Big Ten: Evan Wilson

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

ILLINOIS
  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

INDIANA
  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

IOWA
  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
MARYLAND
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
MICHIGAN
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.


MICHIGAN STATE
  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

MINNESOTA
  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
NEBRASKA
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

NORTHWESTERN
  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
OHIO STATE
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
PENN STATE
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PURDUE
  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

RUTGERS
  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

WISCONSIN
  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.

Illini credit closeness for turnaround

September, 12, 2013
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Illinois is a surprising 2-0 after last week's thumping of Cincinnati. The reasons the Illini look so much better to start the season include the arrival of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, better overall health and ... a video game tournament?

Senior tight end Evan Wilson suggests that as one factor. Several players battled head to head in NBA 2K13 this summer, with receiver Miles Osei beating out tight end Jon Davis for the championship.

"A lot of feelings were hurt," Wilson says.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNathan Scheelhaase and his Illinois teammates have gotten off to a strong start.
But Wilson said that tournament was one example of how the team came together to form a family-style bond unit this offseason. It's an effort that began shortly after Illinois lost to Northwestern last November to complete a dismal 2-10 season.

"We had a meeting right after that game where we all made a pact to buy in," offensive lineman Corey Lewis said. "Everybody agreed to buy into the system, and we really harped on that."

Lewis said players made a conscious effort to spend more time together in the offseason, eating meals at the same time, going to the movies and doing community service projects. Head coach Tim Beckman continued to foster that during training camp with a team outing to a local water park.

"We were just getting to know each other more," Lewis said. "A lot of times, you see seniors who have no idea what the freshmen are like. But I think we're a tight-knit group. Our seniors talk to our freshmen. There are no cliques or anything like that. We're a family."

A healthy dose of skepticism here is understandable, as many teams talk about offseason bonding techniques. But Beckman stressed throughout the offseason that his players were doing everything right on the field, in the classroom and in the community. He sensed that his second year as coach in Champaign was building toward something better.

"We had done so many great things for 10 months, but of course you don't play a football game so you don't know," Beckman said this week. "But these players have bought in to all the things we've asked to do. You can see those things hopefully corresponding to and relating to what we do on the football field. At least in the last two games, the hard work we put in in January and the offseason paid off for us."

The most obvious change for Illinois on the field is the vast improvement by the offense. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has thrown for 728 yards and six touchdowns through two weeks. Last season, the Illini had three passing touchdowns in their entire eight-game Big Ten season. The team averaged just 11.8 points in its final eight games of 2012; so far through two games, it is scoring 43.5 points per game.

Cubit's spread system is a big key to that, obviously, but so is Scheelhaase's health. The senior battled through injuries nearly all season in 2012, and when he went in for a postseason knee examination, "it was a lot worse than people thought," Beckman said.

It also helps to have senior linebacker Jonathan Brown back and healthy. He leads the team with 23 tackles after dealing with a series of injuries a year ago. While 2012 was mostly one to forget for everyone associated with the Illini, the sting of that memory drove the team.

"It's hard to stay positive in a 2-10 season, and at some points there wasn't any positivity around here," Brown said. "The biggest thing is that you use the losing and all the setbacks from last year as motivation. That's probably the best motivation you could have."

Wilson said the Cincinnati win was "vindication that there's a different atmosphere here," while Lewis says it "felt great to prove people wrong." At the same time, Illinois also started 2-1 last year before collapsing, and this week's game against No. 19 Washington at Soldier Field brings another jump in competition level.

The Illini still have much to prove. But if they can manage to pull off another upset, they might crack the Top 25 next week, believe it or not.

"I think a win would boost the program and really put us back on a national scale," Wilson said. "It would let people know Illinois is back, and we're still playing good football. That's all that matters to me."
The rosters are set for Illinois' Orange and Blue Spring Game, which will kick off at 8 p.m. CT Friday at Memorial Stadium.

Illinois' seniors on Tuesday night drafted the two teams, which you can see here. Because of depth issues, eight players -- Robbie Bain, Abe Cajuste, Tim Clary, Chase Haslett, Samuel Ogunkoya, David Reisner, Cameron Tucker and Sean White -- will play for both squads.

Not surprisingly, top quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase (blue) and Reilly O'Toole (orange) will match up in the game. The two have competed for the starting job throughout the spring and will continue to do so in fall camp.

At first blush, the Blue squad looks much, much stronger. Scheelhaase is joined by top running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young and veteran receivers Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. The Orange also has the team's top two healthy linebackers in Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina -- Jonathan Brown (shoulder) will miss the game -- as well as Tim Kynard, the only returning starter on the defensive line.

