Big Ten: Chi Chi Ariguzo

The long wait until football returns is only beginning, but spring practice is at least another day closer. To help pass the time until Big Ten teams are back in pads, we're looking around the entire league at key position battles that could help sort out the race for a championship by the time fall eventually arrives.

Next in line: Northwestern.

1. Quarterback: The race to take the reins of the offense from Trevor Siemian may have actually started at the end of last season, and Northwestern got a glimpse at what Zack Oliver could offer as a starter. But expect all the options to open camp with a blank slate in what could be a three-man competition for the job, with Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson all jockeying for the position. If the Wildcats are going to bounce back and be a factor in the West Division next season, identifying the right leader for the attack has to be at the top of the priority list.

2. Outside linebacker: The Wildcats are losing veterans at both outside positions at the second level and will need to replace Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall. Ariguzo led the team in tackles during his senior campaign, and his sidekick on the other side chipped in 58 tackles while intercepting two passes, forcing a fumble and recovering three more. Senior Drew Smith has experience already and should give the Wildcats a jump on filling one hole given his ability to line up on either side, but that still leaves a big pair of shoes to fill on the other side of Anthony Walker.

3. Center: Nobody at Northwestern ever took for granted the stability Brandon Vitabile provided in the middle of the offensive line, and it was certainly a luxury to be able to count on him for so long up front. Now the Wildcats will have to find somebody to replace everything he provided while anchoring that unit and starting every offensive play, and their appreciation for Vitabile might actually increase heading into spring practice without him. Backup Hayden Baker is gone as well, so one way or another Pat Fitzgerald is looking at some inexperience at such a crucial position.

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
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There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
8/14/14
10:30
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter dash events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Treyvon Green, Sr., 5-10, 215; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200; WR: Kyle Prater, Sr., 6-5, 225

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
7/21/14
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7 in 2013.

Sure, the unit was on the field for the play that encapsulated a hard-luck season: a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired that gave Nebraska a 27-24 victory and set off pandemonium in Lincoln. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is right when he states: "We were five plays away from winning five more games, and we needed to make five more plays on defense somewhere."

The defense could have collected a few more takeaways in Big Ten play after a surge early in the season. It could have made another stop against Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska or Iowa that might have been the difference.

But if Northwestern's offense is anywhere close to its normal production, the team easily wins seven or eight games. End of story.

The offseason spotlight is on the offense as it ditches a two-quarterback system -- senior Trevor Siemian will be the sole operator -- and likely returns to its pass-first roots. Things are much quieter for the defense, which returns nine starters, including all four in the secondary. It's possibly the team's strongest position group.

Collin Ellis
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern linebacker Collin Ellis is moving inside, hoping to help boost a defense that was a little too soft in the middle in 2013.
It's not a stretch to suggest this could be the strongest defense in coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern can go two or three deep at every secondary spot, thanks to the emergence of several redshirt freshmen this spring. Veteran playmakers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis return at linebacker, and speedy ends Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson spark the pass rush.

But perimeter strength might not mean much if Northwestern doesn't firm up its core.

"Defensive football is a lot like baseball," Fitzgerald said. "You better be great at the catcher, pitcher and center fielder, the belly of your defense, and that shortstop and second baseman are plenty important, too. [In football] you've got to be strong at D-tackle, the linebacker position and safety. I'm not minimizing the ends and the corners, but if you don't have those things inside, the belly of your defense gets exposed.

"You can't stop people."

Northwestern didn't stop the inside run consistently enough in 2013. Ohio State's Carlos Hyde pounded away for 168 rush yards and three touchdowns on a night when quarterback Braxton Miller struggled. Other running backs -- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White, Minnesota's David Cobb, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford -- eclipsed 100 yards against the Wildcats, who surrendered 192 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play.

Injuries at defensive tackle, particularly the midseason loss of Sean McEvilly, hurt the Wildcats. Northwestern needs McEvilly and Chance Carter to stay healthy and C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar to keep developing. Both Robbins and Kuhar received increased practice time this spring as McEvilly missed the whole session following foot surgery and Carter missed the first nine workouts because of injury.

"Everyone knows the fastest way to get somewhere is straight down the middle," Carter said. "That goes with the D-tackles first. We're the first line of defense. We have to be more fundamentally crisp."

The safety spot should be fine as Ibraheim Campbell, an excellent run defender with 262 career tackles, anchors the secondary. But there are questions at middle linebacker as Ellis moves over from the strong side to replace Damien Proby.

Ellis, lighter than Proby at 233 pounds, admits he has to play the position differently, using his speed and lateral quickness.

"As a linebacking corps, we are quick," Ellis said. "What we're saying is the defensive tackles, if they get in the wrong gap, stay there and we can recognize that and fill."

If the defense can fill those gaps and firm up its midsection, it could be the reason for more Wildcats wins this season.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 29, 2014
1/29/14
5:00
PM ET
Coming at you from the United Mailbaggers Local 40205 …

David from Nashville writes: All Players United! Well except walk-ons, that is. I'm sorry, but Kain Colter is losing me. Personally, I completely understand wanting medical coverage for football injuries sustained while representing the university. But excluding walk-ons from having a ”'voice at the table,” as Colter calls it? Do they not sustain injuries, get concussions or have medical bills? And they don't even get the free education from a very prestigious, and expensive, school like Northwestern! Or perhaps, just like the NCAA, Kain Colter just wants “his,” and including your walk-on teammates will hurt his legal argument to get “his.”

Brian Bennett: Clearly, there are more questions than answers right now about the Northwestern labor union movement. Can students at a university really be classified as "employees?" How would such a union arrangement work with Title IX? How long would medical benefits last, and who would decide whether a former player's injury was football-related?

