Big Ten: Brandon King
After winning four of its final six games, Purdue has high hopes for 2010. The Boilermakers return a lot of skill players on offense, and Miami transfer Robert Marve looks like the front-runner to take over at quarterback. The defense needs to fill all four starting spots in the secondary, but end Ryan Kerrigan and linebacker Jason Werner lead the front seven.
Strongest position: Wide receiver/tight end
- Key returnees: Keith Smith (91 receptions, 1,100 receiving yards, 6 TDs); Kyle Adams (29 receptions, 249 receiving yards); Keith Carlos (21 receptions, 242 receiving yards, 1 TD); running back Ralph Bolden (20 receptions, 261 receiving yards, 2 TDs); Cortez Smith (17 receptions, 177 receiving yards, 2 TDs); Jeff Lindsay (16 receptions 162 receiving yards).
- Key losses: Aaron Valentin (54 receptions, 621 receiving yards, 7 TDs).
- The skinny: A year ago, the Boilers had huge questions here as Smith was the lone returnee with any significant experience. Purdue now boasts one of the Big Ten's deepest group of pass-catchers, led by Smith, who topped the league in receiving yards last fall and earned first-team all-conference honors from the media. Purdue needs a new No. 2 wideout, but hopes are high for Cortez Smith and Carlos. The coaches are also high on young wideouts Antavian Edison and Gary Bush. The tight end position should be very solid with both Adams and Lindsay in the fold.
- Key returnees: Albert Evans (30 tackles, 2 pass breakups)
- Key losses: Torri Williams (84 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 8 passes defended); Dwight Mclean (62 tackles, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble, 4 passes defended); David Pender (40 tackles, 1 INT, 14 passes defended, 1 blocked kick, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery); Brandon King (30 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 5 passes defended).
- The skinny: Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, including tackles leader Williams and second-team All-Big Ten selections in Pender and King. Evans is the lone returnee with significant experience, and he'll miss spring practice with an injury. Players like junior college transfer Mike Eargle, Charlton Williams, Gavin Roberts and Chris Quinn need to step up this spring. "We have a lot of depth issues in the secondary," head coach Danny Hope said.
All four starters from last season are gone, including safety Torri Williams, the team's tackles leader, as well as second-team All-Big Ten cornerbacks David Pender and Brandon King. Junior safety Albert Evans is one of the few returning players who saw significant field time in 2009.
I know the Boilers coaches are excited about the young players they have in the secondary, and they should be. But does anyone else think Purdue's answer at defensive back could be found a few yards away from Ross-Ade Stadium in Mackey Arena?
As Kramer sliced through the lane Sunday for the game-winning layup in Purdue's second-round NCAA tournament game against Texas A&M, I couldn't help but think how he'd look in shoulder pads next year. Kramer was a standout safety and quarterback in high school. And since he didn't redshirt for the Boilers basketball team, he would have a season of eligibility left in football, much like Greg Paulus did at Syracuse in 2009.
I asked Kramer about playing football at the Big Ten men's basketball tournament a few weeks back, and his response was predictable.
"I haven't thought about it," he said, smiling. "We'll just take this ride for as long as it happens, and then go from there and make a decision on my future and what I want to do for the rest of my life."
If Kramer decides to pursue basketball, this is all a moot point. It has always been his favorite sport, even though some say he has a higher ceiling on the gridiron.
But if he hits a wall in hoops and wants to continue his athletic career in some form, Purdue head football coach Danny Hope and his staff should check in.
Kramer's high school football coach recently told The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier: "Had [Kramer] concentrated on football, he could have played on Sundays [in the NFL] as a safety."
He could still end being a big help on Saturdays this fall.
Record: 2-5 (1-2 Big Ten)
The tone of this review is much different than it would have been a week ago, before Purdue's huge victory against Ohio State. Regardless of how the second half goes, Purdue owns a signature win and its first triumph against a ranked opponent since 2003. The Ohio State game also proved that Purdue is a better team than its record indicates. The Boilers outplayed Oregon in Eugene, had Notre Dame on the ropes and built a 21-3 lead against Northwestern, but they dropped all three games. Purdue has four losses by a combined 18 points and could easily have a winning record. Turnovers are the Boilers' Achilles' heel, as they rank 119th nationally with 23. The giveaways have overshadowed strong offensive performances by quarterback Joey Elliott, wide receiver Keith Smith and others. The defense has made steady progress and received a huge performance from end Ryan Kerrigan against Ohio State. If Purdue can build on the Ohio State win and continue to make strides, it could be a dangerous team down the stretch.
