Big Ten: Dalyn Dawkins

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
The Big Ten was largely immune to the new NCAA targeting rules until two weeks ago. Then Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste was ejected for a hit on Purdue's Dalyn Dawkins in Week 7. Last Saturday, Ohio State's Bradley Roby was tossed for a first-quarter tackle attempt on Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz.

Predictably, neither Nebraska nor Ohio State enjoyed seeing one of its star defenders forcibly removed from the game. Both Bo Pelini and Urban Meyer publicly questioned the calls made against their players, with Meyer saying the targeting rule needs a second look.

The new rule is designed to protect players' safety, which everyone can get behind. But the implementation of the rule has proven controversial and unpopular. That's why it's time to give Pat Fitzgerald's proposed solution some serious consideration.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a solid idea on the NCAA targeting rule that borrows from soccer.
The Northwestern coach said it in the summer and reiterated his idea on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference Tuesday when asked about targeting. He thinks the NCAA should borrow a page from soccer and hand out yellow and red cards. A yellow card would be issued for a first offense and serve as a warning, while a red card would mean an ejection.

Fitzgerald says that he hasn't seen any intent to harm in the plays called for targeting fouls and that most of them are "momentary mistakes," often made in open-field tackling situations where a player -- often a defensive back -- is just fighting to make a stop.

Now go back and review the Jean-Baptiste and Roby hits. I thought the call on Jean-Baptiste was more questionable under the rules as written than Roby's, but you could make a case both ways on each hit after watching slow-motion replays from every angle. However, in neither case does there appear to be malicious intent to hurt the ball carrier. In Roby's case, he's a 5-foot-11 cornerback going after a 6-7 tight end.

Wouldn't a yellow card/warning have been sufficient for both Jean-Baptiste and Roby? That would make them think twice about hitting opponents high and reinforce the need for better form tackling. Red cards, meanwhile, could be issued for truly violent and dangerous plays like this one. You'd still be putting the judgment in the officials' hands, but at least they'd have more than one punishment to work with instead of treating every hard collision like a crime. Right now, it seems, officials are erring on the side of player safety whenever a hit is in doubt.

A player who was issued a yellow card would likely become more tentative in the rest of the game, worrying about being thrown out for another foul. But that's a smaller price to pay than having to sit out an entire game (or two halves). The nightmare scenario is for a star player to get ejected on a questionable call in an important game down the stretch this season. Imagine if, for example, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard was kicked out of the Big Ten title game for a borderline hit against Ohio State with a Rose Bowl bid on the line. Can you picture the uproar from Mark Dantonio and the entire Spartans fan base?

Normally my eyes glaze over and I look for excuses to leave the room whenever I hear anyone talk about soccer. But this is one idea from that sport that football should think seriously about adopting. It's not a perfect system, but it's better than the one we have now.

Gregory keys Husker D in homecoming

October, 12, 2013
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Everyone wanted a piece of Randy Gregory earlier this week, so much so that the Nebraska defensive end could only say "probably around 15" when asked how many friends and family members he knew Saturday in the Ross-Ade Stadium stands.

A short while earlier, he had looked right back at home while walking off the field, serenaded with a chorus of "GRE-GO-RY!" cheers by a whole lot more than 15 of the Cornhusker faithful, thousands of whom had turned this venue into Memorial Stadium East and waited until the end to soak in every minute of a defensive performance long in the making.

Gregory's homecoming was a success on all fronts, with the nearby Fishers, Ind., native making plays that had to have made any locals who remained for the second half shake their heads at the one who got away.

The one-time Purdue commit wreaked havoc on the Boilermakers, forcing and recovering a fumble and recording two sacks, including a safety, in Nebraska's commanding 44-7 win here. He added another sack in the fourth quarter, too, but that one was brought back because of an offsides penalty.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNebraska DE Randy Gregory recovers a fumble against Purdue in the Cornhuskers' 44-7 victory on the road.
Forgive him for being a little anxious. This was his first time delivering blows to the home team inside this building.

"It's big. We've always been known as the Blackshirts, and I think the coaches, I know I have, and some of the other guys were waiting for us to really play together and start playing like the Blackshirts that everyone knows," Gregory said. "These last few weeks are big for us -- how we want to play for the rest of the season."

To be clear, this was against the Boilermakers, who had beaten only FCS Indiana State this year, who had entered Saturday with the nation's No. 117 offense -- 112th in scoring -- and who had just turned over control to quarterback Danny Etling.

But the Huskers did not make life easy for the true freshman in his first career start, picking off Etling once and limiting him to 14-for-35 passing for 184 yards -- 55 of which came on a touchdown pass to DeAngelo Yancey with 39 seconds left, ruining Nebraska's shot at its first Big Ten shutout.

"I thought it was great," head coach Bo Pelini said of the defense. "We really were about three quarters and about 14-and-a-half minutes, but that last one was unfortunate."

Still, Nebraska weathered the early-season storm of fielding a young defense and has now opened Big Ten play by holding consecutive opponents to less than 20 points, with a bye week and then a trip to Minnesota on the docket before a Nov. 2 Legends Division rendezvous with Northwestern.

