Big Ten: Collin Ellis

The debuts don’t go unappreciated, and Pat Fitzgerald has made sure to dish out some praise for all the preparation and effort that goes into a breakout performance.

But those moments don’t last long with the Northwestern coach. His precocious youngsters are being reminded that it won’t always be as easy as they’ve made it look during their first starts, and they shouldn’t expect any statues erected in their honor for being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week.

If Northwestern is collectively going to earn any sort of hardware this season, it figures that their ongoing youth movement will lead the way. And that construction project, a sort of rebuilding-on-the-fly effort, appears to be right on schedule for Northwestern after a couple of upset victories sparked by talented freshmen.

“[Fitzgerald] will praise us a little bit, but then he goes back and tells us what we can correct,” redshirt freshman linebacker Anthony Walker told ESPN.com. “As a coach, you don’t want your guys to get too much of a big head, and I think that’s good for us. We’ve played well, but we have a long way to go fixing the mistakes that we made.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Walker
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAnthony Walker stepped up with eight tackles and an interception at Penn State.
“It’s not coming down on you, it’s focusing on the fact that you can get better at this, get better at that. And the young guys are just coming together. We feel like we’ve got to step up for this football team to be great.”

The Wildcats were far from that to open the season, losing back-to-back games against California and Northern Illinois to continue the misery that stretched back to the middle of last year, when a promising 4-0 start unraveled at the seams with seven consecutive losses.

So far, Northwestern has flipped that script entirely around, and it’s been the plugging in of well-prepared understudies that has helped lead to the rewrite.

When senior Collin Ellis went down with an injury before the conference opener at Penn State, the Wildcats turned to Walker. He responded with a team-high eight tackles and nabbed his first career interception, which he returned for a 49-yard touchdown in the surprising blowout win on the road.

Last weekend, another veteran defender was forced to the sideline with an injury. And with safety Ibraheim Campbell on the shelf, Godwin Igwebuike stepped in and grabbed three interceptions, tying a school record and topping Walker’s outing by adding Defensive Player of the Week honors as well. Meanwhile, true freshman running back Justin Jackson has shouldered the load that was expected to be handled by another senior. Jackson continued his emergence since Venric Mark transferred during training camp by rushing for 162 yards to help provide enough offense to hold off Wisconsin for another critical league win.

The underclassmen obviously aren’t doing it all themselves. But it’s surely more than coincidence that Northwestern’s turnaround has included prominent roles for a group of players who clearly are buying the message Fitzgerald has been pitching since that rough early start.

“I really believe it has very little to do with us,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not trying to minimize coaching, but it has everything to do with how you prepare. We’ve believed in that for a long, long time, and that’s something that we value highly. It’s great to see young guys buy into what we’re preaching and then actually seeing the fruits of that type of investment.

“But we’re not going to allow them to become complacent. That’s an evil word around here.”

Buying into the hype is something of a cardinal sin as well for the Wildcats, and Fitzgerald helps fight that off with his public jokes about making sure nobody builds statues for Walker or Igwebuike after one impressive start.

That doesn’t mean their work goes unappreciated. It just means there’s a lot more to do if the freshmen are going to turn the Wildcats into a true contender in the Big Ten's West Division.

“We went in with a national championship mindset and we suffered through bad losses the first two weeks, but we hadn’t played a Big Ten game yet,” Walker said. “We always knew when the Big Ten games came, we needed to take our game up to another level.

“Some young guys were needed to contribute early, and we took on the challenge.”

They haven’t needed long to prove they’re up for the task.

Northwestern win a big step forward

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
3:00
PM ET
video
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Wideout Kyle Prater embraced one of his Northwestern teammates Saturday afternoon, while another player turned to the crowd and emptied his lungs: “We are … N-U!”

With more than a minute left, before the Wildcats’ 29-6 upset win over Penn State became official, Northwestern’s sideline erupted into joy. Players high-fived, at least a half-dozen patted quarterback Trevor Siemian on the shoulder pads, and smiles on the sideline might’ve eventually outnumbered the lingering Penn State fans.

