Big Ten: Damon Knox
1. Michigan Meltdown: Now the Wolverines are right back where they started, restoring Devin Gardner as the starter at quarterback and hoping for different results. Based on his disappearance from the depth chart, it's a safe bet that the injuries Shane Morris sustained Saturday forced the swap, but Brady Hoke went right back to highlighting the continued lack of communication both inside and outside Schembechler Hall right now in the press conference announcing the change. Hoke clearly hasn't learned anything from the last few days, falling right back to his policy of not discussion the health of his players at a time when transparency would almost certainly work in his benefit. Pointing out the problems Michigan has had getting players at 100 percent might actually be a useful excuse for some of the on-field issues the program has had during its 2-3 start. Maybe it's too late for that now anyway, but pulling back the curtain and trying to be a bit more open and honest could at least be a start in trying to fight back in the public-relations battle he is badly losing at the moment.
2. Undercard Bout of the Week: All the attention is focused on the prize fight under the lights between Nebraska and Michigan State, and deservedly so given the standing of those marquee teams and how important the matchup will be for the College Football Playoff selection committee. But there's a battle in the afternoon that could be just as entertaining, and what it might lack in implications for the national title, it makes up for it with intrigue in the East Division. Maryland has the athletes at wide receiver to test the Buckeyes and their suspect secondary. Ohio State is rolling offensively with J.T. Barrett at quarterback, and the Terps were gashed in their biggest test of the season against West Virginia. There could be plenty of fireworks, and the winner will establish itself as a contender in the East -- and potentially the favorite depending on what happens with the Spartans.
3. Trophy talk: The votes have been unanimous for a couple weeks now, but Ameer Abdullah's standing as the unquestioned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year at this early stage could be threatened as early as this week given the head-to-head matchup with one of his closest competitors. Obviously the Nebraska tailback isn't directly squaring off with Connor Cook on the field, but if the Michigan State quarterback puts up another impressive statistical outing, knocks off the Huskers and keeps his team in line for a potential playoff berth, Abdullah might find himself lower than the No. 1 spot next week despite his gaudy numbers. On the flip side, a road win that keeps the Huskers unbeaten with Abdullah gouging one of the most feared defenses in the nation would only solidify his push for the Heisman Trophy. Of course, there is plenty on the line for both teams, but individual honors are up for grabs on Saturday evening as well.
- Defensive tackle Damon Knox could be returning just in time for Michigan State.
- Brady Hoke has a "great relationship" with embattled athletic director Dave Brandon.
- Some key players are taking it easy during Penn State's bye week.
- Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo is earning just as much praise for his blocking as he does for his catches.
- Maryland is breaking out some special helmets for its first Big Ten home game.
- Ohio State is looking forward to welcoming the Terps to the conference.
- Griffin Oakes has been a threat from long range since high school, and he's already forced Indiana to update its record book.
- Nebraska linebacker Zaire Anderson beat the clock for a memorable play.
- The hit that has caused so much scrutiny at Michigan has been a teachable moment for Minnesota.
- If Northwestern is going to pull off another upset this week, it will need to generate some turnovers.
- There are still tickets available for Iowa's last four home games.
- Purdue didn't win last week, but it showed signs of finding some consistency on defense.
- Lessons learned about Illinois coming out of its loss at Nebraska include some ugly defensive numbers.
- Wisconsin quarterback Tanner McEvoy is looking for faster starts offensively.
Being stout up front and strong enough to stop the run has long been a staple of success in this league. This year, several stars return at defensive end, including Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Things are a little more undecided at defensive tackle, though Iowa's Carl Davis and Ohio State's Michael Bennett could be early round NFL draft picks.
Let's continue our position preview series with the guys holding down the fort in the defensive trenches:
Best of the best: Ohio State
I've already pegged this as the best overall position group in the Big Ten, so naturally the Buckeyes take the top spot here. The star power is immense with Bosa and Spence on the end and Bennett and Adolphus Washington inside. There are some question marks about depth, especially early on as Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season. Jamal Marcus transferred, and Tracy Sprinkle -- who at best would have provided some rotation help -- has been kicked off the team pending the resolution of his legal problems. The good news is that some incoming recruits could help right away, and when Ohio State's starting four is all together, it will be tough to stop.
Next up: Michigan State
Few teams can match the pair of defensive ends that the Spartans can line up. Calhoun is the Big Ten's reigning defensive lineman of the year, and he was a first-year starter last year who should continue to improve. On the other side, Marcus Rush has started 40 of the past 41 games and done everything asked of him. He's one of the most underrated players in the league. Michigan State has to replace both starting defensive tackles from last season, but there are several players ready to contribute, including Joel Heath and Damon Knox. Highly rated recruit Malik McDowell could work his way into the mix as well. And there are other stars waiting in the wings, like Demetrius Cooper.
