Big Ten: Glenn Foster

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

2012 record: 2-10
2012 conference record: 0-8 (sixth in Leaders division)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; special teams: 2

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, TE Jon Davis, LB Jonathan Brown, LB Mason Monheim, DE Tim Kynard, P Justin DuVernois

Key losses

C Graham Pocic, G Hugh Thornton, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DL Glenn Foster, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Donovonn Young* (571 yards)
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (1,361 yards)
Receiving: Ryan Lankford* (469 yards)
Tackles: Mason Monheim* (86)
Sacks: Michael Buchanan (4.5)
Interceptions: Steve Hull* (2)

Spring answers

1. Juco impact: Embattled coach Tim Beckman needs a quick fix after a 2-10 season and brought in a sizable group of junior college players during the winter. Several jucos made an immediate impact this spring, including wide receiver Martize Barr and Eric Finney, who Beckman said locked up a starting job at the Star (safety/outside linebacker) position. Defensive tackle Abe Cajuste will be in the rotation up front, and Dallas Hinkhouse gives the Illini another option at offensive tackle.

2. Offensive playmakers emerging: Bill Cubit's offense gives Illinois a chance to be much more explosive in 2013, especially in the passing game. The Illini needed more playmakers to emerge at both receiver and running back this spring and saw some encouraging results. Miles Osei and Steve Hull, both of whom converted to receiver from other positions, showed flashes, and Justin Hardee had a big performance in the spring game (6 receptions, 104 yards). Ryan Lankford certainly has the experience to be a No. 1 receiver. At running back, Donovonn Young looked good in the spring game with three rushing touchdowns, and Josh Ferguson provides a nice counterpunch with his speed.

3. O-line coming together: When a unit struggles as much as Illinois' offense did in 2012, the first place you look is up front. An offensive line that featured one NFL draft pick (Hugh Thornton) and another potential pro (Graham Pocic) significantly underachieved, although injuries and youth played a role. The group needed to take important steps this spring, and Beckman sounded pleased with the results. Tackle Corey Lewis, recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, performed well and put himself in position to start. Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz and Alex Hill all benefited from game experience last fall and should provide a more solid front in 2013.

Fall questions

1. Mind games on offense: Cubit was more concerned about quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole picking up the offense this spring than which one separated himself in the competition. After all, Illinois will be running its third different offense in as many years, which will test both quarterbacks from the neck up. Scheelhaase came out of the spring with the lead, and he'll try to create some space between himself and O'Toole this season. Cubit wants to throw quick passes -- and a lot of them -- and Illinois' aerial game remains a work in progress entering the summer.

2. Special teams: The kicking game has been a major area of concern at Illinois for several years, and it will once again be in the spotlight when fall camp kicks off. Kicker Nick Immekus, who connected on 4 of 5 field goal attempts last season, left the team before spring practice. Taylor Zalewski, who made 4 of 7 attempts last fall, has the inside track for the starting job but must show consistency as he competes with Ryan Frain and Brennen VanMieghem (great name). Illinois should be strong at punter but needs a major spark in the return game after finishing 118th nationally in punt returns and 107th in kickoff returns in 2012.

3. Filling gaps on defense: Repairing the offense is priority No. 1, but Illinois also needs to fill spots throughout the defense, especially up front and in the secondary. Illinois had three defenders selected in the NFL draft -- linemen Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, and cornerback Terry Hawthorne -- and loses other key contributors like lineman Glenn Foster and cornerback Justin Green. Tim Kynard is the team's only lineman with significant experience, so building depth up front will be critical. Cornerback is another position to watch, as freshman Darius Mosely stood out this spring. The linebacking corps could be very good if Jonathan Brown returns from injury at top form.
Only 22 Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2013 NFL draft, the league's lowest total in nearly two decades (it had 21 draftees in 1994).

But as soon as the draft ended Saturday, the free-agent signings began. And there were plenty around the Big Ten from all 12 squads.

Here's our first look list of free-agent signings or team tryouts from the conference. As a reminder, this is not a final list, and we'll have updates later on either here on the blog or on Twitter.

Here we go ...

ILLINOIS

C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints

INDIANA

C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons

IOWA

WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings

MICHIGAN

WR Roy Roundtree, Cincinnati Bengals
S Jordan Kovacs, Miami Dolphins
LB Kenny Demens, Arizona Cardinals
DE Craig Roh, Carolina Panthers
OL Elliott Mealer, New Orleans Saints
OL Patrick Omameh, San Francisco 49ers
OL Ricky Barnum, Washington Redskins
LB Brandin Hawthorne, St. Louis Rams
(WR Darryl Stonum, dismissed before the 2012 season, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs)

MICHIGAN STATE

CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots

MINNESOTA

CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings

NEBRASKA

DE Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints
LB Will Compton, Washington Redskins
TE Ben Cotton, San Diego Chargers
TE/FB Kyler Reed, Jacksonville Jaguars
K Brett Maher, New York Jets
DE Cameron Meredith, Oakland Raiders

NORTHWESTERN

OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)

OHIO STATE

CB Travis Howard, Houston Texans
S Orhian Johnson, Houston Texans
FB Zach Boren, Houston Texans
TE Jake Stoneburner, Green Bay Packers
DE Nathan Williams, Minnesota Vikings
DL Garrett Goebel, St. Louis Rams
LB Etienne Sabino, New York Giants

PENN STATE

OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers

PURDUE

CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WISCONSIN

CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders
Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
Greg Colby and Mike Bellamy both have seen better days at Illinois.

