natural safeties and likely needs to have a by-committee approach to the position.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Da'Jon McKnight, WR

Why: Like Royston, McKnight was by far Minnesota's most productive player at his position in 2011. He recorded 51 catches, 35 more than any other Gophers player. He had twice as many touchdown catches (4) and 570 more receiving yards than anyone else on the roster. He led Minnesota in receiving in each of his final two seasons and was one of the more underrated wideouts in the Big Ten. McKnight made 30 starts in his career and was always MarQueis Gray's first option in the passing game.

Replacement candidates: Brandon Green (6-foot, 186, Sr.); Malcolm Moulton (5-11, 186, Jr.); Marcus Jones (5-8, 170, So.); Devin Crawford-Tufts (6-2, 191, So.); Andre McDonald (6-2, 200, Fr.); Jamel Harbison (5-11, 195, Fr.)

The skinny: Wide receiver will be one of the more intriguing positions to watch both in spring practice and in preseason camp when heralded recruits McDonald and Harbison arrive. Green has started 18 games in his career but needs to take his game to the next level. Most of Minnesota's returning players are smaller wideouts, so a bigger player like McDonald could fill in well for McKnight, whose size made him a threat on the outside. There's good speed in the group with players like Jones, who averaged 15.8 yards a catch as a freshman and led the team with 370 kick returns yards and a touchdown.

Big shoes to fill: Wisconsin

February, 29, 2012
2/29/12
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Today is the last day of February, and March means spring practice around the Big Ten. To get you ready, we're taking a look at how each team might fill the roles of two key contributors who are no longer on campus.

Today's focus is on Wisconsin.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Russell Wilson, QB

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Mary Langenfeld/US PresswireRussell Wilson's one season at Wisconsin was surely something to smile about.
Why: Though he only played one year in Madison, Wilson leaves large cleats to fill. He set an NCAA record for pass efficiency while giving the Badgers a level of quarterback play that they had never before experienced. Wilson threw for over 3,000 yards with 33 touchdowns and only four interceptions and became a team leader despite his late arrival to the program.

Replacement candidates: Jon Budmayr (6-0, 195, Jr.); Joe Brennan (6-3, 205, Soph.); Bart Houston (6-4, 215, incoming freshman); Curt Phillips (6-3, 225 Sr.); Joel Stave (6-5, 220 RS Fr.).

The skinny: Wisconsin's quarterback candidates have combined to complete 21 passes for 247 yards in their careers, with zero starts and no real important minutes played. This position is easily the most pressing concern for the 2012 Badgers and probably the toughest one to predict an outcome. Budmayr was ready to be the starter last season until Wilson arrived from NC State in the summer, but Budmayr suffered another injury to his throwing elbow in August and was not able to play at all. Phillips is another guy who has been bitten by the injury bug, with two torn ACL injuries. Both Budmayr and Phillips are reportedly recovering well from their setbacks, but they have to be considered question marks because of the health concerns.

Brennan would have ended up as the starter if Wilson didn't transfer and spent the season as his backup, though he didn't see much significant game action. Stave has good size and skill, but the walk-on hasn't seen the field yet. Houston is the wild card as one of Wisconsin's prized recruits. But it's tough to see coach Bret Bielema handing the reins over to a true freshman, especially one who won't go through spring practice.

So this remains a real toss-up, and Wisconsin would be interested if another graduate transfer becomes available. Still, expecting anyone to perform as well as Wilson is probably asking too much.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Aaron Henry, FS

Why: We could have chosen center Peter Konz or guard Kevin Zeitler for this slot, as both were All-Americans in 2011. But Wisconsin simply reloads on the offensive line. The Badgers might have a harder time finding a replacement for Henry, a leader on defense who was named a first-team All-Big Ten performer by the coaches after posting 62 tackles and three interceptions in 2011. And the Badgers were a little thin in the secondary overall last year.