The Wolverines were decent but nothing special on the defensive line last season. But they have some interesting pieces to work with this year. Start with a pair of seniors on the edges in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Elsewhere on the line are a several talented young players who have seen a lot of snaps early in their careers, such as Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Matt Godin. Many of these players were highly rated recruits, and if they can live up to their potential and bring the level of play back up near Brady Hoke's first year as head coach, this is a group that can make some noise.
Problem for a contender: Wisconsin
Like several other positions for the Badgers, this one was hit hard by graduation, as stalwarts like Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel have all moved on. There is still some promise here, as Warren Herring gives the team a big body inside and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih provides reason for excitement. Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski will need to make his presence known. The group could have a little more speed than in years past, but no team lost more experience on the defensive front than Wisconsin.
Three things we learned in the spring
- Cook in command: Last year's spring was dominated by talk of a quarterback competition, one that was never finally settled until late September. Things are much different this year, as Connor Cook entered the offseason as the unquestioned starter for the first time. By all accounts, Cook came into the spring riding a wave of confidence, as he should have after MVP performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl. Michigan State has enviable stability in its backfield with both Cook and 1,400-yard tailback Jeremy Langford returning.
- Tight-ening up: Tight ends didn't play a huge factor in the offense last year, as the Spartans were really young at the position after Dion Sims left a year early for the NFL. But that could turn back into a strength this year. Josiah Price, who had the big touchdown catch in the Big Ten title game, is a year older and wiser. Jamal Lyles made a major impression this spring and could be a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds. Redshirt freshman Dylan Chmura might be ready to contribute. Look for the tight ends to take on a larger load in the passing game this fall.
- Tackling the issue: When people talk about the Spartans' losses on defense, they usually mention Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. Makes sense, as all four of those were All-Big Ten performers. But Michigan State also has to replace its starting defensive tackles from a year ago, fifth-year seniors Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds. That would be a major area of concern for a lot of teams, but both guys were under-the-radar players last year and the Spartans feel very comfortable with Joel Heath, Damon Knox, Brandon Clemons and former Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge stepping in at those spots. Heath has the physical skills to be a star and highly touted recruit Malik McDowell arrives this summer to add some more depth.
- Offensive line makeup: The Spartans' offensive line is by no means in dire straits. Yet three starters (Blake Treadwell, Fou Fonoti and Dan France) are gone from a position that was the team's secret strength. The coaching staff likes what it has in sophomore Jack Conklin, junior Jack Allen and senior Travis Jackson, and expects more from junior Donavon Clark and sophomore Kodi Kieler. But Michigan State is still searching for the right mix up front and hopes to build the kind of depth and versatility it had there last season.
- Replacing Dennard: Few players are harder to replace than Dennard, the All-American and Thorpe Award-winning cornerback who looks like a surefire NFL first-round pick. Sophomore Darian Hicks is the leading candidate to do so after emerging on top of a heated spring competition involving Arjen Colquhoun, Ezra Robinson and Jermaine Edmondson. Hicks played in very limited duty as a freshman in 2013 and has to continue to hold off the others this summer. And then he'll have mighty big shoes to fill in the fall.
- Linebacker lineup: The Spartans will have a much different look at linebacker after the departures of three-year starters Bullough and Allen and Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth. Taiwan Jones appears to be the heir apparent to Bullough at middle linebacker, but Jon Reschke is pushing for playing time. Darien Harris logged time at that position in the Rose Bowl and is in good shape to start at an outside spot along with Ed Davis, who was injured this spring. Riley Bullough, Max's younger brother, will also be in the mix. There's talent and speed here, but the standard they have to match is awfully high.
With so many new faces and different roles on defense, Michigan State will finish outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense for the first time in four years. But just barely, as Pat Narduzzi's crew comes together in time to be a dominant unit in Big Ten play.
McDowell's recruitment gained national attention leading up to signing day, as a family conflict about his college destination played out in public view. Although the ESPN 300 defensive tackle prospect wanted to sign with Michigan State, his parents -- and particularly his mother, Joya Crowe -- opposed the decision. Crowe wanted her son at Florida State, Ohio State or Michigan.
Despite picking Michigan State during a signing day announcement at his high school and appearing to sign a national letter of intent, Malik had yet to send a letter to any school. Tuesday marked the deadline to do so, and all indications suggested it would pass without a signed letter.
But there was more drama. McDowell's signed letter arrived Tuesday night at Michigan State. According to his Twitter page, he barely made the deadline, faxing in the letter at 11:12 p.m.
While everyone around McDowell might not be thrilled about his destination, Michigan State was his choice all along. I spent signing day inside MSU's football office and captured the coaches' excitement when McDowell said he would become a Spartan. Tension built throughout the day as no letter arrived. McDowell actually sent in his signed Big Ten tender of financial aid -- a document that doesn't require a parent's signature -- late in the afternoon, but Michigan State still could not announce his signing.
