Big Ten: David Molk

The super early start for preseason award hype continues today as the Rimington Trophy released its spring watch list. The Rimington Trophy, named for former Nebraska star Dave Rimington, goes to the nation's top college center.

Four Big Ten centers make this year's spring watch list.

They are:
All four players started portions of the 2012 season, although Pensick only transitioned to center late in the year. Northwestern's Vitabile is the most experienced of the bunch after starting the first 26 games of his college career.

The Big Ten loses a sizable group of good centers from 2012, headlined by Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in last month's NFL draft. Other key departures include Penn State's Matt Stankiewitch, Iowa's James Ferentz, Nebraska's Justin Jackson, Illinois' Graham Pocic, Michigan's Elliott Mealer, Indiana's Will Matte and Purdue's Rick Schmeig.

Penn State's Stankiewitch was a finalist for last year's award. Michigan's David Molk is the last Big Ten recipient of the Rimington Trophy, taking home the hardware in 2011.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.

1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.

2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.

[+] EnlargeMax Shortell
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireReserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.

4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.

5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.

6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.

7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.

8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.

9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."

10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.
The 2012 Big Ten players' poll marches on, and now it's time to get down and dirty. Dirtiest players, that is.

As a reminder, these interviews took place in recent weeks with 28 Big Ten players representing 11 teams. Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett, WolverineNation's Michael Rothstein, BuckeyeNation's Austin Ward and myself interviewed 2-3 players per team. The players agreed to answer five questions, on the condition of anonymity. While you can guess who said what about whom, we're not revealing any specifics.

After conducting two surveys about Big Ten coaches, we shift the focus to the players.

Here's Question No. 3: Who's the dirtiest player(s) in the Big Ten?

Results

Former Purdue offensive tackle Dennis Kelly -- 2 votes
Michigan State defensive end William Gholston -- 2 votes
Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland -- 2 votes
Illinois' offensive line -- 1 vote
Former Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy -- 1 vote
Iowa's offensive line -- 1 vote
Illinois center Graham Pocic -- 1 vote
Indiana center Will Matte -- 1 vote
Anyone on Michigan State's defense -- 1 vote
Anyone on Purdue -- 1 vote
Former Michigan center David Molk -- 1 vote
Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin -- 1 vote
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o -- 1 vote
No one/don't know/declined to answer -- 12 votes

The overall results are a little disappointing because nearly half the group didn't offer a specific answer. While some players were hesitant, despite the anonymity of the poll, some honestly couldn't name a player or players they found to be overtly dirty. Michigan State did pretty well in the coaching poll questions, but the tables turned here as no team received more votes (individually or collectively) than the Spartans. While it's not surprising that linemen on both sides of the ball received votes, given the nature of play at the line of scrimmage, it's notable that Big Ten centers (current and former) racked up votes. It sounds like Big Ten defensive linemen are happy to see Purdue's Kelly gone to the NFL. One player who named Wisconsin's Borland said the Badgers' linebacker is more annoying than dirty. And finally, we know Notre Dame's Te'o doesn't play in the Big Ten, but we listed the answer provided to us.

Coming up Thursday: the toughest Big Ten stadium to compete in as an opposing player.

Previously

Part I: Big Ten coach you want to play for the most
Part II: Big Ten coach you want to play for the least
The Big Ten produced only one major national award winner in 2011, as Michigan's David Molk took home the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center.

Given that the Big Ten has produced two of the past four Rimington Trophy winners -- Molk and Penn State's A.Q. Shipley in 2008 -- you should pay extra attention to the preseason fall list for the award revealed Tuesday.

Six Big Ten centers appear on the list. The Big Ten has the second most candidates behind the SEC (10).

Here's the Big Ten contingent:
It's a pretty good group despite the league losing it's top two centers from 2011 (Molk and Wisconsin's Peter Konz).

Ferentz and Pocic look like the Big Ten's top candidates, but Frederick is a very intriguing name. The 6-foot-4, 328-pound Badgers junior started 11 games at left guard and two at center last season. He started two other games at center in 2009, becoming the first true freshman in team history to start a season opener on the offensive line. Frederick clearly has the ability and talent to play the position, and if he handles the transition well, he'll be right in the mix for the award.

Vitabile is one of eight sophomores on the preseason watch list.
Earlier this week, I asked you to identify the Big Ten's strongest position group. Not surprisingly, running back ran away from the competition with 53 percent of the vote.