Replacement candidates: Shelton Johnson (6-0, 190, Sr.); Dezmen Southward ,(6-2, 200, Jr.); Michael Trotter (6-0, 210, Soph.); Frank Tamakloe (6-3, 190, Soph.); D.J. Singleton (6-2, 200, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Johnson started opposite Henry at strong safety last season but is likely to move to free safety this spring, with Southward taking over at strong. If that plan works, it would give the Badgers two experienced veterans at the two safety spots. Trotter backed up Henry in 2011 and could be ready to make a move up the depth chart. Tamakloe mostly saw time on special teams but is a very good athlete who could force his way into the lineup. And Singleton is the top-rated defensive back in the incoming class, though he profiles more as a strong safety and is unlikely to play right away at free, which is responsible for a lot of the defensive play calls.

So Wisconsin has some experience at this spot but once again will lack much depth in 2012.

Big shoes to fill: Ohio State

February, 28, 2012
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Spring practice is just around the corner, and that will be a time for Big Ten teams to locate replacements for departed stars. We're taking a look at how each team might fill the roles of two key contributors no longer on campus.

Today, we turn our attention to Ohio State and its Urban renewal projects. The Buckeyes didn't lose a whole lot of seniors, and they already experienced what it was like to play without departed seniors Dan Herron and DeVier Posey for large stretches of last season. So we'll focus our attention on the offensive line:

[+] EnlargeMike Brewster
Melina Vastola/US PresswireOhio State has to replace departing center Mike Brewster, who made 49 consecutive starts.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Brewster, C

Why: Brewster was a fixture in the Buckeyes' lineup, making 49 consecutive starts after debuting as a true freshman. He was one of the best centers in the Big Ten for the duration of his career, and was named an All-American in 2010. He also provided good leadership -- especially in a year when some other seniors ran afoul of NCAA rules.

Replacement candidates: Brian Bobek (6-2, 280, Soph.); Corey Linsley (6-2, 310, Jr.); Joey O'Connor (6-4, 295 incoming freshman); Jacoby Boren (6-2, 275, incoming freshman).

The skinny: One reason to temper expectations about Urban Meyer's first year in Columbus is a dangerous lack of depth on the offensive line. The Buckeyes were already thin there last season, and lost three senior starters. If anyone other than Bobek is starting at center, it's probably because of an injury or something else unforeseen. The former blue-chip high school prospect spent last season as Brewster's understudy, and saw some time in mop-up duty. He should make a smooth transition to starter this spring, though living up to Brewster's production won't be easy.

Linsley has played guard in the past for the Buckeyes ,but likely will be one of the starting guards this season, along with Jack Mewhort. O'Connor and Boren project as guards, but could play center in a pinch -- a situation Ohio State hopes to avoid.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Adams, LT

Why: Adams missed the first five games of 2011 while serving a suspension, and his absence was notable. He was one of the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten during his three years as a starter, and the 6-foot-8, 320-pounder has been projected by some as a first-round NFL draft pick this spring. The Buckeyes' offensive line played much better last season once he returned.

Replacement candidates: Andrew Norwell (6-5, 308, Jr.); Marcus Hall (6-5, 315, Jr.); Antonio Underwood, (6-3, 305, Soph.); Tommy Brown (6-5, 320, Soph.); Chris Carter (6-6, 350, R-Fr.); Taylor Decker (6-8, 310, incoming freshman); Kyle Dodson (6-5, 315, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Here's another place where a successor is in place, but things could get shaky if something goes wrong.

Norwell started the first five games at left tackle last season while Adams was suspended before sliding back to guard. He should take over the blind side full time this season, and he has good instincts for the position. Everything else at tackle this spring is a little bit up in the air, as Meyer plans to convert tight end Reid Fragel into a right tackle. He and Hall will likely battle for that starting spot, with Hall potentially ending up as a super sub along the line.

Underwood started the Purdue game when J.B. Shugarts was injured but was pulled after a poor performance. Hopefully, another year of coaching will help him develop into a solid contributor. Brown and Carter are largely unknowns at this point, but at least have big bodies. Don't be surprised to see at least one of the true freshmen crack the two-deep this season. They're both very talented, and unfortunately for Ohio State, they don't have a ton of competition ahead of them.

