Big Ten: Greg Heban
Three things we learned in the spring
- Moving to the 3-4 defense: Brian Knorr has taken over as defensive coordinator, and he's bringing along his philosophy from Wake Forest. The Hoosiers and Badgers are now the only Big Ten teams to run the 3-4 defense, and Indiana has switch some players' positions as a result.
- WR Shane Wynn is stepping up: With the departures of Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, the Hoosiers moved Wynn to the outside, hoping he'd make up for some of the lost production. Thanks to his speed, the adjustment seems to be going well. He had five catches for 141 yards in the spring game.
- The offense once again looks strong: Running back Tevin Coleman had a breakout 2013 season, and he wants to be "the leading rusher in the Big Ten." That's a tall order, but he's looked good this spring and the offensive line is pretty solid. IU had the No. 2 offense in the conference last season, and the Hoosiers showed this spring that they likely won't stray too far from that ranking.
- Who gets the most snaps under center?: Even head coach Kevin Wilson doesn't know who will end up with more playing time: pocket passer Nate Sudfeld or dual threat Tre Roberson. The two will likely split time again this season, and there's no telling who will start when. This is one of the more unique QB battles in the Big Ten, but both players obviously are talented.
- Special teams: Gone is four-year starting kicker Mitch Ewald, Indiana's all-time leader in field goals (53), field goal percentage (80.3 percent) and extra points (161). Indiana will have to find a replacement among three redshirt freshman walk-ons, but that's not the only question on special teams. IU also needs improved play from its punters.
- Will this defense ever even reach "average?" The Hoosiers allowed 38.8 points per game last season, and they've been a defensive doormat for what seems like ages. Since 2008, Indiana has allowed at least 34 point per game in all but one season (2009: 29.5 ppg). Indiana lost only safety Greg Heban over the offseason. Can the Hoosiers finally find some semblance of success here?
The defense finally takes a step in the right direction. It can't get much worse after all, and Knorr seems like the right man for the job. After spending the past few seasons regressing, Indiana finally improves this fall. It still won't be a good defense -- but it will be a better defense.
But the Hoosiers went just 5-7 because they still couldn't stop anybody for the third straight year under head coach Kevin Wilson. So Wilson is taking the natural next step: he's shaking up his defensive staff.
On Friday, Wilson announced that defensive coordinator Doug Mallory and defensive line coach Jon Fabris won't return. The move is hardly a surprise, as Indiana gave up 38.8 points per game and ranked 120th out of 123 FBS teams in total defense. There were times during the season where that defense looked completely lost, especially in a 63-47 loss to Michigan in which the Hoosiers surrendered 751 yards.
Mallory is the son of Indiana's most successful head coach, Bill Mallory, so firing him couldn't have been an easy call for Wilson. But IU's defense simply didn't show any noticeable improvement in three years despite some recruiting successes that were supposed to upgrade the talent on that side of the ball.
Whether it was truly a lack of good schemes and coaching or whether Indiana simply lacks Big Ten quality defensive players -- defense has been a huge issue at the school for years -- doesn't really matter. The numbers speak for themselves, and no coordinator could expect to keep his job after that kind of performance. Indiana would have had a credibility problem with its fans if it didn't make major defensive changes in the offseason. The only real surprise is that Wilson waited until now to make the move instead doing it right after the season ended. But Wilson has time to hire a new coordinator before coaches hit the road for recruiting again next week, and with the coaches' convention starting Sunday in Indianapolis, he doesn't have to go far for his shopping needs.
Fabris' departure is slightly more surprising since he came to Bloomington after coaching at Georgia and had helped the Hoosiers recruit well in the South. At the same time, however, Indiana's defensive line has been a major contributor to the overall failures on defense.
Can a new coach come in and right the ship immediately on defense? That's a big question. But if Indiana can field one of the best offenses in the country, there's no real reason why the program can't at least be mediocre on defense. The good news -- or maybe it's bad news, considering how they performed -- is that 10 starters return on defense next year, with only safety Greg Heban departing. For a change, the Hoosiers will have a veteran group to work with on that side of the ball.
It will be up to the new coordinator to finally make something out of it.
Wilson had established himself as one of the nation's top assistants at Oklahoma, winning the Frank Broyles Award once and finishing as a finalist another time. He coordinated fast and dangerous offenses at Oklahoma and at Northwestern, worked for a top coach in Bob Stoops and had ties to the Big Ten.
Can Wilson fix Indiana's chronic problems on defense?
