Big Ten: Delton Williams

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For nearly a season and a half, Michigan State leaned hard on its defense to try to win games while the offense sputtered.

That pattern finally changed midway through last season, as Connor Cook settled the quarterback position, Jeremy Langford developed into a star at running back and the receivers started making tough catches. Heading into 2014, a new paradigm could be in play. The offense returns the vast majority of its production while the defense must replace stalwarts such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis.

Nobody is expecting the Spartans defense to fall off a cliff, especially with Pat Narduzzi back at coordinator and plenty of fresh talent ready to step forward. But if that side needs time to find its footing early in the season, things could be OK.

"Our defense has obviously been very, very strong," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "But as an offense, we want to be able to carry this football team if need be. And do it right from start, rather than wait until four or five games into the season to get it figured out."

Michigan State isn't suddenly going to turn into Baylor or Oregon -- "I still think you've got to play well on defense to win championships," head coach Mark Dantonio says -- but there's reason to believe that an offense that averaged a respectable 29.8 points per game during Big Ten play could continue moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Langford and several key players returning on the Michigan State offense, the defense doesn't have to carry the Spartans anymore.
Cook is back and should ride a wave of confidence following his MVP turns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl games. The Spartans did lose Bennie Fowler, who led all receivers with 622 yards and six touchdowns, but they return every other pass-catcher of note and expect bigger things out of guys such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton, as well as DeAnthony Arnett. Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards and scored a Big Ten-best 19 total touchdowns, added about five pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I think it helps with my durability," he said. "I can take a hit and bounce off a couple tackles. I still feel fast, and I feel stronger now."

Michigan State was young at tight end last season and didn't utilize that position a lot, though Josiah Price made a crucial touchdown catch against Ohio State in the league title game. Tight end could become a strength this year with Price back and spring head-turner Jamal Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound potential difference-maker.

"We're better right now at tight end than we were at any time last year," Warner said.

Warner also wants to find ways to use tailbacks Nick Hill, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. And don't forget quarterback Damion Terry, whose athleticism could lead to several possibilities.

"We're experimenting a little bit right now," Cook said. "I feel like some new things will be added to our arsenal on offense."

The biggest question marks for the Spartans on offense are on the line, where they must replace three senior starters (Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti) from what might have been the best O-line in Dantonio's tenure. The line doesn't have as much depth this spring as the coaching staff would like, but veterans Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen provide a nice starting point. Donavon Clark and Connor Kruse have played a lot as backups, and Kodi Kieler is expected to make a move up the depth chart.

"We need to get that offensive line back in working order," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said.

Overall, though, Michigan State feels good about the state of its offense. So good that maybe the defense can lean on it for a change, if needed.

"Last year, we got off to a horrible start and didn't really get going until Week 5," Cook said. "We don't want to have that happen ever again. With the offense we have and what we proved last year, we want to get off to a hot start and get the rock rolling early. That's what everyone on our team offensively has in mind."

Spring position breakdown: RBs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
PASADENA, Calif. -- No one would dispute that Michigan State's defense is the primary reason for the program's ascent. Especially after Wednesday's performance in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsWith many weapons returning, Michigan State should be able to rely on Connor Cook and the offense more in 2014.
The Spartan Dawgs showed they can be great even without a great player in Max Bullough, and stifled Stanford's power run game for the final three quarters of a 24-20 win. The fourth-down stop of fullback Ryan Hewitt, where a swarm of MSU defenders leaped over the pile, typified why Michigan State has gone from good to great.

But if you're searching for why MSU could keep the momentum going in the 2014 season, take a look at the other side of the ball. Michigan State's offense, which went from dysfunctional in September to efficient and, at times, explosive, could fuel the team this fall.

The Spartans return virtually all of their skill players, including quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receivers Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge. Bennie Fowler likely would earn a sixth year of eligibility -- he missed the entire 2009 season and part of 2011 with injuries -- if he wants one.

The tight end group, used more late in the season, returns completely intact. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had a touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, is only a sophomore.

"It's been a long journey, and seems like a long time ago that we were being asked that question about what's wrong with our offense," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said last week. "It's been a process without a doubt, and it seemed like it took a long time, but it was a necessary process, and we're still not a finished product by any means now because I think we can continue to grow and get better."

MSU showed against Stanford that it can win big games by throwing the ball, as Cook repeatedly attacked the seams of the Cardinal defense to players like Kings and Lippett.

"They were very vulnerable," Kings told ESPN.com on the field afterward. "We weren't looking to attack it, but as the game went on, that's what was open so we just took it. I caught a couple over the middle … Guys were sagging off, sometimes they play regular Cover 2. It's all about reading coverages on the run and making plays."

A receiving corps that struggled to simply catch the ball, much less make plays, in 2012 went through a dramatic transformation when Cook took control. Cook will enter 2014 as one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks after recording his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the league title game and the Rose Bowl.

Dual threat Damion Terry likely will enter the mix in some form in 2014. Perhaps MSU incorporates a package of plays for Terry, who redshirted this season after nearly playing in September.

It will be important to build depth behind Langford, a solid back but one who could platoon with a guy like Delton Williams, if Williams remains on offense.

MSU loses three fifth-year seniors along the offensive line, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, but the line subtly took a major step in 2013. This had been the unit holding back MSU from reaching levels like Wisconsin, Iowa and others had. The line seemed to turn a corner and can build behind players like Travis Jackson, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, a redshirt freshman who started the final 10 games at left tackle.

