Big Ten: Derrick Willies

A B1G youth movement at receiver

August, 26, 2014
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Like many football coaches, Penn State's James Franklin subscribes to the theory that young players can contribute quickly at wide receiver.

"The farther from the ball you are, the better chance you have to get on the field early," Franklin said Tuesday. "That's where it really comes down to skill, speed and quickness."

Franklin is one of several Big Ten coaches who are banking on that adage being true right now. Because as Week 1 rapidly approaches, many league teams are hoping that some true freshmen and other very inexperienced players can make a major impact on their offenses.

That's a byproduct of the Big Ten losing its top seven and nine of its top 10 receivers from 2013. The youth movement is on at that position, and it's happening in earnest at some places.

Penn State is replacing record-breaking receiver Allen Robinson, who left for the NFL after his junior year. Franklin said true freshmen Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin will play this weekend against UCF in Ireland.

"They've done well," Franklin said. "We need those guys to have roles for us, and hopefully that grows as the season goes on. Both of them are big, physical guys, they're mature and they've handled it extremely well. And with our lack of depth at that position, we needed that."

The Nittany Lions are also hoping for contributions down the road from first-year players Daesean Hamilton and De'Andre Thompkins.

Few teams are as green at wideout as Illinois, which will break in several new receivers this weekend against Youngstown State. They include true freshmen Mike Dudek and Malik Turner and junior-college transfers Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis.

"I'm really happy with the guys we have now," head coach Tim Beckman said. "The game experience isn't there for them yet, but I'm really happy with the athleticism, and I'm happy with the way they have learned the game and the offensive system."

Beckman said Martize Barr, who was a junior-college transfer last season, and junior Justin Hardee have done "an outstanding job teaching [the newcomers] how to practice and play. Now, we'll see how that works on Saturday."

Wisconsin's receivers could get the biggest baptism by fire, as they take on LSU on Saturday. True freshman George Rushing will be in the mix, and head coach Gary Andersen said he "has picked up the scheme and consistently made big plays." Freshmen Krenwick Sanders and Natrell Jamerson are vying for playing time as well.

"We're going to be receiver-by-committee," Andersen said. "We're not going to be receiver-by-Jared-Abbrederis."

Hopes are high for the talent on the perimeter at Ohio State. Still, three guys who are expected to play a lot -- Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Michael Thomas -- have yet to see a down in the FBS. True freshman Freddy Canteen will play early and often for Michigan. Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies turned heads this spring at Iowa.

Indiana has one proven commodity in senior Shane Wynn. True freshmen Dominique Booth, J-Shun Harris and Simmie Cobbs have all worked their way into the rotation for Kevin Wilson, who's always been willing to play newbies. Ricky Jones, who barely played as a redshirt freshman last year, and former walk-on Damon Graham should also be in the Hoosiers' two deep vs. Indiana State.

"Oh, there's going to be some [mistakes]," Wilson said. "You're always concerned about it."

The time to find out if all these young receivers in the league are ready is almost here.

Best case/Worst case: Iowa

August, 19, 2014
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Our best- and worst-case scenarios for every Big Ten team continue with a look at Iowa. As always, take this with a grain of salt. It's meant to inject humor into an examination of the potential highs and lows of 2014.

Best case

It’s 1985 all over again. First, the Kansas City Royals win the World Series. And five weeks later, in a "Back to the Future" moment, Iowa hoists the Big Ten championship trophy, its first outright league title in 29 years.

And so the Hawkeyes -- yes, the Hawkeyes -- are headed to Pasadena, California, to play a national-semifinal game in the first College Football Playoff.

Iowa punches its ticket with a 13th win in as many games, 24-21 over Michigan State in Indianapolis.

Less than a month prior, the Hawkeyes hardly register on the national radar despite a 7-0 start. In the first release of the playoff committee’s ranking, Iowa checks in at No. 20.