Now, the process is over. Michigan State adds the nation's No. 5 defensive tackle prospect, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation. The Spartans lose both defensive tackle starters from last year's team, and while they should get by with Damon Knox, Joel Heath and others, McDowell could be a factor depending on how he performs in fall camp.
Here's hoping the signing puts McDowell and his family at ease. The saga has been a massive distraction, and like any young player, McDowell will need his family's support when he arrives at Michigan State.
Drama followed McDowell to East Lansing. Michigan State hopes more of it -- the good kind -- is on the way.
It was the program's best season in decades. But as Michigan State prepares to open spring practice on Tuesday, coach Mark Dantonio wants to make sure the team isn't still busy patting itself on the back for 2013.
This most pressing on-field challenge this spring in East Lansing will largely be about finding replacements for the valuable seniors who contributed to last year's special season, especially on defense.
In that regard, the initial depth chart lists Taiwan Jones as the starting middle linebacker, in Max Bullough's old position. Jones played the weakside linebacker position last season, but now Darien Harris is listed there.
"He's become a thumper a little bit and he's a big, physical guy," Dantonio said of Jones. "We are going to have to see how he transitions in terms of the knowledge there, but again they are all linebackers and he can play outside, he can play Sam as well and we are going find out if we can play the Mike."
Ed Davis begins the spring No. 1 at the strongside spot, but Davis will be limited this spring because of a shoulder injury. Dantonio said the linebacker spots will continue to be evaluated this spring.
Sophomore Darian Hicks will get the first crack at replacing Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard at cornerback, with Trae Waynes locked into the other starting corner spot. Joel Heath and Damon Knox are penciled in as the starting defensive tackles, moving in for Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover.
Dantonio said the depth at defensive tackle and how Michigan State rebuilds its offensive line after losing three starters from last season are his biggest concerns right now. But the team has an experienced offense, led by Connor Cook, and a strong nucleus of talent to build around on defense.
The good times could keep rolling for the Spartans if they don't get caught up in their past success.
"We can't feel like we are entitled," Dantonio said. "We have to make it happen and we have to be mature enough to be able to handle success and that's part of it.
"One out of every 10 teams that has had great success, there's a 10 percent chance of that team doing it again. So we need to be that one in 10 that's able to handle it."
Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.
Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.
Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.
Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.
Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.
Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.
Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.
Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.
Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.
Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.
Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.
Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.
Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.
Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Up next: the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion Michigan State Spartans.
1. Reload at linebacker: Michigan State survived the Rose Bowl without Max Bullough, but the Spartans now must prepare to replace both Bullough and Denicos Allen, multiyear starters who both earned All-Big Ten honors. Taiwan Jones returns at the "Star" position, while Darien Harris and Riley Bullough both are options in the middle. Sophomore Ed Davis showed some promise this season with four sacks. Replacing the production is one thing, but replacing the leadership both Bullough and Allen provided might be more significant.
2. Solidify interior lines: Michigan State's interior line play went largely unnoticed in 2013, but it played a significant role in the Spartans finally taking the step to become champions. MSU must replace both starting offensive guards, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, as well as starting defensive tackles Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover. There seems to be decent depth on the defensive side with players like Damon Knox and Mark Scarpinato, but it's vital for the Spartans to maintain the enhanced level of offensive line play seen this past season. Jack Allen and Travis Jackson (yes! yes!) have experience at both the center and guard spots, but others must step up.
3. Find place for Terry: Damion Terry came very close to taking the field for Michigan State last fall and possibly claiming the top quarterback spot, especially when Connor Cook and others were struggling. Cook has established himself as the starter, but Michigan State should find a role for Terry, who brings unique skills to the quarterback position. Whether it's a package of plays or the ability to run more of a spread look, Terry can enhance an offense that will be leaned upon more in 2014.
More to-do lists
College football coaches are the kings of qualifying statements, hesitant to let the evidence stand on its own without mentioning mistakes or the room for improvement.
Of the key national stories in Week 10 -- Florida State's latest destruction of a top-10 foe, Nebraska's Hail Mary, the bad blood between Georgia and Florida -- arguably nothing resonated more than Michigan State's defense.
Narduzzi, who has orchestrated a top-10 defense for the past three seasons, was asked Saturday whether the unit -- ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense (210.2 ypg), rush defense (43.4 ppg) and pass efficiency defense (90.3 rating) and third in scoring defense (11.6 ppg) -- is exceeding his expectations.
"There's no question," he said. "You never think you're going to be that good."
Dantonio used the word dominant several times, noting that Michigan State hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past three games.
"In modern-day football, you just don't see that very often," he said.
Indeed, this is unique. Michigan State's defense has been among the nation's best the past two seasons, finishing in the top-10 in points allowed, yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. The self-titled Spartan Dawgs have gained respect both in the Big Ten and nationally.
They were near the top, but not quite at the top. A step separated MSU between great and elite, one many programs struggle to take.
In 2012, Michigan State created a blueprint for its defense, defining the Spartan Dawgs as: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country." The Spartans are reflecting their mantra this season.
How has it happened? Three factors have contributed.
