Big Ten: Gary Andersen

The SEC and ACC have already held their media days, the Big 12 is wrapping up, and the Pac-12 is on deck. Don't worry, the Big Ten gets its day(s) in the sun next week.

To get you more than ready, we've been looking at three questions each team will likely face at the Hilton Chicago. We wrap up our series now with the Wisconsin Badgers, who will have running back Melvin Gordon, offensive tackle Rob Havenstein and defensive lineman Warren Herring to the festivities along with coach Gary Andersen.

1. How will the passing game come together?

The spring featured an intriguing competition at quarterback between last year's starting safety, Tanner McEvoy, and incumbent starter Joel Stave, who was recovering from a shoulder injury. McEvoy, who has never thrown a pass in an FBS game, could win the job with a strong fall camp. An even bigger question might be who will catch the throws from either guy, as Jared Abbrederis' graduation leaves a major void at wide receiver. The Badgers have few proven options there, and the recent departures of a pair of incoming freshmen wideouts didn't help. We know Wisconsin will be able to run the ball well once again. But can the passing game make enough strides for this team to be a serious Big Ten contender?

2. Who steps forward in the defensive front seven?

Dave Aranda's defense must replace all three starting defensive linemen from 2013 and three of its four starting linebackers. The lone returning starter from the front seven is Derek Landisch, who had 33 tackles last season. So, yeah, this is a formidable retooling project, with veteran stalwarts such as Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly no longer around. There is still a lot for Aranda to build around in guys such as Herring, who has played a lot of snaps, and linebackers Vince Biegel and Marcus Trotter. But how quickly the defense can mesh together and play as well as an often underrated group from last season remains a question.

3. How big is the LSU game?


The first two questions above need to be answered quickly, because Wisconsin opens the season against LSU in Houston. It's one of the biggest regular-season games in years for the Badgers, who will quickly put themselves in the spotlight if they can beat the Tigers. The rest of their schedule is such that a 9-0 start before hosting Nebraska on Nov. 15 suddenly becomes a real possibility with an opening win, and the College Football Playoff would be an attainable goal. The challenge, however, is steep. It will be interesting to hear how much Andersen and his players have been thinking about and preparing for this game all spring and summer long. Having LSU on the schedule should certainly have added a little more urgency to offseason workouts.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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Football, please get here. I can't stand watching Chicago baseball any more.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
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Today marks the birthdays of Mike Tyson and Lizzy Caplan, the anniversary of the merging of East And West Germany's economies and, of course, Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day. Oh, and I got married two years ago today. Probably should have mentioned that first.

To the links:

Big Ten lunch links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
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So, the USA outlasts Spain, Italy and England? Losing never felt so good.
Melvin Gordon passed up the NFL draft, where he likely would have been the first running back selected, in order to lead Wisconsin to the first College Football Playoff.

It's an admirable pursuit and one that endears Gordon to Badgers fans even more than his electrifying runs. But is Wisconsin really a playoff candidate? Not now. Honestly, the Badgers aren't that close at this point.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon and the run game are proven commodities, but the Badgers have questions at QB and on defense.
The playoff candidate lists are coming out seemingly every day, and most of them include Wisconsin. Fox's list of 20 playoff contenders includes Wisconsin at No. 8. The Badgers also appear in ESPN.com's list of 16 playoff contenders. Wisconsin makes the preseason top 15 for all five of these publications.

Am I missing something? Wisconsin returns just nine starters from the 2013 team, which went 9-4. Only Utah State -- ironically, Badgers coach Gary Andersen's former squad -- returns fewer starters than the Badgers. Wisconsin has quarterback issues, wide receiver issues and defensive star-power issues. It spent the spring practicing with four or five healthy wideouts and shifting around almost every player on defense. Its only experienced quarterback, Joel Stave, is battling a throwing shoulder injury and coming off a shaky season. Its potential starting signal-caller, Tanner McEvoy, played safety and wide receiver for the team last season. Its potential defensive leader, linebacker Derek Landisch, has three career starts.

What exactly about this team screams playoff contender or preseason top 15? It's easy to buy into Gordon, a bona fide national star after rushing for 1,609 yards on only 206 carries in 2013. His backup, Corey Clement, is pretty darn good, too. And the offensive line could resemble the dominant units Wisconsin is known for, although the group also dealt with injuries this spring.