The Orange team needs a big night from players like wide receiver Martize Barr, a junior-college transfer practicing with the first-team offense, and Miles Osei, a former quarterback now playing exclusively at receiver. Tight end Evan Wilson also will play for the Orange. The defense includes linebacker Houston Bates, linemen Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams, and cornerback Darius Mosely, a true freshman who enrolled early and has made an impact this spring. The Orange squad also has top specialists Justin DuVernois and Taylor Zalewski.

Several players will miss the game, including Brown and wide receiver Steve Hull, who was having a good spring before being slowed by a hamstring injury.

The game will feature a normal clock for the first three quarters and a running clock in the fourth quarter aside from the final two minutes. There will be no kickoffs or returns (kickoff or punt), and quarterbacks won't be live.

CHICAGO -- Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit knows what he represents: another round of changes for players who have experienced plenty of them.

Cubit is Illinois' fourth offensive play-caller and fourth offensive coordinator in the past three seasons (Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales shared play calls and the coordinator role in 2012). No unit in the Big Ten has endured more recent transition than the Illini offense. Cubit understands what his players have been through, but he's not decelerating the learning curve this spring. Just the opposite.

"Like I told those guys, what you did in the past really doesn’t make a bit of difference," Cubit said Friday before Illinois held a spring practice/scrimmage at Gately Stadium on Chicago's South Side. "We've just got to get this thing done. ... Ohio State, Penn State, Northwestern, none of these people really care. You've got to face the facts."

The facts are Illinois had one of the nation's worst offenses in 2012. The Illini finished 119th nationally in both yards per game and points per game, 107th in passing and 97th in rushing. Big Ten play brought even greater struggles for Illinois, which averaged just 272 yards and 11.8 points in eight league contests.

Cubit, a longtime offensive coordinator before spending the past eight seasons as Western Michigan's head coach, is tasked to turn things around in a hurry. He's not wasting any time installing his system, and not downplaying what it entails for the players.

"The system is vastly different from what they've done," he told ESPN.com. "The routes are vastly different. The quarterback reads, the quarterback steps are vastly different. We're going to play underneath the center at times."

Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, who are competing for the starting job, are absorbing the brunt of the changes under Cubit. In addition to taking more snaps under center, both are working on getting the ball out quickly.

Cubit's target is 2.2 seconds, typically out of a five-step drop. He notes that even the slightest delay, like holding the ball at chest level rather than shoulder level, where it can be quickly released, makes a big difference.

"I don't think we have the personnel that we just sit back there and take seven-step drops and guys will be open," Cubit said.

Scheelhaase and O'Toole also have had to change their footwork and throwing mechanics, a process which, according to Cubit, has been fairly easy. Because neither quarterback worked much under center before, they haven't had to break longtime habits.

Although Scheelhaase has a major experience edge (36 career starts), Cubit said the quarterbacks are "about equal" so far this spring. Cubit is focused more on installing his system than evaluating a potential starter, and the competition likely will last through the summer and into preseason camp. It's highly unlikely Illinois will use a rotation at quarterback.

"Let’s find the one guy we know we can win with and go," Cubit said, "and prepare that other guy in case something happens."

Whomever emerges will need a lot of help, as Illinois struggled to find playmakers in 2012. Cubit likes the potential of the tight end group: Evan Wilson, Matt LaCosse and, when he gets healthy, Jon Davis. Running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young have had good springs.

There are bigger questions at wide receiver. Although Illinois returns a few familiar names (Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris), it needs others to emerge and could be turning to several players who have switched positions (Steve Hull, Miles Osei) as well as a junior-college arrival (Martize Barr).

"The biggest change has been Steve Hull moving from defense to offense," wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy said. "He's polished, he's excited, he's energized, he's competitive. He's making big plays."

Head coach Tim Beckman called the offensive line Illinois' "biggest concern" after a season where the group surrendered a league-worst 39 sacks and the Illini averaged a league-low 3.5 yards per carry. The silver lining is players like Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic and Ted Karras have experience under their belts. Alex Hill has moved from guard into the top center spot this spring.

Cubit has tried to tailor his scheme to help out the offensive line.

"We've got to play to their strengths also," he said. "The one thing I see there is willingness. Probably a scarred group, like the whole offense. When you’re next to last [nationally] in offense, you're going to have some gaps out there. But I just keep on telling them how good they can be. And they can.

"They've got a shot."
In the Illinois offensive staff room, there's a board where the coaches list their top five playmakers. The goal is to identify which players need to touch the ball most often, and then to build the offense strategy and scheme around that.

