Big Ten: Eric Murray

ESPN's midseason All-Big Ten team

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
11:00
AM ET
The regular season is at its halfway point, so we're presenting our selections for the midseason All-Big Ten team.

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin

Special teams
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska

Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.

The breakdown by team:

Michigan State: 5
Iowa: 3
Minnesota: 3
Penn State: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Maryland: 2
Nebraska: 2
Ohio State: 2
Illinois: 1
Indiana: 1
Purdue: 1
Michigan: 0
Northwestern: 0
Rutgers: 0
 
It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.

NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.

Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.

"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.

Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.

"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."

Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.

Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.

"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.

"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."

 
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.

"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."

Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.

"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.

Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.

"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.

"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."

Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.

The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.

The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.

"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.
Our preview of each position group in the Big Ten reaches its final stop on the defensive side: the secondary.

The two best secondary players from last season both were drafted in the first round this spring: Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. New stars are sure to emerge this season. Let's take a look at where things stand:

Best of the best: Michigan State

The Spartans finished No. 3 in the FBS in pass defense last season, though the "No Fly Zone" lost two key members in Thorpe Award winner Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Still, Kurtis Drummond might well be the best safety in the Big Ten, and Trae Waynes is ready for his star turn at cornerback. Darian Hicks will hold down the other corner spot, with a spirited competition for time at the other safety slot. With the combined brain power of Mark Dantonio, Pat Narduzzi and Harlon Barnett, we expect Michigan State to keep the title of the league's top secondary.

Next up: Penn State

There's lots of strong returning experience here, with corners Jordan Lucas -- a leading All-Big Ten candidate -- and Trevor Williams, plus safety Adrian Amos, who appears on the cusp of stardom. Ryan Keiser started five games at safety last year, too. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's background is in coaching the secondary, so we're excited to see what he can do with this group.

Sleeper: Minnesota

Safety Brock Vereen is on the Chicago Bears now, but underrated corner Eric Murray is back along with veteran safety Cedric Thompson. Derrick Wells, who has bounced between safety and corner, should stick at the other cornerback spot, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun returns from injury. The Gophers believe they are as deep as they've been in the secondary under Jerry Kill, and that could lead to good results this fall.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

It's hard to label this as anything but a problem right now, given how the Buckeyes struggled down the stretch in pass coverage last year before losing Roby a year early to the draft. Yet there is still a lot of reason for optimism. New secondary coach/co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash is remaking the unit into what should be a more athletic bunch. Doran Grant anchors the group at corner, while Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell should add speed and length at safety. If young players come through here, Ohio State's defensive backfield could make a huge leap forward. Until we see that happen, though, it remains a concern.
It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
Minnesota had a grand total of one defensive player drafted between 2009 and 2013. Earlier this month, the Gophers had two defenders, tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen, selected in the first four rounds.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys
AP Photo/Al GoldisMinnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said he'll be disappointed if the Gophers don't improve on defense in 2014.
Those departures would would suggest some type of a drop off for Minnesota's defense, but coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks it will be just the opposite in 2014. In Claeys' mind, the Gophers are just getting started.

"We should be better than we were a year ago," Claeys told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We've improved every year we've been there, and I'll be disappointed if we don't improve more. We have the talent and the kids that want to put in the work.

"I'm excited about this coming fall."

Minnesota won't have a player with Hageman's freakish frame and ability, or Vereen's versatility to play both secondary positions at an All-Big Ten level. But the unit's overall depth should improve. Perhaps more important, Claeys and his staff are no longer newcomers.

The foundation is in place. The defense improved from 93rd in scoring defense in 2011 to 45th in 2012 and 25th last season. It was extremely salty in the red zone, allowing just 26 touchdowns on 52 opponent trips inside the 20-yard line.

These days, Claeys and his staff are enhancing their system rather than teaching it.

"It's not what you know as a coach; it's what those kids know," he said. "It's nice to be going into our fourth year and have a system in place to where a lot of the kids, they know those adjustments already. With knowledge comes confidence, and to be good on defense nowadays with all the spread stuff and the hurry-ups, you have to be confident."

