Big Ten: Howard Griffith

The Big Ten Network's annual preseason bus tour is complete, as analysts Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith dropped in on all 12 camps around the league. The three are back in Chicago and on Wednesday took some time to discuss what they saw after traveling thousands of miles in the league footprint.

Here are some notes from the BTN crew:
  • Although the Big Ten should be an extremely competitive conference in 2011, the league's national championship drought will continue, according to DiNardo. "They can [win a title]," he said. "Will they? I don't think this is the year."
  • Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was one of the more intriguing topics on Wednesday's conference call. DiNardo said that after watching Michigan practice, he thinks Robinson's transition to a pro-style offense will be more difficult than expected. "If you put Denard under center, which is where this staff really wants their quarterback … and you don't run designed quarterback runs, you become very easy to defend. They don't have a dominant tailback. I'm not sure where the offensive explosion is going to be generated." Griffith had a different take, saying Robinson might be even more dangerous under center because he can do more things and has good receivers like Roy Roundtree. "They recognize what a special talent he is," Revsine said of Robinson. "[The offense] might not be what exactly they've always done, but they'll figure out a way to make it work."
  • DiNardo cited Iowa and Penn State as the teams that made the most strides from spring practice to fall camp. Griffith praised the Nittany Lions' defensive line and said the unit is getting back to its typical level of performance. DiNardo spent much of the practice in State College watching the offensive line and sees improvement there. But both analysts agree Penn State's season likely hinges on quarterback play. "It's going to be hard for Penn State to be a contender without an outstanding quarterback because there's not enough parts to the offense to be a contender," DiNardo said.
  • DiNardo called the Big Ten's split into two divisions the "most significant change in the history of the league." He also noted, after experiencing division play in the SEC with LSU, that it increases the expectations on the most historically successful programs to win championships.
  • Griffith had high praise for Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg, saying that the junior could be the league's best pure passer.
  • DiNardo called coach Jim Tressel's departure "a tremendous loss" for Ohio State but said it shouldn't affect the way Luke Fickell goes about his business. Revsine had an interesting take on the Buckeyes moving on without quarterback Terrelle Pryor. "With Terrelle Pryor, you had a guy who individually could beat you," he said. "At any given moment, he could make the play that won the game. That’s the interesting dilemma here. Do you go with a guy who might be more in that mold [Braxton Miller, Kenny Guiton] or do you go with [Joe] Bauserman, who maybe isn’t necessarily that guy but might be the steadier hand."
  • Like many coaches around the Big Ten, both DiNardo and Griffith praised new Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and his consistent approach to revamping teams. "They've turned programs around before," Griffith said. "This is not new. The reason that’s important in Minnesota’s situation is because of the kids. They've been through a lot. ... When you have a staff that comes in that's been around each other the way they have, it really gets the attention of the kids." Gophers junior MarQueis Gray impressed the crew in his transition back to quarterback from receiver. "If anybody can do this, it's him," Revsine said.
  • DiNardo also had some encouraging words about new Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, who "totally gets the Indiana deal. You have to be tough, you have to be hard-nosed, you have to coach and teach your style."
  • Revsine singled out Illinois as a team that surprised him and will win a lot of games this fall.
  • The BTN crew talked about Wisconsin boosting its brand in football while maintaining its identity as a developmental program. As for the Badgers' 2011 outlook? "They’re in the weaker division, that helps them this year," DiNardo said. "They're on a roll unless complacency has seeped in." He added that he didn't see any drop-off in the Badgers' practice.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

 Jeff Gross/Getty Images
 Brit Miller is looking forward to playing in front of former Illini greats on Saturday.

The 2008 Rose Bowl was still several days away, and former Illinois great Dick Butkus tried to stay calm as he talked football with a group of Fighting Illini players.

"He didn't want to get his jazz up too much in front of us," Illinois linebacker Brit Miller recalled. "It was like a Wednesday or something, so it was still a little early to get really excited."

But it didn't take long for Butkus to have a Butkus moment.

"He kind of raised his head up and stared at the guys on the team and said, 'That's when you take 'em and you break 'em,'" Miller said.

"That was giving me chills right there. When a guy like Dick Butkus says that, you know you're part of a tradition when he's talking to you and he wants the best for you."

Butkus wants to see Miller and the other Illini linebackers at their best Saturday when he watches Illinois take on Eastern Illinois at the renovated Memorial Stadium.

To celebrate the completion of a $121 million face-lift to the 85-year-old stadium, Illinois will have dozens of past players on hand as the team honors the 10 greatest players in Memorial Stadium history at each position. The team will wear throwback jerseys from the Butkus era (1962-64) in another attempt to blend past and present.

