Big Ten: Dan Persa

Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. First up: Northwestern.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern had grown accustomed to two things every season: a bowl trip and development at the quarterback position.

Neither, however, happened in 2013. The Wildcats missed the postseason for the first time in six years, largely because of an inconsistent offense that rarely found a rhythm in the passing game. A two-quarterback system that had worked well in 2012, when Northwestern won 10 games, backslid because of injuries and other factors.

The Wildcats had more interceptions (9) than touchdown passes (8) in Big Ten play, and their completion percentage, typically a strength, dipped to just 60.5 in league games. Northwestern finished 67th nationally in pass efficiency.

After a 5-7 season, competition is the overriding theme this spring, including the quarterback spot, even though Northwestern welcomes back Trevor Siemian, who has 3,461 pass yards the past two seasons.

"If we're playing this Saturday, he's our starting quarterback," coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Siemian. "He's our most experienced and successful quarterback, but I know that Zack [Oliver] and Matt [Alviti] and Christian [Salem] are going to compete. That's just the way it is."

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian is an experienced quarterback but he will face competition to be Northwestern's starter.
It appears to be a three-man race between Siemian, Oliver and Alviti, who appeared in that order during team drills Wednesday as Northwestern went through its first spring workout. Siemian clearly has the edge. If he can boost his completion percentage and show greater decisiveness after taking too many sacks in 2013, he should be the starter Aug. 30 against Cal.

The goal for Siemian?

"Total command of the offense," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Every year a guy plays in this offense, [the ball] gets quicker out of his hand, and the game slows down even more. I intend for that to happen with him, and I think it will."

Siemian also is healthy after battling a bone bruise on his heel for much of Big Ten play. He sustained the injury Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, struggled to plant on his throws and only recovered fully for the finale, when he completed 70.5 percent of his passes and threw for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns in a win at Illinois.

The 6-3, 210-pound Siemian completed 68.2 percent of his passes in five games before the injury and just 52.4 percent between the Wisconsin game and the Illinois game.

"If you look at healthy Trevor, it's [the Illinois] game, early in the season and then what you saw the previous two years," Fitzgerald said. "When he was not 100 percent, unfair to him, it wasn't as successful as any of us would have wanted."

Siemian admits he didn't handle the injury as well as he wanted, but he finished well and, according to the coaches, responded well in the winter program.

Although Northwestern has used a two-quarterback system for all or part of the past three seasons, Fitzgerald and McCall would prefer to see one player separate himself. McCall always tailors the offense around the quarterback's skill set.

If Siemian wins the job, Northwestern could employ a pass-heavy scheme like the one it used from 2007-2010 with C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa. If Oliver, a junior, or Alviti, a redshirt freshman, prevails, Northwestern likely would maintain a sizable option element, like it did when Kain Colter called signals.

Alviti hopes he can build on what Colter brought to the offense.

"With the option game, that's going to be a big role for me, doing what Kain did in the past," Alviti said. "I've got a lot more arm strength, can throw a lot better than Kain can. He's a great quarterback and he's going to have a great career in the NFL, but he's going to be playing receiver.

"I can throw on the run a little bit more."

All three quarterbacks are working on their leadership skills. Alviti attributes much of the offense's struggles in 2013 to "a lack of leadership," which Siemian doesn't dispute.

"We had no one to go to on offense," Alviti said. "Everyone would agree with that. No one really stepped up and was the guy. That's one of the main things the quarterbacks need to do."

The quarterbacks will operate behind a line that never truly clicked last year, in part because so many players sat out spring practice with injuries. The line is healthy this spring, and Fitzgerald described the competition level as "night and day" from 2013, noting that lineups could change on each play.

Northwestern returns experience at wide receiver (Christian Jones, Tony Jones), tight end (Dan Vitale) and running back, where 2012 All-Big Ten selection Venric Mark returns after missing most of last season with leg problems. Miles Shuler, a transfer from Rutgers, adds another weapon on the perimeter.

After a season of injuries, poor play and a truncated playbook, Northwestern's offense could course-correct in 2014. Siemian wants to be the one pulling the strings.

"As a quarterback, you're the guy, so it's directly on your shoulders," he said. "I'm working to be the best leader I can for this offense. Not that I didn't last year, but this year, it's even more of an emphasis."
The offseason is here, folks, and we're taking a look at what each team must do in the long months ahead before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.

1. Establish an identity on offense: An injury-plagued unit never got on track last season, finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 points per game). The playbook definitely shrunk without standout running back Venric Mark, who is expected to receive a fifth season of eligibility and return this fall. Mark adds to an already strong stable of backs, but the team's most experienced quarterback, Trevor Siemian, undoubtedly is a pocket passer. Does Northwestern continue with a two-quarterback system (Siemian and Zack Oliver or Matt Alviti) or stick with one guy? Does it return to the pass-first scheme that proved effective in 2008 and 2009 or the run-pass mix that worked in 2012? These questions and others must be answered in the coming months.

2. Solidify the offensive line: After several years of progress, the group took a step back last season, allowing 36 sacks, the second-highest total in the Big Ten. Northwestern must establish chemistry earlier and build some depth before fall camp rolls around. The potential good news is everyone returns, including veteran center Brandon Vitabile. There should be plenty of competition throughout the offseason to fill the other four spots and build some depth the Wildcats lacked in 2013. If Siemian is the starter, he'll need better protection, as he lacks the mobility of recent Wildcats signal-callers like Kain Colter and Dan Persa.

3. Bolster the defensive tackle spot: Defense really could be Northwestern's strength in 2013, as the Wildcats should have their deepest group in the secondary in recent memory, as well as Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis at linebacker. Three speed rushers return at defensive end, but the tackle spot is a bit cloudy after opponents averaged 167.7 yards rushing per game against Northwestern last fall. It will be important to keep Sean McEvilly healthy and find others around him like Chance Carter, Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about getting stronger up front after a disappointing 2013 season, and the defensive tackle group certainly must respond.

More to-do lists
Nebraska's Memorial Stadium isn't an ideal place for a visiting team to revive its season.

The Cornhuskers are 396-117-13 all-time on their home field with 44 consecutive winning seasons there and a 34-7 mark under sixth-year coach Bo Pelini. Northwestern comes to Lincoln, Neb., on a four-game slide, winless in Big Ten play and simply trying to inch closer to bowl eligibility after a miserable month of October.

So why could Saturday's game be exactly what the Wildcats need? Because they've done it before.

