Big Ten: James Kittredge

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Zack Shaw, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Joel Hale, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Joey Bosa, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Drew Ott, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Joe Keels, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Joe Fotu, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

Three new head coaches. Fourteen new coordinators. Quarterback competitions. New faces everywhere. The Big Ten had it all during spring football.

Here are five lessons we learned about the league this spring:

1. Big Ten offenses are speeding up: Tempo was a huge theme for offensive coordinators we spoke with around the league this spring. Defenses are catching up to the spread in college football, so offenses are speeding up to stay a step ahead. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer talked about mimicking Oregon with a no-huddle spread attack, and even conventional offenses like Iowa's and Penn State's will have no-huddle elements and an emphasis on maximizing snaps. It's a myth that the spread offense is new to the league -- teams like Purdue and Northwestern have run it for more than a decade -- but most Big Ten teams have spread elements and want to keep the pedal down as much as possible.

2. Bill O'Brien is building momentum but still needs a quarterback: First-year head coach Bill O'Brien has taken the necessary steps to win over Penn State's fan base. Now he needs to do what he does best: identify a quarterback and develop the signal caller for the 2012 season. The spring didn't provide much separation as Matthew McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones adjusted to O'Brien's complex, NFL-style offense. Bolden's struggles in the Blue-White Game might have closed the window on his chances, although no decisions have been announced. O'Brien told ESPN.com he wanted to reduce the candidate pool from three to two before fall camp. Penn State needs a significant upgrade at quarterback after the past two seasons, and the O'Brien effect must pay off for the Lions this fall.

3. Fresh faces bring greater accessibility: The Big Ten has a reputation of being a buttoned-up, closed-doors league when it comes to accessibility. And in some respects, the label holds true to this day. But new faces and new approaches have created a more open feel around the conference. Penn State opened up some spring practices to media for the first time in recent memory. Ohio State hosted thousands of students at an practice, creating very cool scenes like this. Open practices at Iowa seems like a pipe dream, but one of the nation's least accessible programs had more interaction with the media this spring than in recent memory. Hawkeyes coaches are taking to the Twitterverse, and there's even talk that Kirk Ferentz might start tweeting soon. While I'm sure mentioning this will jinx us, the increased accessibility is a welcome change.

4. Nebraska isn't lacking confidence: The Huskers didn't steamroll through the Big Ten in their first go-round, as some expected, but a somewhat bumpy ride didn't damage their confidence, either. Led by junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, Nebraska players are openly discussing the national championship as a goal for 2012. The Huskers last played for the title after the 2001 season, which marks their most recent BCS bowl appearance. Coach Bo Pelini is comfortable with the title talk, and Nebraska points to an offense that returns mostly intact, a defense with potentially more depth and arguably the Big Ten's best special teams units as reasons to believe. As wide receiver Kenny Bell told me, "It's a big jump to go from a 9-4 to a 13-1 or a 14-0 season. But if you don't believe wholeheartedly in a goal, there's no point in trying to chase it."

5. Spartans look loaded on the lines: Most football games are won at the line of scrimmage, and Michigan State is positioned to win plenty of them this fall. The Spartans' defense could be the Big Ten's best unit in 2012, and it starts up front with freakish end William Gholston, veterans Tyler Hoover and Anthony Rashad White, newcomer James Kittredge and others. Perhaps more important, Michigan State's offensive line is taking shape after a choppy 2011 season that brought injuries and personnel shuffling. This could be the deepest offensive line in coach Mark Dantonio's tenure, and the Spartans will try to re-establish themselves as a power running team with top ball-carrier Le'Veon Bell back in the fold.

Michigan State spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
9:30
AM ET
2011 record: 11-3
2011 conference record: 7-1 (Legends Division champions)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; Defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

DE William Gholston, DE Marcus Rush, LB Denicos Allen, LB Max Bullough, LB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Isaiah Lewis, RB Le'Veon Bell, LT Dan France, C Travis Jackson

Key losses
QB Kirk Cousins, DT Jerel Worthy, WR Keshawn Martin, WR B.J. Cunningham, S Trenton Robinson, RB Edwin Baker, TE Brian Linthicum

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Le'Veon Bell* (948 yards)
Passing: Kirk Cousins (3,316 yards)
Receiving: B.J. Cunningham (1,306 yards)
Tackles: Max Bullough* (89)
Sacks: Denicos Allen* (11)
Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis* and Trenton Robinson (4)

Spring answers

1. Defensive depth: Michigan State returns eight starters off one of the best defenses in the country, and the coaching staff might have been most excited this spring about guys who didn't play much last year. Linebackers Darien Harris and Taiwan Jones, defensive ends Joel Heath and Shilique Calhoun and defensive back Trae Waynes all had impressive practices and showed that they're ready to contribute and push the starters. The Spartans won't have much drop off if their first-stringers need a break or get injured. That gives this defense a chance to be scary good in 2012.