How much has that list changed in the last several months?

"It's changed quite a bit since we got here," co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales told ESPN.com, laughing. "It's everchanging."

[+] EnlargeFritz Rock
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireThe Illini are looking to Fritz Rock to add depth at receiver.
The Illini want that top five to stay fluid to reflect competition. But there also haven't been as many candidates for that list as the coaching staff would like.

The team is switching to the spread offense this season under new coach Tim Beckman, and that's an attack that usually requires lots of depth at the skill positions. Illinois, though, doesn't have that luxury and continues to look for more playmakers, especially at receiver.

"We are extremely, extremely thin there," said Gonzales, who oversees the receivers. "Depth is a major need for us, and we have to go out and recruit that. Of the guys we have right now, I probably feel comfortable with three of them, and they are the three with experience at the Division I level. After that, it's a dogfight."

Gonzales said a spread offense should ideally be four deep at each of the three receiver spots and added that the Illini "are not even close to that right now." He also said the Illini have "not by any means" identified a true No. 1 receiver among those they are sure will contribute. A big key for the staff, he said, will be to continue to develop young wideouts like sophomore Fritz Rock and redshirt freshman Kenny Knight.

While the receiver position is a big question mark, there are higher hopes at some of the other skill positions.

Gonzales said the running back group, considered a weakness going into the offseason, is now "one of the strengths of our team." Though it's not particularly deep, the duo of Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young has Gonzales excited. He said there are packages where both will be on the field at the same time.

"Donovonn played for us last year, and Josh understands what's expected of him after this spring," he said. "Both of those guys have the ability to run the ball in our offense, and both of them are strong and powerful."

The tight end spot is another area for optimism. Gonzales feels the team is four-deep at that position with Evan Wilson, Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse and Eddie Viliunas. The tight ends, he said, "have had a really good football camp," and you could see multiple tight end sets this fall even in a spread offense.

"We've got to put our best 11 players on the field, and if the best 11 players includes tight ends over receivers or running backs over receivers, that's what it is," Gonzales said.

Gonzales also said that quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has had a good preseason and has "really embraced a leadership role." He declined to say whether there was a plan to play backup Reilly O'Toole, as the team did last year, and said that the goal is just to get both quarterbacks and Miles Osei prepared to lead the No. 1 offense, if necessary.

There are still plenty of questions for the Illinois offense, questions that probably won't be answered until there are more players earning serious consideration for that top five list.

"Some of our guys are starting to step up, and that gives a little more flexibility to our offense," Gonzales said. "If we can get more guys to step up, that will make for a pretty good offense."
Back in May, Brian Bennett wrote about the tight end position being a potential strength for the Big Ten in 2012. Last season wasn't a banner year for Big Ten tight ends, but the combination of returning players and new coaches (Bill O'Brien, Urban Meyer) who feature tight ends in their offenses suggests an uptick is on the way.

The John Mackey Award selection committee evidently agrees.

Six Big Ten tight ends appear on the preseason watch list for the Mackey Award released Tuesday. Only the SEC (7) has more candidates than the Big Ten.

Here's the B1G contingent:
Other than Pedersen -- and, in a strange way, Stoneburner (14 receptions, 7 TDs) -- none of these players had big numbers in 2011. But all six could have much bigger roles in their respective offenses this fall. Fiedorowicz, Sims, Pedersen and Stoneburner all play for teams lacking many proven weapons at wide receiver. New Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis has raved about Fiedorowicz, and while Stoneburner isn't with the Buckeyes now because of his June 2 arrest, he's expected back for the season and should have a bigger role.

Reed had a nice year in 2010, recording a team-high eight touchdown receptions, and while his numbers dipped last fall, he should be more comfortable in the offense this season. Fellow Huskers tight end Ben Cotton didn't make the watch list despite putting up similar numbers to Reed's in 2011.

Like Reed, Bolser had a bigger year in 2010 (27 catches, 405 yards, 5 TDs) than in 2011. But like Reed, Bolser will be in the second year of a new offensive system and should see his production increase.

One intriguing question is whether Penn State will have any tight ends in consideration by the end of the season. New Lions coach Bill O'Brien loved to feature the tight end position as New England Patriots offensive coordinator. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Illinois' Jon Davis or Evan Wilson work their way into contention.

The Mackey semifinalists will be announced Nov. 12 and the finalists on Nov. 19. The winner will be announced Dec. 6 at the Home Depot College Football Awards.

Minnesota's Matt Spaeth (2006) is the last Big Ten winner of the Mackey Award.

