Big Ten: Devin Thomas

Fourteen former Big Ten players will soon be the proud owners of new Super Bowl championship rings.

The league had 23 players on the two Super Bowl squads, and several played key roles in the New York Giants' victory against New England. Michigan product Mario Manningham had five catches for 73 yards, including the spectacular 38-yard reception that sparked the game-winning drive. Illinois' Steve Weatherford averaged 40.8 yards on four punts and placed three inside the Patriots' 10-yard line. It was a tough night for Big Ten tight ends, as Ohio State's Jake Ballard and Wisconsin's Travis Beckum each suffered knee injuries during the game. But both won rings.

The entire list of the 14 former Big Ten players who were on the Giants' championship team is as follows:
Several Giants coaches also have Big Ties, including offensive line coach Pat Flaherty (a former assistant at Iowa and Penn State), secondary and cornerbacks coach Peter Giunta (ex-assistant at Penn State), linebackers coach Jim Herrmann (former player and assistant at Michigan), and running backs coach Jerald Ingram (ex-player and graduate assistant at Michigan).

The Patriots had eight former Big Ten players on the roster, led by Tom Brady. While Brady failed to win his fourth title, he did set a Super Bowl record with 16 consecutive completions during the game.

And, of course, Bill O'Brien finished his duties as New England offensive coordinator and can now concentrate on being Penn State's new head coach.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- When Mark Dantonio studies the red-letter games that have ended badly during his Michigan State tenure -- Ohio State and Penn State in 2008, Iowa and Alabama in 2010 -- two reasons stand out for the Spartans' shortcomings.

The first is the most common culprit: turnovers. Any team trying to move up in class -- or "measure up," as Dantonio often says -- can't give the ball away as often as Michigan State did in those games and expect to win.

Every team focuses on limiting turnovers, but the second reason is more Spartans-specific. It also underscores how Michigan State can take the next step after four consecutive bowl appearances under Dantonio.

"We didn't win up front," Dantonio said. "Winning at the point of attack, being able to run the ball effectively against a great football team and stop the run against a great football team, that enters into it."

In recent years Michigan State has proven it can both recruit and develop top-end offensive skill players (Javon Ringer, Devin Thomas, Edwin Baker and Kirk Cousins, to name a few). The Spartans have had outstanding linebackers (Greg Jones, Eric Gordon) and talented defensive backs (Otis Wiley, Chris L. Rucker).

But to truly join the Big Ten's elite, the Spartans must close the gap up front on both sides of the ball. They need offensive linemen and pass rushers that strike fear in opponents.

It's no secret how teams like Wisconsin and Iowa, which typically face bigger recruiting obstacles than Michigan State, have upgraded their programs. The Badgers and Hawkeyes both excel in line play, which has helped them make up for potential deficiencies elsewhere.

The Spartans now must do the same.

"You look at the three teams that won the Big Ten a year ago," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said, "and you would certainly say Ohio State had a tremendous offensive line. You would echo those comments with Wisconsin. I would leave for others to judge what Michigan State's offensive line was or is.

"You go back to years past. Ohio State's established themselves at the top of this league. Penn State has played very well up front. That's the fundamental of football: you win up front."

Michigan State's offensive line had its moments in 2010, especially early on as the team eclipsed 200 rushing yards in five of the first six games. But the rushing production tailed off down the stretch and the Spartans finished with minus-48 yards on the ground against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

Three starters depart, and the competition along the offensive line has ramped up in spring practice. Michigan State's pre-spring depth chart listed four potential starters at center, two potential starters at right guard and a redshirt freshman (Skyler Schofner) as the starting right tackle.

"There's more numbers," Dantonio said, "and I just see more overall athleticism."

The increased athleticism comes in part from moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell from defense to offense. Treadwell started five games at nose tackle last season, while the 6-6, 304-pound France was a reserve defensive tackle before moving to left tackle.

Young linemen like Schofner and Travis Jackson also excite the coaches.

"We have an opportunity to develop some quality play up there," said Roushar, who coached the line the past four seasons before being promoted to coordinator. "But there may be some growing pains."

The bar has been raised for Michigan State's defensive line this fall. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is the bell cow after recording eight tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. There's depth inside with senior Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White, who has turned things up in spring ball.

The problem is Worthy's sacks total led the team in 2010, and Jones was the Spartans' sacks leader in 2009. Michigan State needs some true pass rushers to emerge, and the spotlight will be on ends William Gholston, Tyler Hoover, Denzel Drone and Marcus Rush this fall. Gholston, a heralded recruit who spent time at both linebacker and end last year, has found a home with his hand on the ground.

"It starts up front," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, "and the further coach Dantonio gets in his tenure here, the better we're going to be up front. We might stay the same in the secondary, we might stay the same at receiver.

"But we're going to get better every year on the lines."

Big Ten mailblog

January, 19, 2010
1/19/10
5:00
PM ET
Hope you're enjoying flog-the-blogger week, er, I mean decade recap week.

Tell me how you really feel.

Kyle from Kingston, Ontario, writes: Adam, love your post dude! I have to make a comment though. How do you not give any love to Dallas Clark. 01 and 02 he made numerous plays to Iowa on the map. I am not saying he was a top 10 player, but to not even be considered?

Adam Rittenberg: That was an oversight on my part, Kyle. Clark should have been mentioned in the "also considered," a category I now regret even putting up there. But to be honest, he really wasn't close to making the top 10. Same goes for great kickers like Mike Nugent and Nate Kaeding. It's not to say they weren't great players, but they're not going to make a top 10 list for best in the decade.



K.J. from Arlington writes: Funny how you use the term infamous regarding the 2002 championship game but failed to use the term when Michigan was infamously given 2 free seconds which game football absolutely proved should not have been put on the clock by the oh so biased Ann Arbor crew in the 2005 game helping to give Michigan unearned wins in three of the previous five meetings with Penn State? Why is that? Oh wait, because you are an idiot and you hate Penn State, that's why.

Adam Rittenberg: There was some controversy in several of the games I listed, K.J., including Penn State-Michigan in 2005. The clock certainly played a role there in the end. And while I won't argue with you about the idiot part, the me hating Penn State argument is pretty lame and tired. Like I've said before, fans love me when their team is in the top 10 and think I'm a hater when they start to slip a bit. I have nothing against Penn State, which is featured prominently throughout the decade recap this week.


Justin from Plainfield, Ill., writes: Adam,Since you based it on players that generally had mulitple season, I understand (and in general agree) with your list of Big Ten players of the decade. I'd like to see your take on that same list without that caveat (of multiple seasons). To me, Michael Robinson would have to be on that list. You often hear "so and so led his team to victory" get thrown around. MRob truly led his team in 2005.Also, I was glad you gave Randal El some love. That dude was the only reason Indiana football even had a chance for those 4 years.