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's weakest position group entering the season?

  •  
    59%
  •  
    14%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,366)

Can't blame you there. The Big Ten returns its top three running backs from 2011 -- Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, Nebraska's Rex Burkhead and Penn State's Silas Redd -- along with a group of others (Michigan's Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell) who should be very good. While it's a little surprising cornerback didn't receive more votes (9 percent), the results went mostly as expected.

Now it's time to select the position where the Big Ten is lacking the most. This vote could be a bit closer, although I have an idea of which position will pull away. Graduation losses and departures to the NFL hit certain positions harder than others. Some position groups, like safety, lacked star power in 2011 and might be a bit weak again this season.

The accompanying poll includes four choices. To refresh your memory, I've made a brief case for why each position could be the weakest in the league.

Wide receiver: League loses top seven pass-catchers from 2011, including first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins (Illinois) and all first- and second-team All-Big Ten selections (Jenkins, Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Wisconsin's Nick Toon).

Offensive tackle: Not the strongest position in 2011, and league loses Iowa's Riley Reiff, a first-round draft pick, as well as Ohio State's Mike Adams and Illinois' Jeff Allen, both second-round picks. Also gone are Wisconsin's Josh Oglesby, Purdue's Dennis Kelly and Northwestern's Al Netter.

Safety: Arguably the Big Ten's weakest position in 2011, and the league loses first-team all-conference selections Trenton Robinson (Michigan State) and Brian Peters (Northwestern). Penn State's Nick Sukay and Wisconsin's Aaron Henry also are among those departing the league.

Center: The Big Ten loses Rimington Trophy winner David Molk of Michigan, as well as Wisconsin's Peter Konz, a second-round draft pick. Also gone are Nebraska's Mike Caputo and Ohio State's Mike Brewster, who shared second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

Now it's time to vote. Make yours count.
ESPN Insider recently completed its rundown of "20 teams that can win it all" during the 2012 season. Defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin made the list, as did Ohio State, even though the Buckeyes are banned from postseason play this season.

Who didn't make the list? Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. Some would say these are three of the Big Ten's best four or five squads.

Michigan and Michigan State likely will enter the season as the Big Ten's highest-rated teams, and I've written repeatedly that the Wolverines and Spartans, along with the Cornhuskers, play in what looks like the stronger division (Legends). Brian and I also have written that the Big Ten's national title drought likely will continue this season for various reasons -- Michigan's tortuous schedule, new quarterbacks at Michigan State and Wisconsin, Ohio State's bowl ban, etc.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders agrees, including Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are among five hyped teams that won't contend for the national title this season (Insider). Notre Dame and Kansas State also are included.

According to the Football Outsiders projections, none of the three will make a BCS bowl, which leaves me scratching my head a bit. These projections actually have all three teams finishing 8-4, which would be very disappointing to the respective fan bases.

While I'd be surprised if one of the three doesn't end up in Pasadena on Jan. 1, all three teams have some potentially significant flaws. Michigan State must replace almost all of its major offensive skill threats. Michigan loses several key defensive linemen and star center David Molk. Nebraska loses star power on defense and needs to see more balance on the offensive side.

It's hard to see any of these squads ending up in the BCS national title game. The more interesting subplot to me is which team earns the best record in the three-team pod, which likely will result in a Legends Division title. Michigan State visits Michigan and hosts Nebraska; Michigan visits Nebraska but hosts MSU; and Nebraska visits MSU but hosts Michigan. The team that can win its road game has an excellent chance to earn a trip to Indy.
News flash: Jersey numbers are a big deal at Michigan.

There's the No. 1 jersey, worn by just 12 players in team history, the past six of whom played wide receiver. The No. 21 jersey also has special significance, as it was worn by Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard in 1991. Standout wideout Junior Hemingway wore No. 21 last season, and senior wideout Roy Roundtree earned the honor this spring in switching from No. 12 to No. 21.

Wolverines coach Brady Hoke made another jersey number announcement Tuesday, telling an Alabama radio station that the team is unretiring the No. 48 donned by former President Gerald Ford. The lone President to play football in the Big Ten, Ford played center for Michigan from 1932-34 and had his number retired on Oct. 8, 1994. Ford's No. 48 is one of just five jerseys (honoring seven different players) retired by Michigan. Ford died in December 2006.

