Big Ten: James Ross III

Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Front seven, front and center: The Wolverines didn't stand pat on defense this offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now coaching the linebackers, while Mark Smith moved down to take over the defensive line. They also shuffled their linebackers, switching Jake Ryan to the middle and emerging star James Ross III to the strong side. The moves seemed to work out well this spring, with Ryan looking like his old playmaking self a year removed from ACL surgery. The defensive line could be one of the team's strengths, led by senior defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and improving youngsters Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Mattison wants to blitz more this season and hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on its own.
  • Early enrollees, immediate impact: When players skip the final half of their high school senior years to enroll in college in January, the hope is that they will be more advanced than most freshmen. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole exceeded those expectations. Both impressed the coaching staff right away, with Canteen drawing raves and Cole getting a lot of first-team reps at left tackle. Both were with the starting unit during the spring game and figure to have roles on the team this fall.
  • More QB clarity: Brady Hoke talked of a quarterback competition this spring, and Devin Gardner wasn't originally expected to do a whole lot while recovering from a broken foot. But Gardner surprised the coaches by fulling participating in all 15 spring practices and asserting his hold on the position. Hoke said Shane Morris closed the gap a bit on Gardner and that the competition would continue. But even though Gardner didn't play well in the spring game, it's pretty clear that this remains his team.
Three questions for the fall

  • Can O-line be less offensive?: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has brought a simplified blocking scheme and a focus on running downhill. Players said there were times this spring when that was effective. But concerns about the youth and chemistry on the line remain, and not just because of another shaky performance in the spring game. When a mid-year enrollee (Cole) is starting at left tackle, that raises serious red flags. The return of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski from injury and Graham Glasgow from his one-game suspension will help the experience and talent level. But for now, the line is full of young, unproven players who must find a way to raise their games between now and late August.
  • Skill position suspense: With Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo graduated, Devin Funchess is the only returning receiver with more than 15 career catches. Canteen's emergence provided another option at the position, but a lot of question marks remain at wideout. Michigan is hoping Jehu Chesson, Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Dennis Norfleet step forward, Amara Darboh successfully returns from injury and freshman Drake Harris can contribute. But there are few sure things. At running back, the team is hopeful that Derrick Green breaks out as a sophomore and De'Veon Smith joins him for a powerful duo. Again, though, it's mostly optimism and little track record at this point.
  • Enough leadership? Hoke has suggested that he wasn't thrilled with the leadership during last season's 7-5 team. He and the players have said that the chemistry and accountability have been good this spring. The fact remains, however, that this team has only 12 seniors, and only seven of them are position players who see the field a lot. Leadership will also have to come from the junior class and elsewhere if Michigan wants to get over the hump of mediocrity.
One way-too-early prediction

Jabrill Peppers immediately becomes the team's best defensive back. That's a bold call, as Peppers isn't even on campus yet. But he was the No. 2 player in the 2014 ESPN 300 for a reason, and he should be the kind of physical, cover corner that Michigan has lacked. The Wolverines could try him in several different positions, but if he's the real deal, he can start quickly at cornerback. Program insiders believe his ceiling could be in the Charles Woodson neighborhood. No pressure, kid.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Not long after he tore his ACL in spring practice last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan cut off the long blonde locks that used to billow out of his helmet.

The hair had become his signature look and a sign of impending doom for ball carriers unlucky enough to see it up close during his destructive 2012 season. But the maintenance became too much.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJake Ryan is looking forward to new challenges at middle linebacker.
“My showers were taking way too long,” Ryan said. “It was way too much to take care of that and the knee. You can’t have too much on your mind.”

Ryan made a rapid return to the field last season for the Wolverines. His 2013 debut came on Oct. 12 against Penn State, less than seven months after he tore the ligament in his right knee.

But something looked a little different about him, and it wasn’t just the short hair. That he managed to play in eight games, with five starts, qualified as a minor medical marvel. Yet Ryan did not record a sack or cause a turnover last year and produced just four tackles for loss. This came a season after he racked up 16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as Michigan’s top defensive disrupter.

Like most players coming back from a major injury, Ryan said he was a bit tentative at times.

“It was more mental than anything, because you still never know what’s going to happen [with the knee],” he said. “The first couple of games, I was kind of shaky. I was starting to feel a lot better around the Ohio State game, getting back to 100 percent. Now, I’m there.”

