Big Ten: Bill Cubit

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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video
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 SportsA more consistent Joel Stave would go a long way toward bolstering Wisconsin's Big Ten hopes.
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?
  • 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.

Spring game recap: Illinois

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
11:00
AM ET
We're continuing our recaps of the plethora of spring games over the weekend, and now we turn our attention to the Illinois Fighting Illini.

The Blue team dominated the Orange squad 38-7 before about 5,100 fans at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. You can find coverage of the game here, here, here and here.

Star of the game: Quarterback Reilly O'Toole went 12-of-17 for 126 yards and two touchdowns.

How it went down: Think Wes Lunt is preordained to be the new Illinois starting quarterback? Maybe not so fast, if the spring game is any indication.

Lunt struggled through the scrimmage, as his first pass attempt was tipped and nearly intercepted and his second pass was picked off by Zeph Grimes. Lunt, an Oklahoma State transfer, finished just 6-of-16 for 99 yards.

“For Wes, it was kind of an off-and-on [day],” head coach Tim Beckman said. “I thought that he probably didn’t have as good a game as I’ve seen Wes have in the practices.”

Meanwhile, the senior O'Toole played very well and had the game's only two touchdown passes.

"I'm really happy for him," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "He's managing the game. He knows where everybody's at. I like what I saw."

The Illini aren't going to base their decision on one spring exhibition, but maybe O'Toole has more of a chance than we thought. With both quarterbacks on the Blue team, it was no wonder that side won in a rout.

In what was a little bit of a surprise, former walk-on Peter Bonahoom led all receivers with seven catches for 95 yards. He showed why he earned a scholarship this spring. Justin Hardee also played well, with five receptions for 81 yards and a 25-yard score. Josh Ferguson led all rushers with 61 yards on 11 carries.

Beckman really needs the defense to improve for this season to be a success. On the plus side, the defense held both sides under 100 yards rushing, and V'Angelo Bentley returned an interception 89 yards. But the jury remains out.

The Illini also announced their spring MVPs: Ferguson for the offense and Earnest Thomas III for the defense.
The head coaches from the new Big Ten West Division, along with a player from each team, addressed reporters today on a teleconference. The East Division coaches and players will follow Thursday.

To the notebook:

WISCONSIN
  • Coach Gary Andersen has some concern about QB Joel Stave's lingering shoulder injury. Stave, who hurt the AC joint of his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl, has been shut down for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI. "The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process," Andersen said.
  • Wisconsin's blockbuster opener against LSU in Houston has motivated players during the offseason. The Badgers typically open seasons with FCS or lower-level FBS opponents, so this is different. "It would give me an edge if I were a player," Andersen said.
  • RB Melvin Gordon said he turned down the NFL draft to try to lead Wisconsin into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Andersen on Gordon's return: "Huge is not a big-enough word."
NORTHWESTERN
  • The two-quarterback system is dead, at least for the 2014 season, as senior Trevor Siemian has established himself as the clear starter this spring. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "This is Trevor Siemian's football team." Siemian added that while sharing time with Kain Colter had its benefits, he's excited for his moment. "It's been a long time coming," he said.
  • WR Miles Shuler, who transferred from Rutgers last September, will be an impact player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald said. Shuler spent last season in several roles, including mimicking Braxton Miller and other mobile quarterbacks on Northwestern's scout team. "You just have to get the ball in his hands," Siemian said.
  • Injuries along the defensive line will prevent Northwestern from having a true spring game Saturday. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will hold more two-a-day practices this summer to make up for the lost scrimmage time. Northwestern didn't have any two-a-days last year.
NEBRASKA
  • RB Ameer Abdullah has spent the spring trying to become a more complete back. It includes improving his pass-blocking by facing players like DE Randy Gregory and LB Zaire Anderson. Abdullah said Gregory is "the best that we're going to see in the conference, and luckily he's on our team."
  • Coach Bo Pelini described his epic Twitter interaction with alter ego Faux Pelini during the BCS national title game as "having a bit of fun." He didn't think it would go viral, although he's aware of Faux's strong following. Pelini doesn't follow Faux but his wife provides him updates "all the time."
  • Abdullah thinks WR Kenny Bell will have a breakout season after not getting the ball thrown his way as much in 2013. Bell's post routes and linear speed impress Abdullah.
  • The Huskers' spring game on Saturday will feature the offense against the defense and a modified points system.
PURDUE
  • RB Raheem Mostert and DT Ra'Zahn Howard both have stood out this spring. Mostert, who won two gold medals at the Big Ten indoor track championships earlier this year, has made a strong push for a starting spot. Howard is showing greater stamina and explosiveness after losing weight during the offseason, coach Darrell Hazell said. Veteran DE Ryan Russell also has emerged late in the spring.
  • Purdue's current lack of depth at tight end doesn't worry Hazell. Dolapo Macarthy (shoulder) will be fine by preseason camp, and Gabe Holmes should return after missing the spring because of academic issues.
  • The Boilers have dramatically reduced their turnovers and mental errors in practice this spring. "Last year, we couldn't even line up correctly," QB Danny Etling said.
ILLINOIS
  • Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, filling in for coach Tim Beckman, said new wide receivers Geronimo Allison (junior college transfer) and Mike Dudek (a freshman early enrollee) both have exceeded expectations so far this spring.
  • Cubit sees separation at times in the quarterback competition but is in "no rush" to name a starter, noting that some players take longer to develop than others. Although Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt has looked the part so far in the spring, it seems as though Cubit will let this play out a little longer.
MINNESOTA
  • Like Siemian at Northwestern, Gophers QB Mitch Leidner has taken ownership of the team this spring and appears to be the obvious starter. Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner "became a coach" during winter workouts. "Everybody sees me as the leader of this team," Leidner said.
  • Leidner admits he was fairly shocked when QB Philip Nelson decided to transfer to Rutgers after the season. Nelson and Leidner shared snaps last season, and Leidner said he came to Minnesota to compete with Nelson.
  • The running back competition already is heating up, as redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards has turned in a strong spring alongside David Cobb and others. Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards, redshirted last season because of an ankle injury. Kill sounds as if he can't get enough ball-carrying options, as recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith arrive this summer.
IOWA
  • Coach Kirk Ferentz said QB Jake Rudock is "perfectly healthy" after being bothered by knee injuries late in the season. The quarterback situation has a different feel this spring as both Rudock and C.J. Beathard gained experience in 2013. "It's a situation where both guys have to be at their best," Ferentz said.
  • Brandon Scherff had only played quarterback and tight end in high school when he committed to play for Iowa. He since has blossomed into an offensive tackle whom Ferentz said could have been a first-round draft pick had he decided to skip his senior season with the Hawkeyes. "My goal is to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation," Scherff said.
The best offenses are usually the ones with the best triple threats: a big-time quarterback, an elite running back and a go-to wide receiver.

So which Big Ten offenses have the most intimidating three-headed monsters on offense for 2014? Glad you asked. We're going to look at each team's top triple-threat combo and rank them in their divisions. First up: the Big Ten West.

1. Nebraska

QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell

The skinny: Yes, Armstrong still has a lot to prove as a full-time starting quarterback. But the Huskers have one of the best running backs in the country in Abdullah and a proven wideout in Bell. As you'll see, not every team in the division has that luxury. If Armstrong can simply be steady, the Nebraska offense should produce at a high level.

2. Wisconsin

QB Joel Stave, RB Melvin Gordon, RB Corey Clement

The skinny: Who emerges as the Badgers' top wide receiver is anyone's guess after the departure of Jared Abbrederis. But Wisconsin has shown the ability to pile up yards simply by running the ball, and the duo of Gordon and Clement has the potential to be really special if Clement makes the expected leap. Stave, however, needs to find more consistency -- assuming he even retains the starting job this season.

3. Northwestern

QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Christian Jones

The skinny: The Wildcats have a chance to improve this standing if Mark is fully recovered from last season's injuries and if Siemian continues to develop as a passer. But they lack a true No. 1 wideout -- Jones had 54 catches for 688 yards and four touchdowns, while Tony Jones caught 55 balls for 630 yards last season.

4. Iowa

QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley

The skinny: Rudock completed 59 percent of his passes as a first-year starter and faces a bit of competition this spring from C.J. Beathard. The strength of the Hawkeyes' offense remains their running game, led by Weisman. Iowa needs more from its receivers, as the senior Martin-Manley led the team with just 388 receiving yards last season. Perhaps Damond Powell or Tevaun Smith can add some sizzle to the passing game.

5. Illinois

QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Martize Barr

The skinny: We trust offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to put together a potent attack this fall and probably make this ranking look way too low. But there are a lot of uncertainties right now, as Oklahoma State transfer Lunt hasn't even officially won the starting job and Barr is the top returning receiver despite posting just 246 receiving yards last season.

6. Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner, RB David Cobb, TE Maxx Williams

The skinny: Scoring in bunches wasn't exactly the Gophers' calling card last season. On the plus side, they do return a 1,200-yard back in Cobb, who will be joined by Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards in 2012) and incoming top recruit Jeff Jones to form a deep backfield. But the passing game was one of the least productive in the FBS last season and needs major steps forward from Leidner and young receivers like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones.

7. Purdue

QB Danny Etling, RB Akeem Hunt, WR DeAngelo Yancey

The skinny: The Boilers averaged a putrid 14.9 ppg last season, though the potential for better things is there with true sophomores Etling and Yancey. The running game simply has to get better, however, as Hunt led the team with just 464 yards on the ground in 2013.
CHICAGO -- It's easy to spot Geronimo Allison on the football field, and not just because of the green no-contact jersey he has been sporting this spring at Illinois.

At 6-foot-3 and wiry, Allison fits the mold of an outside receiver. He has good speed and agility, as he showed Friday at Gately Stadium on Chicago's South Side, leaping for a pass from Wes Lunt in the corner of the end zone. Allison, who enrolled at Illinois in January, is quickly gaining attention midway through his first spring with the Fighting Illini. And not just because of his name.

"He's got a ton of potential," Lunt said. "He's picked up the offense really quick. He's already running with the [starters], and he's going to help us this year."

Allison never has had a problem performing on the field. His plight was getting there.

Geronimo Allison
Illinois Athletic Media ServicesGeronimo Allison is ready to take advantage of an opportunity at Illinois.
As a senior at Spoto High School in Riverview, Fla., Allison averaged nearly 22 yards per catch with four touchdowns. But his prep bio, at least for football, ends there.

Allison finished ninth grade with a grade point average that had dipped to 1.4. He was ineligible to compete as a sophomore and junior. Although he returned for his senior season, the opportunity to play major college football, at least right away, wasn't available.

"I realized you can't really play this game without grades," Allison said. "It will hold you back."

Allison landed at Iowa Western Community College, a junior-college powerhouse located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, near the Nebraska border. He helped Iowa Western to the 2012 NJCAA national title and led the Midwest Conference in catches (69), receiving yards (872) and receiving touchdowns (8).

More importantly, Allison boosted his grades, earning a B average by the end of his second year.

"He graduated in three semesters, which is pretty darn good for a kid who had some academic issues coming out of high school," Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier said. "He had his mind set that he was going to class and do the work. His goal was to get to Division I. We knew he had the talent. The only thing that would hold him back was his academics, and he wasn't going to let that happen."

The offers that could have come in high school started to flow in. Kansas State and Iowa State pursued Allison, but he settled on Illinois. Two of his teammates on Iowa Western's title-winning team, wide receiver Martize Barr and tight end Dallas Hinkhouse, already played for the Illini.

"I didn't come over here empty-handed," Allison said.

Barr considers Allison like a younger brother. When Illinois offered Allison a scholarship, Barr became his primary recruiter.

"I knew I could get him here," Barr said.

Both men have taken the long way to Champaign.

Barr, a native of Washington, D.C., began his career as a safety at New Mexico, playing for former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. When Locksley was fired in September 2011 after going just 2-26 with the Lobos, Barr transferred to Iowa Western. He had hoped to follow Locksley to Maryland, where Locksley went as offensive coordinator, but instead wound up at Illinois.

Barr was the juco receiver generating buzz last spring with the Illini, but his numbers during the season (26 catches, 246 yards) didn't meet expectations. The coaches want more from Barr this fall and have high hopes for Allison.

Illinois needs help at receiver after losing top target Steve Hull and veterans Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. Barr actually is the top returning wide receiver. (Josh Ferguson, who had 50 catches last year, plays running back.)

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMITim Beckman likes what he sees so far out of juco transfer Geronimo Allison.
"We won a national championship together," Barr said of himself and Allison. "I love him to death. We can't wait to get back on that boundary together and get that championship pedigree here to Illinois."

Strohmeier considered redshirting Allison in 2012 because Iowa Western had so much firepower at receiver. But much like this spring at Illinois, Allison "stood out, stood out and made plays."

"Athletically and running and catching the football and understanding the game, he's not going to have any problem [at Illinois]," Strohmeier said. "He's also not afraid to block somebody in the run game."

Allison is spending the spring familiarizing himself with a more sophisticated, pass-oriented offense based on timing and tempo. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wants the ball out quickly, and receivers have to be precise with their routes.

The academic transition, so far, has been smooth.

"G-Mo's doing outstanding in school," Illini coach Tim Beckman said. "He's only been here for a couple months, but he's proven and shown everything that he needs to do to get himself better."

