Big Ten: Jacarri Alexander

Spring game recap: Indiana

April, 15, 2013
4/15/13
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We're continuing to recap the spring games in the Big Ten over the weekend, moving on now to the Indiana Hoosiers.

You find coverage of the Cream & Crimson game here, here and here.

Star of the game: Receiver Shane Wynn had six catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns.

How it went down: For a team with as much scoring potential as Indiana, the Hoosiers' spring game was a relatively conservative one, as the Cream team won 21-7. Coach Kevin Wilson later explained he was keeping things very close to the vest.

"We played today pretty vanilla on both sides," he said. "Some very static, standard blitzes, some very basic fronts, base formations. And some pretty standard plays. Because we open the season with game one and game two where we’re their opening game. ... You don’t want to show a lot to your opponents because they get a free scouting report."

The main intrigue during the spring revolved around the three-way quarterback competition. That figures to rage into fall camp. Cameron Coffman threw both of the touchdowns to Wynn and finished 17-of-23 for 174 yards. Nate Sudfeld was 14-of-16 for 181 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown to Cody Latimer for the Crimson's only score. Tre Roberson went 7-for-18 for 63 yards, but he wasn't able to show off his running ability much on a day when the quarterbacks weren't able to be hit by the defense.

Wilson has been splitting the reps evenly between the trio but will have to make a decision in August on his depth chart.

"It’s a tough deal because I think they’ve all been pretty good," he said. "It’s our problem in how to keep developing them, how to keep them in rhythm."

Defense was another major question mark for Indiana, and the Cream squad held the Crimson to just 187 total yards and only 15 rushing yards, plus five sacks. Linebacker Jacarri Alexander had five tackles and 1.5 sacks. But the Hoosiers still have a long way to go to become a solid Big Ten defense.

"I’d like to see us get a little more swagger as a defensive unit," Wilson said.

The IU spring game will air at 7 ET tonight on the Big Ten Network.

Spring Q&A: Indiana's Kevin Wilson

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
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There's reason to be cautiously optimistic about Indiana football in 2013. The Hoosiers improved their wins total last fall by three and amazingly in November found themselves in contention to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten title game. All but three starters return, including the playmakers from an offense that finished second in the Big Ten. Quarterback Tre Roberson has recovered from a broken leg and will compete to reclaim his starting job this spring. The schedule features eight home games for just the second time in team history. IU isn't without major concerns, namely a defense that hasn't consistently stopped anyone for more than a decade and recently lost co-coordinator Mike Ekeler to USC. The team only went 4-8 in 2012 and must build much better depth at several positions, starting in spring ball, which kicks off Saturday.

ESPN.com caught up with IU head coach Kevin Wilson to discuss the spring.

What's the big theme for your team entering the spring?

Kevin Wilson: We've got enough guys back, we're stronger, we're mature, we understand each other and understand the standard. We've just got to continue to work at a higher level. When you're not mentally or physically as strong as you want to be, you've got to gain on it. There's different levels of that. It's nice that we get a lot of guys back, but you start over. We are starting over at a better spot because a lot of guys are back. We're building a foundation to play better football next year.

Where would you like to be from a depth standpoint by the end of the spring?

KW: Everybody's got depth issues and we could be better in certain areas, but we only lose about four or five guys who really played [in 2012]. We've got a lot of what's back, and we've got, on paper, a nice recruiting class that will help, but really it's not about the depth as much as it's about competition. Guys are pushing guys to be on the field. We've got a lot of guys back who have been second-teamers and the first-teamer [ahead of them] is back. Now how do you push that first-teamer and beat him him out? A great example is at quarterback. We've got three guys that have all played, they've all played kind of well, their stats are OK, but we haven't won a lot of games. There's really not a proven winner. We've got guys that look like they can do OK, but they haven't proven they can win at a high level of Big Ten football. I think that will be an awesome competition. We want to see that across the board.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AP Photo/Darron CummingsWith numerous key players returning, Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is optimistic heading into spring workouts.
How do you identify winners in that group or other groups when you're not playing games?

KW: Sometimes you'll see who moves around, who gets the group in the end zone. But that sometimes can be skewed. A guy busts a coverage and a guy scores a touchdown, does that mean the quarterback is a better quarterback? Sometimes it's a play where there's not a good call and he's got to throw it out of bounds and it's a great play because there's nothing open. I just think your body of work, your body language, your leadership skills. Are you the best extension of the coaching staff and what we're trying to do? The game's called football and we put the football in your hands every snap. It's got to be a guy you trust because you give him the game, every game, and say, 'Go play.' Right now, those guys have all had some fair stats, but we want to see winning football played at that position.

How is Tre [Roberson] physically, and what do you expect out of him?

KW: He's been full-go. Right now, we're doing our offseason program, our agility program, and he's full-go. There's no limitations. I don't want him to be tackled, but we don't tackle the quarterbacks anyway, so I would anticipate he'll be out there every day. He's gotten bigger. When he got hurt, he was under 185 [pounds], right around there, and now he's pushing 200 pounds. He's bigger, stronger, looks good running. I don't think he's at full tilt, but every day he gets stronger, every day he gets better and every day he gets more confident. Knock on wood, he should have no limitations, and he'll compete every day with those other two guys [Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld].

