Big Ten: Chris Streveler

Big Ten morning links

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
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All summer, we looked forward to the three Big Ten night games in Week 2 as the league's best opportunity to make a statement. Unfortunately for the conference, it proved the worst kind of statement possible, as all three league teams lost by double digits.

If you were so inclined, you could make excuses for Michigan State, as hardly anybody could beat Oregon on the road, and to a lesser extent Ohio State, which is a very young team playing without Braxton Miller.

But Michigan? That 31-0 loss at Notre Dame was inexcusably bad. And it was sadly indicative of a troubling trend for the Wolverines under Brady Hoke.

The curb-stomping in South Bend dropped Hoke to 0-5 in road games against chief rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Things appear to be getting worse, too, Michigan has dropped its last two rivalry road games by a combined 55 points.

Hoke was asked Saturday night what the biggest factor was in reversing that trend. His answer? "Winning." OK, then.

The Notre Dame game was a complete disaster for Michigan, Jeff Seidel writes. The Wolverines seem even farther from success than before, Nick Baumgardner writes. There's only one silver lining for the Maize and Blue: They still get to play in a weak Big Ten.

Quarterback questions

Keep an eye on a couple of quarterback situations this week.

Minnesota might have to turn to redshirt freshman Chris Streveler at TCU this week if Mitch Leidner can't go. Leidner hurt his knee late against Middle Tennessee State and has a strained MCL, Marcus Fuller reports. It's not like the the Gophers' passing game was doing much, anyway.

Purdue coach Darrell Hazell will get questions this week about his quarterbacks, as he pulled Danny Etling in the second half for Austin Appleby during the loss to Central Michigan. Appleby looked slightly more effective than Etling, but will it matter who's under center when the Boilers take on a surging Notre Dame in Indianapolis?

C.J. Brown is in no real danger of losing his job at Maryland, but he needs to start playing better. Brown has completed just 53.8 percent of his passes through two games, and he tossed two interceptions against South Florida on Saturday. With the talent the Terrapins have at receiver, those numbers need to improve.

West Division
East Division

Big Ten morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
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Tis the season to name starting quarterbacks, not to lose them.

News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.

Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
  1. Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
  2. Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
  3. Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
  4. Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
  5. Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
  6. Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
  7. Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
  8. Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
  9. Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
  10. Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
  11. Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
  12. Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
  13. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
  14. Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
Around the league ...

East Division
West Division
And finally . . .
Welcome to June. The 2014 college football season is just a little bit closer. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best.

We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/abducted by Sam Cassell and his friends. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Next up: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

[+] EnlargeLeidner
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsIf Mitch Leidner can improve his passing skills, he could provide a boost to Minnesota's offense.
Mitch Leidner, QB, So.

Leidner is by no means a finished product and must make significant strides as a passer after completing just 55 percent of his passes for 619 yards as a platoon player in 2013. But his value has skyrocketed in recent months. Philip Nelson's transfer in January leaves Leidner as Minnesota's only quarterback with significant game experience. Perhaps more important, Minnesota wants to be a power offense that controls the ball and the clock and wears down its opponent. The 6-foot-4, 233-pound Leidner brings a lot to the field as a ball-carrier, and if he makes just minimal strides with his passing, he could be very dangerous going forward. This spring, Leidner established himself as the team's unquestioned leader on offense. Although reserves Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy both are good athletes, Leidner would be a significant loss as Minnesota looks to bolster its offensive production.

Theiren Cockran, DE, Jr.