History also helps Wisconsin and shouldn't be dismissed. This has been one of the more consistent programs in the country, averaging 9.6 wins per season during the past decade. It's a pretty good bet that in most seasons Wisconsin will be, well, pretty good.

And then there's the schedule, the single biggest reason fueling the Wisconsin playoff hype (either that, or folks simply aren't doing their homework on the roster). After the big-event opener against LSU in Houston, the Badgers face the following teams: Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. All should be wins (Northwestern might be tricky, as Wisconsin hasn't won at Ryan Field since 1999). Wisconsin finishes with Nebraska (home), Iowa (road) and Minnesota (home), but doesn't play any of the big four in the East Division -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.

Everyone agrees it's an extremely favorable slate. Here's the thing: Wisconsin has had good running backs before. It has received some breaks in the schedule. And it never finished in the top four of the final BCS standings, despite teams that entered the season with far more answers than this one.

Could the Badgers make the field of four? If they upset LSU in the opener, it's certainly possible. But people shouldn't discount who this team has lost: five NFL draft picks -- linebacker Chris Borland, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, running back James White, safety Dezmen Southward and defensive tackle Beau Allen -- along with key complementary pieces such as tight end Jacob Pedersen, offensive lineman Ryan Groy and defensive end Brendan Kelly.

I really like Andersen. I like his staff, too, especially defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. But they have a ton of work to do and questions to answer before the opener Aug. 30 in Houston.

As I've written before, this feels more like their first season in Madison than their second. Wisconsin could evolve into a playoff contender. It is not one at this point.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 24, 2014
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The World Cup's been great, but I'd still take football over fútbol any day.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 23, 2014
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Brian's off this week, so I'm attempting three mailbags (today, Wednesday and Friday).

Wish me luck. Better yet, send me questions. And follow us on Twitter.


Aaron from Minneapolis writes: Jerry Kill and his staff have frequently said over the last few years that they want to recruit bigger, taller offensive weapons, and they seem to be following through on that. The past couple recruiting classes have included all of one receiver under 6-foot-2, a handful of 6-3 and 6-4" wideouts, and a huge 6-9" tight end. I know big wide receivers are sort of in style around the country, but Kill seems to be taking it to the extreme. Is this something other Big Ten teams are doing, or is Minnesota's big receiver strategy a bit of an outlier?

Adam Rittenberg: Aaron, the proliferation of spread offenses and their reliance on slot receivers has lowered the demand for the traditionally bigger wideout. It doesn't mean teams don't want those players, especially if they can run. Minnesota's offense has some spread elements, but it's more of a traditional set, based around the power run. The Gophers' last elite receiver, Eric Decker, was a taller guy with excellent hands and athleticism. It certainly helps to have size out wide, and Florida State showed last season how beneficial it can be with players like Kelvin Benjamin (6-foot-5). But teams generally are looking for speed first and aren't locked in to having every receiver stand taller than 6-foot-2.


Angie from Chesapeake, Virginia writes: Will Green or Smith consider transferring due to the USC running back coming on board at Michigan?

Rittenberg: Too soon to tell, Angie. The big question is: When will Ty Isaac be eligible? He wants to play immediately but might have to sit out a season. If he sits, Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith will enter the season most likely as Michigan's top two ball-carrying options. So they can distinguish themselves without any push from Isaac. Ultimately, most teams want to play at least two running backs and sometimes three. While running back transfers aren't uncommon, you don't see them as much as quarterbacks.


Jordan from Katy, Texas, writes: About Indiana, it has one of the best offenses in the Big Ten, but obviously no one outside of the state is going to notice when its defense is so horrid. How are things going under new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr? Are there signs that the defense IS improving, or is that something we just cannot know until the Hoosiers hit the field in August? Frankly, I think they need to be bowl eligible THIS year or Kevin Wilson's stock will plummet.
Rittenberg: Jordan, I'm interested to see how Knorr will fare in Bloomington. He plans to run a 3-4, which is becoming more popular in the Big Ten (Wisconsin, Maryland also use it). Indiana has upgraded its recruiting efforts on defense and needs some of those players to blossom this fall, especially in the front seven. I'm especially interested in defensive tackles Darius Latham and Ralph Green. Ultimately, this unit needs to provide concrete evidence this fall after a quarter-century of futility, but as I've always said, Indiana doesn't need a great defense to make a bowl. An adequate one will do. The offense can take care of the rest.