Adam Rittenberg: This is a good suggestion, Justin, and while I probably won't do a second post with one-year stars, here are a few who really stood out: Brad Banks, Michael Robinson, Larry Johnson, Devin Thomas, Shonn Greene, Chris Perry, Rashard Mendenhall, James Hardy.


Andy from Chicago writes: Adam - Love the blog and appreciate the Hawkeye pub during the season. I have a few follow-up questions/comments regarding your players of the decade list. 1. I know that Jake Long and Joe Thomas are better pros than Robert Gallery, but RG definitely should be on your list. He was the best OL in the conference two years in a row and paved the way for a B10 championship and undefeated conference season. Additionally, when he came out, Peter King said he was "the best lineman to enter the draft in years." Perhaps an oversight on your part, but wanted to get your opinion. 2. If this was about longevity in the league, then I understand your putting Mike Hart on the list. Otherwise, what Greene accomplished in one season is better than anything Hart did in four (or seemingly ten) seasons in Ann Arbor. 3. How many B10 players this decade went undefeated in conference, won a conference title, and finished second in the Heisman voting in the same season? One. Similar to Greene, Banks definitely should have made the cut. 4. Dallas Clark needs to at least make Honorable Mention. That is all. Thanks,

Adam Rittenberg: I really struggled with both Gallery and Long. Any top-10 list is going to leave off some deserving players, and you can certainly make a convincing case for those two. I really tried to identify the MVP for each program during the decade, and I think most Iowa fans would put Bob Sanders in that role. Wisconsin fans would say the same for Joe Thomas. Gallery was a tremendous player, as was Long, and trust me, they weren't far away from making the list. As for Shonn Greene and Brad Banks, lack of longevity was the main reason they didn't make it. The running back position was interesting because you had several one-year standouts in the Big Ten. I didn't want to have a top-10 list without a running back, and Hart really accomplished a lot in four years. As for Dallas Clark, see above.


Mike from Wausau, Wis., writes: Hi Adam:I enjoy your work. When might we expect to hear what the NCAA will do regarding the potential violations by RichRod? I thought a decision was expected by the end of 2009. To me, the lackof public notice to date indicates there is somethingon the way, and perhaps the U of M and the NCAA are "working-out" the terms of the penalty. Also, after two years, do you really think RichRod is the right person for the job? Thanks!

Adam Rittenberg: The Dec. 31 date wasn't a fixed deadline for a decision on the Michigan investigation, but I'd expect we'll hear something soon. The NCAA holds many of its meetings at this time of year, so that could be slowing the process a bit. I don't think the delay necessarily means huge penalties are coming. As for Rodriguez, I think he's still a heck of a coach, but he's operating in a very different environment than he did at West Virginia. If he can get the players he wants throughout the admissions office and have several young defenders emerge, Michigan should be decent in 2010. But I continue to be concerned with what's happening on defense in Ann Arbor.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State had the lead at halftime, but the Spartans didn't have the momentum they needed in the Capital One Bowl against No. 15 Georgia.

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 The Georgia defense never allowed Javon Ringer to get on track.

A more talented but seemingly disinterested Georgia team gave No. 18 Michigan State numerous opportunities to take control of the game. The Spartans ran 26 plays in Bulldogs territory in the opening half but produced only six points. That's nowhere near good enough. Michigan State easily could have been ahead by double digits.

The missed opportunities wound up costing the Spartans in a 24-12 loss.

Credit Georgia's much-maligned defense for shutting down Spartans star Javon Ringer (47 yards) and putting quarterback Brian Hoyer under constant duress. The game was won at the line of scrimmage, and Georgia's speed in the defensive front proved to be the difference. Michigan State (9-4) needed a strong performance from its offensive line to spring Ringer, and it didn't get one.

In many ways, the Capital One Bowl mirrored another near miss by a Big Ten team. Like Michigan State, Northwestern dominated the first half against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl but found itself tied at the break because of a few miscues. The Wildcats went on to lose.

Put bluntly, this year's bowl matchups were terrible for the Big Ten, but both Michigan State and Northwestern had opportunities for upsets and neither team could convert.

Credit Michigan State coordinator Pat Narduzzi and a defense that came to play today. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford looked bewildered during the first half, and the Spartans frustrated Bulldogs star Knowshon Moreno.

Georgia Vs. Big Ten in Bowls
BowlOpponentResult
2009 Capital One Michigan St. W, 24-12
2004 Outback Wisconsin W, 24-21
2003 Capital One Purdue W, 34-27
1999 Outback Purdue W, 28-25
1997 Outback Wisconsin W, 33-6
1992 Citrus Ohio St. W, 21-14
1988 Gator Michigan St. W, 34-27
Note: Georgia is 1-2 vs. Big Ten teams in regular-season games.

With a bigger lead entering the third quarter, Michigan State's defense might have continued to surge. But Stafford got things together and made several brilliant throws to rally his team. By the time Michigan State got in the end zone, Georgia's talent-stocked offense was rolling along.

Despite the loss, Michigan State made major strides this season and head coach Mark Dantonio got everything out of his players. The program is on the upswing.

The Spartans must make upgrades throughout their offense -- quarterback, wide receiver, line -- and find a way to replace Ringer's production. They really could have used a game-changer like Devin Thomas today. The defense loses only three starters and should be much stronger in 2009 behind Greg Jones and Trevor Anderson.

The Big Ten falls to 1-4 in bowl games and remains on pace for the worst postseason in its history. Iowa looked dominant and both Michigan State and Northwestern had bright spots in defeat, but the Big Ten desperately needs a BCS win from Penn State or Ohio State.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Self-deprecation is not normally a trait associated with the wide receiver position, but Michigan State's Blair White breaks the mold.

The former walk-on, who provided the Spartans a major boost during Big Ten play this fall, downplays his speed and understands, to a certain extent, why he received no Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school.

"I wasn't even the best receiver on my team," White said. "We had a couple of guys that were really athletic, actually. I was just kind of a side note. It might not have been too enticing for college coaches."

Many of those coaches are kicking themselves right now after watching White this season. The 6-2, 200-pound junior emerged as Michigan State's top wideout during Big Ten play.

He led Michigan State in both receptions (39) and receiving yards (628) this season, providing a lift to a position that looked like a major question mark after the departure of Devin Thomas.

Big plays fueled White's emergence. He averaged 17.2 yards per catch in Big Ten play, which ranks second behind Illinois' Arrelious Benn among receivers with at least 30 receptions in league games.

"It's basically inserting myself into the offense," White explained, "nothing special about me or that they do for me."

Where's the shameless self-promotion or the pouty post-game comments? Could we get a celebration dance at least?