The defense loses much more -- six starters, including standouts like Bullough, All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. MSU certainly can reload but might not be quite as elite as this year's unit.

The Spartans likely will lean more on their offense in 2014. And they should.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 8

October, 22, 2013
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Not much went according to plan in Week 8, a slate of likely blowouts that turned out to be surprisingly captivating, especially in both Ann Arbor and Columbus. Brian Bennett and I had the same set of winners, so there was no opportunity to gain ground.

We both ended up missing on one contest. As for those score predictions ... not good.

Week 8/Season record

Adam Rittenberg: 4-1, 55-9
Brian Bennett: 4-1, 54-10

Here's one final look at the Week 8 predictions we made and those of guest forecaster Micah Tweeten from St. Paul, Minn.

Let's rewind the tape ...

Minnesota at Northwestern
  • Brian Bennett's pick: Northwestern 35, Minnesota 20
  • Adam Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 34, Minnesota 21
  • Actual score: Minnesota 20, Northwestern 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett nailed the Gophers' score and I came close, but we both expected Northwestern's offense to show up. Wildcats QB Kain Colter never played, as I thought he would, and QB Philip Nelson provided the spark for Minnesota's offense, not Mitch Leidner.
Purdue at Michigan State
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 34, Purdue 6
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 31, Purdue 7
  • Actual score: Michigan State 14, Purdue 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: We expected more offense from both teams, especially Michigan State, which mustered only one offensive score in the game. Bennett's prediction of three Connor Cook touchdown passes fell short as Cook struggled, and while Jeremy Langford (131 rush yards) stepped up, neither he nor Delton Williams reached the end zone (I had them for three combined touchdowns). My prediction of a first-half defensive touchdown proved true as LB Denicos Allen had a scoop and score.
Indiana at Michigan
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 38, Indiana 28
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 35, Indiana 27
  • Actual score: Michigan 63, Indiana 47
  • 20-20 hindsight: We weren't too far off on Michigan's margin of victory, but both offenses certainly exceeded our forecasts on a record-setting day at the Big House. Indiana QBs Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson both led first-half scoring drives, as Bennett predicted, but Michigan QB Devin Gardner (team record 584 yards of offense) blew past Bennett's projection (350 yards). My prediction of two first-half rushing touchdowns for Michigan's Fitzgerald Toussaint came true, and Indiana WR Cody Latimer (96 receiving yards, TD) wasn't too far off my prediction (120 receiving yards, 2 TDs).
Iowa at Ohio State
  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 37, Iowa 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 42, Iowa 20
  • Actual score: Ohio State 34, Iowa 24
  • 20-20 hindsight: This turned out to be one of our better score predictions, although we were still both off by 10 or more points. Buckeyes RB Carlos Hyde became the first player to rush for a touchdown against Iowa this season, as I thought he would, and exceeded my predicted rushing total (125 yards) by 24 yards. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller came one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown shy of Bennett's prediction. Iowa received a boost from a tight end, but it was Jake Duzey (six catches, 138 yards, TD), not C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Wisconsin at Illinois
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 34, Illinois 20
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 56, Illinois 32
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected Illinois to take an early lead, but the Badgers stormed out to a 21-0 advantage before the Illini steadied themselves a bit in the second quarter. Bennett nearly nailed Wisconsin's rushing total (he predicted 290 yards; the Badgers finished with 289), and Badgers RB James White finished two yards shy of my triple-digit prediction for both he and Melvin Gordon. TE Jacob Pedersen had three receptions, but none for touchdowns.

You've seen our picks. Now it's time to check on our guest picker, Micah.

Northwestern 31, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 34, Purdue 10
Ohio State 38, Iowa 24
Michigan 31, Indiana 21
Wisconsin 35, Illinois 18

Micah's picks mirrored ours, so he also went 4-1. He had similar score predictions, too, although he came closer on Ohio State-Iowa than we did, nailing the Hawkeyes' score on the dot. Like us, he expected much more offense from Michigan State and much more defense from Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Not a bad result, though.

Interested in being this week's guest picker? Tell us why you should be the choice here and here (be brief and use "GUEST PICKS" in the message).

Big Ten predictions: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
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The second half begins this week, and it should be a very close race -- in our predictions contest, that is.

Adam leads by one game, thanks to his correct pick of Penn State in a quadruple-overtime thriller. Yep, it's that close. Let's kick off the second-half picks now:

MINNESOTA at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Last week's loss at Wisconsin was one of the worst performances in a long time for Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald promised this week that his team would bounce back and play well, and I believe him. The Wildcats ought to be mad for this one, and though Mitch Leidner will lead Minnesota to a couple of scores, Northwestern will seize control in the second quarter. ... Northwestern 35, Minnesota 20

Adam Rittenberg: Will this be The Hangover Part II? I think Northwestern gets it together behind quarterback Kain Colter, who records a rushing touchdown, a passing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. Minnesota finds some gaps in Northwestern's defense early on, but the Gophers' one-dimensional offense dooms them in the second half. Tony Jones gets back on the touchdown train as Northwestern records its first Big Ten win. ... Northwestern 34, Minnesota 21