Although Vereen started games at both safety and cornerback last season, Claeys expects the secondary to be Minnesota's strongest group in 2014. Cornerback Eric Murray has All-Big Ten potential, and Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun both are playmakers who will be healthy by the start of fall camp. Boddy-Calhoun started the first two games at cornerback last fall before tearing his ACL, and Wells, who had 10 pass breakups and two interceptions in 2012, battled injuries all season.

Safety Cedric Thompson has emerged as the leader of the defense after learning alongside Vereen. Antonio Johnson, who had 69 tackles in 2013, also returns at safety.

Claeys also has high hopes for the linebackers. Although only one starter is back in Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell logged significant time last season and Jack Lynn should have a greater role following a strong spring. Wilson, a junior-college transfer who led Minnesota with 79 tackles in 2013, is taking charge of the group.

"We need Damien to step up into more of a leadership role," Claeys said. "That's one thing that's hard on junior-college kids, the leadership in their first year. I think he'll be better at that."

Minnesota has reached consecutive bowl games and held its own in Big Ten play last season. To continue the trajectory, the Gophers must navigate a challenging schedule, establish more balance on offense through the passing game and keep the pedal down on defense.

Claeys doesn't expect his unit to let up despite the two big pieces it loses.

"I'll be disappointed," he said, "if we don't play better than we did a year ago."

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
5:00
PM ET
Back from Michigan. And back to the mailbag.

Caleb from MSU writes: With Malik McDowell finally in the fold, we now have a better look at the pieces available to the MSU defensive line. That being said, what are the chances McDowell starts and or contributes in a major way this year? With [Marcus] Rush and [Shilique] Calhoun on the ends, there could be some favorable matchups on the inside. Or do you think he needs time to mature to the college game?

Brian Bennett: Caleb, it's really tough to predict how much a young guy will contribute before he ever makes it to campus. But McDowell was a big-time recruit, or else we wouldn't have been nearly so interested in him. Mark Dantonio usually likes to redshirt guys on the lines, but he said Wednesday that McDowell would likely play this fall because, "I just think he’s too big and strong and fast.” The Spartans are excited about Joel Heath's potential on the inside, but after losing Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds off last season's team, there should be some opportunities for McDowell to at least contribute.


Kyle G. from Prior Lake, Minn., writes: Curious as to what your thoughts are on the Gophers defense for this upcoming season. A lot of guys returning. Could they [rank] in the top half of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: Minnesota didn't lose a lot of players off last season's defense, but they must replace their best defensive lineman (Ra'Shede Hageman), two starting linebackers (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) and a very good defensive back (Brock Vereen). So those are concerns. But I think Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys have shown they can put together a strong defense, and they still have some good players to work with such as defensive end Theiren Cockran and corner Eric Murray. If someone such as Scott Ekpe steps up to help replace Hageman in the middle and some young linebackers move forward, this has a chance to be an upper-level Big Ten defense.


Jon L. via Twitter writes: Read some stuff at NU specific sites but interested in a broader opinion... What will Kain Colter's legacy be in the BIG and at NU?

Brian Bennett: Good question, but the answer is tied to the eventual outcome of the unionization case. Maybe the full NLRB or the Supreme Court eventually rules against the union movement, or Northwestern's players elect not to unionize. Then this could become an interesting footnote. Or maybe Colter winds up as college sports' version of Curt Flood, an excellent player in his own right who's now known more for his role in bringing about free agency in baseball. Colter's legacy as a player is solid, as he helped lead Northwestern to 10 wins in 2012 and guided the Wildcats to their first bowl victory in 64 years. But whether he's eventually viewed as a pioneer who helped improve athletes' causes or someone who brought down college sports as we know them can't possibly be known yet.


Timmer S. via Twitter writes: Would an annual B1G-ACC football tourney ever be possible? Would be an awesome Week 2 event. Probably tough to schedule.

Brian Bennett: It would be a blast, and there are already some natural tie-ins with Penn State-Pitt, the Rutgers and Maryland connections and Notre Dame. But as we saw with the short-lived Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance idea, it's just extremely difficult to schedule these types of things in football because teams have vastly different priorities, rivalries, etc. The ACC has talked about having such an alliance with the SEC, where there are already a lot of established interconference clashes. So I don't think we'll ever see a Big Ten/ACC football challenge materialize.