Offensive MVP, QB Joey Elliott: After three seasons as Curtis Painter's backup, Elliott has made the most of his lone season as the starter. He leads the Big Ten in passing (265.1 ypg), total offense (287.7 ypg) and touchdown passes (14). Elliott also has done a great job as a co-captain, keeping team morale high despite so many near misses. Honorable mentions go to wide receivers Keith Smith and Aaron Valentin and running back Ralph Bolden.
Defensive MVP, LB Jason Werner: Werner has finally stayed healthy and showed why he can be one of the league's best linebackers. The senior ranks second in the league and fifth nationally in tackles for loss (14), a total that includes four sacks. Werner leads Purdue with 55 tackles and has an interception and a forced fumble. Honorable mentions go to Kerrigan, cornerback Brandon King and defensive tackle Mike Neal.
Tuesday's blog will be jam-packed with content, and the picks rewind would have been lost in the shuffle. So the rewind comes to you a day early, which I certainly don't mind after a lousy 3-3 week. Iowa fans absolutely have the right to send I-told-you-sos my way, and after Saturday's showing in Bloomington, I'm through with picking Illinois.
Like I tell my dentist, let's get this over with.
- The pick: Wisconsin 24, Iowa 23
- Actual score: Iowa 20, Wisconsin 10
- 20-20 hindsight: The pick looked good for about a half, but Wisconsin ended up committing the costly turnovers, not Iowa. Hawkeyes cornerback Amari Spievey picked off Scott Tolzien, and Iowa converted for the game-tying touchdown. As predicted, it was entertaining to watch Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield go against Iowa's offensive line, but the Hawkeyes once again found a way to rally and win.
- The pick: Michigan State 28, Northwestern 23
- Actual score: Michigan State 24, Northwestern 14
- 20-20 hindsight: Northwestern controlled the first half before Michigan State's defenders and special teamers began forcing miscues. Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins wound up with two touchdown passes, not three, but running back Larry Caper did score a fourth-quarter rushing touchdown, as predicted. Not a bad forecast here.
- The pick: Ohio State 30, Purdue 10
- Actual score: Purdue 26, Ohio State 18
- 20-20 hindsight: Of my three whiffs this week, this one stings the least because almost no one outside Purdue's locker room saw it coming. Then again, the Buckeyes' offense has been shaky all season and quarterback Terrelle Pryor couldn't continue his solid play away from Columbus. Purdue defenders Ryan Kerrigan, Jason Werner and Brandon King made the big plays, not their Ohio State counterparts.
- The pick: Michigan 41, Delaware State 7
- Actual score: Michigan 63, Delaware State 6
- 20-20 hindsight: I clearly didn't do a good enough job of researching how bad Delaware State actually was before this pick. Michigan's Brandon Minor, forecasted to score two touchdowns, didn't even play, but Denard Robinson came through with one of the two rushing touchdowns I had predicted. The Wolverines defense shut down Delaware State for the most part.
- The pick: Penn State 28, Minnesota 16
- Actual score: Penn State 20, Minnesota 0
- 20-20 hindsight: Eric Decker was hardly a problem for Penn State, which held the Gophers star wide receiver to only one reception. Penn State wideout Chaz Powell had a quiet afternoon but fellow receiver Derek Moye stepped up big with 120 receiving yards and an electrifying touchdown grab. Linebacker Navorro Bowman had a big game, as predicted.
- The pick: Illinois 27, Indiana 26
- Actual score: Indiana 27, Illinois 14
- 20-20 hindsight: At least I was right about Juice Williams starting at quarterback, but the senior couldn't spark a mistake-prone Illini offense. Indiana's Ben Chappell outplayed Williams, and Hoosiers sophomore wideouts Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher eclipsed Illinois' overhyped crew of receivers. Both teams weren't very good on defense, but Indiana made more plays.