During Colby's first stint as an assistant at his alma mater (1988-95), Illinois shared a Big Ten championship in 1990 and reached six bowl games in seven seasons. Bellamy starred at wide receiver for two of those Illini bowl teams (1988 and 1989). Illinois went 10-2 during Bellamy's senior season, when he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and second-team All-America honors as a kick returner.

Both men played for the Orange and Blue, and both are in their first seasons as full-time assistants on Tim Beckman's revamped coaching staff. Their challenge: recapture the winning ways after a 2-10 disaster in 2012.

"When I was here before, we had some pretty good success," Colby recently told ESPN.com. "A championship, six bowls, and played pretty well. I want to see Illinois be successful. I have all along, and now I've got [a job] where I can have a little bit of an influence, at least. So I've got a very strong vested interest.

"It is personal for me."

[+] EnlargeRyan Lankford
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNew Illinois receivers coach Mike Bellamy will aim to get more production from Ryan Lankford in 2013.
Every Friday during the offseason, Beckman has speakers address the team to talk about the program's history. Colby and Bellamy recently made a joint presentation, discussing their playing days in Champaign and, in Colby's case, his first run as an assistant.

Colby returned as defensive line coach after five years as head coach at Division II Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He has made four stops since leaving Illinois following the 2005 season, including two at other Big Ten schools (Michigan State and Northwestern). Bellamy, who played for four NFL teams between 1990-95, takes over as Illinois' receivers coach after serving as the team's assistant director of player personnel and relations in 2012.

"Last year, being around the guys, I told them I was one of them," Bellamy told ESPN.com. "So that made it easy during this offseason, being in their ear and watching them work out, giving them tips here and there on how to study. So when the choice was made, some thought it would be a natural fit and Coach Beckman wanted to make sure he got the right guy.

"I was excited."

Bellamy works with a group that, like the rest of the offense, underperformed in 2012. He inherits veterans like Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris, and has seen some good signs this spring from converted safety Steve Hull and Miles Osei, a full-time wideout after serving as a reserve quarterback for three seasons. Junior-college transfer Martize Barr also has been a bright spot.

Colby oversees a group that has been Illinois' strength despite the team's recent struggles. Two Illini defensive linemen -- Whitney Mercilus (2012) and Corey Liuget (2011) -- have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the past three years. Linemen like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster could hear their names called later this month.

Although Colby is aware of the recent track record, he's not focusing on it.

"It’s all attitude right now," he said. "That's what the offseason is. If you don't develop it now, you're not going to have it in the fall during the season."

Colby inherits a young group that includes only one player (senior Tim Kynard) with significant game experience. He hopes Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma can blossom, and he's seen flashes from redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams.

"I don't think we're going to have the All-American, All-Big Ten that they’ve had in the past, but who knows," Colby said. "That's not something we really focus on. We've got to be blue-collar players up front. That’s what we're trying to instill, the kind of work ethic. Don't depend on your athleticism to make plays for you.

"Depend on your work ethic, and let your athleticism be the icing on the cake."

Both Colby and Bellamy often talk to players about forging a legacy, one the coaches helped shape as former Illini.

"I told them a couple times, 'At some point, you’ve got to take this personally,'" Bellamy said. "To me, this is personal right now.

"We can't go anywhere but up.”
A year ago, Mason Monheim was in high school.

He's now among the leaders of an Illinois team desperately trying to get back on track for the 2013 season after a 2-10 clunker last fall. Ideally, Monheim could play behind several veterans for a few years, develop physically and mentally and then claim a leadership position. But a wave of injuries, combined with Monheim's emergence as a starting linebacker, have fast-tracked him to the forefront.

[+] EnlargeMason Monheim
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanIllinois LB Mason Monheim said he's trying to learn the nuances of the other defensive positions so that he can become a better leader.
The good news: Monheim is OK with taking the reins. The better news: he likes it.

"I feel more of a leadership role," Monheim recently told ESPN.com. "I'm really taking ahold of the defense. I'm trying to figure other people's positions so I can help them out, and know what they're doing to help me. I'm trying to be more vocal, just trying to bring that fire a little bit, to the group.

"It's a lot better and easier when there's a little fire underneath you."

Monheim said he's not fiery by nature but likes bringing energy to Illinois' spring workouts, whether it's critiquing a teammate or celebrating with them after big plays. Despite his young age, his teammates are responding to him well.

"They're ready for that criticism," he said. "Everybody's trying to learn, whether you've been here for a few years or not."

Much of Monheim's education came between the lines on Saturdays last fall. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Monheim started the final 10 games for Illinois and led all Big Ten freshmen in tackles with 86.

His tackles-per-game average of 7.2 tied for 15th in the league, while no other freshman ranked in the top 50. Monheim had six tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, to go along with two forced fumbles, an interception a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.

He earned freshman All-America honors from Phil Steele and made our All-Big Ten freshman team along with fellow Illini linebacker Mike Svetina.

"I guess I didn't expect to play so much, but I went in with an open mind," Monheim said. "I knew if I would get an opportunity, I'd make the best of it for the team. That's what happened."

