Big Ten: Christyn Lewis

Nuggets from Minnesota practice

September, 1, 2010
I've reviewed the Big Ten Network's preview of Minnesota. The crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith attended a Gophers scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium.

Here are some notes and observations:
  • Minnesota looked a lot more physical on both sides of the ball. The offense certainly is keeping it simple, but the line generated good push and the backs consistently had nice gains. A new-look defense definitely has further to go, but there were several nice hits in the scrimmage from defensive back Kyle Henderson and others. The BTN crew seemed to like the arrival of offensive coordinator Jeff Horton, who will really emphasize the power run game this fall. "For the first time, the schemes fit each other," DiNardo said.
  • Head coach Tim Brewster wanted to upgrade the schedule at Minnesota, and he has gotten his wish this year. "It’s the toughest schedule in the conference," DiNardo said. Games against Middle Tennessee, Northern Illinois and USC will challenge a young team early, but it also could help in the long run. "No one's going to give them a chance in a lot of these games," Griffith said. "This is an opportunity for the team to come together and rally."
  • Junior running back Duane Bennett had a very good day. He made several good cutbacks and bounced outside for a nice gain in the scrimmage. He capped a long drive by the first-team offense when he bounced off defensive back Shady Salamon and into the end zone. Although Minnesota will use several ball carriers, "Bennett’s the better back right now," DiNardo said.
  • DeLeon Eskridge also had some nice runs, although he also lost the ball following a jarring hit from safety Kyle Theret, who lays the wood and will be missed in Thursday night's opener. I also was impressed with true freshman Donnell Kirkwood, who spun off tackles well in the scrimmage. Fullback Jon Hoese had a big gain on fourth-and-short. Minnesota is certainly keeping things simple with the run game. "They have an inside zone, outside zone and they have a gap scheme." DiNardo said. "And that’s their run game."
  • It was tough to tell how much Minnesota's run game has improved, given all the new faces in the defensive front seven. DiNardo likes the first-team offensive line, especially guards Matt Carufel and Chris Bunders, and he thinks Ed Olson will be a future All-Big Ten player and possibly a future All-American.
  • Senior quarterback Adam Weber threw the ball well and looked comfortable in the offense. He made a perfect throw to Da'Jon McKnight on a deep route for a touchdown, putting the ball just beyond the defensive back's hands. He also threaded the ball to Troy Stoudermire for a first down in the scrimmage. Weber told the BTN crew how his injury issues last year changed his approach to getting treatment and preparing himself for the physical toll.
  • MarQueis Gray had a good scrimmage as the backup quarterback and as a starting wide receiver. He had a big gain on an end-around play, where he cut back before lowering his shoulder into a defender and gaining a few more yards. Great quote from Weber on Gray: "Very impressed with MarQueis this year. It's never easy when you’re a quarterback. He's a true quarterback. ... MarQueis is all about giving it up for his teammates. You could put him at left guard and he'd have a great time doing it." Brewster added that he'll get the ball in Gray's hands a lot this fall.
  • Henderson stood out on defense with several nice hits, and Ryan Grant and Kenny Watkins also showed some good physical play. The BTN crew identified defensive backs Christyn Lewis and James Manuel as newcomers to watch, and Griffith, echoing Brewster, sang the praises of defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman, a converted tight end.
  • It was interesting to hear Brewster tell BTN crew about "building a program from the foundation up." He talked about overhauling the roster after he arrived and taking time to put his plan in place. His coaching changes definitely have served as evidence, but it wasn't as if the cupboard was totally empty when he arrived. "We've had a lot of staff turnover at Minnesota," DiNardo said, "but the good news is I believe this is the best staff Tim Brewster's had since he's been here."
We knew going into the season that Minnesota had to replace nine defensive starters, more than any other Big Ten squad.

Make it 10. And possibly all 11.

Safety Kyle Theret is suspended for Thursday night's opener at Middle Tennessee, head coach Tim Brewster announced Tuesday. Theret continues to serve a penalty for his drunken-driving arrest in March, although he practiced with the team in preseason camp. Veteran offensive lineman Dom Alford, a projected starter, also is suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Ed Olson will start in Alford's spot.

Minnesota really could use Theret, who led the team in interceptions (3) last year and recorded 73 tackles and seven passes defended. The team's only other returning starter on defense, safety Kim Royston, also could miss the game as he continues to rehab a broken leg suffered in spring practice.

Brewster said there's only "a small chance" Royston will play, adding, "I don't want to put him out there until I'm 100 percent certain that he's ready."