@BraydenHodges via Twitter: What do you think of the early point spread of the MSU-Oregon game? I understand the Spartans being an underdog but 13 points?

Rittenberg: It seems a little high, although Oregon performs extremely well at home and is capable of putting up a big number on just about anybody. Big Ten teams typically struggle in games at Pac-12 stadiums, and Autzen Stadium is one of the nation's toughest environments for a road team. But I think the oddsmakers are underestimating Michigan State's offense, which returns quarterback Connor Cook and most of its key pieces from a 13-1 team. The Spartans clearly need a big effort from their defense against Marcus Mariota and the Ducks, but Cook and his crew should be able to put up points in this game, if they avoid turnovers. Oregon definitely is the favorite, but 13 points is a lot.


Doug G. from San Antonio writes: Adam-I truly believe Joel Stave should get the nod at QB for UW. I know the accuracy needs to improve, but he certainly has proved he can play well, and I believe that three of the losses last year had nothing to do with him. Penn St. was a defensive debacle (for some reason), and Stave had us looking good against South Carolina before he was injured. I know the WR spot is a question mark, and Coach A likes to have a QB who can run, but I hope we see Stave under center against LSU to open the season. I would not mind a few "packages" per game for Tanner M., but I also thought he was progressing as a safety. What are your thoughts on this?

Rittenberg: You bring up some valid points, Doug, and it's good to see that there are some Stave supporters out there. His experience can't be overlooked, especially given how his primary competitor, Tanner McEvoy, lacks any experience at the quarterback position at the FBS level. I just wonder how much Stave can improve after losing his top wide receiver (Jared Abbrederis) and with so much uncertainty on the perimeter. McEvoy provides the mobility to get out of trouble and create plays when none appear to be there. But it might not be wise to throw him into the fire against LSU's defense in Week 1. That's a tough spot. Ultimately, we need to see Stave back to 100 percent this summer and how he performs in camp when the freshmen wide receivers are there.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 20, 2014
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If we hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 13, 2014
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Tyrion will be OK ... right? Right?!

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 9, 2014
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Mondays stink. Except when it's mailbag time. Which it is right now. Go.

Mitchell C. from Parts Unknown writes: How confident should Ohio State be coming into the third year with Urban Meyer and five new starters on defense and six new starters on offense? And will new RB Ezekiel Elliott be like Carlos Hyde and live up to the (production) he left behind?

Brian Bennett: Those are good questions, and they are why I find the 2014 Buckeyes to be one of the most fascinating teams in the Big Ten and the nation. A lot of people assume that Ohio State won't drop off at all from the first two seasons under Meyer, but the team is dealing with a lot of turnover and counting on numerous young players to step forward. Yet there is serious reason for optimism. For one, those young players are incredibly talented and athletic, which can help make up for a lot of mistakes. The coaching staff is also a proven commodity. For example, while the offensive line replaces four starters, position coach Ed Warriner faced similar questions two years ago and quickly turned that unit into the best offensive line in the Big Ten for two years running. Elliott might not match Hyde's numbers, both because Hyde put up huge stats and because Ohio State is likely to spread the ball out a bit more than it did in 2013. But he's another prime example of the immense potential on hand.

With all that talent and coaching, the Buckeyes should feel optimistic about 2014. Unless Braxton Miller gets hurt. Then all bets are off.


