Big Ten: Bill Cubit

Planning for success: Illinois

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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Illinois coach Tim Beckman believes a two-quarterback system is the path to success. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit doesn’t seem so sure.

On Monday, the two seemed to share different philosophies. Beckman stated that utilizing two quarterbacks was more difficult for defenses to prepare for than one. Cubit intimated this week’s opponent, Minnesota, now has that film -- so it won’t be caught off-guard by dual-threat Aaron Bailey spelling pocket-passer Reilly O’Toole. Not like the Wisconsin Badgers were.

“Wisconsin, they were practicing against a certain offense,” Cubit said. “And I noticed first-hand because it was told to me afterward, and the other thing [dual-threat quarterback] gave them conflicts. Well, now it’s on tape so they’re going to game-plan against that.”

But, Cubit was asked, isn’t this at least the right week to try such a system since they’ve had two weeks to prepare? Doesn’t the bye help to formulate the game plan?

“No,” he told reporters Monday. “No.”

“Are you OK with using two QBs?” one reporter followed up.

“If it helps us win,” Cubit said with an unconvincing shrug.

Starting quarterback Wes Lunt broke his leg Oct. 4 against Purdue and only recently moved from crutches to a boot. He’ll be out until next month and, until then, there doesn’t seem to be an agreement on how to best handle his absence. There's no consensus on Illinois' plan for success.

Beckman said fans will see both quarterbacks Saturday afternoon against Minnesota. He also said he doesn’t necessarily plan to go with the hot-hand; he prefers giving each player a heads-up when he’s entering the game. Against Wisconsin, however, Bailey was told he was coming in late in the second quarter -- or the third quarter -- but plans shifted when O’Toole was successful.

So how would Cubit go about rotating them?

“I don’t know,” he said to open the interview. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never done it before, and they both got pretty good qualities. So we’ll figure it all out.”

That wasn’t the only time Cubit rested on, “I don’t know,” either. Right after his shrug, he was asked whether Beckman’s two-quarterback system was the best option.

“I don’t know. I’ll be honest with you, the playbook gets really expanded for one guy. How much can he handle?” Cubit said. “There’s a lot that’s involved with this. … It’s not as easy as everybody thinks it is.”

Illinois’ defense has surrendered at least 34 points in every game against an FBS team this season, so a lot of pressure is placed upon the offense. If Illinois stands any chance at a win, it usually comes during a shootout. Lunt was able to eke out three wins because of his consistency and accuracy; he completed 66 percent of his passes and tossed 13 touchdowns to just three picks.

O’Toole saw considerable time in the past three games and appeared to be the answer. But Bailey added another dimension to this offense in his first time under center against Wisconsin, when he finished 2-of-5 with an interception -- but also carried the ball 12 times for 75 yards and a score.

This isn't a system the Illini are accustomed to. But Beckman thinks it's worth the risk. If it helps his team win, maybe Illinois' plan for success won't be so controversial.

"I mean, I really haven't done that since freshman year but, I mean, whatever helps the team," O'Toole added. "I think we're both capable quarterbacks."

Big Ten morning links

August, 22, 2014
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After an eight-win season that included the historic four-game winning streak in Big Ten play and a victory over Nebraska, Minnesota had a right to feel pretty good about itself in the offseason. Instead, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill had this message for the team after its loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl: "You guys should be starving right now."

"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."

One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.

"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."

Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."

"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."

Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."

That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.

"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."

We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.

East Division
West Division
Other stuff

Best case/Worst case: Illinois

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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We are a week away from football, and as the season preview winds down, we are taking a look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

As a reminder, these aren't actual predictions or even projections of probable outcomes this fall. They are designed to show the potential high point and low point for a team, within reason. Also, we are trying to have some fun here, so don't take things too seriously.

Up next: the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Best case

Oskee wow-wow, indeed. Illinois is going bowling again and surprising the Big Ten along the way. The Illini ride the transfer train and the development of several young players to an extremely satisfying 2014 season.

Quarterback Wes Lunt shows immediately why he is the right man to lead Bill Cubit's offense, shredding Youngstown State and Western Illinois for a combined 750 passing yards and seven touchdowns. The Block I shouts "Geronimo!" as wide receiver Geronimo Allison hauls in two long scoring passes in his first game for the Orange and Blue.

Illinois heads to Seattle at 2-0 but still concerned about how its defense will hold up. Turns out, the D is the biggest reason for a huge "W" at Husky Stadium, as Illinois stuns Chris Petersen's Washington team. T.J. Neal and Jihad Ward force second-half fumbles and the Illini prevail 20-17.

After an easy win against Texas State, the Illini fall just short at Nebraska but rebound the next week with a 50-point performance against Purdue, as Josh Ferguson runs for 200 yards. Illinois pushes Wisconsin to overtime before falling in Madison, but the defense once again stands tall in a win against Minnesota. The Illini are bowl-eligible, and they are nowhere near finished.

Following a 3-point loss at Ohio State, Illinois wins its final three Big Ten contests, two against rivals (Iowa and Northwestern). Iowa's first game against Illinois since 2008 is a disaster, as the Hawkeyes lose by 14 at a packed Memorial Stadium and cameras catch coach Kirk Ferentz chewing tobacco on the sideline. In the Northwestern contest, freshman wideout Mikey Dudek has three touchdown catches and Ward levels Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald on the sideline. A mostly Illinois crowd cheers as offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic scores on a two-point conversion to seal a 50-17 win. The Chicago papers declare Illinois as the city's real Big Ten team, while Northwestern finishes 2-10.

