Big Ten: Jay Thomas

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams preparing for the second round of league games.

Illinois: Head coach Ron Zook will increase his rotation on defense after the Illini dropped to last place in the Big Ten in points allowed (32 ppg). Linebackers Russell Ellington and Sam Carson and safety Donsay Hardeman all are expected to see more plays Saturday at Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Zook has some versatility with Travon Bellamy, who can play both safety and cornerback. The coach attributed Illinois' run-stopping struggles (182.5 ypg allowed) to the back half as the team tries to overcome the losses of All-American middle linebacker J Leman and talented safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison. "I don't foresee starting lineup changes," Zook said, "but I do see guys that are going to be held accountable. ... We're going to play more guys and our job is to make sure we fix it."

Michigan State: Defensive back Kendell Davis-Clark could be back soon after missing the last four games with a shoulder injury. Davis-Clark's return presents some interesting decisions for head coach Mark Dantonio, who originally shifted Davis-Clark from cornerback to safety after Roderick Jenrette was asked to take a leave of absence from the team. Danny Fortener replaced Davis-Clark in the season opener at Cal and has performed well, ranking second on the team in tackles (29) with three pass break-ups and an interception. Davis-Clark, who started 11 games at cornerback last season, is listed behind Fortener on the depth chart for Saturday's game against Iowa (ESPN2, noon ET).

Minnesota: The Gophers continue to list three players as possible starters at running back on this week's depth chart, but head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged that freshman DeLeon Eskridge has taken the lead. Eskridge racked up a team-high 131 all-purpose yards in Minnesota's league-opening loss to Ohio State last week. With five touchdowns, he's already halfway to reaching Minnesota's freshman record of 10 set by Laurence Maroney in 2003. Another freshman, Shady Salamon, and junior Jay Thomas also remain in the mix for playing time. "If you had to say one of three guys stepped out, you'd say DeLeon Eskridge," Brewster said. "The other two guys will definitely continue to play some."

Ohio State: Aside from left tackle Alex Boone, none of the spots on Ohio State's offensive line are set in stone. True freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center, but Jim Cordle could move back over from guard if necessary. Cordle and a healthy Steve Rehring are listed as co-starters at left guard. Right tackle Bryant Browning also can play a guard spot, and Rehring is a possibility at tackle. Freshmen tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams also could be the mix at some point as much-needed competition increases up front.

Purdue: The Boilers' spread offense is at its best with a large rotation of receivers, and they're starting to see more playmakers emerge. Senior Desmond Tardy is listed as a starter on this week's depth chart ahead of junior Keith Smith after catching 10 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown last week against Notre Dame. Purdue also has seen encouraging moments from junior college transfer Aaron Valentin. Head coach Joe Tiller wants to see more from his other juco wideout, Arsenio Curry, who brings excellent size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) but has yet to catch a pass. Tight end remains a question mark, as starter Kyle Adams is doubtful for Saturday's game against Penn State. Adams hasn't played since he hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the season opener.

Big Ten internal affairs

September, 24, 2008
9/24/08
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams as they prepare for the start of league play on Saturday.

Illinois -- The defensive line might finally be taking shape for the Illini after some illness/injury issues. Sophomore Josh Brent is back in the fold at defensive tackle, which has allowed standout Will Davis to move back to his natural position of defensive end. Freshman Cory Liuget also has emerged at defensive tackle, a spot vacated when projected starter Sirod Williams tore his ACL during training camp. "It's important that we can [rotate] guys in there and keep us fresh," head coach Ron Zook said. Zook called the defensive line the team's strength before the season, but the group will need to elevate its play Saturday night against Penn State's powerful rushing attack, which ranks eighth nationally (274.3 ypg).

Indiana -- When the NCAA cleared Florida transfer Jerimy Finch to play this season, Indiana's secondary looked like one of the deepest groups on the team. That depth will be tested Saturday against Michigan State (ESPN, noon ET). The Hoosiers will be without at least one starting safety (Nick Polk, knee) and could miss their other starter, as strong safety Austin Thomas is questionable for the game with a lower leg injury. Coach Bill Lynch announced that starting cornerback Chris Phillips will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. So the Hoosiers could be replacing three starters against the Spartans. Finch figures to see plenty of time.

Michigan -- A bye week allowed Michigan's offensive line time to heal, though a knee injury to tackle Perry Dorrestein last week in practice clouded things a bit. Mark Ortmann is expected back from a dislocated elbow and should rotate at left tackle with Dorrestein if Dorrestein can play. Left tackle is one of three offensive line spots that have an "OR" listed between potential starters on the depth chart. Converted defensive lineman John Ferrara could start at right guard in place of David Moosman, who is listed at both guard and center on the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Mark Huyge also should be back from an ankle injury, so the coaches have some decisions to make up front.