You really bring back a lot at wide receiver, running back and tight end. How much competition is there at those other offensive positions?

KW: We've got everybody back except [center] Will Matte on offense. We didn't lose a quarterback, we don't lose a running back, we don't lose any receivers. So we've got basically the crowd back. It's the same deal. Our kids realize, though, that the deal is we're going to play a number of guys. It doesn't matter whether you go out there first or second, we're going to play six, seven, eight, nine guys. We need to have one or two more receivers than we have. We're going to [use] two tight ends at least, with two or three running backs and seven or eight receivers. So when you say depth, it would be nice to see some of these guys that redshirted continue to come on and help us as complementary tight end guys and complementary receivers.

The tempo we play with, you've got to play a number of skill guys. A lot of guys are back, they've seen that we're going to throw the ball to them, and they believe they have quarterbacks who will get it to them so they can make plays. I'm expecting that receiver group to pick it up. We'll see if they can keep plugging along there.

You lose a few pieces up front on defense. How does the defensive line shape up entering the spring?

KW: We signed two JC guys, one guy is here now [Jordan Heiderman]. We redshirted a big guy who we like. We did sign a couple of guys there, so some of those guys might get into the mix when preseason rolls around. But we need to play better across the board because we're making tweaks with what we're doing. We definitely need to play better run defense.

Schematically, will there be some new things on defense?

KW: I don't know if it's that. We've just got to look at the position we're putting guys in, where we're playing them. It's not major [changes]. Same with offense, you're always playing to your strengths and weaknesses. Right now, we've played OK on offense, and not very good on defense. So we have to keep coming on both sides. Defensively, we're developing players, but we have to make sure we're putting them in the right spots with play calling to play winning football.

We have enough guys coming back. We should continue to improve this program. We should continue to take a very positive step this year. That being said, we have to play better football on the defensive side. We made some subtle changes from Year 1 to 2. It still wasn't what we needed. There won't be wholesale changes, major deals, but we've got to keep looking for what works.

Where do you see the leadership emerging on the team, and can the secondary be a strength for you guys because you have quite a few players back who have played?

KW: Probably more competition and depth back there than we've had. And I think we've signed a couple kids who can get in the mix to help us. The linebacker corps got real beat up last year. Jacarri Alexander and Chase Hoobler missed some games, two of our starting three missed four, five, six games independent of each other. It took a toll. We're losing [Adam] Replogle and [Larry] Black and Will Matte and Nick Sliger, those are the four guys who really played. The fifth guy would be Charles Love, the backup tight end. So when you look at the football team, basically everyone's back, so with the leadership, hopefully you'll see that linebacker corps pick up and the secondary. We've got to establish a standard of what winning defensive football is at Indiana, and how we're going to play it. We'll build a mindset, we'll do some subtle structure things to hopefully position our players in better places, and we'll tackle better and get off the field and make stops and get some turnovers.

We've got to take a step offensively, be more wide open, continue to improve, take care of the ball and score more points. And we've got to improve defensively. When you're a 4-8 football team, that's not good. We're definitely moving in the right direction. Nineteen starters are back, and 14 of them are sophomores and juniors. So we've got some guys we can work with, and we've got the best recruiting class we've brought in. We basically have five seniors on scholarship and we signed 22. So we've got the core team back. It needs to get better. I think we'll make some nice additions as preseason comes around, and hopefully we'll continue to be more competitive and play the brand of football we're trying to build here.
Here's the latest check of personnel nuggets from around the Big Ten:

NEBRASKA

Nebraska senior running back Rex Burkhead is day-to-day for the Michigan game after aggravating his left knee injury for the second time in three weeks Saturday at Northwestern. Coach Bo Pelini is taking a cautious approach with Burkhead and mentioned he's inclined to have the senior rest a week even though the latest aggravation isn't as bad as what happened at Ohio State on Oct. 6. "He felt really good going into the [Northwestern] game, didn't have any issues in practice," Pelini said. "He's frustrated and obviously disappointed he's had to deal with it. It's been too bad." Ameer Abdullah, who leads Nebraska with 514 rush yards and seven touchdowns, will fill in for Burkhead if the senior can't play against the Wolverines. Huskers defensive tackle Chase Rome (concussion) remains out for Michigan, while cornerback Josh Mitchell (ankle) could play and wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (shoulder) will play.

MICHIGAN

Cornerback Ramon Taylor, who suffered an undisclosed injury last week against Michigan State, is listed as a starter on the depth chart for this week's game at Nebraska. Head coach Brady Hoke said Taylor had "a little boo-boo" and that he would "probably be OK, most likely."

WISCONSIN

Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said he's unsure if left tackle Ricky Wagner will be available for this week's game against Michigan State. Wagner injured his right knee two weeks ago against Purdue. Ryan Groy filled in at left tackle in the second half against the Boilers and in last week's win over Minnesota.

NORTHWESTERN

The Wildcats secondary could be very thin against Iowa this week. Cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans are doubtful because of injuries, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Daniel Jones has been starting ahead of Evans, but VanHoose, who suffered a shoulder injury against Nebraska and was missed down the stretch, is clearly the team's top cover man. In better news, star running back Venric Mark -- who left the second half of the Nebraska game with an undisclosed injury -- is expected to play Saturday, Fitzgerald said.