Where Ryan is this spring is back at full strength, creating problems for the offense. Just at a different position.

Michigan shook up its linebacker lineup this spring in an effort to maximize its athleticism and playmaking. So Ryan moved to middle linebacker. James Ross III, who finished second on the team with 85 tackles last year as a sophomore, went from the weak side to Ryan’s old strongside slot. And Desmond Morgan shifted from the middle to the weak side.

“I think the coaches did a good job of analyzing where we best fit,” Ross said. “Now, we’ve got more athletic guys in space.”

That means Ryan is in a different space, one where he has a bit more responsibility. But so far, he says, the transition suits him.

“It’s been different, because now I’m blitzing up the middle,” he said. “And last year I was looking at the tight and now I’m reading the running back. But I like it a lot better because you’re in the mix of everything. It’s cool.”

Ross, at 225 pounds, will need to take on tight ends and says he has already had many spring battles with 265-pound Wolverines tight end A.J. Williams. Ross says he’s ready for the challenge.

“I’ve been able to hold my own through my whole career,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a smaller guy, but I’m physical at the point of attack.”

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is coaching the linebackers this season and will look to use them in a more aggressive, blitzing style. The Wolverines’ defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed last year and had notable breakdowns at times, especially against Indiana and Ohio State.

Linebacker once again should be the best and deepest position on the defense, as the three veteran starters get support from juniors Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, sophomore Ben Gedeon and redshirt freshman Mike McCray.

Mattison wants to send his linebackers on pressures more in 2014, but they have to make sure they’re actually getting home on those calls. Only Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue collected fewer sacks than Michigan during league play a year ago.

“He’s tried to stress the fact that when he calls a blitz, I need to be antsy -- grabbing that grass and being ready to go,” Ross said. “He said if I do my job, I could be hitting that quarterback pretty often.”

The same could go for Ryan, who likes some of the blitz packages from his new spot. So far, the early reviews from practice are encouraging.

“I see Jake being a real confident guy out there making plays all over,” Ross said. “He’s a real physical player. A big-time game-changer.”

The biggest boost for Michigan’s defense could be getting back the Jake Ryan from 2012. Minus the long hair, of course.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
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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, Big Ten, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Damien Proby, Collin Ellis, Michael Trotter, Max Bullough, Jonathan Brown, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Mylan Hicks, Mike Hull, Jake Ryan, Ryan Russell, Joshua Perry, Derek Landisch, Jimmy Hall, Denicos Allen, Ralph Cooper, Curtis Grant, Darien Harris, Quinton Alston, Marcus Trotter, Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Michael Rose, Joseph Jones, Camren Williams, Vince Biegel, Cole Fisher, Jack Lynn, Nyeem Wartman, Allen Gant, T.J. Neal, David Santos, Zaire Anderson, Joe Gilliam, David Cooper, Jon Reschke, Taiwan Jones, Ben Gedeon, Shane Jones, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, Marcus Newby, Forisse Hardin, Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina, Eric Finney, Trey Johnson, Leon Jacobs, Reggie Spearman, Alec James, De'Vondre Campbell, De'Niro Laster, Damien Wilson, Josh Banderas, T.J. Simmons, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, Ben Kline, Drew Smith, Nick Rallis, Troy Reeder, James Ross III, Joe Schobert, Raekwon McMillan, Gelen Robinson, Gary Wooten, Ed Davis, Travis Perry, Brian Knorr, Cole Farrand, Matt Robinson, Marcus Whitfield, Jaylen Prater, B1G spring positions 14, Darron Lee, L.A. Goree, Alex Twine, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Abner Logan, Danny Ezechukwu, Steve Longa, Kevin Snyder, Quentin Gause, Jamal Merrell, Davon Jacobs, L.J. Liston

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- James Ross III didn’t expect to play much the first game last season. Special teams, sure, but on the actual defense against Alabama, the linebacker’s head was stuck in high school.

So imagine his surprise when his coaches turned to him during Michigan’s season-opener last season and told him he was going in.

This was his introduction to college football, complete with moments that still stick out almost a year later as he moves from a situational role player to a full-time starter on Michigan’s defense.

James Ross
Lon Horwedell/Icon SMIJames Ross III was able to rely on physical tools as a freshman in 2012. Now he is focusing on a better understanding of Michigan's schemes.
“I’m on the sideline and the coaches tell me to get in,” Ross III said. “I’m like, ‘OK.’ I just look around the stadium and it’s packed. Has the big old jumbo screen going on. Ahh, it was, I don’t know.