Chris Grandview, Mo., writes: Brian, I am wondering why more and more people want Penn State over Iowa to play Nebraska on Black Friday? I mean, there is history for both Iowa and Penn State playing Nebraska, but why now does everyone think Penn State will be a better matchup now? Look at last year; no one picked Iowa, like I did, to beat Nebraska and Iowa completely dominated Nebraska. Are fans of the Big Ten afraid Iowa can't handle their own now, or that Penn State is some better program always, compared to Iowa? Thanks for your time, sir!

Brian Bennett: Fans from both Penn State and Nebraska have enjoyed that series, and there is some interesting history there, as you noted. So I understand that. But I've also said repeatedly that the Heroes Game series between Iowa and Nebraska just needs time to grow. The geography makes that a natural potential rivalry, and it will also be a West Division game. The Hawkeyes' victory in Lincoln was the first step in making that more of an actual rivalry. These things need some time to develop, and I think eventually Iowa-Nebraska can become a much more interesting end-of-season affair.
No league has more longstanding historic rivalries than the Big Ten, but several of these series are becoming one-sided of late. We're taking a closer look at these games and whether things will change or remain the same in 2014.

We've already looked at the two Paul Bunyan trophy games: Wisconsin-Minnesota and Michigan-Michigan State. Has anyone seen the Little Brown Jug? It has been in Michigan's possession for quite a while.

Series: First meeting in 1892. Michigan leads 73-34-3. Little Brown Jug was introduced in 1909.

Last meeting: Michigan thumped Minnesota 42-13 on Oct. 5, 2013, at Michigan Stadium.

The streak: Michigan has won six consecutive matchups, 22 of the past 23 and 38 of the past 41. Minnesota's last win came in 2005 at Michigan Stadium.

Next meeting: Sept. 27 at Michigan Stadium

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The skinny: The history always will be there with this series, but the rivalry factor has waned as Minnesota's struggles against Michigan coincide with its lengthy Big Ten title drought (no Big Ten titles since 1967, only three wins against Michigan). Minnesota had excellent opportunities to beat Michigan in 2008 and 2012 but fell short both times. The Gophers now will try to end the streak at the Big House, where they've dropped their past three meetings by a combined score of 134-23.

Both teams are looking for more on offense, and both want to base their identity around the power game. Minnesota achieved it to a degree in 2013 and should have plenty of options at running back, including Berkley Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star wide receiver Braylon Edwards. Michigan finished 102nd nationally in rushing last year and looks for a spark with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and sophomore backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith. Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner has had two strong performances against Minnesota, connecting with tight end Devin Funchess for 151 yards and a touchdown last year. A Gophers defense led by Damien Wilson, Eric Murray and Theiren Cockran must contain the Devins.

The (very early) prediction: Minnesota will keep it closer than its last three games at Michigan Stadium, but the Wolverines have more offensive firepower and home field on their side. Gardner has been at his best against the Gophers and fires two touchdown passes in a seven-point win.
We're just about at the halfway point of our 2014 ultimate Big Ten road trip, and this is when all those nights in a hotel room and bad eating habits start to take their toll. But we press on -- at least in our minds.

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Let's check out the options for Week 7:

Oct. 11

Illinois at Wisconsin
Indiana at Iowa
Michigan State at Purdue
Northwestern at Minnesota
Penn State at Michigan

Open date: Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio State, Rutgers

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern at Minnesota

It has been nearly five years since I last witnessed a game at TCF Bank Stadium, one of the nation's more picturesque college football venues. Sure, Penn State and Michigan are bigger names, but I've already seen Michigan twice and Penn State once. I'll be getting my fill of the Gophers after covering them in two of three weeks, but Northwestern is an intriguing team and I'm all about the destination here as Minneapolis offers a lot to do and see.