Illinois spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
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2011 record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 2-6 (fifth, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, C Graham Pocic, WR Darius Millines, LB Jonathan Brown, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, CB Terry Hawthorne, DT Glenn Foster

Key losses

WR A.J. Jenkins, LT Jeff Allen, G Jack Cornell, DE Whitney Mercilus, LB Ian Thomas, CB Tavon Wilson, K Derek Dimke

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (624 yards)
Passing:
Nathan Scheelhaase (2,110 yards)
Receiving: A.J. Jenkins (1,276 yards)
Tackles: Jonathan Brown* (108)
Sacks: Whitney Mercilus (16)
Interceptions: Terry Hawthorne* (3)

Spring answers

1. Front loaded: How good is Illinois' defensive line? The Illini lose a first-round draft pick for the second consecutive year and should be just fine for the next season. Although All-America end Whitney Mercilus leaves a big production void, Illinois is loaded up front with Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster, Justin Staples and others. Buchanan and Spence both have NFL potential and should be the mix for All-Big Ten honors. While Illinois has a new coordinator in Tim Banks, the scheme changes aren't dramatic and new head coach Tim Beckman wisely retained line coach Keith Gilmore.

2. Ferguson emerges: The Illini are short on proven offensive weapons (more on that later), but they came out of the spring game feeling a bit better after watching freshman Josh Ferguson run for 130 yards and record a game-high six receptions. Ferguson, who redshirted last season after being slowed by a hamstring injury, brings top-end speed to the offensive backfield. He could form a nice tandem with Donovonn Young this fall.

3. Versatility abounds: Beckman is open to using versatile players in multiple roles, and two options emerged this spring. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who has seen time on returns, played some receiver during the spring game and hauled in a 29-yard touchdown pass. Hawthorne played both corner and receiver in high school and could be a "slash" player for the Illini. Reserve quarterback Miles Osei also showed he can be effective at multiple positions (running back, receiver).

Fall questions

1. Offensive weapons: The offense's struggles in the second half of 2011 stemmed in large part from the fact Illinois developed no consistent weapons other than wideout A.J. Jenkins, a surprise first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Depth is a major concern at both running back and receiver. Darius Millines has shown promising flashes, but he struggles to stay healthy. Although the coaches aren't afraid to audition players from other positions, Illinois would really benefit if wide receiver Ryan Lankford and tight ends Evan Wilson and Jon Davis stepped up. The Illini also need a third option at running back behind Young and Ferguson.

2. Special teams: Beckman didn't mince words when evaluating Illinois' special teams from 2011, calling them "terrible." He's being kind. The Illini couldn't catch punts, and they finished last in the FBS in kick return average (15.7 ypr). Standout kicker Derek Dimke departs, and Illinois must find a replacement. Illinois has too much talent to be so lousy in the kicking game, and Beckman stressed the basics this spring. He must continue to see progress this summer as Illinois tries to become a more complete team.

3. Quarterback efficiency: Illinois wants to regain its swagger on offense after flat-lining down the stretch of last season, and it starts with the quarterback spot. Nathan Scheelhaase has started two seasons under center, but he's transitioning to a new system and looked a bit shaky throwing the ball in the spring game. Arm strength is a question mark for Scheelhaase, who will need to spread the ball around in the new system. Reilly O'Toole also is in the mix after playing a decent amount as a backup in 2011. O'Toole will continue to compete for time.
Apologies for posting this a bit late, but four Big Ten tight ends appear on the midseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end.

They are:
Among these players, Pedersen and Stoneburner have the best chances to advance for the award. Both men have been extremely effective at getting in the end zone: six of Stoneburner's 12 catches have gone for touchdowns, while Pedersen has five touchdown grabs on 17 total receptions. Stoneburner leads Ohio State in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, while Pedersen ranks third for Wisconsin in receiving and second in receiving touchdowns.

Are there any Big Ten snubs? Michigan's Kevin Koger (12 receptions, 135 yards, 2 TDs), Indiana's Ted Bolser (11 receptions, 141 yards, 1 TD) and Illinois' Evan Wilson (6 receptions, 3 TDs) both have had nice seasons.

Semifinalists for the Mackey Award are announced Nov. 14, and finalists are selected Nov. 21. The winner will be announced Dec. 8 during the Home Depot ESPN College Football Awards show.

Big Ten lunchtime links

July, 21, 2011
7/21/11
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If lunchtime linking is cool, consider me Miles Davis:
  • When the Big Ten was forming its divisions, many teams wanted to be aligned with Northwestern because of Chicago, Scott Dochterman writes.
As promised, it's time to rank the Big Ten's top tight ends entering the 2011 season.