“Yeah, baby!” superback Dan Vitale yelled.

For a full calendar year, Northwestern had waited for a win like this. Since Sept. 22, 2013, the Wildcats had beaten only one other FBS team -- Illinois -- and that was simply by a field goal. One disappointment had stacked upon another, and there was no telling when the Wildcats might lift that burden. Last season, they lost on a last-second Hail Mary and, two weeks later, fell in triple overtime. This season, they came up short in a comeback bid against Cal and felt the pang of disappointment in a 23-15 loss to Northern Illinois.

But, on Saturday afternoon, that chapter of close calls and mounting losses finally ended. For once, frustration gave way to the feeling of a win. A good win, one Northwestern has been searching for for more than 370 days.

[+] EnlargeDan Vitale
MCT via Getty ImagesDan Vitale posted seven receptions for 113 yards in Northwestern's upset of Penn State.
“It’s been a while since we felt that,” Vitale said, less than a half-hour after the on-field celebration.

But this game, this effort, wasn’t just about the win itself for Northwestern, it was about the overall performance. The Wildcats were finally able to increase the offensive tempo, they were finally able to overcome injuries (wideout Tony Jones played, and Collin Ellis’ replacement at linebacker returned an interception for a TD), and this finally looked like a Big Ten team capable of making a bowl game.

Even the demeanor of Pat Fitzgerald seemed different. Two weeks ago, he labeled his football team an “embarrassment.” On Saturday afternoon, inside a humid media room, he still cracked a few self-deprecating jokes (e.g. -- “I don’t know how many times you’ve seen us play this year -- yeah, we haven’t been very good.”), but every sentence was punctuated with a smile.

More importantly, he continued to voice just how proud he was of this team. That praise has been rare for these Wildcats over the past year.

“They’ve persevered, they’ve stayed together, and we’ve been hard on them because we need to be,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re an immature football team that’s maturing in front of our eyes, and I’m really pleased with our seniors. This is a senior-type statement win.”

This was the Wildcats' biggest margin of victory since Nov. 24, 2012, when they beat Illinois by 36 points. So the change was evident, even as the players deflected any talk of altering the scheme or gameplan. They simply chalked up any differences to an increased focus -- and attributed that to their head coach.

Fitzgerald was criticized for taking a soft approach to practice in August, but he changed his philosophy in September. Northwestern players were forced to practice in the rain at one point, and mistakes often met the ire of Fitzgerald’s whistle -- which would signal the dreaded “up-downs.” For the last two or three weeks, players said, this team was evolving and improving from that first uninspired performance. This win against Penn State wasn’t an anomaly; it was simply the end result.

“You could see the passion in everybody’s eyes,” Vitale said. “I think we didn’t have that the first couple weeks. But, with the way we’re practicing, we really turned it around out there.”

Added Siemian: “I think we put three weeks together. As bad as it is to say, those first two weeks we kind of lulled through.”

If Northwestern was asleep before its matchup against Penn State, it was certainly awake by the end. Once the clock finally ticked down to zero, after Northwestern patiently waited for Penn State to finish singing its alma mater, the Wildcats sprinted about 30 yards to celebrate with the smattering of purple shirts left in the crowd.

If it wasn’t for a post-game performance by the band, Northwestern might’ve stayed on that field for a half-hour. They jumped, hugged, yelled and clapped right as the band director made his way to the stand. It was a moment they awaited for far too long.

Even after that emotional win, the Wildcats still haven’t arrived. But, instead of taking one step forward and 10 steps back, they finally took a giant leap in the right direction. They finally look like a team that doesn’t belong in the West’s cellar.

“Are we there yet? Not even close,” Fitzgerald said. “But that, to me, is what’s most encouraging -- how much better we can be in all three phases.”

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
12:00
PM ET
There might not be two teams in the Big Ten that are more opposite than Northwestern and Penn State.

The Wildcats have struggled to bounce back and win close games; the Nittany Lions' trademark has become late-game rallies. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s practices lacked energy early on, while James Franklin’s players lauded their intensity. Fitzgerald labeled his team’s lack of toughness an "embarrassment," while Franklin has praised his squad’s resiliency.