The game should be a competitive one, if not a good one. Five of the teams' last seven meetings -- and 13 of the past 20 -- have been decided by eight points or fewer. Northwestern has won three straight in Minneapolis, and Minnesota upset the Wildcats last year in Evanston to kick off a nice surge in league play. Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian had a very rough day against the Gophers last October and looks for a stronger performance on the road. The Wildcats likely will attack a Minnesota secondary led by cornerback Eric Murray. Minnesota will pound away with the run game, using a talented group of backs and a big, athletic quarterback in Mitch Leidner.

The West Division is wide open, and while both these teams play tougher schedules than both Wisconsin and Iowa -- Minnesota's slate is especially challenging -- they could be in the title mix with certain improvements (Minnesota's passing game, Northwestern's offensive production). Week 7 isn't a great platter of games, but the trip to Minneapolis sounds very appetizing.

Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State at Michigan

Not exactly the most tantalizing set of games, although if Minnesota and Northwestern get off to hot starts, or teams such as Illinois and Indiana are better than expected, it could be more interesting. Still, it's tough not to choose the Nittany Lions-Wolverines matchup out of this group.

We both agree that Michigan State and Ohio State are the clear-cut East Division favorites in 2014, but Michigan and Penn State should be factors. The winner here will have a major upper hand (remember, Penn State technically can win the division, and it's possible the program could be ruled eligible for the 2014 postseason). I saw the Lions in Week 1 of this ultimate trip, but this would be my first time getting an up-close look at the Wolverines.

Give me a game 75 percent as wild as last year's four-overtime thriller in State College, and I'll be very happy I made this pick. With Christian Hackenberg and Devin Gardner involved, the potential for fireworks is ample. I always look forward to a trip to Ann Arbor and the Big House, and a game like this on tap would make things even more exciting.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
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Season report card: Minnesota

December, 23, 2013
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The red pens are out and we're handing out final grades for each Big Ten team's regular season. Teams earn marks for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Step up and get your grades, Minnesota.

Offense: C-minus

The Gophers ranked just 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.4 ppg) and 11th in total offense. Their passing attack was the worst in the league and one of the least productive in the nation. The team juggled quarterbacks during the first half of the season, flipping between Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, both of whom proved better runners than passers most of the time. Receiver was once again a sore spot for Minnesota, particularly after Derrick Engel hurt his knee in November. Freshmen Maxx Williams, Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise but also showed they were freshmen. An inability to move the ball through the air effectively killed the team's chances of winning its final two games against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the Gophers definitely had an offensive identity. They became the physical, run-first team that they previewed in the Texas Bowl last season. Junior David Cobb came out of nowhere to rush for 1,111 yards, sixth most in the Big Ten. Minnesota's offensive line paved the way for 200 rushing yards per game. Though limited in options, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover maximized his strengths by pounding the ball on the ground and controlling the clock.

The offense was at its best against Nebraska and Indiana, when Minnesota scored a combined 76 points in those two games. But the lack of a legitimate passing game remains a concern going forward.

Defense: B

Minnesota had one of the more underrated defenses in the Big Ten. Opponents managed just 22.3 points per game. The defense struggled early in league play against Iowa and Michigan but got much better as the season went on. In the final three games, Minnesota held Penn State to 10 points, Wisconsin to 20 and Michigan State to 14 -- all well below those teams' averages.

Ra'Shede Hageman developed into the star many expected at defensive tackle. The attention he commanded up the middle cleared the way for Theiren Cockran to register 7.5 sacks, second best in the league. The secondary was a strength again, thanks to the play of Brock Vereen, Eric Murray and, when healthy, Derrick Wells. That Tracy Claeys managed to keep this defense above average while also serving as interim head coach was an impressive feat.

Special teams: B-plus

Minnesota was mostly better than league average on special teams. The Gophers ranked fourth on kickoff returns, fifth in punt returns, seventh in punting and fifth in kickoff coverage. Peter Mortell finished third in punting average, while Marcus Jones was third in kickoff returns. Chris Hawthorne was the Big Ten special teams player of the week after making a pair of field goals against Nebraska.