No respect for coach Kirk Ferentz’s team, which started the season outside of the Top 25 in the AP poll.

But Iowa handles perennial Hawk-spoiler Northwestern handily on Nov. 1 in Iowa City as Jake Rudock and Mark Weisman lead the way with three touchdowns apiece.

Still, pundits point to 2009, when the Hawkeyes started 9-0 before two straight losses.

The committee bumps Iowa to No. 12 on Nov. 11 after a convincing win at Minnesota. Cornerback Desmond King continues on an All-America track with two pick-six interceptions of Mitch Leidner.

Two weeks later, Iowa, at 10-0, still sits eighth in the playoff poll as Wisconsin visits Kinnick Stadium. In the third quarter, with the Badgers leading 17-13, left tackle Brandon Scherff lines up at tight end and takes a toss from Jordan Canzeri, delivering a strike to Kevonte Martin-Manley for a 62-yard touchdown. Iowa wins 27-17.

It vaults two spots to sixth in the ratings before Nebraska visits for a post-Thanksgiving clash to settle the West Division. The Huskers, 10-1 with their only blemish at Michigan State, commit nine turnovers in an otherwise impressive performance. Iowa defensive end Drew Ott, from Trumbull, Nebraska, intercepts backup QB Ryker Fyfe midway through the fourth quarter. Iowa runs out the clock for a 31-20 win.

Scherff carries Rudock and Weisman off the field on his shoulders at the same time. The lineman is named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He wins the Outland and Lombardi trophies and finishes third in the Heisman balloting en route to the No. 1 spot in the NFL draft.

Iowa jumps to third in the playoff poll before the meeting with MSU. Canzeri scores early on a screen play. Scherff wins the battle against Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Shilique Calhoun. Rudock connects with freshman receiver Derrick Willies to put Iowa up for good early in the fourth quarter.

Three weeks later, Iowa stages a gigantic party at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to serve as a sendoff before the Hawks, as the No. 2 team nationally, board two charter jets to Pasadena to face No. 3 Oklahoma in a rematch of the 2011 Insight Bowl.

Tom Brokaw and Ashton Kutcher meet the planes in California, where the party continues.

Worst case

Remember what they said about this Iowa schedule before the season? A gift from the Big Ten.

Well, someone forgot to tell Northern Iowa. The Panthers block a 40-yard field goal attempt by Marshall Koehn in the final seconds, gaining a measure of revenge from five years ago when Iowa snuffed two UNI kicks at the end. This one ends with the same score, 17-16, as Northern Iowa grounds the Hawkeyes’ dreams of a magical season before it could take flight.

Two weeks later, Iowa State upsets Iowa at Kinnick. The Hawks’ new group of linebackers falters early and often. Rudock takes a step back from his sophomore season. Backs Weisman and Canzeri fight injuries.

Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld exposes holes in the Iowa secondary a couple of weeks later as the Hoosiers beat Iowa in a second straight meeting.

Maryland, Northwestern and Minnesota pile on. Iowa plays well in a win against Illinois but finishes flat with losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Huskers’ Randy Gregory schools Scherff in the finale, recording 3.5 sacks as the Huskers clinch the West Division.

Iowa finishes with four wins for the second time in three years. AD Gary Barta extends Ferentz’s deal through 2030, a move denounced by Kutcher on Twitter to his 16 million followers. Iowa State wins nine games and steals QB recruit Ryan Boyle of West Des Moines. Scherff slips to the second round of the NFL draft.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 31, 2014
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Mere hours now until teams around the Big Ten hit the practice fields. We're answering questions daily here on the blog as the preseason gets underway. Got something for me? Send it here. The latest offerings:

 
Mitch Sherman: That's an excellent observation, Jay, and an aspect of the Scarlet Knights largely overlooked in this transition to the Big Ten. Rutgers has blocked 35 kicks over the past five seasons, nine more than any other FBS program, and it's consistently won the battle on special teams. While Kyle Flood, his staff and players must prepare for eight new league opponents this fall -- a tall task -- perhaps they can surprise a few foes with strong play in the kicking game. It's a powerful card to play; few plays in football change momentum like blocked kicks. Facing a brutal league schedule, Rutgers will likely get more aggressive than ever in going after kicks.

