Big Ten: Gary Nova
Big Ten media days kick off on Monday at the Hilton Chicago. All the other Power 5 conferences will have wrapped up their own media events by then, and each league does things a little bit differently. So today's Take Two topic is: Should the Big Ten change the format of its media days?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
One thing that can be said about Big Ten media days is fans have much more access to it than they do in other leagues. The centerpiece of the two days is Tuesday's Kickoff Luncheon, during which fans can listen to a few minutes from every coach, hear a keynote speech from a current player and get autographs from former players. It's a 40-plus-year tradition, and at $110 a plate, a nice moneymaker for the league (because the Big Ten, you know, is pretty cash poor these days).
The SEC's format is far too long in my view, but that league certainly monopolizes coverage on those days, and individual teams get more of a spotlight. Now at 14 teams, I'd like to see the Big Ten devote more time to its event. More time to spend with Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, etc. More time to get to know some of the personalities. More time with players and programs who aren't in the spotlight. Not that the Big Ten needs more fans, necessarily, but more media coverage equals more exposure and more attention, which could help everybody in the long run.
My preference is for the conference to add an extra day and split the teams up, either by division or by interest level. You could have them all together on the middle day for the luncheon. This is probably all just inside baseball and I'm not sure how much fans really care. But as the Big Ten keeps getting bigger, its media days should probably follow suit.
Take 2: Mitch Sherman
I'm actually stunned you're taking the time to read this, because who cares, really, what the media thinks about the format of a preseason event to promote the conference? We're likely going to cover this thing regardless of how the Big Ten structures it, so our opinion on the setup is probably the least of anyone's concern. That said, I'll offer my two cents.
I agree with Brian that it ought to be longer. Monday's schedule includes 14 coaches and 42 players crammed into five hours. By mid-afternoon, my head might be spinning so fast that I can't differentiate between Pat Fitzgerald and Urban Meyer. OK, it's not that bad, but you get the picture. This thing is nearly over before it starts. And I'd like to see commissioner Jim Delany open the event with his comments, rather than speak during the final 30 minutes on Monday. By late afternoon, some of our brains are fried to the point that it's difficult to formulate intelligent questions. (Who am I kidding? There's no specific time for that.)
If you're still reading, I've got another suggestion: Every team should bring a quarterback. This year, seven are planned to attend, which is actually pretty good in comparison to some other leagues. QB is the premier position in college football; there's no denying it. I understand not every job is completely settled, so Illinois gets a pass here, though Wes Lunt could have brought the Illini some attention in Chicago. But if you're going to have an event for the media -- is it really for the media, or is that just the name? -- bring the players to whom the media wants to speak. That means, yes, we'd like to see Christian Hackenberg, Jake Rudock, Tommy Armstrong Jr., and even Gary Nova.
I will now dismount my soapbox. Congratulations, or perhaps condolences, if you made it to the end.
To prepare you for the festivities, we're answering three questions facing each team. It's time to look at the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. A popular pick to finish last in the East Division, Rutgers will be represented in their first visit to this event by coach Kyle Flood, senior fullback Michael Burton, junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and senior safety Lorenzo Waters.
1. What can Rutgers expect from Gary Nova?
Nova is the veteran quarterback who was benched late last season in favor of Chas Dodd. The move didn't work out especially well for Flood and former offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who parlayed his single season at Rutgers into a position with the Detroit Lions. The Scarlet Knights and their quarterback should fare better with new coordinator Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland coach lured by Flood and the Big Ten move back into coaching after a three-year absence. Nova, who has started 28 games, is a proven winner. Rutgers returns the bulk of its ground game. He can provide a steady hand through this time of transition and perhaps help Flood's club exceed the low expectations.
2. Who made this schedule, anyway?
After a Thursday night opener on Aug. 28 at Washington State and an otherwise unimpressive non-conference slate, the Scarlet Knights' path gets downright treacherous. Rutgers plays the Penn State Littany Lions and the Michigan Wolverines at home to open the Big Ten, then faces trips to the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed by a return home to meet the Wisconsin Badgers. Mix in a finishing stretch against the Indiana Hoosiers and trips to the Michigan State Spartans and fellow newcomer Maryland Terrapins, and you're looking at a recipe for trouble. It's not easy to be the new kid, preparing for an unknown foe every week. Just ask Nebraska in 2011, which faced an equally daunting list of opponents and was twice blown out on the road. Most likely, Rutgers is in for a rude introduction to the Big Ten, maligned often as a league but still a sizable step up from the AAC.
3. What's the most realistic reason for optimism?
No doubt, it's the defense. New 35-year-old coordinator Joe Rossi, elevated from special teams coordinator, inherits a salty bunch, led up front by Hamilton, who figures to improve on his 4 1/2-sack sophomore season. Sophomore Steve Longa, strangely omitted from the Butkus Award watch list, is a tackling machine, and Kevin Snyder is solid in the middle. Waters leads a group of defensive backs that struggled last year, allowing more passing yards than any team in school history. It contributed to the ouster of coordinator Dave Cohen, but the group figures to improve this fall with more stability throughout. The Nittany Lions and quarterback Christian Hackenberg offer a nice test in Week 3.