There's no word yet on who will wear No. 48 for Michigan this fall, but it will be a very cool and unique honor. It'd be nice to see Michigan recognize an offensive lineman who displays great leadership. Former center David Molk would have been an excellent selection in 2011.
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.

Michigan spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
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2011 overall record: 11-2
2011 conference record: 6-2 (2nd, Legends Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Denard Robinson; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint; WR Roy Roundtree; WR Jeremy Gallon; LT Taylor Lewan; RT Michael Schofield; DE Craig Roh; LB Jake Ryan; LB Kenny Demens; LB Desmond Morgan; CB J.T. Floyd; CB Blake Countess; S Thomas Gordon; S Jordan Kovacs.

Key losses
WR Junior Hemingway; WR Darryl Stonum; WR/KR Martavious Odoms; TE Kevin Koger; C David Molk; RT Mark Huyge; DT Mike Martin; DE/DT Ryan Van Bergen; DT Will Heininger.

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Denard Robinson* (1,176 yards)
Passing: Denard Robinson* (2,173 yards)
Receiving: Junior Hemingway (699 yards)
Tackles: Kenny Demens* (94)
Sacks: Ryan Van Bergen (5.5)
Interceptions: Courtney Avery* and J.T. Floyd* (2)

Spring answers

1. Quarterback accuracy: Denard Robinson played one series in the public spring scrimmage, but coaches raved about his improved leadership, decision-making and accuracy throughout the spring. The latter two were major issues for Michigan last season. While it is unknown whether Robinson will truly be more accurate until Sept. 1 against Alabama -- Michigan closed all of its practices to the media this spring -- offensive coordinator Al Borges was very confident in Robinson’s potential for his senior season.

2. Cornerback has depth: Two seasons ago, cornerback was the biggest question on Michigan’s team because of youth, inexperience and a lack of talent. That is no longer an issue. The Wolverines have as many as six players they could feel comfortable with come the fall, and that doesn’t include incoming freshman Terry Richardson (Detroit/Cass Tech), the highest-ranked player in Michigan’s incoming signing class. Sophomore Blake Countess could turn into a star, and fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd is the most consistent corner the Wolverines have. They’ll be the likely starters.

3. A featured back is set: Borges made no hesitation: Redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint is going into the fall as his top tailback -- a marked change from what the Wolverines endured last spring and through the first half of last season. Toussaint rushed for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns last season, giving Michigan a dynamic dual running game with Robinson. With major questions at wide receiver and tight end, expect a lot of running from Toussaint and Robinson, especially early in the season.

Fall questions

1. Who is catching the ball: Michigan’s coaches spoke highly of Jeremy Gallon, Jerald Robinson and Roy Roundtree during the spring as their top three receivers, but Robinson has never caught a pass, Gallon has had one season of consistent productivity, and Roundtree saw his numbers plummet last season to 19 catches for 355 yards. Tight end isn’t much better, as the position group has two career catches. Denard Robinson’s two best safety valves -- Junior Hemingway and Kevin Koger -- graduated, so even if Denard Robinson is improved, he might need to hunt to find a reliable receiving option. Incoming freshman Devin Funchess (Farmington Hills, Mich./Harrison) could be an option at tight end.

2. Who is pressuring the quarterback: Michigan took its biggest hits on the defensive line, which saw three starters graduate -- Mike Martin was a third-round draft pick, Ryan Van Bergen signed as a free agent, and Will Heininger graduated -- and its fourth starter, Craig Roh, switch positions. Michigan insists it’ll be OK there. Will Campbell and converted end Jibreel Black will likely start inside, and either sophomore Brennen Beyer or sophomore Frank Clark will start at rush end. The success of Michigan’s defense last season relied on pressure the front four created. With an almost completely new group there, how they fare against opponents will be interesting to see.

3. Punting problems: Somewhere along the way last season, Will Hagerup lost his mojo, much like kicker Brendan Gibbons the year before. A strong-legged punter, Hagerup wasn’t connecting with the ball well and eventually lost his job to freshman Matt Wile. Now entering his junior year, Michigan hopes either Hagerup regains his form or Wile becomes more consistent. The Wolverines’ offense should be fairly prolific, but with a defense searching for pressure early on, it needs to be able to control field position with the punter.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.
The NFL draft is a little more than 24 hours away, and our analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. have come out with their final mock drafts.