Monheim, a two-time Division IV all-state selection from Orville High School in Ohio, likely would have played for Toledo if Illini coach Tim Beckman had remained the Rockets' head man. But days after taking his official visit to Toledo, Monheim learned Beckman had accepted the Illinois job.

Monheim, who had received several Mid-American Conference offers, jumped on the chance to follow Beckman to Champaign.

"When I came in [last] summer, I didn't know what to expect," Monheim said. "But it wasn't anything that I was scared or didn't believe in my abilities. I have a lot of great teammates. They made it easy on me."

Monheim's challenge this spring is to better understand his teammates' responsibilities so he can lead them this fall.

Illinois could have three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who sparkled last week at pro day after not receiving a combine invite. The secondary loses cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.

The biggest reasons for optimism can be found at linebacker, as both Monheim and Svetina return along with Jonathan Brown, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011.

"We're more together as a group," Monheim said of Illinois' defense. "We're not focused on the individual abilities and talents. When you're together, nothing can break you."

Spring previews: Leaders Division

February, 28, 2013
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Spring practice is under way in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what's on tap for the six teams in the Leaders Division.

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. Coaching staff makeover: Illinois players are used to coaching changes, and Tim Beckman's staff received a significant overhaul during the winter as five assistants departed the program (four voluntarily). The biggest change comes at offensive coordinator, as former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit takes over. Cubit has to implement his system and identify more playmakers with a unit that finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense last season.

2. Lines in limbo: The Illini not only lost significant pieces on both the offensive and defensive lines, but they have new position coaches at both spots as well. Defensive line has been Illinois' strongest spot, but the team must replace two future NFLers in Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Glenn Foster is also gone, so the front four will have a very different look. The offensive line struggled mightily in 2012 and needs young players such as Michael Heitz and Ted Karras to take steps this spring.

3. Getting healthy: Illinois lost so many starters to injury in 2012 that it became difficult to get an accurate gauge on what Beckman could do with a healthy roster. Although linebacker Jonathan Brown and receiver Darius Millines will be limited this spring, the rest of the team is ready to go and Illinois added several potential big contributors from the junior college ranks. If Illinois has any chance of taking a major step in 2013, its best players must stay on the field this spring and allow the coaches a chance to evaluate and scheme for the season.

INDIANA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Quarterback cluster: While some Big Ten teams (Penn State, Purdue) have hardly any experience at quarterback, Indiana has three signal-callers who have logged significant field time. Tre Roberson, who started the 2012 season before suffering a broken leg in Week 2, returns this spring, and it will be interesting to see how he looks and whether he outperforms Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld. Coffman started the final 10 games last fall and passed for 2,734 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Sudfield added 632 passing yards and seven TDs. Indiana's quarterback depth is a good problem to have, but it would be good to see some separation this spring.

2. Defensive leadership: Fielding a Big Ten-level defense remains Indiana's top priority, and the Hoosiers need leaders to develop this spring. Top linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. depart, and Indiana needs to build depth up front after allowing a league-worst 231.3 rush yards per game in 2012. Linebacker is another spot IU must upgrade, and David Cooper should be ready to take the reins after recording 86 tackles in 12 starts a year ago. Like Illinois, Indiana also welcomes several junior college defenders, including tackle Jordan Heiderman.

3. Secondary surge: All the question marks in Indiana's defensive front seven make it even more important for the secondary to make strides this spring. The Hoosiers have no shortage of experience in the back four with players such as Greg Heban, Mark Murphy, Brian Williams (12 starts last season) and Antonio Marshall (started final seven games). There's potential for the secondary to be a strength for IU in 2013, but the group must make more plays after recording a league-low seven interceptions last fall.

OHIO STATE

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13 (at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati)

What to watch:

1. Taking a pass: The highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten returns every starter but two, and all that experience, talent and familiarity with the spread attack heading into Urban Meyer's second season with the Buckeyes figures to make them even more dangerous. The key will be how much more efficient Braxton Miller can become as a passer.

2. Getting defensive: For all the pieces the offense retains, the defense is a completely different story heading into spring camp. The Buckeyes have to replace the entire defensive line after losing three seniors and junior Johnathan Hankins to the draft, two starting linebackers are gone and the graduation of cornerback Travis Howard leaves an additional hole in the safety. There will be no shortage of competition for first-team reps.

3. Looking for leaders: Meyer and the senior class that has since departed quickly forged a deep bond, and he has gone out of his way to praise those players' leadership as integral in the unbeaten season that started his tenure with the Buckeyes. Now he needs a new wave of emotional speakers and relentless workers to take the torch from the likes of John Simon and Zach Boren, and Meyer will be making a point to identify his best candidates over the 15 workouts leading into the summer.

-- Austin Ward, BuckeyeNation

PENN STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Quarterback competition: With the departure of fifth-year senior Matt McGloin, quarterback is now the biggest question mark on this team. Sophomore Steven Bench has a head start and will compete against juco early enrollee Tyler Ferguson. Christian Hackenberg won't join the team until summer. Can this no-huddle offense be as effective?

2. Replacing LBs Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges: Mike Hull, who usually played inside, will have to make some adjustments as one of the expected replacements for the All-Big Ten linebacker tandem. The other spot is up for grabs, and fans should expect to see a battle between Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman.

3. New faces at WR, TE: Redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis, the headliner of PSU's 2012 class, could challenge Brandon Moseby-Felder as the No. 2 WR target. Adam Breneman, the No. 1 tight end recruit in the country, is also hoping to be recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in time for the Blue-White Game. Both could be stars down the road for PSU.

