Big Ten: Christian Ballard

Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball. caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

(Read full post)

Cameron Meredith is a visual person, both inside and outside Nebraska's football complex.

The Huskers senior defensive end enjoys photography and has displayed his painting skills at The Corky Canvas, a Lincoln nightspot where patrons learn to paint while enjoying a beverage or two. Meredith's girlfriend is one of the painting instructors there.

[+] EnlargeCameron Meredith
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireNebraska's Cameron Meredith led the team in QB hurries (9), and ranked second in sacks (5).
"Not to brag, but I'm pretty artistic," said Meredith, who lists Salvador Dali's "Melting Clocks" and the works of Andy Warhol among his favorites. "That was my first passion, actually, before sports."

Meredith has used his visual skills in the film room this winter as he adjusts to a new defensive line coach, Rick Kaczenski, who joined Nebraska's staff in December after spending the past five seasons working with Iowa's defensive linemen. Kaczenski takes over a group that loses tackle Jared Crick but returns mostly intact and is led by Meredith and tackle Baker Steinkuhler, both multiyear starters.

To help Nebraska's linemen understand his vision, Kaczenski played them video clips of former Iowa standouts like Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug.

"On the field, he can explain it, he can go through it," Meredith said, "but until we see it in full action, we don't really understand. He brought in some really good clips of those Iowa players doing some pretty good stuff."

The transition should be smooth, because Nebraska's defenders studied Iowa more than any other team in 2011, even before Kaczenski arrived. Iowa's two-gap scheme resembled Nebraska's defensive system, and while Meredith said it's not a carbon copy, it helped players to see a similar defense go against Big Ten offenses.

"I was watching more of the [players'] technique, but you can see similarities," Meredith said. "For example, Coach Kaz wants us to make contact with our head, head-butt them more and get separation. Once we see one of the Iowa players do it who's similar to us, it puts in our minds, 'Hey, it's the same stuff. We've just got to learn the technique.'"

Meredith and his teammates get down to business when Nebraska opens spring practice March 10. The Huskers' defense fell short of expectations in 2011, finishing 37th in yards allowed and 42nd in points allowed, and must replace standouts like linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

After spending much the winter self-scouting, Meredith thinks third downs and limiting big plays are areas the defense must upgrade. Nebraska finished 64th nationally in third-down defense (40.2 percent conversions) in 2011 after ranking fourth in 2010 (29.95 percent) and 15th in 2009 (32.3 percent).

"Third down needs to become a lot more important to the defense," said Meredith, who led the team in quarterback hurries (9) and ranked second in both sacks (5) and tackles for loss (6). "You can either give the ball back to your offense, or they have another chance to get a first down and go score. One of the biggest things, which is why we didn't have great success in some games, once a team got a big play, it was kind of a snowball effect. We need to eliminate that, get in those manageable third-down situations, and get home on a blitz or on the pass rush."

The Huskers will go through their first spring with new coordinator John Papuchis, although the linemen are more than familiar with Papuchis, who coached them directly the past four seasons. Papuchis emphasizes the need for players to not only know their position, but the positions alongside them -- defensive ends must be able to transition inside, and vice versa -- what's happening at other levels of the defense.

His mission should help Nebraska's defense improve its communication, which Meredith said must be significantly better in games.

"He did a great job as a D-line coach of making us aware of why we're doing things rather than [just] what we're doing," Meredith said. "We knew exactly what the linebackers and DBs were doing, because JP expected that out of us. Him being a defensive coordinator, he's going to broaden everyone's span of football knowledge."

Nebraska's defenders begin putting paint brush to canvas next week.

Meredith hopes the team's final pictures looks like this and this.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 1

September, 1, 2011
The 2011 Big Ten football season kicks off Thursday night in Madison, and all 12 teams will be in action during the weekend.

Here are 10 items to track as you watch the games.

1. Coaching debuts: After three years of relative stability in the Big Ten coaching ranks, four leading men will debut with new teams Saturday, while Nebraska's Bo Pelini coaches his first game as a member of the conference. Luke Fickell's every move will be closely monitored at Ohio State, while Brady Hoke begins a new chapter at Michigan. Kevin Wilson's Indiana debut takes place at the site of the inaugural Big Ten championship game (Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium), while Minnesota's Jerry Kill draws the toughest first assignment as the Gophers visit No. 25 USC.