Coordinator Tracy Claeys expects more from a pretty stingy defense in 2014, citing improved depth throughout the unit. But after losing disruptive defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman to the NFL draft, the Gophers want to maintain a threat up front. Cockran certainly provides one after a breakout sophomore season in which he led the Big Ten in forced fumbles (4) and finished third in sacks (7.5). Listed at 6-foot-6 and 238 pounds, Cockran has both height and speed and could become even more of a force as he grows into his frame (he wants to play this season at 255 pounds). The Gophers have some experience on the line with players such as end Michael Amaefula and tackle Cameron Botticelli, but Cockran is the potential game-changer, and after losing Hageman, the Gophers need No. 55 on the field.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
5:00
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I've got less than a week left in my 30s. No time for pithy intros. Hit me:

Chris from Augusta, Maine, writes: Michigan fans are clamoring for success. It seems like the main thing holding them back are the lines. The '13 O-line haul was one of the better recruiting position groups I can remember across the country with guys like Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Patrick Kugler, LTT (Logan Tuley-Tillman), David Dawson, etc. And, quality guys on the D-line like Ondre Pipkins, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Bryan Mone, Lawrence Marshall, Henry Poggi, etc. are there. So, it seems like the solutions to the problem are all in place; they are just young and/or developing. When will these two position groups develop enough to make Michigan become a 10-win type team again and actually return to being a regular conference contender?

Brian Bennett: Some good points, Chris. Our microwave society doesn't allow for a lot of patience anymore, but developing players in the trenches almost always takes time. Brady Hoke and his staff inherited a program that didn't have much depth at all on the offensive line. Michigan was playing a three-man front on defense, so a transition was expected. On the flip side, you could argue that Hoke is now entering Year 4, and his highly ranked recruiting classes have yet to yield many superstars. It's not impossible for young players to contribute early on the lines -- look at what Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and especially Joey Bosa did as true freshmen on Ohio State's defensive front the past two seasons.

But there's also a reason why coaches like Mark Dantonio often redshirt as many guys on the lines as possible. Michigan has some intriguing talent on the D-line -- Charlton, in particular, looked like a beast this spring -- while the O-line is still stacked with redshirt freshmen and sophomores. If those players can develop, the Wolverines could turn both areas into a strength in a year or two, assuming fans can wait that long.


Nick from East Lansing, Mich., writes: To preface this, I recently graduated from MSU, had season tickets and loved the football program, so this isn't coming from jealousy. It seems the tone from you, Adam, and Spartans fans in general that people believe the offense will carry the Spartans this year. I just don't see their offense being that good. Looking back at the championship game and the Rose Bowl, MSU was very lucky that their offense didn't cost them those games. Cook made quite a few poor decisions that hit defenders in the hand. If they had held on to those balls, MSU's season does not end the way it did. It seems that because MSU won those games, people are willing to forget how close the offense was to losing those games. The MSU offense will be better than at the start of last year, but I believe it is more likely to be in the bottom half of the B1G than the top.

Brian Bennett: Nick, it sounds like you are scarred emotionally from 2012. Look, no one is saying Michigan State will suddenly become a run 'n' gun team that wins a bunch of shootouts. Even if it had that kind of offensive skill, Dantonio doesn't want to play that way. But the fact is the offense returns almost all of its production from last season, when it averaged close to 30 points per game in Big Ten play. There's every reason to believe that side of the ball can hold its own or even carry the team at times if a more inexperienced defense needs a few games to jell.

Connor Cook admitted to me that he got lucky last year that some of his passes weren't picked off, but he was also a first-year starter who should make better decisions this year because of his experience. The tight ends should become more of a weapon for the team and provide some safety valves. If the offensive line can come together, this can be a very good offense, perhaps even as good as the one from 2011 that averaged 31 points per game and finished third in the Big Ten in scoring en route to a Legends Division title.

And lastly, I find your characterization of last season's final two games to be off base. The Spartans scored 34 points in the Big Ten championship game vs. Ohio State and then put up 24 against an outstanding Stanford defense, one that was No. 4 in the FBS against the run coming into the game. Michigan State scored more points against Stanford than Oregon or UCLA did. That's more than just "lucky."


Patrick D. via Twitter writes: Who sees more snaps at QB for #IUFB in 2014? Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld?