If Royston sits, Minnesota will take the field with 11 new starters on defense. Good thing Middle Tennessee will be without star quarterback Dwight Dasher, suspended for the game.

Get to know names like Christyn Lewis, James Manuel, D.L. Wilhite, Mike Rallis and Michael Carter. They're just some of the new starters Minnesota needs to step up Thursday night against the Blue Raiders.

Big Ten season predictions

August, 30, 2010
After a historic summer in the Big Ten, it's finally time to get down to business. The season kicks off in 82 hours as Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State all hit the field Thursday for their openers. On the heels of an outstanding bowl performance, the Big Ten is looking to take the next step.

It's prediction time, and while I'm certain most of these will look terrible by mid October, here we go ...

Conference champion: Ohio State

It's not just the history of winning or sharing the last five league championships. Ohio State simply has fewer holes than Iowa and Wisconsin. Yes, the Buckeyes must travel to Madison and Iowa City, but they've been flat-out dominant on the road in conference play, winning 16 straight Big Ten road contests before the loss to Purdue last season.

Offensive MVP: Wisconsin running back John Clay

Someone needs to stand up for Clay. He's being completely overlooked in the Heisman Trophy race, and he was snubbed for Big Ten preseason Offensive Player of the Year in favor of Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor. In case you forgot, Clay is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and he'll play behind the nation's best offensive line this fall. He should be more durable following offseason ankle surgeries. I expect big things from big No. 32 this fall.

Defensive MVP: Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn

This might be one of the nation's most competitive award races, as Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, Ohio State defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan also are in the mix. But Clayborn makes more impact plays than any defender in the Big Ten, and he'll continue to have opportunities because of the overall strength of Iowa's defensive line.

Surprise team: Purdue

The Boilermakers' injury situation leaves me a bit concerned about this selection, but I still really like the potential in West Lafayette. Robert Marve is a perfect fit for the spread offense, and will distribute the ball to a talented group of receivers. Kerrigan leads a veteran defensive front seven that should be better against the run. And the schedule is back-loaded, allowing Purdue to find its identity in the first six games before things get really tough. Indiana and Michigan are also possibilities here.

Team most likely to disappoint: Penn State

There isn't an obvious choice here, but preseason No. 19 Penn State enters the fall with two major obstacles: virtually no experience at quarterback, and arguably the nation's toughest road schedule. Trips to Tuscaloosa, Iowa City and Columbus look daunting, and while Tom Bradley's defense should be solid once again, it won't be easy for this team to win 11 games for the third straight season. Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan also are possibilities here.

Surprise player: Michigan State receiver Keshawn Martin

We could see a Devin Thomas redux this fall, which would bring smiles to Spartans fans. Martin seemed to be hitting his stride toward the end of last season, and after averaging 18.1 yards per touch in 2009, he'll get the ball a lot more this season. Other potential surprise players include Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

Newcomer of the year: Purdue quarterback Robert Marve

Talent has never been the problem for Marve, and he's finally in the right situation to become a star. The Miami transfer owns a big-time arm in an offense that will feature it, and he has grown up a lot since his time at Miami. If Purdue's new-look offensive line can protect Marve, the offense will put up big numbers. Three junior college transfers in the secondary -- Indiana's Andre Kates, Minnesota's Christyn Lewis and Illinois safety Trulon Henry -- are also newcomers to watch.

Freshman of the Year: Penn State quarterback Robert Bolden

He might not start the opener against Youngstown State, but I expect Bolden to enter the mix in a big way for the Nittany Lions. He has impressive size and arm strength, and his ability to quickly pick up the offense and remain in the race throughout preseason camp tells a lot about his potential. Other candidates include Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and Michigan State defenders Max Bullough and William Gholston.

Coach of the Year: Ohio State's Jim Tressel

It's time. Tressel has dominated the league like few coaches in history, and yet he has never won the Coach of the Year Award. The odds are once again against Tressel because of Ohio State's status as Big Ten preseason favorite, but I have a feeling he finally gets what he deserves. Other potential winners include Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Purdue's Danny Hope and, yes, Michigan's Rich Rodriguez.

Can't-miss game: Ohio State at Iowa, Nov. 20

For the second consecutive year, this game likely will decide the Big Ten championship, as both teams enter the fall in the top 10. Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle in 2009 despite playing without starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Ohio State has dominated the series with Iowa, but this game could be special. Other can't-miss contests include Ohio State at Wisconsin (Oct. 16), Wisconsin at Iowa (Oct. 23) and whenever Penn State's Joe Paterno goes for win No. 400.
The position rankings march on as I take a look at the top five secondary units in the Big Ten this fall.