Russell Wilson
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesRussell Wilson gives the Badgers an added dimension from the quarterback position.
2. Wisconsin's missing piece: That's what Badgers fans hope Russell Wilson will be this season. The NC State transfer quarterback starts his first game in a Wisconsin uniform Thursday night against UNLV. Wilson looked terrific during preseason practice and transitioned well to his new team. He has a chance to display his skills on national television against the underdog Rebels and build some confidence for the grind ahead. It's also vital Wilson stays healthy as Wisconsin has significant depth problems at quarterback.

3. Penn State's QB audition: Spring practice and fall camp evidently weren't enough time for Penn State to settle on a starting quarterback. Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin both are expected to play in Saturday's opener against Indiana State. Joe Paterno, who may coach from the press box, didn't seem too concerned about the lack of a starter or the prolonged quarterback competition, but it will be interesting to see how the snaps break down. Bolden likely will get the first opportunity, and Penn State probably wants to settle on its offensive leader before a Week 2 showdown with No. 2 Alabama.

4. Flipping quarters in Columbus: Penn State isn't the only team planning to use multiple quarterbacks in its opener. Ohio State likely will start senior Joe Bauserman on Saturday against Akron, although true freshman Braxton Miller also will see the field. Bauserman boasts more experience and could be the safer choice, although few doubt that Miller is the team's future under center. Akron ranked 99th nationally in total defense last season, so both men should have opportunities to make plays. It presents an interesting situation for a coaching staff that needs to win this season to remain with the Buckeyes.

5. Nebraska's new offense: The Huskers boast what they believe to be a championship-caliber defense, so their season could hinge on the effectiveness of a new offensive scheme. Coordinator Tim Beck wants to give his players more freedom in the system while maintaining plenty of explosiveness. Pelini has stressed the need for efficiency after the Huskers struggled with ball security and penalties last season. Saturday's tune-up against Chattanooga provides the chance for quarterback Taylor Martinez and others to build their confidence in a game before the competition gets tougher.

6. Dan Persa's status: Northwestern has one of the league's tougher season-opening draws at Boston College, and the Wildcats still don't know whether they'll have Persa on the field. The senior is still working his way back from Achilles' tendon surgery and won't be nearly as dangerous on his feet as he was in 2010. The good news is Persa can still attack defenses with his arm, and backup Kain Colter has made strides as a passer during the preseason. Colter will be part of the game plan Saturday, but how much Persa plays, if at all, remains to be seen.

7. Gray driving Gophers' offense: Ever since highly-touted recruit MarQueis Gray committed to Minnesota, Gophers fans have been waiting for this moment. It has taken some time and a detour to the wide receiver position in 2010, but Gray finally will make his first start at quarterback Saturday against USC. He has bulked up to 245 pounds and should be a load for a Trojans defense that has struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks in the past. Gray will run a new offense and needs young players around him to step up, but it will be interesting to see how he fares in a tough environment.

8. TerBush's time: Quarterback Caleb TerBush likely would have been a big factor for Purdue last season had he been academically eligible. The Boilers once again are calling on TerBush, and this time, he's ready to help. TerBush will make his first career start against a tough Middle Tennessee team. Purdue needs a boost after losing its leader Rob Henry to a torn ACL, and TerBush will try to provide one as he plays his first game since 2009.

9. Hawkeyes, Illini fill gaps on defense: The NFL draft took its toll on Iowa's and Illinois' defensive units. The Hawkeyes lost three linemen to the draft -- Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug -- along with standout safety Tyler Sash. Illinois lost dominant tackle Corey Liuget as well as linebackers Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Iowa will feature a larger rotation up front this season, while Illinois is looking to younger players like Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown to step up.

10. Emotional opener for Dantonio: It has been a tough week for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose father, Justin, died Sunday at the age of 86. Dantonio is at home in Zanesville, Ohio, for his father's funeral Thursday but will be back for Michigan State's season opener Friday against Youngstown State. It should be an emotional night for Dantonio, and expect Michigan State's players to rally around their coach, much like they did last year when he went through some health issues.
James Morris didn't set a goal for number of minutes played as a freshman at Iowa.

He didn't even care which unit -- first team, second team -- he joined on Saturdays. He simply wanted to get on the field. The linebacker ended up appearing in all 13 games, starting the final six, finishing fourth on the squad in tackles with 70.

"It was a pretty awesome experience," said Morris, who added four pass breakups and a sack. "I feel like I got a good jump on most of my competition. I think it'll pay bigger dividends once the season rolls around and I can apply some of that experience."