-- Josh Moyer, NittanyNation

PURDUE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Behind these Hazell eyes: Yes, I'll justifiably take the abuse for the Kelly Clarkson reference, but new Purdue coach Darrell Hazell has his first chance to evaluate his team on the field this spring. Hazell brings a completely new coaching staff and a new approach to Purdue, which fell short of expectations in 2012 and has significant questions on both sides of the ball. He seems to be getting good buy-in from the players so far, but it'll be interesting to see how things progress during the 15 workouts this spring.

2. Quarterback race: If you like mysteries, you'll enjoy Purdue's quarterback competition this spring. The combination of a new coaching staff and unproven but talented candidates makes the race virtually impossible to predict. Hazell and new offensive coordinator John Shoop will study redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, who could have a slight edge to win the job, along with redshirt freshman Bilal Marshall and early enrollee Danny Etling, a decorated recruit. Don't forget about Rob Henry, who started in 2010 and would have been the top quarterback in 2011 if not for an ACL injury weeks before the season.

3. Short stopper: Purdue has to find a replacement for standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, the centerpiece of the defensive line the past few seasons. Bruce Gaston Jr. will continue to occupy the other top tackle spot, but there will be plenty of competition to join him in the starting lineup. Purdue's defensive line underachieved in 2012, and while Gaston and ends Ryan Russell and Ryan Isaac all return, the Boilers will really miss Short's production if they don't build more depth up the middle.

WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. New era dawns: Consistency is the norm at Wisconsin, but players will have to adjust to a dramatically different coaching staff for the second consecutive season. This time, it includes a new leading man in Gary Andersen, who gets his first chance to work with the players on the practice field. Andersen doesn't plan to overhaul the schemes, but he and his coaches will put their spin on things and see what works. He'll also bring a different personality to practice but one that athletic director Barry Alvarez thinks will fit the program's culture.

2. Intrigue at quarterback: Arguably no team in America has a more interesting quarterback race than the Badgers do this spring. They have three players with starting experience -- Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien -- plus a talented redshirt freshman (Bart Houston) who arrived as a decorated recruit and a junior college addition (Tanner McEvoy) brought in by the new coaches. Add in a new system under coordinator Andy Ludwig, and it's anyone's guess who will separate himself this spring. Be sure to tune in.

3. Secondary in the spotlight: The Badgers lose three of four starters in the secondary from the 2012 squad, including top cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie. The new staff is aware of the numbers issue and signed junior college All-American Donnell Vercher earlier this month. Other players who will compete for starting spots include cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean and safeties Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo. Wisconsin hopes to have some answers in the back four by the end of the spring.

Illini sign five juco transfers

December, 19, 2012
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Illinois coach Tim Beckman made no secret of his team's depth and talent issues before the season, and those issues were exposed during a 2-10 campaign.

Beckman and the Illini need reinforcements as quickly as possible, so they are turning to the junior college ranks. Today was the first day that junior college players could sign letters of intent, and Illinois announced that five juco imports are coming to Champaign. They are:
  • Martize Barr, WR, 6-foot, 190 pounds, Iowa Western CC
  • Abe Cajuste, DT, 6-3, 290, Victor Valley (Calif.) College
  • Eric Finney, OLB/S, 6-1, 205, College of the Canyons (Calif.)
  • Dallas Hinkhouse, OL, 6-5, 275, Iowa Western CC
  • Zane Petty, S, 6-1, 190, America River (Calif.) College

Hinklehouse and Finney will each have three years of eligibility with the Illini, while the other three players will have two. Finney did not play last season because of an injury. Barr played at New Mexico as a freshman before going to Iowa Western, which won the junior college national title. Hinklehouse also played on that team and was named a juco All-American. Petty spent a redshirt season at Colorado State and had seven interceptions last year. Cajuste could help fill the void left by departing starters Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster at defensive tackle.

"We're extremely excited about these five young men and their families joining the Fighting Illini family," Beckman said in a news release. "These men are coming to Champaign from winning programs around the country. There are two national champions and several conference champions in the group. The most exciting part is that they fill immediate needs for us. They all play a different position of need and are spread across all areas of the team."

Beckman and his staff have been actively scouring the junior college ranks, and don't be surprised to see more two-year transfers in the 2013 class.
Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence plans on skipping his senior season and entering the NFL draft, ESPN's Joe Schad reports. Spence will announce the decision on Friday, Schad says.

Spence had 72 tackles and seven tackles for loss in 2012 following a sophomore year in which he had 69 tackles and 5.5 sacks. The 6-foot-1, 305-pounder has been viewed as an NFL prospect for some time because of his size and strength.

He was one of the few bright spots for the Illini during a miserable 2-10 season in 2012. But even with him and other playmakers like defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown, Illinois finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 32.1 points per game. Head coach Tim Beckman will have to replace Spence, Buchanan and Glenn Foster as starters on the defensive line next season.

ESPN's Scouts Inc. has Spence rated as the 10th-best defensive tackle and the 45th best overall prospect in the 2013 NFL draft. That could translate into second-round status, and you can't blame Spence for not wanting to be a part of a rebuilding process in Champaign next year. He's the second high-profile junior from the Big Ten to declare early for the draft. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, also a defensive tackle, announced earlier this month that he would enter the draft.
With media days in our rearview mirror, we jump back into our preseason Big Ten position rankings. Last week we unveiled our rankings for individual defensive linemen. Now it's time to look at the defensive line units as a whole.