Season record: 40-17 (.702)
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It was another mostly forgettable week for the Big Ten and my picks, as I went 7-3. At least the Iowa-Arizona and Minnesota-Cal scores were close.
As Big Ten play kicks off Saturday, here's hoping for better results all around.
Michigan 33, Indiana 17 -- The Hoosiers' improved defense could keep this close for a while, especially if defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton put pressure on Tate Forcier. But Indiana hasn't faced a team boasting Michigan's talent and speed, and the Wolverines have too many playmakers. Running back Carlos Brown has another big day as Michigan pulls away in the second half.
Michigan State 30, Wisconsin 27 -- A tough call here, but I'm going with the more desperate team. Michigan State simply can't afford to start 1-3, and the Spartans' defense will pick things up behind linebacker Greg Jones after two lackluster performances. Kirk Cousins comes back strong after last week's late stumble and leads Michigan State to the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
Northwestern 26, Minnesota 24 -- This could be the week that the Gophers' offense catches fire, especially against a suspect Northwestern defense. Then again, Minnesota's continued problems in the run game are a red flag, especially on the road. Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker has another huge day, and Minnesota scores a special teams touchdown. But Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka leads the game-winning scoring drive after falling short last week.
Ohio State 31, Illinois 20 -- The Illini will finally have their entire offense together, but Ohio State's defense seems to be hitting its stride. Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn make plays, but Terrelle Pryor has a bigger day against an Illinois defense missing Martez Wilson. Ohio State beats Illinois at home for just the fourth time in the last 11 meetings.
Penn State 21, Iowa 17 -- Both teams have accomplished quarterbacks, suspect offensive lines and ferocious defensive fronts. Iowa has been tested more than Penn State, but the Lions are at home at night, which usually works in their favor. This was a very tough one to call, but I just can't see Daryll Clark letting Penn State lose this one, especially after how he struggled last year in Iowa City.
Purdue 35, Notre Dame 31 -- I can't really figure out Purdue, but the Boilers have weapons on offense and Notre Dame's defense is nothing special. Plus, the Fighting Irish will be without standout wide receiver Michael Floyd, while Purdue's secondary gets healthier with the return of cornerback Brandon King. The Boilers' season gets wackier as Ralph Bolden runs wild in a fairly major upset.
Season record -- 25-7 (.781)
Purdue's secondary will need all hands on deck for Saturday night's clash against Notre Dame, and the Boilers should get a big piece back on the field.
Senior cornerback Brandon King is expected to return after missing the last two games with a deep thigh bruise. King started every game in each of the last two seasons and ranked second on the squad with nine pass breakups last year to go along with an interception and a forced fumble.
He could be a big help as Purdue tries to contain Fighting Irish star wideout Golden Tate, who ranks 20th nationally in receiving yards (100.3 ypg).
"I do expect him playing Saturday," Boilers head coach Danny Hope said, "but we’ve still got to get through the week without him reinjuring it.”
Purdue's veteran secondary has been hamstrung by injuries a bit early on, but Hope expects the group to be much healthier for Notre Dame.
"One of the problems we’ve had on the defensive side of the ball is a lack of continuity," Hope said. "We’ve had injuries in the secondary, we’ve been shuffling people around. The secondary and the offensive line are the two areas where continuity means the most."
Notre Dame, by the way, expects quarterback Jimmy Clausen to be ready after an MRI showed the junior has turf toe.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Let's have a good week.
- Linebacker Navorro Bowman might play against Iowa, but the Penn State star won't be 100 percent, Bob Flounders writes in The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News. Bowman and his teammates won't lack motivation after last year's loss in Iowa City, Ron Musselman writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Denard Robinson is a quarterback for now, but the talented Michigan freshman could play several spots, annarbor.com's Dave Birkett writes. After Michigan linebacker Jonas Mouton's suspension, Rich Rodriguez will be watching to make sure the Big Ten issues the same punishment to other players committing similar non-football acts, Angelique Chengelis writes in The Detroit News.
- Michigan State is dealing with another big injury on the offensive line, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press. At 1-2, the Spartans are looking for a fresh start, especially on defense, Dan Kilbridge writes in the Lansing State Journal.
- Freshman Jordan Hall should provide depth for Ohio State's rushing attack, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
- Purdue cornerback Brandon King expects to play Saturday against Notre Dame's high-powered passing attack, Mike Carmin writes in The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.