Morris knows he'll take on an enhanced role for the Hawkeyes' defense this season. He also knows others will have to replicate his rise as Iowa replaces six defensive starters, four of whom were selected in April's NFL draft (Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Karl Klug and Tyler Sash).

[+] EnlargeJames Morris
Rick Scuteri/AP ImagesJames Morris looks to build on the experience he gained last season as a freshman.
Iowa entered the 2010 season seemingly with a clear identity on defense, but the unit ended up with mixed results. The Hawkeyes need the opposite to occur this fall -- for a new-look defense to establish its personality and consistently shut down the opposition.

"I feel like we're young, but that's not necessarily a bad thing," Morris said. "We're unproven, and there's a lot of guys on our squad who take offense to that. They want to prove themselves, and I'm hoping people are going to be surprised by what they see with the effort and how determined our guys are to prove what kind of players they are."

Morris began the proving process last season. A rash of injuries at linebacker thrust him into the starting lineup down the stretch, and he recorded 40 tackles in his first four starts.

Like many freshmen, Morris was prone to overthinking things when he first got in games. A National Honor Society member in high school, Morris admits he's "very much" an analytical person.

"You're sort of forced to lead a double life, what's expected of you on the field versus being a civil human being in conversation off the field," he said. "I thought I was doing a pretty good job of not outpacing myself toward the end of the year, as opposed to the beginning, when maybe I was playing a step slow, trying to process everything."

Morris acknowledges he made plenty of mistakes in 2010, but his effort level never wavered. He wants to be a more polished player this fall, especially as he guides the linebackers alongside veteran Tyler Nielsen.

Iowa must build depth around Morris and Nielsen with players like Christian Kirksey, Bruce Davis, Anthony Hitchens and Dakota Getz.

Morris doesn't expect the defense's personality to fully form until the end of training camp, which kicks off next month, but players are motivated to prove themselves and finish games better than they did in 2010.

"A lot of guys on our defense, they're driven and they're determined to improve and create their own identity," Morris said. "Some of them, they feel like last year was somewhat in flux in terms of what our identity was. They’re going to come out of camp with a purpose."
The position rankings move from offense to defense. We'll start with the group that has produced more Big Ten stars than any other position group in recent years.

The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.

The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.

Let's take a look:

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireJared Crick and Nebraska join the Big Ten as the league's top defensive line.
1. Nebraska: The Big Ten's newest member should fit in well with its strong play up front. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick stiff-armed the NFL draft and returned for his final season, giving Nebraska a terrific centerpiece up front. He'll be complemented by veterans Baker Steinkuhler and the mustachioed Cameron Meredith. If converted linebacker Eric Martin builds off of a strong spring, Nebraska should be fine at the end spot.

2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.

3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.

4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.

5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.

6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.

7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.

8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.

9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.

10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.

11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.
Earlier today, my colleague Edward Aschoff from the SEC blog took a look at three potential dark horse teams in that league for the 2011 season.

At the risk of playing catchup to the SEC -- something Big Ten folks hate to do -- I think it's a good idea. Who are the Big Ten's top dark horse candidates for 2011?

To be clear, a dark horse has to be a team not considered by most folks to be on the league championship radar entering the season. The 2010 Michigan State team probably qualifies, although those who really studied the Spartans' personnel -- like yours truly -- weren't surprised by their run to a Big Ten championship. The Illinois team that made the 2008 Rose Bowl following back-to-back 2-win seasons is a better example of a dark horse.

Let's take a look at three teams that could fit the description this fall. One common theme among them: a favorable schedule.


2010 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten, beat Baylor in Texas Bowl)

I recently was on a radio show in Champaign and the hosts justifiably asked me about listing Illinois at No. 9 in my post-spring power rankings. As I told them, Illinois definitely has the potential to make a significant move up the rankings before the season ends. In fact, I'd be a little surprised if they remained at No. 9 The team has some confidence coming off of a bowl victory, and talent never has been the issue for Illinois during coach Ron Zook's tenure. Illinois boasts a talented quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, anchored by tackle Jeff Allen. There are question marks on defense after the unit lost first-round pick Corey Liuget and second-round pick Martez Wilson, but I really like what the Illini return in the secondary. If coordinator Vic Koenning pulls the right strings this fall, the defense should be fine. The schedule also favors Illinois, which opens with five consecutive home games and plays eight contests at Memorial Stadium.


