Big Ten: Jared Abbrederis
Our position previews continue with the wide receiver/tight end group.
Best of the best: Maryland
The Big Ten rookies face some challenges in their new conference, but the Terrapins bring a talented and extremely deep group of receivers. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long lead the way as both men return from broken legs that shortened promising 2013 seasons. Levern Jacobs, Nigel King and Amba Etta-Tawo all did nice jobs last season, as each eclipsed 30 receptions. The return of Marcus Leak, who showed the ability to stretch the field in 2012 before missing last season, provides yet another option for senior quarterback C.J. Brown. Wide receiver undoubtedly will be Maryland's strength entering the season, and in terms of depth, no other Big Ten squad comes close. The Terps need a tight end to emerge after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Next up: Michigan State
I considered several teams here -- Nebraska, Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, even Iowa -- but few programs are bringing back more than three reliable options in the passing game. Michigan State, a laughingstock at receiver in 2012, bounced back nicely last season as the offense stabilized behind quarterback Connor Cook. The Spartans had six receivers or tight ends finish with 17 or more receptions and six players with multiple touchdown receptions in 2013. Five of those players are back as only wide receiver Bennie Fowler, MSU's leader in receiving yards (622) and receiving touchdowns (6), departs. Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings lead the group after combining for 87 receptions last year. Aaron Burbridge and Keith Mumphery also return along with tight end Josiah Price, who emerged late last fall. DeAnthony Arnett finally could be ready to contribute. Good depth here.
We've been high on this group for years but the production hasn't been there on a consistent basis. A two-quarterback system and a primary signal-caller (Kain Colter) best suited to run the option made it tough for the wide receivers and tight ends to truly blossom. Things should change this year with a single quarterback (Trevor Siemian) and an offense that should have much more of a passing lean. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are both proven receivers whose numbers should climb this fall. Like MSU's Arnett, Prater also could be on the verge of big things several years after transferring in, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler fills the all-important slot role. Tight end Dan Vitale has 62 receptions in his first two seasons and could be a star this fall.
Problem for a contender: Wisconsin
The Badgers barely had enough wide receivers to get through practices this spring, but they'll need a significant boost on the perimeter when the season kicks off. Gone are top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and top tight end Jacob Pedersen, who accounted for 63.7 percent of the team's receiving yards in 2013. Factor in the loss of running back James White (39 receptions for 300 yards last season), and Wisconsin returns only one player, Jordan Fredrick, with 10 or more receptions last season and none with more than 150 receiving yards. The Badgers need a lot of help here: Fredrick and Alex Erickson to develop, Kenzel Doe to build on a good spring, Robert Wheelwright to stay healthy and blossom and several incoming freshmen -- keep an eye on Krenwick Sanders -- to contribute immediately. Veteran Sam Arneson likely steps into the top tight end role.
The 1,000-yard mark means more to wide receivers than rushers, especially in the Big Ten. Four players reached the milestone in 2013 after just one (Robinson) in 2012. The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011 but none in 2010 and just one (Purdue's Keith Smith) in 2009. So this category can be tricky to forecast.
Although no Big Ten returning player had more than 800 receiving yards in 2013, the league boasts several potential breakout stars. Your task today: Select the Big Ten player most likely to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this fall.
The candidates ...
Kenny Bell, Nebraska, senior: The 'fro, tragically, is no mo' after Bell lost a bet to his friend, Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chapple. But perhaps less hair will mean more production after Bell's receiving yards went from 863 in 2012 to 577 last year. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has much to prove as a passer, but Bell is one of the nation's most experienced wideouts.
Stefon Diggs, Maryland, junior: Big Ten fans who haven't seen Diggs are in for a treat, at least when he's not facing their favorite team. An ESPN 150 recruit who picked Maryland over Ohio State and others, Diggs finished eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.2) as a true freshman. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception through Maryland's first seven contests last season before suffering a broken leg. Diggs should be fine for the season and can put up huge numbers with his big-play ability. Maryland's depth at receiver -- Deon Long also returns from a broken leg -- could make it tough for Diggs to get to 1,000 yards.
Devin Funchess, Michigan, junior: Funchess is listed as a tight end and won the Big Ten's tight end of the year award last fall, but he plays like a bigger receiver at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He has averaged 15.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons with 11 touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end with 748 last fall. Funchess becomes quarterback Devin Gardner's favorite target as Gallon departs. Michigan needs its receivers to step up, but Funchess could threaten 1,000 yards this year.