 
Mitch Sherman: Start with the schedule. Three of Purdue' five most difficult games -- against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa -- are at home. A fourth is to be played at a neutral site (perhaps better labeled off-campus) against Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Ryan Russell is primed to enjoy a big senior season. Among a stacked group of Big Ten defensive ends, he is perhaps the most underrated. Seniors Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt possess legitimate speed. If Purdue can create space for them to run, the big-play threat is real. And while the quarterback spot is not entirely settled, Danny Etling showed real improvement toward the end of his true freshman season. Mark it down: the win total will rise from last year's one. I'll place the max figure at six, though four or five looks more likely.

 
Mitch Sherman: I'm not going to overthink this. It looks like Derrick Willies, and I think it will be Willies. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman starred in spring scrimmages. I expect his strong play to carry over to this season. Iowa features veterans in Kevonte Martin-Manley, Damond Powell and Tevaun Smith, but none possess the athleticism of Willies. He may not start from the outset, but look for his playing time to increase as Willies shows his big-play potential. For quarterback Jake Rudock, the presence of a big target who can make plays on the ball provides a great comfort. If Willies emerges as expected, the Iowa offense -- already solid if not flashy -- gets an added dimension.

Big Ten roundtable: Impact freshmen

June, 6, 2014
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With incoming freshmen set to report to their respective B1G teams later this month, we thought now would be a perfect time to take a closer look at the 2014 class.

Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.

So let's get started ...

Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers is the type of physical defensive back that Michigan's defense needs.
Bennett: First, let's start off with the caveat that college is a lot different from high school, and more goes into being successful at this level than pure physical gifts. That said, I have never heard anyone dispute the natural talent and football instincts of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was ESPN's No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014 for a reason. The comparisons to Charles Woodson are already being made, and the corner spot is open with Blake Countess playing nickelback. Michigan needs to get more physical in its pass coverage and have more defensive playmakers in general. If Peppers fulfills even 80 percent of his hype, he'll be on the field early and often for Brady Hoke.

VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.

Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.

Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?

Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.

Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.

Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.

When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?

Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.

VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.

[+] EnlargeDamian Prince
Tom Hauck for Student SportsThe massive Damian Prince might be too good to keep out of Maryland's starting lineup.
Rittenberg: McDowell's recruiting melodrama gained a lot of attention, overshadowing how good a player he could be for MSU. Mark Dantonio isn't one to heap praise on freshmen but held a news conference specifically to discuss McDowell, saying, "Malik will be on the field for us, he's too big and fast [not to be], he can play inside or outside." I've been told McDowell's parents are on board with MSU now, and with the distractions behind him, he should become a star for an already elite defense.

What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?

Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.

VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.

Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.

Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
Big Ten receivers undoubtedly took a step forward last season after struggling mightily the year before. Will the group continue to improve or backslide after losing standouts such as Allen Robinson, the back-to-back Big Ten receiver of the year, Jared Abbrederis, Jeremy Gallon and Cody Latimer?

The 1,000-yard mark means more to wide receivers than rushers, especially in the Big Ten. Four players reached the milestone in 2013 after just one (Robinson) in 2012. The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011 but none in 2010 and just one (Purdue's Keith Smith) in 2009. So this category can be tricky to forecast.

Although no Big Ten returning player had more than 800 receiving yards in 2013, the league boasts several potential breakout stars. Your task today: Select the Big Ten player most likely to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this fall.

The candidates ...