What's on your mind?
Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin would gain national respect. Sure, some would point to LSU's personnel losses and potential weaknesses on offense entering the season. But coach Les Miles never has lost an opener in nine years with the Tigers, and his teams have performed especially well in these types of games -- openers at neutral sites against other major-conference teams. Wisconsin has far more question marks than LSU entering this game, and a win would quiet a lot of the skeptics (including yours truly) and put the Badgers in serious contention for a playoff spot, especially with a favorable Big Ten schedule on tap. LSU essentially is the home team in Houston. The Tigers should be very tough on defense. The expectation is that they'll win. A Wisconsin win would and should turn heads.
@ESPN_BigTen ? 4 next mailbag. After reading 5 biggest non-l games, if W beats LSU, would they get respect or would LSU get pass?— Matt Pacholski (@Mpachol) July 16, 2014
Eric from Troy, Mich., writes: Everyone seems to be harping on Michigan's offense for the coming season, but I think their real issue is on defense, a topic that doesn't get seem to get a lot of coverage. MSU (my alma mater) and OSU both basically scored at will last year. The Wolverines had 8 games where an opponent scored more than 21 points, and three games where they gave up 40+. But forget all that and just focus on the fact that Akron, a middle-of-the-road MAC team, put up 24 on them! Is there anything to suggest that UofM's defense will be better this year? And if not, how can anyone seriously believe they are going to contend for anything important?
Adam Rittenberg: I agree not enough criticism/analysis is focused on Michigan's defense. The unit looked awful at the end of the season, surrendering 73 points and 946 yards in the final two games (losses to Ohio State and Kansas State). I thought young quarterback Shane Morris played decently in a tough situation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but the defense didn't give Michigan a chance against K-State. What can we expect this fall? Michigan shuffled its defensive staff responsibilities, which includes coordinator Greg Mattison directly overseeing the linebackers and the secondary being split between Curt Mallory and Roy Manning. I think Michigan will be better in the back seven. There's good experience at linebacker with Jake Ryan, James Ross III, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden. The depth in the secondary might not be quite as strong but I expect big things from cornerback Blake Countess. The key is finding difference-makers up front. Will Frank Clark become a bona fide star? What about Mario Ojemudia, Brennen Beyer and Taco Charlton? Who steps up at defensive tackle? I don't expect Michigan to be a bad defense in 2014, but the line will determine whether it's average, better than average or very good.
Adam Rittenberg: A lot would depend on how the Big Ten performs in nonleague play and whether a Big Ten team runs the table at 13-0. I've written repeatedly that an undefeated team from a major conference won't be left out. The question is whether a one-loss Big Ten team could get in with two SEC teams. I think if Michigan State plays Oregon close and then goes on to sweep the Big Ten for the second straight year, it could get in at 12-1. Could Ohio State or Iowa or Wisconsin or Nebraska? Depends on what happens elsewhere. In terms of other conferences being left out with two SEC playoff teams, the Big 12 would top my list. Oklahoma might be the only realistic playoff contender entering the season. Maybe Baylor, too, but the Bears must visit the Sooners. I don't think a Big 12 team can afford a regular-season loss and still make the top four. I also think the ACC would be in major trouble if Florida State stumbles. There aren't many other genuine candidates. I like the SEC and Pac-12 to get at least one playoff team this year.
@ESPN_BigTen if 2 Sec teams make the playoff would the Big Ten be shut out? If not then which conference?— Paul Mosher (@Moshers07604) July 16, 2014
Daniel from Robbinsville, N.J., writes: Why hasn't more attention been paid to the addition of Ralph Friedgen in evaluating Rutgers for the upcoming season? His resume as an Offensive Coordinator is overwhelming and he has plenty of returning talent to work with.
Adam Rittenberg: I really like the hire, Daniel. Friedgen's priority will be getting quarterback Gary Nova on track for his final season. Nova had a really nice start to the 2012 campaign but struggled down the stretch and for most of 2013. Friedgen's success is not only with the scheme but in managing quarterbacks like Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Shawn Jones and Joe Hamilton. Rutgers' offense returns almost entirely intact and features some exciting pieces like running back Paul James, wide receiver Leonte Carroo and tight end Tyler Kroft. The key is generating consistent production and more explosive plays. It will be tough with this schedule, but Friedgen is proven.
@ESPN_BigTen Does Desmond King have what it takes to be 1 of the best shutdown corners in B1G this year? How much will he impact the IA D?— Caleb Simon (@HeyImSimonSays) July 16, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: I really like King's skill set and potential, and he'll have every opportunity to become a shutdown corner. Iowa has had a really nice run of them with Amari Spievey, Shaun Prater, Micah Hyde and B.J. Lowery. King, the first true freshman corner to start for Iowa since 2002, could be among the best as he continues to develop. He'll be matched up against top opposing wideouts this fall. His first test comes Sept. 20 when he'll likely go against Pitt wideout Tyler Boyd, who had 1,174 receiving yards as a freshman last season. I'm also interested to see how he fares against Maryland's threats -- possibly Stefon Diggs -- when the Hawkeyes visit the Terrapins on Oct. 18.