The issue of walk-ons is another one, although a minor point, in my opinion. Only those who are receiving scholarships can really argue that they are being compensated like an employee, and any walk-on who plays enough to merit post-career benefits would likely be put on scholarship at some point. It's also not fair to say Colter is looking to "get his" when he has already completed his eligibility and likely would not see any personal gain from leading this movement. On the contrary, he's risking a lot by agreeing to become the public face of this movement.

I question whether a labor union is the right way for the players to go, and it certainly was odd to see college football players standing alongside steelworkers' union members at Tuesday's news conference. But I also think it's way past time for players to organize in some way and make sure their rights and concerns are being considered. College football is a multibillion-dollar industry that's only going to get richer with the new playoff system, and everybody from head coaches to assistants to athletic directors are getting rich off the sport. Everybody except the players, who put their bodies at risk for our enjoyment, that is.

Yes, the players receive scholarships, and at a place like Northwestern, the value of that can exceed $250,000 over the course of a player's career. But the players in this movement aren't asking for cash. They're asking for things such as medical treatment beyond their playing days, better concussion prevention and care and a trust fund that can allow players to continue their schooling following their careers. (Many of their demands, by the way, are not that different from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's own collegiate reform plan). Mostly, they are asking for a larger voice and a seat at the table in a system that too often treats them like disposable indentured servants. That seems a highly reasonable request to me.


[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is a good role model for running backs looking to improve next season.
Zach from Southgate, Mich., writes: Brian, who will be 2014's Carlos Hyde in the B1G? By that, I mean a player who showed flashes of talent early in his career but blossoms into an all-conference type of performer his final season. Guys like Ohio State CB Doran Grant, PSU RB Bill Belton, and Northwestern LB Chi Chi Ariguzo come to my mind as possibilities.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure Hyde blossomed as much as he was healthier in 2013 and got plenty of opportunities after his early-season suspension. He did run for 995 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012 despite some injury problems, after all. I think a better example of someone who went from very good player to all-out beast in 2013 is Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Belton could be a guy who takes a similar path, though he has some competition for carries with Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch around. Indiana's Tevin Coleman is another running back who could take it to the next level after running for 958 yards in his first season starting. Maybe Iowa's Jordan Canzeri, if he can get more reps (and stay healthy).

On defense, I'd say Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes could follow Darqueze Dennard's path into superstardom. And Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa could go bonkers on the league.


Dane from Akron, Penn., writes: Really, Brian? PSU/Michigan, 4-OT game at No. 6? This game had it all. A freshman QB drives 60-plus yards in like 40 seconds (two unbelievable catches on that drive), a clutch kicker missing three field goals... I repeat, 4 OTs!

Brian Bennett: The game had it all except quality of play, as I explained in my post. Just because a game goes long does not mean that it was well-played. You mentioned the missed field goals. The two teams each failed to score in two of the overtimes and there was only one touchdown in all four of the extra periods, which led to a lot of national writers poking fun at the Big Ten on Twitter during the game. There were also seven combined turnovers. It was exciting, no doubt, and a great win for Penn State after a tremendous regulation comeback. But it was also very sloppy.


John R. from Dubuque, Iowa, writes: Brian, am I the only Illini fan that's thrilled to see a new QB take the reins in Illinois? Sure the numbers were great, but the predictable interception always happened! I can't wait for Wes Lunt to play. The way the defense talked about his skills when he ran the scout team's offense is enough make any humbled Illini fan excited of something. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: You're definitely not alone, John. There's a big buzz about Lunt taking over and running Bill Cubit's spread offense. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, he looks more like a classic quarterback than Nathan Scheelhaase did, and Lunt was a blue-chip stud coming out of high school. I'd caution you not to view him as the savior yet; remember that Lunt struggled a bit as a freshman at Oklahoma State, a program that usually makes quarterbacks look great. There are also questions at receiver for Illinois, and don't discount what Scheelhaase did last year in passing for more than 3,000 yards. Still, the talent is definitely there, and I'm also excited to see what Lunt can do in that offense.


Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: I don't know about other people, but I've long held the opinion that Penn State underachieves. By this I mean that they are a national power in terms of fan base, facilities, revenue and name brand appeal. Just not a national power on the field. I felt this was certainly true for the last 10-15 years under Paterno. Under O'Brien, you had the sense that the game and team were being upgraded, but he himself didn't have a catchy personality. And I didn't even think it was important until I'm seeing Franklin and his recruiting. It's way too early to tell if that translates to success on the field. But it appears that the foundation is (hopefully) being laid for better results in the future. What I see is someone putting energy into the whole program. It certainly would seem like the program might actually start taking advantage of its assets and capability. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: I think you can make some parallels between Penn State and Florida State. Both programs were probably held back a little because their legendary coaches stayed on too long. Remember when Joe Paterno was doing his recruiting via Skype from his office? Now you have the almost manic energy of James Franklin, who along with his aggressive assistants will likely kill it on the recruiting trail. Of course, the toll of the NCAA sanctions can't be overstated, and Franklin has to prove that A) he's a championship-caliber head coach; and B) that he's willing to stick around Penn State for a long time. But you're right in that the marriage of Penn State's resources and Franklin's particular skills should prove very fruitful for the Nittany Lions.


Michael B. from East Lansing, Mich., writes: The East Division next season seems to be Michigan State's to lose. I understand that Ohio State will be in the picture, but can we really place Michigan in that race with their lackluster performances over the past few years? Seems to me that Penn State would be the next best in the division going into the season.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State and Ohio State appear to be the clear co-favorites for the East next season. While I expect Michigan to improve on its 2013 showing, the Wolverines still have a lot more question marks in my view than the Spartans or Buckeyes, and they have to play both those teams on the road in '14. Penn State is an intriguing contender because it gets both Ohio State and Michigan State at home, where the Nittany Lions played much better than on the road last year. But I think the Buckeyes and Spartans still have the commanding edge in talent and depth, and we should see one of those two in Indianapolis in December.