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis knew this was going to be a work-in-progress from the get-go, and he has found himself liking what he sees a whole lot more.

"On track," Papuchis said when asked if the unit had exceeded expectations so far. "I think when you look at some of the games, there were some things that we would've liked to have done better, but I think we're kind of where I thought we would be about half-way through. And being 2-0 in the Big Ten and 5-1 overall -- obviously our expectations are always to be perfect, but I feel pretty good about where we're at."

He can thank Gregory for that, with the defensive coordinator saying that players like the 6-foot-6, 255-pound end make the staff better coaches.

Gregory's first big play came mid-way through the second quarter, turning the momentum by drilling Purdue rung back Dalyn Dawkins and recovering the loose ball, just one play after the Huskers watched corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste get tossed on a controversial targeting penalty. Ameer Abdullah rushed for a 28-yard score on the next play to make it 21-0. With the lead up to 28-0 mid-way late in the third, Gregory chased Etling a whopping 17 yards back into the end zone for a safety.

Three Etling snaps later, and the rookie was again on the ground because of Gregory, this time for an 11-yard loss.

"Randy's kind of an even-keeled guy," defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. "He's just kind of business as usual, and so that's what you want in a guy. You don't want a guy too high, you don't want a guy getting too low. And I think that helps with him being a mature guy, an older guy, even though it's his first year."

Two years at Arizona Western Community College, coupled with a Purdue coaching change, placed Gregory on Nebraska's side here Saturday, playing some 70 miles or so away from home.

Ron Kellogg III stood by after the game when Gregory made a late exit from the locker room and was met by a throng of reporters, with the quarterback jokingly begging the day's star for a shout out.

Gregory had slightly more important people to please nearby before heading back to Lincoln.

"I think there are a few of them over at the buses right now I'm trying to get to," Gregory said of his family members. "I didn't see them in the stands, but I knew they were out there supporting me, and it was big for me."

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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Not only is football back, it's not going anywhere soon. Who can complain?

It's your move, Dri Archer. Akeem Hunt is waiting.

Hunt, Purdue's senior running back and return man extraordinaire, watched and admired Archer from a distance last season as the Kent State dynamo earned consensus All-America honors as an all-purpose player in 2012. The 5-foot-8 Archer led the nation in kick return average (36.9 ypr), led Kent State in both rushing and receiving yards, set the single-season team touchdowns record (23) and finshed fifth nationally in all-purpose yards (184.1 ypg).

"He's very explosive," Hunt told ESPN.com. "When he gets the ball, he can make one cut and just be out."

The same can be said of Hunt, who averaged eight yards per rush, 15.7 yards per reception and 22.2 yards per kick return, including a 100-yard scoring return against Ohio State, for the Boilers in 2012. Hunt recorded four scoring plays of 50 yards or longer last fall.

When Darrell Hazell, who coached Archer at Kent State last season, took the same post at Purdue, the drumbeat soon began for a showdown between two of the Midwest's fastest college football players.

"[Purdue's coaches] always say they would like to see us race," Hunt said.

As for Hunt?

"I would do it," he said, smiling. "I'd race him."

Perhaps Hunt-Archer I becomes a reality sometime this summer, but until then, Hunt will continue working toward the role Archer had for Kent State in 2012 -- a speed threat, but so much more. Hunt set out this spring to show Hazell and the new staff that he could be an every-down back after playing behind Akeem Shavers last season, and Shavers and Ralph Bolden in 2011.

He undoubtedly strengthened his case during the 15 spring practices, taking the lion's share of the reps with the first-team offense. Purdue had only three running backs in the fold this spring, but Hunt separated himself and capped the session with 134 rush yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in the spring game.

"I have a lot of confidence in him," Hazell said after the scrimmage. "I think he’s a marquee guy in this league because he does have some balance. He has some inline quickness and he has some top-end speed to take it the distance. And he is showing some toughness. ... The key for him is to get stronger in the offseason and continue to learn the game.

"But where he is right now, I think he's going to be pretty special if he keeps working at it."

Hunt is working hard to mold himself into a complete Big Ten running back. He added five pounds during the winter and checks in at 190, not massive by any chance but a bit sturdier than he was as a junior.

"I feel like I can run through tackles now," he said. "[The coaches] get onto me about that every day, that if I'm going to be that No. 1 guy, I can't get broken down by just one person. I have to be broken down by a group of people. ... I feel like I can run between the tackles now instead of just doing sweeps. I feel like I can run power and zone much better."

There’s no doubt Hunt will continue to play a big role for Purdue on special teams, an area Hazell stressed throughout his first spring in West Lafayette. But Hunt has bigger goals for his senior season. Running back David Yancey enrolled early at Purdue and went through spring ball, and three more backs -- Keith Byars II, Keyante Green and Dalyn Dawkins -- arrive this summer. It’s clear, though, that Hunt is the man to beat.

Hunt tried to go full speed on every drill this spring, particularly in pass-blocking, a potential area of concern because of his size. After full days of football, he spent 20 minutes every night studying and reviewing the playbook.