John from Omaha writes: Regarding Nebraska vs. Expansion, you missed an important point in your assessment of Husker aversion to the new additions and the resulting new divisions. First, the West Division reminds Husker fans of the Big XII North. This is a problem because there are real disadvantages of being part of a division that is weak in terms of its national brand (star power). Husker fans want to be associated with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan because it will help our program be successful. Playing Michigan, OSU and PSU brings national exposure. Exposure brings more success; exposure builds the Husker national brand, exposure helps recruiting. Exposure is everything. You missed the point entirely by saying the Huskers think they are too good for the West; it's not about Nebraska being too good for the West. IT'S ABOUT NATIONAL EXPOSURE!
As for the Big Ten West resembling the Big 12 North, I think that might be a bit unfair. Wisconsin, after all, has been to three Rose Bowls in the past four years and is a nationally recognized brand. Iowa has had a lot of success this century and appears to be on another upswing. Northwestern and Illinois have had their tastes of major bowls. If anything, the West should feature a lot of parity, if not a many superpowers. It will be up to those teams to make sure the balance of power between the two divisions doesn't get out of whack.
Sky F. from Norfolk, Neb., writes: I'd like to quote Herm Edwards here: "YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!" We here in Nebraska don't really care who we play, so long as we are playing. I'd also like to quote you another saying: "Not the victory but the action, not the goal but the game: in the deed the glory." If that doesn't sum up to you what Nebraska football means to us I don't know what else can. I couldn't care less who we are playing, I regret NOT AT ALL leaving the Big 12; I care only for those fall Saturday afternoons and watching my team play. Sure it'd be nice to play OSU or Michigan, but I'm not going to be too fussed about it one way or another.
Brian Bennett: An interesting take there, Sky, and I would say the record 333-game sellout streak at Memorial Stadium indicates that Big Red will show up no matter who is on the opposing sideline. Parity scheduling should also mean that the Huskers get at least one big-name opponent from the East Division most years, and upgraded nonconference scheduling including the likes of Oklahoma also helps. If Nebraska wins at a healthy rate and plays often in the Big Ten championship game, I don't think there will be too many complaints in Lincoln. Playing in the West can be an advantage, after all.
Brian Bennett: Bob, that prediction of 0-4 wasn't a knock on Rutgers as much as it was an acknowledgment of how incredibly difficult that stretch would be for anyone, let alone a team adjusting to a brand new league. As I wrote, Michigan looks like the most beatable team of that group, especially if the Wolverines continue their up-and-down pattern of a year ago. Rutgers might have beaten a Bret Bielema-coached team last year, but he doesn't have Arkansas quite up to his old Wisconsin standards yet. It will be fascinating to see how the Scarlet Knights' undersized but athletic defensive front handles what has long been one of the Big Ten's toughest units to handle in the Badgers' massive O-line. I am with you on your last point: if Rutgers is going to jump up and make some noise, it will have to make huge improvements on offense and at quarterback in general. Ralph Friedgen might be the man to make that happen.
Brian Bennett: The difficulty of the Gophers' 2014 league schedule -- crossover games against Michigan and Ohio State, road matchups at Nebraska and Wisconsin -- make it hard to forecast a better record than last year's 8-4 regular-season mark. But every time I talk to Gophers players and coaches, they sound confident that this could be the best team in the Jerry Kill era. The obvious area for major improvement is in the passing game, which really couldn't be more ineffective than it was last year. The offensive line and running game should remain strong, and the defense should be good if the Gophers make up for the absence of Ra'Shede Hageman. Whether Minnesota can take another step forward likely will come down to if it can pull of some upsets, like breaking those losing streaks against the Wolverines and Badgers.
Brian Bennett: I think many programs would suffer in comparison to the player-development abilities of Michigan State (with the exception of maybe Iowa and Wisconsin). The Spartans do that as well as anybody, and though not all of their recruits are highly rated, they do an outstanding job of locating athletes who fit their profile and system without worrying about star rankings. Still, I don't think there's any lack of development at Ohio State. We saw how the offensive line went from an underachieving group to becoming the best in the Big Ten for two years under Ed Warriner. Guys like Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby, Carlos Hyde and Philly Brown more than lived up to their potential. The safety position and linebackers outside of Shazier haven't had as much success, but I think we'll see that start to change this year. I'm more concerned about Michigan's player-development system, given how few true superstars have emerged yet out of some highly ranked classes in Ann Arbor. But there is still time.
We've been talking about this moment since November 2012. Rarely, have the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights been mentioned as contenders in their new league. But change comes fast in college football.
It could happen here, too. On this historic day as the Big Ten goes from 12 to 14, here are six reasons to believe that Maryland and Rutgers, as a pair and individually, can experience success in the Big Ten:
- The Big Ten just isn't that good. You've heard about this, right? The league last played for a national championship seven years ago and hasn't won a title since January 2003. It has performed poorly of late against the major-conference competition and went 2-5 in bowls last season, though Michigan State did win the Rose Bowl – the Big Ten's second triumph in Pasadena since New Year's Day 2000. How does any of this impact Maryland and Rutgers, expected by many to finish 6-7 in the Big Ten East Division? It means no conference foe is unbeatable. It means there's hope.