1. An elite pass rusher and more overall pressure
Lost amid all the impressive numbers the Spartan defense put up last season is a rather ugly one: 20 sacks. Michigan State tied for 93rd nationally in sacks per game, and only Iowa (13) recorded fewer sacks than the Spartans among Big Ten teams.
MSU didn't get the season it expected out of end William Gholston, who had 4.5 sacks, and no other defensive lineman had more than two. But the pass rush picked up toward the end of the season, as the Spartans recorded 14 sacks in their final five contests.
It has continued this fall, as the Spartans already have 16 sacks after Saturday's surge. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, providing a fearsome presence on the edge. Linebacker Denicos Allen, an effective blitzer who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with 11 in 2011, has recaptured his former form. Allen recorded two sacks against Michigan and earned national defensive player of the week honors, in addition to becoming the fourth Spartan this season to earn Big Ten defensive player of the week honors.
"That's what we want to do, attack 'em for four quarters," Narduzzi said.
Five MSU players have multiple sacks this season, including linemen Marcus Rush and Tyler Hoover. The swarm looks a lot more like 2011, when the Spartans led the Big Ten and finished seventh nationally in sacks.
"We're a pressure team, but we're getting better pass rush collectively from four guys," Dantonio said.
2. Takeaways (especially takeaways for points)
Michigan State stifled opposing offenses in 2012, but it didn't take away the ball at an exceptional rate. The Spartans had 20 takeaways, a more respectable number than their sacks total but one that still ranked in the middle of the Big Ten. Although seven different players had interceptions and nine different players recovered a fumble, none went on to score touchdowns. Michigan State's only defensive score came on a Gholston safety against Northwestern.
The opportunistic play is back this fall, as Michigan State already has 16 takeaways, including a Darqueze Dennard interception Saturday that essentially sealed the win. MSU leads the nation with five defensive touchdowns, three by Calhoun (two fumble, one interception).
Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us. But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
-- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
It's a lot like the 2011 defense, which had four pick-sixes.
"Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us," Dantonio said. "But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
"Those are the two things we worked on that we knew we needed to improve on. We're getting that production."
3. Embracing excellence
Michigan State's ascent from a great defense to an elite one isn't simply statistical. It's also cultural.
The Spartans aren't becoming a top-10 defense. They've already been one for several years. Seniors like linebacker Max Bullough, Allen, Dennard, Hoover, safety Isaiah Lewis and nose tackle Micajah Reynolds understand the expectations for the unit. Younger players like sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes, sophomore tackles Mark Scarpinato and Damon Knox, and sophomore linebacker Ed Davis, who had 2.5 sacks against Michigan, have been indoctrinated into the system.
"We've grown," Dantonio said. "We've been good for three years: 2010 we were very good as well, '11, '12. Now those guys who were freshmen in 2010 or 2011 redshirt freshman, 2012, they're now growing up and they're three years into the system, so they're able to adjust. We've got a good pass rush, we're not afraid to pressure, we've got a good scheme, but it's the players who make plays."
The Spartans have playmakers in all three units. When Dantonio looks at the defense as currently constructed, he wouldn't trade any of his pieces.
"We've got a certain amount of talent out there," Dantonio said, "but when you tack on confidence to that talent level, and the belief in the system, and the belief in each other, great things are possible."
Elite things, too. That's what Michigan State's defense has become in 2013.
When you have so many starters back, how does that affect what you do in spring practice?
Pat Narduzzi: One thing it does for us is it gives us the opportunity to know that hopefully there's a lot of carryover from last season. We don't try to install any more defenses. We try to keep it at the same pace. You know, kids forget. Coaches can sit in the office 24/7 and talk about it, but for them, as soon as that bowl game against Georgia is over, those guys go on with their lives, with their girlfriends and studying English. But it allows you to come in and not make as many mistakes as you would with a young defense.
Yet you have to be excited about the potential for this defense with the players you have back, right?
PN: Yeah, it's exciting, but we still have to go out and make plays. We do have a lot of players back, so hopefully we can go out and be as productive as we were a year ago. But you can't get complacent, because what you did last year or the last game or even last week doesn't really matter. It's what you do right now. So every day we're building the 2012 defense.
You used the word complacent. How do you make sure the starters don't get too comfortable and that there's still a lot of competition?
PN: There are certain positions you can look at and say, "There's no way he's getting beat out." And there's probably, of the 11 positions out there, you've got to say there's six or seven of them. But we're starting to do such a good job recruiting that there are some battles out there at different spots, particularly at the defensive tackle spot, the safety spot and even the linebacker spot. There's a lot of spots that are really wide open. If a guy makes a mistake with the 1's, you pull him down to the 2's and really keep him on edge, in a positive way. With the starters, you expect perfection. When you make mistakes, that's not helping you. Another guy can get in and make mistakes, too.