Tim Beckman wins Big Ten Coach of the Year. Allison wins the Big Ten's Richter-Howard award as the top receiver, while "Geronimo!" T-shirts can be spotted all around campus. Illinois sells out its final three home games. Cubit turns down three higher-paying offensive coordinator jobs to stick with the Illini. The nation's top three junior-college players sign with Illinois, and the high school recruits roll in. The Illini advance to the Holiday Bowl and beat UCLA to finish 10-3.

Worst case

Oskee ow-ow. It's another gloomy fall in Champaign, where Illinois fans quickly begin counting the days until basketball season. They don't show up in the stands and, most Saturdays, neither does the team. Cover your eyes, Illini Nation ...

After two unsatisfying wins to open the season, Illinois gets pummeled at Husky Stadium. Lunt throws three interceptions and Washington's running back committee racks up 250 yards. Beckman has to be separated from his defensive assistants in the second half.

Illinois improves to 3-1 against Texas State but suffers another road beating at Nebraska, as Ameer Abdullah runs for four touchdowns. The following week, Purdue records its first Big Ten win under Darrell Hazell as Illinois can't find the end zone in a 21-6 loss. Beckman announces a quarterback change two days later. Several starters come down with food poisoning after eating beans and weenies.

It gets uglier in Madison as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement run wild on a defense that clearly hasn't improved from 2013. Wisconsin leads by 40 after three quarters, but cameras catch some Illini players smiling and doing the "Jump Around." They incur Beckman's wrath during practice the next week.

Only 26,000 fans show up the next week for the Minnesota game, and those in Illini colors wish they hadn't. Minnesota rushes for 330 yards and wins 28-3. Beckman draws a penalty for obstructing an official on the sideline -- again.

More blowouts follow against Ohio State and Penn State. Following the loss to Penn State, several Illini players ask Nittany Lions coach James Franklin if they can transfer to PSU.

The season ends with another lopsided loss at Northwestern, which clinches the West Division title before a sold-out Ryan Field. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel attends the game in a purple leotard. A smiling Dick Butkus poses for pictures afterward with Fitzgerald.

Ward finishes with no sacks and Allison fails to record a touchdown catch. Beckman seems done at Illinois but athletic director Mike Thomas, who hired him, says the coach will return in 2015. Cubit won't as he's off to the SEC. Attendance continues to nosedive. Northwestern wins the Big Ten. Iowa wins the Orange Bowl.

Illini name Wes Lunt starting QB

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
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In what has to be one of the least surprising resolutions ever to a quarterback competition, Illinois has named Wes Lunt as its starter for the 2014 season opener against Youngstown State next Saturday.

Head coach Tim Beckman made the announcement after Wednesday's practice.



Oh, sure, the Illini officially held a three-way competition for the job this offseason, with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey pushing Lunt. O'Toole, a senior, had the experience edge and played very well at times this spring. Bailey is an excellent athlete who's a little raw as a pocket passer, but his playmaking skills can't be ignored.

Still, just about everyone expected Lunt to be the 2014 starter for Illinois the moment he transferred in from Oklahoma State after the 2012 season, and it became increasingly apparent in preseason practice this month that he was The Guy. The former heralded recruit from Rochester, Ill., opened 2012 as the Cowboys' No. 1 quarterback and ended up starting five games as a true freshman; his transfer was seen as one of the best personnel coups Beckman has registered in his tenure.

At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds with a strong arm, Lunt very much looks the part as a future star at the position. He should fit in very well in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, which helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's leading passer a season ago. Lunt has better pure tools than Scheelhaase; it remains to be seen if he has Scheelhaase's poise and moxie, and if he has enough weapons around him at receiver, where Illinois is young and inexperienced.

So, Lunt will open 2014 as the Illinois starter. And there's a good chance he stays there for the next three years.

Big Ten lunch links

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
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This is real, apparently, and lots of people hate Michigan, including people in Michigan. And come on, Idaho, really?
  • Aaron Bailey, part of the three-man quarterback race at Illinois, finds newfound comfort in Bill Cubit’s offensive system.
  • Northern Iowa checks in at No. 10 on the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s ranking of opponents on the Iowa schedule. Receiver Tevaun Smith loves him some Iowa.
  • The Indiana defense learns to play in attack mode.
  • Quarterback C.J. Brown performs well as Maryland finishes its first practice in pads of the preseason.
  • Touted freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers will continue to work at nickel, according to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, after an injury to safety Delano Hill.
  • Michigan State features an intriguing group of receivers, writes Graham Couch.
  • Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys says the Gophers should continue to improve on defense, despite the loss of some important pieces.
  • Backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe is not about to sit down quietly behind Tommy Armstrong Jr. at Nebraska.
  • Braxton Miller will not wear out his arm during preseason practices at Ohio State. Competition heats up on the Buckeyes’ offensive line.
  • What’s the key to success for the Penn State O-line? Trust and chemistry, says assistant coach Herb Hand.
  • Purdue offensive tackle David Hedelin, suspended by the NCAA for the first three games this year, expects big things after a positive opening of practice.
  • Gary Nova is the man again for Rutgers at quarterback. More on Nova.
  • Wisconsin running back Corey Clement has high hopes for his sophomore season as a running mate to Melvin Gordon.
You can have all the pieces of a great team, but if you're lacking a standout quarterback, it's going to be tough to win big in college football.