PURDUE at MICHIGAN STATE

Rittenberg: This isn't the type of matchup Purdue needs with all of its issues right now. Michigan State records two first-half takeaways, one for a touchdown, and rides Jeremy Langford and Delton Williams on the ground for three more touchdowns. The Spartans continue to take care of business against weak competition and improve to 3-0 in Big Ten play. ... Michigan State 31, Purdue 7

Bennett: The Spartans, who rolled up 42 points on Indiana last week, will continue to enjoy the Hoosier State this week. Purdue isn't doing much of anything right and didn't score until the final minute last week versus Nebraska. Good luck against the Spartans defense. Connor Cook throws for three TDs in an easy win. ... Michigan State 34, Purdue 6


INDIANA at MICHIGAN

Bennett: Do the Hoosiers have a shot? Their run defense is awful, but so is Michigan's rushing attack. I foresee a hot start by Indiana as Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson each lead first-quarter scoring drives. IU leads at halftime as Ann Arbor starts to panic. But Michigan takes over in the second half, and Devin Gardner puts up 350 total yards (250 passing, 100 rushing). ... Michigan 38, Indiana 28


Rittenberg: I might pick Indiana if the game was in Bloomington, but Michigan has been perfect at home under Brady Hoke and won't stop now. The Wolverines finally have some success in the run game as Fitzgerald Toussaint scores two first-half touchdowns. Indiana mounts a third-quarter comeback behind Roberson and wideout Cody Latimer (120 receiving yards, 2 TDs), but Michigan responds in the fourth quarter with two Gardner touchdown passes. ... Michigan 35, Indiana 27

IOWA at OHIO STATE

Rittenberg: Iowa is an improved team on both sides of the ball, but the Hawkeyes haven't seen an offense like Ohio State's. Carlos Hyde becomes the first player to rush for a touchdown against Iowa this season, and finishes with 125 yards on the ground. Iowa gets a boost from tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, but the Buckeyes pull away late in the second quarter and cruise to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Iowa 20

Bennett: This is a tough matchup for Iowa, as Ohio State has the second-best rush defense in the Big Ten and the Buckeyes can exploit some speed advantages. It's a big week for Braxton Miller, as he throws three touchdown passes and breaks Iowa's streak by running for another. ... Ohio State 37, Iowa 17

WISCONSIN at ILLINOIS

Bennett: The Illini will come out firing after the bye week and burn the Badgers for a couple of early scores. But then the Wisconsin defense shuts things down, and the running game grinds out 290 yards against the Illinois defense, led by Melvin Gordon's 160. ... Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14


Rittenberg: I agree that Illinois takes the early lead as Nathan Scheelhaase connects with Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford for touchdowns. But Wisconsin will crank up the run game as Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 yards. Tight end Jacob Pedersen hauls in a touchdown from Joel Stave as the Badgers march on. ... Wisconsin 34, Illinois 20

Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker is Micah Tweeten from St. Paul, Minn. Take it away, Micah.
"I would love to be your guest picker of the week. I grew up in Nebraska, now live in Minnesota, and have been a Hawkeyes fan all my life (don't get me wrong though, Husker Nation is great too, it's definitely crazy at the games). I've been reading your (and Adam's) predictions and posts for a while now. Now let's see. Why should I be the guest picker of the week? Well it's simple. Iowa plays Ohio State this week, and being that they have only won two games against OSU since 1988 and this year isn't looking to promising for a win for the Hawkeyes either, I don't have much hope for this Saturday. I would love to have at least something to look forward to for this upcoming weekend. Thanks!"

Here are Micah's Week 8 picks …

Northwestern 31, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 34, Purdue 10
Ohio State 38, Iowa 24
Michigan 31, Indiana 21
Wisconsin 35, Illinois 18

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 51-8
Brian Bennett:
50-9
Guest pickers:
45-14
Which came first -- Michigan State’s rushing attack or the passing game of Connor Cook?

It’s a good question, but the true answer is that it doesn’t really matter, only that both seem to be working quite well for the Spartans right now. As the conference season has gone on, the Spartans have struck a balance between their run game and pass game that has resulted in a 2-0 Big Ten record.

“We always have that in mind -- to try and stay as balanced as we can, 50-50 in our offense,” co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner said. “When we’re running the football it allows us to be balanced and that’s our goal.”

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook hands off to Nick Hill, who is a key part of Michigan State's running attack this season.
Warner was charged with finding which member of the Spartan running back corps would fill in the shoes (and yards) of Le’Veon Bell.

Last season Bell was the Spartans’ rushing attack, averaging 137.9 yards per game (third best in the FBS). He led the nation in carries (382) and gained 51 percent of his yardage after contact, according to Michigan State.

“We knew we were going to miss Le’Veon and we knew it was going to be more running back by committee coming in to this season,” Warner said. “The last couple weeks things have come together for us as an offense.”

But now, six games into the season, the Spartans might not have found a replacement for those yards, but at least they’ve scratched the surface at what the answer might be.

Junior tailback Jeremy Langford has led the Spartan running backs this season, averaging 70 yards a game. But he had a breakout day on Saturday against Indiana in which he carried the ball 23 times for 109 yards and accounted for three rushing TDs.

But it isn’t just Langford. Junior Nick Hill has registered 42 carries for 219 yards. Of late, freshman Delton Williams has come on strong. So strongly that the coaching staff decided to pull his redshirt. In just two games he has carried the ball 21 times for 124 yards, which is a team-high 5.9 yards per carry (of all players who have carried the ball at least 20 times).

