Big Ten: Danny Fortener

My basketball responsibilities caused me to fall behind on monitoring pro days at Big Ten schools, but I'm back in football mode now. Four Big Ten schools -- Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State and Northwestern -- all held their annual pro days on Wednesday, and here are some highlights.

ILLINOIS

  • Wide receiver Arrelious Benn certainly helped himself by clocking a 4.36 in the 40-yard dash, more than a tenth of a second faster than his time (4.48) at the NFL combine.
  • Wide receiver/tight end Jeff Cumberland clocked a 4.46 in the 40. Cumberland boasts excellent size, but his pass-catching ability has been questioned.
  • Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui ran a 4.83 in the 40.
  • Quarterback Juice Williams had his first chance to work out before NFL scouts, while guard Jon Asamoah sat out pro day with a shoulder injury that has limited him since Senior Bowl practice.
MICHIGAN STATE

  • Wide receiver Blair White continued a strong pre-draft performance by running the 40 in 4.46 seconds, improving on his time from the combine (4.5). He also recorded a 33.5-inch vertical leap and a broad jump of 10 feet.
  • Defensive end Trevor Anderson ran a 4.66 in the 40, had a 37-inch vertical leap and a broad jump of 10 feet, 7.5 inches.
  • According to The Detroit News, cornerback Jeremy Ware ran an unofficial time of 4.37 in the 40, while safety Danny Fortener, running back A.J. Jimmerson and cornerback Ross Weaver all ran better than a 4.5.
PENN STATE

  • Quarterback Daryll Clark said he clocked a 4.61 in the 40-yard dash after not running at the combine because of a hamstring injury.
  • Linebacker Navorro Bowman said his 40 time improved to 4.61 seconds (he had a 4.72 in Indy).
  • Linebacker Josh Hull improved substantially on his poor 40 time at the combine (4.91 seconds) by clocking a 4.71 on Wednesday.
  • Linebacker Sean Lee improved his 40 time from 4.74 seconds in Indianapolis to unofficially 4.55 Wednesday.
  • Defensive tackle Jared Odrick said he improved on his 40 time, recording several attempts below five seconds after clocking a 5.03 at the combine. He also improved on his broad jump.
  • Tight end Andrew Quarless said he ran the 40 in the 4.5 range Wednesday after recording a 4.69 in Indianapolis.
  • Tackle Dennis Landolt and defensive end/linebacker Jerome Hayes both said they had 24 reps in the 225-pound bench press.
  • Former Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli worked out for scouts Wednesday as he tries to revive his pro career.
NORTHWESTERN

  • Quarterback Mike Kafka continued a strong pre-draft performance on pro day, reportedly hitting on almost every throw.
  • Wide receiver Andrew Brewer recorded a 4.60 in the 40, a 39-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot broad jump and a short shuttle run of 4.08 seconds.

Big Ten team recruiting needs

January, 20, 2010
1/20/10
11:43
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National Signing Day is right around the corner, and Big Ten teams will look to add depth and identify a few immediate contributors in the upcoming recruiting classes. What do these squads need the most?

Here's a look:

ILLINOIS

Offensive line: The line hasn't been great the last two seasons, and Illinois loses standout Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block. Illinois looks strong at running back in 2010, but someone needs to create rushing lanes.

Safety: The Illini defense hasn't been the same since the departures of safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison following the 2007 season. Ron Zook could really use a safety or two who could step in and contribute right away against the run and in coverage.

INDIANA

Defensive end: The Hoosiers lose two multiyear starters at end: Jammie Kirlew, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and Greg Middleton, who led the nation in sacks in 2007. Indiana's pass rush will suffer unless it builds depth at end and throughout the line.

Secondary: Indiana loses starting safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk as well as its top cornerback, Ray Fisher. Expect the Hoosiers to go very heavy with defensive back recruits as they try to shore up an area that has been problematic during the last decade.

Offensive line: The situation on the line certainly is better than it was a year ago, but the departure of talented left tackle Rodger Saffold creates a void. Indiana is the type of team that always could use more depth up front so the drop-off between starters and backups isn't so dramatic.

IOWA

Offensive line: Iowa loses four linemen who started most or all of its games last year, including All-Big Ten performers Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. The Hawkeyes can't expect freshmen to come in and start right away up front, but they need some insurance if injuries crop up.

Linebacker: Standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds depart, and while Iowa has some guys ready to step in, it can always use depth in the defensive midsection. The Hawkeyes defensive line should sizzle in 2010, but they need sure tacklers at linebacker, too.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: There's no mystery here, as the Wolverines really struggled with breakdowns in the back four and lose standout cornerback Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. Michigan needs to bolster its talent level at both cornerback and safety to have improved results in 2010.

Linebacker: The Wolverines linebackers struggled in 2009, and there are opportunities for young players to step in here and contribute. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are back, but it's obvious this is another area Michigan must upgrade this coming season.

Specialists: Michigan loses both of its starting specialists, including All-Big Ten punter Zoltan Mesko, a Ray Guy Award finalist. This is always an area where a strong true freshman can step in and contribute immediately.

MICHIGAN STATE

Trenches: Line play was a weakness for the Spartans in 2009, and they'll be looking to upgrade on both sides of the ball. They lose top pass rusher Trevor Anderson as well as left tackle Rocco Cironi, center Joel Nitchman and guard Brendon Moss on the offensive line.

Secondary: This unit turned out to be a major disappointment, considering the preseason expectations. Michigan State loses safety Danny Fortener and corners Ross Weaver and Jeremy Ware, and there should be ample opportunities for freshmen to step in and play.