Offseason to-do list: Northwestern

January, 16, 2014
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The offseason is here, folks, and we're taking a look at what each team must do in the long months ahead before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.

1. Establish an identity on offense: An injury-plagued unit never got on track last season, finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 points per game). The playbook definitely shrunk without standout running back Venric Mark, who is expected to receive a fifth season of eligibility and return this fall. Mark adds to an already strong stable of backs, but the team's most experienced quarterback, Trevor Siemian, undoubtedly is a pocket passer. Does Northwestern continue with a two-quarterback system (Siemian and Zack Oliver or Matt Alviti) or stick with one guy? Does it return to the pass-first scheme that proved effective in 2008 and 2009 or the run-pass mix that worked in 2012? These questions and others must be answered in the coming months.

2. Solidify the offensive line: After several years of progress, the group took a step back last season, allowing 36 sacks, the second-highest total in the Big Ten. Northwestern must establish chemistry earlier and build some depth before fall camp rolls around. The potential good news is everyone returns, including veteran center Brandon Vitabile. There should be plenty of competition throughout the offseason to fill the other four spots and build some depth the Wildcats lacked in 2013. If Siemian is the starter, he'll need better protection, as he lacks the mobility of recent Wildcats signal-callers like Kain Colter and Dan Persa.

3. Bolster the defensive tackle spot: Defense really could be Northwestern's strength in 2013, as the Wildcats should have their deepest group in the secondary in recent memory, as well as Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis at linebacker. Three speed rushers return at defensive end, but the tackle spot is a bit cloudy after opponents averaged 167.7 yards rushing per game against Northwestern last fall. It will be important to keep Sean McEvilly healthy and find others around him like Chance Carter, Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about getting stronger up front after a disappointing 2013 season, and the defensive tackle group certainly must respond.

More to-do lists

Season wrap: Northwestern

January, 15, 2014
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When Northwestern opened Big Ten play Oct. 5, it had a perfect record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and Ohio State on the ropes. When the Wildcats concluded their home schedule Nov. 23, they did so in a largely empty stadium and watched Michigan State celebrate a Legends Division title. Things fell apart quickly and dramatically for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, which missed a bowl game for the first time since 2007 and endured a losing regular season (5-7) for the first time since 2006, Fitzgerald's first season as head coach.

A combination of poor play, injuries and extremely lousy luck doomed Northwestern, which lost two games in overtime and a third on a Hail Mary as time expired at Nebraska. Star running back/returner Venric Mark missed almost the entire season, and the offense never found a steady rhythm in league play. The defense held up decently but left too many plays on the field. Fitzgerald often uses the phrase "flush it" when asked about bad plays or games. Northwestern certainly should flush the 2013 season.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Kain Colter. He played through pain for much of the season but continued to produce, rushing for 489 yards and five touchdowns and completing 78.8 percent of his passes despite limited opportunities. Colter put Northwestern in position to beat both Iowa and Nebraska, but mistakes elsewhere doomed the team. He also caught a touchdown pass against Ohio State. Running back Treyvon Green merits a mention here.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Tyler Scott. Scott finished a solid career by triggering Northwestern's pass rush with six sacks, 10 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries. He also had two forced fumbles, a blocked kick and a fumble recovery. Safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebackers Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo were solid.

Best moment: It came in the opener against Cal, as Northwestern overcame the absences of both Colter and Mark to rally for a 44-30 win. Ellis recorded pick-sixes of 56 and 40 yards in the second half en route to earning national defensive player of the week honors. The win sparked Northwestern to a 4-0 start, but things went downhill from there.

Worst moment: The Nebraska Hail Mary encapsulated a season of what-ifs. The Wildcats jumped ahead 21-7, blew the lead, couldn't punch in a late touchdown but still led by three with four seconds left. After Northwestern called a timeout (that some questioned), Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp somehow slipped behind the defense and caught a deflected pass for the game winner as time expired.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

July, 22, 2013
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There is one more full weekend before most Big Ten teams report for fall practice. My advice to players: stay home this weekend, maybe catch up on some TV. Bad things happen in bars at the end of summer.

Good things happen when you email me. Like this mailbag:

Chris from the Show Me State writes: As a MSU fan that has spent much time in the Midwest I have a few observations about the upcoming season. 1. NW is going to surprise everybody this year. They are legit and I wouldn't be shocked if they finish 1 or 2 in the Legends. 2. NW has the offensive playmakers to make some noise but are they deep enough and well rounded (defense) to weather the storm? 3. I understand it is good for the Big 10 when Michigan is good but I believe Blue has a set back year. Recruiting championships and September Heismans are noise and don't = Big Ten wins. I predict 5 Big losses ...

Brian Bennett: Since you're from the home state of the first-place St. Louis Cardinals, I'll let you go first today, Chris. I agree that Northwestern certainly could finish first or second in the Legends Division, but would that really "surprise everybody?" If so, everybody isn't paying attention. The Wildcats won 10 games last year and held late fourth-quarter leads over Michigan and Nebraska, so they have to be considered a legitimate division contender. The defense, as you mentioned, will always be something of a question mark. But I like the linebacker group, led by Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby, and I think the secondary will be improved with a healthy Nick VanHoose and Ibraheim Campbell back. The defensive front is underrated and anchored by Tyler Scott. Northwestern's defense still has to prove it on the field, especially late in games against top opponents, but I believe the talent is there.

As for Michigan, it's safe to say you might be a little biased there. The Wolverines have a pretty favorable schedule, with Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State all coming to Ann Arbor, though road trips to Northwestern and Michigan State will be tricky. Anything is possible, but I'd be surprised if Michigan doesn't improve after last year's five-loss season against a much more brutal schedule.