SportsNation

Which Big Ten player is most likely to reach 1,000 receiving yards this season?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,552)

Kenny Bell, Nebraska, senior: The 'fro, tragically, is no mo' after Bell lost a bet to his friend, Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chapple. But perhaps less hair will mean more production after Bell's receiving yards went from 863 in 2012 to 577 last year. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has much to prove as a passer, but Bell is one of the nation's most experienced wideouts.

Stefon Diggs, Maryland, junior: Big Ten fans who haven't seen Diggs are in for a treat, at least when he's not facing their favorite team. An ESPN 150 recruit who picked Maryland over Ohio State and others, Diggs finished eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.2) as a true freshman. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception through Maryland's first seven contests last season before suffering a broken leg. Diggs should be fine for the season and can put up huge numbers with his big-play ability. Maryland's depth at receiver -- Deon Long also returns from a broken leg -- could make it tough for Diggs to get to 1,000 yards.

Devin Funchess, Michigan, junior: Funchess is listed as a tight end and won the Big Ten's tight end of the year award last fall, but he plays like a bigger receiver at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He has averaged 15.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons with 11 touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end with 748 last fall. Funchess becomes quarterback Devin Gardner's favorite target as Gallon departs. Michigan needs its receivers to step up, but Funchess could threaten 1,000 yards this year.

Shane Wynn, Indiana, senior: Like Bell, Wynn saw a slight production drop from 2012, when he led Indiana with 68 receptions, to last season, when he had 46 but still put up about the same yardage. But the departures of Latimer and tight end Ted Bolser, both selected in the NFL draft, along with Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson leave Wynn as undoubtedly Indiana's No. 1 passing target. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will be looking for Wynn a lot this fall, and his numbers could surge in a productive IU offense.

And, finally ...

Mystery man: Don't like any of these candidate to reach 1,000 receiving yards? This is the spot for you. Maybe Rutgers' Leonte Carroo complements his touchdowns with bigger yards totals this fall. One of the Northwestern Joneses (Christian or Tony) might reach 1,000 yards in a more pass-driven offense. Geno Lewis could follow Robinson's path at Penn State. Maybe Ohio State's Devin Smith gets there. Will one of Michigan State's receivers -- Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge, Keith Mumphery -- separate from the pack? Maybe one of the spring standouts -- Iowa's Derrick Willies, Illinois' Geronimo Allison or Mikey Dudek, Michigan's Freddy Canteen -- has a true breakout season.

Spring breakout player: Iowa

May, 14, 2014
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With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

Next up, a bright spot at a position group suddenly flush with depth on the Iowa roster:

Spring breakout player: WR Derrick Willies

Midway through spring practice at Iowa last month, Willies announced his arrival with a big performance as the Hawkeyes caravanned to West Des Moines for a public scrimmage. Under-recruited out of Rock Island, Ill., the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman caught seven balls for 148 yards and a touchdown.

He did it largely against Iowa’s defensive reserves, though, so questions remained.

Was it indicative of his ability to help the Hawkeyes in 2014? Could he really challenge for meaningful playing time amid a talented corps of receivers that includes seniors Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell in addition to junior Tevaun Smith?

Yes and yes.

Willies followed with an impressive showing on April 26 in Iowa’s spring game at Kinnick Stadium. He grabbed five passes for 142 yards, including a 42-yarder touchdown from backup quarterback C.J. Beathard.

Despite two receptions that covered more than 80 yards, a short route near the sideline was what impressed coach Kirk Ferentz the most. On that play, Willies dragged a foot before falling out of bounds.

“He’s this year’s spring sensation,” the coach told reporters after the spring game, “so we’ll have to keep him in check. But he had a great catch on our sideline, and he’s doing good things.”

His emergence should help the Hawkeyes field a receiving corps as deep as any coached by Ferentz, entering his 16th season in Iowa City. With Jake Rudock back at quarterback, the passing game looks set up for success.