Allison doesn't lack in confidence in his ability, which isn't surprising for a guy named Geronimo. His mother, Melissa Golver, wanted a unique name for her son.

It led to some teasing during his childhood, but Allison eventually grew accustomed to the name.

"I'm planning on naming my son after me," he said, "if I have one."

If Allison's plan comes true, Illinois fans soon will know the name. After catching up in the classroom, Allison is primed to catch plenty of passes this fall for the Illini.

"It's going to be fun," he said. "I'm going to put on a show."
Illinois offensive lineman Teddy Karras looked at schools like UCLA, Boston College and Ball State during his recruitment process. But one destination's siren song proved too strong.

"The Big Ten was always in my mind," he said.

[+] EnlargeTed Karras
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsTeddy Karras, who followed his family footsteps to a Big Ten school, is entering his third season as Illinois' starting right guard.
Not just in his mind. Practically in his genes.

Karras is the seventh member of his family to suit up for a Big Ten football team. Grandfather Ted Sr. spent four years at Indiana and later went on to play for the Chicago Bears. Great uncle Alex is the most famous Karras, as he won the Outland Trophy at Iowa and gained fame both as a Detroit Lion and as a TV actor. Great uncles Paul (Iowa) and Lou (Purdue) are also Big Ten alums, while his father, Ted Jr., and uncle, Tony, both played for Northwestern.

So Teddy seemed destined to wind up in the conference, too, playing on the line just as all his relatives had before him. All of whom like to give their input on the youngest one's career.

"Everyone chimes in from my family, football-wise," father Ted Jr. said with a laugh. "Everyone really enjoys watching him on Saturdays. Right on down from my dad to his brothers, everybody puts in their two cents."

Maybe it's all that advice, or maybe it's just Teddy's lifelong immersion in football, but there is less and less that his relatives need to help him with these days.

The redshirt junior is entering his third year as the starting right guard for the Illini. That makes him a rare veteran on what is still mostly a young team, and he's taking that standing seriously by becoming one of the anchors for head coach Tim Beckman.

"He's one of those proven guys," Beckman said. "The thing I'm asking Teddy to do is to be one of the top leaders on this football team. Even though he's not a senior, he needs to become a vocal leader of this football team.

"He loves the game. He's been involved in the game since he was born with the family background and the Karras name itself. It shows."

Illinois will have a new starter at quarterback this season and needs new faces to emerge at receiver. But the offensive line should provide a solid building block for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's attack. A unit that made great strides last season after a miserable 2012 returns four starters including Karras, who has worked this offseason to bolster his hand strength and made adjustments to his stance.

He loves the game. He's been involved in the game since he was born with the family background and the Karras name itself. It shows.

-- Illinois coach Tim Beckman on Teddy Karras
The line did a decent job of allowing quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to get rid of the ball last season. Now, the goal is to get more physical and improve a running game that finished 10th in the Big Ten in 2013. (That would please his grandfather, who only knew the north-south running game when he was with the Bears and who finds the modern spread offenses annoying).

"It's all about getting people on the ground, whether that be cutting or just being physical and attacking," Karras said. "Really knocking people around and springing big runs. We need a better run game this fall."

Karras is familiar with contact. When he was in the eighth grade, his father -- who has coached at St. Xavier, Rose-Hulman, Marian and now Walsh University -- put Teddy in as the live quarterback for one-on-one passing drills.

"He got hammered a couple of times, and then I took him out," Ted Jr. recalls.

Teddy grew up attending his father's practices and fondly remembers watching game film on Sundays at the house with his dad's entire coaching staff. He used to draw offensive plays up on the whiteboard in his dad's office. The family tried not to push him into playing football, but once he started in third grade, he was hooked.

"I was around it 24/7," he said. "Football shaped my whole life up until this point. I hope it continues to shape it."

Other Big Ten schools like Iowa and Northwestern showed interest in Karras out of Indianapolis' Cathedral High School, but many of the premier schools thought he lacked elite length on his 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame. But he has slotted in well at guard for Illinois, and going there made his mom, Jennifer, happy. That's her alma mater, adding another Big Ten tie to the clan.

"There are divided loyalties in our family, but everyone roots for a Karras," Teddy said.

Teddy, in fact, is bigger physically than all the other Karrases that came before him, even the legendary Alex, who passed away two years ago. He's hoping to carve out his own legacy in the impressive family tree.

"I need to keep performing the way I've been doing and be even better," he said. "I don't think my family would be mad at me at all, but I feel like I need to keep proving it to myself and everyone else."

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