Quarterback is a position that likely needs to improve throughout the Big Ten in order for the league to start winning championships. But the good news there are some stars returning at the position in 2014. Taking a page from our ACC blog friends, we're previewing all the positions this preseason, and none are more important than this one:

Best of the best: Ohio State

Several teams return productive starters under center, which is a good thing for the league. But no one else has a player quite like the Buckeyes' Braxton Miller. The senior is coming off two straight Big Ten offensive player of the year awards, and is now in his third season of the same system under Tom Herman and Urban Meyer -- he should feel extremely comfortable. There is some slight concern about his offseason shoulder surgery, which left him sitting out of spring drills, and an inexperienced offensive line. But Miller has showed the ability to make magic practically on his own, and few are better in the clutch. His absence this spring meant important reps for youngsters Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, who would have to step in this season if anything happens to Miller.

Next up: Penn State

Christian Hackenberg passed for 2,955 yards as an 18-year-old true freshman and led impressive comebacks against Illinois and Michigan. The Nittany Lions' young star does have a new coaching staff and system and won't get to enjoy the talents of Allen Robinson any more, but his talent is immense. Penn State and Ohio State aren't the only teams in great shape at quarterback, though. Michigan State's Connor Cook was the MVP of the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl and should continue to improve. Michigan's Devin Gardner finished second in the league in total offense in 2013 despite little help from the run game. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has the job to himself after Tre Roberson's transfer and could easily surpass 3,000 yards in the Hoosiers' prolific system. Jake Rudock is a solid leader for Iowa who should have better weapons surrounding him this fall.

Possible sleeper: Maryland

C.J. Brown is a fifth-year senior entering his third year of starting after an injury cut down his 2012 campaign. He needs to stay healthy and improve on his 58.9 completion percentage from 2013. But with arguably the best pair of wideouts in the Big Ten at his disposal in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, Brown has a chance to put up some strong numbers in his first go-around in this league. Keep an eye also on Illinois and probable starter Wes Lunt; Bill Cubit's offense helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's surprise leading passer a year ago.

Problem for a contender: Nebraska

Problem is far too strong of a word here, but the Huskers don't have a sure thing at quarterback. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a good leader and owns a burning desire to improve, so there's reason to be optimistic that the sophomore will handle the job just fine. Still, he completed only 51.9 percent of his passes last season, had eight interceptions against nine touchdown passes and wasn't the running threat that Taylor Martinez used to be. Wisconsin has its own quarterback issues, but Joel Stave -- the subject of much offseason hand-wringing -- is far more proven than Armstrong. Nebraska will need solid quarterback play in early tests against Fresno State and Miami (Fla.).

Big Ten Friday mailblog

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
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I'm off next week, so the next mailblog comes at you June 24. Have a great weekend.

Follow us on Twitter and send us questions there.

Michael from New York writes: Regarding the Penn State/Georgia State camp; If the SEC relaxes their rules on this issue, do you foresee a series of tit-for-tat battles ensuing? For example, UG retaliates by scheduling something with East Stroudsburg U. in Pennsylvania. And to play this situation out, would small schools in Pennsylvania resist overtures such as the one above for fear of antagonizing big brother PSU?

Adam Rittenberg: I absolutely think the SEC coaches would start guest-coaching in other regions, and they should. Setting up something with James Franklin's alma mater would be a pretty bold move, but why should those small schools shy away from having these big-time coaches at their camps? Georgia State and Stetson welcomed Franklin and his staff, and I'd expect Northern schools to do the same if SEC coaches expressed interest.


John from Plainfield, Ill., writes: I can't believe the only questions you get about the Illini are about Tim Beckman's job security but that seems to be the only thing you print about the beloved. How about a real football question: Will the Illini offense be so good with Wes Lunt and it being the second year of Bill Cubit, that we'll flat outscore a lot of teams on our schedule? I think it will be but we'll run into trouble against the top teams in the league and finish at 8-4.

Adam Rittenberg: Love the optimism, John! I print what I get and I don't hear nearly enough from Illinois fans. Illinois' defense should be better than last year, but the team undoubtedly will rely on the offense, which made major strides and retains some good pieces, namely a line featuring four returning starters.

I saw Lunt practice in Chicago and he has a big arm that should allow Illinois to stretch the field. How does Illinois get to 8-4? It starts by winning at home, as the schedule at Memorial Stadium is pretty manageable. Illinois' road slate -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- is very tough.


Brian from Brighton, Mich., writes: I'm a Michigan State alumnus and believe that MSU could have beaten any team in the country last season. If the playoff system had been in place last year, do you think Michigan State would have been included over Stanford, or would they have been left out because the Pac-12 was perceived to be a stronger conference and Alabama lost late after being No. 1 all year?

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, it's hard to know for sure, but I think Michigan State would have been the fourth team in the playoff, behind Florida State, Auburn and Alabama. The Pac-12 had a stronger national perception than the Big Ten, and Stanford had a very good team, but the Cardinal lost to a mediocre Utah team and a USC squad that lingered on the fringes of the Top 25. The Big Ten might have been down, but Michigan State won all nine of its league contests by double digits. Its only loss came at Notre Dame in a game with some controversial calls. Bottom line: the Spartans deserved to make the playoff ahead of a two-loss Pac-12 champion.