Jon from Columbus writes: Last chance to change your vote on OSU winning the B1G. They were an 8-4 team, even within the conference, in terms of talent that got all the right breaks to go undefeated. Looks like Carlos Hyde may be kicked off the team, if not out of the university. Prediction: the Bucks lose 3 games in conference and Wisconsin goes to Indianapolis to take on Michigan.

Brian Bennett: Well, it's not the last chance, because I have not offered my official, final preseason picks yet. (I did vote for Ohio State in The Plain Dealer media poll, but I consider my official pick to be the one that Adam and I reveal in August -- and I'm currently trying to erase all evidence of last year's Michigan State pick). I can't agree with you that Ohio State had 8-4 talent last year, not with Braxton Miller, John Simon, Bradley Roby, the league's best offensive line, etc. And especially not in what was a down year for the league overall in 2012. The loss of Hyde hurts, but running backs can be replaced. That in and of itself is not enough to dissuade me from the opinion that the Buckeyes have to be the favorite in 2013.




Ken G. from Highland Park, Ill., writes: Is there any reason to believe the Illini can win 5 games this year?

Brian Bennett: Well, let's play the optimist and see if we can figure out a way. First, the team will have to stay healthy, because depth remains an issue. Let's say the offense takes a big jump forward with Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator and Nathan Scheelhaase rediscovering his early-career form. Junior college transfers make a big impact, and Jonathan Brown gets back to blowing up plays at linebacker. And let's give Illinois wins at home over Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio). A big key will be whether the Illini can beat either Cincinnati at home or Washington in Chicago, because I think winning three league games in a Big Ten schedule that includes crossovers against Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern is going to be tough. The games against Indiana and Purdue -- two teams that Illinois competed reasonably well against last year -- are both on the road. So it is definitely an uphill climb.




Adam from Des Moines writes: With regards to John from Philadelphia's comment about Iowa/Nebraska not being a rivalry, I agree that the matchups have been one-sided. But why does everyone make a fuss about that matchup and nobody cares that OSU and UM have some very lopsided B1G Rivalries, too? Being a Husker fan living in Iowa, I really enjoy the rivalry being surrounded by Hawks fans. It's kind of fun watching them squirm on rivalry weekend. I know that the hatred runs pretty thick around here and if Uof I can win a couple it might get more interesting, but for now it's still interesting to me.

Brian Bennett: While it's impossible to compare Iowa-Nebraska to Ohio State-Michigan, we also need to remember that the Heroes Game has only been played twice. It's way too soon to write it off as a rivalry that's never going to take off. The geography makes the game a natural one, and even though Iowa has been down, the Hawkeyes made the Huskers sweat during last year's 13-7 slog in Iowa City when the division title was at stake. All it will take is a couple of Iowa upsets to inject some heat into this series. But the Hawkeyes need to hold up their end of the bargain.




Dan P. from West Milford, N.J., writes: I'd like to applaud you on your patience on the following topic. I keep reading about the lack of a consistent rivalry game for Penn State and the dismissal of both Maryland and Rutgers to fill that gap. History -- RU first played PSU in 1918 and won, since then they have not been as lucky going 1-22 over the next 90 or so years. PSU has not played RU on campus since 1955, all of the other "home" games were played at Giants Stadium. If you ever had the pleasure to go to one of those games you would know it was really a PSU home game 6 hours away from Happy Valley. What you truly need for a good rivalry is equal competition and close games, RU needs to beat PSU a couple of times in the next few years and I guarantee that both sides will circle that game on the schedule. The question is can RU do it? And not over just 2-3 years, but over the next 10-15? We have never been the model of football consistency. I like to believe so, but only time will tell. Also was that you masquerading as Matt Damon last week on Nebraska's campus??

Brian Bennett: I think the Rutgers-Penn State series in the Big Ten has real potential, despite its historic lopsidedness. Both campuses are within easy driving distances of one another, and the two programs compete for a lot of the same recruits. The Scarlet Knights in recent years have done a better job of actually winning several of those recruiting battles versus the Nittany Lions, and Rutgers sure looks like a team on the rise. You could argue that Rutgers should be in much better shape in the next few years than a Penn State program dealing with harsh scholarship reductions. Which also means the time for the Scarlet Knights to strike back at the Lions is now, because Penn State has tradition and a much bigger fan base on its side. I have higher hopes for a Penn State-Rutgers rivalry than I do for Penn State-Maryland.

It's funny that you mention that about Matt Damon. He's the celebrity I've been told I look like the most, though it happened much more in my younger days since Damon doesn't have nearly as much grey hair as I. Hopefully he'll start going to Nebraska games and I can cover one so we can finally be in the same place at the same time.




Mitch from Lincoln writes: Just saw the candidates who are to represent the B1G on the playoff committee and I was very surprised that Tom Osborne was not on the list. I am not sad or mad either way, just very surprised he wasn't in the discussion. Is it because Nebraska is new to the B1G and they wanted someone closer to home who has more history with the conference? I understand both for and against, but I just wanted him to have a chance.

Brian Bennett: Mitch, I'm guessing you're referring to our poll on Friday. To be clear, that was just a poll we did after it was reported that current athletic directors would be a part of the selection committee. Of course, Tom Osborne is not a current athletic director, since he retired from that post in January. Former athletic directors could still serve on the committee, and if so, Osborne would be an outstanding choice if he's interested.




Gale from Virginia Beach, Va., writes: Can Jake Ryan qualify for a medical redshirt and play a 5th year for the Wolverines??