Remember, these rankings are based heavily on last year's performance and who returns to the fold, with potential considered as well. Let's get to the guys up front who make the entire defense go.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Phil Sears/US PresswireJohn Simon leads one of the Big Ten's best defensive fronts.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a chance to field one of the top defensive lines in the country. John Simon is a beast, while Johnathan Hankins has as much potential to dominate his position as any Big Ten player. Nathan Williams could be a big contributor coming back from knee surgery. This group is already really deep, and with standout freshmen like Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se'Von Pittman coming in, it could be scary good.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans will rival Ohio State for the league's top defensive front. You know all about end William Gholston and his unlimited potential. Marcus Rush gets overshadowed at the other end spot, but he put up an outstanding freshmen season. Anthony Rashad White should be an anchor inside. The big question is who replaces Jerel Worthy, but the team is flush with candidates. This is another very deep defensive line.

3. Purdue: Don't be surprised by this high ranking. Kawann Short might be the top defensive lineman in the league, and is poised for a monster senior season. Bruce Gaston gives him a veteran running mate. Defensive end Ryan Russell is coming on and might be due for a major breakout this season. This should be the strength of Danny Hope's defense.

4. Penn State: Devon Still is gone, but the Nittany Lions should continue to be strong up front. Jordan Hill looks to follow Still's lead and become a superstar as a senior. Sean Stanley is a speedy rusher off the edge, and Pete Massaro returns from a knee injury. DaQuan Jones and Deion Barnes could become bigger contributors.

5. Illinois: Star power lifts the Illini to this high ranking, as defensive end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence should be among the very best at their positions in the league. It's just a matter of finding out how the others -- like end Justin Staples and tackle Glenn Foster -- raise their games around them to help make up for the loss of sack master Whitney Mercilus.

6. Nebraska: Too low for the Huskers? Perhaps. They do bring back several veterans, like Cam Meredith, Chase Rome and Baker Steinkuhler, while expecting more from Eric Martin. Still, this group did not dominate enough for my taste last season, and seems to lack the one true pass-rushing stud. But Nebraska has the potential to have a very stout line.

7. Michigan: It's probably wrong to doubt a line overseen by Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. Yet this unit lost three starters from a year ago, including stars Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. A lot depends on how Will Campbell performs as a senior, and whether Craig Roh can take his game to the next level. There isn't much experience at all behind the starters.

8. Wisconsin: Can David Gilbert stay healthy and emerge as a fearsome pass-rusher? That's the key to the Badgers' defensive line, without a doubt. Tackles Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer are rock solid, though the loss of Jordan Kohout hurts the depth inside. Brendan Kelly should be good against the run. But Wisconsin needs a fast player on the perimeter, and that's where Gilbert comes in.

9. Iowa: This is a frighteningly young and inexperienced group heading into the season for Iowa, though that doesn't mean it lacks talent. Steve Bigach is the closest thing to a seasoned veteran. The Hawkeyes will need a lot of players to raise their performance, including Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis.

10. Northwestern: This has been a trouble spot for the Wildcats, and could be again in 2012 with the loss of both starting tackles. Tyler Scott and Quetin Williams are back at end, and expectations are high for redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson. Can Will Hampton and Brian Arnfeldt hold the fort down inside the tackles?

11. Indiana: Defensive line is one of the few places where the Hoosiers have experienced veterans. Seniors Adam Replogle and Larry Black lead the way at tackle. Bobby Richardson and Ryan Phillis showed some things as freshmen pass-rushers last season. Still, this group must play better overall.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers have had trouble putting consistent pressure on quarterbacks for the past couple of seasons, and now they're replacing both interior linemen. Jerry Kill has talked highly of 6-foot-6, 300-pound junior Ra'Shede Hageman's offseason, and Roland Johnson comes over from junior college to help out. D.L. Wilhite and Ben Perry will bring speed, but not much bulk to the defensive end spots.
CHICAGO -- Illinois fans held their breath in June when standout defensive end Michael Buchanan suffered a broken jaw during an altercation.

Buchanan, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011 and a budding star, would have to have his jaw wired shut. His weight certainly would drop, and his recovery time was unknown.

Breathe easy, Illini Nation. Buchanan is just fine.

"I'm 100 percent," Buchanan told ESPN.com. "I've been eating for weeks now. I'm back to my normal weight and everything."

Buchanan actually is on pace to be heavier than he was last year (240). He'll check in around 250 pounds when the season kicks off in September.

He only had the jaw wired shut for a week -- his food consisted of anything you can put in a blender -- but the physical toll was minimal.

"Any time you break a jaw, you never know how long you're going to be wired up for," he said. "You're not going to be able to eat. But I was only wired up for a week, and right after that, I was able to pretty much eat normally."

Buchanan looks forward to feasting on opposing quarterbacks and running backs this fall. Although Illinois loses All-America end Whitney Mercilus -- he of the 16 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and an NCAA-record nine forced fumbles in 2011 -- pretty much everyone else returns, including tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, and end Justin Staples.