(Let's pause here for a moment of silence for the 2012 mock draft process. May it rest in peace. But never fear, the 2013 mocks are just around the corner!).

There's not a ton of change in Kiper's final first-round mock Insider. Iowa's Riley Reiff is still the top Big Ten player off the board, now at No. 18 to San Diego. Kiper has Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus one spot behind Reiff, to the Bears. The only other Big Ten player he has going in the first round is Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, at No. 30 to San Francisco.

McShay, along with Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl from Scouts Inc. have undertaken the massive enterprise of mocking the entire seven rounds of the draft Insider. Whew. Here's where they have Big Ten products heading:

Round 1

No. 13: Reiff
No. 25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
No. 28: Mercilus
No. 30: Zeitler

Round 2

No. 34: Jeff Allen, OT, Illinois
No. 35: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
No. 43: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
No. 44: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
No. 47: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
No. 51: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
No. 63: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois

Round 3

No. 89: Mike Martin, DT, Michigan

Round 4

No. 96: Mike Daniels DT, Iowa
No. 97: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
No. 99: Adam Gettis, G, Iowa
No. 106: Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
No. 118: Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa
No. 120: Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
No. 121: Markus Zusevics, OT, Iowa
No. 123: Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
No. 126: Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State
No. 132: Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska

Round 5

No. 137: David Molk, C, Michigan
No. 150: Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
No. 161: Trent Robinson, S, Michigan State
No. 163: Michael Brewster, C, Ohio State
No. 165: DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State

Round 6

No. 207: Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State

Round 7

No. 211: B.J. Cunningham, WR, Michigan State
No. 216: Aaron Henry, S, Wisconsin
No. 219: Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State
No. 221: Derek Dimke, K, Illinois
No. 223: Tyler Nielsen, LB, Iowa
No. 231: Marcel Jones, OT, Nebraska
No. 244: Junior Hemingway, WR, Michigan
No. 247: Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin
No. 248: Kevin Koger, TE, Michigan

A few notables not listed on this seven-round mock: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, and QB Dan Persa; Penn State WR Derek Moye; Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight, Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen, Wisconsin OT Josh Oglesby.

How accurate are these mock drafts? It is almost time to find out. Let's do this for real.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 20, 2012
4/20/12
12:00
PM ET
If Corey Crawford were writing these, they'd be called lunch leaks. Brutal.
Brady HokeAP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe goal for the Wolverines in Brady Hoke's second season is to win the Big Ten title.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's players must have felt pretty good about themselves at the end of last season. The Wolverines won 11 games, captured the Sugar Bowl championship and ended a seven-year losing streak to Ohio State.

But head coach Brady Hoke delivered some sobering news in the first team meeting after the Sugar Bowl in January. Team 132, he told the players, failed.

"It probably surprised some of them a little bit," Hoke told ESPN.com about that message he delivered. "But if you have a goal and you don't achieve that goal, then you fail."

Hoke has made it clear that as long as he's the Michigan coach, the Wolverines will always have one main objective: win the Big Ten title. So even though his first team erased a lot of the bad memories from the three-year Rich Rodriguez tenure in a major bounce-back campaign, it still finished as the runner-up in the Legends Division.

"Oh, man, sitting at home watching the Big Ten championship game felt kind of weird," quarterback Denard Robinson said. "We're supposed to be the 'leaders and best,' so we sold ourselves short not being in that first one."

The motivation for Team 133 this offseason, then, became quite obvious. Michigan got back on track last season, winning 11 games for the first time since 2006 and bringing some momentum to the program. The Wolverines could enter this season ranked in the top 10 and might well be the favorite to win the Big Ten in Hoke's second year. Asked if he'd view any season that didn't end with a Big Ten title as a disappointment, Hoke didn't hesitate to answer, "Yep."

Does Michigan have what it takes to repeat and even build upon last season's success? This spring offered reasons for optimism and pessimism.

The biggest difference between Hoke's first year and the RichRod teams was the surprising defensive resurgence. After three years of futility on that side of the ball, the Wolverines finished 17th nationally in total defense and sixth in points allowed. Fueling that effort was a dominant defensive line led by seniors Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger.

By Week 4 against San Diego State -- a 28-7 victory -- safety Jordan Kovacs started to notice a major difference.

"I was getting bored as a defensive back because our front seven was controlling the game," Kovacs said. "One I realized our defensive line was pretty special, I knew we were going to have a heck of a team."