Brian Bennett: This might be the toughest mailbag question of the year. No joke. Indiana's quarterback situation is one of the most confounding ones I've ever seen, and even coach Kevin Wilson can't figure out who should start or play more. It's clear at this point that both Sudfeld and Roberson will play again in 2014, and the Hoosiers might just ride the hot hand. Wilson told me that Sudfeld may look a little better at times in practice, but Roberson can't truly shine in a practice setting because his elusiveness doesn't factor in when coaches call plays dead once a defender gets near a quarterback. If forced to guess, I'll pick Sudfeld for the most snaps, since he just looks like a future NFL quarterback and he played a lot more than Roberson last season. But this is what you'd call a constantly evolving situation, and the good news for Indiana is it somehow works.


Nick H. via Twitter writes: Thoughts on the Minnesota quarterback situation? Does Mitch Leidner stay the starter through the full year or does Chris Streveler dethrone him?

Brian Bennett: I'm more bullish on Leidner than most, including Rittenberg. I see a big, strong guy who can really run and should improve as a passer, and Leidner's improved leadership skills this offseason should serve him well. Yet there's no question that Minnesota's passing game needs to take a giant leap forward, and the disappointing performance in the Gophers' spring game did nothing to change that opinion. Jerry Kill has proved that he's not afraid to play more than one quarterback, and by running so much, Leidner will be more at risk for injury. So while I expect him to remain the starter, it wouldn't surprise me to see someone else under center at key times in 2014.


Tom from North Jersey writes: We all know Rutgers has gaps to fill to catch up to most of the Big Ten teams on the field, but based on your time with the Big East blog, what improvements do they need to make to catch up?

Brian Bennett: My last season covering the Big East was 2010, and I haven't followed Rutgers in great detail in the interim simply because there's little time to pay attention to teams outside the Big Ten. But from what I've seen and what I remember about the Scarlet Knights, I think the first major upgrade has to come at quarterback. Rutgers has consistently been able to field pretty good defenses but only occasionally has been dangerous on offense, and shaky quarterback play has been a big reason why. There's an open competition for that job this spring, though Gary Nova has a huge experience edge. The hiring of Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator is a reason for optimism, and if anybody can fix Nova, it's Friedgen. Rutgers will also need more depth and talent on both lines in order to compete on a weekly basis in the Big Ten.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
12:00
PM ET
Happy Patriot League tournament final day.
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Minnesota.

During a practice two years ago, while running the scout team, Mitch Leidner got popped pretty good by massive defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.

[+] EnlargeMitch Leidner
AP Photo/Tony DingMitch Leidner has shown the leadership skills of a QB, but his passing numbers need to improve.
As Jerry Kill tells it, Leidner then picked himself off the turf and went right into Hageman's grill.

"I think he gained the respect of his teammates that day," Kill told ESPN.com. "He wasn't going to back down. I think that's kind of why the kids rally around him."

Heading into spring practice this week, Minnesota is rallying around Leidner more than ever. Philip Nelson's offseason transfer to Rutgers left the redshirt sophomore as the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience. Leidner started four games in 2013, but his passing numbers didn't wow anyone.

So he might not necessarily have had a firm grasp on the starting job this year, especially since some talented options such as redshirt freshman Chris Streveler and freshman early enrollee Dimonic Roden-McKinzy are around. But Leidner has used the same mental toughness and leadership qualities he displayed two years ago to his benefit.

After the Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, Leidner took charge of the team. He has coordinated voluntary winter workouts and made sure his teammates are going all out in the weight room.

"I wanted to step in anyway and take over," Leidner said. "But now that [Nelson] is gone, I see it as my team."

Kill said Leidner has shown the best leadership from the quarterback position that he's had at Minnesota.

"He's a kid on a mission," Kill said. "He's the No. 1 guy, no question."

The Gophers have gone to back-to-back bowl games and made a steady climb during Kill's first three seasons despite not getting consistent play from their quarterbacks. Only Kansas and Georgia Tech had worse passing offenses than Minnesota among major conference teams last season.