2. The Bell tolls: Le'Veon Bell asserted himself at the end of last year as the team's top tailback, overtaking Edwin Baker. And after appearing to get called out by coach Mark Dantonio for being complacent early in the spring, he turned in some dominant efforts. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he's a rumbling freight train with surprising nimbleness in the open field. Do not be surprised to see him emerge as a superstar back this season if he remains focused.

3. O-line on the way up: Michigan State mixed and matched on the offensive line early last season because of injuries and inexperience. By the end of the season, the group was playing well. This spring, the line features six players who have started and much more maturity. That's one reason why Bell excelled this spring, as the Spartans' power running game looked much better. This figures to be the best and deepest O-line in Dantonio's tenure, and the offense could lean more on the ground attack while the passing game finds its wings.

Fall questions

1. Catching on: The top receivers coming out of spring were redshirt freshman Andre Sims Jr., little-used sophomore Keith Mumphery and Jeremy Langford, who made the switch from running back in the middle of spring practice. In other words, there's a dire lack of experience at the position that Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol patrolled so well. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett was cleared by the NCAA for immediate eligibility on Thursday, and that should help. The Spartans are also going to need Tony Lippett and Bennie Fowler -- their two veterans even though both lack much receiver experience themselves -- to get healthy and for some true freshmen to make an impact. If there's a glaring concern for this year's team, it's definitely at this spot.

2. Maxwell's house: Michigan State feels confident that Andrew Maxwell, a fourth-year junior who sat behind Cousins the past three seasons, can make a smooth transition into the starting quarterback job. But Maxwell doesn't have much game time under his belt, and we won't know whether he can bounce back from adversity until it happens on the field this fall. It didn't help that he missed the last couple weeks of spring practice with a knee injury. The Spartans need him to stay healthy, or else they will have to turn to redshirt freshman Connor Cook. And a new quarterback could struggle with such a green receiving group.

3. Worthy replacements: Jerel Worthy skipped his senior season and wound up as a second-round NFL draft pick after an All-America campaign. The Spartans have a host of players looking to replace him at defensive tackle, with Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge stepping up late in spring practice to assume the No. 1 reps. Depth won't be an issue, but it remains to be seen whether any of his successors have the kind of game-changing ability that Worthy brought when he was fully engaged. Nothing boosts a defense quite like a disruptive force in the middle of the line. We know the Spartans' defense will be good. Can it be great without a player like Worthy up front?
We wrap up our 2012 spring game previews now with -- last but not least -- the defending Legends Division champion Michigan State Spartans. Here are your Green-White essentials.

When: 1 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Spartan Stadium

Admission: Free. Parking is free around the stadium. Gates open at 11:30 a.m.

TV: The game will be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network and streamed live BTN2Go.

Weather forecast: High of 48 degrees, Cloudy with a 50 percent chance of rain.

What to watch for: Michigan State makes this a real competition and held its player draft on Wednesday. Here are the rosters for the game. Running backs coach Brad Salem will coach the Green team, while receivers coach Terrence Samuel will coach the White.

Fans won't be able to see new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who has a sprained knee. But they'll get a long look at redshirt freshman Connor Cook, who will take lots and lots of reps while quarterbacking both squads. One of the things Spartans supporters will want to see is how the wide receiving corps looks after the team lost its top three wideouts from a year ago and the only experienced receivers, Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett, got hurt this spring. Andre Sims Jr. appears to be the leader of the group for now, but Jeremy Langford is an intriguing athlete. And there will be plenty of eyes on Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who may or may not be eligible this year.

Though the squad will be split, the spring game will offer a chance to see how good the Michigan State defense is. Defensive tackle is one of the few question marks, and it appears that James Kittredge has made a move this spring. Emerging defensive players like Joel Heath, Shilique Calhoun and Darien Harris will also get a chance to strut their stuff.