- For a while, at least, they're going to get noticed. Rutgers has long operated in the shadow of pro sports in its region, while Maryland football played second fiddle amid the ACC basketball buzz. The Big Ten figures to change some of that. The Terps have already benefited in recruiting from the move. Rutgers needs to capitalize on the attention to make a dent in a deep pool of New Jersey prep talent. You want excitement? Check out Rutgers' Big Ten opener, Sept. 13, when Penn State visits for the first meeting in the series since 1995. Expect Maryland's first Big Ten home game, three weeks later against Ohio State, to equally move the needle.
- The Terps are trending up. Coach Randy Edsall took Maryland from a two-win team in 2011 to six in 2012 and seven last year. The Terrapins remained an average program in the ACC, but Edsall and his staff have begun to stack the pieces in place, notably on offense, to make a move in the Big Ten. For quarterback C.J. Brown, the time is now to make a mark in the new league. Brown, from Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, is a dual threat who knows the Big Ten style. He works well with coordinator Mike Locksley, an innovative offensive mind. Meanwhile, Maryland's incoming class, bolstered by the impending move, ranked 50th nationally, featuring home grown star Damian Prince at offensive tackle.
- Deon Long and Stefon Diggs are healthy. Diggs, a junior, and the senior Long form perhaps the best receiving duo in the Big Ten. Both wideouts suffered leg fractures on Oct. 19 in the Terps' 34-10 loss at Wake Forest. Long broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg; Diggs broke the fibula in his right leg, triggering a stretch of four Maryland losses in five games before a regular season-ending win at North Carolina State. Long and Diggs returned for spring practice and appear on track to torment even the best of secondaries in the Big Ten this fall.
- Gary Nova is back at the helm. This could go either way, depending on whom you ask at Rutgers. But we say it's good for the Scarlet Knights to go through a transformation such as this in with a steady hand at quarterback. Nova has started 28 games and ranks third in school history with 51 touchdown throws. He was benched in favor of Chas Dodd after winning five of 10 starts in 2013, but Nova has won consistently, dating to his unbeaten days as a starter at Don Bosco Prep. To help his cause, Rutgers returns five starters on the offensive line and its top four rushers.
- There's new energy on the Rutgers defense and strength up the middle. Joe Rossi, the 35-year Rutgers defensive coordinator promoted this offseason from special teams coach, offers a new start for a unit that endured struggles last season. Its strength comes against the run, which figures to suit Rutgers better in the Big Ten than it did in the AAC. And through the core of its defense, tackle Darius Hamilton, middle linebacker Kevin Snyder -- who switched spots with linebacker Steve Longa -- and safety Lorenzo Waters form a backbone of veteran leadership.
For today's poll, I'll make it a bit simpler for you and simply list five individual Big Ten players facing pressure entering the season. It could be because of struggles last season, competition at their position or key personnel losses around them. Not surprisingly, the list is quarterback-heavy, but there are some other spots represented.
- Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State: Last year, Decker was the young buck on the Big Ten's best offensive line. He's now the only returning starter for a group that will be in the spotlight as it must protect Ohio State's primary asset: senior quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes also have new blood in the backfield after losing bulldozer Carlos Hyde. Decker has a lot of responsibility to lead the line and maintain the standard set during the past two seasons.
- Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: The Wolverine linemen listed in the Sports on Earth piece undoubtedly are under the gun after a poor 2013 season, but so is Gardner. He was the most polarizing player in the Big Ten in terms of performance -- exceptional against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Indiana; shaky to woeful against Akron, Connecticut, Michigan State and Iowa (to be fair, the offensive line gave him little to no help). Now Gardner finds himself needing to wriggle free from Shane Morris, absorb a new offense and get Michigan back on track in his final season in Ann Arbor.
- Taiwan Jones, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans survived without Max Bullough in the Rose Bowl, but they'll undoubtedly miss the player who defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi often called the "computer" of the unit. Bullough's system knowledge and ability to get his teammates on the same page helped MSU's defense rise to nationally elite levels. That responsibility now falls on Jones, who told Brian Bennett this spring, "Everybody's depending on you. You're that guy."
- Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers: Nova is the rare three-year starter who finds himself needing to prove himself to fans entering his senior season. He started 10 games last season, but was benched down the stretch and saw his passing yards, touchdowns total and completion percentage dip from 2012. Nova competed with Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano this spring but emerged from the session as the frontrunner to retain his job. Still, he faces pressure to step up and claim support from a fan base that has debated his merits seemingly for a decade.
- Joel Stave, QB, Wisconsin: Stave hasn't been on the field for Wisconsin as long as Nova has for Rutgers, but there's a similar dynamic going on. Some Wisconsin fans have Stave fatigue after the quarterback struggled for stretches last season. He loses top target Jared Abbrederis and must overcome a throwing shoulder injury that limited him in the spring. Dual-threat junior Tanner McEvoy is pushing for the starting job, and with so many questions at receiver, the coaches might want more mobility at quarterback.