IOWA

As expected, Nolan MacMillan is listed as the starter at left tackle in place of the injured Brandon Scherff (leg). Right guard Andrew Donnal (knee) isn't listed on the depth chart for the Northwestern game, as redshirt freshman Austin Blythe is listed as the starter. Mark Weisman and Greg Garmon are listed as co-starters at running back.

OHIO STATE

Linebacker Joshua Perry and wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown both are expected to be fine for the Penn State game after getting nicked up against Purdue. The news isn't so good for freshman special teams ace Devan Bogard, who will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. "He's one of my favorite guys on the team, top five guy on the team, Devan Bogard," coach Urban Meyer said. "... If we could go out and recruit a hundred Bogards, life would be pretty good around here."

INDIANA

Linebacker Chase Hoobler, who has been battling back issues, is listed on the depth chart for Illinois at backup middle linebacker. Forisse Hardin is listed at starting strong-side linebacker, as Jacarri Alexander had a stinger last week and missed the Navy game.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
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Last weekend of the year without football. Spend this time saying goodbye to your families.

Best Case/Worst Case: Indiana

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
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Our Best Case/Worst Case series continues today with Indiana, which experienced pretty close to a worst-case scenario in 2011 by going winless against FBS competition. Can the Hoosiers expect better things in 2012? Let's review their best and worst outlooks.

Best Case

As the old adage goes, the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores. And Indiana played more freshmen last year than any major-conference school in the country. So things understandably get better this fall. The offense improves as multi-talented Tre Roberson figures things out his second year at quarterback, surrounded by more depth at running back and a stable corps of receivers. New offensive coordinator Seth Littrell airs it out, and the Hoosiers average more than 28 points per game. Meanwhile, the defense takes baby steps forward, helped by junior college imports Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper at linebacker and veterans Adam Replogle and Larry Black up front.

The Hoosiers start to get some positive publicity with a 3-0 start against a manageable schedule that includes games at home against Indiana State and Ball State and a road trip to UMass. They ride that momentum to a surprising upset at Northwestern in the Big Ten opener, as Roberson throws for 400 yards in a 51-49 shootout. IU comes back to earth the following two weeks against Michigan State and Ohio State but manages to win at Navy on Oct. 20 in another high-scoring contest. Suddenly, bowl eligibility is on the horizon. After a disappointing four-game losing streak, the Hoosiers get to 6-6 by winning at Purdue in the regular-season finale, bringing the Old Oaken Bucket back to Bloomington and clinching a trip to the Little Caesars Bowl. No one has ever been happier to see a Little Caesars in Detroit than hungry Hoosiers fans.

Worst Case

There's a reason Kevin Wilson played so many freshmen last year, and why more freshmen are getting long looks in training camp right now: Indiana's roster just isn't where it needs to be. So even though the team makes progress, it still remains a long way from competing in the Big Ten, especially on defense. Roberson struggles under a new coordinator, and a three-way quarterback controversy develops just like last year as Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld battle for playing time. The Hoosiers' offensive line doesn't offer much in the way of protection, and opponents dice up Indiana's defense for a second straight season.

Wilson's team wins the opener against Indiana State on a last-second field goal but loses at UMass and falls to Ball State for a second straight year, meaning Indiana is no better than the fourth-best college football team in its own state. The Hoosiers give up 150 points total in losses to Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State and are thoroughly befuddled by Navy's option game in another defeat. The only home games remaining are against Iowa and Wisconsin, so prospects for another victory are bleak. IU staggers into the season-ending game against Purdue and gets blown out before watching the Boilermakers celebrate a surprise Leaders Division championship on the Ross-Ade Stadium field. A second straight 1-11 season makes Wilson 0-22 against FBS competition, putting him on the hottest of hot seats in 2013.

More Best Case/Worst Case:

Illinois
Our preseason position rankings keep on keeping on as we turn to the linebacker units. On Friday, we ranked the individual linebackers in the Big Ten for 2012. Remember that we are considering 2011 performance most heavily in these rankings.

The top three here are really strong, while several other teams have a chance to be really good at linebacker this season.

[+] EnlargeDenicos Allen sacks Denard Robinson
Mike Carter/US PresswireMSU's Denicos Allen piled up 10 sacks last season.
1. Michigan State: Remember when there were concerns about the Spartans' linebacker corps last August? Seems pretty silly now. All three starters are back from a standout unit in 2011 that included defensive quarterback Max Bullough, sack artist Denicos Allen and the underrated Chris Norman. Add in some promising youngsters like Darien Harris, and this has a chance to be one of the best linebacker groups in the entire nation.

2. Penn State: Linebacker U. took a hit when potential starter Khairi Fortt transferred to Cal. But don't feel too sorry for this Nittany Lions' unit, which still boasts All-Big Ten big hitter Gerald Hodges and veteran Michael Mauti, who just needs to stay healthy to be a star. Glenn Carson was sturdy in the middle as a starter last year as well. Experienced depth is the only real question.