- Illinois head coach Ron Zook actually wanted to be a dentist, Shannon Ryan writes in the Chicago Tribune.
- Wisconsin's running backs have a case of fumble-itis, and they're paying the price in practice this week, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Minnesota needs to spark its running game in Big Ten play, Marcus Fuller writes in the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
- Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi has overcome slow starts with big second halves so far this season, Marc Morehouse writes in The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette.
- Indiana's 3-0 start is encouraging, but some other numbers don't favor the Crimson and Cream as Big Ten play looms, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Purdue wants to use Royce Adams as a wide receiver. Unfortunately, it might not have that luxury.
Adams, who played three seasons and started 19 games at cornerback before moving to wide receiver during the offseason, is listed as a backup at both positions on this week's depth chart.
Purdue has been a bit banged up in the secondary, and starting corner Brandon King missed last Saturday's game against Oregon with a thigh bruise. Corner David Pender also was limited last week in practice.
Free safety Torri Williams moved over to cornerback for the Oregon game, while Josh McKinley earned the start at safety. Adams played about 12 snaps on defense and recorded a tackle.
Hope lists King as probable for Saturday's game against Northern Illinois, but Adams is there just in case.
"If everybody was healthy, we’d keep [Adams] on offense," Hope said, "but right now, we have to wait and see what happens with Brandon."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Purdue head coach Danny Hope holds a bachelor's degree in psychology, but he's not going to spend too much time trying to get inside the minds of the Oregon Ducks.
How Oregon responds from a poor performance against Boise State and an embarrassing incident after the game that led to star running back LeGarrette Blount being suspended for the season is the big question entering Saturday's clash with the Boilermakers (Fox Sports Net, 10:15 p.m. ET). Hope sees two possible outcomes.
"It can create some distractions with all the media interest and all the stuff that goes with it," Hope said. "And then a lot of times, it can cause you to bond together even stronger. I’m sure when we get to Eugene, they’ll have their A-game."
Purdue defensive coordinator Donn Landholm reviewed the Oregon-Boise State tape, but unlike most observers, he was more interested in what took place during the game than in the moments after the final gun.
Landholm doesn't think Oregon will miss a beat on offense without Blount, especially since the Ducks regularly stockpile running backs. He also expects Oregon to come out hot, though the Boise tape provided clues on how to shut down the potent spread offense. The Broncos held Oregon to 14 yards, no first downs and no points in the opening half.
"Any time you look at people that do similar things that you do defensively, you try to learn from those things," Landholm said. "So we certainly have been looking at the Boise game and trying to see what they did and what made them so successful against Oregon."
Landholm didn't have the benefit of tape last week against Toledo, which brought in a new coaching staff and changed the offensive system. Purdue shut down the Rockets' run game but missed too many tackles and allowed 31 points and 423 pass yards in a 52-31 win.
A more polished effort will be needed against Oregon.
"They're on the cutting edge of that system," Landholm said of the Ducks. "What makes it so tough is you have to be able to handle the dive and the quarterback and a pitch player, and then the passing game as well as all that. You do have to be good in space. Everybody has to be assignment sound, so they really do test you."
Purdue's defense held Oregon in check for much of last year's game in West Lafayette, a contest the Boilers had multiple chances to win. The big difference Saturday will be Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who didn't appear in last year's game.
"Very dynamic player," Landholm said. "Very good arm, runs the ball very well, and you can tell that he’s a heady player as well because he can get himself out of some jams and make plays when a play breaks down.”
Added Hope: "He can do it all."
Landholm will lean heavily on his veteran secondary Saturday night, and Purdue also must generate pressure on Masoli from seasoned defensive linemen Ryan Kerrigan and Mike Neal. Redshirt freshman tackle Kawann Short is one of the young defenders who stood out to Landholm in the Toledo game, and Landholm expects continued progress from his linebackers.
Last year's loss to Oregon took place in Week 2, but in many ways it set the course for a disappointing Boilermakers season. The players haven't forgotten.