Unlike wide receiver, a position loaded with clear-cut No. 1 options, the tight end group has a few more question marks. Standout players like Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Michigan State's Charlie Gantt and Iowa's Allen Reisner have departed. While the wide receivers list was based heavily on past performance, this one leans more on potential for the upcoming season.

Here's your top 10 for '11 (Update: Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner has been included in the rankings. Apologies for the oversight):

[+] EnlargeKyler Reed
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIKyler Reed had 22 catches for 395 yards and eight TDs last season.
1. Kyler Reed, Nebraska, junior: Here's a name Big Ten fans need to know. Why? He might terrorize your team's defense when it goes up against Nebraska this fall. Reed is a gifted pass-catching tight end who averaged 18 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010. The Huskers lack proven depth at receiver, so Reed should be a focal point of the passing game in Tim Beck's offense.

2. Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern, senior: If Dunsmore can stay healthy, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He didn't have the monster season some expected in 2010, although he still recorded 40 receptions for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to feature Dunsmore as much as possible, so if the senior avoids the injury bug, he'll have a chance to put up big numbers.

3. Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State, junior: Stoneburner has been discussed as a potential breakout player for some time, and this could finally be his season to shine. Ohio State enters the season with no proven depth at receiver, while Stoneburner has been in the system for a while and recorded 21 receptions for 222 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. The Buckeyes have seemed hesitant to feature the tight end in the passing game, but Stoneburner could be the man to change things this fall.

4. Ted Bolser, Indiana, sophomore: Bolser quietly turned in one of the best seasons among Big Ten freshmen in 2010. He started seven games and averaged 15.1 yards per reception, recording 27 catches and five touchdowns. Indiana has enough depth at receiver to occupy opposing defensive backs, so Bolser should find some openings to make plays. He boasts excellent size at 6-foot-6, 240.

5. Eric Lair, Minnesota, senior: After recording just one reception in his first two years, Lair had somewhat of a breakout season in 2010. He ranked among the Big Ten's most productive tight ends with 39 receptions for 526 yards, an average of 13.5 yards per catch. The Gophers need more pass-catching options alongside Da'Jon McKnight, and Lair could see an even bigger role this fall.

6. Brian Linthicum, Michigan State, senior: As Gantt departs, Linthicum is the obvious candidate to move into the No. 1 role for an offense that doesn't ignore the tight end position. Linthicum started five games in 2010, recording 18 receptions for 230 yards. He has 19 career starts for two AQ teams (Clemson and Michigan State), so he's no stranger to the spotlight. But Linthicum can't afford a drop-off as talented sophomore Dion Sims rejoins the team.

7. Kevin Koger, Michigan, senior: Experience isn't an issue for Koger, who has started 19 games in his first three seasons. He didn't quite meet expectations in 2010, as his numbers fell a bit even though Michigan's offense made significant strides. The good news is Koger should see an increased role in Al Borges' offense. Borges said this spring Koger can catch at least 30 passes this fall. If so, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

8. Brad Herman, Iowa, senior: Herman has only 10 career catches, but several factors suggest bigger things are ahead. Iowa always seems to produce one of the Big Ten's best tight ends, and the program's recent track record of sending tight ends to the NFL speaks for itself. Herman knows he's the next in line, and he showed big-play ability in 2010, averaging 15.7 yards per catch. Like Linthicum, he faces pressure to perform as a dynamic young player (C.J. Fiedorowicz) is right behind him.

9. Jake Byrne, Wisconsin, senior: Byrne's selection is similar to Herman's. Like Herman, Byrne lacks impressive numbers (only five receptions in 2010), but he also plays for a program that loves to feature its tight ends. Plus, Byrne was one of the most impressive players I saw this spring in my tour around the league. Known for his blocking, Byrne showed this spring he can get open in the middle of the field. Wisconsin lacks depth at receiver, so Byrne should be a big part of the passing attack.

T-10. Evan Wilson, Illinois, sophomore: Like several tight ends on this list, Wilson could benefit from his team's lack of depth at wide receiver. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has made strides as a passer and needs other options to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins. Wilson started 11 games as a true freshman and made 10 catches, two for touchdowns. He's a good blocker who should get better and better in the passing game.