3. Wisconsin: You'd be hard-pressed to find a better duo than Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who finished one-two in the Big Ten in total tackles last season. Ethan Armstrong will likely fill out the trio, which gets rated this high because of sheer star power.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes' linebackers will be young but have loads of potential. Etienne Sabino is the lone true veteran of the group, while Ryan Shazier showed late last season that he has game-changing ability. Former blue-chip recruit Curtis Grant looks ready now to be a major contributor. The dismissal of Storm Klein did hurt the depth here, however.

5. Michigan: Here's a group that was very solid in 2011 and could be even better in '12. Senior Kenny Demens is the anchor who led the way last year as freshmen Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan got their feet wet. Another rookie in Joe Bolden could bolster the crew this season.

6. Illinois: The Illini have a budding superstar in Jonathan Brown, who could challenge for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors if he builds on his breakout sophomore year. Houston Bates had a good redshirt freshman year and at 240 pounds can be force. The third spot will be more of a hybrid role, likely filled by safety Ashante Williams. Defensive end Michael Buchanan could play some standing up as well.

7. Nebraska: This is senior Will Compton's group to lead after Big Ten linebacker of the year Lavonte David took his superhuman tackling skills to the NFL. Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher will have to raise their games in David's absence. Juco import Zaire Anderson and riser David Santos are expected to push for playing time as well.

8. Iowa: James Morris and Christian Kirksey give the Hawkeyes two 100-tackle men at the position, and they should be better as juniors. But Iowa wasn't as good overall at linebacker in 2011 as it needs to be. Anthony Hitchens likely moves into a starting role at the other spot, and there isn't much in the way of seasoning for the backups.

9. Purdue: Linebacker has been just so-so the last couple of seasons for the Boilermakers. Dwayne Beckford is back after some off-the-field issues and should easily be the best player at the position. Will Lucas also started on the outside last year. There's not much other experience here, but with the defensive line and secondary projected to be strengths, Purdue doesn't need its linebackers to do more than their fair share.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers' defense wasn't very good last year, but the linebackers might have been the highlight. It's one of the few units with considerable experience this year, led by seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Former Florida transfer Brendan Beal will try to make an impact after being hurt last year.

11. Northwestern: David Nwabuisi is a good tackler and leader for this crew, which nonetheless lacked many difference-makers in 2011. Is this where prized recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo makes an immediate impact?

12. Indiana: Linebacker was a sore spot for the Hoosiers last year, which led them to bring in two junior college transfers at the position. Both Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper looked good this spring and are ticketed to start right away. That also tells you something about the returning talent there for IU.
One characteristic many seek in a leader is the ability to speak candidly about past failures.

Indiana tight end Ted Bolser has this covered pretty well.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosiers tight end Ted Bolser
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesIndiana Hoosiers tight end Ted Bolser is hoping to catch 50 passes in a revamped offense.
Bolser doesn't hold back when assessing what went wrong in 2011 -- when Indiana finished 1-11 and went winless in the Big Ten and against FBS competition -- and what's going right these days in Bloomington.

"I'd like to say we trimmed the fat off our team last year, got rid of a lot of guys who didn't want to be here," Bolser told ESPN.com. "Everybody here wants to play, and plans on starting, so there's a lot of competition going on. We need competition to win. That's what we didn't have in the past. People just gave up their roles."

Such a passive attitude -- or a disinterested one -- played into the Hoosiers losing so many games.

"It was a huge distraction," Bolser said. "Not only during game day did some people just not care, but weekends, after hours, [when] coaches weren't around. ... We didn't have much leadership last year. Everybody was just kind of wandering in their own heads. The leadership's really changed this year."

Bolser is part of a small but vocal group stepping forward. Indiana enters 2012 with only eight seniors on the roster -- seven fifth-year players and one true senior (defensive tackle Adam Replogle). Given the small number, Bolser and other fourth-year juniors are taking bigger leadership roles, as are younger players.

He mentioned center Will Matte, linebackers Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper and quarterback Tre Roberson as players taking steps as leaders. Although Roberson is a true sophomore, "we’re treating him like he's a senior," Bolser said.

"With the few upperclassmen we have, just about all of us are having our own leadership role," Bolser continued. "For myself, I've noticed a tremendous leap."

Part of that leap is personal accountability, and Bolser is setting the bar high in 2012. He recorded 27 receptions for 407 yards and five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2010, making seven starts. But his numbers dipped in all four categories last season -- 14 catches, 165 receiving yards, one touchdown, six starts. To be fair the decline largely can be attributed to a run-based offense led by a freshman quarterback.

Head coach Kevin Wilson wants to emphasize the pass much more this season and brought in a new offensive coordinator, Seth Littrell, who comes from the Mike Leach coaching tree and oversaw an Arizona offense that ranked third nationally in passing a year ago (370.8 ypg).

"This year, we're throwing the ball no matter what," Bolser said. "For myself and the wide receivers, we're expecting big things."

How big?

"I'm expecting better numbers than I had my freshman year by far," he said. "I had around 30 catches my freshman year, and I'm hoping to get around 50 plus this year. I'm hoping to be in the game just about every play, blocking or catching passes. As much as we're going to be throwing it, the ball has to go to somebody, and I'm hoping it goes to me."

Arguably no Indiana could benefit more from Littrell's arrival than Bolser. Littrell, who will directly coach tight ends and fullbacks at IU, worked at Arizona with Rob Gronkowski, who Bolser calls "just about every tight end's idol."