Quarterbacks who throw for 3,000 yards in the Big Ten aren't quite as rare as, say, a snow leopard, but they don't come around all that frequently, either. After all, this is a league associated with three yards and a cloud of dust, not 3,000 yards and a chem trail.
But the passing game continues to take on more and more importance throughout college football, and the conference is not immune despite producing just one 3,000-yard passer in each of the past two seasons (Penn State's Matt McGloin in 2012, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase in 2013). Who might reach that prestigious mark in 2014? Let's take our best guesses, in order of most likely:
- Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (2,955 passing yards in 2013): Hackenberg very nearly got to the 3k level as a true freshman, which is all the more remarkable considering the Nittany Lions didn't have the benefit of a bowl game. He probably won't get a 13th game again this season barring an NCAA surprise but should continue to improve as a sophomore and is the most gifted young quarterback in the Big Ten. The big question mark is whether his young receiving corps and a thin offensive line can help him out.
- Devin Gardner, Michigan (2,960): For all the faults people found in Gardner's game in 2013, he still almost reached 3,000 yards and would have certainly done so had he been healthy for the bowl game. He won't have favorite target Jeremy Gallon around and just about everybody else on offense is young. But he has shown he can put up big numbers when he's healthy and protecting the ball.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDespite some struggles, Michigan's Devin Gardner almost hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2013.
- Connor Cook, Michigan State (2,755): Cook never had a 300-yard passing day before the Big Ten championship game; then he turned in two straight in winning MVP honors in Indianapolis and again in the Rose Bowl. A 14-game schedule helped get him close to 3,000 yards, but don't forget that he didn't begin the season as the starter or gain the coaches' confidence until late September. He'll have a lot more on his plate this season, and the junior could gobble up some major yardage.
- C.J. Brown, Maryland (2,242): Brown arguably has the best two wide receivers in the Big Ten if -- and this is a big, blaring, neon if -- Stefon Diggs and Deon Long stay healthy. Avoiding injury is also a big key for Brown, who missed a pair of games last season. But the senior could be poised for a massive season if everything breaks right.
- Wes Lunt, Illinois (1,108 yards for Oklahoma State): Lunt has yet to throw a pass for the Fighting Illini and hasn't played a down in two years. Yet he showed his immense potential as a true freshman for the Cowboys in 2012, and Bill Cubit's offense provides tremendous opportunities for quarterbacks to put up numbers (see Scheelhaase last season). Lunt still has to officially win the job, and the team must find playmakers at receiver. But who in the world thought Scheelhaase would lead the Big Ten in passing in 2013 this time last year?
- Nate Sudfeld (2,523) or Tre Roberson (1,128), Indiana: If we believed either of these guys would hold the job full-time all season, a 3,000-yard season would be a no-brainer. The Hoosiers have juggled quarterbacks the past two years, with their signal-callers combining to go over 3,000 yards both seasons behind a prolific passing attack. Alas, you never quite know who will take the snaps or when Kevin Wilson will decide to make a change. Sudfeld is a better bet as a 3,000-yard passer since Roberson brings more of a running element to the table, but either could post sky-high stats if given the reins every Saturday.
- Trevor Siemian, Northwestern (2,149): Siemian surpassed 2,000 yards last season despite splitting time at quarterback with Kain Colter. Now that the job is his alone, the Wildcats should become much more of a passing team to suit his skills. That could equal a big-time bump in Siemian's numbers.
- Gary Nova, Rutgers (2,159): The first thing Nova has to do is stop throwing the ball to the other team, as he did 14 times in just 10 games last season. And he has to, you know, secure the job in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback derby. But he threw for nearly 2,700 yards in 2012, and now gets renowned quarterback guru Ralph Friedgen to guide him. So it's possible he could finally put it all together.
- Braxton Miller, Ohio State (2,094): Miller would need to improve his numbers by almost 1,000 yards, and that's after a 14-game season by the Buckeyes. But he did miss basically three full games last season, and Ohio State wants to become a more dangerous downfield passing team. The senior missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but has worked hard on his mechanics. Don't put anything past the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year.
The 28 receptions don't jump out. Dozens of FBS wide receivers reach that mark in a season.
It's the ratio -- nine touchdown catches, nearly one-third of the total production -- that suggests something is special about Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo. There are possession receivers and then there are playmakers. Carroo undoubtedly belongs in the second category.
His opening line: five catches, 135 yards, three touchdowns. Not too shabby.
Carroo's scoring secret is treating plays in or near the end zone like any others. Rutgers' fans undoubtedly have heard him recite the line his mother, Lavern, first told him after watching him drop a key pass in a game as a 7-year-old.
When the ball is in the air, everyone else is invisible. You don't see the defender, you don’t see the crowd, you just see the ball. As long as you focus on the ball 100 percent, you’ll be fine.
"It's almost like the ball is coming to me in slow motion," Carroo told ESPN.com. "That's why I feel comfortable catching the ball if there's 35 seconds left and my team's losing, or whether it's in the second overtime. I'm just going out there and making plays."