Today, we take a look at Michigan State. Though Kirk Cousins obviously left big shoes to fill, we know that Andrew Maxwell is his successor. So we'll focus on a couple of different spots on the Spartans.
Why: Worthy was an All-American who had such a good junior season that he decided to jump to the NFL. He registered 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, though that only tells part of the story about how disruptive he was in the middle of the defensive line. Worthy was also an emotional leader who provided the Spartans defense with some of its swagger. While Michigan State brings back most of its outstanding defense from last year, Worthy will be a difficult player to replace.
Replacement candidates: Anthony Rashad White (6-2, 316, Sr.), Micajah Reynolds (6-5, 320, Jr.), James Kittredge (6-4, 270, Soph.), Damon Knox (6-4, 275, RFr.), Brandon Clemons (6-3, 262, RFr.), Mark Scarpinato (6-3, 270 RFr.), Joel Heath (6-5, 270, RFr.), David Fennell (6-3, 275 incoming freshman).
The skinny: Michigan State lost not only Worthy but fellow starting defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman and top backup Johnathan Strayhorn to graduation. But Mark Dantonio was prepared for this development and has a lot of players in the pipeline ready to prove themselves. Though White played the other tackle spot last year next to Worthy, he has the size, talent and experience to replicate Worthy's production. This is a key spring for Reynolds, who has also spent time on the offensive line. Kittredge sat out last season after transferring from Vanderbilt, and Michigan State was able to redshirt five other potential tackles in 2011. Fennell will likely take that route this year. This group is largely unproven, but at least there are plenty of candidates.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: B.J. Cunningham, WR
Why: Cunningham completed his career as the school's all-time leader in receptions and yards, which is saying something given the program's history at receiver. He emerged as a true star receiver in 2011 with career bests of 79 catches, 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns. Whenever Cousins needed a big play, he usually looked Cunningham's way. Fellow seniors Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol also are gone, leaving a big void at the wideout position for the Spartans.
Replacement candidates: Bennie Fowler (6-1, 215, Jr.), Tony Lippett (6-2, 189, Soph.), DeAnthony Arnett (6-1, 175, Soph.), Keith Mumphrey (6-0, 202 Soph.), Andre Sims Jr. (5-8, 180, RFr.) Juwan Caesar (6-3, 197, RFr.), Monty Madaris (6-2, 190, incoming freshman), Aaron Burbridge (6-0, 180 incoming freshman), MacGarrett Kings (5-10, 175, incoming freshman), Kyle Kerrick (6-3, 190, incoming freshman).
The skinny: This is a situation much like the defensive tackle spot, in which Michigan State hopes a crowd of candidates means that one or two standouts will emerge. The difference here is that some true freshmen will likely get thrown into the mix right away. Fowler is the veteran who hobbled through an injury-plagued 2011, while Lippett moves back to offense after seeing time at defensive back last year. A lot could depend on whether Arnett, a Tennessee transfer, wins his case with the NCAA to become immediately eligible. If not, the Spartans may have to rely on at least one of the receivers they signed in this year's class or hope that a redshirt freshman takes a big step forward.
Let's take a quick look at the Leaders Division:
Spring practice start date: March 24
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- New coaching flavor: For the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa will welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Phil Parker isn't exactly new, having served as Iowa's defensive backs coach throughout Ferentz's tenure, but he now takes charge of the defense for the first time. Will he continue running Norm Parker's scheme or shake things up? Iowa also will have a new offensive coordinator (yet to be named) and several new position coaches, including Reese Morgan, who moves from offensive line to defensive line.
- Running back auditions: Iowa once again needs to identify a featured back after Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook in January. Coker basically was the team's rushing attack in 2011, accounting for 77.3 percent of the rushing yards and 61.9 percent of the carries. Jordan Canzeri and Jason White will compete with several other unproven players this spring. The good news is Iowa has had little trouble developing backs. Keeping them is another story.
- Reloading the defensive line: The running backs might get more attention, but defensive line is Iowa's most pressing need entering the spring. The Hawkeyes lose three starters from last season's squad, including NFL prospect Mike Daniels at defensive tackle. While D-line historically has been a strength for Iowa, the Hawkeyes haven't had so much uncertainty in quite some time. Morgan, who hasn't coached on the defensive side, has his work cut out this spring.
Spring practice start date: March 17
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Defensive line rotation: It's a good thing coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison focus so much on the defensive line. The unit needs some extra attention this spring after losing standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The defensive tackle spot will be particularly interesting. A lot of eyes will be on Will Campbell to see if the big man can finally blossom. Quinton Washington and others are in the mix.
- Receiving orders: Michigan needs to develop more options in the passing game this spring. The team loses top wideout Junior Hemingway, and Darryl Stonum was dismissed from the squad in January following another legal issue. Roy Roundtree needs a big spring as he looks to re-establish himself as the team's No. 1 wideout after a production drop-off last season. Tight end Kevin Koger also departs, creating an opportunity for others.