"Especially when I'm watching film, we go over what [Gronkowski] does and previous things he's done, how their relationship blossomed, how they worked with each other and a lot of things like that," Bolser said. "Things are changing, especially lately. You've got to be a block- and pass-oriented tight end. You've got to have both, which he has."

Bolser hopes to be the complete package for Indiana this year -- minus The Gronk Spike.

Said Bolser: "I can't do that."

Home run summer: Indiana

June, 18, 2012
6/18/12
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Our series continues looking at a player or a group of players from each Big Ten team who needs a home run type of summer before preseason camp begins. Who needs to hit it out of the park in preparation for the season?

For previous entries, click here.

In the batter's box: Indiana

Who needs to step it up: Junior college arrivals on defense

If Indiana's defense takes a step toward respectability in 2011, its junior college arrivals will play significant roles. After finishing between 109 and 118th nationally in four major statistical categories last season -- total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense -- the Hoosiers looked to the juco ranks and signed five players on the defensive side (six overall). IU didn't sign these players to sit on the bench in 2011, and several stood out during spring practice. All five juco players -- linebackers Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper, safeties Tregg Waters and Ryan Thompson, and defensive end Justin Rayside -- should play significant roles on a defense that lacks experience despite starting seven freshmen (four true, three redshirt) in 2011. It's important for the juco players to build on the spring and establish themselves not only as reliable contributors, but as potential leaders for a unit that needs more direction this season. Cooper and Thompson are among those in contention for starting positions coming out of the spring.
The book is closed on spring football in the Big Ten, but what did the chapters reveal? Although no games are played during the spring, which fuels optimism for all 12 teams, the 15 practices provide clues for the upcoming season. The Big Ten saw few major injuries to key players, some good news (the NCAA declaring Michigan State WR DeAnthony Arnett eligible for 2012) and some potentially troubling signs.

It's time to revive the power rankings coming out of the spring. We see separation with the top two teams, while Nos. 3-5 are closely matched. The same holds true for Nos. 7-10.

Here they are ...

1. Michigan State: The Spartans' defense looks like the single best unit in the Big Ten entering the season. Spring practice only enhanced our opinion of Pat Narduzzi's group, which has no shortage of stars. While the passing game needs work, Arnett's presence should help, and the Spartans will rely more on their run game with Le'Veon Bell and an improved offensive line.

2. Michigan: Quarterback Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint, who affirmed himself as Michigan's top tailback this spring, form arguably the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield tandem. If Michigan can fill some key pieces on both lines, where there was some shuffling this spring, it will be back in the BCS bowl mix and among the favorites to win the Big Ten crown.

3. Wisconsin: It seems hard to fathom, but Montee Ball appeared to take his game to an even higher gear this spring. The Badgers' star running back will fuel the offense again, although quarterback remains a question mark as Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien arrives this summer. Wisconsin still needs more playmakers to emerge on the defensive line and in the secondary.

4. Nebraska: Tough call on this spot, but the Huskers return their core pieces on offense from a 9-4 team. Footwork-conscious quarterback Taylor Martinez received good reviews this spring, and he should be more comfortable in Year 2 at the helm of Tim Beck's offense. Coach Bo Pelini thinks the defense will be improved and potentially deeper, although the Huskers lose a lot of star power on that side of the ball.

5. Ohio State: There were few dull moments in Ohio State's first spring under Urban Meyer, who began installing an offense unlike any seen in Columbus. After resembling a "clown show" early on, the offense made strides and quarterback Braxton Miller looks like a strong fit for the system. An improved defense, led by linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, should buy the offense some time to get acclimated.

6. Penn State: New coach Bill O'Brien ushered in a historic spring in Happy Valley, and Penn State players for the most part embraced the many changes taking place. The Lions still don't have a quarterback, but they have an excellent running back in Silas Redd and an improved offense line that pleasantly surprised O'Brien this spring. Penn State's defensive front seven, led by linebacker Gerald Hodges and tackle Jordan Hill, might need to carry the team at times.

7. Purdue: Fourth-year coach Danny Hope thinks this is clearly his best team in West Lafayette, and with 18 starters back, it's easy to see why. The Boilermakers are one of the Big Ten's deepest teams at positions like quarterback, defensive tackle, running back and cornerback. Purdue must continue to absorb the new defense installed by Tim Tibesar and fill some key gaps along the offensive line.

8. Iowa: Although Iowa's changes this spring didn't make national headlines like the ones at Penn State and Ohio State, they were very significant. New offensive coordinator Greg Davis began installing a more up-tempo and multifaceted offense that seems to be clicking with senior quarterback James Vandenberg. Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury once again clouds the picture at running back entering the summer, and Iowa needs its young defensive line to grow up in a hurry.

9. Northwestern: The Wildcats showcased one of the league's top wide-receiving corps this spring, and if Kain Colter can improve his passing, the offense should surge. Defense has been Northwestern's bugaboo in recent years, and young players like end Deonte Gibson and cornerback Nick VanHoose stepped forward this spring. It's crucial for the defense to keep making progress if Northwestern wants to maintain its bowl streak.