A former high school hurdler and state-champion sprinter, Willies sat quietly before spring practice among classmates Matt VandeBerg, Derrick Mitchell and Andre Harris. Each looked to announce his arrival.

Consider Willies arrived.

“He’s a talented player,” Martin-Manley said after the spring game. “He plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of heart.”
With spring practice now in the rear-view mirror, your faithful Big Ten reporters thought it would be a good time to share some of our thoughts from the spring that was. Between us, we saw 10 of the 14 Big Ten teams in person this spring and we followed all of them as closely as possible.

So this is a chance to share our impressions and observations. We'll start today with the West Division, where Adam got an up-close look at Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa coach Kirk Ferentz has a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I'm intrigued by Iowa and you went to see the Hawkeyes -- and even got into practice! Sounds like this team has a little more speed and explosiveness. How does it compare to the Iowa teams we've seen in the past, and is this a legit Big Ten contender?

Adam Rittenberg: Well, it was actually a portion of practice, but I'll take what I can get at Fort Ferentz. This is a legitimate Big Ten contender, in large part because of the schedule but also because of the team it returns. I just didn't get the sense Iowa has many major problems. AIRBHG is off torturing baby seals. The linebacker thing is worth monitoring, but Quinton Alston would have started for most teams last year. Kirk Ferentz's best teams are strong up front, and Iowa looks very solid along both lines with Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis and others.

The young wide receivers really intrigue me, especially Derrick Willies, who blew up in the spring scrimmage. Iowa hasn't had difference-makers at receiver for some time. The offense had a spike in plays last year, and coordinator Greg Davis wants to go faster and be more diverse, even incorporating backup quarterback C.J. Beathard into the mix. That intrigues me. So you've got solid line play, more weapons on offense and a cake schedule. Indianapolis-bound? It's possible.

BB: When it comes to winning Big Ten titles, Wisconsin has been far more successful than its new West brethren in the last five years. Yet the Badgers lost a whole lot of valuable seniors, especially on defense. You went to Madison. How's the revamped defense looking, and is there anyone who can catch the ball from whoever starts at QB?

AR: Fascinating team. Quarterback competitions are nothing new in Mad City, but the sheer number of questions at UW stands out. It feels like coach Gary Andersen should be going into his first year, not his second. Kenzel Doe had a nice spring at slot receiver, but Wisconsin will need help from its five incoming freshmen. The uncertainty at receiver could benefit Tanner McEvoy in the quarterback competition as Andersen wants a second rushing threat on the field (or sometimes a third when Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement play together).

I didn't get a great read on the offensive line because of injuries, but the defensive front seven will be a big story all season. So many position changes. Linebacker Derek Landisch is the leader, but who are the top playmakers? Cornerback Sojourn Shelton could be one, and the coaches really like young defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. I really liked linebacker Leon Jacobs last summer and could see him emerging. Like Iowa, Wisconsin has a favorable schedule, but we're going to find out how good Andersen and his staff really are this season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Trevor Siemian has taken charge at Northwestern.
BB: You also spent some time at Northwestern, whose spring was dominated by the union issue. With all those distractions and the many injuries this spring, did you get any sense whether the Wildcats can bounce back from last year's highly disappointing 5-7 campaign?

AR: If the team stays focused and aligned, not to mention healthy, the answer is yes. Northwestern spun the two-quarterback deal well for a while, but it's always better to have one QB and a clear identity on offense. It has that with Trevor Siemian, who looked good this spring, and a scheme that should rely more on the pass. Wide receiver is a strength as Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler shined at the slot. I'm interested to see how running back Venric Mark's role changes without Kain Colter on the field.

The defense could be the best in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Improved recruiting is paying off in the secondary as several redshirt freshmen, including safety Godwin Igwebuike, enter the mix. Defensive tackle is the big concern and overall D-line health, but the defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7. It should keep the team in most games.

BB: The last West team you saw was Illinois. Did anything you witnessed convince you the Illini can get to a bowl in 2014?