Minnesota -- True freshman running back DeLeon Eskridge has stepped up in the two games after Duane Bennett's knee injury, but coach Tim Brewster isn't quite ready to call Eskridge his featured back. Brewster said Eskridge, freshman Shady Salamon and junior Jay Thomas all will play Saturday at No. 14 Ohio State, and Minnesota will stick with whoever has the hot hand. The coach admitted that identifying a clear-cut starter has become less of a concern than it was after Bennett went down. Eskridge has 192 rushing yards and five touchdowns the last two games.

Ohio State -- Quarterback isn't the only offensive position where youth will be served Saturday against Minnesota. Freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center on this week's depth chart after playing a prominent role last week against Troy. The Buckeyes moved Jim Cordle from center to left guard after Steve Rehring injured his foot against USC. Rehring will miss "another week or so," coach Jim Tressel said, so that means more time for Brewster, one of several heralded freshmen in Ohio State's recruiting class.

Big Ten picks for Week 3

September, 11, 2008
9/11/08
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

This week needs no introduction. It boasts an excellent selection of games around the Big Ten, certain to destroy my nearly spotless season record. Two matchups with the Pac-10 and another with a non-BCS power from the West Coast headline the slate, which will largely determine public opinion about the Big Ten until the bowl season.

Expect a bunch of offense on Saturday, except in South Bend.

Michigan State 44, Florida Atlantic 23 -- Rusty Smith and the Owls offense will test the Spartans, who need their line to generate pressure and their patchwork secondary to hold together. But Florida Atlantic's defense has looked awful so far and it's only a matter of time before Javon Ringer gets going again. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and wideouts Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham should have big games as well.

Minnesota 45, Montana State 14 -- The audition to replace running back Duane Bennett begins as Minnesota gets a long look at junior Jay Thomas and freshmen DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon. The Gophers lost to a FCS team (North Dakota State) last year, but quarterback Adam Weber won't let it happen again. Montana State running back Demetrius Crawford tests Minnesota's front seven.

Illinois 55, Louisiana-Lafayette 24 -- Until Illinois' defensive line starts playing to its potential and stopping the run, teams will continue to put up points. Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Michael Desormeaux is very dangerous on the move, so linebackers Brit Miller and Martez Wilson need to track him. Juice Williams continues to put up huge numbers against an overmatched defense.

Northwestern 37, Southern Illinois 21 -- C.J. Bacher and his receivers regain their timing against a Salukis defense that gave up 31 points to Hampton in the opener. More importantly, running back Tyrell Sutton gets on track after cramps limited him against Duke. Running back Larry Warner and the SIU offense should keep things close for a while, but Northwestern pulls away in the third quarter.

Iowa 31, Iowa State 21 -- The home team has won the last four Cy-Hawk Trophies, and though the Hawkeyes haven't been tested this fall, they'll prevail at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa State's struggles to defend the run hurts against blossoming back Shonn Greene. Expect an early hiccup for quarterback Ricky Stanzi, but Iowa's acknowledged starter settles down in the second quarter.

Penn State 51, Syracuse 10 -- Syracuse has a big weekend on tap with the premiere of "The Express," a film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis. The actual game will be the lowlight. Syracuse allowed 42 points to Akron at home last week, and Penn State provides a much tougher test. Daryll Clark, Evan Royster and Stephfon Green run all around the Carrier Dome.

Oregon 44, Purdue 31 -- This will be a shootout for a while before Oregon pulls away on the field and on the scoreboard. Purdue's coaches gushed all week about the Ducks' team speed, and it will take a phenomenal game plan from defensive coordinator Brock Spack to keep Oregon in check, especially with his fastest linebacker, Jason Werner, sidelined. Joe Tiller's record-setting win will have to wait a week.

Michigan 21, Notre Dame 10 -- The Wolverines' veteran defensive line is the difference against a still shaky Fighting Irish offensive front. Jimmy Clausen won't spend as much time on the ground as he did last year in Ann Arbor, but Michigan defensive end Tim Jamison should cause some havoc. Quarterback Steven Threet makes a few mistakes before moving the ball with short passes, and a Michigan running back breaks a long touchdown run.