“That offensive line was a pretty big deal, too. It’s real.”

Ross III, an undersized linebacker at 5-foot-11, already had this experience down. A month earlier at the start of fall camp, he looked at Michigan’s offense and saw offensive linemen all standing 6-foot-3 or bigger and realized he wasn’t playing in Michigan’s Catholic League anymore.

Plus, his knowledge of what defenses Greg Mattison wanted to run was minimal and it ended up being somewhat surprising Ross III played much at all. He was able to mask his lack of understanding by his instincts. He didn’t know all the plays, but he listened to what former Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens recited in the huddle, repeated it as if he knew what he was doing and then would go and try to make a play.

By the end of the season, Ross III said he knew about 75 percent of what Michigan was doing.

He had 36 tackles, a half-sack and 2.5 tackles for loss last season. He also started two games when Desmond Morgan was injured and made enough of an impact that the coaches moved Morgan to middle linebacker this spring to make sure Ross III played more this fall. Beyond that, Michigan’s coaching staff is pressuring him to be more active than last season and make sure he understands things better.

“He has, I think, pretty good instincts,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “… I thought, we thought, that there’s more we could get out of him so we’re putting a lot of that pressure, a lot of the challenge to him to do a little better job getting off blocks and there’s times when you don’t need to take on the block.

“So just making the football itself the issue.”

Last season it wasn’t. There were playbook and communication issues and there was the adjustment to college football in general. Thus far this fall, the adjustments have been more subtle.

Instead of understanding the concept of the plays, he has focused on making sure his alignment is correct. Instead of relying on his teammates to announce and break down the play, he is starting to grasp everything on his own.

He’s even learning to use his size -- strong but short -- to his advantage.

“Being able to read a little better,” Ross III said. “Just like it’s difficult looking at a smaller running back, you can’t really see him so you can get lost a little bit in the shuffle. But those guys, we are shuffling downhill and trying to maintain our gaps so we aren’t shuffling around them.

“We have to go through them.”

Doing that isn’t an issue for Ross. He has always been a big hitter and strong for his size. His body, which didn’t look like a typical freshman when he entered camp a year ago, has continued to improve.

Now everything else is catching up.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
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Second-to-last weekend without real football. Enjoy.
We've taken a look at some offensive milestones and which Big Ten players are likely to reach them in 2013, including 1,000 yards rushing, 1,000 yards receiving and 3,000 yards passing. But what about the defense?

Defensive statistics are a little harder to predict, and there aren't as many readily identifiable milestones. One such marker, though, is 100 tackles. On the one hand, tackle numbers can sometimes be a bit misleading, since one good player on a bad defense can pile up numbers, or a defense can funnel plays to certain areas. But if you've reached 100 tackles, odds are you're a pretty good player.

And unlike the 3K passers or 1K receivers, the Big Ten is flush with returning 100-tackle men. Here's the rundown of players who reached triple digits in stops last season and will look to do it again in 2013:
All are solid bets to repeat the feat in '13. Here are some other guys to watch for the century mark:

Christian Kirksey, LB, Iowa: Could the Hawkeyes really have all three linebackers go over 100 stops? They very nearly did it last year, with Kirksey finishing just five tackles short, and getting back to a bowl game would aid the cause. Then again, Iowa would love to see its defensive line make more plays so the linebackers don't have to clean everything up.

Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, and Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern: Ariguzo had 91 tackles last year, while Campbell had 89. Both will be anchors for the improving Wildcats defense again this year.

Greg Heban, S, and David Cooper, LB, Indiana: Heban somewhat quietly had a really strong 2012 with 91 stops and should be even better this year. But the Hoosiers would like to see fewer opposing players get to the safety level. If so, Cooper (86) might be the statistical beneficiary.

Glenn Carson and Mike Hull, LB, Penn State: With Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti gone, the Lions will need someone to pick up the slack for two guys that combined for 205 stops last year. Carson registered 85 tackles last year and will be the most experienced member of the linebacker group, while Hull could be the next star at the position.

Ethan Armstrong, LB, Wisconsin: Borland and Mike Taylor formed a dynamic duo the past couple of years at linebacker for the Badgers. Could it now be Borland and Armstrong? The latter had 93 tackles a year ago in his first year starting.