Christopher from Middleton, Wis., writes: I was reading your take on the Athlon Big Ten predictions, and I have to tell you that your take on Wisconsin's QB situation is a bit off the mark but is similar to what I am reading from other Big Ten predictors. Joel Stave is playing his third year. In 2012, his QB rating was 148.3, and his stats were comparable to Devin Gardner. In 2013, Stave was fourth in the Big Ten in QB rating at 138.1. Statistically, he was ranked sixth in the B1G because Wisconsin ran the ball (so well). With the above in mind how can QB be a major concern? Keep in mind that Wisconsin has basically its entire offensive line back and should be deeper and healthier, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement should challenge if not beat the rushing record set by James White and Gordon. The issue at Wisconsin is not that the QB position is weak but that it has lots of competition. Stave does have his weaknesses and I hope he overcomes them or is beat out by Tanner McEvoy, but the QB position should not be a concern.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsA more consistent Joel Stave would go a long way toward bolstering Wisconsin's Big Ten hopes.
Brian Bennett: One thing we can agree on about Stave is his experience should help him. Last year was his first as a full-season starter after he got knocked out early in 2012 because of an injury. And when Stave is on, he shows good arm strength and decision-making. Unfortunately, what we saw from Stave on the field last year didn't always line up with some of the stats you mentioned. Several times he misfired on completely wide-open receivers down the field as defenses keyed on that running game. (What would Jared Abbrederis' numbers have looked like had Stave hit him in stride all those times he had gotten behind defenders?).

Stave played poorly in the upset loss to Penn State to end the year and against South Carolina, causing Gary Andersen to say the team needed better play from its quarterback position. There's a reason the Badgers opened up the quarterback competition this spring despite having a veteran starter. And Stave's shoulder injury is worrisome.

Maybe Stave gets healthy and builds upon his experience. Or maybe McEvoy steps in and plays well. But you're talking about one guy who has yet to put it all together and another who has never done it at this level. That's why there are legitimate reasons for concern at the quarterback spot in Madison, before we even get to the pressing issue of who is going to catch the ball for Wisconsin. That's a big reason why I'm a little surprised by all the rosy preseason projections for the Badgers.


DJ from Minneapolis writes: I have to slightly disagree with you about Minnesota not seeing a benefit to an early signing period. As Brady Hoke mentioned, they might have to start allowing earlier or summer visits which would be a big boon to Minnesota. It would show all of the recruits in the South that it isn't actually minus-40 degrees 365 days a year here like a lot of people make it out to be.

Brian Bennett: DJ, I think you might be conflating two different issues here. As I mentioned in my early signing day piece, schools that are farther away from major talent bases (i.e., Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.) wouldn't see as much benefit with an early signing period without the corresponding move of allowing for earlier official visits. (Adam did a great job of exploring that issue in this post). Right now, prospects can't take official visits (i.e., have their trips paid for by the school) until the start of their senior year in high school. It's difficult and expensive for many prospects, especially ones who live in the South and in other far-flung locales, to visit northern schools like Minnesota on their own dime. They can often take unofficial trips to schools closer to their hometown with far less hassle, however.

That's why, if there's an early signing period -- especially one in the summer before a prospect's senior year as the ACC has proposed -- kids could be inking their national letters of intent before ever getting on a plane to Minneapolis. The Gophers would stand to gain if prospects could receive a paid trip to their campus in the spring and summer, when it's a great time to be in the Twin Cities. Those earlier visits, then, loom as even more important for a school like Minnesota than an early signing period would be.


Spencer from Lincoln, Neb., writes: On your piece about impact freshmen, I noticed you left off Tanner Farmer. My question is: Why? The kid is a beast of a specimen. Athletic. Big. He is your typical Midwest hard-working player. He even benches 500 pounds! Name another one of your impact freshmen you chose that can do that.

Brian Bennett: Spencer, I am very intrigued by Farmer and think he can end up being a cult hero to Nebraska fans. We didn't have time or space in that post to mention every promising freshman in the league, though, and it's much tougher for a first-year player out of high school to make a big impact on the offensive line than it is for just about any other position, save perhaps defensive tackle. Farmer could be an exception. We shall see.


Joel L. from Tuscola, Ill., writes: In regards to Tim Beckman's job status: I think from the perspective of a huge Illinois fan the situation is actually going to be very difficult for Mike Thomas. I will say before I start here if we win 4 games or less I think Thomas' hands are tied and he will have to let Beckman go because the attendance will be dismal and it will probably affect season ticket sales the next year. If I had to guess, we will most likely end up with five wins this season. That will cause a major predicament for Thomas because Beckman's recruiting class next year is actually going to be very solid, especially with offensive talent that Bill Cubit (who is the mastermind of the offense) will be able to use immediately. That is where the problem will lay for Thomas, because Beckman really could turn this around in year 4, but Illinois fans are ruthless and if we do not make a bowl game this year people will go absolutely nuts if he is retained.