Northwestern came to Lincoln at 3-5 in 2011, a season that also began with high hopes before veering off track. Like this year's team, the 2011 Wildcats dealt with key injuries on the offensive side, including a constant will-he-play-or-won't-he distraction involving quarterback Dan Persa, who had ruptured his Achilles' tendon the previous season.

Just when Northwestern's streak of bowl appearances seemed over, the team put it all together in Lincoln, as quarterback Kain Colter spurred Northwestern to a 28-25 win. The Wildcats ended up winning their next two games to become bowl eligible.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesQB Kain Colter and the Northwestern Wildcats have to shake off the frustration of their four-game losing streak.
Northwestern hopes for a similar revival Saturday afternoon against a Nebraska team also reeling after a 33-24 loss at Minnesota. Senior linebacker Damien Proby said Monday that the 2011 win in Lincoln will be brought up before Saturday's game kicks off.

"We can't go back and fix our past mistakes," Proby said. "The end goal right now is to go 1-0."

To get back on track, Northwestern must get back to what it has done in the past: win the turnover battle, limit penalties and finish drives. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said the team has beaten itself in three of the four losses, especially on offense.

Northwestern has had eight turnovers in its four Big Ten losses, including two fumbles in Iowa territory that loomed large in last week's 17-10 overtime loss to the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats actually had been somewhat loose with the ball during nonconference play, committing six turnovers but surviving because the competition wasn't as strong.

Penalties also have been an issue, as the Wildcats have been flagged more than their opponent in three of their Big Ten losses. An illegal block penalty on superback Dan Vitale late in regulation at Iowa loomed large as Northwestern appeared to be going in for the game-winning score.

"You look at some of the penalties of aggression," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think there's a coach in the country that gets upset with guys trying to play hard and trying to play physical. But the other ones are unacceptable, and we've been pretty darn disciplined around here.

"It's unfortunate that a couple times, we haven't done that."

Northwestern also has struggled to finish drives. The Wildcats had nine possessions reach Ohio State territory in their Big Ten opener, but only three ended with touchdowns. They failed to score a touchdown against Wisconsin, had just two touchdowns against Minnesota and just one against Iowa. Although Northwestern leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally in red-zone scoring (30 scores in 31 possessions), its red-zone touchdown ratio isn't nearly as strong (18 of 31 possessions).

"Quite frankly, two-thirds of our football team is playing well enough for us to win," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to become more consistent offensively, and we've got to score more touchdowns. If we do that, we'll be fine. You’ve just got to keep grinding and doing what you do. The formula works.

"We're just on a journey with some bumps in the road right now."

Saturday, that journey reaches Lincoln, where Northwestern hopes to once again get back on course.

Many college football coaches, moonlighting as expert mathematicians, subscribe to the equation that two quarterbacks actually equals zero quarterbacks.

Others who attempt to use quarterback rotations end up with stagnant offenses. Quarterback competitions can be beneficial, but they also often divide locker rooms and lead to transfers. There are rare cases when a two-quarterback system works, and Northwestern appears to have found the formula.

The Wildcats won 10 games last season while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Although Colter started 12 of the 13 games and finished second on the team in both carries (170) and rushing yards (894), Siemian had more completions (128), pass attempts (218) and pass yards (1,312).

The offense wasn't a juggernaut -- 42nd nationally in scoring, 64th in yards -- and the rotation caused a midseason identity crisis, but Northwestern worked through it to have its most successful season under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Both Colter and Siemian return for the 2013 campaign, and the bar has been raised.

"I believe we have two quarterbacks who can lead us to a Big Ten championship," Fitzgerald told before spring practice.

Why does Northwestern's two-quarterback system seem to work when many others fail?

It starts with acceptance.

As recent history shows, playing two quarterbacks is more of a necessity than a luxury in Northwestern's offense. The team has used multiple starting quarterbacks in each of the past three seasons and four times in the past five.

The nature of Northwestern's spread offense, which requires the quarterback to run and exposes him to injury, makes it essential to have multiple options.

"We'll always have to play our No. 2 quarterback no matter what because [the starter] is going to get dinged up," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "It's going to happen."

No player understands this more than Colter, who burned his redshirt late in the 2010 season because star quarterback Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles' tendon. Colter opened 2011 as the starter because of Persa's injury and shared time with Persa before rotating with Siemian last fall.

Colter's unique skill set -- he recorded 43 receptions in 2011 and might be the team's top receiver and best overall athlete -- increases McCall's flexibility at the quarterback spot. Siemian, meanwhile, has the stronger throwing arm of the two.

"It’d be stupid to say he’s not going to play," Colter said, referring to Siemian. "I think we both showed that we’re both going to play this year. It’s been a two-quarterback system ever since I’ve been here. Do I want the opportunity? Yeah. And I’ve had the opportunity in games where I’ve been the only quarterback, but I also feel at some point, I'm one of the best receivers we have on the field and one of the best running backs, so we have to get me in different areas."

Another key to the rotation is the strong friendship between Colter and Siemian. They both arrived at Northwestern in 2010 and studied the playbook together. Both were on track to redshirt before Persa's injury, which thrust Colter into the fire.

Siemian backed up Colter at times during the 2011 season before moving into more of a co-starter role last fall.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian, who passed for 440 more yards than teammate Kain Colter last season, says the two-quarterback system can flourish at Northwestern.
"We're two pretty unselfish guys," Siemian said. "A lot of times at places, I’ve heard you get a quarterback competition or you get two guys buying time, and that kind of divides the team in two. We're all in this together. That's just part of the culture here as a program. It's not like Kain and I are that special, but we're all going for a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl."

Added Colter: "We've been through this whole thing together, all the offensive changes, all the quarterback changes. He's always helped me out and I try to help him out in any way that I can."

Colter's and Siemian's skills seemed to complement each other well for much of 2012.

As Northwestern transitioned to more of a run-based offense, Colter and running back Venric Mark shined in the zone-read game, and Colter's scrambling skills converted numerous third downs. Siemian showed off his arm on downfield throws and threaded the ball into tight windows. And while Colter didn't play nearly as much receiver because of the injury risk, he and Siemian connected nine times for 131 yards in a win against Indiana (Colter also had 161 rush yards and four touchdowns as a quarterback in the game).

"He’s one of our better receivers when he lines up out there, so for me, selfishly, I like it," Siemian said. "But then again, he's so dangerous when he lines up at quarterback."

Colter is working strictly as a quarterback in spring practice, but the door hasn't been closed to him playing other positions in the fall.