“In his ideal world,” Hazell said, “he’d like to carry it 25 times a game.”

New offensive coordinator John Shoop will have the backs line up in the slot and even out wide in addition to the backfield. The primary goal, Hunt says, is to “get us in open space to make plays."

"Akeem is a super fast guy," Shoop told ESPN.com. "He shows electricity."

Few Big Ten players are as dangerous in space as Hunt, who has been clocked at 4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash and aims to eclipse that time this summer. Hunt comes from a family of runners: his parents, siblings and grandmother all competed in track at the middle school and high school levels. His mother, Sophia Lewis, ran track at Southwestern Christian College in Texas.

Akeem competed in the 100- and 200-meter dash for Newton High School in Covington, Ga., and also did the long jump and triple jump. He grew up playing baseball and only started football after moving to Covington.

Hunt knew he'd have enough speed to succeed at the college level, but developing game speed proved to be a challenge.

"Game speed is very different from just being fast," he said. "You have to know the plays. Instead of thinking, you just have to react and play."

Hunt is soft-spoken and polite -- he begins many answers with "Yes, sir" or "No, sir" -- but he's honest and confident about his speed.

"Can anyone catch me in the open field? No, I don’t think so," he said with a smile.

Hunt, by his own admission, is Purdue's fastest player. Wide receivers Raheem Mostert and B.J. Knauf come close, and cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Frankie Williams like challenging him.

"He's so competitive, it makes no sense," Hunt said of Allen. "Frankie Williams is competitive, too. Me and Frankie, we raced last year, and it wasn't fair to him."

Hunt needs a challenge. Dri Archer, we're waiting.
The letters have all been signed and the faxes sent in. Signing day is officially over. So how did each Big Ten team do in fulfilling its most pressing needs?

Of course, the real answer to that question won't come for another one, two or even three years. But we'll take a stab now at figuring out how league teams addressed some glaring concerns, beginning with the Leaders Division. Adam will look at the Legends teams a little bit later in the blog.

INDIANA

Needs met: It's no secret that the Hoosiers desperately needed reinforcements on defense. They focused on that in this class with 13 of their 22 signees on that side of the ball, plus four players labeled for now as "athletes." That includes six defensive linemen and four linebackers for a team that must improve its front seven.

Holes remaining: After finishing with one of the worst rushing attacks in the Big Ten, Indiana signed only one true running back -- Daryl Chestnut -- in this class.

ILLINOIS

Needs met: After a disastrous 2-10 season where nothing went right, the Illini needed help everywhere, especially at the offensive skill spots. They signed five juco transfers for some immediate assistance and some speed to run the spread offense, including future starting quarterback Aaron Bailey.

Holes remaining: Illinois lost linebacker recruit Reggie Spearman to Iowa and didn't sign anyone at that position, though it had two freshmen starters there last year.

OHIO STATE

Needs met: Speed, speed, speed. Urban Meyer wanted a whole lot more of it, especially at the offensive skill positions. And that's exactly what he got in receivers Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. The Buckeyes should also be able to stop the pass with defensive backs Eli Apple, Gareon Conley, Vonn Bell and Cam Burrows among the standouts in this class.

Holes remaining: Very few, as you'd expect with one of the nation's top classes. Ohio State signed only two offensive linemen, but the Buckeyes addressed that position group in the 2012 class.

PENN STATE

Needs met: The Nittany Lions had to get two quarterbacks in this class, and they managed to land the top-rated quarterback in the land in Christian Hackenberg as well as junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson. The team also needed to add some talent to the secondary and brought in four defensive backs.

Holes remaining: The Lions are bringing in only one running back, though they have last year's signee Akeel Lynch, along with Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak returning. With severe scholarship limitations, Penn State's holes will revolve around depth. The team has to be selective and hope its run-on program produces some gems.

PURDUE

Needs met: The Boilermakers needed reinforcements in the backfield after losing two senior quarterbacks and with a thin tailback corps. Their two top recruits in this class are pro-style QB Danny Etling and running back Keyante Green. The Boilers also added running backs Keith Byars II, David Yancey and Dalyn Dawkins.

Holes remaining: Purdue signed just one offensive lineman in this class (Jason Tretter). That's an area new coach Darrell Hazell will have to address in next year's class.

WISCONSIN

Needs met: The Badgers needed to restock the secondary after losing three starters from the 2012 team. They signed five defensive backs, including early enrollees Keelon Brookins and Sojourn Shelton. Wisconsin also got a potential impact defensive end in Alec James and possibly the latest in a long line of star running backs in Corey Clement.

Holes remaining: Wisconsin could still use a bit more playmaking at the wide receiver position after struggling to find complements to Jared Abbrederis last season. The Badgers will hope Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy provide some help. Neither was a highly rated recruit -- but then again, the highly productive Abbrederis was a walk-on. And although you wouldn't expect Wisconsin to need more offensive linemen, new coach Gary Andersen said the team is a couple of linemen short of the ideal number after signing three in this class.

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