If he can't, he'll meet the same fate as Bill Lynch, Gerry DiNardo and Cam Cameron, offensive-minded coaches who were fired because they couldn't make Indiana's defense respectable. Cameron had star quarterback Antwaan Randle El for four years and still couldn't make a bowl.
Three years later, the concern remains. In fact, it has been magnified.
As expected, Wilson has made Indiana's offense into a quick-striking, touchdown-scoring machine (last Saturday's stinker at Wisconsin notwithstanding). Indiana is second in the Big Ten in scoring and third in total offense, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both categories.
But the defense is still a major drag. The Hoosiers are in a familiar position: last in the Big Ten in both points allowed and yards allowed, and near the bottom of the FBS in both categories (only New Mexico State allows more yards on average than IU). They surrendered 554 rush yards to Wisconsin last week and have yet to hold an FBS team to fewer than 400 yards this season.
Indiana's last four opponents have racked up 2,612 yards and 191 points.
After Wilson's hiring, I listed Indiana's national rankings in total defense for the previous 11 seasons:
2010: 89th (410.2 ypg)
2009: 88th (401 ypg)
2008: 107th (432.2 ypg)
2007: 71st (403.4 ypg)
2006: 109th (402.3 ypg)
2005: 93rd (417.7 ypg)
2004: 110th (453.2 ypg)
2003: 94th (429.7 ypg)
2002: 101st (428.4 ypg)
2001: 72nd (393.8 ypg)
2000: 112th (457.3 ypg)
There are a few more abysmal additions:
2011: 109th (458.7 ypg)
2012: 103rd (463.5 ypg)
2013 (to date): 122nd (534.8 ypg)
The cycle is repeating itself. So is Indiana's inability to make bowl games. Barring a miracle win this Saturday at No. 3 Ohio State, Indiana will miss the postseason for the sixth consecutive season despite eight home games and an offense that strikes fear throughout most of the Big Ten.
"It's my problem," Wilson said Monday. "It's my fault because I am the head coach. As we're sitting here playing in Year 3, it comes down to [Wilson being] an offensive minded guy, we have five coaches on defense and we trust them to do their job. I'm part of the offensive staff, which a lot of guys are like that.
"But when you're head coach, you're in charge of everything, and we've got to make some strides."
The Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz is calling for the firing of Hoosiers defensive coordinator Doug Mallory, writing that a mediocre or even a below-average defense would be enough to get IU to a coveted bowl game. The Hoosiers defense has its own category of bad.
“Sure, there's youth, as Indiana starts only one senior (safety Greg Heban). Wilson and his staff didn't inherit much talent from the previous regime. And IU's up-tempo style of offense does few favors for the defense.
It's my problem. It's my fault because I am the head coach.” Coach Kevin Wilson on the Indiana defense.
But the unit should be better than this. Indiana should be going to a bowl this season.
Defensive recruiting seemingly is on the uptick for the Hoosiers, and Wilson sees some promising signs, like the play of freshman linebacker Clyde Newton, who had a team-high 14 tackles at Wisconsin. Newton had a third-down stop that forced a punt and a touchdown-saving tackle that led to a Badgers field goal.
"As great an effort as I've seen since I've been here," Wilson said of Newton bringing down Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen short of the goal line.
"Our freshmen have been pretty good," Wilson said. "[We're] challenging our older guys to give us their best these two weeks, because I see some young guys gaining on it. The older guys haven't been bad, but we're asking those guys to dig a little deeper."
It's scary to think what Ohio State will do to Indiana's defense on Saturday, and Wilson will have to dig deeper to sort out the defense before the start of the 2014 season. He said Monday he'll examine the attitude and culture of the unit. Although he has backed Mallory so far, he'll likely have to look at the staff, too.
"It should get better, it needs to get better, and it's my job to make sure it's got to get better," Wilson said.
Indiana needs to make defense a priority. It's why I thought Dave Doeren, then the Wisconsin defensive coordinator, would be a good fit during IU's last coaching search.
The Wilson hire didn't bother me, and I understand that programs like Indiana, which need to boost fan support, gravitate toward coaches with exciting offenses.
But wins really excite the fan base, and until Indiana's defense approaches basic Big Ten standards, there won't be enough of them.