As of Thursday afternoon, Illinois expected 42 former players to attend Saturday's celebration. The list includes Butkus and his nephew, Mark, linebackers Kevin Hardy and Dana Howard, quarterbacks Jack Trudeau and Jeff George, running backs Jim Grabowski and Howard Griffith, defensive lineman Ed O'Bradovich and tight end Ken Dilger.

Who knows, maybe Red Grange will show up. He's called the Galloping Ghost for a reason.

"We seem to believe he's always around," Miller said.

The reunion holds special meaning for Miller, who grew up watching Hardy, Howard and Simeon Rice and heard about Butkus from his father. Miller has sensed similar excitement from sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson, who he describes as "a laid-back fellow" but someone who could one day hold similar legend status at Illinois.

Even players like defensive end Will Davis, who don't hail from the state, look forward to performing in front of Butkus.

"Since I've been here as a freshman, he's the main person you hear about," Davis said. "That's a name that rings far."

Illini defenders have added motivation this week after a sloppy performance in a 52-42 loss against Missouri. Miller said he missed at least four tackles in the game, three of which turned into big plays.

"We've got to represent," he said. "We let too many yards go this past weekend. These guys that are coming back, they used to run shop. They don't want to come back and see people get ran over. Those are guys I really look up to because that was Illinois football at its peak right there. We're still trying to get back to that."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- I just finished watching Wisconsin's practice/scrimmage this morning at sun-drenched Camp Randall Stadium. The scrimmage went a little longer than coach Bret Bielema's initial projection, so I got a glimpse of all the key players for this season, and several for the future. An injury update and my observations are below, and I'll post some of Bielema's post-practice thoughts a little later this afternoon.

  • First, some sad news. Badgers star defensive end Matt Shaughnessy flew home to Connecticut on Saturday morning following the death of his older brother, Jamie, earlier this week. Jamie Shaughnessy had been fighting blood clots in his stomach since late last summer, but his condition had appeared to stablize. Bielema said the news of Jamie's death came as a surprise [check back later for more from Bielema]. Shaughnessy is scheduled to return to the team Thursday.
  • Junior Chris Maragos, a contender for the team's starting nickel back spot, missed practice after being kicked in his calf during a play in Friday's workout. Bielema said Maragos had a sizable contusion but should return to practice Monday. Tight end Travis Beckum and wide receiver Richard Kirtley also will return Monday.
  • Freshman defensive end Anthony Mains injured his wrist during Saturday's practice and underwent X-rays.
  • Defensive end Kirk DeCremer sat out practice Saturday after practicing every day this week. Bielema said DeCremer, who underwent back surgery during the offseason, felt "a little bit of something" on Friday but will return Monday after two days off.
  • The offense seemed to struggle before the scrimmage, held at the end of practice. To be fair, the quarterbacks didn't have their best receiver available in Beckum, and dropped passes became a theme Saturday. Starting wideout Kyle Jefferson couldn't hang on to a touchdown strike and an Allan Evridge pass hit a receiver's hands and was picked off by senior Jaevery McFadden, who is cementing himself as the Badgers' starting middle linebacker. Tight end Garrett Graham also had several drops.
  • Evridge looks like the man to beat at quarterback. He made the fewest number of mistakes during 7-on-7 drills, finding Jefferson on a rollout. In the scrimmage, Evridge led the first-team offense on a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Evridge went 5-for-7 on the drive for 64 passing yards. He made a great throw to David Gilreath on a deep route that Gilreath dropped. But Gilreath responded moments later with an electrifying one-handed grab on a high throw and raced 26 yards before linebacker Jonathan Casillas saved a touchdown.
  • Quarterbacks Dustin Sherer and Scott Tolzien rotated mainly with the second- and third-team offenses. Tolzien got the first shot after Evridge in the scrimmage and led the second-team unit on a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a John Clay 3-yard run. After fumbling the snap on the first play, Tolzien settled down and found Gilreath on a bubble screen for 24 yards.
  • Despite a drop or two, Gilreath was extremely impressive throughout the day. He'll do major damage in the open field.
  • Tolzien also got some help from sophomore Daven Jones, who adjusted on an errant deep pass to make the play for a 35-yard gain.
  • Though Tolzien struggled at times, nearly throwing an interception to DeAndre Levy in the end zone before the scrimmage, he seems to be making a strong push for the backup job behind Evridge.
  • Sherer seemed to have a rough day. One of his first passes during team drills was batted down by Levy. He also had the ball slip out of his hands on a pass. During red-zone drills, Sherer had a pass picked off by Mario Goins in the end zone but then recovered to find Graham for a score. Unlike Tolzien, he got to scrimmage with the rest of the first-team offense but overthrew Graham and had the ball intercepted by safety Shane Carter, who ran it back near the goal line.

(Read full post)