10. Illinois: There's little doubt Illinois will be a defense-driven team, and the Illini look loaded in the front seven with players like end Michael Buchanan, who turned in a very strong spring, as well as tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Jonathan Brown. An offense that flatlined late last season began learning a new system this spring and still lacks playmakers at running back and wide receiver. Running back Josh Ferguson's spring-game performance is encouraging.

11. Minnesota: The second spring of the Jerry Kill era brought greater comfort for both players and coaches alike. Quarterback MarQueis Gray made strides in his second spring session as the starter, although the Gophers are still looking for more weapons to surround No. 5. The defensive line should be an improved group after several lifeless seasons. Minnesota still needs to develop depth in the secondary and at wide receiver.

12. Indiana: After playing an insane number of freshmen in 2011, Indiana began to reap the benefits this spring. An influx of junior-college defenders, including linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, also should boost a unit that needs all the help it can get. The Hoosiers have some nice building blocks on offense at both quarterback (Tre Roberson) and running back (Stephen Houston, Isaiah Roundtree), but they still have a lot of work to do before the season.
Spring practice is a time when coaches install new schemes or just instill the fundamentals. The most exciting part of spring practice is potential new stars emerge, with newcomers or former reserves turning heads with their performances.

Some of these guys will fade back into the shadows come fall. But others will be making major contributions on a field near you. Here's a list of some players who had breakout springs:

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois: Redshirted last year after a hamstring injury, Ferguson blew up for 130 yards and caught six passes in the Illini spring game. He flashed his speed and versatility for an offense that desperately needs playmakers in its new spread attack. Ferguson should be in line to get a lot of touches in 2012.

Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State: A true freshman who enrolled in January after spending a year in prep school, Thomas suddenly became Braxton Miller's favorite target in the spring game, hauling in 12 catches for 131 yards. Like Ferguson, he gave a glimmer of hope to a position that was sorely in need of a boost for the Buckeyes, and he'll get a shot at plenty of playing time right away.

Darien Harris, LB, Michigan State: Few people were talking about Harris at the start of spring, especially since the Spartans return all three starting linebackers. But with Chris Norman out this spring with an injury, Harris got a bunch of reps and ran with it. Mark Dantonio called the redshirt freshman "one of the exciting surprises of the spring." He'll play this fall, but the question is how much?

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicBill Belton had a nice performance during Penn State's Blue-White spring game, rushing for 53 yards and a TD.
Joey Burzinski, OL, Michigan: Even most Wolverines fans had probably not heard of Buzinski, a walk-on freshman, before this spring. But a strong work ethic and a lack of depth on the Michigan O-line helped him make a move until he found himself working with the first string. Burzinski is no lock to start but should see minutes somewhere on the line and is a great story.

Bill Belton, RB, Penn State: Belton was a highly-regard recruit who started to make an impact at the end of last season. Moved to full-time running back this spring, he responded by making a lot of plays and adding depth to a spot that was extremely thin behind Silas Redd. Belton's versatility should help him become a useful weapon in Bill O'Brien's offense.

David Cooper, LB, Indiana: There's no question that the Hoosiers desperately needed some help on defense, and head coach Kevin Wilson scoured the junior college ranks for a talent injection. Cooper, along with Jacarri Alexander, proved he could run and tackle this spring, and he also brought a high energy level that rubbed off on his teammates. He's slated to start at middle linebacker and hopefully bring some improvement to the overall defensive effort.

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa: He was a hyped recruit, and now Fiedorowicz might be about to show why. A matchup nightmare at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, the junior is expected to play a major role in new offensive coordinator Greg Davis's offense, and James Vandenberg has to love having such a big target.

Frankie Williams, S, Purdue: By the end of last season, Danny Hope regretted his decision to redshirt Williams because he felt he could have contributed at cornerback. Williams moved to safety this spring and got the start there in the spring game. The Boilers are deep at corner but could use a little help at safety, and Williams looks ready to fill that need.

Indiana spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
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2011 record: 1-11
2011 conference record: 0-8 (sixth, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: offense: 7; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Tre Roberson, RB Stephen Houston, WR Kofi Hughes, CB Lawrence Barnett, DT Larry Black, DT Adam Replogle, S Mark Murphy

Key losses

OL Andrew McDonald, LB Jeff Thomas, LB Leon Beckum, WR Dre Muhammad

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Stephen Houston* (802 yards)
Passing: Ed Wright-Baker (1,029 yards)
Receiving: Kofi Hughes* (536 yards)
Tackles: Jeff Thomas (80)
Sacks: Adam Replogle* (4)
Interceptions: Greg Heban* (2)

Spring answers

1. Improved defense: The Hoosiers had nowhere to go but up after fielding one of the worst defenses in the country last year. Some junior college transfers, especially linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, injected some much-needed talent and energy into the unit this spring. The defense showed much better execution and fundamentals overall, thanks in large part to some young players getting baptized by fire last fall. This is still not a dominating group by any stretch, but with some solid players up front such as Larry Black and Adam Replogle and in the back end such as Mark Murphy and Lawrence Barnett, the Hoosiers hope to have far fewer major breakdowns this season.