"We need him to get better at playing quarterback," McCall said. "As time goes on, there's always going to be a possibility of he and Trevor playing together on the same snap. That puts pressure on defenses. We can change some things up, they don't know actually what’s going on, it simplifies what they do. There's always going to be that opportunity as we go forward."

Colter's flexibility can keep defenses off balance, which Northwestern struggled to do with its rotation midway through the 2012 season. Offensive production dropped off in early October as Colter handled most run plays while Siemian was brought in for obvious third-and-long passing situations.

In late October, Colter questioned the unit's identity in an interview with, saying Northwestern had to fully commit to an option-based attack. Several days later, Colter and Mark combined for 328 rush yards in a win against Iowa.

"We know exactly who we are," Fitzgerald said. "The bottom line is we want to win, and we're going to do what’s best for the team first. Fans want to say, 'Why don't we throw it better with Kain, and why don't we run it better when Trevor’s in there?' Keep talking all you want, but the bottom line is we won the game. It's one of those situations where you want to play to guys' strengths, but you also don't want to be predictable.

"That's where the balancing act is."

There's also a balance with leadership that Colter and Siemian intend to reach in 2013. Colter, a co-captain in 2012, almost certainly will retain the title as a senior this fall.

He made his desire clear in a recent interview, saying, "No matter where I’m at [on the field], I'm going to be the leader on this team."

It's not an affront to Siemian, who doesn't take it that way.

"I'm a quarterback, so it'd be foolish for me to say I'm not a leader," Siemian said. "But Kain's a tremendous leader. He's done well leading our offense, but I have a leadership role on this team, too."

The Big Ten hasn't had a team with a true quarterback rotation win a league title in recent years. Northwestern hopes to change that this fall.
Matt McGloin, Braxton Miller and Joel StaveUS PresswireThe recent performances by (L to R) Penn State's Matt McGloin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Joel Stave give the Big Ten some hope for improved quarterback play.
Of the many theories to explain the Big Ten's collective struggles this season, the one about the league's dearth of elite quarterbacks certainly rings true.

Through eight weeks, the Big Ten has just one quarterback ranked among the nation's top 30 in pass efficiency (Nebraska's Taylor Martinez at No. 15). The league has just one quarterback in the nation's top 30 in completions per game (Penn State's Matt McGloin at No. 19). The league has zero quarterbacks ranked in the nation's top 30 in total passing yards.

As former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce told me last month, "A team can't get cut short at that position. I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."

Bruce is right. There's no doubt. But there's also hope on the horizon for a league that hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995 (Penn State's Kerry Collins).

I sat in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night and watched McGloin pick apart what had been a pretty salty Iowa defense. McGloin had complete command and tremendous awareness of his receivers and tight ends. He made correct reads and confident throws. McGloin's mobility is, well, limited, but one of his best plays came in the first quarter, when he evaded the rush and spotted tight end Jesse James on a deep crossing route to set up Penn State's first touchdown. As I tweeted at the time, McGloin is simply a different quarterback.

The same Matt McGloin who looked lost for much of the past two seasons has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 259 pass attempts. The same guy whose selection as the Lions' starting quarterback this spring elicited groans from much of Nittany Nation, and understandably so, is by far the best drop-back passer in the Big Ten. Some say that's an indictment against the league, and they're right to a degree. But it's also a tribute to what new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien can do with a quarterback.

If O'Brien can do this with McGloin, a former walk-on (sorry, Matt, had to mention it) in one offseason, think of what he can do with a quarterback who comes to Penn State with bona fide next-level potential. Like Christian Hackenberg, the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect, who has verbally committed to O'Brien and the Lions.

There are other reasons for optimism at the most important position on the field. Ohio State's Braxton Miller has exceeded all expectations in his first year as a spread-offense quarterback. Whether or not Miller hoists the Heisman Trophy in December -- or even gets to New York for the ceremony -- he'll enter 2013 as the likely Heisman front-runner. There's little doubt Miller's skills fit seamlessly with what Urban Meyer and Tom Herman want to do on offense.

Youth is a common theme among current Big Ten quarterbacks. New offensive systems is another.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill pressed the fast-forward button Saturday, burned Philip Nelson's redshirt and decided the future is now at quarterback. While Nelson made some expected mistakes in his first career start at a very tough venue (Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium), he also showed why Minnesota fans are so excited about his potential. The experience this fall only will make him better in 2013.

The other quarterback on the field at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin freshman Joel Stave, also is hardly a finished product. But he's a good play-action passer who doesn't make a ton of mistakes in a newish offense. Stave is another guy who should be better in 2013. Wisconsin also will have Danny O'Brien, Jon Budmayr and heralded recruit Bart Houston, provided Budmayr and Houston recover from their injuries.

Northwestern sophomore Trevor Siemian is another young Big Ten quarterback who looks his age. He's a half-step slow on his reads and his deliveries, and he's not connecting on the short-to-midrange routes that have defined Northwestern's offense for years. The good news is coordinator Mick McCall has a proven track record of developing younger quarterbacks into top-level Big Ten players in their junior and/or senior seasons (Dan Persa, Mike Kafka, C.J. Bacher). There's no reason to think Siemian, who has played more than the others as a sophomore, won't make a similar jump in 2013.

Look around the Big Ten, and most of the current signal-callers will be back next fall.

Nebraska's Martinez is a confounding player at times, particularly away from Lincoln, but he also has undoubtedly improved in 2012 -- he completes a league-best 67 percent of his passes with 15 touchdown strikes and four interceptions -- and will enter next year as one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks. Another player who falls under that label is Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, who has had his struggles this season but also has been operating in a new system with barely any weapons around him. Scheelhaase and the Illini offense will be better in 2013.

Indiana might have the Big Ten's deepest group of quarterbacks in 2013, as Tre Roberson returns from injury to join Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld in a pass-oriented scheme coordinated by Seth Littrell.

This isn't to suggest Big Ten teams don't have concerns at quarterback, both now and in years ahead. Andrew Maxwell's struggles at Michigan State are unsettling. Then again, he's a first-year starter with no proven receivers. Michigan loses one of the most productive players in team history in Denard Robinson. Then again, Robinson's departure accelerates Michigan's transition to the true pro-style offense Al Borges wants to run. If incoming recruit Shane Morris is as good as advertised, Michigan's future at quarterback looks promising.

No one expected Iowa's James Vandenberg to struggle so much in his senior season. Then again, the Hawkeyes are operating in a new offense under Greg Davis, and another full offseason could pay dividends for the new starter (most likely Jake Rudock).