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Joel, and I agree that five wins is kind of the fulcrum for Beckman in 2014. If that happens, I think a lot will depend on how that 5-7 season went down. Were the Illini highly competitive in their Big Ten games, especially against the best the league has to offer? Did young players show obvious development and improvement? Were fans responding in a positive way? You're right that Beckman could have his best and most experienced roster in 2015, and Thomas might be able to bank on that. However, three years without a bowl and a potential devastating hit to attendance and season-ticket sales might be too much to overcome.


Pat from Iowa City writes: Is it safe to say that AIRBHG is gone for good?

Brian Bennett: Oh, Pat, how dare you tempt the curse! You might have just woken that evil spirit from its peaceful slumber in that great cornfield in the sky. We apologize in advance to Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock, et al. Pay no heed to Pat's question, AIRBHG. We kneel and offer you this bushel of corn as a humble token of our appreciation for your recent mercy.
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
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Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.

As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.

The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.

Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa's Kirk Ferentz is among the Big Ten coaches who favor an early signing period after the regular season.
"To me, that would be the perfect time," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer. "I still don't understand the resistance. All it is is an opportunity to sign. They don't have to sign. I don't think anyone is going to lose a scholarship. It just gives everyone a chance to lay their cards on the table and say, 'I'm 100 percent sure now' or, 'Still not quite there.' That would be great for both parties, I think."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.

"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."

A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.

Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.

"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."

Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.

Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.

"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."

That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska's Bo Pelini says allowing earlier official visits must be a part of any move toward an early signing period.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has said he would not support an earlier signing date without those earlier visits (and even then, he said he would need more time to study the issue). Schools such as Nebraska and Minnesota, which are farther away from talent-rich hubs, simply wouldn't see many benefits to an early signing day if the rest of the recruiting calendar remained the same. Players in blue chip-heavy areas -- such as the South, Texas and California -- would be more apt to take unofficial visits at schools closer to home and then could get pressured into signing before they ever made a trip up north.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."

Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."

There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.

"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?

"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”

College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.

"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."
Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton doesn't talk like a freshman or act like a freshman. Last season, he often didn't play like a freshman, recording four interceptions, three more than any other Badger, and a team-high seven pass breakups.

One of two early enrollees in Wisconsin's 2013 recruiting class, Shelton displays an uncommon maturity. Most players his age at a position known for bravado would beam about four interceptions in their first college season. Shelton thinks he should have had eight.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIAfter a freshman season with four interceptions, defensive back Sojourn Shelton is taking on a leadership role for the Badgers.
Most Wisconsin fans can't bear to watch last season's game at Ohio State because of the what-ifs in a 31-24 loss. Arguably no play brought more pain than a dropped interception by Shelton just before halftime. On the next play, Ohio State fired a 40-yard touchdown pass with one second left on the clock.

Shelton watches that play a lot. He also watches Wisconsin's regular-season finale against Penn State, a stunning home loss in which the Badgers surrendered 339 pass yards, four touchdowns and their three longest plays allowed all season.

"I watch the bad games, honestly," Shelton told ESPN.com this spring. "You talk to my coaches and they'll tell you I'm probably my worst critic. When I look back, I definitely see the opportunities that I had. Everybody brings up Ohio State. There's a couple other plays that, instead of PBUs, I could turn them into interceptions.

"But the best part about it is it gives me something else to push forward to this year."

Shelton's approach is exactly what coaches want from players who had success as freshmen. But just to make sure, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen met with the 5-foot-9, 172-pound cornerback about a week into spring practice, just before Shelton and his teammates left for spring break.

I don't want to see a sophomore slump, Andersen told Shelton.

The directive probably had more to do with Andersen than Shelton.

"I'm paranoid when it comes to stuff like that," Andersen admitted. "So I bring it up and we talk about it and I did not see it, which was a great thing. To his credit, he kept on going. He's got high expectations for himself, and he handles them in the right way."