“We’re just being physical,” Langford said. “And when we get past the line of scrimmage, make somebody miss and make the big plays downfield. We’re staying positive day by day, play by play.”

That attitude has helped the Spartans find some kind of an identity in the run game, which in turn has really helped Cook in the passing game.

In the Spartans’ season opener the rush game accounted for 61 percent of the offense. Against South Florida, that number jumped to 65 percent.

But when Cook took control of the offense in the Youngstown State game that number began creeping down to be a bit more even. The passing attack looked great against the Hawkeyes as Cook threw for 277 yards.

But with the exception of the Iowa game, the greatest discrepancy between the run and pass game for the Spartan offense -- since Cook became the primary QB -- has been 16 yards.

That balanced attack has made game planning for Michigan State a difficult task. Langford said he has noticed defenses playing the Spartans more honest because of how balanced they’ve been.

“I’m glad we have a pass game and the run game,” Langford said. “We’re balanced. It makes it a lot easier for the receivers and the quarterbacks and us as well. … It’s a good thing.”

Michigan State faces Purdue this weekend and Illinois next and with both of those games the Spartans will have a chance to continue to build on their balanced offense.

The Boilermakers rank 10th in rushing defense (194.5 yards per game) and fifth in pass defense (222.7 yards per game) in the Big Ten. And there may be plenty of opportunities to get into the end zone since Purdue has the worst scoring defense in the conference (37.8 points per game).

Illinois has held its opponents to 27.6 points per game. The Illini rank 11th in rushing defense (195.4 yards per game) and 10th in pass defense (254.4 yards per game) in the Big Ten.

“You can’t overlook these football teams,” Warner said. “Their backs are to the wall and they’re going to come out fighting, we really believe that. I think if we’re not ready to play, we can lose to anybody and we’ve put a couple games together back-to-back so I think we need to continue that consistency.”

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
12:00
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Never forget.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 11, 2013
6/11/13
12:00
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Three years ago, this happened.
Every Big Ten team will rely on a handful of freshmen (sometimes more than a handful) to fill key roles when the 2013 season rolls around. Which newcomers will make the biggest impact in the league?

Tom Luginbill, RecruitingNation's senior national recruiting analyst, has identified five names to remember among incoming freshmenInsider who will enroll this summer. Luginbill already singled out Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple as an early enrollee who could make a difference this fallInsider.

Two Big Ten freshmen make Luginbill's new list. Neither needs much of an introduction.

Michigan running back Derrick Green is expected to compete right away for a starting job. Ranked by RecruitingNation as the No. 5 running back (No. 38 overall player) in the 2013 class, Green will be Michigan's best option in the backfield as the Wolverines go back to a more traditional pro-set scheme that will emphasize power running. No Michigan back distinguished himself this spring, and Green likely will face the most competition from Fitzgerald Toussaint, who comes off of leg surgery.

Luginbill also likes the impact potential of Ohio State incoming freshman Dontre Wilson, who could be fill the so-called "Percy position" in Urban Meyer's spread offense in Columbus. Wilson, a speedster from Texas who picked Ohio State ahead of Oregon and Texas, brings playmaking ability to an offense that needs more of it other than star quarterback Braxton Miller. Although Jordan Hall returns to the mix after battling injuries throughout 2012, Wilson could have a significant role in the offensive vision with a strong preseason showing.

What other incoming freshmen (non-early enrollees) could make an impact in the Big Ten this season?

Here are a few:

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: It'll be Hackenberg or junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson starting for the Lions in their season opener against Syracuse. Unless Ferguson creates significant separation in camp, Hackenberg likely will be a factor this season.

Indiana DT Darius Latham: The Hoosiers need help along their defensive line, and could turn to Latham right away. A four-star prospect with good size and athleticism (played basketball in high school), Latham should be part of the mix up front at IU.

Michigan State RB Delton Williams: The Spartans need help in the backfield after no one really emerged this spring, and the coaches moved backup middle linebacker Riley Bullough to offense for help. There's a good chance Michigan State turns to an incoming freshman and Williams, the team's highest-rated recruit in the 2013 class according to RecruitingNation, will have a golden opportunity in camp.

Ohio State S Vonn Bell: Unlike the other freshmen listed here, Bell doesn't play a position where Ohio State has an overly pressing need. But he might be too talented to keep off of the field, especially when the Buckeyes go to their nickel and dime packages.
2012 record: 7-6
2012 conference record: 3-5 (fourth in Legends division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

LB Max Bullough, CB Darqueze Dennard, LB Denicos Allen, S Isaiah Lewis, DE Marcus Rush, QB Andrew Maxwell, LT Fou Fonoti, C Travis Jackson, WR Aaron Burbridge

Key losses

DE William Gholston, DT Anthony Rashad White, CB Johnny Adams, RB Le'Veon Bell, TE Dion Sims, G Chris McDonald, K Dan Conroy

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Le'Veon Bell (1,793 yards)
Passing: Andrew Maxwell* (2,606 yards)
Receiving: Bennie Fowler* (524 yards)
Tackles: Max Bullough* (111)
Sacks: William Gholston (4.5)
Interceptions: Darqueze Dennard* and Johnny Adams (3)

Spring answers

1. Waynes, Calhoun secure spots: The Spartan Dawgs just keep on rolling. Michigan State's defense didn't have too many major questions entering the spring, but it needed an end to replace William Gholston and a cornerback to play opposite Darqueze Dennard. It found both. Shilique Calhoun, who had a mini-breakout game in the bowl against TCU, secured a starting spot at defensive end. Trae Waynes and fellow sophomore Arjen Colquhoun logged most of the snaps at cornerback as Dennard recovered from hernia surgery, and Waynes did enough to land the No. 1 job.