The offensive line and running game have improved this offseason. But given the inexperience at quarterback and receiver and the fact that top tailback Le'Veon Bell will be limited, don't expect an offensive showcase on Saturday.
Michigan State held its spring game player draft this afternoon. It's always a fun event, as the seniors pick teams and everyone takes it pretty seriously, with Mark Dantonio serving as the commissioner. It's like a fantasy league come to life.

In no surprise, junior defensive end William Gholston was the first pick, by the White team (remember, seniors did the drafting). Both teams have to finish up the entire position group after a player is taken, so the Green team took the other starting defensive end, Marcus Rush.

The second overall pick, by the Green team, was middle linebacker Max Bullough. Then the picks went like this:

Green: C Travis Jackson

White: OT Dan France

Green: TE Dion Sims

White: LB Denicos Allen

Green: CB Trae Waynes

White: S Isaiah Lewis

Green: DT James Kittredge

White: FB Niko Palazeti

Green: RB Le'Veon Bell

White: WR Andre Sims Jr.

It's interesting that Bell went so late, but the truth is he probably will be limited in the spring game, making him less valuable for this kind of draft. James Kittredge's selection seems to indicate he may be in line to start opposite Anthony Rashad White inside. Receiver may be the least experienced position on the team, so it's no wonder that position went last. Sims' selection shows you who the players think is the top wideout in camp right now (remember, Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett are hurt). In fact, Jeremy Langford, just moved over to receiver, was the second wideout taken, while DeAnthony Arnett was third. With Andrew Maxwell out, the quarterbacks weren't a part of the draft.
Pat NarduzziAP Photo/Al GoldisPat Narduzzi returns to Michigan State to head up the Spartans' highly-ranked defense.
Michigan State finished sixth nationally in total defense last season and returns nine starters. Just as importantly, the Spartans return defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was wooed by Texas A&M over the winter but chose to stay in East Lansing. Narduzzi's defense figures to once again be one of the very best in the country. I recently caught up with him to chat about the state of the defense this spring:

When you have so many starters back, how does that affect what you do in spring practice?

Pat Narduzzi: One thing it does for us is it gives us the opportunity to know that hopefully there's a lot of carryover from last season. We don't try to install any more defenses. We try to keep it at the same pace. You know, kids forget. Coaches can sit in the office 24/7 and talk about it, but for them, as soon as that bowl game against Georgia is over, those guys go on with their lives, with their girlfriends and studying English. But it allows you to come in and not make as many mistakes as you would with a young defense.

Yet you have to be excited about the potential for this defense with the players you have back, right?

PN: Yeah, it's exciting, but we still have to go out and make plays. We do have a lot of players back, so hopefully we can go out and be as productive as we were a year ago. But you can't get complacent, because what you did last year or the last game or even last week doesn't really matter. It's what you do right now. So every day we're building the 2012 defense.

You used the word complacent. How do you make sure the starters don't get too comfortable and that there's still a lot of competition?

PN: There are certain positions you can look at and say, "There's no way he's getting beat out." And there's probably, of the 11 positions out there, you've got to say there's six or seven of them. But we're starting to do such a good job recruiting that there are some battles out there at different spots, particularly at the defensive tackle spot, the safety spot and even the linebacker spot. There's a lot of spots that are really wide open. If a guy makes a mistake with the 1's, you pull him down to the 2's and really keep him on edge, in a positive way. With the starters, you expect perfection. When you make mistakes, that's not helping you. Another guy can get in and make mistakes, too.

(Read full post)

Mark Dantonio acknowledges Michigan State has some momentum right now. The Spartans have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. They come off of a Legends division title and could enter the season as the Big Ten favorite. But they also lose a lot of star power from the 2011 team, namely quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and three-time captain, and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State coach Mark Dantonio's Spartans have won 11 games in each of the last two seasons, but what about 2012?
Can Michigan State be a better team in 2012, or will the Spartans backslide in their effort to reload?

"There were questions as we left 2010," Dantonio said. "Can we replace Greg Jones and Eric Gordon? Could we replace our punter, Aaron Bates, or [wide receiver] Mark Dell? We were able to do that and progress, so there are great possibilities. Our football team is poised for that, but at the same time we need to guard against being complacent and understand we’re going to be judged game-to-game.

"It's important we bring our energy with us in everything we do, but there's no question we have confidence. There's no question we have continuity. We've built a great foundation to springboard us forward."