- Al Borges' offense, Take 2: The new offense had some highs and lows in Year 1, and Michigan will be looking to establish greater consistency this season. It'll be interesting to see how a full year in the system impacts quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson must cut down on his interceptions after tossing 15 last season. The Wolverines also are looking for an offensive line anchor following the departure of All-American center David Molk.
Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28
What to watch:
- Take it to the Max: Andrew Maxwell's time has arrived as he steps in for three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins at quarterback. It's a tall order, but Maxwell has been groomed for this moment and has shown good potential in practices. He'll be working with a new set of leading receivers, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who hopes to be cleared to play for the upcoming season. Maxwell must establish himself as a team leader this spring.
- We're not Worthy: All-American Jerel Worthy is gone, and Michigan State needs a replacement for the standout defensive tackle. While Anthony Rashad White returns at the other D-tackle spot, the Spartans don't have much overall depth at the position. It'll be interesting to see what the coaches do with Micajah Reynolds, who has bounced between defensive line and offensive line during his career. It's a big spring for Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge and a host of players who redshirted last season, including Damon Knox.
- Receiving orders: Arnett seemingly would be Michigan State's No. 1 receiver if he's ruled eligible by the NCAA, but there are no guarantees and the Spartans must identify other options this spring. Bennie Fowler showed promise in 2010 before being slowed by a foot injury last season. He needs a strong spring. Michigan State also is moving Tony Lippett back to receiver from cornerback, where he started several games last season. Lippett is an excellent athlete who can provide a boost on the edge. The Spartans also will be looking for more from tight end Dion Sims.
Spring practice start date: March 22
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- The search for a pass rush: Minnesota should be improved on offense in Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era, but the team could sink or swim depending on the defense. It starts up front with a defensive line that hasn't generated much pressure for several years. Coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be aggressive, but can he find difference-makers? The Gophers haven't had an elite pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.
- Supporting cast on offense: Although quarterback Marqueis Gray had his ups and downs last season, he accounted for most of Minnesota's offense, leading the team with 966 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Gray needs more help if the Gophers intend to take the next step this season. Minnesota will be looking for a featured running back this spring, as Donnell Kirkwood and others are in the mix. The Gophers also need more options at receiver after losing Da'Jon McKnight.
- Troy Stoudermire: Stoudermire turned heads last spring with some big hits from the cornerback spot. After receiving an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA in January, he'll look to deliver more punishment. Minnesota desperately needs leaders and playmakers to emerge in the secondary, and Stoudermire's return could be huge after he missed most last season with a broken bone in his forearm.
Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Star search on defense: No Big Ten defense loses more star power than Nebraska, which must replace linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the league's top performers at their respective positions. David's departure is especially critical, as Nebraska lacked depth in its defensive midsection last season. Although Nebraska played most of the past season without defensive tackle Jared Crick, it needs some difference-makers to emerge in all three levels of the defense this spring.
- Papuchis takes over: Like Iowa, Nebraska promoted a position coach to defensive coordinator, as John Papuchis takes control of a unit that fell short of expectations last season. Papuchis is young and energetic, and his rapid rise mirrors that of his boss, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini. Although no system overhaul is expected, it will be interesting to see how Papuchis puts his imprint on the defense this spring.
- Taylor Martinez's maturation: Despite two years as the starter and the support of his coaches, Martinez enters a pivotal spring. Although Martinez remained healthy last season and showed improved decision-making at times, he also completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and didn't break off as many long runs. A full year in Tim Beck's offense could pay off for Martinez this spring, but he needs to continue to make strides. It will be interesting to see if the coaches even entertain the possibility of a competition, or if backup Brion Carnes gets more reps.
Spring practice start date: March 3
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Colter and the QB race: Northwestern will have a quarterback competition this spring as it looks for Dan Persa's replacement, but the hope among many is for Kain Colter to take control. Colter stepped in for Persa last season and emerged as the team's best all-around offensive weapon. But he needs to improve his arm strength and his accuracy and show he can be a more complete quarterback at this level. Although Colter will be on the field no matter what in the fall, he has the opportunity in spring ball to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.
- Young defenders: The defense has been a big problem for the past year and a half, and Northwestern needs to identify more playmakers before September. The good news is the Wildcats played a lot of young players last season, particularly late in the season. Northwestern needs its youth to mature, beginning in the spring. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Tyler Scott, safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and cornerback Daniel Jones. Northwestern needs several of them to take the next step.
- Spotlight on the secondary: Few Big Ten units struggled more than Northwestern's secondary did last season. Making matters worse, the Wildcats lose three starters, including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin, a four-year starter. If Northwestern ever intends to turn the corner as a program, it needs to build better depth in the secondary, whether it's through recruiting or from moving players from other positions. It'll be interesting to see how the group performs this spring.
What were your top priorities in this class?