Around this time last season, a lot of that was flipped. Northwestern was the team on the rise, one that reached No. 16 in the polls. Penn State remained a conference question mark, one with a suspect secondary and a true freshman at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J PuskarLate comebacks led by Christian Hackenberg are becoming the norm at Penn State.
It’s amazing how quickly fortunes can change. Now, the Lions are on the cusp of being ranked. And the Wildcats are trying to avoid being labeled the worst team in the Big Ten.

"I can’t speak for Northwestern," Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell said, when asked about the difference. "For us, everybody is just resilient. We don’t put our head down for anything. We just keep fighting."

Penn State and Northwestern will meet at noon Saturday in Beaver Stadium. Here is an overview of just how far apart these two teams have grown:

Close games: Of Northwestern’s past 11 games, seven were decided by a single score. The Wildcats won just one of those close games. Of Penn State’s past 11 games, six were decided by a single score. The Lions lost just one of those close games.

During that span, quarterback Christian Hackenberg has led Penn State to four game-tying or game-winning drives, all scores that occurred within the last 90 seconds of regulation. Northwestern hasn’t been able to make the best of similar opportunities. A few examples: Against Iowa last season, the Wildcats fumbled in Iowa territory late in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime. Against Michigan in 2013, Northwestern lost in overtime when it was sacked 14 yards on second down and then tossed a pick on the final play. And against Cal three weeks ago, Northwestern found itself 27 yards from a game-tying touchdown -- but but threw an interception with about 90 seconds remaining.

Current injuries/depth: Penn State lacks depth but, so far, the only injury that has significantly impacted the team this season is the one suffered by offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach. Another injury to the line -- or to the linebackers or quarterback -- could be devastating. But Penn State has been able to stay relatively healthy. Northwestern, on the other hand, has basically faced a nightmare scenario when it comes to injuries and departures.

Tailback Venric Mark, who averaged 6.0 yards a carry in 2012, transferred elsewhere in a surprise preseason move. Top wideout Christian Jones is out for the season. No. 2 wideout Tony Jones missed two games with a leg injury and is not on this week’s depth chart. All-Big Ten talent Ibraheim Campbell, a safety, and senior linebacker Collin Ellis are day-to-day. And quarterback Trevor Siemian is battling an ankle injury.

Starting off: Both teams have actually tended to start slow, but Penn State’s defense has started on the right foot in each of the past four games. So far, Penn State has yet to allow a point in the first quarter and is outscoring the competition 20-0. On the other end, Northwestern has yet to score any points in the first quarter against an FBS team, although it did manage to score a TD against Western Illinois.

Northwestern started 0-2 for the first time since 2004. Penn State is 4-0 for the first time since 2008.

Preseason practice: The mood at Northwestern’s practices was clearly different than past years. Maybe Fitzgerald was worried about the potential for injuries and wanted to take it a bit easier, seeing as 13 key players were injured last November. Regardless, Adam Rittenberg said the most energy shown in an August workout was a watermelon-eating contest, and that the atmosphere mimicked a "a country club."

Fitzgerald has since turned up the intensity, forcing his team to do up-down drills (something he hasn’t really done in the past) and even having his team practice outside in the rain. But that early tone was far different from Franklin’s.

In August, Franklin took the opposite approach. After one practice, he yelled at a freshman to jog off the field faster. Recruits told ESPN.com there was more energy than the year before. And Franklin even invited reporters to watch the infamous "Lions Den" drill, where the energy was palpable. It seemed as if the coaches had two very different philosophies back in August.

Big Ten morning links

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
8:00
AM ET
When you're watching Big Ten football on opening weekend, be sure to read between the lines.

Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.

Let's take a look:

Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.

"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.

Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.

Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.

Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.

Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.

Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.

To the links ...

West Division
East Division
And, finally ...