USC 31, Ohio State 24 -- The Buckeyes perform better than many expect, but there are just too many factors going against them. USC never loses in L.A. -- at least not to formidable opponents -- and the bye week should benefit the Trojans. Ohio State's defense generates an early turnover, but the offense won't be able to keep up for four quarters without a fully healthy Chris "Beanie" Wells. Terrelle Pryor makes a big play and a bone-headed one, and the Buckeyes' national title hopes fade -- at least for now.

Wisconsin 28, Fresno State 27 -- I had Fresno State winning this game until a conversation Tuesday night with a Wisconsin player (check back Friday to see who he was). The Bulldogs certainly provide an incredible challenge, but the Badgers avoid another slow start and start pounding away with their running backs. All-American tight end Travis Beckum makes his debut and comes up with a big catch or two in the fourth quarter as Wisconsin survives.

Bye: Indiana

Season record: 19-2

Big Ten internal affairs

September, 10, 2008
9/10/08
10:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Injuries are cropping up around the league, and coaches are shuffling pieces to try to find the right fit. Here's a look at five key issues in the Big Ten.

Minnesota -- Just when the Golden Gophers found a viable running threat, they received news that Duane Bennett tore his ACL against Bowling Green and will miss the rest of the season. Coach Tim Brewster will audition three players -- junior Jay Thomas and freshmen Shady Salamon and DeLeon Eskridge -- at the running back spot in hopes of identifying a featured back. The Gophers need more than one capable runner, but Brewster doesn't want a rotation there. Though Thomas has by far the most experience, Eskridge and Salamon are listed behind Bennett on this week's depth chart.

Michigan State -- The Spartans apparently no longer have cornerbacks or safeties, just general defensive backs. Before the season, coach Mark Dantonio moved starting corner Kendell Davis-Clark to safety after projected starter Roderick Jenrette took a leave of absence. Dantonio now is considering switching another starting cornerback, Ross Weaver, to safety after Davis-Clark sustained a shoulder injury against Cal and missed last week's matchup against Eastern Michigan. Davis-Clark is listed as day-to-day but didn't appear on this week's depth chart for Florida Atlantic.

Ohio State -- Cornerback Donald Washington returns from a two-game suspension Saturday against USC (ABC, 8 p.m. ET), but the two-year starter might not retain his job. Ohio State likely will platoon Washington and sophomore Chimdi Chekwa, who has started the first two games. Coach Jim Tressel also seems intent on keeping Jermale Hines in the mix, possibly at nickel back. Hines should get decent playing time Saturday because the Buckeyes don't know whether linebacker/safety Tyler Moeller will be able to play after suffering an injury.

Michigan -- Redshirt sophomore Perry Dorrestein likely will make his season debut as the Wolverines' starting left tackle Saturday at Notre Dame after Mark Ortmann dislocated his elbow last week. Dorrestein previously had backed up Stephen Schilling at left tackle. Michigan already is without two guards who went down with injuries before the season. Coach Rich Rodriguez expects Bryant Nowicki and true freshman Patrick Omameh to fill in behind Dorrestein on the left flank.

Penn State -- The still-unresolved suspensions of starting defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma and the season-ending injury to Jerome Hayes leave the Nittany Lions in a bit of a bind. Both the end and tackle positions have depth issues, and end might be a greater concern as Penn State doesn't have much behind Josh Gaines and Aaron Maybin. One possibility would be moving true freshman Jack Crawford from tackle to end, though Paterno is leery about Crawford's inexperience. If Crawford switches, it puts more pressure on keeping Jared Odrick, Ollie Ogbu and Tom McEowen healthy.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Ron Scheffler/US Presswire
 Duane Bennett started seven games for the Gophers in 2007.

Duane Bennett is used to people botching his first name. Full disclosure: if a Minnesota official hadn't said, "Here's DOO-on," before a recent interview, I would have been one of them.

"It's a common thing for them to get it wrong when they first meet me," the Minnesota sophomore running back said. "But after I enunciate it and let them know its DOO-on, they kind of catch on."

Bennett notes that the proper pronunciation is always listed in the Gophers media guide and the weekly game notes. Television broadcasters read those -- at least the good ones do -- so they should get it right on the air.

If Bennett makes a jump this fall, his name will be called a lot.

Minnesota's running game was nothing special in 2007, ranking seventh in the Big Ten. Quarterback Adam Weber led the squad in rush yards and a group of running backs beset by injuries (Amir Pinnix, Jay Thomas) and inexperience (Bennett) struggled to get on track.

After coach Tim Brewster benched Pinnix for several costly fumbles, Bennett got his first career start against Ohio State, the Big Ten's top rushing defense. He ended up starting seven games, getting mixed results. He racked up 106 yards against Michigan, becoming the first Gophers true freshman to eclipse 100 yards since Laurence Maroney in 2003. But he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in the other 10 games he played.