Don't hold your breath with White, whose journey from walk-on to starter -- this is his first year on scholarship -- gives him a sense of humility.

"I had no D-1 offers," White said. "I had a D-2 offer at a local university, but I didn't want to play D-2. I wanted to prove to myself that I could play and be good. The thing that compelled me to play here was people questioning me, saying that I wouldn't make it. I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that I could play here."

A midseason injury to top receiver Mark Dell gave White more opportunities, and he capitalized with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games in wins against Michigan and Wisconsin. White combined for 11 receptions and 307 yards in the two games, averaging an incredible 37.8 yards per reception against Michigan and coming up with some clutch catches against Wisconsin.

The increased playing time allowed White to better study opposing defenses and coverages. During Michigan State's game-winning drive against Wisconsin, White and quarterback Brian Hoyer identified a coverage before the snap and cashed in for a 32-yard completion on third-and-10.

"They disguised it at the beginning, but it turned into man coverage with the single safety over the top," White said. "[Hoyer] talks to me about our options on a certain play like that, so going into the game, we're on the same page. We recognized that and we made the right corrections there. It worked out good.

"When you play more, you get more confident and that allows you to focus on things you maybe wouldn't have focused on, such as reading coverages before the snap, after the snap. When you can get smarter in that area, that can help. You'd be surprised. It's not so much talent that will determine the game. It's a few plays here, a missed assignment there."

Big Ten Friday mailbag

November, 21, 2008
11/21/08
5:17
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

I'm reporting from Columbus, where I'll be covering Ohio State-Michigan on Saturday (ABC, noon ET). Not to worry, as we'll also have coverage from State College, where No. 15 Michigan State takes on No. 8 Penn State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Time for your last-minute questions on Big Ten rivalry week.

Stephen from Baltimore writes: Adam, how high do you see D-Will getting drafted after the season? Justin King went in the third round last year on pure speed and athleticism alone, so since Williams has actually produced nicely this season, I would think he would have a spot in the league (plus he can make an impact on punt and kick returns).

Adam Rittenberg: Derrick Williams, who Stephen is referring to, has really come on strong down the stretch. He's showing why he was the No. 1 recruit in the country back in 2005. Still, I think Williams will need a strong showing at the scouting combine to solidify his draft status. Williams' versatility as a ball-carrier and on special teams could put him in the first or second round.


Nathan from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: I'm starting a petition and would appreciate your signature as well as those of your readers. My cause is the effort to change the name of the UGA running back's name to No Shonn.

Adam Rittenberg: Good one. Nathan will be here all night, folks. The 11 o'clock show is totally different from the 8 o'clock show.


Nick from Boulder, Colo., writes: Adam, A buddy sent me an email that if OSU wins Saturday, they will be the winningest team in Big Ten History-based on win %. Is that true? This would be the best yardstick of comparison, because it would take out a lot of the subpar competition that the teams played when football was more like rugby.

Adam Rittenberg: That is correct. Ohio State currently is .2 percentage points behind Michigan and would edge ahead by a miniscule margin with a win Saturday. This story in The Cleveland Plain Dealer details how close the two teams are on the all-time chart.


Brad from Chicago writes: Adam, In regards to Shonn Greene coming out of nowhere, I would say Larry Johnson in his senior year at Penn State would have been a similar situation. Without looking at his stats, if my memory is correct he split time with other running backs his first three years so nobody knew exactly what he was capable of.

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks for the submission, Brad. Several of you have brought up Larry Johnson at Penn State. Todd from Detroit mentioned Devin Thomas at Michigan State. But what I truly find unique about Greene is that he wasn't even a little-used guy in the program last year, getting a few carries here and there. He wasn't a junior-college transfer. A year ago, he had nothing to do with playing football for a FBS program. He was hauling furniture and working out on his own, having very little to do with the Iowa program. To come back from that at a servicable level is one thing. To come back as an All-American and a potential Heisman Trophy finalist is something else. Can any of you remember a guy who was completely out of football, and then came back to have a season like Greene's?

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire
 Eric Decker is a weapon for the Gophers with and without the ball.

Eric Decker's mom probably doesn't love the line, but among football guys, it's one of the highest compliments a player can receive.

Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster could easily gush about Decker's receiving statistics. The junior leads the nation in receiving yards (696) and ranks second in receptions (50) on a much-improved Golden Gophers team. But Brewster would much rather talk about Decker's blocking ability and willingness to take on contact, two qualities many wide receivers lack, even the best ones.

"The biggest thing is he is one tough hombre, man," Brewster said. "He is a tough sucker."

When informed of Brewster's quote after Tuesday's practice, Decker laughed.

"Especially coming from him, with his mentality and his attitude, definitely a compliment," he said.

Decker might be the nation's best receiver no one's heard about. He ranked fourth in the Big Ten in receiving average last year, behind NFL draft picks Mario Manningham, Devin Thomas and James Hardy, despite playing for a team that finished 1-11.

After missing spring practice to play for Minnesota's baseball team, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior has continued to produce at a high rate. He's on pace for 100 receptions this season, making nine or more catches in three of the Gophers' six games this year.

(Read full post)

Ringer works overtime for Spartans

September, 18, 2008
9/18/08
12:17
PM ET
 
 AP Photo/Al Goldis
 Javon Ringer has emerged as the top back in the Big Ten.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If Dan Enos wasn't a reliable source, you wouldn't believe him.

How could Michigan State's Javon Ringer possibly ask to come out of a game?

Ringer is becoming the Kevin Bacon of running backs, doing it all at a feverish pace for the Spartans in the first three games this season. The 5-foot-9, 202-pound senior already has 104 carries, 25 more than any other FBS running back. He leads the nation in both rushing touchdowns (9) and scoring (18 ppg), ranks third in rushing (166 ypg) and fourth in all-purpose yards (327.7 ypg). Plus, he returns kickoffs for the Spartans, averaging 22.2 yards per return.

Notre Dame is the next team to get a heavy dose of Ringer on Saturday at Spartan Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

"He's truly a workhorse," Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

Such a Herculean workload affords few respites, but Ringer sneaked one in last week against Florida Atlantic, a game in which he set career highs for carries (43) and rushing yards (282). After catching a screen pass in the fourth quarter that was nullified by a holding penalty, Ringer spotted Enos on the sideline.

"He looked over at me like, 'Coach, how bout this one?'" Enos said."He just kind of gave me that look. It was funny. So we got him out on that one. When he comes over, I'm like, 'Get some water. Catch your breath. Because you're not going to be standing here very long.'"

While backs on other Big Ten teams compete for carries, Ringer has the luxury -- or burden, depending on how you view it -- of knowing that he'll get the ball as much as he possibly can handle it. The Spartans have other runners available -- Andre Anderson, A.J. Jimmerson and Ashton Leggett, to name three -- but they don't hide their intention to feature Ringer.