"I don't want to talk about it," cornerback Brandon King said with a smile when we spoke last month. "It is what it is. They won, but we didn't finish. [If Purdue had won], maybe our mentality would be different."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Purdue cornerback Brandon King got a sneak preview of Ralph Bolden's breakaway speed during a practice last month.
|Andrew Weber/US Presswire|
|Purdue running back Ralph Bolden put his speed on display last Saturday.|
"He hit a play, he was coming through the A gap," King said, "and man, that was the fastest I've ever seen Ralph run. He's going to be exciting this year. We, on defense, we get to see it all."
The Boilermakers' practices in the spring and summer are generally closed to the public, so Bolden's brilliance was reserved for his teammates' eyes only. He put up ridiculous numbers during spring ball and didn't miss a beat in preseason camp to win the team's starting running back job.
Finally, the rest of the world got to see what Bolden could do on the field, and he didn't disappoint. The 5-9, 194-pound sophomore racked up 234 rushing yards -- the third highest single-game total in team history -- and two touchdowns on only 21 carries (11.2 ypc) in Saturday's win against Toledo. He sprinted 78 yards for a touchdown on Purdue's third play from scrimmage, saying later, "I saw grass. I just ran."
Bolden's effort in his first career start earned him Big Ten co-Offensive Player of the Week honors.
"I was like, 'Wow. Somebody probably gave me extra yards,'" Bolden told reporters of his reaction to seeing his final rushing total. "I'm speechless."
Bolden played as a true freshman in 2008 and had 16 rushes for 28 yards in eight games, but he wasn't fully recovered from a severe knee injury he suffered toward the end of his high school career. The pain disappeared by spring ball, and Bolden surged for 420 yards and four touchdowns in three spring scrimmages plus the spring game.
"Coming off the knee injury and everything, it gave me a lot of confidence, allowed me to do what I thought I could do coming out of high school," Bolden told me last month. "I've been able to carry it over."
Purdue's running backs were the talk of the preseason, the group everyone pegged to make the biggest jump this fall. Senior Jaycen Taylor returned to form after missing all of 2008 with a torn ACL, while Frank Halliburton and Dan Dierking impressed the coaches and heralded freshman Al-Terek McBurse got in some work before being slowed by injuries.
But Bolden stood out from the pack.
"Top end speed separates him in some ways," head coach Danny Hope said. "Right now on our football team, speed is something that we would like to get on the field and have more of it, and Ralph is fast. There were many, many times throughout the course of camp things were bottled up and shut down and he was able to stick his foot in the ground and bounce outside and run off the distance to the end zone."
Bolden is no longer a practice prodigy. He showed Saturday that he's just as dynamic when it matters.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- There's a simple explanation for the changes new Purdue head coach Danny Hope has brought to training camp.
"More conditioning, more running," wide receiver Keith Smith said.
"You can tell in your legs," added cornerback Brandon King.
Every team in the country spends a lot of time on conditioning this time of year. Purdue experienced it with former coach Joe Tiller, perhaps not to this extent, but it remained a big part of camp.
Where Hope strives to be different is the type of conditioning he has the players do. Running for running's sake doesn't help players if they can't see how it applies to game situations. So before putting his team through hell, Hope explains his reasoning and creates simulations that mirror what takes place on Saturdays.
Consider this sequence from one of Wednesday's two workouts.
"We had a contact drill, a one-on-one, fire on out of there, knock 'em-out-of-there drill, then stopped and ran them in 10 or 12 short sprints, where they had to get off the ground first and sprint 20 yards across the line," Hope said. "It simulates a drive in football. And then we put the ball down, put our [first-team] offense and [first-team] defense out there, and scrimmaged live with the coaches grading the film, trying to find some excellence while [players] were still blowing hard.
"They understood why we were doing what we were doing. That's a lot different than just running long and hard after every practice."
King can see the difference, especially after a season where Purdue struggled at times down the stretch. No game shaped the Boilers' disappointing season more than a 32-26 overtime loss to No. 16 Oregon in Week 2.
Purdue dominated most of the game and led 20-6 at halftime before allowing the Ducks to rally with big plays.
"The Oregon game, if I had been in the shape I'm in now, I would have had a much better game," King said. "We all would have. We didn't finish. That's definitely another thing [Hope] emphasizes -- finishing."
Hope's primary objective in camp is to increase the tempo with every drill. So far, his plan seems to be working.