Overall: A

While the individual categories might not necessarily add up to an A, Minnesota was a perfect example of a collective whole ending up greater than its parts. The season could have easily come apart after head coach Jerry Kill took his leave of absence to deal with epilepsy after missing the Michigan game. Instead, the team bonded together and won its next four Big Ten games, something that hadn't happened in the previous 40 years. Kill talked about needing to need a notch a signature league victory this season, and the Gophers responded by beating Nebraska and Penn State. The team even entered the Top 25 in November after reaching 8-2. Losing the last two games was a minor bummer, but few people expected Minnesota to win eight games this season, especially given Kill's situation. The efforts and achievements this season deserve an A.

Eric Murray manning up for Minnesota

November, 20, 2013
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Any credible list of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks starts with Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, moves on to Ohio State's Bradley Roby and then typically branches off in several directions.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste would appear third on some ballots, as would Michigan's Blake Countess, Iowa's B.J. Lowery and Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Wisconsin freshman Sojourn Shelton also is getting noticed for his recent play.

One name no one's talking about is Eric Murray, although Minnesota's coaches could filibuster for days about the sophomore cornerback. Murray's problem: Unlike the other aforementioned corners, he has yet to intercept a pass this season. Interceptions equal attention, especially the pick-six variety.

[+] EnlargeEric Murray
Zumapress/Icon SMIEric Murray has hounded receivers such as Penn State's Allen Robinson throughout the Big Ten season.
The irony is that Murray's lack of picks can be attributed, at least in part, to how much confidence the coaches have in his game.

"He doesn't play a lot of zone," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com "He's pretty much a man-to-man guy, and a lot of it's press-man. It's hard to get a lot of interceptions when you play as much press-man as he does.

"But we feel like he can get people stopped when we need to get 'em stopped."

It's why Minnesota often has Murray mark the opponent's top pass-catching threat. He has lined up across from Penn State's Allen Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Northwestern's Tony Jones, Nebraska's Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, and San Jose State's Chandler Jones, the nation's No. 7 wideout. The 6-foot, 194-pound Murray has the length to defend bigger receivers and the speed to pace smaller ones.

Every receiver struggled to match his typical production against Murray, whose next assignment is Wisconsin star Jared Abbrederis on Saturday, when the 19th-ranked Badgers visit No. 25 Minnesota in the most anticipated Axe game in years.

Robinson, the Big Ten's top wideout, was targeted five times with Murray guarding him and recorded just two receptions for 18 yards. Enunwa didn't record any receptions in the nine plays he went against Murray.

"Our staff, we think Darqueze Dennard's the best corner in this conference," Sawvel said. "I know Roby gets a lot of publicity, and we think he's really good, too.

"But outside of those two, we wouldn’t trade Eric for anybody in the conference."

After playing mostly special teams as a freshman in 2012 -- cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire started every game -- Murray had a strong offseason, leaving Sawvel optimistic about his potential for this fall.

Still, Sawvel wondered how the young cornerback would handle failure, and how often he would fail. The answer came Oct. 26 against Nebraska. On the fifth play from scrimmage, Bell beat Murray on a post for 42 yards to the Minnesota 2-yard line, setting up a touchdown.

"His reaction when he came back to the sideline was, 'I'm gonna kick his ass the rest of the game,'" Sawvel said. "It was not, 'Boy, he's tough to cover.' It wasn’t any of that. There was no self-doubt. He was mad about it, but he was like, 'I got this.' And he did."

Nebraska targeted Bell three more times with Murray on him but completed zero passes, as Minnesota rallied for a 34-23 win.

"Whoever's in front of me, it doesn't matter," Murray said. "I just have to be comfortable in myself. If you think negative, negative things will happen."

Murray's positive outlook and drive helped him get to the Big Ten despite being largely overlooked in recruiting. After Murray's junior year at Milwaukee's Riverside University High School, his coach took him to three camps -- Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Murray worked mostly as a receiver during the Gophers' camp, but head coach Jerry Kill wanted to see if his athleticism translated better at corner.

Days later, Murray returned to Minnesota for a second camp, where he worked one-on-one with Sawvel for 2 1/2 hours.

"Sometimes you get fortunate in recruiting," Kill said. "You've got to go with what you see."