2010 record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten, lost to Mississippi State in Gator Bowl)

Although Michigan increased its wins total in each of the past two seasons, few preseason prognosticators will place the Wolverines in the Big Ten's upper half entering the season. There are quite a few question marks as new coach Brady Hoke and his assistants install new systems on both sides of the ball. The defense should improve under coordinator Greg Mattison, especially up front and if the secondary gets better luck with injuries. And if the offense can maintain some of its explosiveness -- hello, Denard Robinson -- and limit turnovers against Big Ten competition, Michigan has a real chance to make noise in the Legends division. Like Illinois, the Wolverines also could get off to a fast start as they play their first five games at the Big House.


2010 record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten, beat Missouri in the Insight Bowl)

This is a role in which Iowa seems to thrive. The Hawkeyes fell short of expectations in 2010, and they might be dismissed by some after losing so many standout players. Iowa had three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug -- and also must replace its starting quarterback, top two safeties, leading rusher and a record-setting receiver. But the Hawkeyes have some nice building blocks, starting with one of the league's best offensive lines. Quarterback James Vandenberg is no stranger to the spotlight, and while Iowa needs to find more depth at running back, Marcus Coker looks like the real deal. There are some holes to fill in the defensive front seven, but Iowa typically finds ways to get it done on D. Like the other two dark horses listed, Iowa also could benefit from its schedule. Iowa plays three of the top Legends division teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern and Michigan -- at Kinnick Stadium.
More than one Big Ten coach has called Iowa's defense vanilla in the past decade.

It's not a dig at the Hawkeyes or at longtime defensive coordinator Norm Parker. Just the opposite, in fact.

[+] EnlargeTyler Nielsen
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIowa and linebacker Tyler Nielsen might stray from their traditional 4-3 scheme this season.
Unlike some defenses, which have to mix up formations and plays until something clicks, Iowa gets by with a basic 4-3 scheme that relies on hard-and-fast rules, polished fundamentals and execution. And for the most part, the Hawkeyes have vanilla-d their way to success. The biggest key to the scheme is a line that can consistently generate pressure and reach the offensive backfield.

But Iowa now must replace three defensive linemen selected in April's NFL draft (Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug). And at times last season, especially against spread offenses -- Arizona, Missouri, late in the Northwestern game -- Iowa's line didn't put enough pressure on the pocket, leaving some to wonder if a schematic shakeup was in order.

Could we see one this season?

I talked about this issue last week with Hawkeyes beat writer Marc Morehouse at the Big Ten spring meetings. Morehouse wrote in March about the possibility of Iowa using a 3-4 alignment more often this season. Although Iowa will remain a base 4-3, several factors suggest the defense will be more multiple.

From Morehouse's story:
Against the pass, expect Iowa to work in some 3-4 on passing downs, especially if that passer is (Blaine) Gabbert's caliber. Iowa will continue to rush four or more (but mostly four) probably 90 percent of the time, so we’re not talking wholesale philosophy change, just a tweak that would put more speed on the field.

It makes sense, especially against spread offenses that get the ball out quickly and require speedy defenders to make plays in space. Iowa struggled to generate consistent pressure against Gabbert in the Insight Bowl, forcing Parker to shake up the scheme quite a bit.

Without much proven depth on the line, Iowa might be well served by being more multiple this season. Although there are some question marks at linebacker, the group could be better and deeper if younger players like James Morris, Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and Dakota Getz continue to develop. Tyler Nielsen provides a veteran presence to build around, and Bruce Davis is back from a knee injury.

The biggest obstacle to a 3-4 is the lack of a mammoth defensive tackle. Iowa's tackles typically are a bit undersized, which has worked out well with players like Mitch King, Matt Kroul and Klug. Redshirt freshman Carl Davis, who checks in north of 300 pounds, is the only lineman who could fit the traditional 3-4 tackle mold.

Still, the depth issues up front combined with the potential at linebacker suggest we could see more flavors from a vanilla Hawkeyes defense this season.

Big Ten NFL draft wrap-up

May, 2, 2011
The 2011 NFL draft is in the books, and it's time to take a look back at how the Big Ten fared in the selections. In case you missed it, check out my breakdown of the six Big Ten players who heard their names called in the first round.

All in all, 29 Big Ten players were drafted this year. New Big Ten member Nebraska had seven selections.