"When you've got a guy with his ability," Enos said, "as many as times he's got the ball in his hands, we feel it makes us a better team."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Penn State coach Joe Paterno thinks he should be seeing a 1-0 Oregon State team Saturday in Happy Valley.

Most people who tracked last Thursday's game between Oregon State and Stanford saw the continued renaissance of a dormant Stanford program behind coach Jim Harbaugh. Paterno saw the inferior team win.

"Oregon State was the better team," Paterno said on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference. "They just blew it. They made a couple of mistakes and took themselves out of the football game."

Paterno was impressed with Oregon State's secondary, which allowed only 91 passing yards against the Cardinal. The group should test Nittany Lions starting quarterback Daryll Clark, who completed 11 of 14 passes against Coastal Carolina.

Oregon State's offense, led by quarterback Lyle Moevao, also provides a challenge for Penn State's talented defense.

"It's a tough trip across the country," Paterno said, "but they should have beaten Stanford. I think they'll come here ready to go and prove to people how good a football team they really have."

Some other items of note from the teleconference:

  • Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said redshirt freshman Steven Threet could take more reps with the first-team offense than sophomore Nick Sheridan in practice this week. Rodriguez lamented a "very disappointing" run game against Utah and several big-play opportunities that weren't converted, but he didn't sound too down on the quarterbacks.
"They're pretty conscientious guys," Rodriguez said. "They understood during the game what they were seeing, the mistakes, the good and the bad. They saw some of the things they've got to get better at. ... They did not seem overwhelmed."
  • Indiana starting wide receiver Ray Fisher is day-to-day after sustaining a shoulder injury against Western Kentucky. Fisher didn't play the second half of the game and will be evaluated throughout the week. Coach Bill Lynch expects to have a decision on Fisher's status by Thursday and said former safety and quarterback Mitchell Evans likely will fill in during the interim. Standout defensive end Greg Middleton and the three reserves who were suspended for the opener will be back in action Saturday against Murray State.
  • Michigan State running back Javon Ringer racked up 102 yards on kickoff returns before Cal started kicking away from him in last week's game. Despite the pounding Ringer takes at his primary position, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio expects to keep the senior on kickoff returns for the foreseeable future.
"Last year we used [wide receiver] Devin Thomas in that capacity and we had the No. 3 kickoff return team in the nation," Dantonio said. "If we can get that kind of production on that team, we'll continue to use the personnel we have. We have to have a guy that can be explosive there. One thing Devin did last year was he broke tackles, he broke arm tackles, and that was one of the things you saw Javon do."
  • Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz expects sophomore linebacker Jeff Tarpinian and cornerbacks Jordan Bernstine and Drew Gardner to return from hamstring injuries Saturday against Florida International. Junior quarterback Jake Christensen will start the game but Ricky Stanzi also likely will see action as the competition continues.
"We'll just watch and see how things go," Ferentz said. "I don't know if you can put a timetable on these things. It's a healthy situation right now, which is good."
  • There's been some concern about Purdue's wide receivers after the losses of Dorien Bryant and tight end Dustin Keller, but coach Joe Tiller thinks most people are overlooking Greg Orton. The senior has 125 receptions the last two seasons.
"For 80 percent of the teams in the country, 60 [receptions] would lead the team," Tiller said. "It might even lead the league. This guy's an accomplished receiver in his own right."
  • Coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn't expect Northwestern's travel plans to Duke to be affected by Hurricane Hanna, but the Saturday night game could be played in sloppy conditions. Fitzgerald has tried to prepare his players for inclement weather by practicing outside in the spring, which in Evanston feels like winter. The Wildcats also likely will practice outside Wednesday and Thursday, when the forecast calls for rain.
"It'll definitely be a factor on Saturday," Fitzgerald said, "but it'll be the same for both teams."
  • Minnesota quarterback David Pittman, a junior college transfer, has recovered from a hamstring injury and will be available, giving the team a full complement of healthy players. Pittman provides another option at quarterback after the announcement Monday that prized freshman MarQueis Gray won't be with the team this season. Coach Tim Brewster said Gray's absence won't affect the depth chart but added, "We're very much looking forward to getting MarQueis back."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The eve of the Big Ten season is upon us, so check your pulse. It should be racing. Every Friday, I'll take a look at 10 things I'm excited to see in the upcoming games. Here's installment No. 1.

1. Michigan's quarterbacks: After so much speculation about who fits RichRod's system, who doesn't, who's fast and who's not, we finally get a look at Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan in a game. Expect some growing pains early on, but both quarterbacks are heady players who could grasp the spread offense better than any of us expect them to. Just the sight of Michigan in a no-huddle spread could induce some double-takes.

2. That Pryor guy: Forget about gimmick plays and custom-designed packages near the goal line or anywhere else on the field. I want to see Ohio State freshman Terrelle Pryor lead a real drive, make real decisions and showcase all of his abilities, including his supposedly improved passing skills. Pryor should get a chance in the first half against Youngstown State.

3. Juice vs. Chase: The Edward Jones Dome is the site for arguably the nation's best quarterback matchup of the day. Illinois coaches are convinced Juice Williams has made the necessary strides as a passer and a leader during the offseason. The Illini junior will try to show it as he goes up against a proven commodity, Missouri senior quarterback Chase Daniel.

4. The Spread HD: It might take a more superior opponent than Coastal Carolina to get a good read on Penn State's new offense, but Saturday should shed some light on the mysterious system and Daryll Clark's ability to run it. Clark's passing skills will be in the spotlight, and Penn State fans finally get a look at speedster Stephfon Green.

5. Javon Ringer return a kick -- Ringer could push Ohio State's Beanie Wells for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors this fall, and he won't waste time producing highlights. The Michigan State running back should be a factor on kickoff returns against Cal, and he could break a big one and make Spartans fans momentarily forget about Devin Thomas.

6. Jake Christensen -- Christensen retained his starting job but hardly got a ringing endorsement from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who also plans to play sophomore Ricky Stanzi against Maine. Not all of what went wrong last season can be placed on Christensen, but it's time for the junior to make better decisions, show more consistency and utilize his weapons in the passing game.

7. Tramaine Brock rocks: The safety has been labeled a difference-maker for Minnesota as soon as he set foot on campus this winter. A ferocious hitter who can play either defensive back position, Brock gets his first chance to show that this will be a different year for the Gophers secondary as he goes up against Northern Illinois.

8. Martez Wilson on a blitz: Wilson makes his first career start for Illinois after plenty of preseason hype and faces one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Missouri's Daniel. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound sophomore passes the eye test and should be a dominant defender for the Illini. Now he's got to go out and prove it.