Big shoes to fill: Michigan State

February, 27, 2012
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With spring practice around the corner, Big Ten teams will start the process of replacing stars from the previous year. Some shoes are bigger to fill than others. We're taking a look at two key departed players from each team and who might take on their roles this season.

Today, we take a look at Michigan State. Though Kirk Cousins obviously left big shoes to fill, we know that Andrew Maxwell is his successor. So we'll focus on a couple of different spots on the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeJerel Worthy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State's Jerel Worthy (99) was a force on the defensive line for the Spartans.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jerel Worthy, DT

Why: Worthy was an All-American who had such a good junior season that he decided to jump to the NFL. He registered 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, though that only tells part of the story about how disruptive he was in the middle of the defensive line. Worthy was also an emotional leader who provided the Spartans defense with some of its swagger. While Michigan State brings back most of its outstanding defense from last year, Worthy will be a difficult player to replace.

Replacement candidates: Anthony Rashad White (6-2, 316, Sr.), Micajah Reynolds (6-5, 320, Jr.), James Kittredge (6-4, 270, Soph.), Damon Knox (6-4, 275, RFr.), Brandon Clemons (6-3, 262, RFr.), Mark Scarpinato (6-3, 270 RFr.), Joel Heath (6-5, 270, RFr.), David Fennell (6-3, 275 incoming freshman).

The skinny: Michigan State lost not only Worthy but fellow starting defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman and top backup Johnathan Strayhorn to graduation. But Mark Dantonio was prepared for this development and has a lot of players in the pipeline ready to prove themselves. Though White played the other tackle spot last year next to Worthy, he has the size, talent and experience to replicate Worthy's production. This is a key spring for Reynolds, who has also spent time on the offensive line. Kittredge sat out last season after transferring from Vanderbilt, and Michigan State was able to redshirt five other potential tackles in 2011. Fennell will likely take that route this year. This group is largely unproven, but at least there are plenty of candidates.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: B.J. Cunningham, WR


Why: Cunningham completed his career as the school's all-time leader in receptions and yards, which is saying something given the program's history at receiver. He emerged as a true star receiver in 2011 with career bests of 79 catches, 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns. Whenever Cousins needed a big play, he usually looked Cunningham's way. Fellow seniors Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol also are gone, leaving a big void at the wideout position for the Spartans.

Replacement candidates: Bennie Fowler (6-1, 215, Jr.), Tony Lippett (6-2, 189, Soph.), DeAnthony Arnett (6-1, 175, Soph.), Keith Mumphrey (6-0, 202 Soph.), Andre Sims Jr. (5-8, 180, RFr.) Juwan Caesar (6-3, 197, RFr.), Monty Madaris (6-2, 190, incoming freshman), Aaron Burbridge (6-0, 180 incoming freshman), MacGarrett Kings (5-10, 175, incoming freshman), Kyle Kerrick (6-3, 190, incoming freshman).

The skinny: This is a situation much like the defensive tackle spot, in which Michigan State hopes a crowd of candidates means that one or two standouts will emerge. The difference here is that some true freshmen will likely get thrown into the mix right away. Fowler is the veteran who hobbled through an injury-plagued 2011, while Lippett moves back to offense after seeing time at defensive back last year. A lot could depend on whether Arnett, a Tennessee transfer, wins his case with the NCAA to become immediately eligible. If not, the Spartans may have to rely on at least one of the receivers they signed in this year's class or hope that a redshirt freshman takes a big step forward.

Big shoes to fill: Penn State

February, 23, 2012
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As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next, Penn State.

[+] EnlargeDevin Still
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswireDevon Still piled up the postseason honors last season after recording 17 tackles for loss.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Devon Still, DT

Why: It's never easy to replace the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. Still was the epicenter for Penn State's defense, a disruptive force who regularly required double teams. He recorded 17 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, but his value went far beyond the numbers. As Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald noted before his team faced Penn State, Still causes "complete and total chaos in the backfield." Although Penn State has shown it can reload up front, it will miss No. 71.