2. Life of Riley: Riley Bullough opened the spring backing up his big brother Max at middle linebacker. He ended the session as a bulldozing running back, a spot where Michigan State is looking for answers after losing national carries leader Le'Veon Bell to the NFL draft. No other running back distinguished himself in practice, so the coaches moved Riley Bullough to the position, and he did some impressive things. Bullough was Michigan State's leading rusher (46 yards) in the spring game. Although he could move back to linebacker, he gives the Spartans another option in the offensive backfield.

3. Burbridge continues to emerge: The Spartans are searching for offensive playmakers and appear to have found one in sophomore wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. He moved into the starting lineup midway through the 2012 season and provided a bright spot for the struggling receiving corps. Burbridge benefited from a full offseason in the program and capped the spring with a five-catch, 113-yard performance in the Green-White Game. He could emerge as Michigan State's No. 1 receiver and/or push veterans Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback quandary: Michigan State is still looking for the man to lead its offense in 2013. Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season, and although he did some good things in practices, he didn't separate himself and looked a bit shaky in the spring game. Connor Cook answered the coaches' challenge to improvise when plays broke down, and he'll continue to push Maxwell when fall camp begins. Redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor and incoming recruit Damion Terry also could be in the mix.

2. Third linebacker: The Spartans boast one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, both of whom enter their third season as starters. Who will line up next to them this fall? It could be Taiwan Jones, who capped the spring with 11 tackles in the Green-White Game. But Jairus Jones, who moved from safety to outside linebacker this spring, is very much in the mix and drew praise from the coaching staff and teammates. Jones made a good transition to linebacker and helps an already strong position group.

3. Man on the run: Riley Bullough's emergence adds a new twist to the running back competition, but nothing is settled entering fall camp. Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford took most of the reps with the first-team offense this spring but didn't separate themselves, and Hill underwent sports hernia surgery last week. The coaches also want to see how incoming freshmen Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams perform when they arrive this summer. Although Michigan State typically has one featured back, it could use more of a committee system this season. But there are definitely questions in the offensive backfield.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
5:00
PM ET
Answering some of your emails before it gets all drafty in here:

Dash from Tucumcari, N.M., writes: "It's out of my control, but I wasn't happy with it," Steven Bench said. "I'm a competitor, so I'm not going to agree with that decision. But, at the same time, it's his decision and it's out of my control. I feel that it kind of left me no choice. I don't want to back anyone up. I want to play. I came here to play football." Comment: What? You can't have it both ways. If you are a "competitor," than being number two in a close race should tell you that you can win the job in fall camp and/or be the guy ready to step in and take it should something happen to the guy above you. I am a college football fan, not a Penn State fan and I say to him: Good riddance. Penn State fans should be rejoicing to hear that a non-competitive athlete who therefore, is likely to crumble when everything isn't perfect, has opted to transfer. That's my two cents from the peanut gallery...

Brian Bennett: Dash, I agree that Bench's transfer was jarring, and it's odd to see a guy who was supposedly so close in the competition transfer before duking it out in fall camp. However, we don't know exactly what coach Bill O'Brien told Bench about his status. According to this report, Bench was told he would not receive any more first-team reps in practice, which suggests that he might have fallen behind both Tyler Ferguson and incoming recruit Christian Hackenberg. Remember that Bench is a only sophomore, and he can transfer and be eligible right away at another school. Going somewhere else, probably a program smaller to Penn State, and being able to potentially start for three years as opposed to being the No. 3 quarterback does make sense for him. You've got to respect O'Brien's honesty if he indeed told Bench exactly where he stood, but that honesty cost the Lions some depth at quarterback.




Dan from East Lansing writes: The one thing I don't understand with aligning MSU in the East and IU in the west is that the majority of MSU's alumni outside of MI is located in Chicago and the majority of the IU alumni are in DC outside of IN. IU actually played a home game vs PSU in DC b/c of this. Common sense tells me switch these 2 teams and it makes the divisions more fair and it gives each alumni base more chances to see their team. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Hey, I'm with you, as I've been arguing that Michigan State should have gone to the West for competitive balance reasons. But I think the Michigan-Michigan State factor was much bigger for the league than alumni bases or evening out the competition. It seems clear that the Big Ten wanted to keep those schools in the same division to avoid needing a permanent crossover to preserve that rivalry. I'm also interested in seeing how the division alignment affects recruiting, because it's no secret that there are more prospects in the eastern part of the league than in the West. That's good news for Michigan State, but how about for a team like Purdue, which will be playing the majority of its games in the Central Time Zone? That's something to monitor.




Hayden B. from Lavista, Neb.: Hey Brian, I've been thinking about underrated B1G players in this draft more and more as the draft gets closer. Who do you think are some B1G players that could be grabbed in the last round that are not expected to be drafted or expected to drop to the last round? I see a couple players like Eric Martin (a remarkable hitter), Kyler Reed (A speedy, great handed TE), Micah Hyde (possibly the most underrated DB in this draft), or any other low rated B1G players. Who do you see dropping or sneaking into the draft?