Let's start off with a rundown of the picks. I'll have some quick thoughts after each round.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin defensive lineman J.J. Watt was the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft this year.
First round

Quick thoughts: The Big Ten had its largest first-round output since 2007, and several players look like good fits for their teams. Chicago had to be thrilled Carimi was still available, and San Diego felt the same about Liuget, projected by many as a top-15 pick. Kerrigan likely needs to contribute immediately for the Redskins, while Clayborn and Heyward enter situations where they can ease into the transition.

Second round

Quick thoughts: Mouton's selection was a surprise for many folks, but it's a testament to a good player who impressed the scouts despite playing for a lousy defense in 2010. Wisniewski enters a good fit in Oakland, where his uncle, Steve, is an assistant offensive line coach. I really like Leshoure in Detroit, where he'll enter a competitive situation at running back.

Third round

Quick thoughts: Wilson, who entered the draft after his junior season, might have been a bit disappointed to fall to the third round. But he enters a good situation in New Orleans and should have some time to develop.

Fourth round
Quick thoughts: Ballard reportedly tested positive for marijuana use and likely paid a price as he dropped down at least a round. Still, the Iowa standout should help the Vikings early in his career. I really like the Doss fit in Baltimore, which can use more playmakers at receiver. It'll be interesting to see how quickly Chekwa sees the field in Oakland.

Fifth round
Quick thoughts: What a round for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Although Stanzi waited a little longer than expected, he joins a team in Kansas City that has a lot of connections to the New England Patriots, the squad many thought would draft the Iowa quarterback. Klug is a solid player who can play either line position. I'll be interested to see how he fares with the Titans.

Sixth round

  • Penn State RB Evan Royster, Washington, No. 177 overall
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones, New York Giants, No. 185 overall
  • Michigan State CB Chris L. Rucker, Indianapolis, No. 188 overall
  • Ohio State LB Brian Rolle, Philadelphia, No. 193 overall
  • Iowa S Tyler Sash, New York Giants, No. 198 overall
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, Minnesota, No. 200 overall
  • Michigan G Stephen Schilling, San Diego, No. 201 overall
Quick thoughts: This marked the Big Ten's biggest round as seven players heard their names called. Jones, the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, went a little later than expected, and Sash also dropped down a bit after entering the draft after his junior season. Homan, who missed some time last season with a foot injury, could end up being an excellent addition for the Vikings. Really like that pick.

Seventh round

  • Illinois LB Nate Bussey, New Orleans, No. 243 overall
  • Wisconsin G/C Bill Nagy, Dallas, No. 252 overall
Quick thoughts: While I was surprised several other Big Ten players didn't get drafted, both Bussey and Nagy are deserving. Both players played integral roles in their teams' success last fall, and both were overshadowed by other draftees (Liuget and Wilson for Bussey, Carimi and Moffitt for Nagy).


Husker fans, I didn't forget you or your team. Nebraska actually had more draft picks (7) than any Big Ten team, and here they are.

  • CB Prince Amukamara, New York Giants, No. 19 overall (first round)
  • RB Roy Helu Jr., Washington, No. 104 overall (fourth round)
  • K Alex Henery, Philadelphia, No. 120 overall (fourth round)
  • DB Dejon Gomes, Washington, No. 146 overall (fifth round)
  • WR Niles Paul, Washington, No. 155 overall (fifth round)
  • OT Keith Williams, Pittsburgh, No. 196 overall (sixth round)
  • DB Eric Hagg, Cleveland, No. 248 overall (seventh round)
Quick thoughts: Think there might be a few "Husker Power!" chants at Redskins games this season? The Mike Shanahan-Bo Pelini connection likely played a role in the three Nebraska players heading to the nation's capital. Henery soon will succeed David Akers in Philadelphia, and the Giants had to thrilled that Amukamara still was on the board at No. 19.

Big Ten picks by team

  • Nebraska: 7 (players competed in the Big 12)
  • Iowa: 6
  • Ohio State: 5
  • Wisconsin: 5 (four picks in first three rounds)
  • Illinois: 4
  • Michigan State: 2
  • Indiana: 2
  • Michigan: 2
  • Penn State: 2
  • Purdue: 1
  • Northwestern: 0
  • Minnesota: 0
By position (excluding Nebraska)

  • DL: 7
  • OL: 7
  • LB: 6
  • DB: 4
  • RB: 2
  • WR: 1
  • TE: 1
  • QB: 1

Nebraska had three defensive backs, a running back, an offensive lineman, a wide receiver and a kicker drafted.