Linebacker: Probably not a critical need, but Michigan State needs to start preparing for life after Greg Jones. The Spartans also lose Adam Decker and Brandon Denson from the 2009 team, and Eric Gordon will depart with Jones after 2010.

MINNESOTA

Cornerback: The Gophers lose both of their starters, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, and will be looking to build depth behind Michael Carter in 2010. I'm very excited about what Minnesota returns at safety, but the situation at corner seems a bit unsettled.

Offensive line: Minnesota will stick with the pro-style offense no matter who becomes its next coordinator, but for the system to truly click, the Gophers really need to upgrade their line. The team returns quite a few linemen for 2010, but it'll look for improved depth up front.

Running back: After finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing each of the last two seasons, Minnesota certainly will look to get better here. Kevin Whaley's departure creates a spot for a newcomer to compete with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge for carries.

NORTHWESTERN

Secondary: The Wildcats lose three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten honorees Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. They'll need to build depth around safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin to avoid a major drop-off.

Defensive line: Corey Wootton's departure leaves NU without a proven pass rusher who can command double teams. The Wildcats also will look to build depth at defensive tackle after losing Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas.

OHIO STATE

Safety: This is one of few spots where Ohio State loses two long-time contributors in Kurt Coleman, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and Anderson Russell. Though Jermale Hines played a lot in 2009, the Buckeyes want to build depth around him.

Wide receiver: If the Buckeyes' offense builds off of its Rose Bowl performance, the wideouts figure to be more involved. Ohio State should be fine for 2010 with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but it could lose both after the season and needs to start grooming replacements. These recruits also could help the return game, where Ohio State loses Ray Small and Lamaar Thomas.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: Two-year starter Daryll Clark is gone and Pat Devlin transferred following the 2008 season, creating a wide open competition at quarterback heading into 2010. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will compete, but Penn State always wants others in the mix there.

Linebacker: Penn State rarely has trouble reloading here, but it loses all three starters, including back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman. The Lions will look to build depth and identify an early contributor or two for the 2010 season.

Tight end/wideout: The Lions lose both Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, so expect them to add a tight end or two in the incoming class. Quarless was a major part of the passing attack and Shuler hauled in two touchdowns, so Penn State won't neglect this position.

PURDUE

Secondary: A no-brainer here, as Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, which has ranked in the upper half of the league against the pass. The Boilers likely need a newcomer or two to contribute right away in 2010.

Linebacker: Jason Werner hopes to return for a sixth year, but Purdue can't take any chances with a position that has struggled a bit the last two seasons. Danny Hope likes his young linebackers (Antwon Higgs, Dwayne Beckford), but he's looking for more.

Wide receiver/tight end: Purdue can never have enough pass receivers, and Hope will look to build around All-Big Ten performer Keith Smith in 2010. The Boilers lose No. 2 wideout Aaron Valentin, and Smith and tight end Kyle Adams depart after 2010.

WISCONSIN

Defensive line: All-Big Ten defensive end O'Brien Schofield departs, and the Badgers will be pretty young up front in 2010. It's important that Wisconsin builds depth behind players like J.J. Watt and Jordan Kohout.

Tight end: Lance Kendricks certainly eased concerns about this spot in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Wisconsin still loses All-Big Ten selection Garrett Graham as well as reserve Mickey Turner. No team in the Big Ten features the tight end spot as much as Wisconsin, so it'll be important to find a few recruits.

Valero Alamo Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
1/01/10
9:00
AM ET
It's time for a quick look at arguably the most bizarre bowl game of the year, as Michigan State (6-6) takes on Texas Tech (8-4) on Saturday night in San Antonio (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).

WHO TO WATCH: Blair White and Keshawn Martin. Michigan State's wave of suspensions hit the wide receivers harder than any other position group. The Spartans will be without their No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts in B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell, who combined for 74 receptions and five touchdowns this season. White and Martin need to pick up the slack for the Big Ten's top passing offense in a game where Michigan State likely needs to score 28 points or more. Quarterback Kirk Cousins can rely on White, a first-team All-Big Ten selection who has a knack for finding the end zone. Martin also emerged as a difference maker down the stretch, especially on special teams. The Spartans need Martin to break off some nice returns to win the field-position edge.

WHAT TO WATCH: Michigan State's secondary. Head coach Mark Dantonio talked up this group in the preseason, but the secondary has fallen well short of expectations. Quarterbacks like Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen, Scott Tolzien and Adam Weber had their way with Michigan State's defensive backs, who face arguably their biggest challenge in Taylor Potts and the nation's No. 2 pass offense (380.7 ypg). The Spartans will be without starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker (suspension), so they need big performances from defensive backs Danny Fortener, Jeremy Ware, Trenton Robinson and others.

WHY TO WATCH: Do you really need an explanation here? You've got one team (Michigan State) missing 14 scholarship players because of one very troubling stretch on Nov. 22. You've got another team (Texas Tech) that learned Wednesday that its head coach had been fired after wide receiver Adam James filed a complaint. I'm about to make a prediction on this game, but who really knows what will happen? One team will come out of the game looking extremely resilient amid adversity. The other could end up looking like a train wreck.

PREDICTION: Mike Leach's shocking dismissal will impact Texas Tech early, as Michigan State takes a lead. But I don't have enough confidence in the Spartans' secondary to think they'll keep the Red Raiders in check for 60 minutes. Potts gets hot late and Texas Tech rallies to win, 31-27.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When it comes to providing information and media access, Michigan State is one of the more open programs in the Big Ten. But not this week.

Head coach Mark Dantonio didn't issue a depth chart, citing lingering injury questions from the Spartans' loss to Minnesota. And he only allowed team captains to talk to the media, a departure from the standard routine, when all players are available for interviews.