Brian Bennett: Gale, Ryan redshirted his first year with the Wolverines, so he'd have to finish his career and apply for a sixth year through the NCAA if he does not play this year. The NCAA has been pretty good lately in granting those to players who missed a year because of injury. But the plan remains for Ryan to come back and play this year, possibly by midseason. We'll see if that happens and whether Ryan -- who suffered a torn ACL in the spring -- is far enough along early enough in the fall for a return to be worth it for both him and the team.




Jon B. from Houston writes: Your comment on the Florida A&M band not traveling to Columbus suggested you might not be aware that the band is currently suspended for a hazing death of one of the band members.

Brian Bennett: I had forgotten about that story, Jon, but the band actually had its suspension lifted last month. The school has said the band has to prove it deserves its second chance. So maybe a trip to Columbus isn't warranted. But it sure makes that game even less appealing.
We've taken a look at some offensive milestones and which Big Ten players are likely to reach them in 2013, including 1,000 yards rushing, 1,000 yards receiving and 3,000 yards passing. But what about the defense?

Defensive statistics are a little harder to predict, and there aren't as many readily identifiable milestones. One such marker, though, is 100 tackles. On the one hand, tackle numbers can sometimes be a bit misleading, since one good player on a bad defense can pile up numbers, or a defense can funnel plays to certain areas. But if you've reached 100 tackles, odds are you're a pretty good player.

And unlike the 3K passers or 1K receivers, the Big Ten is flush with returning 100-tackle men. Here's the rundown of players who reached triple digits in stops last season and will look to do it again in 2013:
All are solid bets to repeat the feat in '13. Here are some other guys to watch for the century mark:

Christian Kirksey, LB, Iowa: Could the Hawkeyes really have all three linebackers go over 100 stops? They very nearly did it last year, with Kirksey finishing just five tackles short, and getting back to a bowl game would aid the cause. Then again, Iowa would love to see its defensive line make more plays so the linebackers don't have to clean everything up.

Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, and Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern: Ariguzo had 91 tackles last year, while Campbell had 89. Both will be anchors for the improving Wildcats defense again this year.

Greg Heban, S, and David Cooper, LB, Indiana: Heban somewhat quietly had a really strong 2012 with 91 stops and should be even better this year. But the Hoosiers would like to see fewer opposing players get to the safety level. If so, Cooper (86) might be the statistical beneficiary.

Glenn Carson and Mike Hull, LB, Penn State: With Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti gone, the Lions will need someone to pick up the slack for two guys that combined for 205 stops last year. Carson registered 85 tackles last year and will be the most experienced member of the linebacker group, while Hull could be the next star at the position.

Ethan Armstrong, LB, Wisconsin: Borland and Mike Taylor formed a dynamic duo the past couple of years at linebacker for the Badgers. Could it now be Borland and Armstrong? The latter had 93 tackles a year ago in his first year starting.

Desmond Morgan, LB, Michigan: After an 81-tackle season a year ago, Morgan will likely start this year at middle linebacker. Someone will have to increase their production while Jake Ryan is out; it could be Morgan or James Ross III.

David Santos, LB, Nebraska: The Huskers replace all three starting linebackers from last year, including 110-tackle guy Will Compton. Perhaps Santos or one of the new starting safeties will lead the way.
The NFL draft starts tonight after endless months of hype. Here at the Big Ten blog, we thought, "Why should the NFL guys get to have all the fun of making mock drafts?"

So we're going to out-mock the mockers by creating our own, totally fake Big Ten players' draft. Adam and I are doing our best impressions of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- we've both been running our hairdryers for hours now -- to come up with what a first-round of a Big Ten draft might look like.

Here's how this works: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (not signees, this isn't the NBA draft), and the teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year, just like the NFL. We're trying to think like the teams involved here and draft not just best player, but also best fit. For example, teams like Iowa and Wisconsin aren't going to draft a spread quarterback for their system. Teams would also want to take eligibility into account. Is a great senior worth more than a promising sophomore? Depends on how close your team is to winning.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireOhio State QB Braxton Miller would be a hot commodity if the Big Ten held an NFL-style draft.
It gets a little messy, because once a player gets drafted by one team, he leaves a hole on his former team (when Braxton Miller inevitably gets taken, for instance, Ohio State suddenly has a hole at quarterback). But it's all part of the fun and gives us more to debate.

Let's get to it ...

Pick No. 1: Illinois

Brian Bennett says the Illini select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

I considered having Tim Beckman take a Penn State player, just for old time's sake. (He and his staff certainly did enough scouting in State College last summer). But Miller is the no-brainer. Illinois needs playmakers, and even if Miller is still evolving as a passer, he can make things happen on his own with his feet. Illinois might let him carry it 50 times per game.

Adam Rittenberg says the Illini select ... Miller

The Illini need a major boost for the nation's 119th-rated offense, and Miller, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, provides it with his many talents at quarterback. He's an easy choice for a sputtering unit.

Pick No. 2: Iowa

Adam Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Like Illinois, Iowa is trying to repair one of the nation's worst offenses and lacks a quarterback on its roster who has taken a snap in an FBS game. Gardner, who blossomed down the stretch for Michigan last season, fits into a pro-style offense and provides the big-play ability Iowa sorely needs. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Brian Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Penn State DE Deion Barnes

This is a tough one, because Iowa could really use a standout wide receiver, an experienced quarterback and some secondary help. But remember that Kirk Ferentz would be making this pick, and I believe Ferentz would stay true to himself and look to the trenches first. Iowa has lacked a dynamic pass-rusher for a couple of years now, and Barnes would provide that. Plus, he's only a sophomore, and the Hawkeyes have some rebuilding to do.