Shane Wynn, Indiana, senior: Like Bell, Wynn saw a slight production drop from 2012, when he led Indiana with 68 receptions, to last season, when he had 46 but still put up about the same yardage. But the departures of Latimer and tight end Ted Bolser, both selected in the NFL draft, along with Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson leave Wynn as undoubtedly Indiana's No. 1 passing target. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will be looking for Wynn a lot this fall, and his numbers could surge in a productive IU offense.
And, finally ...
Mystery man: Don't like any of these candidate to reach 1,000 receiving yards? This is the spot for you. Maybe Rutgers' Leonte Carroo complements his touchdowns with bigger yards totals this fall. One of the Northwestern Joneses (Christian or Tony) might reach 1,000 yards in a more pass-driven offense. Geno Lewis could follow Robinson's path at Penn State. Maybe Ohio State's Devin Smith gets there. Will one of Michigan State's receivers -- Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge, Keith Mumphery -- separate from the pack? Maybe one of the spring standouts -- Iowa's Derrick Willies, Illinois' Geronimo Allison or Mikey Dudek, Michigan's Freddy Canteen -- has a true breakout season.
We're taking a closer look, roundtable-style, at the Big Ten's draft: how certain teams did, the risers, the falls and more. Noted draft hater Brian Bennett is somewhere in Italy, so Big Ten reporters Mitch Sherman, Josh Moyer and Austin Ward are kind enough to join me in breaking down the draft.
The draft roundtable is on the clock ...
Moyer: Penn State had just three players drafted, so what really stood out to me was how divided the opinion was on Allen Robinson, who was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round. At times, he was a projected first-rounder. At other times, he wasn't projected to go until Day 3. Some lauded the Jags' pick; others labeled it a reach. Let me add my two cents: He's going to succeed in the NFL. I spoke with two former PSU and NFL wideouts, O.J. McDuffie and Kenny Jackson, and they both said last season that A-Rob boasts more physical skills than they ever did. That has to count for something.
Sherman: NFL organizations continue to rate Nebraska defensive backs highly. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second round to the Saints) was the 11th draftee from the secondary in the past 10 years. Since 2003, though, just two Nebraska offensive players, including new Redskins guard Spencer Long, have landed in the top three rounds. Receiver Quincy Enunwa, despite technical shortcomings, offers value to the Jets as a sixth-round pick. As expected, all others, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, had to take the free-agency route.
Ward: Ohio State has long been a pipeline for the next level, but it had actually been three years since it had produced any first-round picks until Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby on Thursday night. The Buckeyes followed that up with four more players being selected, which suggests the talent level is starting to get back to the level the program is accustomed to after going through a bit of a down stretch. It seems a bit backward that two guys from a beleaguered defense were the top picks while the record-setting offense wasn't represented until Carlos Hyde and Jack Mewhort were grabbed in the second round, but either way the Buckeyes appear to be back as a favored target for NFL organizations.
Turning our attention to the entire Big Ten, which player surprised you by how high he was drafted, and which player surprised you with how far he fell in the draft?
Rittenberg: I was a little surprised to see Michael Schofield go before the end of Day 2. We knew Michigan’s poor offensive line play wouldn’t impact Taylor Lewan, but I thought it might make teams hesitant about selecting Schofield. He’s a good player who enters a great situation in Denver. Another Big Ten offensive lineman on a struggling unit, Purdue’s Kevin Pamphile, surprised me with how early he went. I didn't see Darqueze Dennard, the nation’s most decorated cornerback on arguably the nation’s best defense last season, dropping to No. 24 overall. Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Ohio State’s Hyde went later than I thought they would.
Sherman: Long's rise to the third round surprised me after he missed the final six games of his senior season with a knee injury that kept him out of the combine and limited him at Nebraska's pro day. I pegged the former walk-on as a fifth- or sixth-round pick. And I thought Lewan might slip past the first 15 picks because of character questions from a pair of off-field incidents at Michigan. Conversely, I thought Borland’s exemplary résumé at Wisconsin might propel him into the top 50 picks. At No. 77 to the 49ers he's a steal.