Replacement candidates: Jordan Hill (6-1, 297, Sr.); DaQuan Jones (6-3, 312, Jr.); James Terry (6-3, 317, Sr.); Evan Hailes (6-1, 303, So.)

The skinny: Hill will start at one defensive tackle spot, but I include him here because he'll need to increase his production to help account for Still's departure. Jones and Terry served as the backup defensive tackles in 2011 and combined for 18 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Jones has played both inside and outside but is clearly suited to the defensive tackle spot. Hailes came in as a decorated recruit but battled a blood clot issue last spring and appeared in only two games last fall. Penn State's best bet is to have an All-Big Ten type season from Hill and generate depth at the other tackle spot.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Derek Moye, WR

Why: While Moye didn't have the year some had hoped, Penn State's problems at quarterback had a lot to do with it. He's a big body (6-5) who could stretch the field and outjump defensive backs for the ball. Moye led the team in receptions (40), receiving yards (654) and receiving touchdowns (3) in 2011, and was the team's top receiver in 2010 and 2009 as well. He's a three-year starter at a position that doesn't have much proven depth entering the 2012 campaign.

Replacement candidates: Justin Brown (6-3, 213, Sr.); Devon Smith (5-7, 155, Sr.); Shawney Kersey (6-1, 198, Jr.); Brandon Moseby-Felder (6-2, 191, Jr.)

The skinny: Penn State really needs Brown to move into the No. 1 receiver role Moye occupied for the past three seasons. Brown showed some flashes in 2011, recording 35 receptions for 517 yards, but he also had some key drops. Smith contributed 25 receptions, but Penn State had no other receiver record more than five catches. It'll be a huge spring for players like Kersey, Moseby-Felder, Bill Belton and Curtis Drake to take their games to the next level and give Penn State some additional options at receiver.

Big shoes to fill: Purdue

February, 22, 2012
2/22/12
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As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next, Purdue.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Dennis Kelly, LT

[+] EnlargeDennis Kelly
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDennis Kelly started 37 consecutive games at left tackle for the Boilermakers.
Why: Purdue returns most of its skill players on offense but must fill gaps along the line, none bigger than at left tackle. Kelly started every game the past three seasons, a streak of 37 consecutive games protecting the quarterback's blind side. He also served as a co-captain last fall. Kelly is a big body at 6-foot-8 and 306 pounds, and his backup in 2011 was Trevor Foy, the team's starting right tackle. Purdue doesn't have many proven players at tackle entering spring practice. Although the Boilers return four quarterbacks with starting experience, they need someone to protect them.

Replacement candidates: Trevor Foy (6-7, 287, Jr.); Justin Kitchens (6-4, 275, Jr.); Jack De Boef (6-7, 284, So.)

The skinny: Kitchens moved from defensive line to offensive tackle last spring and started the first four games before moving behind Foy on the depth chart. Purdue could move Foy to the left side and move Kitchens into a starting role or given Kitchens a shot a succeeding Kelly. De Boef is a big body but lacks experience. It should be a very interesting spring along the offensive line.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Joe Holland, LB

Why: No player has started more games for Purdue in the past four seasons than Holland, who started 48 of 49 games in his career. He led the team in tackles with 94 in 2011 and finished in the top three in tackles all four seasons. A co-captain last season, Holland finished second on the squad in both tackles for loss (10.5) and passes defended (9), recording an interception and 1.5 sacks. Although linebacker hasn't been the strongest position at Purdue, Holland's durability, leadership and production will be missed in 2012.

Replacement candidates: Nnamdi Ezenwa (6-2, 225, Sr.); Joe Gilliam (6-1, 211, So.); Mike Lee (6-2, 220, So.)

The skinny: Purdue should be fine at the other two linebacker spots with Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas, but Holland leaves a void because he was always on the field. Gilliam appeared in 11 games last season and recorded seven tackles, while Ezenwa, listed as Holland's backup on Purdue's depth chart, had six tackles in five games. The Boilers didn't have a ton of linebackers see the field in 2011, so it'll be important for Lee and other younger 'backers to get up to speed this spring.