Levern, who Leonte says "knows pretty much nothing about football," gets a kick when she sees her advice in print, since Leonte often mentions it in interviews. It's a directive that has carried him through Pop Warner, high school and now college football, and will stay with him if he reaches the NFL.
Carroo's teammates expect big things from the 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior this fall as Rutgers makes its Big Ten debut. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova this spring called Carroo the "best receiver in the country," while fellow signal-caller Mike Bimonte added, "The sky is the limit for Leonte."
The Knights need big things from Carroo, and not just touchdowns. Rutgers loses top wideouts Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt, and returns no player with more than 43 receptions (tight end Tyler Kroft) from the 2013 team. Although Carroo left his mark in the end zone last season, he also disappeared for stretches.
Coleman's departure means Rutgers needs a true No. 1 receiver. Carroo wants the job.
"Last year, I was a big-time underdog, I was young," he said. "I'm sure in the beginning of the year, a lot of my teammates didn't expect much from me and they didn't expect that I was going to do what I did last year. This year, I want to start off like that and let this team know I’m going to do whatever it takes to lead this team to a Big Ten championship."
First, he has to get fully cleared to play. Carroo wore a no-contact jersey in practice this spring after missing the final three games last season following a concussion. He had suffered a previous head injury earlier in the year after crashing into a brick wall behind an end zone at SMU.
Carroo spent spring ball working on his leadership skills and his route-running, especially the shorter routes like hitches and curls. Although he felt 100 percent following winter break, he leaned on the strength coaches to improve his conditioning.
"They did a great job putting me in uncomfortable situations to see how far I was off and how fast I could recover," Carroo said.
Carroo isn't sure when he'll be cleared for contact but doesn't seem concerned.
When the lights come on this fall, he'll be ready to follow his mother's advice.
"All I know is if I see the ball and it's coming to me," he said, "I'm going to make a play."
- Five lessons from Rutgers' spring practice, including Gary Nova as the team's top quarterback.
- The Big Ten continues to fight a perception problem. Gerry DiNardo shares his thoughts on each Big Ten team coming out of the spring.
- The backup quarterback spot is among Michigan State's unsettled position competitions.
- Attrition from Michigan's 2010 recruiting class seems to be keeping the team forever young.
- Big Ten ADs Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) and Gene Smith (Ohio State) don't think the playoff will expand beyond four teams.
- Wisconsin's operations director leaves for the same post at BYU. An early projection of the Badgers' offensive depth chart.
- Ohio State fans should be thankful for an ugly portrait Georgia produced for then-recruit Raekown McMillan.
- A look at five Illinois players yet to arrive on campus who could help this season.
- Penn State assistant Herb Hand continues to immerse himself in his new community.
- Iowa's Jordan Lomax has a wider view of the field from the free safety position. Two position groups fuel the Hawkeyes' optimism for 2014.
- BTN.com looks at the top three Big Ten players at each position.
- A comprehensive look at Northwestern's roster entering the summer.
- Purdue adds two preferred walk-ons for 2014.
- A quick profile of Indiana's NFL draft hopeful wide receiver Cody Latimer.
The White team defeated the Scarlet squad 21-0 before about 11,500 fans at High Point Solutions Stadium. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here.
Star of the game: Running back Desmon Peoples had 109 all-purpose yards, including 85 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
"I like the fact that Gary is making good decisions," Flood said. "I think he threw one interception in 14 practices and the first half of the spring game. I think that's a pretty good job. It's hard to do that without making good decisions. He's protecting the football and I think his location has been good."
Peoples also opened a lot of, um, people's eyes this spring. The Scarlet Knights are deep at tailback, and Paul James, Savon Huggins and Justin Goodwin all were limited during the spring because of injuries. Peoples took the opening and literally ran with it, and the 5-foot-8, 175-pounder is in line to see a bigger role this fall because of it.
Receiver Janarion Grant led all receivers with 45 yards on three catches, though he had some drops. A special-teams dynamo last season, Grant could be an important part of the offense with his speed if he continues to develop as a wideout.
"He's light years from where he started," Flood said. "When you're not necessarily in the the top four or five receivers, it's hard to make the progress you'd like to make. That's the nature of the season. With the graduation of Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt, he becomes a very valuable guy for us."
The defense, not surprisingly, had the upper hand most of the day. Freshman defensive end Kemoko Turay displayed his talent with three sacks, and defensive tackle Darius Hamilton continued to be disruptive. He led the White team with four tackles.
Rutgers still needs to make strides in its passing game and secondary as well as building overall depth to get ready for its inaugural Big Ten season. With the spring game in the books, that day draws ever closer.
To the links ...
- The Big Ten's projected revenues are huge as a new TV contract approaches, Mike Carmin writes. BTN's profit shares are a big reason why.
- Northwestern's historic union vote generated reaction here and here and here and here.
- Rutgers' season comes down to how new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen manages mercurial quarterback Gary Nova.
- A great look at Big Ten recruiting and where Penn State factors in after its strong start.