With three seniors gone and the lone returning starter, Craig Roh, switching from weakside to strongside defensive end, the D-line underwent some predictable growing pains this spring. The defensive tackle spot is a particular concern, with the undersized Jibreel Black moving in from end and senior Will Campbell getting one last try to live up to his once-immense recruiting hype. The line was inconsistent at best at stopping the run in practice this spring.

While the Wolverines should have more talent and experience at the linebacker and secondary positions than they did a year ago, there's little doubt where the focus lies for Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, as both cut their teeth as defensive line coaches.

"You can't have a great defense if you're not strong up the middle," Mattison said. "We need that position to become very, very strong."

On the flip side, Martin and Van Bergen were nowhere near the players they'd become at this time last year. Mattison said he expects his linemen to make a jump in the summer.

"Last year, it was a much uglier spring ball," Kovacs said. "That's what I try to remind myself."

[+] EnlargeCraig Roh
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioCraig Roh is the lone returning starter on the defensive line.
Depth is also a major worry, not just on the defensive line but on the offensive front. True freshmen are likely to crack the two-deep on both lines, which is not a great sign in the Big Ten. Michigan was fortunate last season to stay quite healthy in the trenches until the Sugar Bowl, when Heininger was out and David Molk played on a bad leg. Can the team get some luck on the injury front in 2012?

It may need to with a schedule that looks far more demanding than last season. The Wolverines had eight home games in 2011, including the first five contests of the season. That number dips down to six this season, with challenging road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. And of course, there's the opener against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

"All this offseason work is pointing toward that game," receiver Roy Roundtree said. "Everybody knows who we got. It's not like it's some cupcake opener; they're the national champions. We've got to bring our A-game."

The good news is that Michigan found ways to win without its A-game last season, especially in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech in which offensive coordinator Al Borges said, "we played really awful." Hoke proclaimed after the spring game that the Wolverines are much tougher than they were a year ago.

Robinson and running back Fitz Toussaint, who each ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, give the offense two special difference-makers in the backfield. Coaches say Robinson's throwing mechanics and decision-making looked greatly improved this spring, while Toussaint may get some help from emerging power runner Thomas Rawls.

Michigan figures to stay in the thick of the Big Ten race all season long, but getting close won't be good enough. Bo Schembechler's famous phrase, "Those who stay will be champions," wasn't referring to Sugar Bowl titles. The Wolverines won't be satisfied with anything less than their 43rd Big Ten championship, which is why veteran players weren't stunned by Hoke's failing grade in that January meeting.

"I think it was kind of the elephant in the room," Kovacs said. "At the end of the day, we didn't do what we wanted to do. That's what we've been about and what we'll continue to be about. And that's what is fueling us for this season."

Big Ten mailblog

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
5:30
PM ET
You can't handle the truth.

Perry the Platypus from Indianapolis writes: Curious as to why you and Brian seem to think MSU is clearly the best Big Ten team. I do agree they have the best defense, but from what I have heard thus far this spring, their offense is quite a bit behind their defense. UM has the best offense in the league, and one of the best defenses. In my opinion, UM is a more complete team than MSU, at least at this point in time. Obviously a lot of things can change before September. Why so much love for MSU, and not so much for UM?

Adam Rittenberg: Perry, I don't think there's way more love for one team over the other. The truth is not much separates Michigan State and Michigan entering the season. Both squads could be preseason top 10. Both should challenge for the Big Ten title. And the biggest game in the league very well could be Michigan State at Michigan on Oct. 20. The Spartans have some issues on offense, particularly at wide receiver, although it could be offset by a stronger rushing attack and a stronger commitment to the run. Michigan has the more potent offense. But if I had to pick one of the teams' four major units, I'd take Michigan State's defense. It's a dominant group filled with difference-makers. Michigan also could be strong on defense, but there are more question marks with the Wolverines, particularly in the front seven.

The other thing some Michigan fans have to think about is whether the Wolverines could be a better team with a worse record in 2011. The schedule is brutal, even more so than Michigan State's in 2011. While Michigan State doesn't have an easy path, either, few major-conference teams will be tested more than Michigan this fall.


Joe from St. Paul, Minn., writes: Minnesota QB Questions. Do you feel that Gray can get to the next level this year? If not, do you feel that Brewster not red shirting him was a huge issue with his development? Should the Gophers bring in Phillip Nelson sooner rather than later? Overall impression of Gopher QB situation and future. Thanks!