Draft snubs

Quite a few Big Ten players didn't hear their names called during the weekend, and they'll enter the shaky world of free agency. I was absolutely stunned no one drafted Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher. He was the Big Ten's top receiver last fall and brings a combination of football IQ and toughness that should appeal to football people not overly obsessed with measurables.

Wisconsin running back John Clay was the Big Ten's only non-senior who entered the draft but didn't get selected. Clay struggles with weight and his ankle problems might have contributed to him slipping through the draft.

Other Big Ten draft snubs include: Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, Ohio State guard Justin Boren, Iowa tight end Allen Reisner and Purdue receiver Keith Smith. Nebraska's Pierre Allen and Ricky Henry also will go the free-agent route.
As's Pete Bigelow detailed earlier this week, the Big Ten has struggled to produce top-10 NFL draft picks during the past decade. The league has gone without a top-10 pick in each of the past two drafts, and the trend could continue tonight at Radio City Music Hall.

Now here's the good news: while the Big Ten's top-10 drought might continue, the league is poised for a strong first round.

(Note to Nebraska fans: Since cornerback Prince Amukamara played his entire career in the Big 12, I can't include him among the Big Ten's contingent.)

The Big Ten should have at least five first-round picks and possibly six or seven.

Colleague Mel Kiper Jr.'s final mock draft (Insider) contains five Big Ten players: Illinois DT Corey Liuget (No. 14 overall), Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan (No. 16), Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt (No. 18), Wisconsin LT Gabe Carimi (No. 21) and Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn (No. 27).

Colleague Todd McShay's final mock draft includes six Big Ten players: Watt (No. 9), Liuget (No. 14), Kerrigan (No. 16), Carimi (No. 22), Clayborn (No. 26), Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward (No. 31).

Most mock drafts I've seen include Watt, Liuget, Kerrigan, Carimi and Clayborn in the first round. Heyward is projected to be on the cusp of the first round and second round, while Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure and Iowa DL Christian Ballard could sneak into the first round. And there might be a surprise or two before the night ends.

Bottom line: the Big Ten is poised for its biggest first round since 2007.

Here's how the league has fared in the first round in the past decade:
If things go as planned tonight, the Big Ten should have a first round contingent more like 2003-04 or 2006-07 than 2010 or 2003.

Nebraska, by the way, produced the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 (DT Ndamukong Suh) and will have another first-round pick this year in Amukamara. But the Huskers produced only three first-round picks -- Suh, NT Adam Carriker (2007) and CB Fabian Washington (2005) -- in the past decade. Nebraska had eight first-rounders between 1991-2000.

B1G lunch links

April, 28, 2011
It's draft night! Should be a big one for the Big Ten.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 27, 2011
As the Big Ten world turns ...

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- When the preseason polls come out in August, the Iowa Hawkeyes likely won't be included.

That's not a bad thing.

Iowa didn't receive a single vote in the preseason AP Poll in 2002. The Hawkeyes went on to win 11 games and reach the Orange Bowl.

After winning 31 games and two Big Ten titles between 2002-04, Iowa entered the 2005 season ranked No. 11 nationally. It went 7-5 that year.

Despite a strong finish to the 2008 season, the Hawkeyes squeaked into the preseason rankings (No. 22 AP, No. 21 Coaches'). They were nationally relevant but hardly overhyped. And after a major scare against FCS Northern Iowa in Week 1, Iowa slipped out of the polls. It responded with a team-record 9-0 start and finished the season ranked seventh in both polls after winning the Orange Bowl.

The respect Iowa and its rabid fans crave arrived last summer as the Hawkeyes debuted in the Top 10 in both polls. Some even listed Iowa as a fringe national title contender. The team stumbled to 7-5 before a dramatic win in the Insight Bowl.

"When we start kind of off the radar, not in the Top 25, we always seem to raise expectations, within the program, especially," senior tight end Brad Herman said. "It's very easy to slip into the hype, people always patting you on the back and then you lose one or two games and all of a sudden the sky is falling. History shows that's the case."

Hawkeyes' veterans like Herman and defensive tackle Mike Daniels know what it's like to be both hyped and somewhat forgotten. There's no doubt how they'd rather be viewed.

"Iowa guys, we love to play with a chip on our shoulder," Daniels said, "and being under the radar just makes that chip even larger."