AR: I'm still thawing out from a frigid March night at Chicago's Gately Stadium. Illinois has a chance to sustain its momentum on offense. The line should be solid, quarterback Wes Lunt has a plus arm and Josh Ferguson is a big-time threat. Continued improvement at wide receiver is key as newcomers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek impressed. The defense still needs a lot of work, but T.J. Neal has helped fill Jonathan Brown's role, and linemen D.J. Smoot and DeJazz Woods stood out. Illinois needs more numbers in the front seven to firm up a run defense that really struggled last year.

BB: Overall, did anything you saw change your opinion on the West Division race? I'm pretty high on Nebraska and think their defensive front seven could be pretty special. I still think Minnesota will be a factor, but the lack of visible progress in the passing game (granted, the spring game debacle there means little in the big picture) was disappointing. For me, the jury's out on Wisconsin and Iowa is a big-time dark horse. What say you?

AR: Iowa is beyond dark-horse status. A veteran team took a big step last year and is poised to take another with a favorable schedule. Wisconsin likely will be the popular pick to win the division, but I have too many doubts right now. Nebraska is the wild card to me. Can we trust a Huskers team that will be better on defense? Minnesota might be a better team with a worse record because of its schedule. Northwestern could be a factor if it gets past the union distraction.

There's no alpha dog here. Should be a wild ride.

Spring game recap: Iowa

April, 28, 2014
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Optimism is building around an Iowa program with a very realistic chance to win the Big Ten West Division this season. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes wrapped up a fairly uneventful (in a good way) spring with their annual scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. The offense beat the defense 46-31 before an announced crowd of 20,400 on a sunny afternoon. There were no official stats from the scrimmage, but our friends at The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette have you covered.

Check out more coverage here and here and here.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz saw some impressive performances from his offensive players in Iowa's spring game.
Star of the game: Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies capped a strong spring by dazzling the crowd with 142 receiving yards on five catches (unofficially), including a 42-yard touchdown from C.J. Beathard. The 6-foot-4 Willies, who had similar numbers in an earlier spring scrimmage, provides the explosive threat on the outside Iowa has lacked in recent seasons. Although the Hawkeyes return some experience at wideout, it's hard not to put Willies in the top rotation. "Today was his best day," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Now we have to try and corral him because he will be the spring game sensation, but he really did some good things."

How it went down: Iowa is determined to have a faster, more diverse and more explosive offense in Greg Davis' third season as coordinator. The spring scrimmage provided a preview of potentially what's to come for the Hawkeyes. Jake Rudock is still the team's top quarterback and senior Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced receiver, but Willies and Beathard, who completed 21 of 39 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown, should be part of the plan.

Ferentz traditionally likes to stick with one quarterback, but it will be tough to keep Beathard off the field after some of the things he did this spring. Davis told ESPN.com earlier this spring that a package of plays is possible for Beathard, which Ferentz called "very realistic" on Saturday. The pass-heavy scrimmage didn't reveal much about the run game, but Iowa has plenty of options with Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri leading the way. Canzeri had a 16-yard touchdown in the scrimmage.

The secondary remains a work in progress, as Jordan Lomax is transitioning from cornerback to safety, and Iowa is evaluating cornerback options opposite Desmond King, who picked off Rudock in the scrimmage. The linebackers are also worth watching, although Quinton Alston has established himself as a strong leader in the middle. Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest group, as tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat recorded two "sacks" in the scrimmage.

"I think a lot of our positions right now won't get decided until well into August camp," Ferentz said of the defense.

Iowa exits the spring as a very solid team capable of taking another positive step this season. The quarterback situation is one to watch -- it's not a competition, but a something, as Marc Morehouse writes -- and several key starting spots will be at stake in camp.

Iowa spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Iowa.