Coach: Kevin Wilson (5-19, two seasons with Hoosiers and overall)
2012 record: 4-8 (2-6 in Big Ten, fifth in the Leaders Division)
Key losses: C Will Matte, DT Adam Replogle, DT Larry Black Jr., CB Antonio Marshall
Key returnees: QB Tre Roberson, QB Cameron Coffman, QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Stephen Houston, WR Shane Wynn, WR Kofi Hughes, OL Jason Spriggs, OL Collin Rahrig, DE Ryan Phillis, DE Zach Shaw, CB Brian Williams, S Greg Heban, LB David Cooper
Newcomer to watch: The Hoosiers don’t have many holes to fill on defense with eight starters returning, but they were hit hard right up the middle with both tackles up front moving on after last season. Wilson didn’t have to look far to find a potential stopgap with an ESPN300 player on the market in Indianapolis, and the signing of Darius Latham was a critical one for the Hoosiers both in terms of the caliber of player and because it came at a position of need.
Stepping in as a true freshman and making an impact in the Big Ten trenches is a tall order, but at 6-foot-5, 291 pounds, Latham at least has the frame to give himself a chance to help the Hoosiers right away.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Maybe it won’t matter who ultimately takes the first snap of the season for the Hoosiers. There are more than enough skilled targets to take advantage of in the passing game, an emphasis on being more physical should yield better results on the ground and Indiana has a coach who has proven his system will put up points.
But a three-man quarterback battle waged throughout training camp has left a pretty significant piece of the offensive puzzle undecided this month, and at some point Wilson is going to have to settle on a guy to lead his attack and point the Hoosiers in the right direction. It’s not like he doesn’t have options, and with each of the candidates bringing something valuable to the table, it’s understandable why Indiana has taken its time.
Roberson is a versatile athlete who can add mobility to the position, Coffman showed off his arm a year ago by throwing for more than 2,700 yards and Sudfield has turned some heads on the practice field this month. But they can’t all play, and sooner or later Wilson will have to make a decision.
Forecast: The buzz is building for a return to the postseason, and after going to just one bowl in the past 19 years and not winning one since 1991, the Hoosiers are definitely overdue.
But even with all the returning talent from a productive offense and a number of veterans back with a chance to improve a porous defensive unit from a year ago, the path to a winning record or even six wins isn’t exactly a smooth one for Indiana. It will benefit from playing eight games at Memorial Stadium, but the schedule wasn’t all that kind for the program within the Big Ten and aside from Indiana State, the games outside of the league are far from sure things.
The Hoosiers showed they could compete against some of the top teams in the conference a year ago, including a thrilling, high-scoring shootout against undefeated Ohio State that offered growing evidence of what Wilson’s attack could be capable of as he adds more talent and athleticism to the roster.
Without significant improvement on the other side of the ball, the Hoosiers will have a hard time making up much ground in the division. But if the defense is able to make a jump and take a little pressure off the offense and whoever winds up winning the quarterback job, a trip around the holidays could be within reach.
So Bolser speaks with authority when talking about how much the Indiana program has changed in the past few years and where it might be headed.
"Buzz" and Hoosier football are not terms that normally appear in the same sentence, unless you're talking about tailgating. Indiana has made only one bowl appearance since 1993 and none since 2007 and is just 5-19 under third-year coach Kevin Wilson. Yet there is a good deal of positive publicity coming out of Bloomington these days.
Several preseason prognosticators have projected the Hoosiers to reach a bowl game this season. In a poll of Big Ten writers by the Cleveland Plain Dealer this summer, Indiana was the runaway choice as the team most likely to surprise in 2013. At Big Ten media days in Chicago, where the IU contingent often has plenty of free time, crowds gathered around Wilson and his players. Wilson has challenged the fan base to support the team this year, and the school reports that season ticket sales are up 5 percent, while student ticket sales have increased 18 percent over last year.
"We're not boasting or bragging," Wilson said. "We don't have it figured out. But we are, in the Twitter world, trending in a positive way."
Why the sudden uptick in interest for a team that lost to Ball State and Navy last year? For one, Indiana has a whopping 19 starters back, tied for the most in the FBS. That includes all but one starter on an offense that led the Big Ten in passing yards and finished second in the league in total yards in 2012. The Hoosiers return three experienced quarterbacks -- Tre Roberson, Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, who all all battling for the starting job -- along with arguably the conference's top receiving group. They could put a lot of points on the scoreboard this season.
Of course, the question remains whether they can keep points off the board, as IU's defense has been the worst in the Big Ten in each of Wilson's first two seasons and got torched for 163 points in its final three games last year. The team brought in one of its highest-ranked recruiting classes ever in February, and not surprisingly it was stuffed with defensive players, like defensive backs Antonio Allen and Rashard Fant and lineman Darius Latham. Early reports on the newcomers have been strong.
"They’re living up to the hype right now," senior defensive back Greg Heban said.