Ward: There really weren't guys who made shocking jumps up the board in my mind, though Ohio State safety Christian Bryant sneaking into the seventh round was a feel-good story after he missed the majority of his senior season with a fractured ankle. The Big Ten also had a handful of first-round caliber players slide to the second day, so Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Hyde or Penn State's Robinson all qualified as minor surprises -- and great values for their new teams.
Moyer: How many people thought Dezmen Southward would be the first Badger drafted? I sure didn't. The Atlanta Falcons scooped him up early in the third round, and they probably could've snagged him two rounds later. As far as guys who fell, I expected both Latimer and Dennard to go sooner. They didn't free-fall, but you kept hearing before the draft how those two improved their stock -- and then Latimer nearly fell to the third round, anyway.
Ward: General managers and coaches might view running backs as easily replaceable in this new era in the NFL, but the league’s most recent champion offered another reminder of how important it is to have a productive rushing attack and an elite tailback. Hyde hasn’t proven anything at the next level yet, so comparing him with Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is a bit premature. But Hyde has all the physical tools to be a star, from his well-built frame to his often overlooked speed, and he's going to a team in San Francisco that has a system that will put him in position to thrive.
Rittenberg: Southward’s high selection surprised me, too, but the other four Wisconsin players -- Borland, Jared Abbrederis, running back James White and nose tackle Beau Allen -- all are good value pickups. White is an extremely versatile player who might never be a featured back but can block, catch passes and do whatever his coaches need. Allen gained great experience as a nose tackle last fall. I think the New York Jets get a sixth-round steal in Enunwa, whose blocking skills should help him get on the field. Big Ten coaches loved DaQuan Jones, who looks like a nice value pickup for Tennessee in the fourth round.
Sherman: I'll place Robinson (second round to Jacksonville) and Abbrederis (fifth to Green Bay) together in a category of undervalued Big Ten receivers. Perhaps it illustrates a general stigma about offensive skill players from the conference; throw second-rounders Latimer and Hyde into the discussion, too. NFL decision-makers might not respect the competition these players face on a weekly basis and count it against them in evaluations. If so, that’s a big problem for the Big Ten.
The Big Ten had eight more players drafted this year than in 2013, but its champion, Michigan State, had only one selection. What does this say about the league and its trajectory?
Sherman: After 2012, the Big Ten presumably had nowhere to go but up in producing quality prospects. The influx of Urban Meyer-recruited talent will soon impact the Big Ten in the draft. Same goes for Brady Hoke, even if he’s not making gains in the standings. Penn State and Nebraska, too, are upgrading their talent, so the trajectory figures to continue upward. As for Michigan State, it was young on offense and clearly better than the sum of its parts on defense, a testament to Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi. The absence in the draft of Max Bullough and Denicos Allen caught me off guard.
Moyer: Having more picks shows the Big Ten is on the right track ... but it still has a long way to go. Yes, it improved on last year -- but it still finished behind the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34) this year, in terms of players drafted. As far as Michigan State, I think their success serves as a reminder that the right coaching and the right schemes can still trump a roster full of NFL-caliber players. Penn State's success during the sanctions also helps to reinforce that.
Ward: It's another reminder of how well-coached the Spartans were a year ago, particularly in turning a defense that had just one player drafted into the nation’s best unit. Dantonio deserves another bow for the job he and his staff did a year ago, even if they didn’t have much to celebrate during the draft. The league does seem to be on the rise again in the minds of top athletes around the country with Meyer, Hoke and now James Franklin upping the ante on the recruiting trail. Those efforts should produce even better weekends than the one that just wrapped up.
Rittenberg: It says something when arguably the best Big Ten team in the past seven or eight years -- MSU had nine double-digit league wins plus the Rose Bowl triumph -- produces only one draft pick. Still, I think the arrow is pointed up after a horrendous 2013 draft. The Big Ten has struggled to produce elite prospects at both cornerback and wide receiver in recent years. This year, the league had three corners drafted in the first two rounds, and while I agree the Big Ten's wide receivers were undervalued, the league still produced five picks. The next step is obvious: generating better quarterback play as no Big Ten QBs were drafted this year.
After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.
Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).