Three things we learned in the spring
Three questions for the fall
  • How will the secondary come together?: Cornerback Desmond King is a bona fide star after his breakout freshman season, but the Hawkeyes need to find a starter at free safety, where Jordan Lomax and Anthony Gair continue to compete. Opposite King, Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper are even, and John Lowdermilk is trying to maintain an edge on Nico Law at strong safety.
  • Who will take the lead at running back?: Iowa knows it can rely on senior Mark Weisman, but he’s fought injuries and likely can’t survive an entire season of pounding between the tackles. Junior Jordan Canzeri offers intriguing athleticism. The New Yorker rushed for 481 yards last season, including a 165-yard performance at Purdue.
  • Can the defensive line live up to its billing?: These guys are good, no doubt. Anchored by tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, both of whom started all 13 games a year ago, the Hawkeyes’ front four likely rates as the strength of the entire team. Juniors Drew Ott and Mike Hardy bring experience to the end spots. If this group improves like it did last season, look out.
One way too early prediction

Brandon Scherff will take home some hardware in December. He was denied a spot by the league’s media on the All-Big Ten first team as a junior. There will be no such worry in 2014. In fact, Scherff will vie for the Outland Trophy and earn a spot on All-America teams from his left tackle spot after opting to turn down a chance at the NFL this offseason.

Spring game preview: Iowa

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
10:30
AM ET
Spring football ends Saturday in the Big Ten. I'll give you a moment to compose yourself. Wipe those tears away. Football will be back soon enough.

Three teams wrap up their sessions and we're taking a look at each. Here's what to expect from Iowa at its annual spring scrimmage.

When: 3 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Admission: Free. Fans are invited to join Iowa and the Johnson County Crisis Center in bringing nonperishable food items for the ANF Food Bank Drive. Collection bins will be found at all the open entrances to the stadium. The west and south stands are open for seating, and fans can enter through Gates A, F and G. Free parking is available in all university lots around the stadium.

TV: Streaming at BTN2Go.com

Weather forecast: Mostly sunny, high of 73 degrees, winds at 15 mph

What to watch for: The Hawkeyes will pit the offense against the defense and use a modified scoring system that, in addition to standard scores, awards points for explosion plays (runs of 12 of more yards, passes of 16 or more yards), takeaways, three-and-outs, quarterback "sacks" and sudden changes (when the offense starts inside the 35-yard line and is held to a field goal or no points). Check out the points breakdown here.

[+] EnlargeVanderBerg
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerIowa coaches like the versatility of receiver Matt VandeBerg.
Iowa typically doesn't reveal much during its spring scrimmages, and most of the key spots are nailed down, such as at quarterback (Jake Rudock) and middle linebacker (Quinton Alston). The event provides fans a chance to check out the new linebackers, led by Alston but also featuring Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman.

The Hawkeyes look very solid up front but must fill holes at both free safety, where Jordan Lomax and Anthony Gair are competing, and at one cornerback spot, where Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper are listed as co-starters on the latest depth chart. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said this week that John Lowdermilk is trying to hold off Nico Law at strong safety.

The receivers have generated buzz this spring as Iowa continues to ramp up the tempo, seeking explosiveness on offense. Familiar names such as Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer are back, but fans can get a glimpse of redshirt freshman Derrick Willies, a 6-foot-4 perimeter threat, as well as sophomore Matt VandeBerg, who has received high marks from the coaches. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said VandeBerg can line up at more than one wideout spot.

Line play should be Iowa's strength this season -- as it is with the Hawkeyes' better teams under Kirk Ferentz -- so it will be interesting to see the top players work in the scrimmage. There's some competition at one defensive end spot between Mike Hardy and Nate Meier, and the left offensive guard position remains fluid.

Again, it's Iowa, so don't expect any major revelations Saturday. But the forecast looks great and fans should be geared up for a team that carries higher expectations into 2014.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The tempo trend sweeping through college football has, for the most part, skipped over the Iowa Hawkeyes.