"You can go into survival mode in camp, where you're not practicing fast," Hope said. "We all do that in our professions, where sometimes you're working hard but you're not as focused as you need to be. By looking at the practice schedule every day and changing it around, that helps with focus.
"I'm really big on the speed of things in practice, trying to get it up as fast as we can so you're not caught off guard on game day."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Brandon King knows the question is irritating, but the Purdue cornerback can't help but ask it over and over.
Each time King sees teammate Jason Werner at practice, he checks in.
"I ask him if he's OK every day," King said. "He gets annoyed, like, 'Man, stop asking me that.' I just knock on wood for him, tell him, 'If you're hurting, go sit out.'"
King's concern for Werner comes from a good place. It's never easy to see a teammate fight through an injury, especially a teammate with so much potential as Werner.
Last year was supposed to be Werner's breakout season at Purdue. Back surgery forced him to redshirt in 2006, but he appeared in all 13 games as a reserve linebacker in 2007 and received the team's most improved award during spring ball in 2008. Then-Purdue coach Joe Tiller even called Werner the team's best linebacker, high praise considering Anthony Heygood was still on the roster.
But days before the 2008 opener against Northern Colorado, Werner's back problems flared up and never really went away. Werner underwent another back surgery in mid-September and sat out the rest of the season.
"It was extremely frustrating," Werner said, "especially because I wanted to help last year and I was ready to help. But through some unfortunate events, a little bit of bad luck, I couldn't get out there.
"But I look at the positive side. I did get healthy enough to come back and I feel just as strong as I was, if not more."
Werner tried to push through soreness in his back during training camp last year, but this time he's being smart about when to taper things down. So far, his back is holding up and he's been able to participate fully in practices and scrimmages.
The 6-foot-4, 221-pound senior has missed only one workout and could have participated if need be. Perhaps most importantly, Werner's time off hasn't diminished his speed, which defines his game.
"That was my main concern coming back, that I did it the right way and getting my speed back," Werner said. "I can tell the difference from now and the spring, just ten-fold from what it was."
Werner spends a lot of time off the field exercising his core muscles and strengthening his back so he doesn't have to adjust the way he plays. Though the health questions will always be there with Werner, Purdue knows the boost he can provide.
"I ask," King said, "because I know how valuable he is."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
After a long weekend off, it's time to dive back into the Big Ten position rankings. The secondary units are up next.
The top two look absolutely stacked, and the top four or five all will be solid. Quarterback play should be much better in the Big Ten this fall, and the secondaries will need to elevate their play.
1. Iowa -- Three starters return from a unit that helped Iowa lead the Big Ten in takeaways (32) and allow the fewest passing touchdowns (9) in 2008. Junior Amari Spievey is the league's best cover corner, and he'll be joined by safety Tyler Sash, who shared the league lead in interceptions with teammate Pat Angerer last fall. Bradley Fletcher will be missed and depth is a mini concern, but the back four will anchor Iowa's D.
2. Northwestern -- The Wildcats boast the Big Ten's deepest secondary and possibly the league's best. I covered a string of woeful Northwestern secondaries earlier this decade, and it's a major testament to assistants Mike Hankwitz and Jerry Brown that the unit has come this far. All four starters return, led by safety Brad Phillips and corner Sherrick McManis. Northwestern can go at least nine deep and boasts capable reserves like Brian Peters.
3. Ohio State -- It's a bit of a mixed bag for the Buckeyes, who return the Big Ten's top safety tandem but look thin at cornerback. Safeties Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell both will contend for All-Big Ten honors after solid junior seasons. Ohio State loses Thorpe Award winner Malcolm Jenkins and hopes Chimdi Chekwa can fill the void. Several young players will get a chance to shine this fall, including Travis Howard and Ohrian Johnson.
4. Michigan State -- All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley departs, but there's a lot to like about the Spartans secondary. Perhaps only Northwestern boasts more depth than Michigan State, which can go at least eight deep in the secondary. Corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver should have big seasons, and safety Trenton Robinson was the story of the spring and will earn major playing time.