"We want to be one of the best defensive lines in the country," Buchanan said. "We have the pieces to be that."
This week, I asked you to select the Big Ten's strongest position and weakest position entering the 2012 season. The results are definitive and, quite frankly, not very surprising.

Strongest position: Running back (53 percent)

Weakest position: Wide receiver (59 percent)

Now it's time to explore position groups that could make the jump from good to great in 2012. Again, these aren't groups that are already playing at elite levels, but ones that could get there this coming season. Colleague Travis Haney provided the national view Thursday and included Ohio State's defensive ends among his "high-ceiling" groups Insider.

I'd expand that to include Ohio State's entire defensive line. While All-America candidate John Simon anchors the group at end, and decorated incoming recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington also play on the edge, the Buckeyes aren't too shabby on the inside, either. Junior tackle Johnathan Hankins, a potential first-round draft pick in 2013, is back in the fold alongside veteran Garrett Goebel and promising young players like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale. There's little doubt the Buckeyes' defensive line will take a big step in 2012.

Here are some other Big Ten groups that have high ceilings:

Illinois' defensive line: The Illini lose All-American Whitney Mercilus, but Michael Buchanan is ready to step into the lead pass-rusher role after a big spring. Akeem Spence is an underrated defensive tackle with legitimate pro potential, and Illinois returns experienced players like Justin Staples and Glenn Foster. Tim Beckman made an excellent move in retaining line coach Keith Gilmore from the previous staff.

Michigan's secondary: One of the nation's worst units a few seasons ago took a big step in 2011, and could take another one this fall. Michigan returns four players with starting experience, including safety Jordan Kovacs, the leader of the defense this fall. J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess form a very good cornerback tandem. Thomas Gordon gained valuable experience last year, and Michigan has recruited well to the secondary in recent years.

Northwestern's wide receivers: This has been a position of strength for Northwestern in recent years, but the Wildcats haven't had a group as deep as this one. Demetrius Fields leads the group, although Christian Jones might have the highest ceiling. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, while classmate Rashad Lawrence should be much improved as a junior. Cam Dickerson stood out this spring, and if USC transfer Kyle Prater gets his NCAA waiver, look out.

Michigan State's linebackers: The Spartans' front four once again figures to be among the Big Ten's top units, and the linebackers could get there, too. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen enter their junior seasons with a lot of game experience under their belts. Think Greg Jones-Eric Gordon, The Sequel. Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner add a veteran presence, and players like Taiwan Jones and TyQuan Hammock are in the mix as well.

Penn State's defensive line: A good group in 2011 could be even better this season. Jordan Hill anchors the line at defensive tackle, and Penn State gets a major boost by getting Pete Massaro back in the fold. If Massaro can stay healthy, he has a chance to provide the pass-rushing threat Penn State has lacked. The Lions have experience with senior end Sean Stanley and junior tackle DaQuan Jones, and they should be very excited about redshirt freshman end Deion Barnes.

Nebraska's wide receivers/tight ends: Brandon Kinnie is the only significant departure in the group, which should be a bigger part of the offense if quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to progress. Speedster Kenny Bell looks like a No. 1 wideout, and Quincy Enunwa should see his numbers increase. Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence, and the Huskers have some talented young players in Jamal Turner and incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp. Nebraska also brings back two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed).

Illinois spring wrap

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

Top returners

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

Key losses

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

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

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

Spring answers

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

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

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

Fall questions

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

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

3. Quarterback efficiency: Illinois wants to regain its swagger on offense after flat-lining down the stretch of last season, and it starts with the quarterback spot. Nathan Scheelhaase has started two seasons under center, but he's transitioning to a new system and looked a bit shaky throwing the ball in the spring game. Arm strength is a question mark for Scheelhaase, who will need to spread the ball around in the new system. Reilly O'Toole also is in the mix after playing a decent amount as a backup in 2011. O'Toole will continue to compete for time.

Big shoes to fill: Illinois

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As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next is Illinois, which loses an extremely productive player on both sides of the ball.

[+] EnlargeWhitney Mercilus
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireWho will step up and replace a defensive end as good as Whitney Mercilus was in the 2011 season?
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Whitney Mercilus, DE

Why: Mercilus was the Big Ten's top defensive end and one of the nation's best in 2011. He led the nation in both sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9), breaking the Big Ten record for forced fumbles and ranking second in NCAA history in the category. Mercilus finished second nationally in tackles for loss with 22.5, which led the Big Ten and ranked third in Illinois history. He was one of only seven unanimous consensus All-Americans in 2011 and received the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end. The Bronko Nagurski trophy finalist recorded sacks in 11 of 13 games and had multiple tackles for loss in eight contests. Mercilus recorded forced fumbles in six of Illinois' eight Big Ten contests.

Replacement candidates: Tim Kynard (6-3, 260, Jr.); D.J. Woods (6-3, 255, So.); Michael Buchanan (6-6, 240, Sr.); Justin Staples (6-4, 235, Sr.)