9. The wait ends for Evridge and Lewis: Allan Evridge makes his first start since 2005 as the senior left-hander leads Wisconsin against Akron. Evridge has been patient since transferring from Kansas State but can't get too hyped for the game and make mistakes. The wait hasn't been nearly as long for Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis, but it certainly felt that way after the junior lost his way this winter and had to earn his way back on the team. He makes his 22nd consecutive start against Western Kentucky.

10. Northwestern's new-look line in action: An offensive line featuring three new starters, including two redshirt freshman, is considered the only potential obstacle for a talent-stocked Wildcats offense. The front five needs a strong start against a Syracuse defense that tied for last nationally in sacks (.75 spg) in 2007.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Every Big Ten team has a position group that generates more unease than confidence, whether it's because of personnel losses, youth or poor performances. Here's a look at the position on each squad that could make or break the season.

ILLINOIS

Running backs: The group struggled in the spring and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley let the players know about it. Junior Daniel Dufrene has stepped up in preseason camp to claim the starting job, and the Illini feel good about freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure. But it's foolish to discount the value of Rashard Mendenhall, who finished eighth nationally in rushing average with 129.3 yards per game and 17 touchdowns last season.

Also keep an eye on: The safeties (two new starters)

INDIANA

Wide receivers: James Hardy finished his career as the most decorated wide receiver in team history, and his departure created a major void in the passing game. The coaches are counting on big things from Ray Fisher and Andrew Means, and former safety/quarterback Mitchell Evans should provide a boost. Indiana can't expect a receiver to match Hardy's production, but the group is capable of preventing a major drop-off.

Also keep an eye on: The offensive line (not much depth)

IOWA

Offensive line: What was once the program's trademark has become an area of concern. Iowa ranked 114th nationally in sacks allowed (46) last season and is still waiting for several promising linemen to hit their stride. With questions lingering at both quarterback and running back entering the season, the Hawkeyes can ill afford major blocking problems.

Also keep an eye on: The quarterbacks (Jake Christensen struggled in '07)

MICHIGAN

Quarterbacks: Every area of the Michigan offense could fit in this category, but the unit's progress must start with the quarterbacks. Neither Steven Threet nor Nick Sheridan seamlessly fit Rich Rodriguez's system, and freshman Justin Feagin needs time to mature. The Wolverines need a game manager early on and can't afford turnovers from this position.

Also keep an eye on: The offensive line (four new starters)

MICHIGAN STATE

Wide receivers: Illinois loses the Big Ten's top offensive player in Mendenhall, but Michigan State loses the league's top playmaker in Devin Thomas. Coach Mark Dantonio will lean on a young group featuring Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, Blair White and true freshmen Keshawn Martin and Fred Smith. The preseason has eased some doubt about this group, but the wideouts need to step up when it counts.

Also keep an eye on: The cornerbacks (two new starters)

MINNESOTA

Defensive backs: After finishing 115th nationally against the pass (289.3 ypg), the entire secondary needed major upgrades and got them from the junior college ranks. Two JUCO players are projected to start in safety Tramaine Brock and cornerback Traye Simmons, and hopes are high for cornerback Marcus Sherels, a converted wide receiver. The talent is there for a jump in production, but chemistry could be a challenge with so many new faces.

Also keep an eye on: The offensive line (lost three starters)

NORTHWESTERN

Offensive line: By far the biggest question mark on a veteran team, the line can't afford many growing pains to keep a bowl berth in the viewfinder. Three new starters join the group, including two on the all-important left side, so jelling quickly will be a challenge. If redshirt freshmen Al Netter and Ben Burkett meet expectations, the Wildcats should have a dominant offense this fall.

Also keep an eye on: The linebackers (new middle linebacker)

OHIO STATE

Defensive tackles: Not a lot of weak spots for the defending Big Ten champs, but the interior line looks a little iffy. Coordinator Jim Heacock has defended the group, pointing to its youth, but the Buckeyes need more play-making this fall from Cameron Heyward, Doug Worthington and Nader Abdallah.

Also keep an eye on: The safeties (more big plays)

PENN STATE

Quarterbacks: The Nittany Lions usher in a new offense, the Spread HD, and need a capable trigger man in starter Daryll Clark or backup Pat Devlin. Both likely will play, though Clark starts Saturday against Coastal Carolina. The good news is the quarterbacks have plenty of weapons at the skill positions and play behind a veteran offensive line, but the inexperience at the position could lead to turnovers and other mistakes.

Also keep an eye on: The linebackers (inexperienced)

PURDUE

Wide receivers/tight ends: Purdue loses Dorien Bryant, who claimed 23 school and Big Ten records in his career, as well as underrated tight end Dustin Keller. Greg Orton is the only wideout with ample experience, and the Boilers will need help from Desmond Tardy, junior college transfers Aaron Valentin and Arsenio Curry and little-used seniors Brandon Whittington and Joe Whitest.

Also keep an eye on: The
linebackers (no depth)

WISCONSIN

Defensive backs: The Badgers lose their best cover man in Jack Ikegwuonu and endured their share of injuries at cornerback. Tackling has been a concern at the safety spots and Wisconsin needs continued growth from Shane Carter and Jay Valai. If cornerback Allen Langford remains healthy and regains his 2006 form, the secondary should be solid.

Also keep an eye on: The wide receivers (too many drops)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The first Big Ten teleconference is complete. Here are some notes from the call:

OHIO STATE

  • Defensive tackle Doug Worthington will play Saturday against Youngstown State but will not start the game, coach Jim Tressel said. Worthington was arrested last month for DUI and had a pretrial hearing continued on Monday. Worthington started 11 games last fall but will play behind senior Nader Abdallah. "Exactly how much he'll be playing, I don't know," Tressel said, "but he'll be suited up and ready to go."
  • Terrelle Pryor might be listed as Ohio State's third-team quarterback, but the gap between the heralded freshman and backup Joe Bauserman is negligible. "I wouldn't go so far as to say one is the third guy and one is the second guy," Tressel said. Expect Pryor to make his collegiate debut Saturday, and not only in mop-up time. "What we've done at the beginning of nearly every season is we've had multiple quarterbacks play in the first half," Tressel said. "I don't think we're looking at waiting till the end of games."