1. Iowa: Playmaker extraordinaire Tyler Sash leads a group that boasts good experience but must fill a major void following the departure of All-Big Ten cornerback Amari Spievey. Sash has recorded 11 interceptions in his first two seasons and already holds the team record with 350 interception return yards. His heroics overshadow the very solid play of fellow safety Brett Greenwood, who has started for two and a half seasons and owns seven interceptions and 18 pass breakups in his career. Shaun Prater is a returning starter at corner, and Iowa also has Jordan Bernstine, Micah Hyde, William Lowe and others.

[+] EnlargeTyler Sash
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa's Tyler Sash will be one of the leaders of the Big Ten's No. 1 secondary.
2. Penn State: The Lions are always solid in the front seven, but the secondary might lead the unit in 2010. Starting safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay both return, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn takes on an enhanced leadership role after recording five pass breakups last fall. Penn State also has high hopes for cornerback Stephon Morris, who recorded 30 tackles and an interception as a freshman in 2009. Converted receiver Chaz Powell should add depth at the corner spot. Opponents completed just 54.1 percent of their passes against Penn State last fall.

3. Ohio State: There are some question marks here after the departures of All-Big Ten standout Kurt Coleman and veteran safety Anderson Russell, but Ohio State almost always finds a way to survive in the back four. The return of Tyler Moeller definitely helps, and safety Jermale Hines could have a big year after recording two interceptions in 2009. Is Chimdi Chekwa ready to be a shut-down corner in the Big Ten? We'll find out. Also keep an eye on athletic corner Devon Torrence and safety Orhian Johnson.

4. Wisconsin: This isn't a shut-down secondary -- evidence: 55th in pass defense in 2009 (217.5 ypg) -- but there are playmakers and hard-hitters, specifically veteran safety Jay Valai, among the group. There's good depth at cornerback with returning starter Devin Smith, Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Marcus Cromartie, who has stood out in camp so far. Chris Maragos is a significant loss at safety, and it remains to be seen whether Aaron Henry can regain his pre-injury form as he moves from cornerback to safety.

5. Minnesota: I'm taking a little leap of faith here again, but if safeties Kim Royston and Kyle Theret are on the field together, good things will happen. The two combined for 159 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups in 2009, and finished with an outstanding performance in the Insight Bowl. I also like talented young cornerback Michael Carter, while Ryan Collado brings experience to the other corner spot. Minnesota expects juco transfer Christyn Lewis and redshirt freshman Kenny Watkins to add depth at safety.

Up next: Offensive line

More rankings ...

Opening camp: Minnesota

August, 5, 2010
Schedule: The Gophers hit the field Friday for their first practice.

What's new: Another offensive coordinator, the Gophers' third in as many seasons. Jeff Horton isn't bringing dramatic changes like his predecessor Jedd Fish, and he'll try to simplify things for senior quarterback Adam Weber, who retained his starting job after spring ball. There are also a ton of new faces on defense as Minnesota loses nine starters, including productive linebackers Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence. The Gophers also have a new wide receivers coach in former NFL player Steve Watson, who must identify some playmakers after the loss of standout Eric Decker.

Sidelined: We thought Kim Royston would be in this category, but the senior safety has healed extremely well from a broken leg this spring. Royston won't be 100 percent for the start of camp, but barring any setbacks, he should be ready for the start of the season. As one of only two returning starters on defense, Royston provides a strong presence in the secondary. Linebacker Sam Maresh, a possible starter, isn't with the team as he improves his grades at a junior college.

Key battle: Name a spot on defense and there's probably some competition there, as Minnesota must find answers at linebacker, defensive end and cornerback. The linebacker group should be particularly interesting. Mike Rallis locked up a starting job this spring, but the other spots are open as Keanon Cooper, Gary Tinsley and others are in the mix. Cornerback also is a spot to watch as Michael Carter and Christyn Lewis try to lock up starting spots.

New on the scene: Head coach Tim Brewster and his staff have recruited well, and it's time they start to see the rewards. Lewis and tight end Tiree Eure both are junior-college transfers who should contribute right away. Minnesota really likes redshirt freshmen offensive linemen Ed Olson and Brooks Michel, and incoming freshman tackle Jimmy Gjere is a name to watch. It also will be interesting to see if freshmen running backs Lamonte Edwards and Donnell Kirkwood can work their way into the mix.

Breaking out: Brewster sings the praises of defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman, and Minnesota could really use a boost in the pass rush from the redshirt freshman. MarQueis Gray didn't win the starting quarterback spot, but he's a guy who needs the ball in his hands one way or another. Replacing Decker will be tough, but Minnesota has high hopes for Da'Jon McKnight, who averaged 18.3 yards on 17 receptions last year.