T-10. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa, sophomore: Maybe I'm buying into the hype, but Fiedorowicz has a chance to claim a significant role in Iowa's passing attack this fall. Herman doesn't have an extensive track record, and Marvin McNutt is the Hawkeyes' only proven receiver. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Fiedorowicz is big and athletic, and he boasts the skills to become a true pass-catching threat. This is a total projection pick, but I think Fiedorowicz does big things this fall.
We've been ranking each position group in the Big Ten, and so far we've looked at running backs and quarterbacks. Today, let's finish off the offensive skill positions with receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten is blessed with plenty of standout wide receivers, but remember these rankings heavily account for overall depth at the position, not just isolated star power. We're also including the tight ends in this group while acknowledging that the best ones aren't necessarily big-time pass-catchers.

Here's how we rank them:

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Andrew Weber/US PresswireB.J. Cunningham had the best numbers last season among a deep group of receivers and tight ends.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans may lack a true superstar, though senior B.J. Cunningham (50 catches for 611 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010) is pretty darn good. What Mark Dantonio can really count on is depth. Cunningham has good size at 6-foot-2, while Keshawn Martin is a speed-burner. Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler fill out a solid cast of receivers, and when you throw in Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims at tight end, this group deserves the top spot.

2. Michigan: If Darryl Stonum weren't suspended indefinitely, this group might be No. 1. It's still pretty good as things stand now. Roy Roundtree leads the way after catching 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and Junior Hemingway is a strong secondary option for Denard Robinson. Tight end Kevin Koger is a third-year starter who can occasionally make big plays in the passing game.

3. Northwestern: Senior Jeremy Ebert (62 catches for 935 yards and eight touchdowns last season) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as voted by the media. Demetrius Fields had 25 receptions last year, and the Wildcats are counting on big improvements from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. Northwestern uses its superback position as a tight end, and Drake Dunsmore had 40 catches from that spot last year.

4. Indiana: The Hoosiers languish at the bottom of many of these rankings, but receiver/tight end is a point of pride. Senior Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten with 78 catches last year on his way to 832 yards. Even with the loss of Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner, who each had more than 60 catches in '10, new coach Kevin Wilson has a solid corps behind Belcher with Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes, among others. And Ted Bolser is a highly productive tight end who had 27 catches for 407 yards and five scores a year ago.

5. Penn State: Three of the top four receivers from last year return, including No. 1 target Derek Moye (his 16.7 yards per catch average was second in the Big Ten a year ago). Justin Brown and Devon Smith need to continue moving forward. Will the Nittany Lions get anything out of Curtis Drake, who's trying to return from his second broken leg? Penn State hopes to get something out of the tight end position, where Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam dealt with season-ending injuries last year.

6. Wisconsin: Once we reach the middle of these rankings, the units start to become interchangeable and a little indistinguishable. Wisconsin doesn't have to throw it too much because of its stellar running game, but the Badgers have some solid choices when they do go to the air. Senior Nick Toon has the talent to record more than the 36 catches and 459 yards he produced a year ago. Jared Abbrederis should continue to come along after a nice freshman campaign. There's potential but not much experience among the rest of the receivers. Star tight end Lance Kendricks will be tough to replace, but Jake Byrne is an outstanding blocker and Jacob Pedersen caught two touchdowns last year.

7. Nebraska: Brandon Kinnie is the leader here, and the 6-foot-3 senior isn't afraid to make the big catch. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell had nice springs and could add some playmaking skills to a largely unproven crew around Kinnie. Kyler Reed might be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the Big Ten, if not the country, after hauling in eight touchdowns and 18 yards per reception a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMarvin McNutt
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Marvin McNutt will be expected to be the No.1 wideout for the Hawkeyes this season.
8. Iowa: Senior Marvin McNutt is the go-to option after recording 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Hawkeyes will look to junior Keenan Davis to improve and become the No. 2 target. Just about everyone else is green. Tight end is usually a strength for Kirk Ferentz and should be again with senior Brad Herman and a group of talented backups behind him.

9. Ohio State: Seems like we write this a lot, but the Buckeyes would be ranked higher if their star player in this group were available an entire season. But DeVier Posey's five-game suspension means this is an awfully young corps, and that inexperience showed with some inconsistent play this spring. Ohio State will need talented sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown to take a big leap forward and youngsters like Chris Fields, T.Y. Williams and James Louis to contribute in Posey's absence. Tight end Jake Stoneburner might have to become a bigger presence in the passing game.

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have some decent depth but no proven stars. Antavian Edison is the leading returning receiver with just 314 yards last year, though the junior does have good speed. Justin Siller is talented but has had trouble staying healthy. Purdue lost two solid veterans at tight end in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay and added a couple of potential replacements, including former basketball player Patrick Bade, this summer.