Kill hopes Leidner can begin to change that. He describes the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder as a cross between the two star quarterbacks he helped develop at Northern Illinois, Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. At least from a mental standpoint.

Leidner has watched film of both Harnish and Lynch and spent time talking to each on the phone in January to learn what a Kill-coached quarterback needs to do to succeed.

"I definitely see a lot of similarities between us," he said. "But both those guys put up some really good numbers and won a lot of games. So I can't quite place myself in the same category as those two. But I definitely want to get to their level."

In his debut season, Leidner established himself as a force in the running game. He rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start against San Jose State. He ended up running the ball more times (105) than he threw it (78) in 2013 while completing 55 percent of his passes. Seeing his first extended action in weeks against Syracuse in the bowl game, Leidner threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns but connected on only half of his 22 attempts.

Given his frame, arm strength should never be an issue for Leidner. Accuracy is another story. Kill compares Leidner to former Kansas State star Collin Klein, another big, bruising runner at quarterback "who found a way to throw it and win."

Remember, too, that by the second half of last season, Minnesota's top three receiving threats -- wideouts Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky and tight end Maxx Williams -- were all in their first year of playing. Jones and Wolitarsky were true freshmen who didn't go through spring practice. Leidner believes the passing game will improve now that the group will get an entire offseason to build timing, chemistry and confidence together. Kill had coaches from other programs visit Minneapolis this winter to share tips on the passing game.

"We've proved we can run the ball," Kill said. "Now, we've got to throw it better."

If nothing else, Leidner -- whom some dubbed "the Tundra Tebow" early last season -- can always take off and run. But Kill wants his quarterback to chill on his pile-pushing, bulldozing style and avoid contact so he can stay on the field.

"It's just knowing when to lower your shoulder and being smarter about it," Leidner said. "It's going to take some getting used to, but I know I if I want to play for a long time, it's got to happen."

Streveler, McKinzy and walk-on Conor Rhoda will see a lot of reps this spring, too, and Kill wants to figure out which of those three is the best option behind Leidner. The Gophers have played more than one quarterback in each of the past three seasons and still have very little separation in the classes because two former starting signal-callers -- Nelson and Max Shortell -- have transferred since 2012.

But Kill hopes Leidner is the guy to finally bring some stability and consistency to the most important position on the field.

"He's got all the tools," he said. "Mentally, he's very tough. That's what you need at quarterback."
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
Spring practice in the Big Ten gets started next week, and quarterback competitions will dominate the spotlight throughout the next two months. By our count, nine Big Ten teams will have moderate to major uncertainty at the quarterback position. In the coming weeks, we'll take a closer look at each quarterback race. But some are more intriguing than others.

Today's Take Two topic is: Which is the most interesting quarterback competition in the league this spring?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner has experience, but will another Gophers signal-caller beat him out for the quarterback job?
I tend to gravitate more toward the truly open quarterbacks competitions than the ones with incumbents trying re-establish themselves. As much as Michigan fans and Wisconsin fans might want to see a younger player get a shot at quarterback, I'd be somewhat surprised if Devin Gardner and Joel Stave aren't leading their respective offenses when Aug. 30 rolls around. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a little less established, and Nebraska's race could be interesting, but Armstrong still went 6-1 as the Huskers' starter and should improve during the offseason.

Maybe this will surprise Mr. Bennett and others, but I'm going with Minnesota. Why? Because I have no idea what will happen this spring with the Gophers signal callers. Mitch Leidner is the only Minnesota quarterback with collegiate game experience, but he's far from a lock to start. It looked like the Leidner-Philip Nelson competition would continue into the offseason, but Nelson's decision to transfer shakes things up a bit.