And the hope is that other young players on both sides of the ball continue to develop. Indiana was starting to build momentum as a program in the mid-2000s under Terry Hoeppner, who died after a long battle with brain cancer in 2007. His successor, Bill Lynch, led the Hoosiers on an inspiration bowl run in the 2007 season while coaching with the interim tag. But Lynch was fired in 2010 after three straight losing seasons. Wilson arrived and faced some resistance to change by the upperclassmen, and he began playing lots of true freshmen right away.
"I don’t think people knew the depth of issues we had in our team, and it wasn’t going to change just over the course of two years," senior receiver Kofi Hughes said. "But three years? I think it has definitely changed, and things are completely different."
In Year 3, Wilson says, the players all understand his standards and work ethic. There's far better depth and competition at every position. When asked whether this should be his best IU team, he said, "It's not close." But he continues to point out that the Hoosiers still haven't accomplished much of anything yet.
"There's always a little pessimism," he said. "Talk's cheap. ... We're getting better and we're gaining and it's a lot more fun and you feel it, but you've got to go win games and prove it. Like one guy said, 'Give me one word to describe your talent.' And I said, 'Unproven.' We've yet to really show.
"There's a boatload of potential, but you've got to go do it. It's getting over the hump and getting Ws."
Indiana benefits from eight home games this year, though nonconference games against Missouri, Navy and Bowling Green are challenging. The Hoosiers also must deal with Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin in their own division and crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State, both of which are on the road.
Still, the pieces are in place for a run at six wins and a bowl game. And maybe even more.
"Just going to a bowl, if that's our standard, that's pretty low," Bolser said. "It's kind of embarrassing, actually. We're setting our standards very high this year."
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini shook Carollo's hand and joked that he, too, was tired of talking about targeting. Pelini remains a bit peeved about the targeting penalty called on Huskers receiver Kenny Bell in last year's Big Ten championship game.
Starting this season, players guilty of the foul will be ejected from games. On-field officials and replay officials must both agree before a player is disqualified.
"They might want to be on 'SportsCenter' for a big hit, but you're not going to be on 'SportsCenter' when you're sitting in the locker room," Carollo told ESPN.com. "As long as that consistent message gets to the players through the coaches, I don't think the game is going to change a whole lot."
The ejection penalty, spurred by the increasing focus on head injuries in football, is a game-changer of sorts. While the targeting rule itself doesn't change entering the season, it will be a focal point when training camps kick off next month.
It was a major topic of discussion this week at Big Ten media days.
Here's a sampling of comments:
- Nebraska's Pelini: "I don’t think it’s an easy thing to call. And in my opinion it’s going a little bit overboard right now. And some things I’ve seen on TV and different examples that they’ve shown, you know, like even as a coach watching it on TV, I haven’t quite agreed with some of the things they’ve talked about. But I understand where it’s coming from. It’s about the safety of the players, and we're all for that. We just have to make sure that we’re not messing with the integrity of the game or the sport and how it’s supposed to be played."
- Minnesota defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman: "Me being [6-foot-6] and going full speed at a running back who's like 5-7, that's hard. And you have to understand that. I'm not trying to go head-to-head with somebody. But I feel like I have to fix my game a little bit. It's a new rule for our safety, so I can't hate on it. But it's kind of difficult when you're 6-6 and you go out at a running back or a quarterback. If I knock off somebody's helmet, now I'm going to get ejected? That's crazy."
- Indiana safety Greg Heban: "If that's the decision they're going to make, then that's what they're going to make. It's going to be something kind of different for us, and we have to realize when we go to hit, we have to kind of think about what we're going to hit instead of just attacking."
Carollo met with the Big Ten coaches in February and showed them about a dozen potential targeting fouls from the 2012 season. He also told them the NCAA playing rules oversight panel likely would approve ejections for the most egregious offenders. Carollo spent the spring and early summer educating his officials on the rule.
The focus now turns to players as the season approaches.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Carollo said. "We have a plan in place that we'll get to every team, whether it's myself or a head referee or senior official. The same information that we gave our officials, the same message is going to the coaching staffs, and if there's a need, we'll take it to the players ourselves and spend a couple hours showing plays."
Michigan State All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough said the Spartans' defense hasn't discussed the targeting policies yet as a group. He didn't know much about the increased penalties until he came to media days.
"It's not something you do on purpose," Bullough said. "If something like that happens, it's an accident, anyway, so there's nothing you can do about it. Whether they penalize you or eject you, there's nothing different you can do. It happens so fast. The rules they make are a little bit ridiculous.