5. Purdue -- Pop quiz: Which team led the Big Ten in pass defense last fall? It might surprise some to know Purdue topped the chart (183.2 ypg). A poor run defense contributed to the numbers, but the Boilers still look very strong in the back four entering 2009. Safety Torri Williams received a sixth year of eligibility during the offseason, and he'll join returning starters David Pender, Brandon King and Dwight Mclean.
6. Minnesota -- Minnesota led the Big Ten in takeaways for much of last season, and the secondary was the biggest reason why. Playmaking cornerback Traye Simmons leads a unit that returns three starters and could be deeper than it was in 2008. Senior corner Marcus Sherels and junior safety Kyle Theret have loads of experience, and Simmons is thrilled about the arrival of Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston at safety.
7. Wisconsin -- Easily the toughest unit to rank. The Badgers have the playmakers to be a top 4 secondary this fall. Cornerback Niles Brinkley recorded four interceptions last season, backup safety Shane Carter had a league-leading seven picks in 2007 and safety Jay Valai might be the Big Ten's hardest hitter. But consistency and depth are major concerns for Wisconsin. A lot depends on how cornerback Aaron Henry returns from knee problems.
8. Michigan -- Junior cornerback Donovan Warren could have a huge year or a really quiet one. See, Warren is easily the team's most experienced defensive back, and for that reason, opponents might try to avoid him and attack the Wolverines' unproven players. Michigan boasts a lot of young talent in the secondary -- corner Boubacar Cissoko, safety Troy Woolfolk, safety Vladimir Emilien -- and those players need to grow up fast.
9. Penn State -- This is easily the weakest unit on a team with Big Ten title aspirations. Penn State loses all four starters from a secondary that got exposed late in a loss to Iowa and early in a Rose Bowl beating against USC. The Lions need cornerback A.J. Wallace to straighten out his academic situation before Sept. 5. Safety Drew Astorino is ready to lead, but Penn State must identify capable pieces around him.
10. Illinois -- As expected, Vontae Davis bolted to the NFL a year early, leaving Illinois without a lock-down cornerback. The safeties also struggled at times last year, which creates plenty of questions heading into the fall. Illinois would certainly benefit from having a healthy Donsay Hardeman at safety, while cornerback Tavon Wilson showed some promising signs during spring ball.
11. Indiana -- It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Indiana finished much higher in my end-of-year rankings, but there are too many uncertainties entering camp. How will safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk respond from serious knee injuries? Has Ray Fisher successfully transitioned from wide receiver to cornerback? Will Florida transfer Jerimy Finch finally emerge as an impact player? The answers could determine whether Indiana survives on defense this fall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
All 11 Big Ten teams are now immersed in spring practice, and several squads held controlled scrimmages over the weekend. Some scrimmages were closed and no information was released, but here's what I've pieced together.
- The Ben Chappell-Kellen Lewis connection is gaining steam, as the current quarterback (Chappell) hooked up with the former quarterback (Lewis) for a 30-yard touchdown. Chappell completed 15 of 23 passes for 231 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while Lewis had four catches for 51 yards.
- Indiana's running backs, an area of concern entering the spring, racked up 200 rushing yards on 31 carries. Senior Bryan Payton had a 40-yard burst on the first play out of the pistol formation. Junior Trea Burgess, who began the spring at linebacker before switching to running back, led all rushers with 13 carries for 65 yards.
- Six defensive starters sat out the scrimmage with injuries, but the Hoosiers still recorded three interceptions, including one by junior safety Jerimy Finch, a Florida transfer who came to Indiana with a lot of hype. Converted wide receivers Shane Covington and Collin Taylor also picked off passes. Junior linebacker Tyler Replogle had a 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
- Sophomore wide receiver Matt Ernest, who played sparingly last fall, led all receivers with five catches for 92 yards. Tandon Doss added six receptions for 79 yards.
- The Gophers ran almost 100 plays in their first spring scrimmage. Despite being limited by a surgically repaired shoulder, Adam Weber took all the snaps with the first-team offense, while MarQueis Gray worked with the second team.
- Ten different receivers caught passes, and the Gray found Brodrick Smith for a 63-yard touchdown.
- The running back spot is pretty wide open after the Gophers ranked as the Big Ten's worst rushing team last fall. Redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley got most of the carries Saturday, indicating a possible move up the depth chart.