The coaches liked what they saw then, and what they continue to see from Murray.

"Sometimes you have to motivate people to go to work, but not him," Kill said. "He loves playing football, and he takes what he does very seriously.

"He's one of those kids who really tries to master his craft."

Murray spends at least 30 minutes a day watching film of opposing receivers, charting their tendencies and the routes they most often run. He prefers man coverage to zone, where a cornerback must expand his vision rather than simply shadow the receiver.

Murray also watches other cornerbacks, like Dennard, a potential first-round draft pick who plays in an aggressive scheme where the corners are left to fend for themselves. Minnesota uses its corners similarly.

"He presses a lot, and I feel like that's more of my style," Murray said. "I would rather press more than anything."

Even if it means fewer interception opportunities. Murray has come close, as he came down out of bounds following a pick against UNLV and had an end zone interception against Penn State nullified by an offsides penalty.

"I really don't mind it," he said. "As long as my guy doesn't catch the ball, I'm all right. It'll feel really good to get my first one, but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself."

Instead, he'll keep pressuring his opponents. Next up is Abbrederis, whom Sawvel calls "the biggest challenge in the conference.

Murray won't be the only Gophers defensive back dealing with Abbrederis, but the two will see plenty of one another.

"You've got to match strength with strength," Sawvel said. "Where Darqueze Dennard and those people are, that's what Eric Murray will be in the next year or two.

"This is a guy who's going to be as good as it gets in this conference."

Q&A: Minnesota DC Tracy Claeys

July, 16, 2013
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Last week, I caught up with Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and wrote about the Gophers' linebacker situation. Claeys had other interesting things to say about the defense as a whole, and here they are in Q&A form:

What were your general thoughts on the defense coming out of spring practice?

Tracy Claeys: I think by far it was our best spring. I look forward to getting back with them in fall camp, and hopefully that carries over. I'd be disappointed if we don't play better than we did a year ago.

It appears as if more of your players pass the "look test" on that side of the ball, though that doesn't always translate into results. But you seem to have better athletes. Would you agree with that?

[+] EnlargeDerrick Wells
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Wells will move to cornerback this season for the Gophers.
TC: Yeah, and I think that was the main thing. When you're the University of Minnesota, it takes developing some kids. We've taken some kids who were a little bit smaller but who could run. Now they've had a couple of years in the weight room, and they've put on some weight. So I think all that's going well. We felt like we needed to run better with the spread offenses and the hurry-up stuff people are doing. I do think we've improved athletically, and now having had a couple of years in the weight room, I think our size is getting better. We're still not where we need to be, but I think we can make up for a little bit of that size with the strength and toughness we've added.

How did Derrick Wells' transition from safety back to corner go?

TC: Good. I think that is his natural position. He played well at safety, but with his size that's something that will help us on the edge. He runs well enough to do it, and we have enough depth at safety that I think it balances everything out a lot better and gives us a chance to be consistent. I've been very pleased with the secondary and where we're at there.

You've got some taller guys in the defensive backfield. Is that part of your philosophy, or is it just how things have worked out?

TC: Well, you've got to be able to run -- that's the number one thing. And playing in the Big Ten with some of the running game things people are doing, you've got to have guys who can tackle. Then the receivers are getting bigger -- everybody is putting those bigger receivers out there. I don't think you'll ever see a defense go with 6-foot-4 corners out there, but at least if you have some 6-1 guys with some strength and some length to them, you've got a chance on some of those jump balls and things that offenses are throwing up.

We always look at athletic ability first. It's important to be able to run. We've been able to develop a few kids and put some size on them -- Derrick was only 155, 160 pounds when he got here and has really benefited from the weight room. You go back and wish you could have redshirted some of them. Derrick is going to be a senior next year and so is [safety] Cedric [Thompson]; we just weren't in a situation where we able to redshirt those kids, and really their bodies, you see them just now developing as they should. They really should be redshirt sophomores with three years to play, but that's part of the situation we were in. We feel we have great kids who have worked hard to get to where they are without redshirting.

I guess the flip side to that is, they've gotten a lot of experience.