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM ET
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

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

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

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

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

Projected starters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
Big Ten Media Days is nearly upon us. Just survive the weekend, and you'll get a full dose of coaches and players on Monday and Tuesday. As our time to preview the event winds to an end, here's a fearless forecast of what to expect from the Hilton Chicago:
  • Jim Delany will make news. The Big Ten commissioner almost certainly will not follow the lead of his Big 12 counterpart, Bob Bowlsby, who this week slammed the enforcement arm of the NCAA, saying it pays to cheat in college athletics. But Delany will address tough questions about the game in an up-front manner. He'll discuss the potential ramifications of the upcoming vote by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to grant autonomy to the five major conferences and the upcoming verdict in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. Both events could alter the landscape of college football, which makes the opinion of Delany -- one of the game's top power brokers -- of high interest.
  • An awkward moment or two for the Northwestern players. It's no coincidence that the Wildcats chose to send a trio of seniors to this event. Safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and quarterback Trevor Siemian are smart guys. They'll be well equipped to answer questions about an offseason like no other at their school, highlighted by a late-April vote of players on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. Still, facing a large media throng, the players will get peppered with questions about the situation and the possibility that its fallout may linger as a distraction at their school for some time.
  • Randy Edsall will end his war of words with the ACC. Highly doubtful that the Maryland coach chooses to fire back at Clemson's Dabo Swinney, who defended the ACC after Edsall said he was pleased to make the jump to coach in a “football conference.” Edsall, speaking at lunch event in Baltimore on July 14, said he was “not in a basketball conference anymore.” In response, Swinney, at ACC Media Days, referenced the Tigers win over Ohio State to end last season in the Orange Bowl. “Aren't they in that conference?” Swinney said. There's not much more to say here, especially for a coach who went 13-24 in three seasons in the ACC. Oh, and who said the Big Ten's not a basketball league?
  • Connor Cook will charm the media. Michigan State's junior quarterback is known as a blue-collar guy, in step with Spartan style, who did just enough last season not to spoil the 13-1 MSU season capped with wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But Cook is more than that. And the writers and broadcasters in Chicago may be in for a surprise to meet this quarterback now brimming with confidence as a result of his strong finish to 2013 and a productive offseason. I met Cook recently during the Elite 11 finals, at which he counseled the nation's top prep quarterbacks, and came away impressed with his poise and confidence.
  • Brandon Scherff will get asked to lift something heavy. And politely decline. What else can you expect in the wake of this recent video? Scherff possesses freakish strength. He would likely win a strongest-man competition among all Big Ten players. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis compared Scherff's dominance to former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whom Davis encountered while coaching at Texas in 2009. A likely first-round NFL draft pick next spring, Scherff provides a great luxury for the Hawkeyes at left tackle. And if anyone needs help with a suitcase in Chicago, he's your man.
Big Ten media days are right around the corner. Earlier today, we took a closer look at the players coming to Chicago from the East Division. Now it's time to do the same for the West.

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT: He's a two-year starter on the Illini offensive line, spending last season at left tackle for one of the more explosive offenses in the league. He and his younger brother, Peter, a freshman, will be playing for a new position coach, as Tom Brattan was officially hired last week.

Jon Davis, Sr., TE: A versatile player who can line up at tight end or out wide, Davis is one of the Illini's few returning receiving threats after catching 25 balls for 208 yards last season.

Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL: A returning starter at defensive tackle, Teitsma will be a leader on the defense this season. The Illini hope he can help improve a rush defense that was worst in the league last year.

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT: A second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Davis is one of the top defensive tackles in the league. He has been projected by some as a possible first-round NFL draft pick next year.

Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL: Scherff is almost guaranteed to be a first-round pick and should challenge for All-America honors as the Hawkeyes' left tackle. Also, he can do this, which is insane.

Mark Weisman, Sr., RB: A former walk-on who was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten in 2012, Weisman finished 25 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing last season. His role might change a little in a crowded backfield this fall.

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB: Cobb had the 12th-highest rushing total in Gophers history last season with 1,202 yards. But he'll face some competition, as Minnesota is loaded at running back.

Mitch Leidner, So., QB: Philip Nelson's offseason departure paved the way for Leidner to take over the Gophers' quarterback job. He's a dangerous runner who needs to become a more accurate passer for Minnesota's offense to take the next step.