Now Leidner will compete against a group of intriguing mystery men. Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler, who missed part of last season with a hand injury, boasts excellent speed that should translate well to Minnesota's offense. Freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy is another intriguing athlete who enrolled early and will participate in spring practice. Walk-on Conor Rhoda also is in the mix. Although Minnesota prioritizes the run with its quarterbacks, it needs a more threatening pass game after finishing last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally last season in pass offense. I'll be interested to see if the Gophers find some clarity before their spring game on April 12.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin signal-caller Joel Stave faces stiff competition this spring.
Minnesota definitely will be a team to track, but I might have more confidence in Leidner than you do. While he needs to improve his passing significantly, he's a great athlete and runner who will bring a huge experience edge into spring ball.

The race that most intrigues me lies a few hours southeast of Minneapolis, at Wisconsin. Yes, it seems unlikely that coach Gary Andersen would push a first-time starter under center against LSU in the season opener. But it's also clear that Andersen -- like most Badgers fans -- wasn't real happy with the state of his passing game at the end of last season. And Andersen has made no secret that he favors mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks, which Stave clearly is not.

Is Bart Houston finally ready to make a move this spring? Can Tanner McEvoy stick at quarterback, or will he wind up back at safety? Then there's promising freshman D.J. Gillins, a true dual-threat prospect from Florida who enrolled early and will be given a look this spring. They all have a long way to go to make up ground on the far more experienced Stave and to earn the trust of Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. But the contrast in styles makes this a fascinating race, and without Jared Abbrederis around to serve as a security blanket, the quarterbacks are going to have to show that they can dependably make plays. Everyone, including Stave, has something to prove, and that's why this competition is the most interesting.
Believe it or not, spring football in the Big Ten is just around the corner. Several teams moved up their spring practice dates, and three of them -- Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field next week.

Spring ball is all about development, and some position groups need to make significant strides before the summer.

Here are five ...

Illinois' defensive line: Coach Tim Beckman kept his defensive staff in place for what should be a make-or-break season in Champaign. Coordinator Bill Cubit's presence should stabilize the offense despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, so the season likely hinges on whether the defense improves. There are some nice returning pieces at linebacker, but the line needs a boost after Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run. Lineman Paul James, who originally signed with Illinois in 2013 but delayed his enrollment until January, is among those who will take the field this spring. There's plenty of competition throughout the line, and while help arrives this summer with Jihad Ward and others, Illinois needs some linemen to emerge right away.

Michigan's offensive line: Despite a first-round draft pick at left tackle (Taylor Lewan), Michigan's front five struggled mightily during the 2013 season, as young players didn't blossom quickly enough and the team couldn't consistently run the ball between the tackles. Coordinator Al Borges took the fall, but line coach Darrell Funk and his group will be under the microscope when the Wolverines begin spring practice Feb. 25. Michigan started nine different linemen in 2013 and used five lineup combinations. As tackles Lewan and Michael Schofield both depart, every position is up for grabs this spring. It will also be interesting to see how new coordinator Doug Nussmeier makes an impact on the line.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Minnesota roster.
Minnesota's quarterbacks: At least nine Big Ten teams will have true quarterback competitions this spring, but arguably none has as much mystery as Minnesota. Philip Nelson's transfer following the season creates a wide-open race between Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who enrolled mid-year and will participate in spring practice. Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience, appearing in 10 games last fall and recording 1,026 yards (619 passing, 403 rushing). Perhaps Leidner separates himself, but no matter what, Minnesota wants a clearer picture coming out of the spring.

Ohio State's linebackers: Coach Urban Meyer has made it very clear that Ohio State's linebacker play has fallen short of program standards. Meyer singled out the linebacker position in the 2014 recruiting class, saying on national signing day, "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it's just not where we need to be." Ohio State loses by far its best linebacker in Ryan Shazier, so there's pressure on returnees such as Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, as well as newcomers such as five-star prospect Raekwon McMillan, a mid-year enrollee who will be on the field this spring. Meyer said there are no redshirt plans for McMillan or the other three linebackers in the 2014 class.