"What, are you just going to stop and think? What are you going to do when a running back puts his head down? It's just too hard."
When informed of Bullough's concerns, Carollo acknowledged that it's difficult to change course or angle at full speed.
"I'm not asking you to adjust in midair," he said. "I'm asking you to adjust in June, July, August. I'm not asking you to change the way you teach players how to make tackles. I'm asking them, don't launch and lead with your head, keep your head up, move it to the side, wrap up with your arms, put a shoulder into [the opponent's] chest, hit 'em as hard as you want, but don't hit them in the head."
The much-publicized Jadeveon Clowney hit against Michigan's Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl, while vicious, was a legal play because Clowney didn't target Smith's head, Carollo said.
Although the coaches aren't in total agreement about the rule and its heavy consequences -- Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald this week proposed a soccer-style approach with a warning (yellow card) for the first offense and an ejection (red card) for the second -- they all want to protect players. But Carollo thinks the number of targeting fouls will drop "once they start losing players."
"The good coaches will get out ahead of it," he said. "Some coaches that don't totally buy into it, if [their players] don't make changes, that's fine, but they're subject to greater risk of not playing. It might take a year. It might take our officials another year to really perfect this call.
"It's a severe penalty, but I don't think it's too harsh. The intent was to make it immediate, and raise the stakes a little bit to get attention and change players' behavior."
Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel will speak on behalf of the players at the kickoff luncheon on July 25. Urschel, who's a Big Ten medal of honor winner and a brilliant guy, should deliver one whale of a speech. I can't wait to hear it.
Here's the full lineup:
Tim Kynard, Sr., DL
Corey Lewis, Sr., OT
Nathan Scheelhaase, Sr., QB
Mitch Ewald, Sr., K
Greg Heban, Sr., S
Kofi Hughes, Sr., WR
Christian Kirksey, Sr., LB
James Morris, Sr., LB
Brett Van Sloten, Sr., OL
Devin Gardner, Jr., QB
Thomas Gordon, Sr., S
Taylor Lewan, Sr., LT
Max Bullough, Sr., LB
Darqueze Dennard, Sr., CB
Blake Treadwell, Sr., OG
Ra’Shede Hageman, Sr., DT
Donnell Kirkwood, Jr., RB
Brock Vereen, Sr., S
Quincy Enunwa, Sr., WR
Ciante Evans, Sr., CB
Taylor Martinez, Sr., QB
Kain Colter, Sr., QB
Venric Mark, Sr., RB
Tyler Scott, Sr., DE
Jack Mewhort, Sr., OT
Braxton Miller, Jr., QB
Bradley Roby, Jr., CB
Glenn Carson, Sr., LB
John Urschel, Sr., G
Malcolm Willis, Sr., S
Ricardo Allen, Sr., CB
Bruce Gaston, Sr., DT
Gabe Holmes, Sr., TE
Jared Abbrederis, Sr., WR
Chris Borland, Sr., LB
James White, Sr., RB
Some quick thoughts:
- This looks like a very solid lineup. You've got the three headliner quarterbacks -- Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Devin Gardner -- as well as Northwestern's Kain Colter and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. While only five QBs total is a low number, there are so many quarterback battles in the league that it makes sense this year. There are also several other star players, like Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis, Northwestern's Venric Mark and Michigan State's Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard.
- You may have heard a roar from the media when it was announced that Ohio State was bringing Bradley Roby. The star cornerback is one of the most engaging and fun interviews around. Let's hope he shows his full personality in Chicago. Good to see Ohio State bringing high-profile players, including two non-seniors, though this may well end up being the final year for Roby and -- possibly -- Miller. We'd love to see Nebraska's Kenny Bell in attendance, but he's an underclassman and the Huskers have a pretty good group. Martinez has slowly started to warm up to the public spotlight, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the glare of media day.
- Should we read anything into Michigan State not bringing Andrew Maxwell? The quarterback is a fifth-year senior and a very polished public speaker, after all, but he is in the midst of a position battle. Maybe the Spartans simply didn't want the quarterback competition to overtake the conversation.
- This is Scheelhaase's second straight year at the event, and his inclusion probably signals that he's got a firm grip on the starting QB job. I'm a little surprised not to see the Illini bring Jonathan Brown. But Corey Lewis, who has battled back from multiple knee injuries and was granted a sixth year of eligibility, is a tremendous story.
- The guy I'm most disappointed not to see on the list? It's got to be Penn State's Allen Robinson, the best receiver in the league. He's only a junior, but it would have been nice for him to get some more national exposure. At least Urschel can fill up any reporter's notebook. All in all, it should be a vastly different experience for the Penn State contingent this year compared to last year's insanity.