Mark Dantonio: We felt like we needed to go out and get a great class of skill players. Last year, we were pretty deep on our team, so we only (signed) two wide receivers and two defensive backs last year. We felt like we really needed to concentrate in those two areas, and I think we came away with a great class. We've got five wide receivers signed and four defensive backs, and a very skilled tailback [Nick Tompkins] who really can play any of those positions. He'll play tailback here off the start. We've got guys like Demetrious Cox who can play anywhere: tailback, slot receiver, safety, probably even corner. We've got guys like Jermaine Edmonson, who is coming in as a defensive back but can play wide receiver. Aaron Burbridge is another guy who can cross the realm and play corner, play wide receiver, tailback. He'll play wide receiver for us. Madaris, MacGarrett Kings, DeAnthony Arnett has to be included in this class, and he's a phenomenal player, one of the top wide receivers in the country last year.
It's a tremendous group, wide receiver especially. When you lose a B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol, that's a lot of offense. Those guys will have an opportunity to play immediately. And on the defensive side, Ezra Robinson and Cox, Edmonson and Mark Meyers are guys that can tackle, play the ball in the deep part of the field, change direction very well, they run very well, they're very explosive players. All 10 of those guys are kick returner, punt returner guys.
I also think that because we lose [Kirk] Cousins, we needed to bring a quality quarterback into the program. We don't overload our football team with quarterbacks. We don't have six or seven guys on scholarship. We'll have three quarterbacks on scholarship next year, and Tyler O'Connor was an Elite 11 quarterback, a guy that has great mechanics, has the ability to run with it, he's big, he's very intelligent, he's got a great release and great arm strength. He's going to be a tremendous asset to this program as time goes on. And then we took three offensive linemen who are going to be able to play, and one defensive lineman in David Fennell. Two outstanding linebackers in [Jamal] Lyles and [Riley] Bullough, who are very, very good athletes and played a variety of positions. Fennell's a defensive tackle flying under the radar from Oregon, who just moved to the U.S. from Canada. He shows great punch. His dad is in the Hall of Fame in the CFL. The guy has great explosiveness, extremely strong, very quick, plays with a high motor. I think he'll be an outstanding player.
With the wide receivers you're losing, how many of the guys you're bringing in will stay at receiver and have a chance to play immediately?
MD: All of these guys are going to have a chance to play. We basically have five wide receivers on scholarship, so our numbers are low in that area, not just because we lose the three [starters], but we lose two backups as well. Edwin Baker going [to the NFL] hurts at the tailback position, so there's opportunity to play and play early. They're quality players. They're guys who we've either had in camp or watched play in person. They're big-time players, and they'll all have an opportunity to play. And there are some guys who might cross over and be pretty versatile as well. And on the defensive side, you can pretty much say the same thing. Jeremy Langford is going to go back to tailback, so it's going to open a possibility at corner. Tony Lippett's a guy we played at corner last year. He'll go back to wide receiver. So it was important to get a defensive back class as well.
I'll make this statement. I've been coaching for a long time, and I don't know I've been anyplace where we've recruited 10 quality athletes like this at the skill positions. I think they're excellent football players, and they all fit our identity, they fit our mold in terms of our chemistry. Great people with good values, all with the vision of being outstanding. I think Cox is a tremendous player.
Do you guys now have pipelines at defensive backs and wide receiver?
MD: I think we are. If you're good enough, you're going to play here. We only played one freshman [defensive back] last year, but the year before, our entire second unit was made up of freshmen. We've had to move people around a little bit, so there's opportunities for these guys, and they see themselves playing early in their careers. They also see the success that we're having. The other thing everyone has to realize is last year, we took seven defensive linemen. We redshirted every single incoming freshman last year except for one. So we're going to have about 40 freshmen in August camp. This is a very bright future at Michigan State. We've got some excellent young players, predominantly defensive players ... who would have played in the bowl game. We probably would have played six of them in the bowl game if they were eligible to play.
You mentioned the lineman from Oregon. How do you feel about the defensive tackles with Jerel [Worthy] moving on? Is it something you looked for in this class, or might look for in the junior college ranks?
MD: We looked more in terms of defensive end at the junior college route a little bit. We felt like we wanted to stay the course with our guys. We came down to the end on a couple guys that, if they come our way, maybe solidify that a little bit. But you've got to go back to last year. We recruited six defensive linemen and had a seventh transfer in from Vanderbilt, as an offensive [lineman] for them. He was a four-star player, James Kittredge. So we've got seven defensive linemen, and five of them are defensive tackles. So our numbers are good. We've got guys like Damon Knox and Joel Heath and Brandon Clemons and Matt Ramondo and Kittredge, those guys are all pushing about 280. We'll be fine there. Obviously, we're going to miss Jerel. You can't replace a guy who was first-team all-conference, a first-team All-American and maybe a first-round draft pick. But we've got guys coming, and I'm sure coach [Pat] Narduzzi will get those guys ready to play.
Mark, you've recruited the Midwest for a long time. Was there any different dynamic this year competing for recruits with some of the staff changes at Ohio State, and with Michigan's staff having a full year to recruit?