Cedric Thompson, Sr., S: A two-year starter at safety, Thompson led the team with 79 tackles a year ago. He also has an intriguing back story.

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB: One of the star attractions of media day, Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing last year with 1,690 yards. He's the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense.

Kenny Bell, Sr., WR: Us media types were very excited to see Bell -- a tremendous personality -- included on the list of player attendees. Expect some excellent quotes from Mr. Afro Thunder. He also happens to be an outstanding receiver known almost as much for his ferocious blocking as his speed and ball skills.

Corey Cooper, Sr., S: Cooper led the Huskers with 91 tackles last season and has 17 starts under his belt. He should be one of the leaders for the Blackshirts.

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S: Campbell has been an anchor for the Wildcats' secondary since he was a freshman All-American. Last year, he had 73 tackles and four interceptions.

Collin Ellis, Sr., LB: In his first year as a starter in 2013, Ellis had 78 tackles and three interceptions, returning two of them for scores in the opener at Cal. He shifted to middle linebacker in the offseason.

Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB: The quarterback job is all his now after he split time with Kain Colter the past two seasons. Siemian has a big arm, as evidenced by his 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in last year's finale against Illinois.

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB: He can claim the title of fastest man in the Big Ten after his success in track this offseason. A dynamic kick returner, Mostert will try to make a big impact on offense this year with a full-time switch to running back.

Sean Robinson, Sr., LB: Converted last summer from backup quarterback to defense, Robinson quickly became a starter and key contributor. His experience and unselfishness makes him a leader for the Boilers.

Ryan Russell, Sr., DE: A veteran of 35 starts, Russell might be Purdue's most athletically gifted defensive player. He had 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2013.


WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB: Another media day main attraction, Gordon is one of the most explosive players in the country. He ran for 1,609 yards while averaging 7.8 yards per carry as a sophomore.

Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT: There won't be many bigger players in Chicago than Havenstein, who checks in at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds. He has started the past 27 games at right tackle and made second-team All-Big Ten a year ago.

Warren Herring, Sr., DL: Herring will be a key player for the Badgers' defensive line, which lost all three starters from last season. He's also got some pretty sweet moves.
SEC media days finally have wrapped up, and several other leagues will be on the stage next week. The Big Ten holds its media festivities July 28-29 in Chicago, and we're running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago.

Northwestern is next on the proverbial dais, as coach Pat Fitzgerald will be joined by quarterback Trevor Siemian, safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Collin Ellis.

1. How much is the unionizing debate impacting Northwestern's season preparations?

The last we saw Wildcats players, they were casting a historic vote on whether or not to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board has yet to rule on the university's appeal of the regional office's decision that would permit a union. If the NLRB rejects the appeal, the votes would be unsealed. The timing for the NLRB's ruling is unknown, and even if the appeal is shot down, the players are expected to vote down the union. But the debate was a major distraction during spring practice and could surface again during a critical preseason, where Northwestern must come together. Expect Fitzgerald and the players to downplay the union talk, although it will be interesting to see what Campbell, a close friend of union catalyst Kain Colter, has to say.

2. How will the offensive approach change with Siemian at the controls?

The big plus coming out of the spring was Siemian establishing himself as the top quarterback and clear-cut team leader. He shared quarterbacking duties with Colter the past two seasons, which worked at times but also muddled Northwestern's offensive identity. Siemian's strength as a passer, combined with a more experienced offensive line, suggests Northwestern will return to the pass-first approach it used from 2007-2010. The Wildcats return their three pass-catchers from 2013 -- Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale -- and should be strong on the perimeter if they choose to feature the air game. But they also are extremely deep at running back as Venric Mark, a 2012 All-Big Ten selection, returns from injury. Northwestern undoubtedly will pass more with Siemian, but it can't neglect Mark, its most explosive player.