What do you think of the lineup?
Defensive statistics are a little harder to predict, and there aren't as many readily identifiable milestones. One such marker, though, is 100 tackles. On the one hand, tackle numbers can sometimes be a bit misleading, since one good player on a bad defense can pile up numbers, or a defense can funnel plays to certain areas. But if you've reached 100 tackles, odds are you're a pretty good player.
And unlike the 3K passers or 1K receivers, the Big Ten is flush with returning 100-tackle men. Here's the rundown of players who reached triple digits in stops last season and will look to do it again in 2013:
- Anthony Hitchens, LB, Iowa: 124
- Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State: 115
- James Morris, LB, Iowa: 113
- Damien Proby, LB, Northwestern: 112
- Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State: 111
- Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: 104
All are solid bets to repeat the feat in '13. Here are some other guys to watch for the century mark:
Christian Kirksey, LB, Iowa: Could the Hawkeyes really have all three linebackers go over 100 stops? They very nearly did it last year, with Kirksey finishing just five tackles short, and getting back to a bowl game would aid the cause. Then again, Iowa would love to see its defensive line make more plays so the linebackers don't have to clean everything up.
Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, and Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern: Ariguzo had 91 tackles last year, while Campbell had 89. Both will be anchors for the improving Wildcats defense again this year.
Greg Heban, S, and David Cooper, LB, Indiana: Heban somewhat quietly had a really strong 2012 with 91 stops and should be even better this year. But the Hoosiers would like to see fewer opposing players get to the safety level. If so, Cooper (86) might be the statistical beneficiary.
Glenn Carson and Mike Hull, LB, Penn State: With Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti gone, the Lions will need someone to pick up the slack for two guys that combined for 205 stops last year. Carson registered 85 tackles last year and will be the most experienced member of the linebacker group, while Hull could be the next star at the position.
Ethan Armstrong, LB, Wisconsin: Borland and Mike Taylor formed a dynamic duo the past couple of years at linebacker for the Badgers. Could it now be Borland and Armstrong? The latter had 93 tackles a year ago in his first year starting.
Desmond Morgan, LB, Michigan: After an 81-tackle season a year ago, Morgan will likely start this year at middle linebacker. Someone will have to increase their production while Jake Ryan is out; it could be Morgan or James Ross III.
David Santos, LB, Nebraska: The Huskers replace all three starting linebackers from last year, including 110-tackle guy Will Compton. Perhaps Santos or one of the new starting safeties will lead the way.
Now that spring practice is over, we're starting a new series looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt or suspended or joined the circus. It could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense but not always. Next up: Indiana.
Jason Spriggs, LT, So.
Spriggs stepped into the fire as a true freshman at arguably the most important offensive line position and held his own last season. Although Indiana had plenty of youth up front in 2012, the line excelled in pass protection, allowing just one sack every 31.8 pass attempts and finishing 33rd nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.42). Spriggs, who protected the blind side of all three IU quarterbacks, led the team with 80 knockdowns and allowed just two sacks in 961 snaps. Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both set a team record by starting all 12 games as true freshmen. Both earned freshman All-America honors and honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Feeney certainly could be here, too, but Spriggs played such a big role in pass protection. He would be a major loss for Indiana, which is relying on Spriggs and Feeney to form the foundation of the offensive line for years to come.
Greg Heban, S, Sr.
The Hoosiers' long-suffering defense will improve as younger, more talented players enter the program through upgrades in recruiting. But every unit needs some veteran leadership, and Heban provides it and much more from the safety position. Indiana loses significant pieces along the line, and while linebacker David Cooper could prove to be indispensable, the defense really needs Heban to stay on the field. He has started 22 games the past two seasons and last fall led Big Ten defensive backs in tackles per game (7.6), while tying for fifth in interceptions (3) and tying for 11th in passes defended (11). He's a natural playmaker for a secondary and a defense that still lacks them. Heban also can play safety, corner or the nickel spot. Indiana should have better overall depth on defense this season, but it can't afford to lose No. 9.
2012 conference record: 2-6 (fifth in Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 9; kicker/punter: 2
QB Tre Roberson, QB Cameron Coffman, QB Nate Sudfeld, WR Kofi Hughes, WR Shane Wynn, WR Cody Latimer, TE Ted Bolser, LB David Cooper, S Greg Heban, RB Stephen Houston
C Will Matte, DT Adam Replogle, DT Larry Black Jr.