[+] EnlargeMike Daniels
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireDefensive lineman Mike Daniels says the Hawkeyes are at their best when they have a chip on their shoulder.
It's also a familiar realm for Iowa players.

Most of them weren't decorated recruits. They play for a program that would much rather list the number of walk-ons it has sent to the NFL than brag about the number of five-star prospects it signs each February.

Iowa players aren't used to hearing how great they are, and Kirk Ferentz and his assistants make sure it stays that way. Although Hawkeye football is the biggest show in the state, the team sometimes goes out of its way to avoid the media spotlight.

The underdog mentality is ingrained in the culture here, and it has helped on fall Saturdays.

"That's the tradition," defensive end Broderick Binns said. "Coach Ferentz looks for guys who are willing to work hard, have good character, who aren't going to be [jerks]. It's not tradition for coach Ferentz to bring in a guy that's four or five stars, who's all glamorous. Iowa's not about that. We're all about, 'Put your feet in the ground and go to work.'"

Iowa will go to work this fall without the potential distractions/pressure brought on by preseason accolades. The Hawkeyes' star power is gone, and the team must fill gaps at nearly every position.

Quarterback Ricky Stanzi, a three-year starter and a local cult hero, has departed for the NFL. Iowa loses three multiyear starters along the defensive line, including a likely first-round pick (Adrian Clayborn) and a likely second-rounder (Christian Ballard). Both starting safeties depart (Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood) along with receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, tight end Allen Reisner and standout punter Ryan Donahue. Iowa returns only five starters on both sides of the ball.

It'll be an uphill climb for respect, but the Hawkeyes don't mind.

"We all have a goal: the Big Ten championship," Herman said. "That's something we state at the beginning of every single season. Being under the radar kind of relieves the pressure a little bit. We aren't really being talked about right now, and that's fine. Nothing changes around here."

If nothing changes this fall, Iowa will find itself in plenty of tightly contested contests. Drama has been the norm for Iowa the past few seasons.

In 2008, the team dropped four of its first nine games by five points or fewer and faced No. 3 Penn State as an underdog. A 24-23 victory against the Nittany Lions transformed Iowa into a clutch team. The Hawkeyes won their next five games decided by five points or fewer and rallied for wins in eight of their first nine games in 2009.

But Iowa's fortunes turned last fall. All five of its losses came by seven points or fewer, including three straight to end the regular season. A team that prides itself on finishing strong repeatedly crumbled in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes responded in the bowl game against Missouri, rallying for a 27-24 win, but players and coaches agreed the season was a disappointment.

"We're sitting there at 7-2 and lost three games by 10 points, so what can we do to do better in those situations?" Ferentz said. "That's what we're focused on. It comes down to a lot of little details and giving ourselves a chance. ... The reality is we were pretty good from October 2008 to November 2010. I look at it more that way. I'm not a peak-and-valley person. You can't afford to be if you're a coach."

Iowa appeared to go through some valleys in the offseason as several off-field issues cropped up followed by 13 players being hospitalized in January with rhabdomylosis. The team's celebrated strength program came under fire, but an internal investigation found no specific cause for the hospitalizations and Iowa has moved forward.

"We handled the rhabdo situation very well," Herman said. "Everybody was more pulled together as [the criticism] was coming down on us. It's going to benefit us in the fall for sure."

Iowa has its share of uncertainty entering the fall. Can quarterback James Vandenberg steady the ship after a gutsy performance in relief of Stanzi in 2009? Can Daniels and Binns help the defensive line reload? Who fills the gaps at safety, linebacker and wide receiver?

To these questions, the Hawkeyes say ask away. They'll have answers when September rolls around.

"You've got 11 guys on the field who are just mad at the world," Daniels said. "That's the way we would like to play."
There's little doubt that the first Big Ten player drafted in April will be a defensive lineman.

(Not including Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, who played his entire career in the Big 12.)

Who will hear his name called first? Wisconsin's J.J. Watt? Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan? Illinois' Corey Liuget? Iowa's Adrian Clayborn? Ohio State's Cameron Heyward?

I'll have more on the hopefuls as we get closer to draft night, but colleagues Todd McShay and Mel Kiper are always dissecting the draft and have come out with their latest three-round mock selections.