Pick No. 3: Indiana

Brian Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Ohio State DE Adolphus Washington


Indiana is as set on offense as any Big Ten club, even though Kevin Wilson might be tempted to grab a quarterback or a receiver because he loves the passing game. What the Hoosiers desperately need are high-impact defensive players, especially on the defensive line. Washington is by no means proven, but he had a strong freshman year and looked dominant this spring. He can also play inside at tackle if needed. Wilson also would have three years of Washington to develop, along with the rest of his young team.

Adam Rittenberg says the Hoosiers select ... Penn State's Barnes

Indiana obviously needs defense, and while there are several good options out there, a difference-maker in the pass rush would really help. Barnes, the 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has three seasons of eligibility left, and would bolster a line with major question marks entering the fall.

Pick No. 4: Minnesota

Adam Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

The Gophers are unsettled at linebacker after losing two starters from last season. Although they could go secondary with this pick, Shazier provides an immediate playmaking presence for the core of the defense. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Brian Bennett says the Gophers select ... Penn State WR Allen Robinson

I could definitely see Jerry Kill picking a linebacker or a lineman as he continues to build his team's toughness. But the Gophers desperately need to improve their downfield passing game, and in Robinson they get the Big Ten's top receiver, who has two years of eligibility left. Philip Nelson just did a backflip in celebration.

Pick No. 5: Purdue

Brian Bennett says the Boilermakers select ... Ohio State's Shazier

Linebacker has been a bit of a black hole for Purdue of late, and Shazier could fix that problem quickly. Darrell Hazell would also get two years out of him.

Adam Rittenberg says the Boilermakers select ... Northwestern LB Chi Chi Ariguzo

Chi Chi Who? Hear me out. Purdue really needs help at linebacker, and one-year players like Chris Borland or Max Bullough only do so much, especially for a coaching staff looking to the future. Michigan's Jake Ryan is a possibility, but he tore his ACL this spring and might bolt to the NFL after the season. Ariguzo has two years left and recorded two interceptions, four fumble recoveries, 10.5 tackles for loss and five pass breakups for Northwestern last season. He's the young playmaker Purdue needs.

Pick No. 6: Michigan State

Adam Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Penn State's Robinson

The Spartans need a featured running back, but should be able to pick up someone like Iowa's Mark Weisman in the later rounds. Wide receiver remains a pressing need after a season of dropped passes. Robinson, the Big Ten's wide receiver of the year in 2012, gives Michigan State an obvious No. 1 target. Plus, he's only a sophomore.

Brian Bennett says the Spartans select ... Michigan's Gardner

You heard that right. Michigan State needs a quarterback who can lead the team down the field, and Gardner has the kind of arm and scrambling ability that Mark Dantonio needs. Gardner could solidify the Spartans' offense for the next two years. Plus, Dantonio would be weakening his top rival in the process. That's what you call a win-win.

Pick No. 7: Michigan

Brian Bennett says the Wolverines select ... Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland

The sound you heard was Brady Hoke punching the wall of Michigan's war room once the Spartans drafted Gardner. That leaves Michigan in a real bind at quarterback, but there aren't great options for their system here. Instead, the defensive-minded Hoke will go for Borland, who will provide some insurance for the injured Jake Ryan. Borland is a senior, but with the Wolverines' young talent on the way, they need a veteran for 2013.

Adam Rittenberg says the Wolverines select Nebraska G Spencer Long

The Wolverines obviously need a quarterback after losing Gardner, but there aren't many great pro-style options in the Big Ten right now. By adding Long, Michigan could boast two All-Americans on its offensive line (if it keeps left tackle Taylor Lewan). While both players depart after this season, they'll provide excellent leadership for the Wolverines' talented group of younger linemen.

Pick No. 8: Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Badgers need help in the secondary, but the top options available -- Ohio State CB Bradley Roby, Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard -- are one-year guys. Bell has two years left and plays a position where Wisconsin is undermanned. He'll be an excellent complement for Jared Abbrederis this year, and the No. 1 wideout in 2014. Bell grew up in Boulder, Colo., and will easily adjust to life in Madison.

Brian Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan OT Taylor Lewan

I mean, c'mon. This is Wisconsin we're talking about. Don't the Badgers go for the best offensive lineman, even if he's only got one year left? The Badgers are good enough that one player could put them over the top.

Pick No. 9: Penn State

Brian Bennett says the Nittany Lions select ... Ohio State DE Noah Spence

Bill O'Brien takes the long view here, knowing he needs a young player to help him build through the sanctions era. Spence is just a sophomore, and he fills the void left when Barnes was drafted earlier. Spence hasn't done much yet, but looked like a future star this spring. Oh yeah, and he's a Pennsylvania native and former Penn State commit.

Adam Rittenberg says the Nittany Lions select ... Michigan State LB Max Bullough
Penn State could go quarterback here after losing Steven Bench, but the long-term forecast under center looks pretty good. The immediate needs are linebacker and defensive leadership. Bullough provides both. He's a first-team All-Big Ten selection, one of the nation's smartest players and an excellent leader. He'll complement Mike Hull and Glenn Carson very well.

Pick No. 10: Northwestern

Adam Rittenberg says the Wildcats select ... Michigan's Lewan

Offensive line is the one area at Northwestern where graduation took its toll. Although the Wildcats might have a bigger need at guard than at tackle, they can't pass up arguably the nation's best offensive linemen in Lewan. He'll anchor the line, allow Jack Konopka to stay at right tackle and allow other players to slide inside to guard. Although Lewan is a one-year guy, Northwestern can draft to win now.