Ken from Fishers, Ind., writes: In order to have game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, your team has to be in position to allow that to happen. I don't see Maryland or Indiana being in enough games at that point this year for that to happen for them. I do not see Iowa as likely, either. That leaves Michigan State and Penn State. Both schools are likely to be in positions where they are down by less than a score with time ticking off the clock throughout the year. Of the two, I'm going with the QB who has the largest upside between the two -- Christian Hackenberg.

Adam Rittenberg: Hackenberg is a good choice, although I worry about Penn State's protection issues with so little proven depth on the offensive line. I disagree with you about Iowa. The Hawkeyes' track record shows a ton of close games and quite a few come-from-behind wins late in those contests. The opportunities will be there for Jake Rudock to be the hero.


Sons of Jack Mollenkopf from Empty Ross-Ade Stadium writes: Purdue football has not been the same since Kyle Orton fumbled a totally unnecessary head-first bootleg vs. Wisconsin in 2004. There has been marginal success for a few games vs. ND, Michigan and Ohio State, but for the last 10 years it has proven to be not only disappointing football, but other teams from the bottom of the Big Ten, 12, 14 or whatever we are calling ourselves have clearly outpaced the Boilers. What are three things Purdue can do to re-claim some footing and begin to compete again? We can't seem to attract top talent, we have trouble attracting fans, we haven't been to a BCS game, and we seem to striving for mediocrity. Am I missing something that is right around the corner?

Adam Rittenberg: As ESPN2 play-by-play man Mark Jones said of Scott Starks' fumble return, "What a turnaround! A cataclysmic turn of events!" Unfortunately for Purdue, those words proved true as the program hasn't found that level of success again. There have been very good players in the program -- Ryan Kerrigan, Kawann Short, Anthony Spencer -- but the team has struggled to turn a corner and compete for league titles. Purdue is a tough job, and the fan apathy has made it tougher. What Joe Tiller did there is still pretty remarkable.

How can Purdue regain its footing? It starts with recruiting and finding certain pipelines, like the one Tiller had to Texas, and Darrell Hazell and his staff are working hard to do that. Purdue has a great quarterback tradition that must be maximized. The recent QB recruiting has been very strong. Another step is line play, especially on the offensive side. Purdue needs to get stronger, more athletic linemen to be able to do more with the offense.

Video: B1G missing piece -- Illinois

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
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Big Ten reporter Austin Ward talks about some critical roles that must be filled for Bill Cubit and the Illinois offense.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
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Mondays stink. Except when it's mailbag time. Which it is right now. Go.

Mitchell C. from Parts Unknown writes: How confident should Ohio State be coming into the third year with Urban Meyer and five new starters on defense and six new starters on offense? And will new RB Ezekiel Elliott be like Carlos Hyde and live up to the (production) he left behind?

Brian Bennett: Those are good questions, and they are why I find the 2014 Buckeyes to be one of the most fascinating teams in the Big Ten and the nation. A lot of people assume that Ohio State won't drop off at all from the first two seasons under Meyer, but the team is dealing with a lot of turnover and counting on numerous young players to step forward. Yet there is serious reason for optimism. For one, those young players are incredibly talented and athletic, which can help make up for a lot of mistakes. The coaching staff is also a proven commodity. For example, while the offensive line replaces four starters, position coach Ed Warriner faced similar questions two years ago and quickly turned that unit into the best offensive line in the Big Ten for two years running. Elliott might not match Hyde's numbers, both because Hyde put up huge stats and because Ohio State is likely to spread the ball out a bit more than it did in 2013. But he's another prime example of the immense potential on hand.

With all that talent and coaching, the Buckeyes should feel optimistic about 2014. Unless Braxton Miller gets hurt. Then all bets are off.


Christopher from Middleton, Wis., writes: I was reading your take on the Athlon Big Ten predictions, and I have to tell you that your take on Wisconsin's QB situation is a bit off the mark but is similar to what I am reading from other Big Ten predictors. Joel Stave is playing his third year. In 2012, his QB rating was 148.3, and his stats were comparable to Devin Gardner. In 2013, Stave was fourth in the Big Ten in QB rating at 138.1. Statistically, he was ranked sixth in the B1G because Wisconsin ran the ball (so well). With the above in mind how can QB be a major concern? Keep in mind that Wisconsin has basically its entire offensive line back and should be deeper and healthier, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement should challenge if not beat the rushing record set by James White and Gordon. The issue at Wisconsin is not that the QB position is weak but that it has lots of competition. Stave does have his weaknesses and I hope he overcomes them or is beat out by Tanner McEvoy, but the QB position should not be a concern.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin QB Joel Stave will serve as the backup to Tanner McEvoy as the Badgers open Big Ten play.
Brian Bennett: One thing we can agree on about Stave is his experience should help him. Last year was his first as a full-season starter after he got knocked out early in 2012 because of an injury. And when Stave is on, he shows good arm strength and decision-making. Unfortunately, what we saw from Stave on the field last year didn't always line up with some of the stats you mentioned. Several times he misfired on completely wide-open receivers down the field as defenses keyed on that running game. (What would Jared Abbrederis' numbers have looked like had Stave hit him in stride all those times he had gotten behind defenders?).

Stave played poorly in the upset loss to Penn State to end the year and against South Carolina, causing Gary Andersen to say the team needed better play from its quarterback position. There's a reason the Badgers opened up the quarterback competition this spring despite having a veteran starter. And Stave's shoulder injury is worrisome.