The skinny: Buchanan and Staples played the "bandit" role in Vic Koenning's defense, and while both could start under the new regime, the coaches might want a bigger pass rusher to replace Mercilus. Kynard backed up Mercilus in 2011 and recorded three tackles for loss and a sack in 12 games. Woods appeared in only one game. There should be plenty of competition this spring for Mercilus' spot as Illinois looks pretty strong along the rest of the defensive line with Buchanan, NFL prospect Akeem Spence at defensive tackle and D-tackle Glenn Foster all returning. New defensive coordinator Tim Banks will be looking out for pass rushers as his Cincinnati defense ranked second nationally in sacks in 2011 (45).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: A.J. Jenkins, WR

Why: Jenkins was one of the nation's top receivers through the first half of the season and proved to be one of few offensive weapons the Illini had in 2011. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award after recording a league-high 90 receptions for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. Jenkins ranked 16th nationally in receptions per game (6.9) and 14th nationally in receiving yards per game (98.2 ypg). He accounted for 39.8 percent of Illinois' receptions, 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards and 57.1 percent of the team's receiving touchdowns.

Replacement candidates: Spencer Harris (6-3, 195, Jr.); Darius Millines (5-11, 185, Jr.); Ryan Lankford (6-0, 175, Jr.); Jake Kumerow (6-4, 190, So.)

The skinny: Illinois struggled to find pass-catching options to complement Jenkins in 2011. Although Harris had 26 catches and freshman tight end Jon Davis had 22, the Illini need much more from this group in 2012. The spotlight should be on Millines, who the coaches thought would be a difference-maker last season but missed time with a foot injury and never broke through. Millines had a very strong performance in preseason camp and should be ready for a bigger role. It's also time for Lankford to take another step in his development. Co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales will work with the receivers this spring after developing some solid wideouts at LSU and Florida.
Last Sunday, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and his staff brainstormed a unique game plan for a dangerous opponent.

They mixed up fronts, disguised blitzes, constantly moved players around and let creativity trump conservatism in mapping out ways to pressure Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. With the blueprint finalized, the coaches prepared to head home.

"We kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said.

The plan placed a burden on Illinois' defensive front seven, a group many outsiders questioned heading into the season, and for good reason.

Illinois had to replace three players selected in April's NFL draft: defensive tackle Corey Liuget, a first-round pick; linebacker Martez Wilson, a third-round pick; and linebacker Nate Bussey, a seventh-round pick. Both Liuget and Wilson opted to forgo their final year of eligibility, seemingly leaving the Illini in a bit of a pinch.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Brown
Damen Jackson/Icon SMIJonathan Brown's performance against Arizona State earned him player of the week honors.
But what the Illini defense lost in star power, it gained in a group with greater knowledge of the system. And, in the process, new stars are being born.

"They were great players, they brought a lot to the team," senior linebacker Ian Thomas said of Liuget, Wilson and Bussey, "but this year, we feel like we're a little more comfortable with the defense. We've got the defense down a little more, so it makes up for those guys that we lost."

The Illini made Koenning's crazy plan look genius Saturday night in a 17-14 win against Arizona State, which came to Champaign averaging 42.5 points and 504.5 offensive yards.

Illinois recorded six sacks, all by the front seven, and 12 tackles for loss.

Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown had a breakout performance with an interception, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Others stood out like end Whitney Mercilus (5 tackles, 2 sacks, forced fumble), bandit Michael Buchanan (1.5 sacks) and tackle Glenn Foster (interception, 1 tackle for loss).

Although Illinois starts only two seniors in the front seven -- Thomas and Trulon Henry, who moved from safety to linebacker to address depth there -- the group is displaying greater maturity in Year 2 under Koenning.

"We're a lot further along than we were last year," defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said, "just knowing the little nuances of the defense. Heck, I was still learning as well. I think I'm a better coach and a better teacher at this point in knowing the scheme, and know the kids are better players because of it."

Gilmore admits the coaches were "a little uptight" when first implementing the Arizona State game plan. But by the middle of the practice week, it began to click with the players.

Could Illinois have executed the same type of plan last year?

"We were still learning a lot of the base stuff," Gilmore said. "We came up with some different plans as well last year, but being a year into it, it's easier to make sideline adjustments and game adjustments as you go along because the kids have a better feel for the defense."

Brown was all over the field Saturday night, factoring into two of Illinois' three takeaways. He hit Osweiler on a blitz, forcing a throw that caromed off of an Arizona State lineman to Foster for an interception.

In the third quarter, he recorded a pick of his own following a deflected pass.

"We showed what we've been thinking all summer," Brown said, "that we can play with anybody in the country, and that we have the best defense in the country. Coming into the season, they had us ranked dead last as a linebacker corps. One of our goals was to go out and prove people wrong."

Although Illinois lost two linebackers to the NFL, its biggest concern was replacing Liuget, the Big Ten's most dominant interior lineman in 2011. The defensive line's performance against Arizona State bodes well for Big Ten play.

"We talk about 'next man in' all the time, whether it be to an injury or graduation or an NFL departure," Gilmore said. "They all have talent. It's a matter of who gets an opportunity to showcase that talent."

Thomas, the graybeard of the defense, is seeing his teammates grasp the opportunities presented to them.

"I'm real confident in those guys," he said. "I know I can depend on them to be where they need to be."
Spring practice is creeping closer, and Purdue will hit the field in less than two weeks (March 1 to be exact) for the first of its 15 workouts.

Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the Leaders Division this spring.