The Detroit News' Eric Lacy called it a "bunker mentality."

Clamping down on media access isn't uncommon for major college programs, but you usually see it before national showcase games or major rivalries. Michigan State on Saturday hosts Western Michigan, a 4-5 Mid-American Conference team.

If it feels like the tension is mounting for the 4-5 Spartans, it is.

"Any time you have a football team that is all of a sudden 4-5 after nine games, you begin to lose a little bit of respect," Dantonio said. "I think that's natural. What we want to try to do is make sure we're regaining that respect."

Dantonio rarely discusses injuries, but health is a concern after running back Larry Caper and safety Danny Fortener suffered head injuries against Minnesota. Offensive lineman Joel Nitchman (knee) and defensive end Trevor Anderson (ankle) also left the game. Dantonio said the absence of the depth chart had nothing to do with performance issues, and he quickly dismissed a question Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconference about replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins.

"We have to see where we're at," Dantonio said. "It's purely are we going to play this guy over here, this guy over here, how are we going to align things based on injuries, that type of thing."

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 11, 2009
10/11/09
2:05
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


It's time to recognize the best and the brightest from Week 6 in the Big Ten. The stickers definitely have a defensive flavor this week.
  • Minnesota LB Lee Campbell -- The Gophers senior continued an excellent season with a huge game against Purdue. His interception and 32-yard return set up Minnesota's go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. He also blocked a field-goal attempt in the third quarter that teammate Traye Simmons returned 47 yards to the end zone. Campbell finished with 11 tackles (1.5 for loss) in the game.
  • Ohio State's defense -- There were too many great performances on this unit to narrow it down to one or two. Safeties Kurt Coleman and Jermale Hines combined for two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns) and 25 tackles. Linebacker Ross Homan recorded a career-high 15 tackles, including two sacks, while linebacker Brian Rolle added 14 stops. Just a total team effort from one of the nation's best defenses.
  • Iowa TE Tony Moeaki -- The oft-injured Moeaki showed against Michigan why he can be a special player when healthy. After missing the last three games with an ankle injury and barely practicing last week, Moeaki had six receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' win. He hauled in scoring receptions of 34 and 42 yards.
  • Northwestern defensive backs Brian Peters and Sherrick McManis -- They share a sticker because it's two tough to separate their performances. Peters and McManis combined for two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups as the Wildcats nearly shut out Miami (Ohio).
  • Michigan State safety Danny Fortener -- After assisting in an overtime interception last week against Michigan (his tipped pass went to teammate Chris L. Rucker), Fortener got one of his own. He picked off Illinois' Eddie McGee early in the second half and ran 45 yards to the end zone to put Michigan State ahead 24-0.

Big Ten picks rewind

October, 6, 2009
10/06/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten picks recap is back by popular demand!

Actually, one of my readers living in Kenya politely asked last week. And when you're craving more Big Ten coverage in Kenya, you deserve it, so here goes.

Not a bad week for the picks, as I went 4-2. I had a feeling Michigan State would prevail but just couldn't pull the trigger. Oh, well.

Michigan at Michigan State
  • The pick: Michigan 38, Michigan State 37
  • Actual score: Michigan State 26, Michigan 20 (OT)
  • 20-20 hindsight: Both defenses played better than expected, and Michigan State totally shut down Michigan's run game, which produced just 28 yards. Tate Forcier made a few plays against the Spartans secondary down the stretch, but Danny Fortener and Chris L. Rucker got the last laugh in overtime.
Wisconsin at Minnesota
  • The pick: Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 26
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 28
  • 20-20 hindsight: Pretty close on this one, though it was running back John Clay, not quarterback Scott Tolzien, who gave the Gophers fits. Minnesota star Eric Decker had another big day, as predicted, and the Gophers committed three second-half turnovers, not two. Still, I'll take this prediction overall.
Northwestern at Purdue
  • The pick: Purdue 37, Northwestern 33
  • Actual score: Northwestern 27, Purdue 21
  • 20-20 hindsight: Two struggling defenses met the challenge, and Northwestern held Boilers running back Ralph Bolden in check for most of the game. I also swung and missed on Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka, who came through in the clutch to lead the game-winning touchdown drive after committing late turnovers in each of his last two games.
Arkansas State at Iowa
  • The pick: Iowa 30, Arkansas State 10
  • Actual score: Iowa 24, Arkansas State 21
  • 20-20 hindsight: My prediction looked pretty good when Iowa scored to open the second half and went ahead 21-7. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi nearly backed me up with a "steady and complete performance," but his interception returned for a touchdown put a damper on his day. Stanzi ended up finding Marvin McNutt for two touchdowns, not Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.
Penn State at Illinois
  • The pick: Penn State 26, Illinois 17
  • Actual score: Penn State 35, Illinois 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: I pegged Illinois' score right on the number, but I thought the Illini would be competitive throughout the game, not just in the first half. Penn State running back Evan Royster got on track (105 rush yards, TD), just as I predicted, but so did Stephfon Green and Daryll Clark as the Lions' running game finally caught fire.
Ohio State at Indiana
  • The pick: Ohio State 27, Indiana 14
  • Actual score: Ohio State 33, Indiana 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: I ended up pretty close on the score, though it should have been more lopsided. Ohio State still struggles to put together complete 60-minute games. I was right about quarterback Terrelle Pryor and running back Brandon Saine having a big night on the ground against the Hoosiers defense.
Week 5 record: 4-2

Season record: 31-13 (.705)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Thumbs up, Michigan State's defense -- All three areas of the defense contributed in a potential season-saving win against Michigan. The front seven held the Big Ten's top rushing attack to just 28 yards, while defensive backs Danny Fortener and Chris L. Rucker teamed up for an interception in overtime.