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Stephen Houston* (749 yards)
Passing: Cameron Coffman* (2,734 yards)
Receiving: Cody Latimer* (805 yards)
Tackles: Greg Heban* (91)
Sacks: Adam Replogle (5)
Interceptions: Heban (3)
1. Offensive depth: No Big Ten team returns as much offensive production as the Hoosiers, who bring back every key skill position player from 2012. They have three quarterbacks who played significant time last year, plus arguably the best corps of pass-catchers in Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes, Shane Wynn and tight end Ted Bolser. Indiana seemed to find more contributors this spring, as Tevin Coleman pushed Stephen Houston at running back, Isaiah Roundtree thrived at slot receiver and wideout Ricky Jones came back from injury. This is an offense capable of being one of the very best in the Big Ten.
2. Let's get physical: Head coach Kevin Wilson stressed toughness and physicality all spring, even using the beginning part of practices for a "Big Ten period" where his offense lined up in more traditional power sets. The goal was to better prepare the defense to face those types of Big Ten attacks and to instill a physical mindset in his own running game. How well it worked won't be determined until the fall, but the approach should help the Hoosiers hold up better in the trenches.
3. Rahrig to go: The one semi-question mark on the offensive line was at center, where longtime starter Will Matte departed. But Collin Rahrig filled in ably this spring, suggesting a smooth transition. With promising rising sophomores Dan Feeney and Jason Spriggs getting a full offseason in the weight room, the offensive line could be a strength for Indiana this season.
1. Quarterback derby: Wilson went to great lengths this spring not to play favorites with his three quarterbacks, so much so that he didn't want to send just one out first for the spring game. But at some point, he'll have to choose between Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cameron Coffman. Roberson needs to continue to get better as a passer, while Sudfeld and Coffman need to improve their mobility. Wilson is hoping one of them separates himself in fall camp. Ideally, he could redshirt Sudfeld or Coffman, but he could also risk losing one to transfer.
2. Defensive improvement: Indiana has ranked last in the Big Ten in defense in the last two years under Wilson, and that trend has to change if the Hoosiers want to get to a bowl game. The team only lost three senior starters from last year, but two were defensive tackles so there are questions up front. Several incoming recruits are expected to challenge for starting jobs right away on defense, which tells you both about the talent in that recruiting class and the need on the current roster.
3. Running the ball: Indiana led the Big Ten in passing offense last year but had a so-so running game. Leading returning ball carrier Stephen Houston has a knack for finding the end zone, yet he rushed for more than 50 fewer yards as a junior than he did as a sophomore. Indiana could get some more out of its quarterback run game this year but needs to be able to line up and run for crucial yards, especially in the red zone. A lot of that is on the guys blocking, too. "We will be a better offense when our offensive line and tight ends are tougher, and we run the ball," Wilson said.
We want you making an educated choice, so here's a quick look at each unit.
National rankings from 2012: 119th in total offense, 119th in scoring, 107th in passing, 97th in rushing
Case for improvement: It can't get much worse, right? Illinois brings in an experienced playcaller in Bill Cubit, boasts a three-year starter at quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and two capable running backs in Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. Junior-college arrivals like receiver Martize Barr drew good reviews this spring.
Case for status quo: It's the third offensive system in as many years and Scheelhaase's head has to be swimming a bit. Wide receiver is a major question mark, and the offensive line loses two veterans from a group that underperformed in 2012.
Case for improvement: Nine starters return and Indiana brings in its best defensive recruiting haul in recent memory. Incoming recruits like Darius Latham could make an immediate impact. There's good leadership in the back end with Greg Heban and Mark Murphy, and David Cooper should be a solid contributor at linebacker.
Case for status quo: Indiana has been bad to dreadful on defense for the better part of the past two decades. It's debatable whether the Hoosiers have enough proven depth to consistently slow down Big Ten offenses. IU also loses its top two linemen -- Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. -- from a unit that struggled mightily to stop the run.
National rankings from 2012: 114th in total offense, 111th in scoring, 101st in rushing, 99th in passing
Case for improvement: The Hawkeyes are more accustomed to coordinator Greg Davis' system and return a strong stable of running backs headlined by Mark Weisman. The offensive line could be a strength as Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal return from injuries. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has the skills to be a superstar.
Case for status quo: Iowa lacks a quarterback who has taken a snap in an FBS game. Davis' system has clicked in the past, but the coach drew heavy criticism at the end of his Texas tenure and did little to help his cause in 2012. Wide receiver is a major question mark. And while the running back group looks strong, AIRBHG is lurking.