ILLINOIS

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • New look at linebacker: Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Martez Wilson as well as playmaker Nate Bussey. They combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Illini need a middle linebacker and could turn to productive senior Ian Thomas or promising sophomore Jonathan Brown. Illinois also is replacing linebackers coach Dan Disch.
  • Ford tough: All-American running back Mikel Leshoure departs, turning the spotlight to Jason Ford. At 235 pounds, Ford is a true power back who will give the Illinois offense a slightly different look in 2011. The Illini also want to build depth at running back with players like Troy Pollard.
  • Replacing Liuget: Illinois begins the difficult task of replacing the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman in Corey Liuget, a likely first-round draft pick in April. Akeem Spence had a very solid redshirt freshman season and will take on a larger role, but Illinois must build around him with Glenn Foster and others. This is a major priority for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and line coach Keith Gilmore this spring.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 8
Spring game: April 16
End of spring practice: April 19

What to watch:
  • Culture change: Kevin Wilson has talked extensively about changing the culture around the Indiana program, and the process begins in full force this spring. Players will have to adjust to the demands of Wilson and his staff, which still isn't in place but soon will be. There will be plenty of teaching and learning, as players must absorb Wilson's offense and a 4-3 defensive scheme (IU operated out of the 3-4 for part of last season).
  • Quarterback competition: Three-year starter Ben Chappell departs, and there's no clear-cut successor entering spring practice. Both Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker played sparingly in five games last season, and they bring different skills to the table. It'll be interesting to see who emerges under center this spring before acclaimed recruit Tre Roberson arrives for fall camp.
  • Identify defensive contributors: Indiana can't expect to get over the hump until it upgrades the defense, and co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory begin a crucial evaluation process this spring. The Hoosiers need to build depth and identify Big Ten-ready players throughout the defense, particularly in the back seven after losing standout linebacker Tyler Replogle and others.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 31
Spring game: April 23
  • Suspension preparation: Ohio State knows it will be without four offensive starters and a key defensive reserve for the first chunk of the 2011 season. This spring, the Buckeyes start the process of evaluating who will step in, especially at the quarterback spot for Terrelle Pryor. Joe Bauserman holds an edge in experience (though little has come in games), and he'll compete with Kenny Guiton and heralded incoming freshman Braxton Miller.
  • Receiving orders for Drayton: Stan Drayton left Florida for Ohio State primarily to expand his coaching repertoire and oversee a new position group. The career running backs coach will work with a mostly unproven group of Ohio State wide receivers this spring. Ohio State must replace All-Big Ten standout Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey is among those suspended for the first part of the season. Says Drayton of his receivers, "Personnel wise, they're in competition with the whole offensive unit."
  • Up-the-middle defensive replacements: Excuse the baseball reference, but Ohio State loses several standout players in the core of its defense: linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, and safety Jermale Hines. Although the Buckeyes always find ways to reload on defense, it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring, especially at linebacker.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks, especially Rob Bolden: Penn State's quarterback competition should be wide open this spring, and it might be the most fascinating race in the Big Ten. You've got sophomore Rob Bolden, who asked for his release after the Gator Bowl but didn't get it from Joe Paterno, and has returned to compete for a job he thought he never should have lost. Junior Matt McGloin tries to redeem himself after the bowl disaster, and Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also are in the mix.
  • Line play on both sides: The Lions boast enough at the skill positions on both sides of the ball to be a much improved team in 2011. But they have to get better and more consistent on both lines. The offensive line must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski and find the form it displayed in 2008. The defensive line tries to regain its swagger after backsliding in 2010, and identify a pass-rushing threat or two.
  • Kicking it: Collin Wagner was Penn State's top offensive weapon for much of the 2010 season, but the standout kicker departs the program, leaving a void. Punter Anthony Fera likely will handle the bulk of the kicking duties this spring until incoming freshman Sam Ficken arrives.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 2
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Replacing Superman: Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but the Boilers lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan. The Boilers were the league's top pass-rushing team in 2010, but Kerrigan's production and presence played huge roles in the overall sacks and tackles for loss totals. The entire defensive line took a step forward last fall, and will need to do so again without No. 94.
  • The quarterbacks: Robert Marve is still recovering from his second ACL tear, so Rob Henry, Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson will be in the spotlight this spring. Henry showed promise when healthy in 2010, and TerBush had a strong spring a year ago before being ruled academically ineligible for the season. The quarterback race won't be decided until the summer, but all the candidates can help themselves in spring ball.
  • The offensive identity: A wave of injuries forced Purdue to overhaul its plan on offense in 2010. Although several key players will be out or limited this spring, the Boilers can start to reshape their plan on offense. Coach Danny Hope is optimistic Marve and the others return at full strength, but he doesn't want to take anything for granted. This is a huge spring for players a notch or two down the depth chart to get noticed.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Finding Tolzien's successor: After a one-year respite, Wisconsin's annual spring quarterback competition resumes. Sort of. Jon Budmayr will have every opportunity to establish himself as the Badgers' top option before Curt Phillips (knee) returns to full strength. Budmayr turned heads with his performance two springs ago, but played sparingly last season behind Scott Tolzien.
  • New leadership on defense: Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash are familiar faces who step into new roles this spring. Partridge and Ash were promoted to co-defensive coordinators following Dave Doeren's departure, and they'll get their first opportunity to shape the defensive vision this spring.
  • Reloading on the lines: Wisconsin loses three All-American linemen from 2010: Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the offensive side, and J.J. Watt at defensive end. Although the Badgers must replace more bodies on the offensive front, they boast excellent depth there and should be able to fill the gaps. Watt leaves a bigger void, and Wisconsin needs strong springs from players like Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert.

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