Thumbs down, Mike Schultz -- The first-year Illinois offensive coordinator is off to a very rough start. An offense that led the Big Ten passing and ranked third in scoring last season has put up just 26 points against three FBS defenses. Illinois' vertical passing attack is virtually nonexistent despite a deep group of wide receivers led by Arrelious Benn. The unit's struggles have cost quarterback Juice Williams his job.

Thumbs up, Anderson Russell -- After losing his starting job to Jermale Hines earlier this season, Russell stepped up big for the suspended Kurt Coleman against Indiana. The senior safety tied for the team lead in tackles with six and recorded an interception and a fumble recovery in the victory.

Thumbs down, Minnesota's team discipline -- The Gophers can only blame themselves for Saturday's loss to Wisconsin after being flagged nine times for 75 yards. Minnesota's offense consistently hurt itself with holding and false start penalties in the first half, preventing more scoring opportunities.

Thumbs up, Brad Phillips -- His missed tackle led to a 67-yard Aaron Valentin touchdown in the first quarter, but Phillips rebounded to have his best game of the season. The Northwestern senior safety recorded two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery as an opportunistic defense helped the Wildcats rally to a road win.

Thumbs down, Indiana's running backs -- Ohio State poses a challenge for any offense, but this group has been too inconsistent this season. Darius Willis, Trea Burgess, Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray combined for only 40 rush yards on 18 carries.

Thumbs up, Marvin McNutt -- The converted quarterback is looking more and more like Iowa's top big-play threat at wide receiver. McNutt recorded his first two career touchdown catches against Arkansas State, making grabs of 41 and 43 yards. He finished with 121 receiving yards on four receptions.

Thumbs down, Purdue's ball-carriers -- It's no mystery why the Boilers can't win close games. They can't hold onto the football. Purdue committed six turnovers on its home field and squandered a ton of early momentum to fall against Northwestern.

Thumbs up, Daryll Clark -- The Penn State senior quarterback bounced back nicely from a rough night against Iowa, racking up 175 pass yards to go along with 83 rush yards and two touchdowns against Illinois. His 51-yard run on third-and-7 set up Penn State's first touchdown of the second half.

Thumbs down, Wisconsin's inability to finish -- The Badgers are one of the Big Ten's surprise teams this year, but they continue to struggle to close out games. Wisconsin has seen big fourth-quarter leads shrink against Northern Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota. Before long, the trend could cost Bret Bielema's team a win.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

You'll have to wait until next week to learn whether Kirk Cousins or Keith Nichol starts at quarterback for Michigan State, but the four men patrolling the defensive backfield are now known.

Spartans secondary coach Harlon Barnett today named cornerbacks Chris L. Rucker and Jeremy Ware and safeties Danny Fortener and Marcus Hyde as starters when the team opens the season Sept. 5 against Montana State. The secondary is Michigan State's deepest position group, and Barnett should be able to go eight or nine deep this fall.

Rucker and Hyde looked like locks to start, while Ware and, to a lesser degree, Fortener, are mini surprises. I figured Ross Weaver would get the nod at the other cornerback spot after starting 11 games last fall and 16 in his career. Safety Trenton Robinson was the story of spring ball and still should get a good deal of reps at safety, but Fortener boasts more experience after starting nine games last fall.

Former starter Kendell Davis-Clark will serve as the nickel back.

As for those quarterbacks?
"They told us they're going to try to make a call early next week as far as what they're going to do," Cousins said. "That doesn't mean that that guy's gonna be the guy all season. I still feel that Sept. 5 and even the game against Central Michigan Sept. 12 will both be huge games to establish yourself as to who's going to be the guy."

Michigan State spring wrap

May, 6, 2009
5/06/09
9:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State Spartans
2008 overall record: 9-4

2008 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters

Offense: 7; Defense: 8; Special teams: 2

Top returners

WR Blair White, WR Mark Dell, C Joel Nitchman, TE Charlie Gantt, LB Greg Jones, DE Trevor Anderson, S Danny Fortener, K Brett Swenson

Key losses

RB Javon Ringer, QB Brian Hoyer, RT Jesse Miller, DT Justin Kershaw, DE Brandon Long, S Otis Wiley

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Javon Ringer (1,637 yds)
Passing: Brian Hoyer (2,404 yds)
Receiving: Mark Dell* (679 yds)
Tackles: Greg Jones* (127)
Sacks: Trevor Anderson* (8)
Interceptions: Otis Wiley (4)

Spring answers

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 Montana State
Sept. 12 Central Michigan
Sept. 19 at Notre Dame
Sept. 26 at Wisconsin
Oct. 3 Michigan
Oct. 10 at Illinois
Oct. 17 Northwestern
Oct. 24 Iowa
Oct. 31 at Minnesota
Nov. 7 Western Michigan
Nov. 14 at Purdue
Nov. 21 Penn State
1. Quarterback options -- The Spartans' quarterback competition is far from over, and that's not a bad thing. Sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both performed well this spring and put up the exact same totals (357 pass yards, 4 TDs) in the Green-White game. The coaches are comfortable with either player, and both quarterbacks have the athleticism that will allow the offense to expand.

2. Safety depth -- Several key contributors in the secondary missed spring ball with injuries, but the Spartans bolstered their depth at safety with Trenton Robinson. The redshirt freshman continually impressed head coach Mark Dantonio, who mentioned Robinson every time he met with reporters. Robinson could push for a starting spot alongside Danny Fortener or Kendell Davis-Clark.