TC: That's true, and that's part of why we changed about five years ago on secondary kids. We said, 'Hey, if they can help, we might as well play them.' Because there's a lot of space out there, and everybody is spreading the field. And then they get a lot more comfortable. Eric Murray, he's going to be the one this year at corner. We played him a little bit last year, and now he knows what it's like to go out in a big stadium and play in front of people. I think a lot of times [experience] does outweigh the benefit of redshirting as long as you can recruit and replace those kids.

How do you feel about the defensive end position going into the fall and your ability to rush the passer?

TC: Theiren Cockran continues to get bigger and had a good spring. Alex Keith is another guy I wish we could have redshirted, but he has good pass-rushing ability and has improved in the weight room. Michael [Amaefula] is coming back, and Ben Perry. So I feel really good about the defensive line. I feel the best about it since I've been here. I think we're going to have depth up there. I'm really looking forward to seeing those guys teeing it up on gameday.

It all seems to start with stopping the run in the Big Ten, and you guys have had your ups and downs there. How do you feel about your ability to do that this season?

TC: I think sometimes our front four has taken a little too much heat. Our first year, we didn't play well in the front four. Last year, we played awfully well there, and the kids continue to get better. Our run issues were another part besides just the front four. So I think we're getting closer to getting that corrected. We're better up front than what we were a year ago and we have more depth. And I still think that's where games are won or lost up front, especially when you can keep kids healthy and get them through the 11th or 12th game.

We haven't changed a lot scheme-wise and we're not going to change a lot, just make little adjustments here and there. They're getting more comfortable, and then the more comfortable you get, the quicker you get off the ball and the more plays you make.

You should have some good competition for playing time in the front seven when training camp opens next month. How do you think that will affect the overall development?

TC: It can help you, but you can also get some kids who are afraid of competition, make excuses and don't perform as well. When you start winning ball games is when you have kids who compete to play and don't make excuses. That's how we continue to improve as a football team. Right now, I think we've got kids who like to compete. One thing we've done since we've been here and where we've been before is, if you don't play well in the game, then the next week your spot is up for grabs. And we're going to play the people who most consistently work hard and give us the best chance to win each week. Plus, when you play as many kids as we play, then kids go through practice knowing they're going to have an opportunity to play in the game; it's just a matter of whether you take advantage of it or not. I think we do have a group of kids who like to compete and when you have competition, it keeps everybody on their toes.

You've got three experienced senior starters in Brock Vereen, Aaron Hill and Ra'Shede Hageman. Are they your obvious leaders, or have others emerged?

TC: You're as good as your seniors. I believe that. You've got to have playmakers on the field, and they don't always have to be seniors, but the better the leadership comes from seniors, the better football team you've got. What's good about those three is that they all work their butts off -- they don't take days off in the weight room or stuff like that. I think that's the main thing for a leader. You've got to be somebody who puts in the time to be successful, and all three of those kids have. And with that, they're developing other ones. Maybe sometimes younger kids don't always know how to work the best when they get here, but then they see those seniors working hard, it puts that work ethic in everybody.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 5, 2013
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I dare type it, but spring might be finally here.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill guided the team to a bowl game during his second season in Minneapolis despite some depth and injury problems in 2012. What's in store for Year 3 of the Kill era? I recently caught up with him to get his outlook for the Gophers' spring practice, which opens today.

How has the offseason gone for you guys so far?

Jerry Kill: Well, I think the bowl game, even though we lost, the kids played very hard and well. We got healthy, for one, before we went to the bowl, and we had a great month with our kids and a great experience. And coming into the offseason, I think there was a lot of confidence gained. All our kids' strength and testing numbers went up. I guess I can use Ra'Shede Hageman as an example, He benched 450 pounds, squatted well over 500 and cleaned 350, with a 38-inch vertical. So kids like that got a lot better.