After Wisconsin lost seven defensive starters from 2013, including three players selected in the NFL draft -- safety Dezmen Southward, linebacker Chris Borland and nose guard Beau Allen -- the coaches spent the spring shifting players from position to position. The goal: to upgrade the unit's speed. Two of the only players who stayed put were the cornerbacks: Shelton and junior Darius Hillary.

Shelton spent the session sharpening his game. He worked on 50-50 balls, an area opponents with tall receivers could try to exploit because of Shelton's frame, and improved his pre-snap recognition with wide receiver splits, potential coverage changes and more.

"I give credit to [cornerbacks coach] Ben Strickland," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "Ben's a stickler for details and Sojourn's been brought up that way and doesn't know anything different. He's searching for those little details that can put him over the top.

"He's not one to rest on his laurels."

Junior safety Mike Caputo sees Shelton as a veteran and a leader, noting that age isn't as big a factor as experience, of which Shelton received plenty in 2013. With Borland and others no longer around, the Badgers defense needs some new voices.

Shelton, who started 12 games in 2013, is happy to speak up.

"Coach always talks about playing with juice and swagger and when you make a play, be excited about it," he said. "That's one of my strengths. People don't understand how hard it is to play corner in college football against so many good receivers. You have to play with the confidence that you can go out there and shut these guys down.

"It is difficult, but at the same time, that's what makes it fun."

Many talented young players struggle to grow up. Shelton embraces his accelerated evolution at Wisconsin.

He sets high standards for himself, both in the immediate and the long term.

"I want to be the best corner in the Big Ten," he said. "It's something I’m pursuing. If I continue to move forward and that becomes the role, I'll be excited to take it on."
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

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

We finish the list with the Wisconsin Badgers, who revamped their defense this spring and received a spark from a young lineman.

Spring breakout player: DE Chikwe Obasih

The Badgers lost all three starting linemen from the 2013 team and return only a handful of players who entered the Capital One Bowl in the two-deep at either line or linebacker. The personnel turnover left the door open for younger players to emerge, and Obasih capitalized during spring practice.

After redshirting as a freshman last season and getting knocked around on the scout team, Obasih made significant strides throughout the spring and ended the session penciled into a starting role. He played in a 4-3 scheme in high school and came to Wisconsin undersized for a 3-4 end, but he has added the necessary weight through offseason training.

"If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense, the basic concepts of football," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "And that's where you'd expect him to be.

"Chikwe is starting right now."

Obasih must continue to build on the spring to retain his position, as fellow redshirt freshman Alec James and others are pushing for playing time. But after impressing coaches and teammates with his toughness in a thankless role as a freshman, it's unlikely Obasih steps off of the gas.

He showed tremendous playmaking ability in high school with 49 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and nine forced fumbles.

"I set high standards for myself," Obasih told foxsports.com. "The coaches set high standards for myself. I know where I can be. But I'm not there yet. Not near enough. I'll be working for that over the summer."

More spring breakout players

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

May, 7, 2014
May 7
5:00
PM ET
By the time you read this, I'll be somewhere over the Atlantic. (Where are the best Big Ten bars in Italy?). But before my Euro trip, I had time to answer your postcards ... er, emails:

Rob from New York writes: Brian, a lot of the Big Ten rivalry games aren't really rivalries anymore (or maybe ever). Not sure anyone is really getting up for the Illibuck, Governor's Victory Bell or the Old Brass Spittoon, not to mention lesser games like the Land Grant or Little Brown Jug. In your opinion, which games (A) deserve to be recognized rivalry games, (B) deserve to be trophy games, and (C) which ones should be retired and/or have their trophies burned to the ground? (Hint: the unanimous ugliest of them all.) My vote goes to Wisconsin/Michigan State becoming a rivalry AND trophy game, with a brass penalty flag as the trophy, since the series is littered with controversial calls and Michigan State fans whining about them (yeah, I'm biased). A non-trophy rivalry game could be Indiana and Michigan State, since it's not really a rivalry anymore. And a rivalry game that needs to die is Minnesota and Penn State (honestly, would anyone notice?).