The next phase begins Tuesday, as Michigan State kicks off spring practice in East Lansing.

Dantonio discussed the spring and the future with ESPN.com earlier this week.

Some notes:

  • Dantonio is "very optimistic" the NCAA will approve wide receiver transfer DeAnthony Arnett to play this coming season. Arnett transferred from Tennessee to Michigan State to be closer to his ailing father in Flint, Mich. He appeared in 12 games for the Vols in 2011 and had 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns. "It was a hardship because his father is ill," Dantonio said. "DeAnthony had success at Tennessee. He was happy at Tennessee. He felt like he needed to come home to be near his family. Every Friday afternoon he goes home. He's a great young man, and he cares deeply about his family and wants to be close to them and wants them to have the opportunity to see him play as well." The NCAA recently granted a waiver for Amir Carlisle, a USC transfer, to play immediately at Notre Dame. Carlisle transferred to be closer to his father, who took a position in Purdue's athletic department. Arnett is eligible to practice this spring for the Spartans.
  • If Arnett receives his waiver, he'll provide a big boost to a position that Dantonio calls the "most critical" to replenish. Michigan State loses its top three receivers -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- from 2011. The Spartans need to get Bennie Fowler and Juwan Ceasar healthy and have some immediate contributions from their incoming freshmen.
  • Michigan State has good depth at defensive end, so Denzel Drone will move to tight end, at least for the start of spring ball. Drone has made six starts at defensive end in his first two seasons and has recorded 28 tackles, five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He played a bit of tight end as a high school senior. "We can at least look at that position move in the first two weeks," Dantonio said. "He's played enough defensive end that he can go back over there and be a co-starter for us, but I think we need to put our best football players on the field, and if he can be one of those top 11 players, 12 players, 13, 14 players on offense, then we'll leave him there. If not, he'll be one of those top 14 players on defense." In another move, defensive back Dana Dixon will practice at wide receiver this spring but could return to the secondary "in a heartbeat," Dantonio said.
  • Defensive tackle will be a fascinating position to watch this spring as Michigan State looks to replace Worthy. Tyler Hoover, a starting defensive end in 2010 who missed all of last season with injury, will move inside this spring. Hoover is up to 297 pounds, Dantonio said. The Spartans also will audition a host of redshirt freshman defensive tackles and sophomore James Kittredge, a transfer from Vanderbilt.
  • Michigan State redshirted 19 players last season, a few more than normal, and the spring will provide a proving ground for several of them. Dantonio listed defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Lawrence Thomas, safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Trae Waynes as freshmen who could have played in the latter part of last season.
  • The Spartans are one of only four Big Ten teams to return their entire coaching staff from the previous season. It wasn't easy, as other teams made runs at both Michigan State coordinators, Pat Narduzzi and Dan Roushar, but both men stayed, in part because the school made a stronger financial commitment. "It was natural to me to be very concerned we would lose a coach or two," Dantonio said. "But it gives you a feeling that you’re doing things right here and there's a good working environment. Obviously, all of our guys, we’re going to do everything we can do to hold onto them, and some of that is financially-based."
  • Dantonio on quarterback Andrew Maxwell: "Very patient young man, as evidenced by him sitting here and waiting for his opportunity. Very poised, extremely strong arm, very athletic, he was a 6-7 high jumper in high school. He's got size. He’s got great intelligence. He's got a great demeanor among his teammates. The one thing he's missing right now is that experience of going out and doing it on game day on a consistent basis. Kirk always stayed the course and was never knocked out of a football game, so Andrew never had to take the reins of our football team in a critical situation. That's coming for him."
  • In terms of leadership, Dantonio said Maxwell's teammates already have accepted him in his new role. Dantonio also listed linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, offensive lineman Chris McDonald and running back Larry Caper as potential team leaders in 2012.

Big shoes to fill: Michigan State

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
10:30
AM ET
With spring practice around the corner, Big Ten teams will start the process of replacing stars from the previous year. Some shoes are bigger to fill than others. We're taking a look at two key departed players from each team and who might take on their roles this season.

Today, we take a look at Michigan State. Though Kirk Cousins obviously left big shoes to fill, we know that Andrew Maxwell is his successor. So we'll focus on a couple of different spots on the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeJerel Worthy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State's Jerel Worthy (99) was a force on the defensive line for the Spartans.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jerel Worthy, DT

Why: Worthy was an All-American who had such a good junior season that he decided to jump to the NFL. He registered 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, though that only tells part of the story about how disruptive he was in the middle of the defensive line. Worthy was also an emotional leader who provided the Spartans defense with some of its swagger. While Michigan State brings back most of its outstanding defense from last year, Worthy will be a difficult player to replace.