We feel up front and on the defensive line, we've gotten stronger. I think we've added some depth to the defensive line, and secondary-wise, we played several freshmen in that game against Texas Tech. We've got the flexibility to play Derrick Wells at corner and safety. I think the biggest question mark we've got going in is, we lost five scholarship linebackers. It's like a year ago when we lost seven secondary players and kind of hit the jackpot in recruiting. Damien Wilson, a junior college transfer, has had a great spring, and I'm looking forward to seeing him on the field. The guys who need the reps this spring are James Manuel, Aaron Hill, Lamonte Edwards, and young men we redshirted named Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis. And then we've got four other kids coming when fall camp starts. Our secondary a year ago had a lot of questions and really played well. I think, this year, linebacker is where we need to step up on defense.

And then on offense, I feel we'll be a much better football team than we were a year ago because we get everybody back except for Brandon Green and Q [MarQueis Gray], really. So I think that unit will be much improved.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJerry Kill begins his third season as head coach of the Gophers.
You showed off a good power running game in that bowl game. Is that what we should expect from your offense going forward?

JK: Yeah, that's what we were at Northern Illinois. We could run the power at you, but then we were athletic enough to turn and run the zone read with the quarterback. Both [Chandler] Harnisch and [Jordan] Lynch, when we needed to throw it, we completed it. But we still made our living on running the football. It was the first time, in the bowl game, that we had the same offensive line that we had at the beginning of the seaon. We had so many people get experience there. But that's what we want to be -- a team that gives you a lot of different looks, shifting and motion and different personnel grouping. But you've still got to be able to run the football, and certainly in the Big Ten.

Speaking of that offensive line, after a lot of injuries there last year, how is the position looking this spring?

JK: Well, we've got a lot of depth, no question. Eddie Olson, he won't go through the spring, but he had a good year a year ago. If we can get his foot healed up and done right, it kind of works out. He'll continue to get stronger. We redshirted Jonah Pirsig, who's a 6-foot-8, 6-9, 320 pound tackle, Ben Lauer, who's 6-7 and probably 305, and Isaac Hayes, who is a 6-2, 300-pound offensive guard. So those kids, I'm anxious to see them in the spring.

We've got Zac Epping, Jon Christenson and Caleb Bak -- in the weight room, he benched 350, squatted 550, so he's gotten stronger. Josh Campion is a strong kid; he benches well over 400 pounds. So the same guys who when I first got here were getting pushed around have gotten stronger. And then we've added these young kids that have come in. Marek Lenkiewicz is up to 290 pounds, Tommy Olson is healthy again and Brian Bobek, who transferred from Ohio State and had great credentials when he went to Ohio State, he's another one who's very physically strong. Then there's Foster Bush and Joe Bjorklund. They're all young kids, but they've gotten physically stronger.

When we got here, I think we had about seven or eight offensive linemen. So we've built it through walk-ons and kind of did it the hard way. But I feel good about that position, along with our tight ends, quarterbacks and receivers. Our defense improved tremendously from one year to the next. For us to be competitive in the Big Ten -- which I think we can be -- our offense has to take the steps our defense did a year ago. And I think we can.

Philip Nelson finished the season for you at quarterback and had a nice bowl game, but you also have some talented young guys there. Is it his job to lose this spring or a more open competition?

JK: We took the redshirt off Philip last year, and he did some good things and had some things he struggled with, as you'd expect for a freshman. He did some great things in the bowl game. When we go into camp, somebody is going to have to go in there and beat him out. But the thing that's good about that is the competition.

Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler are great athletes who can play another position if needed, but they both want to play quarterback and they're very capable of giving someone a run for their money. I can tell you, our defense is very high on Leidner. Mitch is probably close to 6-5 and 230, and he is a 4.6, 4.65 guy [in the 40-yard dash]. And very strong. And then Streveler is quicker than that. He came in during the second semester, and I think he's the third-fastest guy on our team. When we had him in camp, he played receiver also.

So all three of those guys are great kids, students of the game, and the type of kids you want playing quarterback leadership-wise. We'll let it work out. Leidner and Streveler are the type of kids who would say, "Coach, if it helps the team if you move me, I'll do that." But in the spring we're going to let them compete and make sure we're solid at that position. If you look at last year, it was kind of a miracle we got to a bowl game, because we had three different quarterbacks and three different centers. Not many people can win doing that.

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