Big shoes to fill: Illinois

February, 15, 2012
2/15/12
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As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next is Illinois, which loses an extremely productive player on both sides of the ball.

[+] EnlargeWhitney Mercilus
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireWho will step up and replace a defensive end as good as Whitney Mercilus was in the 2011 season?
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Whitney Mercilus, DE

Why: Mercilus was the Big Ten's top defensive end and one of the nation's best in 2011. He led the nation in both sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9), breaking the Big Ten record for forced fumbles and ranking second in NCAA history in the category. Mercilus finished second nationally in tackles for loss with 22.5, which led the Big Ten and ranked third in Illinois history. He was one of only seven unanimous consensus All-Americans in 2011 and received the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end. The Bronko Nagurski trophy finalist recorded sacks in 11 of 13 games and had multiple tackles for loss in eight contests. Mercilus recorded forced fumbles in six of Illinois' eight Big Ten contests.

Replacement candidates: Tim Kynard (6-3, 260, Jr.); D.J. Woods (6-3, 255, So.); Michael Buchanan (6-6, 240, Sr.); Justin Staples (6-4, 235, Sr.)

The skinny: Buchanan and Staples played the "bandit" role in Vic Koenning's defense, and while both could start under the new regime, the coaches might want a bigger pass rusher to replace Mercilus. Kynard backed up Mercilus in 2011 and recorded three tackles for loss and a sack in 12 games. Woods appeared in only one game. There should be plenty of competition this spring for Mercilus' spot as Illinois looks pretty strong along the rest of the defensive line with Buchanan, NFL prospect Akeem Spence at defensive tackle and D-tackle Glenn Foster all returning. New defensive coordinator Tim Banks will be looking out for pass rushers as his Cincinnati defense ranked second nationally in sacks in 2011 (45).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: A.J. Jenkins, WR

Why: Jenkins was one of the nation's top receivers through the first half of the season and proved to be one of few offensive weapons the Illini had in 2011. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award after recording a league-high 90 receptions for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. Jenkins ranked 16th nationally in receptions per game (6.9) and 14th nationally in receiving yards per game (98.2 ypg). He accounted for 39.8 percent of Illinois' receptions, 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards and 57.1 percent of the team's receiving touchdowns.

Replacement candidates: Spencer Harris (6-3, 195, Jr.); Darius Millines (5-11, 185, Jr.); Ryan Lankford (6-0, 175, Jr.); Jake Kumerow (6-4, 190, So.)

The skinny: Illinois struggled to find pass-catching options to complement Jenkins in 2011. Although Harris had 26 catches and freshman tight end Jon Davis had 22, the Illini need much more from this group in 2012. The spotlight should be on Millines, who the coaches thought would be a difference-maker last season but missed time with a foot injury and never broke through. Millines had a very strong performance in preseason camp and should be ready for a bigger role. It's also time for Lankford to take another step in his development. Co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales will work with the receivers this spring after developing some solid wideouts at LSU and Florida.

Big shoes to fill: Nebraska

February, 14, 2012
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As we tick off the days toward spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up today is Nebraska, which has two rather large sets of empty cleats to occupy from the defensive side.

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireNebraska has 133 tackles to replace now that linebacker Lavonte David has graduated.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Lavonte David, LB

Why: There was arguably no more valuable defensive player in the Big Ten last year than David, an All-American and Butkus finalist who led the Huskers with 133 tackles. When Nebraska needed a big stop, David was usually the guy to provide it. The front seven for Bo Pelini underachieved in some ways in 2011, and David was easily the team's most consistent player on that side of the ball. David made up for a lack of overwhelming size with his speed, tackling ability and instincts for the game. And his top two listed backups at weakside linebackers were also seniors.