Adam Rittenberg: MarQueis Gray should be much more comfortable in the offense this season. The question I have is whether he'll be surrounded by enough weapons to consistently attack defenses. Minnesota needs to build depth at wide receiver, running back and along the offensive line to really make that unit take the next step. While Gray's development as a quarterback was slowed by him playing so much wide receiver as a freshman and sophomore, the bigger factor is he had to learn new offenses every year. That's not the case entering the 2012 season, and while Gray has to improve his accuracy and pocket presence, he should have a much better feel of the system. Nelson is an intriguing prospect, but this is still Gray's team in 2012.


Lavar A from Silver Spring, Md., writes: Adam, Apparently Bill O'Brien has a laid out a fairly aggressive learning curve for his QB's a la the play book of the N E Pats. That said, it sounds like the PSU QB's aren't picking it up that quickly. Not really surprising. With that in mind and the fact that no team really wants to tip its hand, I suspect the passing (and play-calling in general) in the Blue-White game will be very vanilla. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Lavar A from Maryland? Hmmm ... Well, Lavar, your suspicions are correct. Here's what O'Brien recently told me about the Blue-White Game. "They said if it's a nice day, we'll get 85,000 in here," O'Brien said. "I hope those 85,000 people aren't expecting a whole lot, because I'm certainly not going to show a whole lot in that game. But we're going to be organized, we'll play hard, we'll play fast. But I wouldn't say it's going to be a dazzling show." He added that the game will be "very much of a business day" for the coaches and players. So while fans inevitably will make sweeping judgments about the quarterbacks, it's probably smart to look at the event for what it really is. From what I saw in State College, it's a work in progress for all three quarterbacks. But they did show some bright spots, and all three have strengths. It'll be interesting to see how it shakes out.


Joel from Bismarck, S.D., writes: You've mentioned any number of times Iowa's recruiting disadvantage by virtue of the location. I don't disagree, but looking at the team's roster what really jumps out to me is the number of Hawkeyes coming from Iowa City or nearby towns like Solon or Kalona. Maybe I'm reading the roster too selectively, as there are a number of other native Iowa players, but it jumps out at me just the same. I acknowledge that much of the state is rural, but with all respect to Iowa State and UNI, Iowa is "the" state school with fans all over the state. When I see the over-representation of local players I wonder if the staff is unnecessarily limiting itself by tapping them and possibly missing gems elsewhere in the state. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Joel, this is an interesting observation, but I don't think it shows a flawed approach to local recruiting. Iowa is going to miss on some in-state players, or not pursue some players hard enough, just like every team in the country. There are some players on Iowa State's roster who Kirk Ferentz would like to have. But Iowa can't compete for Big Ten championships solely with in-state talent. It needs to do well in the Chicago area. It needs to recruit St. Louis and neighboring states. And it probably needs a few studs from outside the region, which was the case for stars like Brad Banks (Florida) and Shonn Greene (New Jersey).


Ryan from Omaha, Neb., writes: Hey Adam, Nebraska not playing a spring game leaves somewhat of a mystery for Husker fans. The coaches have been saying Taylor Martinez has improved his throwing mechanics and we were going to get to see if he truly did. We won't find out until September now. We also won't know if Damion Stafford is having as good as an offseason as the coaches say he is and who else on the defense is stepping up. I am more interested in seeing how good our recievers have improved and how much better Andrew Green is. I also want to know more about Braylon Heard's move to cornerback. What is your take on Nebraska not playing game this year?

Adam Rittenberg: It's unfortunate for the fans, Ryan, but as I often say, these events are more for fans than they are for everyone else. The amount of absolute statements I hear from fans after watching a spring game -- where their team is intentionally trying to be as bland as possible -- is pretty comical. Yes, there have been times where players have big spring games and then turn out to be stars in the fall, but it's usually not the case. It's tough for folks to hear about Martinez's mechanics, or Stafford's and Green's strong spring, or the receivers' greater comfort, and not see it with their own eyes. It's why I'd encourage teams to put video clips of spring practices on their Web sites (many already do this), so fans can at least see a bit of what's happening. I don't fault Nebraska for canceling the game, as the risk doesn't outweigh the reward for the team. And while patience is tough for fans, it's the reality until September.