11. Minnesota: Da'Jon McKnight tied for second in the Big Ten last year with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Gophers' second-leading receiver last season was MarQueis Gray, who's now their starting quarterback. Brandon Green could help after an injury-plagued season. Tight end Eric Lair can grab a few passes, as he did 39 times in 2010.

12. Illinois: The good news: A.J. Jenkins is a reliable weapon who had 746 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The bad news: There's not much experience behind him. Perhaps Ryan Lankford, who starred in the spring while Jenkins was out with an injury, will emerge as a star his sophomore year. Evan Wilson is back at tight end after starting 11 games as a freshman.
Aside from Wisconsin's record-setting unit, no Big Ten offense ended the 2010 season playing better than Illinois.

The Illini eclipsed 530 offensive yards three times in their final five games, averaging 492.4 yards during the stretch. Their main thrust came on the ground, as they racked up 1,644 rush yards and 19 rushing touchdowns in the final five contests. And while the pass attack was up and down throughout the year, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase finished with his best performance in the Texas Bowl against Baylor, completing his first 13 pass attempts (a team record to start a game) en route to a 242-yard effort.

[+] EnlargeJeff Allen
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireSenior Jeff Allen is one of three veterans returning on Illinois' offensive line.
Expectations are justifiably higher for the Illini offense in 2011, and the Big Ten had better be ready.

"We've improved a lot," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "Everybody understands [the system] better. It helps us play faster."

Although Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten running back Mikel Leshoure and several other contributors, most returning players have the luxury of being in Petrino's system for a second season. The Illini had different offensive coordinators in 2008 (Mike Locksley), 2009 (Mike Schultz) and 2010 (Petrino).

The continuity has helped so far this spring.

"It means a lot," tackle Jeff Allen said. "I'm just blessed for [Petrino] to come back for his second year. That's a big benefit. This is my first time having the same offense [two years in a row], and instead of learning something new, I'm just able to play faster and have a better knowledge of the game."

Illinois brings back three full-time starters up front (Allen, center Graham Pocic and guard Hugh Thornton) as well as a part-time starter (guard Jack Cornell). Also returning are fullback Jay Prosch and tight end Evan Wilson, both of whom play major roles in run blocking.

Petrino's offense features an unbalanced line -- tackles and guards are on the strong side or weak side, rather than the right or the left -- and the approach has clicked with players.

"I love creating matchups," Allen said. "Being able to always go against the best player, the best defensive end on each team, it's great. It gives us the ability to do things that we wouldn't be able to if we had a normal formation. It shows the coaches have a lot of trust in me."

Asked if the line needs to be a team strength this fall, Petrino quickly replied, "It needs to be, no question."

Without Leshoure, Illinois will rely more on Scheelhaase. The redshirt sophomore is a dynamic athlete who will remain a big part of the run game -- "He might have to run more [in 2011]," Petrino said -- but must evolve as a passer.

Petrino is seeing promising signs as Scheelhaase goes through his second spring in the system.

"We really wanted to see him become more accurate, get a quicker release and just understand the whole offensive scheme better," Petrino said. "He's done all those things. ... A lot of times they say the game starts slowing down for you when you know what you're doing. When the game slows down, you get the ball out of your hands faster. He's just more comfortable.

"He believes in what he sees and he pulls the trigger."

Although the Illini must build more depth at both running back and receiver, two areas hampered by injuries this spring, Petrino has raised the ball for the unit.

"He expects greatness out of us," Allen said. "He wants us to be the best offense in the country. That's our goal: to be the best."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 8, 2011
4/08/11
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Three Big Ten teams, four days, three states. Bringin' it this week.

Opening spring ball: Illinois

March, 29, 2011
3/29/11
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Illinois hit the practice field early Tuesday morning for the first of 15 spring practices.

Here's a snapshot of what coach Ron Zook and the Illini can expect this spring:

The big story: Replacing three key pieces and taking the next step. The Big Ten lost only seven non-seniors to the NFL draft, but three of them came from Illinois. This spring, the Illini begin the process of replacing defensive tackle Corey Liuget, running back Mikel Leshoure and linebacker Martez Wilson. All three players were extremely productive, and while Illinois boasts decent depth at running back, both defenders leave major voids. After an encouraging end to the 2010 season, Illinois looks to take another step toward stability this spring. The Illini haven't reached back-to-back bowl games since the 1991-92 seasons.