Brian Bennett says the Wildcats select ... Ohio State CB Bradley Roby

Let's face it: the secondary hasn't exactly been the Wildcats' strong suit over the years. Pat Fitzgerald can draft Roby here and feel confident that he'll shut down one side of the field. You think the Roy Roundtree miracle catch happens with Roby wearing purple? He's headed to the NFL draft after this season, but Roby could be the missing piece for a team that's ready to contend.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Brian Bennett says the Cornhuskers select ... Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman

It's no coincidence that Nebraska's defense hasn't been the same since Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick left town. The Huskers need help the most at defensive tackle, and the very athletic Hageman can provide that. He'll only play one year in Lincoln, but with Nebraska set up to win now with its offense, that's OK with Bo Pelini.

Adam Rittenberg says the Cornhuskers select ... Ohio State DE Noah Spence
This is certainly a projection pick, but Spence looks like a superstar and Nebraska desperately needs one on its defensive line. The Huskers could go with a more experienced option like Hageman, but Spence is just a true sophomore and should be an impact pass-rusher for at least two more years.

Pick No. 12: Ohio State

Adam Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Wisconsin LB Chris Borland

The Buckeyes need a quarterback after losing Miller, but should be able to get a guy like Kain Colter in the later rounds. Ohio State's most pressing need -- the defensive front seven -- remains the same, especially after losing both Shazier and Spence. Borland, an Ohio native, gives the Buckeyes a proven, productive veteran at linebacker who can help in many different ways. Although he's a senior, Ohio State is in win-now mode as it eyes a national title.

Brian Bennett says the Buckeyes select .. Michigan State LB Max Bullough

Ohio State has been decimated more than any other team by this draft. Urban Meyer would have to strongly consider Taylor Martinez here, but he can either get another quarterback later, or roll with Kenny Guiton for a year. Defense is crying out for help after losing Washington, Spence, Shazier and Roby. So the Buckeyes go with the best defensive player on the board and a guy who will bolster the front seven.

And our quick second-round picks:

Adam's second round

Illinois: Hageman
Iowa: Indiana WR Cody Latimer
Indiana: Washington
Minnesota: Abbrederis
Purdue: Penn State OL John Urschel
Michigan State: Weisman
Michigan: Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort
Wisconsin: Roby
Penn State: Northwestern DE Tyler Scott
Northwestern: Ohio State OL Andrew Norwell
Nebraska: Iowa LB James Morris
Ohio State: Michigan State DE Marcus Rush

Brian's second round

Illinois: Northwestern RB Venric Mark
Iowa: Bell
Indiana: Dennard
Minnesota: Purdue DE Ryan Russell
Purdue: Penn State DT DaQuan Jones
Michigan State
: Penn State TE Kyle Carter
Michigan: Mewhort
Wisconsin: Latimer
Penn State: Michigan CB Blake Countess
Northwestern: Long
Nebraska: Scott
Ohio State: Martinez

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mike Hankwitz didn't inherit a bare cupboard when he arrived as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in 2008.

The defense included several future NFL players, including end Corey Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis. Eight starters returned, and the unit improved from 88th nationally in points allowed to 26th in Hankwitz's first season.

But something was missing. As Hankwitz surveyed the number of spread offenses in college football -- not to mention the one his defense practiced against every day at Northwestern -- he knew the Wildcats' defense needed a speed boost.

"We had some players with good speed, but as a total defense, we didn't have that same speed at every position," Hankwitz told ESPN.com. "In this day in age with spread offenses, you need to have athletes who have the ability and speed to make plays in space. That's where we were a little deficient at the time. If you had a guy hurt, the next guy might not have been as fast. So we recruited to that end. We tried to recruit better speed to cornerback, and we're making progress in that way.

"As a whole, our team defensive speed has improved, and we're excited about that."

It was noticeable last season as Northwestern's defense improved to 47th nationally after plummeting to 80th the year before. Several younger players who were part of the speed-driven recruiting push played key roles, including defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and linemen Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Northwestern's speed upgrade on defense has jumped out during spring practice. In Tuesday's workout, Lowry zoomed past a tackle for an easy "sack" against quarterback Trevor Siemian. Speed has helped cornerback Dwight White put himself in position to start opposite VanHoose in the fall. The same holds true for safeties like Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall and Terrance Brown, competing to start next to Campbell.

"Our team speed is definitely much improved," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions."

The popularity of the spread offense, which Northwestern has used since 2000, fueled the team's speed push in recruiting. Northwestern needed more athletes who could make plays in space, especially in the secondary.

Not surprisingly, the secondary had the most dramatic upgrade last season, and depth at both cornerback and safety has improved for 2013. The secondary not only has more speed but better size.

"Traveon Henry's a 6-[foot]-1, 200-plus-pound safety, Jimmy Hall's the same way, Terrance Brown is the same way; we've upgraded our size at corner," Fitzgerald said. "Most of our guys used to be 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10. Now we're 5-11 and 6-foot. That size-speed combination is critically important if we want to take the next step in this league."

Greater speed allows Hankwitz to be "a little more aggressive" with his defensive calls. It also helps younger players get on the field early as they can overcome some weaknesses technically and fundamentally.

"Last year, being a little undersized at D-end as a freshman, I relied on my speed a lot of times to beat tackles," said Lowry, who had a sack, six quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. "When you're fast, it sets up moves, so if a tackle is overset, you come back with a counter. You've got to make sure you use your technique, use your hands where the coaches teach you. But having the extra speed, it's almost like you can't teach that.

"It's something most guys don't have."

Northwestern's speed push started with the linebackers and spread quickly to the secondary, but the line hasn't been neglected. Redshirt freshman end Ifeadi Odenigbo, the team's most-decorated recruit in years, only started playing football as a high school sophomore but made his mark with speed, twice tracking down Braxton Miller in a playoff game.

Both Odenigbo and Gibson ran track in high school, while both Gibson and Lowry played basketball.

"They're very, very athletic," senior end Tyler Scott said. "Dean's very athletic. Deonte, when he's healthy, is a force coming off the edge. And Ifeadi, he's got some speed that we haven't seen here for a while."