Brian Bennett: Well, it sure looks like just about all Big Ten players are lowly rated coming into the draft. If we're talking about guys not getting much buzz right now, I'd start with Rex Burkhead, who in our latest ESPN.com mock draft was not even projected to be selected. That's just silly. I also think Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is a good enough athlete to make an impact, possibly at tight end. Some other names I'd include are Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor, Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch and Hyde. This could be one of the worst drafts in history for the Big Ten in terms of number of selections and high-round picks. But what's more important is how many guys get to the league and actually do something there.




Joe from Dayton, Ohio, writes: Will Riley Bullough start at RB for the Spartans this year?

Brian Bennett: Bullough's story -- going from linebacker to running back late in spring practice, and suddenly becoming the top option -- is really interesting. It also says a lot about the state of Michigan State's running backs. Mark Dantonio has said all along that three freshmen coming in -- Delton Williams, R.J. Shelton and Gerald Holmes -- would all be given long looks this summer. My bet is that one of them ends up leading the team in rushing. If nothing else, Bullough has shown he can play the position and add a strong power element to the backfield. If none of the freshmen are ready early, Bullough could wind up starting, though I see him more as a complementary player.




Mark F. from Surprise, Ariz., writes: Brian, how do you see Iowa's new offense this year? I'm hyped up on it for few reasons. One, Vandenberg wont be missed. Ruduck or Sokol can fill his shoes and can't be anymore ineffective in the passing game. Two, Weisman and Bullock are gonna be on the field at the same time. With Bullock spending time in the y-back position and Weisman's abilities, do you see that opening up the entire passing game? And last, with an experienced and healthy offensive line back, does that increase every other aspect? I think with Weisman, Bullock, and a healthy offensive line, the receivers and quarterback will be much more productive. With that and Iowa's experienced defense, I think Iowa wins 9 games.

Brian Bennett: Mark, it's good to hear from a Hawkeyes fan who's bullish on the 2013 team, because I haven't heard from many of those this offseason. In talking with Greg Davis yesterday, it was clear that he's really excited about two things: the offensive line, which will be deep and experienced, and the running game. As he mentioned, having Damon Bullock and Mark Weisman healthy and together (knock on wood) allows for so many different looks in the running game, and when you combine that with some no-huddle, Iowa should be able to get some favorable matchups, like Bullock in the slot facing a linebacker. The goal is to run the ball so well that it opens up things in the play-action pass game.

My biggest concern, other than the inexperience at quarterback, is the playmaking ability at receiver. Iowa's wideouts did not show an ability to get separation or make plays after the catch last year, so I wonder whether they'll be good enough to actually implement a more vertical passing game, even off play-action. Still, I do think the Hawkeyes' offense has to get better than what we saw toward the end of last year, when the offensive line was in rough shape because of injuries. I'm not so optimistic to predict nine wins, especially with a pretty tough schedule that includes Wisconsin and Ohio State as crossover opponents.




Shocked from Rochester, Minn., writes: Wisconsin has won the last three conference championships (granted there's an asterisk on 1), look to have another talented team in 2013, and have continued to play at a high level after enduring major coaching changes, so what gives with the contender/pretender voting? As I'm writing this, 53% of about 1,000 people have voted WI to be a pretender (a percentage that's sure to be higher after disregarding Badgers fans' votes). Is it the perception that WI can't compete with OSU in their division, are there a lot of haters voting, any other ideas?

Brian Bennett: At last check, Wisconsin finished the polling as a pretender. That is surprising, for the reasons you mentioned. The Ohio State obstacle is a legitimate concern, as is the coaching transition. But if I had to guess, I'd say the voting mostly reflects the fact that a lot of other teams' fans just don't like Wisconsin. It happens when you win a lot.




Ryan from Johnstown, Ohio, writes: Brian, does college football really need three SEC vs Big Ten bowl games in the state of Florida? Personally, I'd like to see some more variety. I say that between the Capital One Bowl, Gator Bowl, Outback Bowl, and Russell Athletic Bowl they change the tie ins to create the following match ups: SEC vs Big Ten, SEC vs ACC, ACC vs Big TenS, EC vs Big 12. And then have the Big 12 give the Big 10 the Holiday Bowl (against the Pac 12) in exchange for letting them into Florida during bowl season.

Brian Bennett: The three SEC matchups in Florida are a bit much, but I still like those better than having two games in Texas. Personally, I always like it when the Big Ten goes against the SEC. Anyway, the entire bowl structure is about to undergo an overhaul. Conference commissioners have discussed adding more flexibility to the system, where there can be more choice in deciding the best matchups and more variety in the destinations and opponents. Ideally, the Big Ten would have access to several bowls in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California and at least one on the East Coast. Then it could mix and match to find the best slots and avoid situations like Iowa and Nebraska going to the same bowl two straight years. Let's hope.




James from Michigan writes: With Michigan going only 8-5 last season I have heard a lot of Wolverine fans using the talent level as a scapegoat. Normally as a State fan I assume Michigan fans are just looking for excuses, however after looking at Michigan's 2013 NFL draft prospects I really only see Denard [Robinson] getting selected. Furthermore, I don't see anyone outside of Taylor Lewan getting drafted in 2014. Is there actually some truth to the "cupboard is bare" plea? Particularly on defense?