- The scrimmage was closed to the media, but head coach Tim Brewster said the defense is still ahead of the offense, which is installing a new system under coordinator Jedd Fisch. Weber got intercepted on his first pass attempt and later said there was a mix-up on the play.
- After seeing Wisconsin raid its state's high school ranks for years, Minnesota picked up a quarterback recruit from Badger Land over the weekend.
- If the scrimmage is any indication, Penn State fans who have been telling me not to worry about the defensive line are spot on. The line dominated reserve quarterbacks Kevin Newsome and walk-on Matt McGloin. Defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Abe Koroma and defensive ends Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham all had good days.
- Only two touchdowns were scored, as starting tailback Evan Royster had a 45-yard scoring run and starting quarterback Daryll Clark found tight end Mickey Shuler in the end zone. Clark didn't scrimmage much but performed extremely well when he was out there, while Newsome, a true freshman who enrolled early, seemed to struggle. Several reports said McGloin outplayed Newsome. If it's not obvious already, Penn State needs Clark to stay healthy this fall.
- The Lions' new-look secondary featured A.J. Wallace and Knowledge Timmons as the corners and Drew Astorino and sophomore Andrew Dailey at the safety spots.
- After losing three starters, the offensive line will take time to jell, and Saturday wasn't a strong performance. First-team left tackle DeOn'tae Pannell had a rough day and will be pushed by several players.
- Wide receiver is a position of intrigue throughout the spring, and Graham Zug, Brett Brackett, Derek Moye, Chaz Powell and James McDonald got the most work in the scrimmage. Powell also lined up in the backfield on several plays, a la Derrick Williams.
- A day after quarterback Justin Siller was dismissed from school, Purdue received a much needed strong performance from its offense in a 125-play scrimmage. Though quarterback remains a question mark for the Boilers, they appear to be strong in the run game.
- Sophomore Ralph Bolden exploded for 192 rush yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, including bursts of 38 and 32 yards. Senior Frank Halliburton added 85 yards on 14 carries as the Purdue backs combined for four rushing touchdowns. Senior Jaycen Taylor was held out of the scrimmage as he works back from a torn ACL.
- Head coach Danny Hope praised quarterback Caleb TerBush last week, and the redshirt freshman didn't disappoint, completing 15 of 22 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. TerBush's performance in the wake of Siller's departure has to leave Hope feeling a bit better about his options at quarterback. Projected starter Joey Elliott completed 9 of 17 passes for 104 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
- Cornerback Brandon King recovered a fumble, while defensive ends Ryan Kerrigan and Robert Maci and tackle Mike Neal each recorded sacks.
- Defensive end Nickcaro Golding missed the scrimmage with a high ankle sprain sustained earlier in the week.
- Tight en
d should be a better spot for Purdue this fall, as Kyle Adams returns from an injury sustained in the 2008 opener. Adams led all receivers with four catches for 41 yards in the scrimmage.
- Head coach Bret Bielema has emphasized red zone defense this spring after the Badgers finished last in the league in that category in 2008 (92.9 percent). Bielema wasn't pleased with what he saw in the scrimmage, as the offense scored on five of six red zone chances. The first-team offense went 2-for-2 against the top defense, as quarterbacks Dustin Sherer and Scott Tolzien fired touchdowns to Garrett Graham and Nick Toon. The second-team offense went 3-for-4 in red zone chances.
- The tight ends and wide receivers continued to look good, particularly Graham, Toon, tight end Lance Kendricks and wideout Isaac Anderson, who caught a touchdown.
- Top running back John Clay sustained a bruised right ankle and missed a chunk of the scrimmage, giving redshirt freshman Erik Smith extensive work.
- Among the defensive highlights were interceptions by Antonio Fenelus, Shelton Johnson and Devin Smith. Safety Shane Carter, reserve linebacker Tony Megna and defensive ends O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt also had some good moments.
- The Badgers' already iffy linebacker corps took another hit as senior Erik Prather suffered a right leg injury and needed to be carted off the field.
- Freshman quarterback Jon Budmayr continued to impress, firing an 18-yard score to Anderson.
- After a strong practice Thursday, right tackle Josh Oglesby returned to the first-team offensive line. Peter Konz, who briefly replaced Oglesby with the starters, worked with the second team.