FIRST ROUND (4)
- No. 11: Michigan OT Taylor Lewan, Tennessee Titans
- No. 15: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers
- No. 24: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard, Cincinnati Bengals
- No. 31: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby, Denver Broncos
SECOND ROUND (6)
- No. 37: Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Atlanta Falcons
- No. 56: Indiana WR Cody Latimer, Denver Broncos
- No. 57: Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
- No. 58: Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, New Orleans Saints
- No. 59: Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort, Indianapolis Colts
- No. 61: Penn State WR Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
THIRD ROUND (6)
- No. 65: Iowa TE C.J Fiedorowicz, Houston Texans
- No. 68: Wisconsin S Dezmen Southward, Atlanta Falcons
- No. 71: Iowa LB Christian Kirksey, Cleveland Browns
- No. 77: Wisconsin LB Chris Borland, San Francisco 49ers
- No. 78: Nebraska G Spencer Long, Washington Redskins
- No. 95: Michigan OT Michael Schofield, Denver Broncos
FOURTH ROUND (4)
- No. 112: Penn State DT DaQuan Jones, Tennessee Titans
- No. 119: Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens, Dallas Cowboys
- No. 130: Wisconsin RB James White, New England Patriots
- No. 131: Minnesota S Brock Vereen, Chicago Bears
FIFTH ROUND (5)
- No. 147: Purdue CB Ricardo Allen, Atlanta Falcons
- No. 149: Purdue OT Kevin Pamphile, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- No. 161: Ohio State C Corey Linsley, Green Bay Packers
- No. 175: Penn State G John Urschel, Baltimore Ravens
- No. 176: Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis, Green Bay Packers
SIXTH ROUND (1)
SEVENTH ROUND (4)
- No. 217: Indiana TE Ted Bolser, Washington Redskins
- No. 224: Wisconsin NT Beau Allen, Philadelphia Eagles
- No. 241: Ohio State S Christian Bryant, St. Louis Rams
- No. 244: Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon, New England Patriots
Here are the draft picks per B1G team:
Ohio State: 6
Penn State: 3
Michigan State: 1
The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.
Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.
But which Big Ten team will produce the most picks during the seven rounds? That's the subject of today's poll question.
Illinois led Big Ten teams with only four draft picks in 2013, followed by four teams with three selections. I'd be surprised if this year's Big Ten leader has only four players selected, but we'll see.
The candidates ...
Iowa: The Hawkeyes lack top-line prospects, but they typically do well in the NFL draft. Iowa produced six picks in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 drafts -- only one, cornerback Micah Hyde, last year -- and has generated 52 picks during the Kirk Ferentz era. Linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey, and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz lead Iowa's draft contingent.
Michigan State: Cornerback Darqueze Dennard might be the first Big Ten player off the board, but he won't be the only Spartan. Several other Michigan State defenders, including linebacker Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, are likely draft picks.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes have had at least three players drafted in every draft since 1999, and they could produce a large haul this year. Linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby are potential first-rounders, and bruising running back Carlos Hyde -- plus several offensive linemen -- should follow.
Penn State: Since being shut out of the 2005 draft, Penn State has had multiple selections in each subsequent draft and three or more selections six times. Wide receiver Allen Robinson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones are likely second-day picks, and others, like guard John Urschel, should hear their names called as well.
Wisconsin: The Badgers have had multiple players selected in each of the past six drafts and at least four players picked 10 times since 2000. Although Wisconsin's streak of first-round picks likely will end at three tonight, linebacker Chris Borland and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis lead a group that could add up by the end of the week.
It's time to vote.
We begin with Wisconsin.
Three things we learned in the spring
- The quarterback race is down to two: Wisconsin entered spring practice with four candidates and reduced the pool by 50 percent. Joel Stave, who has started 19 games the past two seasons, missed much of the session with a throwing shoulder injury. Stave will compete this summer with Tanner McEvoy, a junior-college transfer who played safety and wide receiver for parts of last season. McEvoy looked sharper this spring at quarterback and brings a run threat to the pocket. D.J. Gillins likely will redshirt, while Bart Houston remains in a reserve role.
- The coaches aren't afraid to take chances: Gary Andersen and his staff shuffled pieces on both sides of the ball, especially on defense, where they want more speed on the field. Most players saw time at multiple positions, and several young players put themselves in position for significant playing time, including redshirt freshmen defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, safety Austin Hudson and center Michael Deiter.