The quarterback spot is and has been a problem in the Big Ten. There's no sugarcoating it.

But I saw reason for optimism with McGloin in Iowa City, and the combination of coaches, new systems, maturing players and incoming recruits suggests better days lie ahead.
It's time for the second half of our Big Ten personnel roundup entering season-opening weekend. In case you missed Part I, which featured most of the Week 1 depth charts, be sure and check it out.

Michigan State released its depth chart, so we'll start there. Minnesota and Nebraska will release theirs later this week.


Depth chart
  • There are two unsettled positions on defense as Michigan State lists co-starters at defensive tackle (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover) and at free safety (Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond). Head coach Mark Dantonio called the Reynolds-Hoover competition "a flip of the coin" and praised Reynolds' progress during fall camp. Reynolds has a 33-inch vertical leap and bench-presses more than 400 pounds. Hoover, a converted defensive end, missed all but one game last season with a fractured rib.
  • Linebacker Darien Harris and defensive end Lawrence Thomas both don't appear on the depth chart because of injuries but will be contributors this season. Harris could see the field early Friday night against Boise State. Sophomore Skyler Burkland is listed as the backup left tackle but likely won't play because of a hand injury.
  • Junior Bennie Fowler and sophomores Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett are listed as Michigan State's top receivers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who had 24 receptions last season for the Vols, appears as Fowler's backup.

Here are some other personnel notes from around the league ...


Running back is the big question mark for the Hawkeyes after another summer of attrition. Iowa enters Saturday's opener with three primary backs -- Damon Bullock, Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy -- as well as two fullbacks in Brad Rogers and Mark Weisman.

Bullock, who had 10 carries for 20 yards, likely will get the start against Northern Illinois, although Garmon, a heralded true freshman, should get plenty of work as well. Rogers is a familiar name, and coach Kirk Ferentz praised Weisman's progress during camp.

"You play the cards that are dealt," Ferentz said. "The running back position is one where we’ve had a lot of players playing. The good news is they've performed pretty well."

Sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who suffered a torn ACL in spring practice, has returned to practice, but Ferentz said it's "weeks or months before we talk about him entering contact or anything live at all." Iowa has been cautious about live tackling involving its running backs in practice, particularly those who have game experience.


Boilers coach Danny Hope didn't sound too concerned about playing without top middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford, indefinitely suspended Monday following his latest arrest. Purdue practiced without Beckford during spring ball -- he was working his way back from another legal issue -- and rotated several players at middle linebacker. Senior Antwon Higgs appears to be the next man in, and converted quarterback Sean Robinson is behind him.

Sophomore Joe Gilliam, who recorded seven tackles last year and made one start, should be a bigger part of the plan as well.

"I thought in the recruiting process he was one of the top players in our state," Hope said of Gilliam. "I thought Joe was probably the next guy in line [behind the starters]."

  • Not surprisingly, Tre Roberson has emerged as Indiana's starting quarterback after taking over the top spot as a true freshman in 2011. Roberson beat out junior college arrival Cam Coffman and freshman Nate Sudfeld for the job. Coffman will serve as Roberson's backup. Although Roberson struggled in Tuesday's morning workout, coach Kevin Wilson has been pleased with the sophomore. "He's embraced the challenge," Wilson said. "He definitely can make some plays as a bit of a dual-threat guy. He's embraced the competition. He has been by far our most consistent quarterback."
  • Roberson will be passing the ball more in 2012, and he'll have a deeper group of wide receivers at his disposal. How deep? Wilson said that veterans Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson enter the season as the team's No. 5 and No. 6 receivers (Hughes is suspended for the opener against Indiana State). Kevin Wilson had high praise for sophomore Cody Latimer, limited by a sports hernia injury last season. Speedster Nick Stoner also should be a bigger part of the mix at receiver. "It's not because they've [Hughes and Duwyce Wilson] fallen off but because we've got some good players," the coach said. "We've got some competition, we've got some depth, we've got some young speed and I just think we're close to having a more complete unit there. We're not great at receiver, but we do have more playmakers."
  • Illinois' secondary isn't anywhere near full strength as it prepares to face Western Michigan and talented quarterback Alex Carder. The team's top two safeties, Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, both are nursing injuries and didn't appear on Monday's depth chart. Also, top cornerback Terry Hawthorne has a sprained ankle that will limit him only to defense for the first few games. Illinois wanted to use the athletic Hawthorne as another option at receiver, a position with little proven depth. The bigger question is how much the ankle will limit the senior with his primary cornerback responsibilities.
  • Although the Illini will rotate plenty at running back, receiver and tight end on Saturday, they won't employ a two-quarterback system, which had been rumored during camp. Co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said Tuesday that he's not a big believer in rotating quarterbacks, so junior Nathan Scheelhaase will take most or all of the snaps.
  • Urban Meyer expects "six seconds of great effort" from Ohio State's freshmen in Saturday's opener against Miami (Ohio). Asked which freshman he was most curious to see, Meyer identified defensive back Devan Bogard as well as freshman linebacker David Perkins, who "really exploded the last couple of days."
  • Meyer said freshman Bri'onte Dunn and sophomore Rod Smith are "very close" for the No. 2 running back spot behind Carlos Hyde. Dunn has been a bit more consistent in camp and has a slight edge.
  • Meyer said Storm Klein's role going forward is yet to be determined and that recently reinstated linebacker is still "making up a bunch of stuff" after missing almost all of fall camp. Meyer based his decision to reinstate Klein on a domestic violence charge being dismissed against the senior, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that it has been easier to go through the preseason this year as opposed to 2011, when talk of quarterback Dan Persa's health dominated fall camp. Although Northwestern knew all along that Persa wouldn't play in the first few games and Kain Colter would start, it has been easier for Colter this time around.

"Unfortunately, Danny had to go through that tough offseason," Fitzgerald said. "That was not fun. Kain handled the opportunity really well a year ago. ... You could definitely tell it was his first start in college football Now he's settled down, he's settled into the role."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

July, 6, 2012
Have a good weekend. Big Ten media days only three weeks away.