While teams such as Oregon and Baylor operate at a breakneck pace, Iowa continues to shape its offense around power and play-action, ball control and sustained drives. Huddling is still encouraged.

In 2012, the Hawkeyes ran fewer offensive plays than any Big Ten team. In 2011, an Indiana team that played 12 games ran more plays (870) than an Iowa team that played 13 (866). In 2010, Iowa ran 136 fewer plays than Big Ten-leader Northwestern in the same number of games.

But a shift began taking place last season. Iowa eclipsed 900 plays in 13 games. The offense ramped up the tempo late against LSU in the Outback Bowl, leading some to question whether the Tigers were faking injuries to slow down the Hawkeyes. Process that for a minute: LSU's defense trying to slow down Iowa's offense.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock and Iowa are joining the trend toward a faster tempo on offense.
But tempo at Iowa is here to stay. In fact, it's getting ramped up even more this spring.

"We would like to be able to play fast with any group, be it two backs, two tight ends, three tight ends, three wide receivers," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "We played at a faster tempo last year than the year before, and we're playing at a faster tempo this spring than last year."

Iowa isn't going to turn into Auburn by Aug. 30. That's not Davis' intent. He recognizes the perils of pushing the tempo. At times, he wants his quarterbacks to have enough time to survey the defense before the ball is snapped.

More than anything, however, he wants defenses to be unsure about Iowa's pace.

"We're just trying to kick it up another notch," tackle Brandon Scherff said. "Once we get used to it, it'll be a good advantage for us."

Davis' ultimate goal is more explosion plays. Iowa averaged only 5.3 yards per play and 6.8 yards per pass play last season, ranking 10th in the league in both categories. There were some flashes, such as Tevaun Smith's spectacular catch and run for a 55-yard touchdown against Michigan.

But the Hawkeyes need more and could have the personnel to get it done. There are more options at receiver with veteran Kevonte Martin-Manley, Smith and Jacob Hillyer, along with Damond Powell, who averaged 24.3 yards per reception in limited action in 2013. Several redshirt freshmen are emerging this spring, including 6-foot-4, 210-pound Derrick Willies.

"If you don't have explosive plays, it's tougher to get the win at the end of the day," quarterback Jake Rudock said. "Every team needs to have those, whether it's running or whether it's passing."

Although running back will be a strength -- bruiser Mark Weisman returns alongside Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock and exciting sophomores LeShun Daniels and Barkley Hill -- the pass game should be enhanced this fall. Iowa returns two quarterbacks with game experience (Rudock and C.J. Beathard), depth at receiver and tight ends Jake Duzey and Ray Hamilton. Iowa will miss tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz's blocking, but Duzey is a superior athlete with a higher ceiling as a pass-catcher, as he showed with 138 receiving yards against Ohio State last fall.

"The ball's going to be in our hands more. I feel like they're going to call our number," Martin-Manley said. "A few more plays downfield, and we've also been adding new plays to get us open and use the tools we have at receiver."

After starting every game last season, Rudock has done nothing to harm his standing this spring, showing greater comfort with the scheme, the signals and a leadership position. But that coaches also like Beathard, who should have a role even if Rudock tightens his grip on the starting spot.

"He has a little more lateral quickness than Jake," Davis said, "so the discussion [among coaches] could carve out a package for him, a little more zone-read. At the same time, he can really spin the football."

The skill position depth is there, especially if the receivers keep making strides. Scherff's return to the line is huge, and Davis likes the starting five, which includes veterans Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh and Andrew Donnal. Sean Welsh has emerged this spring as the starting left guard.

Line depth is a significant concern, Davis said, but beyond that there's a lot to like about an offense that will operate faster and should put more points on the board.

"The first year, new system, last year, new quarterback," Davis said. "We have more than we have in the past. I feel better about this spring than I have in any spring. We have the opportunity to be the best offense we've been in the three years I've been here."

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