MICHIGAN STATE

  • The Spartans' Week 1 depth chart is out and there are some surprises at defensive end, where four potential starters are listed. Senior Brandon Long and Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Cincinnati, had been projected to start but could share time with fifth-year senior Dwayne Holmes and sophomore Colin Neely. I can't see any way Anderson doesn't become the full-time starter, but it's interesting that he hasn't been given the job yet.
  • Senior Kendell Davis-Clark will start at free safety as the Spartans are still without projected starter Roderick Jenrette, who recently was asked to leave the team to address personal matters. Davis-Clark moves over from cornerback, where he started 14 games during the last two seasons. Talented sophomore Chris L. Rucker will start in Davis-Clark's old spot, and players like Ashton Henderson provide depth. "We could play six corners right now," coach Mark Dantonio said, "so we felt like we could make that change and not suffer any problems."
  • Fifth-year senior Mike Bacon beat out redshirt freshman Joel Foreman for the starting spot at left guard.
  • Sophomore Mark Dell and redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham are listed as the starting wide receivers ahead of Blair White and Deon Curry. True freshman Keshawn Martin is listed as the third-stringer behind Cunningham, while classmate Fred Smith is fourth string behind Dell.
  • Safety Otis Wiley will handle punt returns. Backup running back A.J. Jimmerson and Davis-Clark are on kickoff returns as Michigan State tries to replace superstar Devin Thomas.

WISCONSIN

  • Star tight end Travis Beckum will dress for Saturday's game against Akron, but it's unclear whether he'll play because of a lingering hamstring injury.
  • Coach Bret Bielema said decision-making was never Allan Evridge's problem, but the quarterback had to learn to be more patient with his reads and progressions in the pocket. Evridge has made those adjustments to earn the Badgers' starting quarterback job. "Here's a guy who was so anxious to be The Guy, who put a lot on himself," Bielema said of Evridge, who started seven games for Kansas State in 2005. "We've calmed him down."
  • Bielema also is spearheading a proposal made by Big Ten coaches to implement an early signing day on the recruiting calendar. The date would be the first Wednesday after the last active recruiting weekend in December.

PURDUE

  • Jaycen Taylor's season-ending knee injury has put Purdue on notice to find a second option at running back to complement starter Kory Sheets. Four players are in the mix, but sophomore Dan Dierking could have the inside track after playing in all 13 games (starting one) last fall and racking up 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns. "We really felt like Sheets and Taylor would split playing time there," coach Joe Tiller said. "What we have to do from a management point of view is make sure we don't use Kory Sheets so much that he wears down."
  • Tiller said having a Week 1 bye might actually help Purdue given all the injuries it had in the spring and the uncertainty at running back and other spots. The Boilermakers' Big Ten bye fell in Week 4, but they had to play Notre Dame that week. Tiller said Purdue also won't have a normal bye week next season before getting one in 2010.
  • A secondary that has added Dwight Mclean and a healthy Torri Williams has impressed Tiller thus far in camp. "It might be the best-looking secondary that we've had since maybe 2001, something like that," he said. "I look for us to be much improved."

MICHIGAN

  • Coach Rich Rodriguez has been pleased with the progress of the wide receivers, who along with the running backs can pick up his offense a bit quicker than quarterbacks or linemen can. In addition to older players like Greg Mathews and LaTerryal Savoy, freshmen Martavious Odoms and Roy Roundtree have been impressive in practice. "We hope to have six or seven guys ready to play on Saturday," Rodriguez said.
  • Michigan can't afford any added confusion on offense, but Rodriguez isn't concerned about adjusting to the new clock rules this season. "We usually go at a pretty good tempo anyway," he said. "Conditioning is a bigger factor than it's ever been."

IOWA

  • The Hawkeyes' streak of 30 consecutive home sellouts is in jeopardy, which coach Kirk Ferentz attributes partly to economic impact of the floods that ravaged the state earlier this summer. "The challenges of our state are paramount to our challenges on Saturday," Ferentz said.
  • The coach added that he expects to announce
    Iowa's new player development coach in the next month. The position was added in response to a wave of off-field problems involving first-year Hawkeyes players.

NORTHWESTERN

  • Coach Pat Fitzgerald praised wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, the only true freshman on Northwestern's Week 1 depth chart. Ebert, a quarterback in high school, quickly stood out in preseason camp because he arrived in peak conditioning level, not usually seen among true freshmen.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Mark Dantonio made his first season at Michigan State about respect. Now he's looking for results.

After the Spartans reached a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, the bar has been raised both inside and outside the program. Michigan State is the consensus pick to be the Big Ten's surprise team this fall. The team returns running back Javon Ringer, quarterback Brian Hoyer and linebacker Greg Jones, but Dantonio is the biggest reason for optimism. He has elevated the demands for performance and embraced the culture in East Lansing, playing up the Michigan rivalry and the need to compete with other elite teams. The Spartans' 2009 recruiting class in shaping up to be one of the Big Ten's best, and the momentum should continue with the Skandalaris Football Center, the program's new $15.5 million facility, which opened this week.

The arrow is pointing up, but Dantonio recognizes Michigan State's recent struggles to sustain success and the challenges that await his team this fall. Dantonio took some time to discuss the team's outlook, the new facility and the importance of the Michigan game.

What were your impressions of the preseason?

Mark Dantonio: We have some young players that will play this year, some freshmen. We're a relatively young team. We have really 13 seniors on our team, 10 recruited guys, 13 total with guys that have earned scholarships. With that said, we've got experience. We can put people on the field that have started at one time or another probably 11 out of 11 on defense and like 10 of 11 on offense. Where our youth shows is in our depth, like most football teams. But we've had a good summer camp and we're ready to focus on Cal, which is a huge challenge for us.

You guys have been in the new facility for a little while, opened it this week officially. How beneficial has that been for you and your staff?

MD: It's been great. First of all, it's very functional in terms of teaching and all the different things we have to do. It's very user-friendly. The technology is cutting edge. As far as the look of it, it gives you that feeling that when a recruit comes or when somebody visits, it's a first-class facility and it speaks of the past. It sort of links the present with the past and sort of points to the future a little bit. Everything that we tried to accomplish is being done in terms of the way the building's set up.

What's your favorite feature?

MD: I like our team meeting room, the way it's set up. You actually can hit the computer screen and a big wall goes down in the middle of it. It seals it off so that you have the offense's and the defense's meeting room. Theater-style seating and the acoustics in it, it's a great sound system and everything. And then you can go directly from those rooms into the [position] meeting rooms. They don't go out into a hallway and then move to their meeting rooms. They leave that room and it would almost be like a big house with big closets off of that room. So from a time-efficiency standpoint, it's very good. There's a message when you come in the meeting room, a message about Michigan State football and then you walk out of it and in the hallway, you see the NFL area and then the hall of history and everything and there's direct access to the locker room, which is all very quick. You can be in and out of the meeting room and the locker room in literally seconds.

How does the facility impact you and your future and the program's future?