Jason from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Of course....they would decide on a playoff now that Jim Tressel is gone. One thing I always gave Tressel credit for was his ability to make the team finish strong and peak at the end of the season. Something that he must have developed while winning 4 NCAA Championships in Division 1AA Youngstown State. Makes you wonder what he could have done if he was still coaching now going into a playoff system, again. Also, what do you think about the chances of other coaches who cut their teeth in the smaller divisions with playoffs, like ND Coach Brian Kelly (back-to-back National championships at Grand Valley State) and Oregon Coach Chip Kelly (New Hampshire)? Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Great question/topic, Jason. Tressel certainly knew what it took to win playoff games at Youngstown State, and while the FBS playoff will be a bit different, his experience could have helped Ohio State prepare for a national title matchup after the semifinal. That's one thing Urban Meyer brought up Thursday, how much time teams would have to prepare for the title game after their bowl/semifinal. I think FCS experience can help coaches like the Kellys during the period between the semifinal and the title game. But there's a difference between a four-team playoff (FBS) and a 20-team playoff (FCS). Coaches without FCS experience should still be able to get their teams ready for the playoff grind.

James from Texas writes: What a ridiculous article. Among the ridiculous, ND v Michigan was declared the best game of the year in 2011 by ESPN -- that is to say the best game of over 1,000 Div 1 CFB football games played.. That game hosted the largest crowd to ever see an American football game -- pro or college. in 2010, Michigan State made the call of the year to win in he last second -- the D'Antonio in one stroke entered he national stage. Afterward, the coach had a heart attack. ND vs MSU has grown significantly in importance for both teams -- and is a season making virtual dead heat in the fourth quarter every year. Ask the average 40 yr old MSU fan in Grand Rapids who -- after Michigan, the Spartans would rather pound this year.With both Michigan and Michigan State, the intensity has increased since 2007 -- win or lose. Purdue fans -- I married one -- fantasize about beating the IRISH. It is simply the biggest game of the year for the Boilers -- home or away. No change on that since 2007 or 1977 for that mattter. Check out the ticket sales at RossAde. A truly ridiculous article -- from its flimsy hypothesis to a laundry list of omitted facts.

Adam Rittenberg: James, I think you're confusing "best game" with "game that makes the most impact." My post was about the impact of the Big Ten-Notre Dame matchups, not the quality of those games. Sure, both Michigan and Michigan State have played some exciting games against Notre Dame in recent seasons. But did those games really have a great impact on the Wolverines' or Spartans' seasons? Not really. Michigan's victories last season against Nebraska and Ohio State had more impact on the Wolverines getting to the Sugar Bowl than the Notre Dame win. The Wolverines haven't received much credit for their past three victories against Notre Dame. The Spartans, meanwhile, were hurt by their loss to Notre Dame in 2011 because Notre Dame had another so-so season. Michigan State's 2010 win against the Irish was big, but it didn't make nearly as big an impact as a victory two weeks later against Wisconsin. I agree on the Purdue-Notre Dame series and stated as much in the post. But just because a game is exciting, or memorable things happen either during or after a game, doesn't make the game have tremendous impact on the teams.


Adam Rittenberg: B.G., it might surprise you to learn than I regard Alabama as the nation's best program by a fairly sizable margin. Right now, no college program has a better combination of recruiting success and talent development than the Tide, who boast an outstanding coaching staff led by Nick Saban. As far as the SEC, I have tremendous respect for it as football conference. How can you not? I recently spent some time with Mike Slive at the BCS meetings, and I have to say I'm very impressed. That said, I'm going to take my shots from time to time, mainly because it's so amusing how upset SEC folks get. You guys are so incredibly insecure with your own success, and when anyone dares to question you, you freak out. I get a kick out of it. Also, I don't buy into the lazy narrative several national media members espouse that the SEC can do no wrong and the Big Ten is the root of all evil. There's a way to cover these leagues without cheerleading or putting them down at every opportunity.

Matt from Plymouth, Minn., writes: Northern Iowa has replaced Southern Illinois as the premier FCS program in the Midwest?? Didn't North Dakota State handle the Gophers at TCF last year and then go on to win the FCS National Championship? I realize UNI is very good but if I were going to name a program the premier FCS program in the midwest I would give those honors to NDSU.

Adam Rittenberg: Good call, Matt. While Northern Iowa has been elite a little longer than North Dakota State, the Bison are the national champions and a team that has had more recent success against FBS competition than the Panthers. Although Minnesota wasn't a good football team last season, North Dakota State really impressed me with its athleticism. Craig Bohl has a very good football team, and one that deserves to be called the best FCS team in the Midwest.

BRT from Swaziland writes: You know that "impactful" is not usually accepted by professional writers, right? Yeah, yeah, it's a living language; it's a blog, not a dissertation--I see those possible objections, but I sure wouldn't want Northwestern to have to take you off their list of distinguished graduates. It kind of looks like Chris Low did your final grammar check. :( Otherwise, you do a pretty good job, and I enjoy the blog. It's helped get me through grad school (ever since we came over from Ubbenland, anyway)--though I'm of course not using it as a source of new vocabulary. :)

Adam Rittenberg: Yeah, yeah, I know it's not really a word, but it sounds good and fits nicely on a blog headline, OK? Trust me, Northwestern hasn't removed me from its list of distinguished graduates, because I was never on the list in the first place. I'll avoid using "impactful" in the future, because you're right and I should avoid it. Let's just pretend C-Low hacked into my blog account and went all SEC on the grammar.

Nate from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wanted to ask about the B1G's relationship with Notre Dame. Personally, I have never been a fan of ND or their fans. This started at a very young age (elementary school) for me. That being said, I have always felt that they should be a part of the B1G. During the B1G's expansion efforts, it appeared that Delaney was trying very hard to convince ND to join. If I were in his shoes, I would have told my teams to stop scheduling ND immediately. I think ND would be more willing (read: forced) to join the B1G if they had to find three additional games a year outside of the B1G. Am I crazy for having this logic? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, while the Big Ten made two separate expansion pushes for Notre Dame in the 1990s, the last expansion push didn't really target the Irish. The Big Ten spent more time looking at other schools in the Big 12, Big East and ACC. Jim Delany and the Big Ten doesn't feel a need to beg the Irish to join at this stage. The league is strong enough without Notre Dame, so if there's any movement on Notre Dame to the Big Ten, it has to come from South Bend, not Park Ridge, Ill. (B1G headquarters). As far as scheduling, Delany wouldn't tell his individual schools what to do. For example, he knows how valuable the Notre Dame series is to Purdue. He knows Purdue would suffer without having the ND game every year (especially the ND home game every other year). Delany appreciates rivalry games, and knows three Big Ten teams have rivalries with the Irish. Also, Notre Dame wouldn't have trouble replacing Big Ten opponents on its schedule. The national appeal of Notre Dame remains very enticing to teams looking to add marquee non-league games.