- Melvin Gordon and Derek Landisch are the leaders: Gordon, the All-Big Ten running back who turned down the NFL for another year at Wisconsin, not only is the team's best player, but much more of a leader. He talked openly this spring about elevating Wisconsin to elite status and the initial College Football Playoff. Landisch, the only returning starter in the defensive front seven, is the undisputed leader of the defense and takes the torch from Chris Borland.
- Who emerges at wide receiver?: The Badgers lose a huge piece in Jared Abbrederis and went through most of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. Although senior Kenzel Doe is stepping up, many others must emerge in the summer. Alex Erickson returns from injury and Jordan Frederick and Robert Wheelwright will be in the mix, but Wisconsin needs at least two of its five incoming freshmen wideouts to contribute. Keep an eye on Dareian Watkins.
- The starting quarterback: Unlike other Big Ten spring quarterback competitions, Wisconsin ended the session with no obvious leader. Stave's injury made it tough to gauge his progress, and the limited number of receivers made the passing game look worse than it probably will be. McEvoy has a great opportunity to win the job, especially with the coaches looking for more mobility at the position. This race likely will last well into camp.
- Defensive playmakers: Borland's loss not only hurts Wisconsin in production, but playmaking ability. No one defender can replace what Borland brought, so the Badgers need several to improve during the summer months. Leon Jacobs moved from outside linebacker to inside and has the speed to be a difference-maker. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton had four interceptions as a freshman, and the coaches are counting on players such as linebacker Joe Schobert and linemen Obasih, James, Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring.
McEvoy will be the starter by Big Ten play, if not earlier. Andersen's recruiting suggests he values dual-threat quarterbacks more than his Wisconsin predecessors, and the potential concerns at wide receiver accentuate the need for another backfield weapon alongside Gordon and Corey Clement. McEvoy must continue to develop as a passer, but his athleticism trumps Stave, who struggled for stretches last season despite having an elite target in Abbrederis.
MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.
Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.
The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.
But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.
"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.
"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."
Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.
Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.
"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."
Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.
Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.
"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."
The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.
Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.
"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."
The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.
Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.
"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."
There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.
“"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.
When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.” -- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."
The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.
If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.
"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."
Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.
The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.
It's the type of image college football fans covet but can't always count on: their team's best player being the last to leave the practice field. In this way, Wisconsin fans are spoiled with their recent running backs. Montee Ball set records on fall Saturdays, but he was even better, teammates and coaches say, during practices. James White forged a 4,015-yard, 48-touchdown Badgers career on production, versatility and unselfishness. Those qualities showed up every time he practiced.
But on this day, as afternoon spills into evening, Gordon works on catching passes. He recorded only one reception in 2013 and has just three in his career.
"I always try to do a little something after practice," Gordon told ESPN.com. "People ask me what specific thing I'm working on, what one thing, but as a back, you have to work on everything, feel like everything is your weakness and make it a strength."
There is a next level for Gordon. He sees it. If there wasn't, he would have gone to the next level. Instead, he's back at Wisconsin, hoping to take the program to the next level.
Gordon finalized his decision in December before receiving a grade from the NFL draft advisory board. He was projected as a second-round pick and could have climbed higher with a strong pre-draft showing.
"It was very clear what Melvin wanted to do," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "He wanted to come back. He never seemed one bit distracted, nor has he seemed one bit distracted since that time. If you ask Melvin right now, it's clear-cut for him: He wants to be in a position to help the team reach a high level of elite football, and be the featured tailback.
"That is his goal."
Gordon specified his objective last week on a conference call with reporters.
"I want to get our team to the playoff," he said. "I have a paper posted on my wall of the College Football Playoff. I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman, people talk about that, I don't really feel like that's important. The goal right now is a national championship.
"Wisconsin's never had one before, so that's my goal and that's our team goal."
Gordon undoubtedly will enter the Heisman picture if he builds upon a sophomore season that included 1,609 rush yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. He led the nation and set a team record in yards per rush (7.81). With a career average of 8.1 yards per rush, he needs just 12 attempts to set the Big Ten record held by former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter (7.27 YPR).
"Melvin plays so well with the ball in his hands," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "This spring, he's had great opportunities playing without the ball, and has made the most of those opportunities."