Maybe Stave gets healthy and builds upon his experience. Or maybe McEvoy steps in and plays well. But you're talking about one guy who has yet to put it all together and another who has never done it at this level. That's why there are legitimate reasons for concern at the quarterback spot in Madison, before we even get to the pressing issue of who is going to catch the ball for Wisconsin. That's a big reason why I'm a little surprised by all the rosy preseason projections for the Badgers.


DJ from Minneapolis writes: I have to slightly disagree with you about Minnesota not seeing a benefit to an early signing period. As Brady Hoke mentioned, they might have to start allowing earlier or summer visits which would be a big boon to Minnesota. It would show all of the recruits in the South that it isn't actually minus-40 degrees 365 days a year here like a lot of people make it out to be.

Brian Bennett: DJ, I think you might be conflating two different issues here. As I mentioned in my early signing day piece, schools that are farther away from major talent bases (i.e., Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.) wouldn't see as much benefit with an early signing period without the corresponding move of allowing for earlier official visits. (Adam did a great job of exploring that issue in this post). Right now, prospects can't take official visits (i.e., have their trips paid for by the school) until the start of their senior year in high school. It's difficult and expensive for many prospects, especially ones who live in the South and in other far-flung locales, to visit northern schools like Minnesota on their own dime. They can often take unofficial trips to schools closer to their hometown with far less hassle, however.

That's why, if there's an early signing period -- especially one in the summer before a prospect's senior year as the ACC has proposed -- kids could be inking their national letters of intent before ever getting on a plane to Minneapolis. The Gophers would stand to gain if prospects could receive a paid trip to their campus in the spring and summer, when it's a great time to be in the Twin Cities. Those earlier visits, then, loom as even more important for a school like Minnesota than an early signing period would be.


Spencer from Lincoln, Neb., writes: On your piece about impact freshmen, I noticed you left off Tanner Farmer. My question is: Why? The kid is a beast of a specimen. Athletic. Big. He is your typical Midwest hard-working player. He even benches 500 pounds! Name another one of your impact freshmen you chose that can do that.

Brian Bennett: Spencer, I am very intrigued by Farmer and think he can end up being a cult hero to Nebraska fans. We didn't have time or space in that post to mention every promising freshman in the league, though, and it's much tougher for a first-year player out of high school to make a big impact on the offensive line than it is for just about any other position, save perhaps defensive tackle. Farmer could be an exception. We shall see.


Joel L. from Tuscola, Ill., writes: In regards to Tim Beckman's job status: I think from the perspective of a huge Illinois fan the situation is actually going to be very difficult for Mike Thomas. I will say before I start here if we win 4 games or less I think Thomas' hands are tied and he will have to let Beckman go because the attendance will be dismal and it will probably affect season ticket sales the next year. If I had to guess, we will most likely end up with five wins this season. That will cause a major predicament for Thomas because Beckman's recruiting class next year is actually going to be very solid, especially with offensive talent that Bill Cubit (who is the mastermind of the offense) will be able to use immediately. That is where the problem will lay for Thomas, because Beckman really could turn this around in year 4, but Illinois fans are ruthless and if we do not make a bowl game this year people will go absolutely nuts if he is retained.

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Joel, and I agree that five wins is kind of the fulcrum for Beckman in 2014. If that happens, I think a lot will depend on how that 5-7 season went down. Were the Illini highly competitive in their Big Ten games, especially against the best the league has to offer? Did young players show obvious development and improvement? Were fans responding in a positive way? You're right that Beckman could have his best and most experienced roster in 2015, and Thomas might be able to bank on that. However, three years without a bowl and a potential devastating hit to attendance and season-ticket sales might be too much to overcome.


Pat from Iowa City writes: Is it safe to say that AIRBHG is gone for good?

Brian Bennett: Oh, Pat, how dare you tempt the curse! You might have just woken that evil spirit from its peaceful slumber in that great cornfield in the sky. We apologize in advance to Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock, et al. Pay no heed to Pat's question, AIRBHG. We kneel and offer you this bushel of corn as a humble token of our appreciation for your recent mercy.
Tim Beckman is 6-18 in two seasons at Illinois, with just one Big Ten conference victory during that time.

That, of course, is not good, especially since his embattled predecessor, Ron Zook, took the Illini to consecutive bowl games before he got fired. So is 2014 a win-or-else year for Beckman? The Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Greenberg asked some very pointed questions on that very subject to Beckman and Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas in separate interviews published today.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIAfter a 6-18 record in his first two seasons, Illinois fans want more from Tim Beckman in Year 3.
While neither came out and said specifically that this is a make-or-break season, both acknowledged that improvement on the field has to happen in 2014.

"[W]inning football games is the bottom line to everything, and we’ve got to be better," Beckman said. "This program needs consistency. The way that consistency is built, and this is just my opinion, but consistency is built on being able to establish yourself as you build a program."

Thomas wouldn't put a number on how many wins Beckman might need to secure his job for another year but said "we need to move the ball down the field, need to move in the right direction."

"I think last year we showed progress in a number of areas," he said. "Did we show progress in every area? Have we arrived? Are we where we want to be competitively? No, we’re not. To win at a high level and win consistently and to win in the Big Ten conference, you need to play at a high level in all phases of the game. ... So the goal and the intent is that we continue to do that to a point where we’re playing in bowl games and that’s the norm, but also eventually we’re competing for Big Ten championships."