Replacement candidates: Anthony Rashad White (6-2, 316, Sr.), Micajah Reynolds (6-5, 320, Jr.), James Kittredge (6-4, 270, Soph.), Damon Knox (6-4, 275, RFr.), Brandon Clemons (6-3, 262, RFr.), Mark Scarpinato (6-3, 270 RFr.), Joel Heath (6-5, 270, RFr.), David Fennell (6-3, 275 incoming freshman).

The skinny: Michigan State lost not only Worthy but fellow starting defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman and top backup Johnathan Strayhorn to graduation. But Mark Dantonio was prepared for this development and has a lot of players in the pipeline ready to prove themselves. Though White played the other tackle spot last year next to Worthy, he has the size, talent and experience to replicate Worthy's production. This is a key spring for Reynolds, who has also spent time on the offensive line. Kittredge sat out last season after transferring from Vanderbilt, and Michigan State was able to redshirt five other potential tackles in 2011. Fennell will likely take that route this year. This group is largely unproven, but at least there are plenty of candidates.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: B.J. Cunningham, WR


Why: Cunningham completed his career as the school's all-time leader in receptions and yards, which is saying something given the program's history at receiver. He emerged as a true star receiver in 2011 with career bests of 79 catches, 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns. Whenever Cousins needed a big play, he usually looked Cunningham's way. Fellow seniors Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol also are gone, leaving a big void at the wideout position for the Spartans.

Replacement candidates: Bennie Fowler (6-1, 215, Jr.), Tony Lippett (6-2, 189, Soph.), DeAnthony Arnett (6-1, 175, Soph.), Keith Mumphrey (6-0, 202 Soph.), Andre Sims Jr. (5-8, 180, RFr.) Juwan Caesar (6-3, 197, RFr.), Monty Madaris (6-2, 190, incoming freshman), Aaron Burbridge (6-0, 180 incoming freshman), MacGarrett Kings (5-10, 175, incoming freshman), Kyle Kerrick (6-3, 190, incoming freshman).

The skinny: This is a situation much like the defensive tackle spot, in which Michigan State hopes a crowd of candidates means that one or two standouts will emerge. The difference here is that some true freshmen will likely get thrown into the mix right away. Fowler is the veteran who hobbled through an injury-plagued 2011, while Lippett moves back to offense after seeing time at defensive back last year. A lot could depend on whether Arnett, a Tennessee transfer, wins his case with the NCAA to become immediately eligible. If not, the Spartans may have to rely on at least one of the receivers they signed in this year's class or hope that a redshirt freshman takes a big step forward.

Spring previews: Legends Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
9:00
AM ET
The 2012 Big Ten season doesn't kick off for six-and-a-half months, but spring football is just around the corner. All 12 Big Ten squads will hit the field next month for the first of 15 spring practices. There are plenty of new faces, as the winter months brought an unprecedented number of coaching changes to the Big Ten. Should be a fun and exciting spring around the conference.

Let's take a quick look at the Leaders Division:

IOWA

Spring practice start date: March 24
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New coaching flavor: For the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa will welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Phil Parker isn't exactly new, having served as Iowa's defensive backs coach throughout Ferentz's tenure, but he now takes charge of the defense for the first time. Will he continue running Norm Parker's scheme or shake things up? Iowa also will have a new offensive coordinator (yet to be named) and several new position coaches, including Reese Morgan, who moves from offensive line to defensive line.
  • Running back auditions: Iowa once again needs to identify a featured back after Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook in January. Coker basically was the team's rushing attack in 2011, accounting for 77.3 percent of the rushing yards and 61.9 percent of the carries. Jordan Canzeri and Jason White will compete with several other unproven players this spring. The good news is Iowa has had little trouble developing backs. Keeping them is another story.
  • Reloading the defensive line: The running backs might get more attention, but defensive line is Iowa's most pressing need entering the spring. The Hawkeyes lose three starters from last season's squad, including NFL prospect Mike Daniels at defensive tackle. While D-line historically has been a strength for Iowa, the Hawkeyes haven't had so much uncertainty in quite some time. Morgan, who hasn't coached on the defensive side, has his work cut out this spring.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice start date: March 17
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Defensive line rotation: It's a good thing coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison focus so much on the defensive line. The unit needs some extra attention this spring after losing standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The defensive tackle spot will be particularly interesting. A lot of eyes will be on Will Campbell to see if the big man can finally blossom. Quinton Washington and others are in the mix.
  • Receiving orders: Michigan needs to develop more options in the passing game this spring. The team loses top wideout Junior Hemingway, and Darryl Stonum was dismissed from the squad in January following another legal issue. Roy Roundtree needs a big spring as he looks to re-establish himself as the team's No. 1 wideout after a production drop-off last season. Tight end Kevin Koger also departs, creating an opportunity for others.
  • Al Borges' offense, Take 2: The new offense had some highs and lows in Year 1, and Michigan will be looking to establish greater consistency this season. It'll be interesting to see how a full year in the system impacts quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson must cut down on his interceptions after tossing 15 last season. The Wolverines also are looking for an offensive line anchor following the departure of All-American center David Molk.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Take it to the Max: Andrew Maxwell's time has arrived as he steps in for three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins at quarterback. It's a tall order, but Maxwell has been groomed for this moment and has shown good potential in practices. He'll be working with a new set of leading receivers, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who hopes to be cleared to play for the upcoming season. Maxwell must establish himself as a team leader this spring.
  • We're not Worthy: All-American Jerel Worthy is gone, and Michigan State needs a replacement for the standout defensive tackle. While Anthony Rashad White returns at the other D-tackle spot, the Spartans don't have much overall depth at the position. It'll be interesting to see what the coaches do with Micajah Reynolds, who has bounced between defensive line and offensive line during his career. It's a big spring for Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge and a host of players who redshirted last season, including Damon Knox.
  • Receiving orders: Arnett seemingly would be Michigan State's No. 1 receiver if he's ruled eligible by the NCAA, but there are no guarantees and the Spartans must identify other options this spring. Bennie Fowler showed promise in 2010 before being slowed by a foot injury last season. He needs a strong spring. Michigan State also is moving Tony Lippett back to receiver from cornerback, where he started several games last season. Lippett is an excellent athlete who can provide a boost on the edge. The Spartans also will be looking for more from tight end Dion Sims.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice start date: March 22
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The search for a pass rush: Minnesota should be improved on offense in Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era, but the team could sink or swim depending on the defense. It starts up front with a defensive line that hasn't generated much pressure for several years. Coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be aggressive, but can he find difference-makers? The Gophers haven't had an elite pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.
  • Supporting cast on offense: Although quarterback Marqueis Gray had his ups and downs last season, he accounted for most of Minnesota's offense, leading the team with 966 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Gray needs more help if the Gophers intend to take the next step this season. Minnesota will be looking for a featured running back this spring, as Donnell Kirkwood and others are in the mix. The Gophers also need more options at receiver after losing Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Troy Stoudermire: Stoudermire turned heads last spring with some big hits from the cornerback spot. After receiving an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA in January, he'll look to deliver more punishment. Minnesota desperately needs leaders and playmakers to emerge in the secondary, and Stoudermire's return could be huge after he missed most last season with a broken bone in his forearm.
NEBRASKA

Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Star search on defense: No Big Ten defense loses more star power than Nebraska, which must replace linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the league's top performers at their respective positions. David's departure is especially critical, as Nebraska lacked depth in its defensive midsection last season. Although Nebraska played most of the past season without defensive tackle Jared Crick, it needs some difference-makers to emerge in all three levels of the defense this spring.
  • Papuchis takes over: Like Iowa, Nebraska promoted a position coach to defensive coordinator, as John Papuchis takes control of a unit that fell short of expectations last season. Papuchis is young and energetic, and his rapid rise mirrors that of his boss, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini. Although no system overhaul is expected, it will be interesting to see how Papuchis puts his imprint on the defense this spring.
  • Taylor Martinez's maturation: Despite two years as the starter and the support of his coaches, Martinez enters a pivotal spring. Although Martinez remained healthy last season and showed improved decision-making at times, he also completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and didn't break off as many long runs. A full year in Tim Beck's offense could pay off for Martinez this spring, but he needs to continue to make strides. It will be interesting to see if the coaches even entertain the possibility of a competition, or if backup Brion Carnes gets more reps.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice start date: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Colter and the QB race: Northwestern will have a quarterback competition this spring as it looks for Dan Persa's replacement, but the hope among many is for Kain Colter to take control. Colter stepped in for Persa last season and emerged as the team's best all-around offensive weapon. But he needs to improve his arm strength and his accuracy and show he can be a more complete quarterback at this level. Although Colter will be on the field no matter what in the fall, he has the opportunity in spring ball to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.
  • Young defenders: The defense has been a big problem for the past year and a half, and Northwestern needs to identify more playmakers before September. The good news is the Wildcats played a lot of young players last season, particularly late in the season. Northwestern needs its youth to mature, beginning in the spring. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Tyler Scott, safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and cornerback Daniel Jones. Northwestern needs several of them to take the next step.
  • Spotlight on the secondary: Few Big Ten units struggled more than Northwestern's secondary did last season. Making matters worse, the Wildcats lose three starters, including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin, a four-year starter. If Northwestern ever intends to turn the corner as a program, it needs to build better depth in the secondary, whether it's through recruiting or from moving players from other positions. It'll be interesting to see how the group performs this spring.
After recording 11 victories in each of the past two seasons, Michigan State hoped to carry over the momentum to the recruiting trail. The Spartans on Wednesday signed a class headlined by standout skill players and added another Thursday morning in four-star receiver Monty Madaris. Along with the addition of wide receiver transfer DeAnthony Arnett, Michigan State has put itself in position to replace standouts like receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, and safety Trenton Robinson. The Spartans also faced increased competition in the region from Michigan and Ohio State, and talk of a Michigan State-Ohio State recruiting firestorm is building.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State's Mark Dantonio says his latest recruiting class is loaded with skill-position talent.
ESPN.com caught up with Spartans coach Mark Dantonio on Thursday. Here are his thoughts about the class.

What were your top priorities in this class?

Mark Dantonio: We felt like we needed to go out and get a great class of skill players. Last year, we were pretty deep on our team, so we only (signed) two wide receivers and two defensive backs last year. We felt like we really needed to concentrate in those two areas, and I think we came away with a great class. We've got five wide receivers signed and four defensive backs, and a very skilled tailback [Nick Tompkins] who really can play any of those positions. He'll play tailback here off the start. We've got guys like Demetrious Cox who can play anywhere: tailback, slot receiver, safety, probably even corner. We've got guys like Jermaine Edmonson, who is coming in as a defensive back but can play wide receiver. Aaron Burbridge is another guy who can cross the realm and play corner, play wide receiver, tailback. He'll play wide receiver for us. Madaris, MacGarrett Kings, DeAnthony Arnett has to be included in this class, and he's a phenomenal player, one of the top wide receivers in the country last year.

It's a tremendous group, wide receiver especially. When you lose a B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol, that's a lot of offense. Those guys will have an opportunity to play immediately. And on the defensive side, Ezra Robinson and Cox, Edmonson and Mark Meyers are guys that can tackle, play the ball in the deep part of the field, change direction very well, they run very well, they're very explosive players. All 10 of those guys are kick returner, punt returner guys.

I also think that because we lose [Kirk] Cousins, we needed to bring a quality quarterback into the program. We don't overload our football team with quarterbacks. We don't have six or seven guys on scholarship. We'll have three quarterbacks on scholarship next year, and Tyler O'Connor was an Elite 11 quarterback, a guy that has great mechanics, has the ability to run with it, he's big, he's very intelligent, he's got a great release and great arm strength. He's going to be a tremendous asset to this program as time goes on. And then we took three offensive linemen who are going to be able to play, and one defensive lineman in David Fennell. Two outstanding linebackers in [Jamal] Lyles and [Riley] Bullough, who are very, very good athletes and played a variety of positions. Fennell's a defensive tackle flying under the radar from Oregon, who just moved to the U.S. from Canada. He shows great punch. His dad is in the Hall of Fame in the CFL. The guy has great explosiveness, extremely strong, very quick, plays with a high motor. I think he'll be an outstanding player.

With the wide receivers you're losing, how many of the guys you're bringing in will stay at receiver and have a chance to play immediately?