- Michigan State could have a more creative and devastating offense this fall. Emotions ran high at Michigan State's 2013 team banquet.
- Despite C.J. Beathard's strong spring, Iowa's top quarterback spot belongs to Jake Rudock.
- A look at Michigan's quarterback race, which is real or imagined, depending on whom you believe.
- Urban Meyer fine-tunes the Ohio State machine. Assessing the impact of new Buckeye offensive lineman Chad Lindsay.
- Nebraska can take some pointers from Michigan State's rise, Steven M. Sipple writes.
- Illinois bolsters its offensive line with recruit Gabe Megginson.
- A look at Maryland's expenses from last year's Military Bowl.
If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.
1. "I like my team."
2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."
There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.
"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."
Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.
It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.
The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.
Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.
Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.
Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.
Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.
"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.
Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.
"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."
Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.
At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.
"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."
Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.
Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.
The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.
"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."
They won't have to for 132 days.
Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
Three things we learned in the spring
- Nova separates from the pack: The big story going into spring practice was Rutgers' three-way quarterback competition. Senior Gary Nova would start if the season began today. That shouldn't be a surprise, as Nova has 28 career starts while junior Mike Bimonte and redshirt freshman Chris Laviano have never taken a college snap. But Nova will have to show that he's improved from a rocky 2013 season.
- The Peoples champion: Running back Desmon Peoples hasn't played a huge role so far in his Scarlet Knights career, but he could be in line for a lot of carries this fall. He had a standout spring and gained 85 yards and scored two touchdowns in the spring game. He's only 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, but his quickness could make him a nice complement to starting tailback Paul James, who was out this spring with an injury.
- D-line is fine: Darius Hamilton closed last season on a tear and did more damage during spring practice. The junior defensive tackle has become a leader on defense. Julian Pinnix-Odrick returned from a torn ACL, and he showed his ability this spring. Senior defensive end David Milewski won a team award for his mental toughness and hustle during spring ball, and redshirt freshman Kemoko Turay looks like a promising pass rusher. Rutgers' defensive line is small by Big Ten standards, but this should be an area of strength for the Scarlet Knights.
- Opening the Fridge: The vanilla play calling of the spring game didn't tell us much about how new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen's attack will look -- and Friedgen wasn't even at the game because of kidney stones. There's no question that the Scarlet Knights need more consistency and explosiveness on offense, and that side of the ball has been overhauled -- not just with Friedgen but new offensive line coach Mitch Browning. With the whole O-line back and an experienced quarterback, there's no real reason not to see major improvement -- especially in a ground game that averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last season (95th in the FBS).
- More playmakers on offense: For Friedgen's offense to work, Nova will need to feed the ball to playmakers. Rutgers has some good ones in guys like James and receivers Leonte Carroo and Ruhann Peele. But with Peele and Carroo out for the spring game, the team's lack of depth at wideout was exposed by several drops by their fill-ins. Speedster Janarion Grant could become a major weapon and not just a special-teams ace if he can improve his hands. The Scarlet Knights need him and others to step forward.
- Secondary concerns: Defensive backs Anthony Cioffi, Nadir Barnwell and Delon Stephenson all were baptized by fire last year as true freshmen -- and they were burned often. Rutgers' pass defense ranked No. 120 in the FBS a year ago. The cornerback situation shouldn't be as desperate as it was at times last season, and the experience should make the trio much better. But there still is a lot to prove, and finding the right mix in the secondary will be a big key for new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi.
With an unforgiving inaugural Big Ten schedule that includes crossover games against Nebraska and Wisconsin along with East Division powers Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan -- plus nonconference road games at Washington State and Navy -- the Scarlet Knights will finish with a losing record and miss a bowl game for just the second time since 2005.
When: 4 p.m. ET Saturday
Where: High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Admission: Free. Events begin at 10:30 a.m., and an alumni flag football game benefiting former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand will be held at 12:30 p.m. Players will sign autographs on the field after the spring game. The full schedule of events is here.
TV: Streamed online via RVision at ScarletKnights.com
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 69 degrees. Wind around 15 mph. Chance of rain is 30 percent.
What to watch for: The Scarlet Knights expect to hold a normal spring game scrimmage, and head coach Kyle Flood told reporters this week that he plans to be more involved with the on-field action than he has in the previous two years.
"I want to blow the whistles on the quarterbacks," Flood said. "We'll have Big Ten officials here, and when you put them in a situation where they have to decide if it's a sack or not a sack, there will be certain plays I want to let go a little bit longer, or maybe it would have been a sack, but I want to see some of the skill players play a little bit. I can control the pace and the tempo of everything if I'm down there."
The big story of the spring for Rutgers has been the quarterback battle. Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano have been sharing time with the first-stringers, and Nova is the only one with any real game experience. Flood hasn't tipped his hand on who might be leading the race, but he's anxious to see how they perform in a game-like setting.
Fans are also anxious to get a look at new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen's attack and hope it will lead to a more consistent downfield passing game. The former Maryland head coach's track record suggests it will. The offense returns most of its starters, though top tailback Paul James has missed contact drills this spring with a shoulder injury.