Position in the spotlight: Linebacker. Illinois loses its top two tacklers in Wilson (112) and Nate Bussey (83), who combined for 20 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions in 2010. Veteran Ian Thomas returns and will lead the group much like he did in 2009, but the Illini must find others to emerge. Expectations are high for Jonathan Brown, who recorded 31 tackles as a true freshman last fall. Safety Trulon Henry could move to linebacker this spring.

Coaching changes: Linebackers coach Dan Disch left the program in February to become defensive coordinator at Southern Miss. Zook filled the staff vacancy with Mike Gillhamer, who has coached at eight college programs before serving as secondary coach for the Carolina Panthers from 2004-10. Gillhamer, who nearly joined Ron Turner's staff at Illinois in 1997, will coach Illinois' defensive backs. Coordinator Vic Koenning now will oversee the linebackers.

Keep an eye on: Tight end Evan Wilson. Illinois needs to complement top receiver A.J. Jenkins in the passing game, and Wilson should take on a bigger role this fall. The 6-foot-6, 237-pound Wilson recorded 10 receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 2010. He boasts the size and talent to do big things this fall for Illinois.

Spring game: April 23

Nuggets from Illinois practice

August, 25, 2010
8/25/10
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Bear with me here, as I promise I'll have posts on every Big Ten practice before the season. Up next are the Illinois Fighting Illini, who recently hosted the Big Ten Network preseason tour for two practices. I've reviewed the show, and here are some notes and observations.
  • The Big Ten Network crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith all agreed that the new coaches, particularly coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, have helped change the attitude at Illinois after two subpar seasons. "This team is working harder than I've seen it work," said DiNardo, who also noted that the team isn't as talented as in years past. Petrino was mic'd up for one segment of the show, and his high-energy style came through. Illinois head coach Ron Zook also pointed out a difference among players. "The players are kind of taking over," Zook said. "Not that we didn't have leadership before, but these guys, particularly the upper-class guys, have kind of taken over.”
  • Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looked very good in drills, and those of who who haven't seen before likely came away impressed with his performance during the BTN interview. Although known for his running ability, Scheelhaase fired a bullet to Jarred Fayson in team drills. True freshman quarterback Chandler Whitmer also had a nice throw to Fred Sykes. "They're two-deep there," DiNardo said of the quarterback spot.
  • Scheelhaase talked about how he has been able to gain respect on the team despite his age. "I’m around a bunch of great guys, guys who are willing to give me the respect," he said.
  • Martez Wilson always has had an All-American's body, but he seemed to be backing it up with his play in practice as well. Wilson filled his gaps nicely during a 7-on-7 drill, and he made a really nice stop against Jason Ford during the team portion.
  • DiNardo and Griffith both talked about how Illinois likely will use a lot of stunts and twists on defense to compensate for its lack of size up front. We saw this a bit from Glenn Foster, a 260-pound defensive tackle. Defensive lineman Corey Liuget looks leaner than he did a year ago, and DiNardo "liked the way he moved around." There also was a pretty good battle between Clay Nurse and weak-side offensive tackle Jeff Allen during a drill.
  • The wide receivers looked very good in drills, although the defensive backs seemed to struggle with the exception of physical corner Terry Hawthorne, who Griffith called "a special player." Fayson, Sykes and Chris James all had very good practices. The BTN crew also liked what they saw from Eddie McGee, who we saw working at both receiver and cornerback. If Fayson can stay healthy, he'll form a nice 1-2 receiver combination with A.J. Jenkins.
  • Running back Mikel Leshoure looked strong and a bit leaner than last year. Remember this is a guy listed at 240 pounds as a freshman who now checks in at 224. DiNardo said Leshoure has separated himself from the other backs, and Zook basically admitted it, too. "Right now, Mikel probably is the starter," Zook said. "I like his work ethic. He's so much different." Ford also looked good during the practice, cutting back nicely on one play.
  • The offense seemed to have the edge in this practice, although Zook noted that Petrino's scheme throws a lot at an opposing defense. The BTN analysts think the new system will not only help Illinois' offensive players but provide the defense with looks other than the spread in practice. Petrino will use plenty of tight ends and fullbacks this year.
  • Petrino also explained the strong-side/weak-side philosophy, which puts the offense's strongest players against the defense's weak spots.
  • Freshman tight end Evan Wilson is an impressive-looking player, and DiNardo tabbed Wilson as his top newcomer. Petrino also said, "We’ve got a true freshman at tight end that's going to be a really good player." With Zach Becker (foot) out for a while, Wilson should see increased time. Griffith identified wideout Darius Millines as his top newcomer. McGee and rush end Michael Buchanan were the picks for under-the-radar players.

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