Wisconsin's wide receivers: The Badgers' quarterback competition likely will garner more attention, but whoever emerges under center will need more options in the passing game. Jared Abbrederis has been Wisconsin's wide receiving corps for the past two season, and he'll be playing in the NFL this fall. You can only get by so much with pass-catching tight ends and running backs, so receivers coach Chris Beatty and his group need a strong spring session. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson lead the returnees, but Wisconsin needs young players such as speedster Robert Wheelwright to emerge. Help is on the way this summer as several promising recruits arrive, but Wisconsin can't pin its hopes exclusively on incoming freshmen.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
4:30
PM ET
Wishing you a good weekend. We'll wrap up the East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Bowl on Monday.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox …

Brent from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: So Iowa blasts Nebraska in Lincoln on the final Friday in November, plays a more difficult bowl opponent in LSU, and Nebraska finishes higher in your power rankings. That's par for the course.

[+] EnlargeZaire Anderson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIt was impossible to ignore what the Cornhuskers did to Georgia in the Gator Bowl when it came time to do the power rankings.
Adam Rittenberg: Both teams played SEC teams playing without their starting quarterbacks. LSU wasn't the same team without Zach Mettenberger. We do power rankings after the bowl games to factor in what happened in the bowl games. Otherwise, there's no point in doing another version. Nebraska improved during bowl practice and played well against a heavily favored Georgia team. Iowa couldn't mount a scoring drive of more than 5 yards against LSU. You can't solely do power rankings based on head-to-head results. Otherwise, Michigan would be ahead of Minnesota and Indiana would be ahead of Penn State. It's a what-have-you-done-lately type of deal.

Kellen from Duluth, Minn., writes: Given Nelson' transfer, do you see the Gophers trying to pick up JUCO or potentially a graduate transfer (Brewer from Tech?) to help fill in the depth and push the QB competition?

Rittenberg: Kellen, it's possible the Gophers try to add another quarterback. They could be fine with Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler, who generated some positive buzz during his redshirt year, but you'd like to have more than two options at quarterback. Incoming recruit Dimonic McKinzy, who has enrolled early, could have the skill set to run Minnesota's offense. "They want a playmaker at the quarterback position," McKinzy told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press. I'm not sure Michael Brewer is a great fit as he'd be going from a pass-heavy offense at Texas Tech to one built more around the run game at Minnesota.

Jeremy from the Cornfields of South Carolina writes: Adam, we are already hearing how stacked the future East Division is going to be compared to the West and how the West programs will need to step up to match. I do not claim to be a conference fan, I am a die-hard Husker fan born and raised in the cornfields. That being said Nebraska has fared very well over the course of the last three years against our new conference rivals; 3-0 vs PSU, 2-1 vs Michigan, 2-1 vs MSU, 2-1 vs NW, 2-1 vs Iowa, 1-1 vs OSU, and 1-2 vs Wisconsin. The losses didn't look good for sure, but under Pelini Nebraska has found ways to beat the elite teams within the conference. To me the West needs to look to Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota to step up and Nebraska and Wisconsin to at least maintain. There is no guarantee that Michigan or PSU contribute to the strength of the East in the near future. I don't see the potential imbalance that people are talking about.

Rittenberg: I agree with some of your points, Jeremy. There are no guarantees that Michigan or Penn State boosts the East Division, as both programs face some challenges right now. What works against the West is a lack of historic powers. Although Wisconsin has been very good in the past two decades, Nebraska is undoubtedly the most decorated program in the West Division. The Huskers have fared well against Penn State and Michigan, but it's debatable whether Nebraska can get it done in the biggest games. It beat a very weak Ohio State team in 2011 and flopped against Big Ten champ Wisconsin in 2011 and 12-0 Ohio State in 2012. I don't think Nebraska belongs with Wisconsin yet but could soon get there. The bigger point is that Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois must elevate their play and sustain it to improve the strength of the division.