MD: All of these guys are going to have a chance to play. We basically have five wide receivers on scholarship, so our numbers are low in that area, not just because we lose the three [starters], but we lose two backups as well. Edwin Baker going [to the NFL] hurts at the tailback position, so there's opportunity to play and play early. They're quality players. They're guys who we've either had in camp or watched play in person. They're big-time players, and they'll all have an opportunity to play. And there are some guys who might cross over and be pretty versatile as well. And on the defensive side, you can pretty much say the same thing. Jeremy Langford is going to go back to tailback, so it's going to open a possibility at corner. Tony Lippett's a guy we played at corner last year. He'll go back to wide receiver. So it was important to get a defensive back class as well.

I'll make this statement. I've been coaching for a long time, and I don't know I've been anyplace where we've recruited 10 quality athletes like this at the skill positions. I think they're excellent football players, and they all fit our identity, they fit our mold in terms of our chemistry. Great people with good values, all with the vision of being outstanding. I think Cox is a tremendous player.

Do you guys now have pipelines at defensive backs and wide receiver?

MD: I think we are. If you're good enough, you're going to play here. We only played one freshman [defensive back] last year, but the year before, our entire second unit was made up of freshmen. We've had to move people around a little bit, so there's opportunities for these guys, and they see themselves playing early in their careers. They also see the success that we're having. The other thing everyone has to realize is last year, we took seven defensive linemen. We redshirted every single incoming freshman last year except for one. So we're going to have about 40 freshmen in August camp. This is a very bright future at Michigan State. We've got some excellent young players, predominantly defensive players ... who would have played in the bowl game. We probably would have played six of them in the bowl game if they were eligible to play.

You mentioned the lineman from Oregon. How do you feel about the defensive tackles with Jerel [Worthy] moving on? Is it something you looked for in this class, or might look for in the junior college ranks?

MD: We looked more in terms of defensive end at the junior college route a little bit. We felt like we wanted to stay the course with our guys. We came down to the end on a couple guys that, if they come our way, maybe solidify that a little bit. But you've got to go back to last year. We recruited six defensive linemen and had a seventh transfer in from Vanderbilt, as an offensive [lineman] for them. He was a four-star player, James Kittredge. So we've got seven defensive linemen, and five of them are defensive tackles. So our numbers are good. We've got guys like Damon Knox and Joel Heath and Brandon Clemons and Matt Ramondo and Kittredge, those guys are all pushing about 280. We'll be fine there. Obviously, we're going to miss Jerel. You can't replace a guy who was first-team all-conference, a first-team All-American and maybe a first-round draft pick. But we've got guys coming, and I'm sure coach [Pat] Narduzzi will get those guys ready to play.

Mark, you've recruited the Midwest for a long time. Was there any different dynamic this year competing for recruits with some of the staff changes at Ohio State, and with Michigan's staff having a full year to recruit?

MD: I really don't think so. It's always difficult to recruit in the Midwest when you're surrounded. Michigan State has its own identity, but Michigan certainly and Notre Dame and Ohio State and Wisconsin and Iowa. We're right in the middle of all those guys. And usually when we want 'em, they want 'em. You can throw Penn State into that mix, and you have some teams coming up from the Southeastern Conference, so it's extremely competitive in terms of the guys you're going to get. But we're competing on a scale with those guys. We're very competitive with them, and this is a great opportunity for young people to look at, so we're going to get our guys.

Recruiting has accelerated. There's no question about that. With that said, you've got to get guys on your campus earlier, and usually those guys have to be within four or five hours of your campus. After that, they have to fly, or they're taking cross-country trips. It's so important you get players on your campus to see the place with a parent or a loved one, because when you come down the stretch, for a guy to make a visit like they used to, come in January on a visit by himself, if they have not been here before, the opportunity for you to get them to come to Michigan State or anyplace else goes down drastically.

Are you guys changing the types of players you're going after at all?

MD: Not really. We've always tried to look to see who's going to fit our program. Just because you can play corner at one institution doesn't mean you can play corner here based on how we play the corners. We're looking for a different type of player at times than maybe somebody else would. Doesn't mean it's right or it's wrong. We try and look for who's going to complement our football team. There's a foundation that's being laid here, there's good things happening. We're not to the end yet, and we want to continue to push forward, but the guys we've recruited have helped us win, there's no question about that. They've won. So we're taking the right guys. We have very little attrition on our football team, so consequently we have a smaller class. I don't think we've ever taken 25 guys. I think the biggest class has been maybe 21, 22. We make assessments based on guys who can play for us, in our schemes and fit our chemistry, our profile. I think we've done a great job with that. We've got some guys here who have been two-star players who are going to play in the NFL, there's no question.

SPONSORED HEADLINES