The reduced role posed a challenge at times. Wide receiver Kenzel Doe, one of Gordon's best friends, said Gordon often told him, "Man, I know they don't want me to get the reps, but I want to be out there so bad."
Gordon maximized the reps he received during practice and stayed after to work more.
"Montee always told me, 'Practice is harder than games,'" Gordon said. "Everything you do in practice, you get to the game, you’ll be in the same situation, and you'll be able to make that cut. You practice how you play. I believe in that."
Gordon has known he would be back at Wisconsin for four months. Three of those months have featured incessant NFL draft coverage, from the scouting combine to pro days to individual workouts to daily rumors. A later draft means three more weeks of chatter.
You wouldn't blame a player who easily could be part of the process for completely tuning it out. But Gordon watches "all of it." He loves the NFL Network as much as the next draftnik.
"When they're talking about this running back or that one, you can't help but think about it," Gordon said of his potential pro path. "It's human nature. But you can't dwell on it too much. When you give your commitment, that's what it is. You can't go back, even if you wanted to."
Andersen doesn't undersell what Gordon's return means. "Huge," he said, "is probably not a big enough word." Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver after losing Jared Abbrederis and remains unsettled at quarterback coming out of the spring.
No matter who lines up under center, the unit will lean on Gordon and Clement, who Andersen calls Wisconsin's two best offensive players. At times, they'll play together. Other times, they'll spell one another. Gordon and White formed the most productive single-season rushing tandem in NCAA history last fall (3,053 yards), and hopes are high that Clement complements Gordon just as well, if not better.
But Gordon returned to be the lead ball carrier, to be more involved in the pass game, to be a complete player and a better leader. He'll reach the next level soon enough.
He wants to get Wisconsin there first.
"His mentality is, 'I came back for a reason,'" Doe said. "He has that eagerness to win, so he's going to do whatever he has to do."
First up, two teams who play for a giant axe: Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Series: First meeting in 1890. Minnesota leads 58-57-8; Wisconsin leads 39-24-3 since Paul Bunyan's Axe was introduced in 1948.
Last meeting: Wisconsin beat Minnesota 20-7 on Nov. 23, 2013, at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis
The streak: Wisconsin has won the past 10 meetings, dating back to 2004. It's the longest win streak for either team in the series. Minnesota's last win was a 37-34 triumph in 2003 at the Metrodome. The Badgers have claimed 17 of the past 19 meetings.
Next meeting: Minnesota visits Wisconsin on Nov. 29
The skinny: The gap between the longtime rivals seems to be closing a bit as coach Jerry Kill has guided Minnesota to consecutive bowl appearances and a historic Big Ten win streak last season. Wisconsin isn't on the decline by any means, although the Badgers are replacing a lot of key pieces right now, including linebacker Chris Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. Both teams have some competition at quarterback this spring, although it would be a surprise if Mitch Leidner doesn't get the nod at Minnesota. Joel Stave is by far Wisconsin's most experienced signal-caller, but he'll be pushed by Bart Houston and possibly Tanner McEvoy. Both teams also are reloading a bit in the defensive front seven, especially Wisconsin.
Melvin Gordon and promising sophomore Corey Clement, while Minnesota should have four good ball-carrying options, including David Cobb, a 1,200-yard rusher in 2013 and decorated freshman Jeff Jones. The Badgers benefit from a favorable Big Ten schedule that doesn't include Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. They could be playing for a West Division title when Minnesota visits Camp Randall Stadium. The Gophers, meanwhile, are fed up with their continued struggles in the series, as we saw in last season's chop-stop attempt at TCF Bank Stadium.
The (very early) prediction: We'll see another competitive game, but Minnesota's wait to end the streak will last another year. The Badgers will have more to play for, home-field advantage and the memory of last senior's senior day stinker in their minds. Both teams will run the ball well, but Gordon has a big day and scores the game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes in what likely will be his final home game as a Badger.
- Penn State WR Allen Robinson: The two-time Big Ten receiver of the year left early for the NFL and left Christian Hackenberg without his favorite target. Watch the video here.
- Michigan LT Taylor Lewan: In case you didn't notice, the Wolverines' offensive line wasn't very good last season, and that was with an All-American left tackle. Lewan will likely be a top 15 NFL draft pick. Watch the video here.
- Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis: The former walk-on-turned-superstar was the Badgers' only real threat at wideout the past two years, leaving a gaping hole at the position. Watch the video here.
- Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier: Where oh where would the Buckeyes' defense -- and its underachieving linebacker unit -- have been without Shazier last season? The Buckeyes might have to find out this spring. Watch the video here.
- Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: While the Spartans know how to reload on defense, it's never easy to replace a player the caliber of Dennard, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Watch the video here.
Vote now in our poll.
Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig doesn't mince words when sizing up the team's quarterback situation.
"I look forward to a very competitive spring," Ludwig told ESPN.com, "and look for major improvement out of the position."
He's 13-6 as Wisconsin's starter, a record that could be better if he didn't leave two games (Michigan State in 2012, the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 against South Carolina) with injuries. Although Stave struggled at times last season with his accuracy, he still completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.
Stave has 455 career pass attempts and 3,598 career pass yards. The other quarterbacks on the roster? One career pass attempt for eight yards, supplied by Bart Houston last season.
Ludwig might be candid about the competition and his expectations, but he also makes it clear where Stave stands.
"It's Joel's position, he's the returning starter," Ludwig said. "But like every position on the field, we're going to let the guys compete. Let the best man win."
Houston, junior Tanner McEvoy and early enrollee freshman D.J. Gillins will have an opportunity to push Stave this spring, especially early on, as Stave will be limited by a right (throwing) shoulder injury sustained in the bowl game. Stave, who started light passing several weeks ago but hasn't thrown deep passes yet, won't work as much with the first-team unit during the six practices before spring break.
Ludwig plans to initially divide reps equally between Houston, McEvoy and Gillins, and then distribute them based on performance. He will reduce the candidate pool from four to three by the end of the spring, setting up more competition in fall camp.
The situation is hardly new at Wisconsin, which has had quarterback races in five of the past six offseasons.
"Joel, he has the experience, he's confirmed it for two years," McEvoy said. "He's going in as the No. 1 guy. But just like any other position, there's going to be competition."
Houston boasts the strongest arm of the group, and both McEvoy and Gillins bring intriguing dual-threat skills not typically seen at Wisconsin. But Stave remains the frontrunner to lead the offense Aug. 30 against LSU.
"Joel did so many good things last year, but we've got to complete two or three more passes a game," Ludwig said. "Those are the ones that jump out at you, the ones that are the pitch-and-catch type of plays. Just looking for a higher level of repetitive accuracy."
Those passes, according to Stave, separated a good season from being a great one. He'll have to make up the difference this season without top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who had twice as many receptions (78) as any Badger in 2013.
But the fourth-year junior has both a massive edge experience and the benefit of playing in the same system for the second season -- a first in his career.
"It's not starting from ground zero again, "Stave said. "I really like the offense that Coach Ludwig has brought. The terminology and everything, it's something that I've run and I'm comfortable with, and I'll continue to get more comfortable."
If Stave or Houston wins the starting job, Wisconsin's offensive structure will look much like it has in previous years, heavy on tailback runs and play-action passes. But both McEvoy, who competed for the quarterback job last summer before eventually moving to safety, and Gillins add dimensions with their speed.
Some think Wisconsin's second-year coaching staff is more inclined to use an offense featuring mobility at quarterback. Ludwig said the "nuts and bolts" of Wisconsin's offense aren't changing, but he recognizes the benefits of mobility.
"The ability to throw the forward pass is absolute first and foremost in our priorities," he said. "The athleticism dimension is just a huge plus, to extend plays, to make plays with your feet. I always say if you can throw it, the better athlete you have throwing it, the better chances you have for a play to be successful."
“McEvoy's athleticism could help his case, although he'll have to display better accuracy than he did last summer. To be fair, he entered the competition well behind the others and will benefit from a full year in the program.
It's Joel's position, he's the returning starter. But like every position on the field, we're going to let the guys compete. Let the best man win.” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig on the Badgers' QB competition.
The 6-6, 223-pound McEvoy spent most of the season at safety, recording 27 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups, but he regularly communicated with the quarterbacks.
"It's always nice to have another year under your belt," McEvoy said. "I'll know more going into this season. It will definitely be different than last [summer]."
Ludwig has seen significant changes in McEvoy since he first arrived on campus.