Kenny from Hastings, Neb., writes: Am I missing something with Wisconsin this year? How is a 9-4 Wisconsin team better than a 9-4 Nebraska team? Wisconsin lost its final two games while the Huskers went 1-1, winning their bowl game (one of only two Big Ten teams to do so) and being the only team in the Big Ten to beat an SEC team. What gives?

Rittenberg: Don't push your luck, Kenny. You're somewhat fortunate to be ranked ahead of Iowa. Wisconsin ended the season poorly but had a better, more consistent squad than Nebraska for much of the season. If the two teams played after the bowls, I'd still take Wisconsin (and so would Brian). Nebraska is where it should be after a nice bowl win, but the Huskers weren't the Big Ten's third-best team this year.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Brown
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyC.J. Brown provided a lot of excitement for Maryland in 2013.
John from Washington D.C. writes: Adam; I know this was the "final" Big Ten Power Rankings for the year, but any chance of getting an 'amended' rankings with Maryland and Rutgers? Just a glimpse of what's to come, so to speak?

Rittenberg: John, we'll almost certainly have Rutgers and Maryland as part of the first 2014 power rankings, as they'll soon transition to the Big Ten blog. I need to study both teams a little more closely, but both are going through some staff turnover, especially Rutgers, which must replace both of its coordinators. Neither team was overly impressive in its bowl game, and both will be transitioning to a new league and a very tough division. Both teams struggled with turnovers this past season and will have to limit mistakes entering 2014.

Jason from B1G West writes: I think it is kind of interesting the amount of players from the SEC leaving school early for the draft, compared to the Big Ten. Would it be the different recruits the Big Ten gets, or more of a commitment to education from our conference, or maybe it's just the way things went down this year?

Rittenberg: Jason, several Big Ten fans have mentioned this to me after seeing the discrepancy in early entries between the leagues. There are certainly some Big Ten draft hopefuls like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah who could have jumped to the NFL but wanted to finish his degree. But the SEC has players like that, too. It's too simplistic to argue that all SEC players only want to go pro and all Big Ten players care more about education than the NFL draft. There are examples of both in each league, but the bottom line is the SEC has more players who are capable of making the jump early than the Big Ten. That speaks to talent.

Ben from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Adam,In 2016-1019, the first four years the Big Ten will have a nine-game schedule, Michigan plays Wisconsin four times, Nebraska once, Northwestern once, and Minnesota once. I get that this is the result of parity based scheduling, but even so, wouldn't Wisconsin, the obvious top program in the West, then play Michigan State or OSU four times?

Rittenberg: Ben, keep in mind the Big Ten is trying to satisfy multiple objectives with the schedule. There's the parity-based component, which will pair teams like Michigan and Wisconsin more often than not, but the league also wants to make sure every matchup takes place once every four years. Michigan and Wisconsin haven't played since 2010, and the fact they'll play in four consecutive seasons won't be the norm for parity-based scheduling. Wisconsin plays both Michigan State and Ohio State twice between 2016-19, which is a little more typical of what you'll see with parity-based scheduling.
Minnesota’s quarterback picture for 2014 gained more clarity on Thursday, but probably not in the way coach Jerry Kill and the Gophers wanted.

Philip Nelson, who started the majority of the 2013 season after taking over the job midway through his freshman campaign of 2012, is transferring. He released a statement to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that said he was “looking to play in a system that centers more around the pass game which utilizes my skill sets.”

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesMinnesota signal-caller Philip Nelson has decided to leave the team and transfer to a program with an offense more geared toward passing.
Nelson started nine games last season and played in 12. But he was pulled early in the Gophers’ Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse in favor of Mitch Leidner, and Leidner played most of the rest of the way. He and Leidner split time at quarterback early in the season, but Nelson appeared to take control of the position and was under center during Minnesota’s four-game Big Ten winning streak.