3. High and tight -- The tight end spot might be phased out for many college teams, but not Michigan State. The Spartans could have more depth at tight end than any Big Ten team -- Wisconsin's right there, too -- as Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum joins Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek.

Fall questions

1. Ringer's replacement -- Arguably no player in the Big Ten did more for his team last fall than running back Javon Ringer, and Michigan State continues to look for a capable successor or two. None of the four candidates created much separation this spring, and incoming freshman Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will have opportunities to compete in preseason camp. Head coach Mark Dantonio wants to identify 2-3 reliable backs.

2. Offensive line -- Dantonio saw promising signs from a revamped line toward the end of the spring, but some doubt still remains. Junior J'Michael Deane and sophomore Jared McGaha must continue to develop on the right side of the line. Left tackle Rocco Cironi also returns from a shoulder injury and needs to re-establish himself.

3. Pass-rush help -- The Spartans finished eighth in the league in sacks last season (26) and need to identify a second pass-rusher to complement Trevor Anderson. The starting end spot opposite Anderson remains up for grabs, and redshirt freshman Tyler Hoover could land it after a solid spring. Colin Neely also is in the mix.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Before getting to the Green-White game, there was some exciting scheduling news Monday for Michigan State fans.

The school agreed to home-and-home series with both West Virginia (2014-15) and Alabama (2016-17) and extended its contract with longtime rival Notre Dame through the 2025 season. Kudos to athletic director Mark Hollis for making the type of moves most ADs avoid at all costs (pun intended), and giving his fan base some exciting games down the line. Notre Dame no longer provides a guaranteed marquee matchup for Michigan State, so adding these other teams ensures the Spartans will be tested almost every year.

Now back to Saturday's spring game ...

Michigan State's coaches talked all spring about how the competition between sophomore quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol was too close to call. They also expressed no panic or anxiety about having no clear-cut starter right now or for the immediate future.

The spring game showed why, as both Cousins and Nichol threw the ball brilliantly. Nichol and the White team prevailed 38-37 as safety Danny Fortener sealed the win by knocking down a Cousins pass on a two-point conversion attempt.

Both Cousins and Nichol threw for exactly 357 yards and four touchdowns, capitalizing on an improved group of wide receivers/tight ends and a banged-up secondary. Nichol showed impressive mobility and completed 20 of 28 passes, while Cousins maintained his efficiency in the pocket and completed 29 of 43 pass attempts.

"I think you saw why we look at our quarterbacks and say it's too close to call," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "Both guys responded when they were down and made big plays. And both guys had receivers make catches with guys draped all over them."

Nichol threw touchdowns to four different receivers, while Cousins twice found tight end Charlie Gantt for scores.

Other items from the Green-White game:

  • Whoever wins the quarterback competition will have plenty of capable targets this fall. Senior wide receiver Blair White recorded a game-high six receptions for 89 yards, and fellow wideouts Keshawn Martin, Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham also performed well. The tight ends will be spotlighted this season as Gantt hauled in two touchdown receptions and Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum led the White squad with six receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown.
  • It was a disappointing day for the four running backs vying to replace All-American Javon Ringer. Sophomore Andre Anderson had a game-high 30 rush yards on nine carries, while sophomore Ashton Leggett, who created some separation earlier this spring, finished with just seven yards and a touchdown on eight carries. The competition remains wide open here, and incoming freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will be in the mix this summer.
  • Playing without four injured defensive backs, the Spartans' defense had a very disappointing day. Linebackers Greg Jones (10 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) and Eric Gordon (11 tackles, 1 TFL) led their respective teams.
  • Penalties were a problem for the Spartans, who got flagged 12 times for 117 yards in the scrimmage.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It's pretty miserable outside right now, so thankfully Michigan State held practice Tuesday afternoon on its indoor field. Media were allowed to stay for nearly 13 practice periods, the most all spring, so I clearly picked a good day to visit Sparta.

The quarterback competition is clearly the burning issue in these parts, so let's get right to it.

Head coach Mark Dantonio said before practice that sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol would split reps evenly in Saturday's Green-White Game, as they have throughout the spring. Michigan State is a long way from choosing a starter, but there's still an opportunity for both players to distinguish themselves.

"You can inch somebody ahead of the other guy, but they've both performed very well this spring," Dantonio said. "They both have strong arms. They both can create and have running ability, some a little bit more than the other. They both have good leadership skills and they're extremely hard workers. And they both have three years left.

"With that being said, you don't want to name somebody and then all of a sudden, have to reverse your thinking later on."

Both players had their moments during team periods and 7-on-7s at Thursday's practice. Cousins, who performed well as Michigan State's backup last fall, has excellent mechanics and a strong arm. He looks a little smoother on his passes than Nichol, who has a bit of an awkward motion but still get the ball out fairly quickly.

Many have characterized Cousins as the pure passer and Nichol as the versatile athlete, but offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said it's a misperception.

"It's deceptive," Treadwell said. "It's not like one guy's a runner and one guy's a pocket passer. Those guys both are able to move their feet very well, get out of trouble and keep their eyes down the field at the same time."

The competition is neck-and-neck, but Cousins looked a little more impressive at Tuesday's workout.

The sophomore showed good zip on his passes, hitting Mark Dell on several deep out routes during team drills and 7-on-7s. Dell definitely appeared to be his favorite target. After overthrowing wideout Cam Martin on a deep post, a disgusted Cousins muttered, "That's six points."

Cousins also had a nice gain on an option keeper, taking a rare hit (he and Nichol wore red "no contact" jerseys) and popping back up and nodding his head. His run delighted starting left tackle Rocco Cironi, who is out for spring ball following shoulder surgery.

"It's fun to get in there, run and get hit," Cousins said. "You feel like a football player instead of a quarterback."