"He's a completely different person," Ludwig said. "He knows the inner workings of Badger football, he knows his teammates, he’s grown up significantly, so he's got a little different demeanor about him.
"He wants to be a quarterback, so we're going to give him that chance."
Houston, who has the most experience behind Stave, also has an opportunity to "demonstrate mastery of the offense," Ludwig said. Gillins, meanwhile, is a decorated recruit who has generated buzz among Wisconsin fans.
"He shouldn't have to worry about trying to become the No. 1 quarterback in the spring," Ludwig said. "He's just got to learn what to do, and it will be pedal to the metal into fall camp. He's come in with a tremendous work ethic and attitude.
"He wants to be the guy."
For now, Stave is the guy, and he enters the spring believing the starting job belongs to him. Because of his throwing restrictions, he'll focus more on footwork and getting rid of the ball quicker.
"I know there's improvement to be made, not just with me but the entire offense," Stave said. "We can be better, and a lot of that runs through the quarterback.
"I've taken a lot of pride to continue to get better."
Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.
Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.
Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.
Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.
Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.
Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.
Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.
Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.
Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.
Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.
Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).
Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
- Ohio State CB Bradley Roby finished seventh in the 40-yard dash at 4.39 seconds.
- Ohio State C Corey Linsley tied for second in bench-press repetitions with 36; Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman tied for 10th with 32.
- Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier ranked first in the vertical jump at 42 inches; Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste finished second at 41.5 inches.
- Shazier ranked sixth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 10 inches; Jean-Baptiste tied for 10th at 10-8.
- Penn State WR Allen Robinson tied for ninth in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.0 seconds.
- Robinson tied for ninth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.36 seconds; Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis finished 12th at 11.39 seconds.
Safeties: Minnesota's Brock Vereen finished second in the 40-yard dash (4.47 seconds), first in bench-press repetitions (25), tied for 10th in vertical jump (34 inches), tied for 10th in broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), second in three-cone drill (6.9 seconds) and second in 20-yard shuttle (4.07 seconds); Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis finished 11th in the 40-yard dash (4.6 seconds), tied for seventh in bench-press repetitions (15), tied for third in vertical jump (36.5 inches), fourth in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches), tied for seventh in three-cone drill (7.05 seconds) and 11th in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds).
Linemen: Minnesota's Hageman tied for third in bench-press repetitions (32), tied for seventh in vertical jump (35.5 inches) and tied for 14th in broad jump (9 feet, 6 inches).
Linebackers: Iowa's Anthony Hitchens finished 15th in the 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds), tied for 11th in bench-press reps (23) and tied for seventh in three-cone drill (7.15 seconds); Michigan State's Max Bullough tied for first in bench-press reps (30), finished 15th in three-cone drill (7.22 seconds) and tied for 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.3 seconds); Wisconsin's Chris Borland finished fifth in bench-press repetitions (27), 14th in three-cone drill (7.18 seconds) and 12th in 20-yard shuttle (4.27 seconds); Ohio State's Shazier tied for eighth in bench-press reps (25), finished first in vertical jump (42 inches), first in broad jump (10 feet, 10 inches), fifth in three-cone drill (6.91 seconds) and ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.21 seconds); Iowa's James Morris tied for 14th in vertical jump (34.5 inches) and seventh in three-cone drill (6.94 seconds); Iowa's Christian Kirksey tied for fifth in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches).
Cornerbacks: Ohio State's Roby tied for fourth in 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds), tied for seventh in bench-press reps (17), tied for sixth in vertical jump (38.5 inches), tied for ninth in broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches) and tied for fifth in 20-yard shuttle (4.04 seconds); Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard tied for 13th in 40-yard dash (4.51 seconds) and tied for 13th in bench-press reps (15); Nebraska's Jean-Baptiste finished first in vertical jump (41.5 inches) and tied for third in broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches); Purdue's Ricardo Allen finished ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.15 seconds).
There were some good performances from Big Ten defenders, particularly from the Ohio State pair of Shazier and Roby, but also from Minnesota's Vereen and Nebraska's Jean-Baptiste, who both likely helped their draft stock. On offense, Penn State's Robinson certainly stood out, along with Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan and Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Check out all of ESPN.com's NFL draft coverage here.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
- 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
- Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
- Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
- Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
- Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
- Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
- Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
- Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
- Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
- Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
- Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
- Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
- Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
- New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.