Illinois certainly showed improvement in some aspects last season. The team increased its win total from two in Beckman's first season to four in 2013. An offense that was the worst in the Big Ten in 2012 averaged 29.7 points per game and had the league's second-best passing attack last fall. The hiring of Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator dramatically changed that side of the ball.

But the Illini still need to make that kind of jump on defense after giving up more than 35 points per game and fielding the Big Ten's worst rush defense in 2013. Beckman has repeatedly talked about the youth of his team, but he is now in his third year, when many of his recruits should be on the field.

"We’re in the process of still playing with a bunch of young players, but that’s why we feel good as coaches and [why] we’ve got that sense we can be pretty good this year," he told the Sun-Times. "Our players are maturing into what a Big Ten football player’s supposed to be. ... We’re probably one more year away from where you could say, 'We can redshirt this whole [freshman] class.' We can’t do that yet because we’ve still got some needs and continue to balance up with some junior-college players, but it’s a totally different football team in the fact of strength, in the fact of speed and in the fact of maturity than what it was a year before."

Beckman has done a really good job with less-publicized parts of the program. Players are excelling in the classroom, and off-the-field problems have been rare. Thomas said he will consider that as part of "the whole body of work" when he evaluates Beckman at the end of next season, as he does with all his coaches.

Still, fans don't really care about academics and community outreach accomplishments when you're not winning. Getting to a bowl game would be the safest way to ensure a fourth year for Beckman, and the schedule allows for that possibility. The nonconference schedule is very manageable, with home games against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State sandwiched around a trip to Washington. The Illini will likely need three Big Ten wins to become bowl eligible; they get Purdue and Minnesota at home in October and would probably have to win at least one of their final three games -- Iowa and Penn State in Champaign and at Northwestern. A five-win season, especially if it includes just two Big Ten victories and three wins over no-name nonconference opponents, could make Thomas' decision very difficult.

Another thing Beckman needs to do is rally the fan base. Illinois fans have not been enthralled with him, and crowds at Memorial Stadium have dipped down to sometimes embarrassing levels. Getting to a minor bowl is not enough if the seats are empty. Just ask Danny Hope.

So what do you think, Illini fans? What would Beckman have to do this fall for you to be enthusiastic about a Year 4 for his coaching tenure? Send your thoughts here.
One of the things separating the Big Ten from some of the other power conferences in recent years seems to be elite quarterback play.

Take the 3,000-yard passing mark as an example. The league had just one player reach that plateau both last season (Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase) and in 2012 (Penn State's Matt McGloin). The good news is, some talented quarterbacks returned to Big Ten campuses for the 2014 season. Will any of them reach 3,000 yards?

We took a look at the most likely candidates to do so on Friday, and now we want your opinion. Which of these quarterbacks will throw for 3,000 yards this season?
    SportsNation

    Which of these QBs is most likely to throw for 3,000 yards in 2014?

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      52%
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      20%
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      21%
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      3%
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      4%

    Discuss (Total votes: 6,685)

  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: He finished just 45 yards shy of 3,000 as a true freshman, and that was without the benefit of a 13th game. Hackenberg should get to 3,000 during his career, but will it be this season when he learns a new offensive system and loses favorite target Allen Robinson?
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan: You might not necessarily think of Gardner as an elite passer, but he finished with five more passing yards than Hackenberg and would have easily surpassed 3,000 had he been healthy for the Wolverines' bowl game. Like Hackenberg, though, he loses his best receiver (Jeremy Gallon) and has a new offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier).
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State: Cook came on strong at the end of the season with consecutive 300-yard passing days in the Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl. Unlike last season, he'll hit the ground running as the starter and should lead a much improved Spartans passing game.
  • C.J. Brown, Maryland: The pros: Brown is an experienced senior with two standout receivers in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. The cons: Neither Brown nor his wideouts have been able to stay healthy for an entire season together.
  • Wes Lunt, Illinois: Lunt hasn't even been named the starter yet, but we expect that to happen. He started as a true freshman at Oklahoma State before transferring to the Illini, and Bill Cubit's spread offense took Scheelhaase's numbers to a whole new level. It could do the same for Lunt.

Vote now in our poll.
In the past two days, we have looked at the most likely 1,000-yard rushers and 1,000-yard receivers in the Big Ten for 2014. That leaves one major offensive statistical milestone to examine: 3,000-yard passers.

Quarterbacks who throw for 3,000 yards in the Big Ten aren't quite as rare as, say, a snow leopard, but they don't come around all that frequently, either. After all, this is a league associated with three yards and a cloud of dust, not 3,000 yards and a chem trail.