Nichol had a bit of a slow start in team drills, but he heated up during 7-on-7s, hitting Chris D. Rucker on a go route and finding Keshawn Martin on a deep out. It would have been nice to see Nichol run more, but he moves his feet well.

The quarterbacks traded off on each play during 7-on-7s. There were no interceptions, though Cousins fumbled a snap during red-zone drills.

Other observations from Michigan State's practice:

  • The competition at running back also remains tight, and a fourth player, redshirt freshman Caulton Ray, has entered the mix. Sophomore Ashton Leggett created some separation a few weeks ago before being slowed by a knee sprain, but he was back at practice Tuesday. Leggett, Ray and senior A.J. Jimmerson each had nice gains during team drills.
  • None of the running backs had much success during red-zone drills, as Jones, Wilson, Neely and others recorded tackles for loss. Sophomore Andre Anderson, who most resembles Javon Ringer in body type and running style, had a nice burst. He runs very hard for a smaller guy.
  • I got the best look at the backs during a 1-on-1 drills against the linebackers. Anderson looked particularly impressive in the open field, juking All-Big Ten performer Greg Jones and reserve Jon Misch.
  • Cousins and Nichol both rotated with the first-team offense, but the top offensive line consisted of: left tackle Brendon Moss (in place of Cironi), left guard Joel Foreman, center Joel Nitchman, right guard Jared McGaha, right tackle J'Michael Deane. Dantonio singled out the offensive line as a group that has progressed more than he had envisioned during spring ball, though there's still a long way to go.
  • Dell, Blair White and B.J. Cunningham took most of the reps as first-team wide receivers. Michigan State will use the tight ends a ton this fall, and several players made catches during team drills, including Garrett Celek and Brian Linthicum, a transfer from Clemson who looks impressive. There's also some buzz about third-team wideout Milton Colbert, a 6-5, 211-pound walk-on who might just work his way into the rotation. Colbert definitely passes the eye test.
  • The first-team defense: defensive end Colin Neely, defensive tackle Kevin Pickelman, defensive end Trevor Anderson, nose tackle Oren Wilson, outside linebacker Eric Gordon, outside linebacker Brandon Denson, middle linebacker Greg Jones, safety Danny Fortener, safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Chris L. Rucker, cornerback Ross Weaver. Several players are banged up in the secondary, including safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and cornerback Jeremy Ware.
  • The option might not be a major part of the offense next fall, but it will certainly be used more with Nichol and Cousins taking snaps. Michigan State ran several option plays Tuesday and also could incorporate more misdirection into its scheme.
  • Individual practice periods are usually pretty boring, but Michigan State's running backs were worth watching because of a familiar face. Ringer, who remains in town leading up to this weekend's NFL draft, was on the field helping running backs coach Dan Enos in a direction drill. The All-American wore a New York Jets T-shirt but told me afterward he dons apparel from all the teams for whom he worked out. So don't get too excited, Jets fans. Former Spartans right tackle Jesse Miller also attended practice.
  • Place-kicker Brett Swenson, an All-America candidate, looked solid on field goals and even took a pitch on a fake and raced around right end.
  • The Spartans paid homage to Michigan native Kid Rock and played his version of "Sweet Home Alabama" to simulate crowd noise during team drills.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The seemingly interminable wait for college football gets a little easier about a month from now, when Michigan steps on the practice field for spring ball. The other 10 Big Ten squads will follow soon after as spring practice gets in full swing.

There are no shortage of spring story lines around the league, from Danny Hope's first workouts as Purdue head coach to six new coordinators to teams like Ohio State and Penn State trying to replace sizable senior classes. Six teams will feature some degree of competition at the quarterback spot, and position battles abound throughout the league.

Here's some can't-miss information about spring ball and a team-by-team look at what to watch:

Illinois Fighting Illini

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The defense needs leaders to emerge after a subpar year and with the graduation of first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Brit Miller. Martez Wilson is an obvious candidate to claim a greater role, but the immensely talented linebacker comes off surgery in December after being stabbed outside a bar. The defensive line loses three starters and top cover man Vontae Davis left early for the NFL draft, creating opportunities for young players to step up.
  • For the second consecutive spring, the running back position will be in the spotlight. Illinois never truly got settled at running back last year, as Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford split carries. Both players had their moments, as Dufrene averaged 5.7 yards a carry and Ford scored eight touchdowns, but it would be nice to see one man emerge as a featured back alongside quarterback Juice Williams.
  • New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz steps in, and former outside receivers coach Kurt Beathard will work directly with Williams, who was extremely close with former coordinator Mike Locksley. It's vital for Williams and his teammates to jell with Schultz and the offensive nuances he'll bring to spring practice. Illinois remains one of the league's most talented offenses, but the players must get on the same page this spring.

Indiana Hoosiers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 18

Watch to watch:

  • Healthy bodies, at least a few more than at the end of last season. Indiana's roster was wiped out by injuries during Big Ten play, and the Hoosiers should get a better gauge of their strengths and weaknesses this spring. Quarterback Kellen Lewis struggled with injuries for much of the season, and it will be interesting to see if he regains the form he showed in 2007, when he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Lewis might need to reclaim the starting job after splitting time with Ben Chappell last fall. Safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk will miss spring ball with injuries, giving other players a chance to shine.
  • The Hoosiers' defense must take a step forward this spring, especially with so much experience and talent returning in the front seven. Defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton each have had breakout seasons, and Matt Mayberry at times looks like one of the league's best linebackers. With weak-side linebacker Will Patterson and others back in the fold, there's no reason Indiana can't be serviceable on defense in 2009.
  • Lewis can't continue to be Indiana's primary rushing option, and with Marcus Thigpen gone, a capable back or two must emerge. The competition this spring will feature players like Bryan Payton and Darius Willis, a heralded recruit who redshirted last year. Demetrius McCray will be limited in spring practice.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: TBA