Michigan State's offense
National rankings from 2012: 95th in total offense, 108th in scoring, 75th in rushing, 85th in passing
Case for improvement: The offensive line returns seven players with starting experience and gets tackle Fou Fonoti back from injury. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell enters his second year as the starter, and promising young receiver Aaron Burbridge has experience under his belt. There are also more options at quarterback with Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and incoming freshman Damion Terry.
Case for status quo: Michigan State loses its top two weapons -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- from an uninspiring unit. Although the team has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, he comes from the existing staff and will keep the same structure in place. Running back and tight end are significant concerns.
National rankings in 2012: 35th in total defense, 58th in scoring defense, 90th in rushing defense, ninth in pass efficiency defense
Case for improvement: Bo Pelini hasn't forgotten how to coach defense, and while the Huskers will be younger at some spots, they also could be better. The secondary returns Ciante Evans and several other potentially dynamic players. Jason Ankrah is embracing a leadership role on the line, while linebacker David Santos gained valuable experience last fall.
Case for status quo: Ankrah and defensive tackle Thad Randle are the only returning starters in the front seven from a defense that struggled to stop the run for much of the season. Nebraska has lacked a difference-maker along the defensive line since moving to the Big Ten. As Brian wrote this week, Santos, a redshirt sophomore with one career start, is already considered a veteran on the unit.
Now it's time to vote. Make yours count.
- Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
- Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
- Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
- Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
- Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
- Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
- Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
- Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
- Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
- Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
- Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
- Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
- Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
- Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
- O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
- O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
- Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
- Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
- Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
- Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
- Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
- Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
- Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
- Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
- Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.
For several minutes, the Hoosiers' starting offense -- normally a spread-you-out, up-tempo, pass-heavy attack -- suddenly morphs into a more classic Big Ten look. They will feature two running backs at times, go to multiple-tight-end sets at others and generally do away with all the fancy, modern stuff.
"It's a lot of what you're going to see week in and week out in the conference," defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. "It's kind of the old 'We'll just line up and see if you can stop us.'"
That's not Wilson's preferred way of playing. But while Indiana knows its offense can move the ball effectively out of the spread, that doesn't necessarily help the defense get better. And there's no doubt that the defense has to improve for the Hoosiers to get out of the bottom tier of the league.
Indiana boasted the Big Ten's best passing offense last season while averaging more than 30 points per game. But the defense didn't progress as hoped, finishing last in the league in points and yards allowed for a second consecutive year as the team went 4-8.
"Our biggest disappointment as a defensive staff is that if we would have played reasonably well on defense, we could have had the program in a bowl," Mallory said. "That's something we want to get fixed."
Mallory and his staff are constantly emphasizing the need to play more physically this spring. The Hoosiers are hitting more during practice -- Tuesday's spirited session was chock-full of collisions -- and devoting more time to one-on-one battles.
The defense showed some much-needed toughness last year during back-to-back victories over Illinois and Iowa. Granted, those were two of the worst offenses in the league, but Indiana tackled well and made some big stops.
After that, though, the floor gave out as the Hoosiers yielded 163 points in their final three games, losing to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue.
"I think because we were inexperienced, guys weren't aware how long the season is," safety Greg Heban said. "We were getting tired, and once you get mentally tired, you lose physicality as a defense. That's something we've got to keep up the whole season."
Wilson hopes the Big Ten period of practice will help instill more of that toughness. Not only for the defense.
While IU was explosive in the passing game last season, its running game was just below average at just 130 yards per week. Wilson pointed out that the top five scoring teams in the country last year -- Louisiana Tech, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas A&M -- all rushed for more than 200 yards per game.
"We will be a better offense when our offensive line and tight ends are tougher, and we run the ball," Wilson said. "When we get that going, our offense will become more balanced and score more points."
The Hoosiers are unlikely to suddenly start using fullbacks and power-I formations. They'll get some of their rushing yardage from their quarterback run game and catching defenses gearing up for the pass. But a better ability to run the ball strongly between the tackles will help them, especially in the red zone, where passing windows shrink.
An offensive line that started two true freshmen and two sophomores last year may not have been ready to play smash-mouth football. That might be changing.
"Last year, I was just learning," said Dan Feeney, who started all 12 games at guard last year as an 18-year-old. "Now that I have a little more experience, I feel like I can bring a little more to [the running game]. We're hitting on every play, but we've got to be even more physical than that. We've got to get downfield and finish blocks so our backs can go for 20-to-30-yard runs instead of just 10-to-15."
And if so, then maybe more of Indiana's practice installments will be considered true Big Ten periods.