Time to step up: Without a doubt, Minnesota's offensive line is the group that needs to elevate its play in camp. The line boasts both experience and some exciting young talent, and the players are used to coach Tim Davis and his demands. Minnesota simply can't rank last in the league in rushing year after year. It's time for the line to get tougher, come together and build off of a strong spring.

Quotable: "We're bigger. We're stronger. We're faster. We're more athletic than we've been. And rightfully so. We need to be. We know that we're going to play one of the most challenging schedules in America this season. And our players are going to have to be prepared." -- head coach Tim Brewster

The Revolving Door: Minnesota

June, 10, 2010
All the expansion news has prompted a drought in the Revolving Door series, but it returns today.

Here's my seventh installment of a series examining key players departing, staying and arriving at Big Ten schools.

Going ...

Eric Decker, WR: You could argue Decker was the entire Minnesota offense before he sustained a season-ending foot injury against Ohio State. Decker turned in some amazing performances in September, becoming Minnesota's all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards. The Big Ten coaches showed Decker the ultimate sign of respect by voting Decker first-team all-conference even though he appeared in only eight games.

Lee Campbell, LB: All three of Minnesota's starting linebackers could qualify here, but Campbell gets the nod after an extremely productive senior season. The Floridian ranked third in the Big Ten in tackles with 119, led Minnesota with 11.5 tackles for loss and recorded two blocked kicks, an interception, two fumble recoveries and six passes defended.

Staying ...

Adam Weber, QB: Weber has more experience than any Big Ten signal caller and should benefit from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Jeff Horton and a simplified scheme. Yes, he struggled mightily in 2009, throwing two more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes, but he's only two years removed from earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Don't forget Weber is still Minnesota's all-time passing leader.

Kyle Theret, S: Like Weber, Theret boasts a ton of experience as a starter and should lead a Gophers secondary that might need to replace three starters (depending on Kim Royston's availability). Theret led Minnesota with three interceptions and recorded 73 tackles and seven passes defended. He saved his best performance for the Insight Bowl, where he had two interceptions and made a 40-yard reception on a fake punt.

Coming ...

Jimmy Gjere, OT: It's no secret that Minnesota's offensive line must improve, and while Gjere is only a freshman, he could help right away this season. A heralded prospect from New Brighton, Minn., Gjere not only boasts good size but has length and good footwork. The Gophers ideally would like to redshirt him, but if they need him, he's available.

Christyn Lewis, DB: Given Minnesota's situation in the secondary, Lewis could see the field soon. The junior college transfer from Citrus College in California worked at safety and nickel back during spring ball. Depending on what happens with Royston -- or Theret, who was indefinitely suspended this spring -- Lewis might be a factor in 2010.

More revolving door ...
The spring game recap series marches on with Minnesota, which wrapped up its spring session Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Both the offense and defense had some highs and lows, as the offense started fast before slowing down considerably, while the defense allowed an early touchdown before turning up the heat with physical play in the second half.

Not surprisingly, the quarterbacks took center stage. Three-year starter Adam Weber got most of the work with the first-team offense and led an opening scoring drive, thanks in large part to a 56-yard completion to speedster Troy Stoudermire. But the senior completed less than half his passes (8 of 20) in the game. Backup MarQueis Gray accounted for the game's lone touchdown pass, a 38-yard strike to Hayo Carpenter, but he also threw an interception. Third-stringer Moses Alipate completed 2 of 4 passes for 14 yards.

Head coach Tim Brewster will name a starter in the coming days, and all signs point to Weber, who stepped up his game this spring after a subpar junior season. I'm sure a portion of Gophers fans will be upset to see Weber back at the controls, but his struggles last season weren't all his fault. Remember that he was recruited to play in the spread and had to adjust to a dramatically different and overly complex offense in 2009. He'll be better this season, especially if the offensive line steps up.

Minnesota's running game showed some life early as top backs Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge racked up 97 of their combined 106 rushing yards in the first half. Bennett averaged 6.1 yards a carry, though the backs struggled to find running room late in the game.

The defense played without any returning starters from 2009 but still showed some good things, especially at linebacker. Mike Rallis, a converted safety, recorded two sacks and three tackles for loss. Sam Maresh had two tackles for loss and a pass breakup, and Keanon Cooper picked off a Gray pass.