MD: I really don't think so. It's always difficult to recruit in the Midwest when you're surrounded. Michigan State has its own identity, but Michigan certainly and Notre Dame and Ohio State and Wisconsin and Iowa. We're right in the middle of all those guys. And usually when we want 'em, they want 'em. You can throw Penn State into that mix, and you have some teams coming up from the Southeastern Conference, so it's extremely competitive in terms of the guys you're going to get. But we're competing on a scale with those guys. We're very competitive with them, and this is a great opportunity for young people to look at, so we're going to get our guys.
Recruiting has accelerated. There's no question about that. With that said, you've got to get guys on your campus earlier, and usually those guys have to be within four or five hours of your campus. After that, they have to fly, or they're taking cross-country trips. It's so important you get players on your campus to see the place with a parent or a loved one, because when you come down the stretch, for a guy to make a visit like they used to, come in January on a visit by himself, if they have not been here before, the opportunity for you to get them to come to Michigan State or anyplace else goes down drastically.
Are you guys changing the types of players you're going after at all?
MD: Not really. We've always tried to look to see who's going to fit our program. Just because you can play corner at one institution doesn't mean you can play corner here based on how we play the corners. We're looking for a different type of player at times than maybe somebody else would. Doesn't mean it's right or it's wrong. We try and look for who's going to complement our football team. There's a foundation that's being laid here, there's good things happening. We're not to the end yet, and we want to continue to push forward, but the guys we've recruited have helped us win, there's no question about that. They've won. So we're taking the right guys. We have very little attrition on our football team, so consequently we have a smaller class. I don't think we've ever taken 25 guys. I think the biggest class has been maybe 21, 22. We make assessments based on guys who can play for us, in our schemes and fit our chemistry, our profile. I think we've done a great job with that. We've got some guys here who have been two-star players who are going to play in the NFL, there's no question.
Recruits: 21 (20 high school seniors, one junior college transfer, one player enrolled early)
Top prospects: For the second consecutive year, Michigan State's top recruit is a defender from Detroit. ESPNU 150 linebacker Lawrence Thomas headlines the 2011 class, following William Gholston in 2010. The Spartans added to an already deep receiving corps with Juwan Caesar, rated as the nation's No. 37 receiver by ESPN Recruiting. Center Jack Allen leads a promising group of offensive linemen in the class.
Needs met: Michigan State likely will be a consistent Big Ten title contender it if upgrades its line play, and this year's class should help with players like Allen and defensive linemen Brandon Clemons and Damon Knox. The Spartans lose two multiyear starters at linebacker (Greg Jones and Eric Gordon), and they addressed the area with players like Thomas and Darien Harris, rated as the nation's No. 32 outside linebacker by ESPN Recruiting. Joe Boisture's departure creates a need for a quarterback, and Michigan State adds one in Connor Cook.
Analysis: Mark Dantonio and his staff have made Michigan State a consistent upper-tier recruiting presence in the Big Ten. This year's class not only includes strong in-state prospects like Thomas, but nice additions from other regions like Caesar (Florida) and Harris (Maryland). There aren't as many big names this year as there were in 2010, but if the Spartans continue to build on their on-field success, their recruiting profile will continue to grow.
ESPN Recruiting grade: B-
- Ohio State knows that recruiting is usually a roll of the dice, Tim May writes in The Columbus Dispatch. The Buckeyes could add a second Grant to their 2011 class, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
- Purdue receiver Cortez Smith is arrested on suspicion of battery, Sophia Voravong writes in The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.
- The Iowa hospitalized players situation remains a complete mystery to this point, Mike Hlas writes in The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Quarterback recruit Jake Rudock reaffirms his commitment to the Hawkeyes, Andy Hamilton writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
- National Signing Day could be dramatic for Nebraska, which is waiting on several decisions, Jon Nyatawa writes in the Omaha World-Herald.
- Michigan's recent basketball surge is nice, but football still must carry the blue banner in Ann Arbor, Terry Foster writes in The Detroit News. The Wolverines add a running back to their 2011 class, Tom Markowski writes in The Detroit News.
- Indiana bolstered its lines with a recruiting surge during the weekend, Dustin Dopirak writes in The (Bloomington) Herald-Times (subscription required). Missed this from last week, but new Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson apologized for cursing at some resident assistants.
- Life after JoePa won't be easy for Penn State, which might only return to glory under the coach after Paterno's successor, Conor Nelson writes.
- Michigan State's defensive line should get a boost with recruit Damon Knox (great name), Greg Johnson writes in The Grand Rapids Press.
- An update on the ever-changing situations involving two Wisconsin recruiting targets from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Dave Heller.
- Illinois hopes recruit Ralph Cooper can be the next Martez Wilson, Bob Asmussen writes in The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
- Northwestern made it official Monday and announced the hiring of new receivers coach Dennis Springer, ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers writes.