There's also a new coordinator on defense, though Joe Rossi was promoted from within and served as interim coordinator for the Pinstripe Bowl. Don't expect a whole lot to change on that side of the ball, where the Scarlet Knights are undersized but undeterred up front.
Big Ten fans can also get a peek at what one of the two new league members has in the way of personnel and fan support. Remember that the first 2014 conference game occurs in Piscataway on Sept. 13, when Penn State visits.
Chris from Augusta, Maine, writes: Michigan fans are clamoring for success. It seems like the main thing holding them back are the lines. The '13 O-line haul was one of the better recruiting position groups I can remember across the country with guys like Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Patrick Kugler, LTT (Logan Tuley-Tillman), David Dawson, etc. And, quality guys on the D-line like Ondre Pipkins, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Bryan Mone, Lawrence Marshall, Henry Poggi, etc. are there. So, it seems like the solutions to the problem are all in place; they are just young and/or developing. When will these two position groups develop enough to make Michigan become a 10-win type team again and actually return to being a regular conference contender?
Brian Bennett: Some good points, Chris. Our microwave society doesn't allow for a lot of patience anymore, but developing players in the trenches almost always takes time. Brady Hoke and his staff inherited a program that didn't have much depth at all on the offensive line. Michigan was playing a three-man front on defense, so a transition was expected. On the flip side, you could argue that Hoke is now entering Year 4, and his highly ranked recruiting classes have yet to yield many superstars. It's not impossible for young players to contribute early on the lines -- look at what Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and especially Joey Bosa did as true freshmen on Ohio State's defensive front the past two seasons.
But there's also a reason why coaches like Mark Dantonio often redshirt as many guys on the lines as possible. Michigan has some intriguing talent on the D-line -- Charlton, in particular, looked like a beast this spring -- while the O-line is still stacked with redshirt freshmen and sophomores. If those players can develop, the Wolverines could turn both areas into a strength in a year or two, assuming fans can wait that long.
Brian Bennett: Nick, it sounds like you are scarred emotionally from 2012. Look, no one is saying Michigan State will suddenly become a run 'n' gun team that wins a bunch of shootouts. Even if it had that kind of offensive skill, Dantonio doesn't want to play that way. But the fact is the offense returns almost all of its production from last season, when it averaged close to 30 points per game in Big Ten play. There's every reason to believe that side of the ball can hold its own or even carry the team at times if a more inexperienced defense needs a few games to jell.
Connor Cook admitted to me that he got lucky last year that some of his passes weren't picked off, but he was also a first-year starter who should make better decisions this year because of his experience. The tight ends should become more of a weapon for the team and provide some safety valves. If the offensive line can come together, this can be a very good offense, perhaps even as good as the one from 2011 that averaged 31 points per game and finished third in the Big Ten in scoring en route to a Legends Division title.
And lastly, I find your characterization of last season's final two games to be off base. The Spartans scored 34 points in the Big Ten championship game vs. Ohio State and then put up 24 against an outstanding Stanford defense, one that was No. 4 in the FBS against the run coming into the game. Michigan State scored more points against Stanford than Oregon or UCLA did. That's more than just "lucky."
Brian Bennett: This might be the toughest mailbag question of the year. No joke. Indiana's quarterback situation is one of the most confounding ones I've ever seen, and even coach Kevin Wilson can't figure out who should start or play more. It's clear at this point that both Sudfeld and Roberson will play again in 2014, and the Hoosiers might just ride the hot hand. Wilson told me that Sudfeld may look a little better at times in practice, but Roberson can't truly shine in a practice setting because his elusiveness doesn't factor in when coaches call plays dead once a defender gets near a quarterback. If forced to guess, I'll pick Sudfeld for the most snaps, since he just looks like a future NFL quarterback and he played a lot more than Roberson last season. But this is what you'd call a constantly evolving situation, and the good news for Indiana is it somehow works.
Brian Bennett: I'm more bullish on Leidner than most, including Rittenberg. I see a big, strong guy who can really run and should improve as a passer, and Leidner's improved leadership skills this offseason should serve him well. Yet there's no question that Minnesota's passing game needs to take a giant leap forward, and the disappointing performance in the Gophers' spring game did nothing to change that opinion. Jerry Kill has proved that he's not afraid to play more than one quarterback, and by running so much, Leidner will be more at risk for injury. So while I expect him to remain the starter, it wouldn't surprise me to see someone else under center at key times in 2014.
Brian Bennett: My last season covering the Big East was 2010, and I haven't followed Rutgers in great detail in the interim simply because there's little time to pay attention to teams outside the Big Ten. But from what I've seen and what I remember about the Scarlet Knights, I think the first major upgrade has to come at quarterback. Rutgers has consistently been able to field pretty good defenses but only occasionally has been dangerous on offense, and shaky quarterback play has been a big reason why. There's an open competition for that job this spring, though Gary Nova has a huge experience edge. The hiring of Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator is a reason for optimism, and if anybody can fix Nova, it's Friedgen. Rutgers will also need more depth and talent on both lines in order to compete on a weekly basis in the Big Ten.