Northwestern's defense expects to be seeing more of that speed in the coming seasons.

"We're still not quite there where we have all five classes at an elite level athletically," Fitzgerald said, "but I think we're really close."
Spring practice is kicking off around the Big Ten, and we're taking a look at one potential breakout player for each team. We’re spotlighting players who could take a major step during spring ball, so those who have started multiple seasons or earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 aren't eligible.

Northwestern has a vacant starting spot at linebacker, and don't be surprised if it goes to ...

Drew Smith, LB, sophomore, 6-foot-1, 205 pounds

Smith appeared in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season, mostly on special teams but also as a reserve linebacker. He performed well, racking up 17 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks, to go along with a pass breakup and two quarterback hurries. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on Thursday mentioned that he's looking for flexibility with his linebackers and safeties -- players strong enough to play the former but athletic enough to play the latter.

At 205 pounds with good speed, Smith is a good athlete who loves dropping the hammer on ball carriers. He rushed the passer well against Syracuse, Nebraska and Michigan last year. "He thoroughly enjoys contact," Fitzgerald told reporters Thursday. "I like guys that like contact at the linebacker level. He goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody's lips off, and he goes around doing that."

Northwestern returns two starters at linebacker, although middle linebacker Damien Proby is sitting out spring practice with an injury. Smith will compete with Collin Ellis and others for an outside linebacker spot opposite Chi Chi Ariguzo. If he continues to knock people's lips off the rest of the spring, he'll see a lot of field time in the fall.

B1G postseason position rankings: LB

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
1:00
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It's time for another installment of our postseason position rankings, and today we're looking at one of the strongest groups in the Big Ten in 2012: the linebackers.

Just about every team boasted one standout linebacker last season, and many had multiple ones. That makes this list one of the tougher ones to date, and there's not a whole lot of separation between teams, especially in the middle. Star power matters, but depth is also important.

You can see how we ranked the linebackers entering the season here. Here's how we see things now:

1. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 2): We ranked the Nittany Lions second in the preseason, not knowing for sure how Michael Mauti would bounce back from his latest knee injury. Well, we picked him as our Big Ten defensive player of the year. Gerald Hodges was his usual brilliant self, especially when he switched into beast mode during league play. And the guy nobody talks about, Glenn Carson, also had a very solid season. Linebacker U., indeed.

2. Wisconsin (Preseason: 3): Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were so good and so consistent that we may have begun to take them for granted. Taylor collected 123 tackles, while Borland had 104, and the two combined for 25 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The unsung member of the trio, Ethan Armstrong, added 93 stops. Once again, the linebackers were the strength of a very good Badgers defense.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 1): Max Bullough was a first-team All-Big Ten performer who led the Spartans with 111 tackles. Denicos Allen didn't match his 2011 numbers but still managed 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. Sophomore Taiwan Jones surpassed Chris Norman late in the year to give the unit even more depth. This group may have lacked the truly huge, game-changing plays, but it's hard to ask for much more than what it provided all season.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 5): The Wolverines linebacking crew became the backbone of the defense in 2012. Jake Ryan turned into a star with his flair for the big play; he piled up 16 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan were both solid, underrated players, and freshmen James Ross III and Joe Bolden helped give this group outstanding depth.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats made the biggest jump from the preseason rankings, as all three starters (Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Chi Chi Ariguzo) collected at least 91 tackles. Ariguzo developed into a big-time playmaker, with 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Proby and Nwabuisi were almost criminally underrated.

6. Ohio State (Preseason: 4): The Buckeyes had the most interesting stories at linebacker. Ryan Shazier emerged as a destructive force of nature, especially in the second half of the season. Zach Boren switched from fullback to linebacker midseason and made a surprisingly smooth transition. Etienne Sabino broke his leg but came back to finish the year. Storm Klein returned from a suspension to contribute a little. There were some weak spots and shaky moments here, but Shazier's sheer strength helped hold this group together.

7. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Stats alone would tell you that the Hawkeyes had one of the best linebacking corps around. First-year starter Anthony Hitchens was one of the top tacklers in the nation with 124 stops, while James Morris (113) and Christian Kirksey (95) also ranked among the league leaders in that category. But tackle numbers alone don't tell the whole story, and Iowa lacked the kind of high-impact plays from its linebackers that teams above it on this list produced.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 7): The Huskers had their issues on defense, but it was hard to fault the play of Will Compton, who led the team with 110 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Alonzo Whaley, Sean Fisher and David Santos ably filled out the rest of the group, but Nebraska had trouble finding the right combination of speed and experience at linebacker.

9. Minnesota: (Preseason: 10): The Gophers were young in a lot of spots but not at linebacker, where experienced veterans like Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper led the way. Aaron Hill rounded out what was a solid, if unspectacular, corps that helped Minnesota make great strides on defense.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Injuries were one reason why Jonathan Brown didn't blossom into the superstar we expected to see. He had 9.5 tackles for loss but played in only nine games. It says something about both the Illini linebackers and the defense as a whole that true freshman Mason Monheim led the team with 86 tackles. He and fellow first-year player Mike Svetina at least give Illinois some reason for optimism.

11. Purdue (Preseason: 9): Dwayne Beckford was kicked off the team in August, and things didn't get a whole lot better from there. Will Lucas led the group with 66 tackles, but it was a sign of Purdue's problems at linebacker that converted quarterback Sean Robinson started here. Improving the linebacker play should be a top priority for new head coach Darrell Hazell.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): Junior-college import David Cooper stepped right in and made an immediate impact, recording 86 tackles and nine behind the line of scrimmage. But the Hoosiers struggled to find consistent play elsewhere at the position. It's no coincidence that Kevin Wilson's latest recruiting class includes several potential linebackers.

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