2. Depth at running back: Stephen Houston led the team in rushing last season despite showing up a little out of shape in the summer from junior college. That spoke both to his skills and the lack of competition around him. That's not the case now, as Indiana has a much healthier stable of backs to work with, including a healthy Matt Perez and transfer Isaiah Roundtree, who had a big spring game. Add in mobile quarterback Tre Roberson, and the Hoosiers could have an effective ground attack in 2012.

3. Better off Ted: Tight end Ted Bolser had a promising freshman year with 27 catches for 407 yards and five touchdowns, but those numbers dipped to just 14 catches for 165 yards last year. Some of that was probably due to a largely ineffective passing game. Bolser had a strong spring, capped by a six-catch performance in the spring game, and was targeted often in the offense. The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder could become a go-to guy for new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback competition: Roberson seized the starting job midway through last season and showed so much promise that two other young quarterbacks -- Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel -- transferred. He has a strong presence and the potential to be a star. But the coaching staff insisted that junior college transfer Cameron Coffman was right in the thick of the race to be the starter this season after a nice spring. Coffman is a better pure passer than Roberson, who needs to work on that aspect of his game.

2. Bringing the heat: Indiana had just 18 total sacks last season and often had trouble generating much of a pass rush, which was part of the reason it gave up so many big plays. While Black and Replogle make a nice tandem at tackle, the search is still on for playmakers who can get to the quarterback. Ryan Phillis showed some things late in his freshman year, including a big game in the finale against Purdue, and Bobby Richardson made a nice transition from tackle to end as a freshman. Maybe the linebackers can help in the pass rush as well. But the Hoosiers need to make other teams uncomfortable in the passing game without blitzing to improve on defense.

3. Overall talent and depth: Head coach Kevin Wilson has his work cut out for him after failing to win a single game against FBS competition his first season in Bloomington. Wilson played 32 true and redshirt freshmen in 2011 and had many players going through spring practice for the first time this year. The extra seasoning will no doubt help them get better, but this is still a roster that doesn't look like the top Big Ten contenders. Indiana will need to stay healthy, get some breaks and see its young players mature quickly to make any noise in the league this season.

Spring game preview: Indiana

April, 12, 2012
4/12/12
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It's a big weekend in the Big Ten, as seven teams will hold their spring games on Saturday. We're here to guide you through them all with previews of each team's fan-friendly event.

Let's take a look at what to expect from Indiana's Cream and Crimson Game:

When: Noon, Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium

TV: The game will be streamed live over the internet by the Big Ten Network on both BTN2Go and The Big Ten Digital Network. The Big Ten Network will air the game Monday at 9 p.m.

Admission: Free. Gates open at 9:30 a.m. and fans are asked to enter at the west side of the stadium. All parking lots are open, and parking is free.

Weather forecast: A 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms, with a high near 73.

What to watch for: Let's face it: after a 1-11 season, what Hoosiers fans really want to see is pure competency.

Head coach Kevin Wilson played a ton of freshmen last year, many of whom are completing their first collegiate spring practice. As tough as the growing pains were in 2011, that youth movement should translate to some progress this season. The defense in particular must get better after giving up 37 points per game. Look for a little more aggressiveness up front, some sounder coverage in the back end and an experience and talent infusion at linebacker from junior college imports David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander.

Offensively, Tre Roberson looks like the future face of the program, but he has been pushed this spring by junior college transfer Cameron Coffman. Ideally, Roberson finishes off his spring with a bang and gives Indiana a major anchor to build around for the next three years, but may the best man win. The running back position looks a lot deeper as well, with leading 2011 rusher Stephen Houston joined by a healthy supporting cast.

With so many young players and so little success under their belts, no job can truly be considered safe in Bloomington. IU doesn't really have the depth to play a true spring game, but Wilson will be watching to see which guys can perform in a game-day-like setting
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- After going 1-11 last season, Indiana probably needed a little kick in the pants.

The Hoosiers got it during winter conditioning when they went through an exercise program led by former Navy SEALs. Cornerback Lawrence Barnett recalls one demanding day when the players were summoned to the pool at 4:30 a.m. to swim laps and then do movements in sync with their teammates. If anyone messed up, the team had to jump back in the pool and do more laps.

Head coach Kevin Wilson got the idea from watching IU's basketball team go through the same program in the fall. Wilson admires basketball coach Tom Crean and how he led the Hoosiers back from a few difficult seasons to a Sweet 16 berth in this year's NCAA tournament. The inspiration doesn't stop there.

"He comes out to practice every day and tells us that just like the basketball team, we can turn our program around," defensive back Kenny Mullen said. "But we have to want to do it ourselves."

In truth, it's going to take a little more than that for a team that has only been to one bowl game since 1993. The Hoosiers have a long way to go, but they're hopeful they got over the toughest part of the journey last year.

Indiana didn't beat a single FBS team in Wilson's first season as coach and finished 114th nationally in scoring defense, allowing more than 37 points per game. If the players seemed like novices at times, that's because they were; no other team in the country played more rookies than the Hoosiers, who threw 32 true and redshirt freshmen into the fire.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson, Tre Roberson
AP Photo/Darron Cummings)Coach Kevin Wilson and quarterback Tre Roberson, right, are trying to improve on the 1-11 record of their first seasons at Indiana.
"It was tough for us, but it was a good way to get our feet wet and get ready for this year," Barnett said.