3. What are the biggest priorities entering preseason camp?

Fitzgerald admitted late in the spring that Northwestern is behind schedule after missing a bowl game and the practices that go along with them. The Wildcats also had 11 players miss the spring with injuries, including projected starters like Mark and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly, and potential starters like defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Cornerback Daniel Jones, an opening day starter in 2012, also should be back from a knee injury. The defensive line will be a focal point as McEvilly, Odenigbo and Gibson return to the rotation. Northwestern also must figure out its running back rotation, how promising young defensive backs like Godwin Igwebuike will be used and who emerges in the kicking game, as All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien departs.
The NFL draft might not have reflected it, but the Big Ten lost several decorated defensive leaders this year. Spring practice marked a torch-passing around the league, particularly at the linebacker position, as players moved from supporting roles to the spotlight.

Let's take a look at a few of them:

Derek Landisch, Wisconsin

Vitals: Senior, 6-feet, 230 pounds; Nashotah, Wis.

Career profile: 28 games, three starts, 81 tackles, two fumbles recovered, one forced fumble, two passes defended

What they're saying: "He is a quiet leader, really a lot like Chris Borland. Not a bunch of rah-rah, but demands respect. He's done a nice job there." -- coach Gary Andersen

The skinny: Wisconsin loses almost its entire starting defensive front seven, including Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year and a starter for three-plus seasons. Landisch won't fill Borland's production and explosiveness by himself, but he's a solid player who should be able to guide younger players. "I'm trying to step up," Landisch said. "We need leaders on defense, we need an identity on defense."

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsPenn State LB Mike Hull says he hopes to emulate the leadership of Michael Mauti.
Mike Hull, Penn State

Vitals: Senior, 6-feet, 227 pounds; Canonsburg, Pa.

Career profile: 35 games, 154 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries

What they're saying: "Mike is very mature. He's football smart. I think he feels like it's his time. There's not a player I trust more than him." -- defensive coordinator Bob Shoop

The skinny: Hull has plenty of experience, but after understudying Michael Mauti and Glenn Carson, he steps to center stage this fall. He's a bit undersized but exceptionally strong, and while he's not the most vocal player, he understands the need to lead. "I try to be my own person, but I definitely take things from what Mauti did and what Glenn did," Hull said. "Mauti was such a great leader, demanded so much out of the guys. I want to be like the leader he was."

Quinton Alston, Iowa

Vitals: Senior, 6-1, 232 pounds; Sicklerville, N.J.

Career profile: 29 games, one start, 24 tackles, one fumble recovery

What they're saying: "James Morris really helped him out, showing how you need to lead. He takes command of the huddle when he's out there. We really like the progress that he's made. He's really got to be the quarterback of the defense." -- defensive coordinator Phil Parker

The skinny: Alston was Iowa's fourth linebacker last year and would have played more if starters Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey had left the field more. Communication is a strength of Alston's, and while he'll get help from a veteran line, he has to guide a new-look group that includes Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry.

Collin Ellis, Northwestern

Vitals: Senior, 6-2, 230 pounds; St. Gabriel, La.

Career profile: 33 games, 115 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three interceptions, six pass breakups

What they're saying: "He's always given us leadership, but playing [middle linebacker] now, he's more positioned to do that because he's making more calls and he's communicating with all the groups. The players respect him." -- defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz

The skinny: Ellis started at outside linebacker last year but shifts to the middle after the loss of Damien Proby. He's a bit undersized for the middle spot but has good speed and intelligence. Ellis recorded two pick-sixes last year and moves well laterally. He also welcomes the increased leadership. "Last year, we were getting hurt up the middle, so that's where I'm supposed to fit," Ellis said. "It's a new position and obviously there's a bit of a learning curve I have to get over, but I played a bit of it last year.

Taiwan Jones, Michigan State

Vitals: Senior, 6-3, 252 pounds; New Baltimore, Mich.

Career profile: 41 games, 17 starts, 123 tackles 13 tackles for loss, four passes defended

What they're saying: "He's a more physical type of guy to begin with, so I think he brings a physical style in the box. He should be a little more at home there." -- defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi

The skinny: Jones moves from weakside linebacker to the middle, where he replaces three-year starter Max Bullough. He has the size to play the position but must master the schematic complexities that Bullough picked up so well in his career. Jones also talked this spring about leading with confidence to get his teammates to trust him.