Here's McShay's mock draft and where the Big Ten players fall:

First round
  • Illinois DT Corey Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, No. 16 overall to Jacksonville
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt, No. 17 overall to New England
  • Wisconsin T Gabe Carimi, No. 21 overall to Kansas City
  • Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, No. 24 overall to New Orleans
  • Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, No. 32 overall to Green Bay
Second round
Third round

Here's a look at Kiper's mock draft and where the Big Ten prospects fall:

First round
  • Watt, No. 10 overall to Washington
  • Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Kerrigan, No. 20 overall to Tampa Bay
  • Carimi, No. 23 overall to Philadelphia
  • Clayborn, No. 27 overall to Atlanta
  • Heyward, No. 30 overall to New York Jets
Second round
  • Wilson, No. 34 overall to Buffalo
  • Leshoure, No. 53 overall to Indianapolis
  • Doss, No. 64 overall to Green Bay
Third round
  • Ballard, No. 67 overall to Denver
  • Kendricks, No. 68 overall to Buffalo
  • Moffitt, No. 77 overall to Tennessee
  • Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa, No. 81 overall to Oakland
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, No. 85 overall to Philadelphia
  • Penn State G Stefen Wisniewski, No. 93 to Chicago

Some interesting stuff here. Both McShay and Kiper think the Colts' Big Ten pipeline will continue, and both also like Buffalo to draft Big Ten players. Kiper includes three players McShay leaves out -- Chekwa, Homan and Wisniewski -- while McShay includes one player (Brewer) who Kiper leaves out. It also stands out how teams like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin have more high-level draft prospects this year than Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska.

Amukamara is the only Nebraska player included in both mock drafts. Both McShay and Kiper have Amukamara going 13th overall to Detroit, where he'll reunite with former Huskers' teammate Ndamukong Suh.
The NFL scouting combine wraps up on Tuesday with defensive backs, but more test results are in for defensive linemen and linebackers.

Defensive line once again is the Big Ten's highest-rated group entering the 2011 draft, as up to six players -- Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard, and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward -- could be selected in the first round.

Let's check out the top combine performers from both groups:

Defensive linemen
  • Kerrigan tied for seventh in the 40-yard dash at 4.71 seconds; Ballard finished 12th at 4.8 seconds; Clayborn finished 13th at 4.83 seconds; Watt finished 14th at 4.84 seconds
  • Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Kerrigan tied for sixth with 31
  • Watt finished second in vertical jump at 37 inches; Kerrigan tied for ninth at 33.5 inches; Clayborn finished 11th at 33 inches; Ballard finished 14th at 31.5 inches
  • Kerrigan finished second in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Watt finished third at 10 feet
  • Watt tied for second in the 3-cone drill at 6.88 seconds; Kerrigan finished 15th at 7.18 seconds
  • Clayborn finished first in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.13 seconds; Watt finished second at 4.21 seconds
  • Ohio State's Ross Homan finished first in bench-press reps with 32; Ohio State's Brian Rolle finished fourth with 28; Illinois' Martez Wilson tied for ninth with 23
  • Wilson finished first in the 40-yard dash at 4.49 seconds; Rolle finished third at 4.56 seconds; Homan finished seventh at 4.68 seconds
  • Wilson tied for sixth in the vertical jump at 36 inches; Homan finished eighth at 35.5 inches; Rolle finished 12th at 33 inches
  • Wilson finished third in the broad jump at 10 feet, 4 inches; Michigan State's Greg Jones finished ninth at 9 feet, 9 inches; Iowa's Jeremiha Hunter tied for 10th at 9 feet, 8 inches; Michigan's Jonas Mouton and Rolle tied for 12th at 9 feet, 7 inches
  • Rolle tied for third in the 3-cone drill at 6.89 seconds; Wilson finished ninth at 7.04 seconds; Mouton finished 11th at 7.08 seconds; Homan finished 15th at 7.21 seconds
  • Rolle finished eighth at 4.26 seconds; Jones finished ninth at 4.27 seconds; Wilson tied for 10th at 4.28 seconds; Homan and Mouton tied for 14th at 4.34 seconds
  • Homan tied for ninth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.76 seconds; Jones tied for 13th at 11.84 seconds

The defensive backs go through full testing Tuesday, but they did the bench-press Monday. Ohio State's Jermale Hines tied for 10th in bench-press reps among cornerbacks with 19 (Hines played safety at Ohio State but isn't classified as one for the combine).

Big Ten lunch links

February, 28, 2011
Most of today's links are combine related, so I've split things into two categories.