Brian Bennett: While Michigan's 8-5 record last year had a lot to do with the schedule, top-level talent has certainly been an issue of late. The Wolverines will now have gone three straight years without producing a first-round draft pick, and this could be one the program's most fallow drafts ever. Michigan State has had much more NFL talent, especially on defense, the past couple years. You have to go back to the failed Rich Rodriguez tenure as an explanation. Not only did Rodriguez recruit a different type of player for his spread offense, but there was the typical attrition you see in major coaching changes. As Kyle Meinke points out in this piece, 35 out of 73 players from the 2008, 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes did not finish their careers at Michigan. The good news is that the Wolverines under Brady Hoke are bringing in some elite talent on the recruiting trail, and while you can never guarantee that a great high school player will make it to the NFL, it sure increases the odds. And Hoke is recruiting players for a pro-style system. At the very least, Lewan will break the first-round drought next April.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
5:00
PM ET
By the time you read this, I'll be gorging myself on the latest hipster music and some Texas barbecue down at South by Southwest, proving there is in fact an adult spring break. But I found some time to answer some of your emails first:

Mark from Chandler, Ariz., writes: Hey, Brian, lifelong Huskers fan. I was just looking at Nebraska's schedule for 2013. It appears to be an easy schedule. There is only 1 team (UCLA) that beat us and no team that has been strong lately except possibly Michigan and Michigan State. Could this be seen as a detriment in the rankings if the Huskers run the table and getting into the BCS title game? It seems if they do run the table and go undefeated that there better not be two undefeated teams from SEC or even one undefeated SEC and another with one loss. Doesn't this hold true for Huskers if the undefeated is, say, Notre Dame and an SEC?

Brian Bennett: Whoa there, Mark. Let's slow things down a bit. Maybe skip that second cup of coffee this afternoon. Is there really a need to discuss Nebraska's BCS title possibilities with an undefeated record? Don't the Huskers have to, you know, finish a season without three or four losses first? Look, I like Nebraska's schedule this year. Getting UCLA at home is a plus, and Big Red misses Ohio State and Wisconsin from the other division. That said, road games at Michigan and Penn State won't be a picnic, and Northwestern and Michigan State have the ability to come into Lincoln and win. The bigger issue than the schedule is Nebraska's defense and whether Bo Pelini can fix the massive problems on that side of the ball we've seen the past couple of years, especially on the road. Until we see that in effect, there's no point in discussing national title hopes with this team. Certainly not in mid-March.


Brian from Portland, Ore., writes: Is it safe to say that the Nittany Lions have the most returning receiving talent in the league? If so, with the lack of experience at QB, do you think they'll be the most (or one of the most) productive?

Brian Bennett: If you count all the tight ends Penn State has, including Kyle Carter and Jesse James, then the Lions have an argument there. No doubt Allen Robinson is the top returning wideout in the league after his breakout sophomore year. But there aren't a lot of other proven receivers who scare you. Brandon Moseby-Felder is solid but not spectacular. Nebraska and Indiana have the top two sets of returning wide receivers in the Big Ten, though both lost highly productive tight ends. However, I think whoever wins the Penn State quarterback job -- and Steven Bench is the early favorite -- will have a whole lot of options at his disposal and will put up big numbers. I'm especially interested in seeing what Carter can do in a full season after a year in Bill O'Brien's system.


Joseph from Tipp City writes: Will Michigan State be able to replace Le'Veon Bell? How will Nick Hill do as running back?

Brian Bennett: You mean the guy who had 382 carries last year who accounted for 39 percent of the Spartans' total yardage? Yeah, that's hard to replace, especially by just one player. I don't see Hill as the every-down back for Michigan State. He's a little too slight, and he averaged just 2.3 yards per carry last year, albeit in limited duty. But he will get a shot this spring, along with Jeremy Langford, who's moving back to tailback. But the coaching staff has indicated that one of the three incoming freshmen -- Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton -- might end up getting significant carries right away. I think you'll see more of a tailback-by-committee approach for the Spartans, at least early on, instead of one main guy like Bell. He did do the work of about three men, after all.


Christine B. from Charlotte writes: Following this past weekend's NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championship, Indiana's men's athletics program extended its lead in the overall Capital One Cup standings, which honors the best NCAA Division 1 men's and women's athletics program each year.

Brian Bennett: Glad you mentioned this. I enjoy following the Capital One Cup standings, which show how the entire athletic program is fairing. Indiana is having a great overall year (without a lot of help from football) and currently leads No. 2 Alabama by two points. Only two other Big Ten teams are in the top 62 of the men's standings -- No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 55 Penn State. Of course, some Big Ten schools could add points during the NCAA basketball tournament. You can find the complete standings, including the women's standings, here.


Rich from Des Moines writes: With the bowl contracts expiring soon, it seems the perfect time for the Big Ten and all the other conferences to finally free themselves from the shackles of the bowls and their shady executives. The conferences should ditch all the bowls with the exception of the Rose and maybe a couple of others that have not made it routine to rip off the schools with mandatory ticket purchasing. You'll have to tell me who those are, however. Why don't the conferences stage their own bowls? It seems like a rather simple proposition. They have experience with big events as each of them stages a basketball tournament. They wouldn't have to share any of the proceeds with a third party either. After the playoff participants are determined, everything else is open to negotiation. ... This would probably eliminate the concern of low-selling tix for a late December or Jan. 1 game played in Indianapolis, Chicago or any other northern city. Wouldn't Nebraska fans sell out Memorial Stadium if their 2nd place team hosted the 2nd place team from any other major conference? The same can be said for any other Big Ten location.