Brian Bennett: Rob, Adam and I did a full assessment of the state of the Big Ten rivalries last year as the conference was working on realigning the division. You can find that post here. There's a difference between rivalries and trophy games. You can hand out a trophy for any game, but rivalries reveal themselves. For example, Wisconsin and Michigan State had grown into a rivalry without a trophy, while hardly anybody thinks the Old Brass Spittoon game is an actual rivalry. Alas, the Badgers and Spartans will be in different divisions now, didn't play last year and won't meet in 2014 or '15, so it's going to be hard to keep that going as a rivalry. I like the trophies, because many of them are goofy and fun and have some interesting history. But it will be worth tracking how the new division alignment and expansion affect actual rivalries.




 

Ben from Omaha writes: OK, I'm going to do my best to not be a homer here, but I'm a little shocked Nebraska isn't a favorite over Wisconsin in the West Division. Nebraska returns almost all of its D and as long as Tommy Armstrong just plays consistently and doesn't turn it over, our offense will be great again. Wisconsin, on the other hand, loses a ton of its D and O, and its only returning contributors are Joel Stave and Melvin Gordon. I get that Nebraska can be tough to trust, but I'd still take them based off returning players. Am I being a homer here or am I on to something?

Brian Bennett: First, Ben, I'd have to ask where you're getting the idea that there's a favorite in the West. I think the division is pretty wide open, and it's only early May. Colleagues Mark Schlabach and Brian Fremeau do have Wisconsin ranked higher than Nebraska right now, but I don't believe there's any real consensus. I am higher on the Huskers than the Badgers, because I think Gary Andersen's team has too many question marks. But the schedule is a real factor here. Wisconsin and Iowa have much easier roads to Indianapolis than does Nebraska, which has to go to Michigan State as one of its crossovers and plays the Badgers and Hawkeyes on the road. I think sometimes we overrate schedules in the preseason, though.




 

MonsterHunter via Twitter writes: Did the Big Ten do any due diligence about Rutgers before handing them their Golden Ticket? Strictly amateur hour in N.J.

Brian Bennett: Rutgers can't seem to get out of its own way when it comes to bad PR. moves, the latest being the flap over the Eric LeGrand speech. I don't think the LeGrand incident is that big of a deal in its own right, but it adds to the string of poor decisions and tin-eared communication skills of the administration. The school has a lot of different political factions tugging it in many directions, so it can often be hard to get everybody on the same page. But for the sake of the Scarlet Knights and the Big Ten, Rutgers really needs to get its house in order and stop creating controversy. Playing good football would make a lot of this stuff go away.




 

Alex from York, Neb., writes: Hi, Brian. My question is why do I get the feeling from the media that the Nebraska QB battle has already been won? It's only spring. I know Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent starter but that's no reason to end a position battle. Tommy is going to look better in practices because he's been around longer, but in the spring game, the closest to a real game situation we've seen so far, Johnny Stanton and ever Ryker Fyfe looked much better than TAJR. I'm not saying he won't win the battle, but why do people seem to think the battle is over already?

Brian Bennett: Armstrong has such an experience edge that I think he would have had to do something to lose the job this offseason. And by all accounts, he played well and took on a bigger leadership role this spring. I don't put much stock in spring game performances. Armstrong can't rest on his laurels, and if he doesn't play well early this season, he has a chance to get passed by. But I'd be really surprised if he weren't the starter in September.




 

Kevin from Fairfax writes: Seriously, someone has Michigan ranked in the top 25? Michigan is going to be lucky to break .500 this year. As for Sparty, they were one of the two best teams in the country last year, while the defense might take a half step back, the offense should help. Right now there are five Big Ten teams that deserve to be ranked: Michigan State, Ohio State, a Penn State team that was far closer to an 11-win team than most admit, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Brian Bennett: I don't quite get ranking Michigan either, though the Wolverines clearly have some talent if they can figure things out. But based on what we saw last year and given some of the issues on the offensive line, this is a team that will have to show me something before I consider it as a Top 25-caliber club. I disagree with you about Penn State. While the Nittany Lions definitely have some upper-echelon players and a pretty good schedule, there are depth questions and an offensive line that might be even more problematic than the one in Ann Arbor. With a new staff in place, this is another show-me team (and I'd like you to show me how a team that lost by double digits to Indiana and Minnesota and by 49 points to Ohio State was almost an 11-win team). The five teams I think should be ranked are, in order, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.

That's it for me and the mailbag for a bit as it's vacation time. Arrivederci!

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