But the passing game continues to take on more and more importance throughout college football, and the conference is not immune despite producing just one 3,000-yard passer in each of the past two seasons (Penn State's Matt McGloin in 2012, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase in 2013). Who might reach that prestigious mark in 2014? Let's take our best guesses, in order of most likely:

  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (2,955 passing yards in 2013): Hackenberg very nearly got to the 3k level as a true freshman, which is all the more remarkable considering the Nittany Lions didn't have the benefit of a bowl game. He probably won't get a 13th game again this season barring an NCAA surprise but should continue to improve as a sophomore and is the most gifted young quarterback in the Big Ten. The big question mark is whether his young receiving corps and a thin offensive line can help him out.
  • [+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
    AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDespite some struggles, Michigan's Devin Gardner almost hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2013.
    Devin Gardner, Michigan (2,960): For all the faults people found in Gardner's game in 2013, he still almost reached 3,000 yards and would have certainly done so had he been healthy for the bowl game. He won't have favorite target Jeremy Gallon around and just about everybody else on offense is young. But he has shown he can put up big numbers when he's healthy and protecting the ball.
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State (2,755): Cook never had a 300-yard passing day before the Big Ten championship game; then he turned in two straight in winning MVP honors in Indianapolis and again in the Rose Bowl. A 14-game schedule helped get him close to 3,000 yards, but don't forget that he didn't begin the season as the starter or gain the coaches' confidence until late September. He'll have a lot more on his plate this season, and the junior could gobble up some major yardage.
  • C.J. Brown, Maryland (2,242): Brown arguably has the best two wide receivers in the Big Ten if -- and this is a big, blaring, neon if -- Stefon Diggs and Deon Long stay healthy. Avoiding injury is also a big key for Brown, who missed a pair of games last season. But the senior could be poised for a massive season if everything breaks right.
  • Wes Lunt, Illinois (1,108 yards for Oklahoma State): Lunt has yet to throw a pass for the Fighting Illini and hasn't played a down in two years. Yet he showed his immense potential as a true freshman for the Cowboys in 2012, and Bill Cubit's offense provides tremendous opportunities for quarterbacks to put up numbers (see Scheelhaase last season). Lunt still has to officially win the job, and the team must find playmakers at receiver. But who in the world thought Scheelhaase would lead the Big Ten in passing in 2013 this time last year?
  • Nate Sudfeld (2,523) or Tre Roberson (1,128), Indiana: If we believed either of these guys would hold the job full-time all season, a 3,000-yard season would be a no-brainer. The Hoosiers have juggled quarterbacks the past two years, with their signal-callers combining to go over 3,000 yards both seasons behind a prolific passing attack. Alas, you never quite know who will take the snaps or when Kevin Wilson will decide to make a change. Sudfeld is a better bet as a 3,000-yard passer since Roberson brings more of a running element to the table, but either could post sky-high stats if given the reins every Saturday.
  • Trevor Siemian, Northwestern (2,149): Siemian surpassed 2,000 yards last season despite splitting time at quarterback with Kain Colter. Now that the job is his alone, the Wildcats should become much more of a passing team to suit his skills. That could equal a big-time bump in Siemian's numbers.
  • Gary Nova, Rutgers (2,159): The first thing Nova has to do is stop throwing the ball to the other team, as he did 14 times in just 10 games last season. And he has to, you know, secure the job in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback derby. But he threw for nearly 2,700 yards in 2012, and now gets renowned quarterback guru Ralph Friedgen to guide him. So it's possible he could finally put it all together.
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State (2,094): Miller would need to improve his numbers by almost 1,000 yards, and that's after a 14-game season by the Buckeyes. But he did miss basically three full games last season, and Ohio State wants to become a more dangerous downfield passing team. The senior missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but has worked hard on his mechanics. Don't put anything past the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year.

Spring breakout player: Illinois

April, 30, 2014
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With spring practice officially history, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

We're talking about guys who maybe haven't had big roles yet but displayed enough during the 15 spring practices -- and not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

Part Two in the series turns to Illinois:

Spring breakout player: WR Mikey Dudek

If there's an early theme with this series, it's early enrollee receivers. On Monday, we highlighted Michigan's Freddy Canteen. And much like Canteen, Dudek came straight from high school to college football in January and proceeded to wow his team.

A three-star recruit, the Naperville, Ill., native excelled during spring practice with his precise route-running, soft hands and ability to create space for himself. At just 5-foot-11, he's a slot guy who has drawn comparisons to Wes Welker. He's a long way from reaching that level, but head coach Tim Beckman said after the spring game that if the season started now, Dudek would have a starting spot in the wide receiver group. (Dudek tweaked a hamstring and saw only limited action in the spring game).

"There are a lot of receivers who can't play inside," Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month. "But he's more comfortable, a great route runner and the kids trust him. That's big with quarterbacks."

Dudek also spent time this spring working at punt returner. But receiver would be the place where he could make a bigger impact, as the Illini lost top targets Steve Hull, Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris and Miles Osei off last year's team. Dudek could be starting next to Martize Barr and fellow newcomer Geronimo Allison.

Not bad for a guy who could be getting ready for his high school prom right about now.

Illinois spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Illinois.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Maybe the Illini don’t need to rush at quarterback: The assumption heading into camp was that even with the coaching staff evaluating multiple quarterbacks, Wes Lunt was a lock to win the starting job. Maybe the transfer from Oklahoma State still has the inside track, but Reilly O'Toole shined in the spring game and he and Aaron Bailey have done enough to keep the battle going into August.
  • Concerns linger about who will catch those passes: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was quick to point out before practice even started that he was more worried about finding receivers than picking a guy to throw to them, and that issue hasn’t been entirely put to bed. Even after a spring game that featured productive outings for former walk-on Peter Bonahoom and Justin Hardee, Cubit still expressed concern about broken routes and drops from the unit.
  • The pass rush is showing signs of life: The bar is low to show improvement, but the Illini appear well on their way to adding some bite in the trenches and making more plays in the backfield. Collectively the defense racked up seven sacks in the spring game, led by a dynamic outing from Paul James III, who chipped in a pair of those sacks, added two more tackles for loss and also recovered a fumble.
Three questions for the fall