Video: Northwestern LB Collin Ellis

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
3:30
PM ET
video Northwestern's Collin Ellis talks with Adam Rittenberg about moving to middle linebacker this spring and how the team is handling the upcoming union vote


The next 24 hours are pivotal and historic in college sports. Right now, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors are meeting in Indianapolis, where they're expected to approve a proposal granting autonomy to the major revenue-generating conferences. This would allow the big leagues to provide significant benefits for athletes.

Then, on Friday morning, up to 76 Northwestern players will vote whether to form a union after being deemed employees of the school by the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

Here's what you need to know about the vote:

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has voiced his strong opposition to players unionizing.
Where: The N Club room inside McGaw Hall, just north of Ryan Field.

When: There are two voting windows, 6 a.m.-7:30 a.m. CT and 10 a.m.-noon CT

Who: Scholarship football players who are enrolled and participating in team activities. Walk-ons or incoming scholarship players who have yet to enroll are not part of the vote. Players are not required to vote.

Voting procedure: A simple majority is required to form the union. The NLRB will monitor the vote. Officials from both Northwestern and the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent players in a union, can observe the vote.

Possible outcomes: Although Friday's vote is important, its outcome is tied to a pending appeal by Northwestern of the regional director's ruling. If the NLRB's national office chooses to consider the appeal, it could overturn the original decision, effectively killing the union push. If so, the results of Friday's vote would never come to light. If the NLRB national office denies the appeal, the vote would be revealed. If a majority of players vote for the union, it would be formed and the players could attempt to collectively bargain with Northwestern. CAPA, led by president Ramogi Huma, would represent the players in negotiations with the school. If Northwestern chooses not to collectively bargain, the case would go to federal court. If the players vote down the union and the NLRB denies the appeal, confirming players as Northwestern employees, there could be another union vote in 12 months.

Lobbying: Both CAPA and Northwestern have briefed players about the implications of unionizing in recent weeks. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald outlined his anti-union position in an extensive Q&A with players and their families. Fitzgerald is allowed to state his views and provide information, but he cannot make promises or threats about the vote, nor can he solicit players about how they will vote. CAPA and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who launched the union push in January, also have been in contact with players about the vote. Neither side can meet with players in the 24 hours before the vote.

The buzz: Several senior leaders on the team, including quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark, have voiced their opposition to the union. Linebacker Collin Ellis told ESPN.com that players entered the campaign with the hope of getting change at the national level, not to cast Northwestern in a negative light. There's undoubtedly a pro-union group on the team who have been quieter leading up to the vote. Many others have weighed in, from former Northwestern players to other college coaches and players. Former Northwestern president Henry Bienen questioned whether Northwestern could continue with big-time athletics if it had a union. Several politicians, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have voiced their support for CAPA and the union push. So have union leaders both inside and outside the sports world. No one has suggested the status quo remains, but many question whether unionizing is the right mechanism for players to improve their situation.

A few more thoughts:

  • The timing of the vote is fascinating, on the heels of the Division I Board of Directors meeting. An approval could signal to players that new benefits are on the horizon, such as enhanced athletic scholarships, continuing education and long-term medical coverage. Would a union be worth it at that point? Remember, neither side can meet with the players today, so they would have to track the Division I meeting on their own.
  • Check out more coverage of the union vote and its implications here and here and here and here.
  • Media are not permitted in the voting room or on campus near McGaw Hall, so coverage of Friday's vote could be limited. Northwestern is allowing players to talk to the media if they so choose, but Fitzgerald, athletic director Jim Phillips and other officials aren't expected to speak.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7 in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You can't stop people."

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the defense can fill those gaps and firm up its midsection, it could be the reason for more Wildcats wins this season.
We're previewing all of the Big Ten spring games, even the ones that are not quite spring games, like Northwestern's practice on Saturday.

When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.

What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.

And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.

Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.

There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.

Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.

Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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