MD: Long-term, it's going to send a message to recruits that the resources are here for them to be successful. When you look at any program, you have to ask yourself, do they have the resources available to make you a better football player? We have stability in our coaching, we have continuity in our staff right now, which makes it very good for us. We have a facility that is first class and a facility that has been done in a year and a half, which includes an addition to the weight room that takes it to 16,000 square feet and a player's lounge in addition to this that will also be state of the art that will be done probably by the end of next spring. The weight room will be done in October. Those are the first three phases and then we'll move to stage 4 and 5, and financially, the resources are already there to do those two other avenues, which would probably be the locker room and the training room.

Just getting back to the team, you mentioned the depth being young, but you have some wide receivers in [Keshawn] Martin and [Fred] Smith. How have they been in camp and which freshmen do you expect to play this fall?

MD: They've done a nice job. When you talk about our receivers, last year at this time, it was, 'Who are our receivers?' We had a true freshman starting for us in [Mark] Dell. He's gotten better. And then we had Devin Thomas, who caught six passes in [2006] and responded with 79. So conceptually, we'll be able to get the ball to people. We'll probably do it a little bit by committee. B.J. Cunningham is a redshirt freshman, he's going to be an outstanding player for us. Fred Smith and Keshawn are true freshmen. We've got a couple other young guys that will provide added depth there. Keshawn looks to be a great player in the making. As far as our [true] freshmen, we've recruited five offensive linemen, they don't play too early, but they're all very good players. Keith Nichol, who initially went to Oklahoma, and Kirk Cousins, they're two quarterbacks that will help immediately in the future. Obviously, Nichol has to sit out a year. We've got a couple of good tailbacks. Defensively, a couple nice corners and a big-time safety, I think, and a couple nice linebackers. We only brought 19, 20 guys in. They're all going to be good players, they're just young. We had a lot of freshmen we redshirted last season, so it's going to be the depth as much as anything.

Are you still shuffling at bit at linebacker, figuring out where to put Greg [Jones], or is that set?

MD: No, we are. He's played a variety of positions for us this summer. He even lined up a little bit at defensive end. He makes plays wherever we put him, and it really depends on how everybody else plays. It's not so much where he's playing because he's been productive at every place. It's really a luxury to have him be able play these positions. We experimented in bowl practice last year with him at [middle] linebacker, so it's been quite a while since we've done it. We did it this spring and we've done it again this summer, so we've moved him around a little bit. We play around him, but there are other guys. Eric Gordon started for us a lot last year, an outstanding player and he was a redshirt freshman. So I feel good about it.

What is the aspect you'd like to see improve the most on defense? What is your top message to that unit?

MD: We had 40 sacks last year, which is the third most in Michigan State history. But we have to be a little bit more consistent. There's so many different offenses that you play week to week, and by knowing things conceptually a little bit better, you can transition from offense to offense every week. That's what we have to do. Last year was our first year here, so conceptually, we made some mistakes. We also have to make play on the ball when we have a chance, whether it's a deep ball or a tackle in space. Some of that's physical. We have to continue to emphasize those things physically, but conceptually, just in terms of knowing the defense and how it fits together, we continue to work our plan. Our players, as they get older and they're in the system, they get better and better in it.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten preseason has seemed downright boring compared to the rest of the country.

There's no Mark Sanchez or Ben Olson crisis in this league, and though Ohio State has endured a few recent off-the-field incidents, the Buckeyes have nothing on Georgia. None of the four major quarterback competitions -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- are settled, and the one in Ann Arbor could drag on for some time. Wisconsin dismissed running back Lance Smith, but the Badgers remain well-stocked at the position. Penn State dismissed defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Chris Baker but still have depth at the position.

If the first two weeks of preseason practice have revealed anything, it's that a position that seemed weak in the league could be much better than forecasted.

The Big Ten lost seven of its top 10 receivers from last season, a group that included three-time league receptions leader Dorien Bryant, big-play dynamo Devin Thomas, Indiana career receiving leader James Hardy and Michigan stars Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Aside from Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern, every Big Ten team entered camp with some degree of uneasiness about the wide receivers.

Michigan State and Indiana lost superstars. Michigan lost almost everybody. So did Purdue. Illinois and Minnesota needed second options. Iowa welcomed back several prominent pass-catchers from injuries. Wisconsin was very young at the position.

The anxiety level has dropped quite a bit.

Illinois, which will stress the pass more this fall, has produced several good candidates to complement Arrelious Benn, including juniors Jeff Cumberland and Chris Duvalt, sophomores Chris James and Alex Reavy and freshmen Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott. Highly touted Fred Smith will make an impact this fall at Michigan State, but he's been overshadowed a bit by classmate Keshawn Martin. Michigan's young wideouts impressed first-year coach Rich Rodriguez from the get-go, and the Wolverines will lean on players like Darryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Toney Clemons and Junior Hemingway come Aug. 30.

I was extremely impressed after watching Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath, a big-play threat with tremendous speed. Though I didn't see Purdue practice after media day, junior-college transfer Arsenio Curry certainly looks like he can contribute alongside Greg Orton. Playmaker Andy Brodell is back in the fold at Iowa, and sophomore Colin Sandeman looks to be pushing incumbent Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the starting job. Ray Fisher and Andrew Means headline a group of Indiana wideouts that also include some promising freshmen.

There has been so much buzz about the spread offense sweeping through the Big Ten. It looks like the league will have the moving parts to make those schemes work this fall.

Big Ten mailbag

August, 6, 2008
8/06/08
1:39
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg 

To quote White Sox broadcaster Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, I love e-mail. Even from you haters out there (quick tip for future correspondences: Moron is spelled with two O's, not three).

This is long overdue, and I apologize. The frequency will be much better once the season starts.

Let's get to it. 

John from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi Adam, Just a comment on the "longevity" aspect to rivalries. I don't feel like it should be the reason to discount the Ohio State - Illinois rivalry. The Illibuck trophy has been passed between the two for longer than any trophy in the Big Ten besides the Little Brown Jug. They even played the game as the regular season finale for a number of years at the beginning (1919-1933). I mean, you can definitely make the argument that it has been a lopsided rivalry (OSU leads the series 56-23-2), but you can't argue against its longevity.

Adam Rittenberg writes: I've gotten a lot of e-mails about the Illinois-Ohio State series, and fans are pretty divided. Some, like you, point to the long history and the trophy, arguing there's more to it than the last couple of years. Others say annual meetings like Purdue-Indiana or more competitive series like Penn State-Ohio State are bigger rivalries than Illinois-Ohio State. I can see both sides, but with the recent games and Illinois upgrading its talent, the buzz around this game should continue to grow. 