What to watch:

  • Everyone knows Shonn Greene is gone, but the more damaging departures likely will come at defensive tackle, where Iowa loses four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul. The spotlight will be on the interior defensive line as players like Karl Klug try to fill the void. Arguably no position competition matters more than the one at defensive tackle, especially since Iowa appears strong everywhere else on defense.
  • Ricky Stanzi established himself as the starting quarterback, but Iowa would like the rising junior to take another step and become more consistent. Interceptions were a problem at times for Stanzi last fall, but he should benefit from a full spring as the starter and being able to work with the first-team wide receivers.
  • Rising sophomore Jewel Hampton is the likely choice to succeed Greene after rushing for 478 yards and five touchdowns as his backup last year. But head coach Kirk Ferentz likely wants to see what he has with the other backs, namely Jeff Brinson, who redshirted in 2008. There should be some healthy competition for carries throughout the spring and into preseason camp.

Michigan Wolverines

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:

  • Quarterbacks, quarterbacks, quarterbacks. Any improvement on this team must start with the quarterback spot, and the competition during spring ball will be crucial. Steven Threet's decision to transfer shifts the spotlight to true freshman Tate Forcier, who enrolled in January and will practice this spring. Nick Sheridan remains in the mix after starting four games last season, but Forcier seems better suited to run Rich Rodriguez's offense. A strong spring could make him the frontrunner when fellow freshman Denard Robinson arrives this summer.
  • New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson starts working with a unit that finished 10th in the league in points allowed (28.9 ypg) last fall. Robinson seems less concerned about scheme changes and more focused on instilling a new attitude with the group. There could be an adjustment period on both sides, as players get to know a new coach and Robinson works as an assistant after overseeing an entire program the last four seasons at Syracuse.
  • Robinson undoubtedly will devote much of his attention to the defensive line, which loses three starters, including both tackles. The spotlight will be on young players like Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and even early enrollee William Campbell as Michigan looks for answers up front. The Wolverines also need increased leadership from All-Big Ten end Brandon Graham, their only returning starter on the line.

Michigan State Spartans

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The Spartans feature arguably the Big Ten's most intriguing quarterback competition. Third-year sophomore Kirk Cousins performed well behind Brian Hoyer in 2008 and seems to have the intangibles to lead the offense. Keith Nichol is a dual-threat quarterback who has a year in the system after transferring from Oklahoma. A decision on a starter might not be made until preseason camp, but the two players will start competing this spring.
  • Running back also is a mystery after the departure of Doak Walker Award finalist Javon Ringer. Michigan State didn't develop a second option behind Ringer, so players like Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett will get a chance to prove themselves before true freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper arrive this summer.
  • Michigan State doesn't lose much on the defensive side, but co-captains Otis Wiley and Justin Kershaw both depart, leaving a void in leadership. The coaches will lean more on linebackers Greg Jones and Adam Decker this spring, and the secondary needs a new front man to replace Wiley, who led the team in interceptions (4) and ranked third in tackles (78). Danny Fortener came on strong last year, but the Spartans will look for another safety to emerge.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The offense begins a new chapter under new coordinator Jedd Fisch and new line coach/run game coordinator Tim Davis. Minnesota wants to return to its roots as a running team and employ a pro-style offense. It will be interesting to see how players adjust in practice, and how Fisch and the influential Davis work together.
  • New arrival Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee take over a defense that made major strides under Ted Roof but showed some cracks down the stretch. Cosgrove will be working with experienced players at linebacker and in the secondary, and their ability to grasp his scheme will be huge this spring.
  • Starting quarterback Adam Weber will be held out of contact drills following shoulder surgery, giving the coaches a chance to evaluate heralded recruit MarQueis Gray. The multitalented Gray left the team last year because of questions about his ACT score. He has returned and will get a chance to learn Fisch's offense and establish himself as the team's No. 2 option.

Northwestern Wildcats

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • It has been at least four years -- and likely more -- since the running back position has been so wide open. Stephen Simmons will get a chance to establish himself as the top back this spring after filling in behind Tyrell Sutton late last season. Scott Concannon and Jacob Schmidt also will be in the mix before several freshmen arrive in the summer.
  • Mike Kafka enters the spring as the starting quarterback after helping Northwestern to a season-turning win last year at Minnesota. But Kafka must develop as a passer to complement his excellent running ability. With a mostly unproven group of wide receivers, Kafka needs to establish a rhythm and become consistent on the short throws that make the spread offense move.
  • Two starters are gone and star end Corey Wootton is nursing a surgically repaired knee, putting pressure on Northwestern to identify another playmaker on the defensive line. The defensive tackle spot will be in the spotlight as Northwestern looks for an elite run stopper to replace John Gill.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Spring practice starts: Week of March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • Ohio State needs a featured running back, and Dan Herron has a chance to be the guy. A strong spring from Herron would be beneficial before heralded recruits Jaamal Berry and Carlos Hyde arrive. The Buckeyes could go with a committee system this fall, but Herron showed promise at times last year and could claim the job.
  • The offensive line was one of the team's bigger disappointments last year, and the group must come together this spring. Michigan transfer Justin Boren should step into a starting role right away, and sophomore tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts could join classmate Mike Brewster on the first team. This group has a ton of young talent, but it must be molded.
  • Keep an eye on the linebacker and cornerback positions all the way until Sept. 5. Ohio State loses national award winners James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins, as well as All-Big Ten selection Marcus Freeman. Three and possibly four starting spots are open, so the competition should heat up.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Spring practice starts: Week of March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The Big Ten's best offensive line loses three all-conference starters, including Rimington Trophy winner A.Q. Shipley. Line coaches Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney have plenty of work to do this spring as they try to build around holdovers Stefen Wisniewski and Dennis Landolt. With a formidable run game in place, replenishing the line will be
    Penn State's top priority.
  • Penn State's young wide receivers are gearing up for a wide-open competition as the team loses multiyear starters Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. Can Brett Brackett and Graham Zug emerge as reliable possession-type guys? Can Chaz Powell be Penn State's deep threat? Those answers could come this spring.
  • Lions fans are confident that defensive line coach Larry Johnson will develop another first-rate pass rusher. The process begins in spring ball as Penn State must replace starters at both end spots as well as reserve Maurice Evans, a former All-Big Ten selection.