Craig from Bordentown, N.J., writes: "you'd have eight Big Ten squads with two or more "titles":"Adam, putting quotes on titles as you did here is unacceptably insulting. I don't care whether you don't like split titles, that's your opinion, but the rules are the rules. The titles were legitimately won. Teams don't control the rules within the season, the rules are what the rules are, and teams do their best to succeed within the parameters they're presented. It wasn't even within the B1G's control - The NCAA mandates we couldn't have a championship game until we had 12 teams. You ought to know this. To insult the championships that have been won simply because we had 11 teams, are you serious? You're a professional, try acting like it. Look Adam, you like what you like, but don't you dare insult teams for doing everything asked of them.

Adam Rittenberg: Craig, these are fair criticisms, although the "don't you dare" line made me laugh a little. Don't you dare have an opinion on a college football blog! Roar!!! Anyway, those championships are legitimate. They're in the record books and are mentioned on this blog when discussing a team's past. The question that prompted the response related to Nebraska in the Big 12 and how many titles it would have won in the Big Ten. My point is that by having a structure without a championship game, you have a lot of teams that can call themselves champions. That's fine. As you say, those were the rules at the time. I'm just thrilled that the Big Ten has a true championship game and one champion crowed every year, the way it should be in sports.


David from Hershey, Pa., writes: Hey Adam, I'm hoping to get your take on the Michigan offensive line. Around this Big Ten blog, it seems to be getting bashed. And I don't understand that. The depth is terrible, and that deserves to be pointed out. Also deserving pointing is the fact that the five starters may make the best starting OL in the conference (it could only be M or UW). Lewan is a probable All-American and four players on the line started last year. More yet, last year's offensive line was awesome. And, by the time the Class of 2012 arrives, last's year's OL will have had far worse depth yet. I'd like your opinion as to why the low opinions then? Please and thank you.

Adam Rittenberg: David, you bring up some good points. Michigan's starting line could be pretty darn good. Where it will rank in the Big Ten is tough to tell. Wisconsin will be good. Michigan State and Nebraska will be better up front. Penn State's offensive line also has been a "pleasant surprise" this spring, according to coach Bill O'Brien. Not sure about Lewan as a "probable All-American," but he should be in the All-Big Ten mix. I think any bashing or concerns expressed stem from Michigan losing All-American center David Molk. He shouldered a lot of responsibility in Al Borges' offense, and his presence and toughness will be missed. It will be an interesting group to monitor, but it has the potential to deliver another strong season.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On paper, Ricky Barnum has one of the toughest jobs for Michigan this spring.

Barnum is stepping into the shoes vacated by David Molk, who won the Rimington Trophy last season as the nation's top center. Add in the fact that Barnum has never played center in a game, and that he missed most of last season with injuries, and that sounds like a tall order.

But the fifth-year senior is confident that the Wolverines won't miss a beat with him snapping the ball this season.

"It's not an easy task, because David Molk was a very talented player," he says. "But I have come a long way.

"I really like playing center a lot, and it's something I can see me doing strongly. I can be very good at it."

Barnum snapped to Denard Robinson as a backup when he was a freshman before eventually playing some at tackle and staring at guard. Some rust could have been expected when he moved back to center this offseason, especially in a Michigan offense that often puts Robinson in the shotgun. Yet Barnum proudly says he's had no bad snaps all spring.

Moving to center also brings far more leadership responsibilities than playing guard, as the center makes the calls for the entire line. Barnum says the rest of the line has supported him in that role.

"They all have a trust and faith in me," he said. "They all believe I'll make the right call. And if I do make the wrong call, they just go with it. But I haven't made too many. I haven't had anybody get on me and say, 'Ricky, you made the wrong call.' It's all been, 'Thanks, you made the right call.'"

Barnum has natural size for the position at 6-foot-3 and a large sub sandwich away from 300 pounds. He has good mobility when healthy, which he wasn't last year because of problems in both ankles.

He said Molk has given him pointers, mainly telling him to stay aggressive and showing him how push out with his non-snapping hand. Barnum is putting those ideas in practice this spring for a rebuilt offensive line that is coming along.

"He's working at it," Robinson said. "Ricky's getting better."

It's likely unrealistic to expect Barnum to match Molk's level of play. But he sure seems to have Molk's confidence.

"I see center as a great fit for me because I like to learn and I like to compete," Barnum said.

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