Brian Bennett: Some great points here, Rich, and it remains insane to me that schools still for the most part hand over their postseason to bowls, which are little more than tourism generators for cities that have nothing to do with those universities. It's an outdated tradition that's hard to break. Even with the new playoff system, which is a great advancement for the sport, the sports leaders couldn't wean themselves off of the bowls. Conferences don't seem to have a whole lot of interest in running their own games, and they sure as heck don't want the NCAA to run the postseason so they can keep more money for themselves. Athletic directors love to sell the idea of a bowl in a warm weather locale to fans, even if that's becoming a worse business plan every year. And to be fair, many Big Ten fans would rather go to Florida or California in the winter than sit through a cold and snowy game at home. I don't see the bowl model changing soon, but the fact that many schools are currently re-examining the economics and structure of the system is at least a good start.
Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
12:00
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Recruiting Q&A: MSU's Mark Dantonio

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
11:00
AM ET
Michigan State signed a relatively small class this year, with just 18 new players. And the Spartans were overshadowed a bit by the recruiting successes of Michigan. But Mark Dantonio and his staff have shown a knack for identifying their type of player on the recruiting trail and then developing them into All-Big Ten type performers. So you'd be wise not to sleep on this latest batch of recruits who are heading to East Lansing.

I caught up with Dantonio for a few minutes to discuss this year's class.

What were your main objectives with this class?

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio has five state champions and 11 all-state selections in his 18-player recruiting class.
Mark Dantonio: We didn't have a lot of seniors, and then we had a few guys go out early, so we had to adjust some thinking and needs. But I thought the needs we addressed were we needed to find a kicker to compete for the No. 1 position, and I thought we did that. Michael Geiger is ranked the No 1 kicker by Rivals, so that's exciting for us. You don't need a kicker until you need one. The two linebackers we signed were big-time recruits, four-star players, but more importantly state champions from excellent programs. Team leaders and very active, explosive players in Jon Reshcke and Shane Jones.

The tailback situation, with Le'Veon Bell going out, we added a lot of depth to that position by signing Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams, who's really an athlete who can play a lot of positions. But he'll start at tailback. He reminds me a lot of Bell when he came in here. So three talented players there, and an excellent offensive lineman, a tight end and defensive linemen. Then I think in our secondary, Darian Hicks is an outstanding player and an extremely good athlete, and Justin Williams and Jalyn Powell are the same. Wide receivers are talented as well. I think we've got five state champions and 11 all-state players.

Damion Terry has gotten a lot of attention. He's a dual-threat quarterback, which we haven't seen much of lately at Michigan State. What were your thoughts on his recruitment?

MD: Damion is a guy we started the recruiting process on last spring. He came to camp and did a tremendous job throwing the football. Great mechanics and very poised and composed. And then he has the ability to run around. He's 6-foot-3, probably 6-4, and 220 pounds. He has run the football on designated runs but also created in high school. He was a state champion player. He was the AAA player of the year in the state of Pennsylvania. Damion has thrown for 50 touchdowns and run for 12 more in one year. He's got tremendous upside. One of the biggest things is he seems like a great leader. Very calm. And extremely talented.

You haven't had to play many freshmen right away on defense the past couple of years. Do you see that continuing with this group?

MD: Redshirting and playing, as a young freshman, is really determined by opportunity, timing and a lot with injuries. Can you stay healthy, can you pick up the defense the first two weeks of summer camp? The players in front of them, do they get injured and provide a window? But I think they're capable, from a physical standpoint, of running, of playing the deep ball, of explosiveness at the linebacker spot like we talked about. Those guys have the upside to be able to play early. It's just, can they stay healthy and will people in front of them stay healthy, and how do they pick up things? That remains to be seen.

With Bell gone, you don't have a lot of veterans at tailback. Do you see some of these young guys contributing there early?

MD: Yeah, I do, just because of the nature of the position. We really only have three other tailbacks, and couple of guys are smaller in stature -- powerful, but smaller. I think these guys will all be 200-pound-plus guys, and they all have great skill. Their skill should allow them to be in a competitive situation. Now can they stay healthy and the things I just talked about? That remains true.

You've had a strong run at linebacker recently. Are these new guys in that same mold?

MD: Yeah, I think they're very, very similar. They're guys that are explosive. Good blitzers who play downhill and can run very, very well. Both have great football IQs and come from great programs. They're used to playing on great stages. There is no bigger stage than the Cincinnati-area Catholic league, and there's no bigger stage in the state of Michigan than Brother Rice. They're state champions, both of them, and very, very successful players.

You also signed a defensive tackle transfer from the University of Toronto in James Bodanis. How do you see him contributing?

MD: He's a young man who played college competition up there. It's similar to probably junior college football down here. He's got the skills, he's quick, he's explosive, he's big, he's very powerful. But it's going to be an adjustment to the game down here. And there has to be a window of opportunity. Can he adjust?

Did you have to be more selective this year because of the small scholarship numbers?

MD: We're always going to be very selective. We try to take quality over quantity. We only took one offensive lineman, but he's an outstanding player in Dennis Finley. He's a big, long guy. I think he could be one of the best players maybe in the class. So it will be exciting to watch him grow and mature. We're excited about it. It's like New Year's Day for us. I think everything at this point starts fresh, and it's a new life and a new stage for these guys.

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