Desmond Morgan, LB, Michigan: After an 81-tackle season a year ago, Morgan will likely start this year at middle linebacker. Someone will have to increase their production while Jake Ryan is out; it could be Morgan or James Ross III.

David Santos, LB, Nebraska: The Huskers replace all three starting linebackers from last year, including 110-tackle guy Will Compton. Perhaps Santos or one of the new starting safeties will lead the way.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

April, 18, 2013
4/18/13
5:00
PM ET
It's Thursday, so it's time for another mailbag. Remember to keep those questions coming during the offseason.

A.J. from Madison writes: Over/under on Badgers' defense giving up more points than last year? I have NO idea what to expect from them as it appears the scheme is completely different.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure that's technically an over/under, but you're right in that Wisconsin is going through a scheme change, with some 3-4 looks being added by Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. The good news for the Badgers is that almost all of the two deep in the front seven is back, save departed senior linebacker Mike Taylor and injured defensive end David Gilbert. The defense should once again be very good up front. More concerning is the secondary, which lost three senior starters.

I think Wisconsin's defense should once again be one of the best in the league, but remember that last year's unit allowed only 19.8 points per game. With some potentially explosive offenses such as Arizona State, Ohio State, Northwestern and Indiana on the schedule, a repeat of that would have to be considered very good work.




Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes:Since the current coaching staffs for Minnesota and Indiana came on at the same time, have you been comparing them to see how they are developing? Minnesota was ahead based on record and getting to a bowl game. Is Indiana catching up due to better recruiting or is it too early to tell?

Brian Bennett: It's not a strict one-to-one comparison, since Indiana's Kevin Wilson replaced his offensive coordinator after the first year and saw co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler leave after last season. Minnesota is going into its third season with the exact same staff under Jerry Kill. Indiana was 5-7 the year before Wilson arrived, while the Gophers were 3-9 in 2010. Wilson played tons of freshmen and bottomed out at 1-11 his first season, while Kill seemed to have more talented veterans to work with the past two years (MarQueis Gray, Ra'Shede Hageman, Michael Carter, etc). In talking to some Minnesota coaches and players this spring, they seem confident that things are about to take off in the third year under Kill as they are finally starting to build some depth, and going to a bowl game did a lot for that program. Indiana remains a step behind because it will have to navigate a tough schedule just to have a chance at a bowl this year, but the Hoosiers are heading in the right direction.




Jay from Prince William County writes: DaQuan Jones is without a doubt the top returning interior D-linemen in the Big Ten. Unlike Hill, who I correctly predicted would be an upgrade over Still after he slid over from nose guard (Jones was an upgrade over Hill at guard) Jones won't have great numbers. It isn't the nature of the position in Penn State's defense, but he will be the best tackle in the league this year. He was the second or third best last year behind Jordan Hill and maybe Hankins. Together with Deion Barnes, the league's top end, Mike Hull, the league's top linebacker, Adrian Amos, the league's top D-back, and plenty of high quality supporting players, Penn State will again have one of the league's top two defenses. They will of course have the league's top linebacking corps for the tenth straight year. That much goes without question.

Brian Bennett: So let me guess: You're a Nittany Lions fan, eh? It's sometimes hard to judge a defensive tackle's impact on stats alone, and Jones is definitely a space-eater at 330 pounds. Then again, in his own words Jones said he hasn't made enough big plays his first three years, and he hasn't been a real game-changer. I wouldn't have ranked him that high last year, as I thought Hankins, Hill, Kawann Short and Hageman were all better and plenty of other tackles in the league were just as good. But the Big Ten was hit pretty hard by graduation and the NFL draft at the position. I'd probably rank Hageman No. 1 among returnees at tackle, but I'm not sure who I'd put at No. 2 at this point. If Jones can make the senior-year leap that other Penn State interior linemen have made recently, he could build a case.




Matt from Ann Arbor writes:Looking at the spring games that have already taken place, which position group for a team has raised its stock the most? Which has dropped the most? Why?