That's the theme of the spring in Bloomington, where the roster is still young but at least is not lacking in game experience. That's translating into fewer missed assignments and mistakes during spring practice.

"We're so much further along than we were anywhere in the fall," co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. "We don't have to go back to step one as much with our teaching."

Wilson is not sure he took the right steps last spring. He admits that some of the veteran players might not have bought into his program, and team chemistry wasn't great as the youngsters started taking over all the playing time. Some of that could have been smoothed over in the preseason.

"Last year, we were trying to learn an offense and a defense, and this year we're talking more about how to build a team," Wilson said. "Maybe we did that in reverse order. In this day and age of multiplicity and justifying all the video we've got to watch, it's always scheme, scheme, scheme. Now we're trying to do a better job building team unity."

To that end, "Team" is the simple slogan Wilson is using this spring to promote cohesion. That's also where the Navy SEALs training came in. Having suffered through losing last year, the players say they forged a bond, and it helps that many of them were going through similar experiences in seeing the field for the first time.

But the Hoosiers remain young and need leaders to emerge. Wilson has to remind himself that though many of his starters played last year, this is still their first collegiate spring ball. He has the team practice every other day so it can get much-needed strength training done on the off-days.

There are some good building blocks on hand, like promising quarterback Tre Roberson, who took the reins of the offense as a true freshman; running back Stephen Houston, who ran for more than 800 yards last year despite showing up late from junior college; safety Mark Murphy, who showed great instincts for the game while playing three positions as a true freshmen a year ago; and junior-college imports David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, who are shoring up the linebacker spot and adding energy to the defense this spring.

Yet Indiana is still light years away from having the kind of overall depth and talent of Big Ten Leaders Division rivals Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. At least the basketball-mad school has finally made a commitment to football, with the new north end-zone complex at Memorial Stadium and a massive weight-room facility.

IU football has long seemed like a challenge that even Navy SEALs wouldn't touch. But Wilson remains optimistic that the 1-11 record was just a bumpy start.

"I don't think I'm fighting a battle I can't win," he said. "That's why we're not moping around and why we're not feeling sorry for ourselves. We're going to see if we can take some nice steps this year and keep building."
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Hello from John Mellencamp's favorite small town.

I've spent the afternoon catching up with players and coaches from Indiana and am about to go outside and watch Kevin Wilson's team practice. The Hoosiers were 1-11 last year, so they've got a whole lot of work to do. What's interesting to me about this team is that they played so many freshmen last year that this is still an incredibly young squad, but one with some valuable game experience.

Can Tre Roberson take the next step as a quarterback? Can the defense stop anybody? These are major questions surrounding IU this spring. Wilson told me that his team has a long way to go, but he likes the attitude and energy his players have had this spring. He and his staff are focusing more on teaching and team building than anything else, but at least they now have some players who understand what they're trying to accomplish. And junior college linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander are drawing praise from the coaches for the passion and effort they've brought this spring.

I'll have a video up shortly from here and will have much more on the Hoosiers tomorrow and in the coming days, so stay tuned.

Big shoes to fill: Indiana

March, 2, 2012
3/02/12
9:00
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Indiana opens spring practice on Saturday, joining Northwestern as the first Big Ten teams to hit the practice field this spring. So today we take a look, as we're doing with every league team, at the big shoes the Hoosiers need to fill from the 2011 season. This one's a little relative, since IU didn't have any all-conference players last year and needs a talent upgrade in a lot of places, but head coach Kevin Wilson still has some bigger gaps than others.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jeff Thomas, LB

[+] EnlargeJeff Thomas
Cal Sport Media via AP Images)Linebacker Jeff Thomas led the Hoosiers in tackles last season with 80.
Why: Thomas was one of the few reliable anchors on a defense that mostly struggled. A two-year starter, he led the team with 80 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss from his middle linebacker spot.

Replacement candidates: David Cooper (6-1, 230, incoming junior college transfer); Jacarri Alexander (6-1, 235, incoming junior college transfer); Jordan Wallace (5-11, 215, incoming freshman); Nick Mangieri (6-4, 230, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Wilson went looking for immediate help from the junior-college ranks this offseason, so expect Alexander and Cooper to push for starting roles right away. Both have excellent size for the position and just need to adjust to the major-college level. Wallace and Mangieri will be green, but Wilson showed no hesitation in throwing true freshmen into the fire last season.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Andrew McDonald, LT

Why: McDonald was a two-year starter at left tackle, providing stability to an offense that saw lots of upheaval in 2011.

Replacement candidates: Charlie Chapman (6-6, 292, Jr.); Peyton Eckert (6-6, 295, Soph.); Bill Ivan (6-4, 282, Soph.); Dimitric Camiel (6-6, 290, incoming freshman); Jason Spriggs (6-6, 240, incoming freshman).

The skinny: The Hoosiers unfortunately aren't blessed with a plethora of experienced options at the tackle spot. Eckert started six games at right tackle as a true freshman and could make the switch to the left side this spring. Chapman was McDonald's backup last season but played only sparingly. It's quite likely that at least one of the true freshmen will crack the depth chart at one of the tackle positions. Camiel is a Texan who is Texas-sized, but who knows how quickly he can make the adjustment to Big Ten football.

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