Nelson’s father, Pat, told the Star-Tribune that “this whole entire conversation started a long time ago. The bowl game had nothing to do with it.”

The Gophers struggled to throw the ball effectively most of the season and relied heavily on the run game, including ground support from their quarterbacks. Nelson completed just 50.5 percent of his passes in 2013 after connecting on 49.3 percent during seven starts in 2012. He looked like the better passer in the competition with Leidner, though neither guy ever got a lot of help from the receiving corps.

Nelson views himself more as a pro-style pocket passer than a dual-threat guy. For a prime example of what Kill wants in a quarterback, just look to Northern Illinois, his previous coaching stop. He recruited and helped develop Jordan Lynch. Running the ball from the quarterback spot is part of the plan.

This spring likely would have featured an open competition among Nelson, Leidner and redshirt freshman Chris Streveler. With all three bunched so closely together in class -- Leidner will be a redshirt sophomore -- it’s not surprising to see one of them transfer. But it is stunning nevertheless that the guy who has played and started the most at quarterback is leaving, and his parting words about needing to find a better pass offense do not inspire much confidence in Minnesota’s ability to fix that part of its offense.

Nelson was also a very important recruit at one time for Kill, as he was the Minnesota player of the year and a highly decorated prospect who decided to stay home. For a program that has not traditionally had great success in signing the bluest of blue-chip recruits from its own backyard, it’s disappointing to see Nelson leave.

At least the Gophers have options. Leidner is a load running the ball at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, though he still needs refinement as a passer. There are some who claim Streveler is the most talented of the three, and now he’ll have a clearer path to playing time.

Minnesota might be better off picking a starter and riding him than having an endless back-and-forth at quarterback, but one player needs to separate himself from the pack. The herd has surprisingly thinned now that Nelson is gone.

Offseason to-do list: Minnesota

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
10:30
AM ET
With the 2013 college football season now in the rearview mirror, we're taking an early peek at the months ahead by looking at three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2014 season.

Up next: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

1. Decide on a quarterback: Minnesota rotated between sophomore Philip Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner this past season. It appeared to be Nelson's team by the end of the regular season, but then Leidner played the majority of the snaps in the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Leidner is a little bit better runner while Nelson is a little bit better passer at this point, but neither has established himself as the clear-cut option. And while depth is always a good thing, the Gophers will be best served by identifying a true starter this spring. Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler could factor into the mix as well. The focus for each candidate in the coming weeks should simply be to get better, because Minnesota needs more out of the quarterback spot if it wants to take the next step. Which goes hand in hand with the next item ...

2. Get better at wide receiver: Minnesota's leading returning wide receiver next year will be Drew Wolitarsky, who had 15 catches for just 259 yards and one TD. The Gophers had one of the worst passing attacks in the country in 2013, and the lack of threats at the receiver position was a big reason why. The good news, if you're an optimist, is that Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones emerged as the top options late in the season, and both were true freshmen. They are talented and should improve as they mature. They also need more help there, whether it's from rising senior Isaac Fruechte, the oft-injured Jamel Harbison or an incoming recruit. Minnesota hasn't been able to stretch the field in the passing game for two years, and that must change.

3. Replace defensive stalwarts: While the majority of the roster returns, some very valuable defensive players will need to be replaced in 2014. That includes All-Big Ten defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, starting linebackers Aaron Hill and James Manuel and defensive back Brock Vereen, who was versatile enough to play both cornerback and safety as needed. There's no real substitute for Hageman's sheer athleticism, but the team is high on sophomore Scott Ekpe's potential. Minnesota has recruited well recently at linebacker and defensive back, so some in-house solutions should be ready. The Gophers' defense was very solid in 2013 and should stay that way if adequate replacements emerge.

More to-do lists

Indiana
Wisconsin

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
12:00
PM ET
It's a terrible love, and I'm walking with spiders.

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