Dan from Washington, D.C., writes: In your "weakest position group" I was surprised that you hadn't listed QB as an option. Is this just because with the large number of QBs that left college football last year, or because you project that the starters will handle themselves well?

Adam Rittenberg: Dan, I thought about including quarterback, but I think it's a position group that sort of falls in the middle -- not the strongest by any means, but not the weakest, either. The Big Ten loses three good ones in Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and Dan Persa, but it also returns multiyear starters at Michigan (Denard Robinson), Nebraska (Taylor Martinez) and Illinois (Nathan Scheelhaase), plus several other players with starting experience -- Iowa's James Vandenberg, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Matthew McGloin, Northwestern's Kain Colter and Indiana's Tre Roberson. Purdue has three quarterbacks with a decent amount of starts in Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry. Michigan State and Wisconsin are the only Big Ten squads who have quarterbacks lacking starting experience in this league. I think several veteran quarterbacks will be better this season -- Robinson, Martinez, Vandenberg -- and the number of younger, athletic signal callers in the league (Miller, Roberson, Colter) is reason for optimism.

Bottom line: While several Big Ten quarterbacks have something to prove, the overall group doesn't have as many question marks as, say, wide receiver or safety.

Kellen from Grand Forks, N.D., writes: Hey Adam. Big Gopher fan and follower of the Big Ten for all of my 21 years. On a national aspect, is the only way for the Big Ten to get back its respect to win the NCG? Or could a different scenario like Michigan beating Bama/MSU rolling Boise/no embarrassing losses OOC this year also remedy the situation? Or is it going to take some form of postseason success?

Adam Rittenberg: Kellen, you've hit it on the head -- it's all about winning the national title. The narrative in college football isn't shaped by bowl records or BCS bowl wins. It's all about that crystal football and the team (and the league) that raises it in early January. That said, the Big Ten can help its rep by beating a team like Alabama, regarded as a superior team from a far superior league to the Big Ten. The Boise State game also can help, as can no awful losses in non-league play. The Big Ten would benefit from sustained postseason success, especially since it has posted only two winning bowl records since the 2000 season (2002, 2009). But in the end, it's all about the title game. The Big Ten could go 2-6 in bowls as long as one of the wins comes in the title game.
The 2012 football season is rapidly approaching, and to get you ready, we're providing a very early preview of each Week 1 matchup in the Big Ten. Northwestern opens the 2012 season where it typically does -- on the road. This fall brings a changing of the guard for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, as standout quarterback Dan Persa and a large senior class departs.

Here's a look at what the Wildcats face in Week 1.

For more Week 1 matchups, click here.

Week 1 opponent: Syracuse (road)

Coach: Doug Marrone (fourth year, 17-20)

2011 record: 5-7 (1-6 Big East)

Returning starters: 14 (5 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

About the Orange: After an 8-5 season and a Pinstripe Bowl victory in 2010, Syracuse took a step back last season, dropping its final five games to miss out on a bowl trip. Marrone decided to close 13 of 15 practices this spring, in part so Syracuse could incorporate new schematic elements, but also to build better chemistry and focus among the players. Although the Orange haven't overhauled their offense or defense, they'll be a bit different when they take on the Wildcats. Syracuse returns quarterback Ryan Nassib, who passed for 2,685 yards with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2011. Although Nassib will take most of the snaps, Syracuse also will feature versatile weapon Ashton Broyld, who can play quarterback and running back. The defense loses standout Chandler Jones, a first-round pick of the New England Patriots, but brings back linebackers Dyshawn Davis and Marquis Spruill, who combined for seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season.

Random factoid: Despite being named for an air conditioning manufacturer, the Carrier Dome has no air conditioning system. It could be very toasty inside the dome for players, coaches and fans on Sept. 1, as the Northwestern-Syracuse game kicks off at noon ET.

Series with Northwestern: Syracuse leads 5-4, including a 37-34 victory at the Carrier Dome in 2009 in the teams' last meeting.

Totally unscientific percentage chance Northwestern wins: 53 percent. Northwestern is 0-3 at the Carrier Dome, and will send a new-look starting lineup onto the field Sept. 1. But Fitzgerald is very good at getting his team ready for openers. In fact, the Wildcats are 6-0 in season openers under Fitzgerald, including road wins against Boston College (2011), Vanderbilt (2010) and Miami University (2006). Syracuse will throw some new wrinkles at Northwestern, and should be improved offensively after finishing 90th nationally last season, but Northwestern also should be able to move the ball with athletic quarterback Kain Colter and a dangerous core of receivers. This is a true toss-up and a pivotal game for two teams looking to bounce back from disappointing seasons.
The calendar has flipped to June, so it's time to check the Big Ten 2013 recruiting scorecard once again. There haven't been too many changes from the last scorecard, although teams like Illinois have made a surge, and others have picked up pieces here and there. Individual recruiting grades also have been updated throughout the ESPN database.

Michigan still leads the FBS in verbal commits with 18, although teams like Georgia and Texas A&M are closing the gap. The Wolverines have a bigger advantage in ESPN 150 commits with 11 total, three more than any other squad.

Ohio State is tied for fifth nationally in ESPN 150 commits with five, and Penn State is tied for 10th with three.

Scorecard time ...


2013 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Fellow offensive line recruits Logan Tuley-Tillman and Kyle Bosch have been in the headlines this week following Tuley-Tillman's letter-burning incident, but Michigan has secured the nation's No. 1-rated guard in David Dawson from Cass Tech in Detroit. Dawson is the No. 2 player in the state behind fellow Wolverines commit Shane Morris.

ESPN 150 selections: 11

Highest rated: Shane Morris, QB (Grade of 87)


2013 verbal commitments: 11

Spotlight: Ohio State might solidify the cornerback position for years to come in the 2013 class. Both of the Buckeyes' top-rated prospects, Eli Woodward and Cam Burrows, play cornerback. Ohio State will have one vacancy at cornerback after the 2012 season, and Woodward and Burrows have the skills to see the field early in their careers.