Brian Bennett: I'll expand that to include the entirety of spring practice for teams who have finished, because spring games themselves are often terribly overrated. I'd say Ohio State's defensive line definitely qualifies as a stock you want to buy. Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence looked great all spring and then combined for seven sacks in the spring game, lessening the worry about the Buckeyes losing all four starters from last year's D-line. I also think the arrow is pointing up for Nebraska's quarterbacks (backups Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg both looked good) and Indiana's receivers (even deeper than last year). Picking a group whose stock has dropped is tougher. But I was hoping to see a bit more out of Nebraska's defensive line, which had been billed as more athletic but didn't really make a lot of plays in the spring game. The Huskers did have to go against a great offensive line, though, and will get reinforcements this summer. Michigan's linebacking corps has to go down a notch just because of the loss of Jake Ryan, although a good spring by Cam Gordon and the emergence of James Ross III should help keep the dropoff from being too severe.




Do you believe in T-magic from Omaha, Neb., writes: I'm not sure why Devin Gardneris getting the hype he is. After watching him for several weeks after a better but still not talented QB "Shoelace" Robinson (obviously just a freak athlete) got hurt, all Gardner did was a less talented version of Robinson chuck the ball up and pray someone comes down under it. I don't think Gardner would even be third-string playing for the Big Red and that is sad. ... All Michigan does is try and recycle the same game hoping they get a lucky catch when it matters. Michigan 8-4 (at best) Nebraska 12-0 (showdown with 12-0 tOSUu in the title game) Where does this guy's hype come from? Do tell.

Brian Bennett: That's some world-class trolling right there, my friend. Take a bow. After taking over the Michigan starting job in the Nov. 3 game against Minnesota, Gardner threw for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns while running for seven more scores in five games. Extrapolate that out to a 13-game season, and he would have passed for more than 3,100 yards and totaled 46 touchdowns. No one is saying he will put up those kinds of numbers over a full season, but the fact that he produced those stats after playing mostly receiver for more than half the year and doing so in an offense tailored around Robinson's running ability tells you all you need to know about Gardner's talent and potential.

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 15, 2013
4/15/13
10:45
AM ET
It was a big Saturday of spring games around the Big Ten, and we're recapping all of them today. Let's take a look at how the Michigan Wolverines wrapped up their spring session at the Big House.

You can find coverage of Michigan's spring game here and here and here and here.

Star of the game: The Wolverines' offense kept things very vanilla, but the defense more than held its own and sophomore linebacker James Ross III showed why he'll likely be a big factor in the fall. Ross played the entire scrimmage and logged a game-high eight tackles, including two for loss. Linemen Frank Clark, Jibreel Black and Taco Charlton also stood out for the defense.

How it went down: Michigan fans didn't learn a ton about the 2013 team as the offense, as expected, was "very vanilla, very basic," as starting quarterback Devin Gardner put it. The Wolverines are going back to their traditional pro-set structure and operated mostly under center in an I-formation.

Gardner completed 11 of 16 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown and displayed the vertical pass game we saw last fall after he became the starter in finding Devin Funchess and Amara Darboh for gains of 35 and 33 yards. Backup Brian Cleary got in a bit of work along with Alex Swieca.

The defense had the edge in the spring game, starting at the line of scrimmage. The most telling matchup pitted Michigan's defensive front against an offensive line looking for starters at both guard spots and at center. Although the young offensive linemen showed flashes, the defensive front carried the day, getting consistent penetration with players like Clark, Black and Charlton, a man-child freshman at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds.

"We moved and established the line of scrimmage today, and I think that is one thing that we haven't seen in a while," senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "But what we do in the summer and do in fall camp is really going to define us as an offensive line."

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made the pass rush a major priority after Michigan recorded only 22 sacks last season. If Saturday's scrimmage is an indication, the Wolverines will be heating up the pocket more this fall.

"We've got some young kids who have some ability," head coach Brady Hoke said. "With Greg and his passion with how he teaches rushing the passer ... the guys are excited about it. They know what we want to do. We've worked on it. We're not near what we can be and will be, but I think we’re a little better at it."

The interior offensive line will continue to be a major storyline throughout fall camp, and Hoke wants to see Michigan run the ball more effectively. Thomas Rawls had a 14-yard touchdown run in the scrimmage and led the offense with 32 rush yards on six carries.

The best news for Michigan came off of the playing field as Hoke said running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (leg) and cornerback Black Countess (knee) both are on track to return for the opener, and linebacker Jake Ryan, who recently underwent ACL surgery, could be back by mid October. Michigan also picked up a commitment from wide receiver Drake Harris, who originally pledged to rival Michigan State.

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