Other Gophers nuggets:

  • Kenny Watkins and Christyn Lewis filled the starting safety spots in place of the injured Kim Royston and the suspended Kyle Theret, and both players turned in solid performances. Lewis and Watkins combined for seven tackles and two pass breakups.
  • Minnesota must replace both of its starting defensive tackles, but Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey earned high marks from reporters who attended the game.
  • The biggest hole for the defense could be the cornerback spot, as it must replace Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels. Michael Carter recorded two pass breakups in the spring game and Ryan Collado added three tackles and a pass breakup. Kyle Henderson, a transfer from Minnesota-Mankato, was one of the spring game stars with four tackles and three pass breakups. Still, Minnesota needs to develop more depth there.
  • Kicker Eric Ellestad turned in a solid performance, going 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts with a long of 50 yards.
Here's the second half of my interview with Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster, whose team kicks off spring practice today. For Part I, click here.

You can't expect another Eric Decker to emerge, but wide receiver will be a key position in 2010. Who do you lean on among the wideout group?

Tim Brewster: The guy who I think has a chance to be really good is Da'Jon McKnight. Again, [the wide receivers will] benefit from a guy like Steve Watson, who played 10 years in the NFL and coached wide receivers and was a wide receiver. He's going to do a great job with those guys. Da'Jon, he's 6-foot-3, he's 210 pounds, big, strong, physical guy that can run and catch. I'm expecting big things out of Da'Jon. Then you look at Troy [Stoudermire] and Brandon Green, and I really think Bryant Allen's got a chance to take the next step. Hayo Carpenter, last year he didn't do much, he got in here late and he's really showing some things. So we've got some talent there to work with.

On defense, as far as leadership, do you really lean on the two safeties, [Kim] Royston and [Kyle] Theret?

TB: Yeah. They're two guys that are really experienced, tough guys. And then Christyn Lewis has come in, the JC corner, and really done a nice job. And Michael Carter, I think is really going to take the next step at a cornerback position. Ryan Collado really did some good things for us last year, particularly down the stretch. But I'm really excited about our linebackers. We've got some linebackers that all can run, very physical type guys, and it's going to be good. Ra'Shede Hageman's got a chance to be a special player. He's 6-foot-6, he's weighing 292 pounds, runs like a deer. He's got a chance, along with Brandon Kirksey, Jewhan Edwards and D.L. Wilhite, to really have a pretty good group up front.

People always talk about up-the-middle defense. You have some good safeties, but middle linebacker and D-tackle have to be positions you're going to watch.

TB: When you look at middle linebacker, we've got competition there between Gary Tinsley and Sam Maresh. It's going to be fun to see Sam out there, competing this spring. They're two big, physical guys. And when you look at Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey, and Anthony Jacobs is also going to play inside, I think we've got the makings of a strong group down the middle and a group that is athletic and can run. That's the area where we've most improved, athletically.

You mentioned wanting to have the quarterback spot settled by the end of the spring. There are a lot of these other competitions. So how much of the depth chart would you like to know by the end of the spring?

TB: What we want to do is have a good feel for who we can count on from this group, excluding the incoming freshmen. I think we'll be able to come out of spring practice with a good feeling of who we're going to be able to count on when we go to Middle Tennessee [Sept. 2].

You've talked so much about recruiting and how it's a big emphasis. Is there a different feeling now that you recruited most of the guys on this team?

TB: I feel like we've done a good job recruiting, but that's got to translate to the field. We, as coaches, have got to do a great job of developing the young talent. That's the challenge for us. We've got some talented kids. We've got to do our job as a staff, and I feel good about our coaches. We'll get after it and develop these kids. And I think the competition is really going to push our players to take that next step.

Big Ten afternoon news nuggets

December, 18, 2009
A few items for you on a dreary Friday in Chicago.
  • Minnesota has announced the signings of two junior college players, tight end Tiree Eure and defensive back Christyn Lewis. Eure previously played for Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa., while Lewis was an all-conference selection for Citrus College in Glendora, Calif. Gophers head coach Tim Brewster has signed a decent number of juco players during his three-year tenure, and both Eure and Lewis will be in the mix immediately. "I expect that each will step in right away and compete strongly for playing time," Brewster said in a statement.
  • New Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning received a two-year contract worth $325,000 a year, which is quite a bit below what new Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino will make ($475,000). Athletic director Ron Guenther also broke his silence today about the football program and explained his decision-making.
  • Indiana's All-Big Ten defensive end Jammie Kirlew has been named a semifinalist for the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup, given to a college and professional athlete who made the greatest positive influence in the lives of others. Kirlew, a two-time team MVP and a four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, is active in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Program and has volunteered at the Bloomington Boys & Girls Club. The award will be presented Jan. 19.