ESPN 150 selections: 6

Highest rated: Eli Woodard, CB (Grade of 89)


2013 verbal commitments: 10

Spotlight: May was a productive month for the Illini, who picked up four commitments, including one from another Detroit Cass Tech player, defensive tackle Kenton Gibbs. At 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, Gibbs won't need to get much bigger to help Illinois on the interior defensive line.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: Aaron Bailey, QB (Grade of 80)


2013 verbal commitments: 8

Spotlight: Defensive end David Kenney III seems to fit the mold of previous Iowa defensive linemen. He might be able to play both line spots, and has the ability to power rush off of the edge. Along with defensive tackles Brant Gressel and Nathan Bazata, Iowa is putting together a strong group of defensive linemen in this class.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: David Kenney III, DE (Grade of 80)


2013 verbal commitments: 8

Spotlight: The Lions hope defensive tackle prospect Greg Webb is their next dominant defensive tackle. But Webb will have to bounce back from an injury setback after he tore his ACL in February. Webb recently told that his recovery is going well, and that he's ahead of schedule.

ESPN 150 selections: 3

Highest rated: Christian Hackenberg, QB (Grade of 89)


2013 verbal commitments: 8

Spotlight: The Huskers lose two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed) after this season, but they're replenishing the position with Greg Hart from Bo Pelini's home state of Ohio. Hart already is a big target at 6-4, 225, who should fit in well with Tim Beck's offense.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: Tre'vell Dixon, Athlete (Grade of 82)


2013 verbal commitments: 7

Spotlight: Michigan State's last superstar linebacker named Jones, Greg Jones, attended Cincinnati's Archbishop Moeller High School. The Spartans are hoping for the same success with commit Shane Jones, a 6-1, 220-pound linebacker. Jones will join another Moeller alum, defensive end Marcus Rush, in East Lansing.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: Damion Terry, QB (Grade of 82)


2013 verbal commitments: 6

Spotlight: Defensive end Chikwe Obasih continued Wisconsin's pipeline to Brookfield, Wis., with his verbal commitment in late April. He'll play multiple positions in a 3-4 defense as a senior before joining the Badgers' 4-3 scheme in 2013.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: Jack Keeler, T and Garret Dooley, LB (Grade of 79)


2013 verbal commitments: 2

Spotlight: Matt Alviti resembles recent Northwestern quarterbacks in that he lacks height but makes up for it with speed, arm strength and competitiveness. A Dan Persa clone? Wildcats fans would be thrilled if that's the case.

ESPN 150 selections: 1

Highest rated: Matt Alviti, QB (Grade of 84)


2013 verbal commitments: 2

Spotlight: Defensive end Randy Gregory originally committed to Purdue in 2011 before heading to a junior college in Arizona. Several other schools pursued Gregory, but he pledged again to the Boilers, and will suit up in 2013.

ESPN 150 selections: 0


2013 verbal commitments: 1

Spotlight: Cornerback Keelon Brookins is Minnesota's only verbal so far, but the Gophers had only two players committed at this time last year. So it's too soon to press the panic button. It will be interesting to see how well second-year coach Jerry Kill and his staff do within the state. They had 10 Minnesota players in last year's class.

ESPN 150 selections: 0


2013 verbal commitments: 0

Spotlight: The Hoosiers are one of four major-conference programs -- Iowa State, Oregon State and Wake Forest are the others -- without a commitment for 2013. This is a departure from the end of the Bill Lynch era, when Indiana was among the Big Ten's leaders in early commits.
In putting together the proving ground posts for both the Leaders Division and Legends Division, I tried to mix up offense/defense and position groups. But in reality, I could have made all 10 selections quarterbacks.


Which Big Ten quarterback has the most to prove in 2012?


Discuss (Total votes: 7,547)

The Big Ten loses three of its top four passers from 2011 -- Russell Wilson, Dan Persa and Kirk Cousins -- and while eight teams return their starting quarterbacks, there are question marks around the league. Quarterback competitions are unsettled at Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and returning starters are hearing some footsteps at places like Indiana and Illinois.

Michigan State has spent years grooming Andrew Maxwell to be its top quarterback, but Maxwell still must show he can get it done on game day. Taylor Martinez is entering his third season as Nebraska's starting quarterback, but he still has to win over Huskers fans with more consistent performances. Everyone assumes Braxton Miller will be a big success in Ohio State's new spread offense, but Miller still has some work ahead.

Wisconsin has only three healthy quarterbacks at its disposal, and while the hope is Danny O'Brien makes a seamless transition from Maryland, like Wilson did from NC State last year, O'Brien has a lot to prove.

Let's put the debate to you fine people. Which Big Ten quarterback has the most to prove in 2012? I've listed five choices, and I'm interested to see who you choose. Be sure to vote.
When it comes to passing statistics in college football, 3,000 yards is a pretty good benchmark.

If you've reached that milestone as a quarterback, you're in pretty elite company. There were only 39 quarterbacks to do so in the FBS last season, and just three in the Big Ten: Michigan State's Kirk Cousins (3,316), Wisconsin's Russell Wilson (3,175) and Iowa's James Vandenberg (3,022). Northwestern's Dan Persa (2,376) missed three games and was limited in others, or else he might have made a run at it, too. No one else from the league surpassed 2,200 yards passing.

Of that group, only Vandenberg returns. The Big Ten isn't known as a huge passing league, so how many quarterbacks can reach 3,000 in 2012? Here's a breakdown of the top contenders in order of their chances of making it to 3K:

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa's James Vandenberg is the Big Ten's lone returning 3,000-yard passer.
Vandenberg: On the plus side, Iowa will likely look to pass a lot this season without a proven running back, and new coordinator Greg Davis is a quarterback guru. On the downside, Vandenberg won't have favorite target Marvin McNutt, and he struggled on the road last season. Still, I think he'll get there and be better as a second-year full-time starter and senior.

Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois: Taking a flyer here. Scheelhaase threw for 2,110 in an offense that ran into the ground for the final six games. He won't have A.J. Jenkins around, and he'll have to learn an entirely new offense. But new coach Tim Beckman's spread attack could allow Scheelhaase to put up big numbers if the Illini can find enough weapons.

Danny O'Brien, Wisconsin: Assuming, as most do, that Maryland transfer O'Brien will beat out Joel Stave for the starting job, he has a chance to follow in Russell Wilson's footsteps. A tremendous running game means receivers often will be open. O'Brien threw for more than 2,400 yards as a freshman at Maryland. Then again, Wilson was the first quarterback in Wisconsin history to amass 3,000 passing yards, and he played about as flawlessly as you can play.

Braxton Miller, Ohio State: Miller threw for only 1,159 yards last season, but it took several games for him to become the starter, and the Buckeyes often decided not to pass much. He showed his potential by throwing for 235 yards against Michigan, and the Buckeyes were slinging it all over the place in the spring game. Miller's passing numbers should go way up under Urban Meyer, but 3,000 still seems like quite a reach.

Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State: Maxwell is stepping into the same offense that produced the passing yards leader last season in the Big Ten. But B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin are gone, and Maxwell has never started a game. I think he'll be good, but given the youth at receiver and strength on the offensive line, the Spartans likely will run the ball more in 2012.

Denard Robinson, Michigan: Don't laugh. Shoelace threw for more than 2,500 yards in 2010, after all. He looked much better with his fundamentals this spring, and if he can get some of last season's 15 interceptions to go for catches by his teammates, that will help. It's unlikely, but never say never when it comes to Robinson.

Taylor Martinez, Nebraska: Martinez's 2,089 yards were a career high last season. He worked hard on his technique this offseason, and the Nebraska passing game should be much improved. The Huskers probably run it too well to have a 3,000 yard passer, but I do see Martinez's passing stats improving significantly.

Marqueis Gray, Minnesota: Gray threw for only 1,495 yards last season, but did have some big games, like against Michigan State (366 yards). I'd be stunned if he doesn't at least eclipse 2,000 yards. But does he have enough weapons around him, and will his running prowess hold down the passing numbers?

Unnamed Purdue quarterback: Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve combined to throw for 2,500 yards last season, and that was with TerBush as a newbie starter and Marve coming back from injury. If one of them seized the job and played full time, then 3,000 could be reachable. But it's more likely that Danny Hope will continue to rotate snaps between those two and Rob Henry.

Kain Colter, Northwestern: The Wildcats will have a deep and talented receiving corps, and they're not afraid to throw it around. The question is whether the athletic Colter can become more of a true passer, and how much Pat Fitzgerald will utilize Colter's ability to run.

Tre Roberson, Indiana: Roberson threw for less than 1,000 yards last season, but only played in nine games. He is improving as a passer, and the Hoosiers figure to open things up more in the passing game. Ben Chappell led the league in passing yards just two years ago. But 3,000 still seems like too much of a leap, and the probable lack of a bowl game hurts Roberson's chances.

Matt McGloin, Penn State: Whether it's McGloin or Paul Jones or Rob Bolden starting, they'll have a chance to post some good statistics under the guy who used to coach Tom Brady. But we've seen nothing from the Nittany Lions' quarterback options to suggest they can have that kind of season.

In closing, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw only one quarterback pass for 3,000 yards this season in the Big Ten. How many do you think will reach that milestone?
Tough news for former Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. As the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein reports, Persa needs a second surgery on his right Achilles tendon, a procedure which could end his playing career.

Persa, who went undrafted last month, re-injured the tendon during a free-agent workout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He originally tore his Achilles near the end of the Iowa game on Nov. 13, 2010. Though the Wildcats mounted a Heisman campaign for Persa last spring, he had a couple of setbacks with his rehab and was never fully comfortable.

A foot specialist with the Indianapolis Colts told Persa he needed to shut things down now.

"He said my foot was at 65 percent," Persa told the Tribune, "and during the season, it was probably at 50 percent. He said: 'If you ever want it to be semi-normal again, you have to have another surgery.'"

Even at just 50 percent or so last year on his foot, Persa completed 73.4 percent of his passes, finishing second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson. He led the league in passing yards per game, at 237.6, and had 17 touchdowns against seven interceptions.

Still, he was no longer the running threat he used to be. Persa could have sought a redshirt last year and fully healed. But he says he has no regrets, and isn't going to mope if his football career is over.

"Six years at a place is a long time," he said. "If I never play again, I'm happy with what I've done."
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

In our most recent Take Two, we debated which position group was the strongest throughout the league. So on the flip side, today's Take Two topic is this: What position group in the league looks most in need of improvement after spring practice?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeKeenan Davis
Reese Strickland/US PresswireMuch is expected from Iowa receiver Keenan Davis after his strong 2011 season.
The Big Ten had nine receivers drafted into the NFL over the weekend, and overall the league lost its top seven pass-catchers from the 2011 season. So there's no wonder that position looked a little weak across several campuses this spring. Only two players who caught at least 50 passes last year -- Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Iowa's Keenan Davis -- return in 2012. Michigan State lost its top two wideouts in B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and is relying on wildly inexperienced players to step up there. Ohio State didn't have a player catch more than 14 passes last year, and new coach Urban Meyer criticized the receivers all spring, though Michael Thomas did have a strong spring game. Wisconsin missed Abbrederis (foot injury) this spring and is trying to find someone else to play with consistency at that spot. A.J. Jenkins basically was the passing game for Illinois last year, and now the Illini need more options in their new spread system after losing the first-rounder. Michigan needs to replace Junior Hemingway and is hoping Roy Roundtree bounces back after a subpar junior year stats-wise.

I could go on and on. Very few schools appear settled at receiver right now, and I'd be hard pressed to select a pair of preseason first-team all-conference performers there at this point. While receiver is one position where young players can often have a quick impact, it's also true that the league is lacking proven stars at that spot heading into the season.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanConsistency will be a major focus for Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase next season.
The league undoubtedly loses a lot at receiver, but I'm going with the guys throwing the passes, not catching them. Great quarterbacks can make adequate receivers good and good receivers great. It rarely works the other way around. The Big Ten doesn't lose as many standout quarterbacks as it does receivers, but the league says goodbye to three of its best in Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Northwestern's Dan Persa. Wilson energized Wisconsin's offense with his strong arm and athleticism, and while his accomplishments were overshadowed by those of teammate Montee Ball, he'll be sorely missed. While Danny O'Brien is a nice addition, he's not Russell Wilson. Cousins and Persa also leave significant voids in East Lansing and Evanston, respectively. While Kain Colter is a great athlete and Andrew Maxwell has been groomed for the spotlight, both men have a lot to prove.

The overall quality of quarterback play in the league needs a boost in 2012. Remember that the Big Ten failed to have a team ranked in the top 35 nationally in pass offense in 2011. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase and Minnesota's MarQueis Gray must become a lot more consistent. Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Indiana's Tre Roberson must grow up. Michigan's Denard Robinson needs to cut down on his interceptions and add reliability to his repertoire. Iowa's James Vandenberg has to get a lot better on the road. Purdue and Penn State need a quarterback to separate himself from the pack. There are many more familiar names at quarterback, but if they don't make strides, the Big Ten once again will be grounded on offense.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 30, 2012
For lunch: codfish, Heinz beans and links. With a Shirley Temple, since we're tapering.