Replacement candidates: Sean Fisher (6-6, 235, Sr.), David Santos (6-0, 205, RFr.), Alonzo Whaley (6-1, 235, Sr.), Zaire Anderson (6-1, 220, incoming junior college transfer), Jared Afalava (6-3, 215, incoming freshman), Michael Rose (6-0, 225, incoming freshman), Thomas Brown (6-2, 210, incoming freshman)

The skinny: Nebraska brought in four linebackers in this year's recruiting class to fill some holes at the position. Fisher has been held back by injuries and inconsistency and is built more like a defensive end. Santos could be ready to make an impact after redshirting. Anderson is a well-regarded junior-college signee, just as David was two years ago. Rose and Brown are viewed more as inside linebackers, but nothing is set in stone. The Huskers hope someone from this wide pool of candidate announces himself this spring.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Alfonzo Dennard, CB

Why: When healthy and on point, Dennard was the best lock-down cornerback in the Big Ten last season. Though he had a few lapses, like in the Michigan and South Carolina games, he also shut out Michigan State star B.J. Cunningham in a big win over the Spartans. Getting great play from the cornerback spot is a key part of Nebraska's defensive scheme.

Replacement candidates: Daniel Davie (6-1, 185, RFr.), Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 220, Jr.), Ciante Evans (5-11, 185, Jr.), Mohammed Seisay (6-1, 200, incoming junior college transfer), Corey Cooper, (6-1, 210, Soph.).

The skinny: Someone will have to make a major leap forward in order to match Dennard's performance level. Evans and Jean-Baptiste saw plenty of time last year as backups, though Evans seemed more suited as a nickel back and the rangy Jean-Baptiste is still learning the position after an in-season switch from wide receiver. Cooper started a game at corner against Wyoming but was then moved to safety. Seisay and Davie will each have an opportunity to prove they're up to the challenge. The other hope for Nebraska is that returning starter Andrew Green raises his game to the point where he becomes the next dominant Huskers cornerback.

Big shoes to fill: Michigan

February, 13, 2012
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Spring practice kicks off in March, and each Big Ten team will be looking for some key replacements in their depth charts. We're going to take a look at two players on each Big Ten squad who leave big shoes to fill and who might be ready to step in at those spots.

Let's start off with the Michigan Wolverines.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Martin, DT

[+] EnlargeMike Martin
Lon Hordwedel/Icon SMIMike Martin has been a consistent presence in the middle of the defense for Michigan.
Why: Three-year starter anchored the middle of the defensive line. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in both 2011 and 2010. Martin appeared in 49 games, starting 37 at nose tackle, and finished his career with 172 tackles, including 25 for loss and seven sacks. His value goes far beyond the numbers, as he consistently took on double-teams and topped the opponent's scouting report before games against the Wolverines.

Replacement candidates: William Campbell (6-5, 322, Jr.); Quinton Washington (6-4, 302, So.); Ondre Pipkins (6-3, 335, incoming freshman); Richard Ash (6-3, 301, Fr.) Kenny Wilkins (6-3, 280, Fr.)

The skinny: Head coach Brady Hoke, who works directly with the nose tackles, has some work ahead this offseason in trying to replace Martin, the heart and soul of Michigan's defense. Is Campbell finally ready to take the next step? The former blue-chip recruit has the talent but hasn't quite blossomed. Pipkins arrives with a lot of buzz and could work his way into the rotation at a position with few proven players.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: David Molk, C

Why: Four-year starter won the Rimington Trophy in 2011 as the nation's top center. Molk was a consensus first-team All-America selection in 2011. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches in each of his final two seasons. He started 41 games at center, and his absence was felt any time he wasn't on the field. Offensive coordinator Al Borges placed a great deal of responsibility on Molk last fall, and Molk delivered for a unit adjusting to a new system.

Replacement candidates: Rocko Khoury (6-4, 287, Jr.); Ricky Barnum (6-3, 292, Jr.); Jack Miller (6-4, 263, Fr.)

The skinny: Khory has been the heir apparent to Molk for several years, but his snapping struggles early in the Sugar Bowl sounded a few alarms among Michigan fans. If Khoury isn't the answer, Barnum might be. He started three games at guard in 2011 before being slowed by ankle problems. Miller is an intriguing prospect who needs to bulk up a bit.

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