Brian from Kingston, Pa., writes: I have the best replacement for JoePa after the 2009 season. Bill Cowher, what a GREAT fit that would be. As a PSU football fan I would LOVE to see that happen. Everything about him makes him the most ideal candidate. His experience, his toughness, his knowledge of the game, his similar style of play, his ability to motivate players. Man, that would be a marriage made in heaven. I realize it will never happen, I can't see him coming back to coaching anytime soon (and certainly not at the college level) I just feel he could really turn around the mindset and the thinking that goes on @ PSU. Hiring a guy not-in-house is the best decision as well, get somebody who has no strings to the program that can come in and put their stamp on the team. Oh, by the way, I am not a Steelers fan, I just feel it's a tremendously great fit. Any opinions?

Adam Rittenberg writes: Hmmm, interesting thought, Brian. But Cowher is comfortable living his life in North Carolina, and he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March that he has no intentions of pursuing the Penn State job, if it ever comes open. Cowher's hyped-up style could translate well to college football, particularly in recruiting, an area Penn State needs to upgrade with its next hire. But Cowher is an NFL lifer who actually seems content spending time with his family away from the game (imagine that!). So I don't see this happening. 


Justin from New Orleans writes: On your list of clutch players, I have to disagree with the inclusion of Ron Dayne, if only for the fact that he never had a big game in leading them to victory against Michigan. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, the only year he may have gone over 100 yards was as a senior, and he barely did it with a lot of carries. You can't be a clutch player if you can't consistently beat a certain team that is always at or near the top of your league.

Adam Rittenberg writes: That's a good point, Justin. Wisconsin never beat Michigan during Dayne's tenure, and Dayne almost saw his Heisman hopes disappear in 1999 after being held to zero net rushing yards in the second half of a 21-16 loss. I still point to the Rose Bowl performances and what he did in leading the Badgers to two Big Ten titles, but you're right. Performing well against the league's other elite team is a big part of being clutch.


Adam from Bergstein, Ind., writes: How well do you shape the Hoosiers to do this year, and what is your thoughts about the quarterback controversy with Kellen Lewis supposedly needing to compete for the starting spot in fall camp? Who is more of a physical specimen between [Martez] Wilson and [Matt] Mayberry? I recently read an article about Mayberry's training with Tom Zbikowski...impressive...would love your input!

Adam Rittenberg writes: How is Bergstein this time of year? As imaginary towns go, that's a good one. Indiana's coaches had to make Lewis compete for the job again after his suspension, if only to show other players what happens if you mess up. Though Ben Chappell has improved, I see no way Lewis doesn't become the starter again. He has way too much talent and he'll be perfect running the no-huddle. I've received a ton of e-mails about Mayberry, definitely a fan favorite. He had 42 tackles as a reserve last season but looks to be on the brink of special things. Same goes for Wilson at Illinois. I'm very excited to see both of them practice in the coming days. 


John from Milwaukee writes: Michigan's team did lose some talent. But they've got 7 returners on defense, and they've had Top 10 or Top 12 recruiting classes the last two years. I think the biggest factor, which people are missing, is Mike Barwis, the new trainer. This could be the fastest, strongest and most well-conditioned team ever. The things he does are ground-breaking. Even if they lose to WI, ND, OSU and Penn State, they could still go 8-4. They've got 6 or 7 home games, too. A lot of other teams are getting undue credit by being in the Top 25, and I think a program like Michigan, being ranked No. 24, is a reflection of reality. It's not like they're ranked 5th or 10th or even 15th.

Adam Rittenberg writes: You're right about the young talent being there, especially at the skill positions. And I don't think anyone is overlooking Barwis, who gets as much publicity as Barack Obama. He has obviously done a lot to change the conditioning standards at Michigan, and it could pay off this fall, particularly with the offensive linemen. But Rich Rodriguez is a realist and so am I, and looking at this offense, there's just no way this is a Top 25 team before the season. Go out and beat a veteran Utah team with a quarterback (Brian Johnson) who has actually thrown a pass in college. Go out on the road and beat a Notre Dame team that should be a lot better on offense. Win those games, and I have no problem putting Michigan in my Top 25. But I just can't justify putting a team with so many uncertainties and so much scheme left to learn in a preseason poll. Rodriguez said Monday that Michigan probably got ranked based on reputation. I agree with him.


Jim from Marysville, Mich., writes: Can any of Michigan State's freshman receivers be expected to step in and help replace the production of Devin Thomas in the offense and on special teams?

Adam Rittenberg writes: Several of them will be in the mix. Fred Smith didn't look like a freshman to me when I saw him at Tuesday's practice. He provides more size to a receiving corps that needs it. B.J. Cunningham is a redshirt freshman, but he'll definitely be a factor out there along with Keshawn Martin, a true freshman who was under the radar in high school but put up some dominating numbers. Doubt there's another Devin Thomas there, but as a group, Michigan State's young wideouts look strong. Several of those players will get a look on returns as well. 


Derek from St. Louis writes: I think you got it wrong about IL being #4. Your arguement was that they needed a running back and more receivers. The running back is a big question mark - I agree, but please take a look
a look at our receiving core before writing the article. Arrelius Benn is going to be an all american this year and it is going to be extremely hard for teams to match up agains Jeff Cumberland (6-5, 250)... not to mention chris duvalt, briant gamble and chris james. This is an extremly deep WR core at UI. Look into it.

Adam Rittenberg writes: Rejus Benn will be one of the league's most dominating players this fall, especially since he's fully healthy. But I'm not sold on any of Illinois' other wideouts. James has some experience but he's coming off a torn ACL. Cumberland is a tremendous athlete with great size and ridiculous leaping ability, but he played mostly tight end and has only one 100-yard receiving game. Duvalt is a converted defensive back, so I'm not ready to brand him a stud wide receiver. The talent is there, which is true at a lot of positions for Illinois, but I'd rather wait and see on a lot of those guys. 


Chris from State College, Pa., writes: Looking back over the past ten years, the two quarterback system has never been successful at Penn State.For some reason, the coaching staff moves the starting QB to wideout when the running QB comes in. Is there any reason to think that more of the same won't continue? Will the coaching staff finally figure out that it is okay to take the starter off the field for a couple series to keep the defense guessing? On a similar note, watch classic PSU games on the Big 10 Network, and you'll notice that the gameplans haven't changed one bit over the last 20 years (maybe more!). The difference is that in 1994 and 2005 they had a QB who could overcome the deficiencies of the coaching staff. Do you think [Daryll] Clark or [Pat] Devlin have the ability and mental awareness to do the same?

Adam Rittenberg writes: You're right that a lot of coaches are hesitant about playing two quarterbacks and rarely know how to manage them both. Clark definitely seems like a good fit for Penn State's evolving offense, the Spread HD. But the Lions also could use Devlin's arm, particularly with an all-senior wide receiving corps.  My feeling is Clark will get the first opportunity to cement himself as the starter, but they'd be foolish not to play Devlin against Coastal Carolina. The coaching staff might need to use both against Oregon State's veteran secondary in Week 2.

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