Purdue Boilermakers

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • The Danny Hope era begins this spring, and it will be interesting to see what imprints the new head coach puts on the program. He's a Joe Tiller disciple but brings in two new coordinators and wants to make immediate upgrades to the team's speed and athleticism. Purdue loses starters at the skill positions on offense as well as its most productive defender (linebacker Anthony Heygood), so there's plenty of work ahead.
  • Quarterback could feature an interesting competition between Joey Elliott and Justin Siller. Elliott seems like the favorite to take over after backing up Curtis Painter the last three seasons. But the multi-talented Siller could fit the new mold Hope is trying to create with the Boilers' personnel. Siller had a big day against Michigan last year and brings the mobility Purdue could use at the quarterback spot.
  • With the secondary more or less intact, new defensive coordinator Donn Landholm will focus on the front seven. Landholm needs to build around defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, a potential All-Big Ten performer this fall. Heygood will be missed, but Joe Holland is a solid contributor and if Jason Werner can finally get healthy, the linebacking corps should be strong.

Wisconsin Badgers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • Big surprise, another quarterback competition. After never truly finding stability at the quarterback spot in 2008, Wisconsin once again looks for a leader for the offense. Part-time starter Dustin Sherer will have to ward off Curt Phillips and true freshman Jon Budmayr, who enrolled early. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst didn't settle on a starter last spring, but he would like some separation to occur.
  • Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge will have a busy spring as he tries to replace three starters up front. Players like Jeff Stehle, Patrick Butrym and Brendan Kelly, who emerged last fall before an injury, will get a long look this spring.
  • P.J. Hill's early departure to the NFL draft puts John Clay in the spotlight as the Badgers' featured running back. Can the immensely talented Clay take the next step in his development to master the offense and his assignments? He also must work with a new-look offensive line that must replace three starters.
Tags:

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams preparing for the second round of league games.

Illinois: Head coach Ron Zook will increase his rotation on defense after the Illini dropped to last place in the Big Ten in points allowed (32 ppg). Linebackers Russell Ellington and Sam Carson and safety Donsay Hardeman all are expected to see more plays Saturday at Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Zook has some versatility with Travon Bellamy, who can play both safety and cornerback. The coach attributed Illinois' run-stopping struggles (182.5 ypg allowed) to the back half as the team tries to overcome the losses of All-American middle linebacker J Leman and talented safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison. "I don't foresee starting lineup changes," Zook said, "but I do see guys that are going to be held accountable. ... We're going to play more guys and our job is to make sure we fix it."

Michigan State: Defensive back Kendell Davis-Clark could be back soon after missing the last four games with a shoulder injury. Davis-Clark's return presents some interesting decisions for head coach Mark Dantonio, who originally shifted Davis-Clark from cornerback to safety after Roderick Jenrette was asked to take a leave of absence from the team. Danny Fortener replaced Davis-Clark in the season opener at Cal and has performed well, ranking second on the team in tackles (29) with three pass break-ups and an interception. Davis-Clark, who started 11 games at cornerback last season, is listed behind Fortener on the depth chart for Saturday's game against Iowa (ESPN2, noon ET).

Minnesota: The Gophers continue to list three players as possible starters at running back on this week's depth chart, but head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged that freshman DeLeon Eskridge has taken the lead. Eskridge racked up a team-high 131 all-purpose yards in Minnesota's league-opening loss to Ohio State last week. With five touchdowns, he's already halfway to reaching Minnesota's freshman record of 10 set by Laurence Maroney in 2003. Another freshman, Shady Salamon, and junior Jay Thomas also remain in the mix for playing time. "If you had to say one of three guys stepped out, you'd say DeLeon Eskridge," Brewster said. "The other two guys will definitely continue to play some."

Ohio State: Aside from left tackle Alex Boone, none of the spots on Ohio State's offensive line are set in stone. True freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center, but Jim Cordle could move back over from guard if necessary. Cordle and a healthy Steve Rehring are listed as co-starters at left guard. Right tackle Bryant Browning also can play a guard spot, and Rehring is a possibility at tackle. Freshmen tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams also could be the mix at some point as much-needed competition increases up front.

Purdue: The Boilers' spread offense is at its best with a large rotation of receivers, and they're starting to see more playmakers emerge. Senior Desmond Tardy is listed as a starter on this week's depth chart ahead of junior Keith Smith after catching 10 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown last week against Notre Dame. Purdue also has seen encouraging moments from junior college transfer Aaron Valentin. Head coach Joe Tiller wants to see more from his other juco wideout, Arsenio Curry, who brings excellent size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) but has yet to catch a pass. Tight end remains a question mark, as starter Kyle Adams is doubtful for Saturday's game against Penn State. Adams hasn't played since he hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the season opener.

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