  • How will the secondary hold up?: V'Angelo Bentley provided a hint that better things are on the way with an 89-yard interception return in the spring game, but the Illini still need to prove they’ve overcome the youthful mistakes that popped up while allowing more than 480 yards per game overall a year ago. Coach Tim Beckman wasn’t thrilled with some deep shots the cornerbacks allowed as spring closed, and the defense will have to hold up its end of the bargain to get the program on track.
  • Will the offensive line improve?: The Illini might be serviceable enough to provide pass protection for Cubit’s attack, but unless the offensive line can start consistently getting some push up front for the tailbacks, there won’t be enough threat from the running game to keep talented defenses off balance. Spring games aren’t perfect barometers, but neither squad averaged more than 2.9 yards per attempt on the ground in the exhibition, a discouraging sign for a team that finished No. 10 in the conference in rushing last year.
  • Is there a new toughness to go with the new look?: The rebrand on the uniforms gives Illinois a sharp new look. Now it needs to prove those upgrades aren’t just superficial. The tests for the guys inside those jerseys come one after another on the road in the Big Ten, and the Illini will have to embrace the challenge of playing in hostile venues like Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State if they're going to return to being contenders in the league again.
One way-too-early prediction

The Illini aren’t ready to compete with the powerhouses in the Big Ten, but assuming they can get three wins outside the league and defend Memorial Stadium against Purdue, the chance to earn a bowl bid could be well within reach heading into November. It may still come down to the final weekend of the regular season and a trip to Northwestern, but Illinois has the talent to get the job done and return the postseason.
CHICAGO -- Illinois hopes Deion Sanders was right when he famously stated, "If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good."

The Illini unveiled their new look this week, part of a rebrand with Nike for all the school's athletic teams. I'm a fan of the white uniforms with white helmets and the sleek shield on the collar. Athletic director Mike Thomas said the new threads give Illini teams the consistent look they had lacked. Football coach Tim Beckman wants more consistency on the field this fall after back-to-back losing seasons.

The Illini finished spring practice on Saturday, and I caught up with Beckman on Thursday at Niketown to recap the session.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMITim Beckman likes the experience his Illinois team will have in 2014.
What were your main objectives for the spring, and did you achieve them?

Tim Beckman: We always have three goals. First, we wanted to become more physical up front, and we were much more physically and mentally tougher this spring than we've been. We wanted a competitive edge. You've got to compete against yourself, against your fellow players. And then position-wise, we knew we had to strengthen up on the defensive front. We knew defensively, we had growing up to do. We know why: We had a bunch of freshmen playing for us, sophomores playing for us. Offensively, we had to find wide receivers to step in. We moved in the right direction. We still have some guys who have been in our program, who were there before I came, who still haven't played. The time has come.

Who is growing up for you on defense?

TB: T.J. Neal. He has probably the best linebacker spring that we had. He's gotten bigger, stronger. Even Mason [Monheim], when he was starting for us [as a freshman], he was benching around 315 pounds. He's around 375-380, so his whole body's changed. Austin Teitsma is where he needs to be. He's playing better. We needed to work on our pass rush and D.J. Smoot, he has a great motor. DeJazz Woods has grown up. They should never have had to play, should have been redshirted. Now they're juniors and sophomores and they look like different guys.

Did you get what you needed out of the wide receivers?

TB: The junior-college players have come in and helped. Martize Barr just turned a year older. Geronimo Allison had a great spring. Justin Hardee had a good spring. Mikey Dudek surprised us all. If you had to pencil in a starter right now, Mikey Dudek would be in there.

When you reviewed the quarterback play, what stood out?

TB: Each guy has a very good talent. Wes [Lunt] has got very, very good arm strength. And arm strength to me isn't about throwing a 60-yard bomb, it's about getting that comeback or putting that seam route 18-25 yards right on that seam. He has a very, very good arm. Aaron Bailey has very, very good feet. He can run, he can make people miss, he's an athlete. Reilly [O'Toole] has played more and he's got experience, and he's kind of between them. His arm's a little better than Aaron's, but his feet are better than Wes'. All of them are outstanding competitors, and they get along.

When would you like to decide on the starter?

TB: I've talked to [offensive coordinator Bill Cubit] about it. I don't think there's a time frame that we've got to do it right now, but as we go through the summer and they get a feel for where they're going to be, we talk to them honestly. I would say when two-a-days get humming, we've got to get where this guy's going to be doing most of it.

What are the team's strengths at this point?

TB: We've got a lot of guys who have played. Were they ready to play back then? No, but they did. If you do it by position, we've got an offensive front that is experienced, and they're very, very good leaders. To be in a Big Ten game, you better win up front. Defensively, we're making definite strides with guys like Teko Powell, Jarrod Clements, Joe Fotu. We expect some big things when Jihad Ward gets here. The players are getting some maturity.

What areas still must be improved?

TB: We can't let negativity absorb our program. We've got to be positive, we've got to believe. At times, there's too much questioning. We need to believe it can be done. Last season, we didn't start well a lot of times, but we gave ourselves opportunities to come back and win. We've can't start that way. We've got to go out there and know we can play with people in the Big Ten.

Wide receivers definitely got to step up. The offensive line depth is important. On defense, the young defensive backs have to come through for us and the front. But I feel better about it because they are getting bigger, they are getting stronger. They're not 18-year-olds. They're 20-year-olds now. And they play like it.

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