"Just knowing the offense is not a good thing," Bennett said. "You've got to understand what everybody's doing, the scheme of things, the routes, why we're calling this protection. Towards the middle and the latter part of the season, I started to understand where I was supposed to be and why I was supposed to be there. It gave me that feel of, 'OK, I understand why I'm important to the offense.'"

Bennett and the other backs will take on more important roles this season.

Though the "spread coast" offense requires a mobile quarterback, Weber also needs reliable runners beside him. Thomas is healthy and freshmen DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon provide depth.

The ingredients are there for a rushing resurgence this fall. Offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar produced five consecutive 1,000-yard rushers at Northwestern and Cal before joining the Gophers, and Minnesota's recent tradition at the position is on full display every Sunday.

"We're trying to not so much get the ball out of Weber's hands, just eliminate those extra hits that Weber's taking," Bennett said. "Those are unnecessary hits. We know he's a tough guy, but for him to be able to last the whole season, we want to take the load off his shoulders."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's the second half of my interview with Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster. (For part I, click here.)

Have the junior college guys set a new tone on defense?

Tim Brewster: We ask this singular question of our players: Are you a great teammate? We spend a lot of time talking about what a great teammate is and team camaraderie and those types of things. We really feel like we're growing together very closely. I just have a really good feel for this group of kids. They genuinely care about each other, and that will take you a long way.

Recruiting is obviously a big part of what you do and have done. What has it been like so far recruiting to Minnesota?

TB: I really felt like this was one of the best-kept secrets in college football, the Twin Cities, the facilities we have here, the facility commitment, brand-new stadium. I think that last season's recruiting success is just the tip of the iceberg. We're going to continue at a very high level each and every year. It's something that's very important to me and our staff. We work really hard at it, and the biggest thing is we really enjoy the recruiting process. Minnesota's not a hard sell at all. Last year, we had 45 kids in on official visits; 31 of them signed scholarships with us. That's over a 72 percent success ratio. That's amazingly high.

Leadership starts with the quarterback spot. How has Adam [Weber] come along in camp and where do you see him progressing?

TB: Adam has got a chance to be one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He's got tremendous physical characteristics. He's got a great mind. He's really adapted well to the spread offense. The thing I'm most excited about is his leadership capability. He's verbalizing leadership, he's really taken command of our football team and in particular, our offense. We had some pretty good numbers last year, but I think we'll be much improved on that side of the ball as well.

Is the running back spot a position you need to get more from? There were some injuries last year and a lot was on Adam's shoulders.

TB: In our offense, the quarterback is a designed runner, so it wasn't by accident that Adam ran so many times. He'll run the ball quite a bit this year as well. We really think Duane Bennett's going to be an outstanding player. We've got some really good young kids: DeLeon Eskridge, Shady Salomon, Jay Thomas comes back healthy. So we think that tailback is going to be a position of strength for us.

Adam and Eric [Decker] developed great chemistry last year. Are some other guys stepping up at wide receiver to provide a second option?

TB: Brandon Green is going to be really an outstanding football player. Brodrick Smith is really making an impact on our team. Xzavian Brandon is doing some nice things. So under the leadership and guidance of Eric Decker, that group is really coming along nicely. We're really going to have to expedite the learning process with those guys because we need 'em from Game 1 to be performers for us.

So in terms of junior-college guys and freshmen playing this fall, are you thinking 15-20 guys?

TB: I don't necessarily put a number on anything. There'll be a lot of new faces, especially on the defensive side of the ball and there'll be some new ones on offense. Collectively, we've got a chance to be a much-improved team.

You've been a little banged up on the offensive line, which has some new starters. How is that group coming along?

TB: The line has really done a nice job. We've got some real workmanlike guys, nothing flashy about those guys. I just really like their work ethic. A young guy, Ryan Orton has really stepped in and played extremely well at left guard. Dom Alford has been a solid Big Ten football player. Ryan Wynn has really done a nice job and Ned Tavale, Chris Bunders. We've got some youthfulness there, but we also have some outstanding talent. It's a nice group.

With the players feeding off your optimism, what are their expectations for the season?

TB: It's hard to say. I think our team is a confident group. They feel good about themselves, and they should. Last season was a very painful one for all of us, but our team, the investment they've made in improving themselves physically, off the field, in the weight room, has been amazing. Summer camp has gone very well. We want to make certain that we honor the game the way we play it. I think our kids are going to do that, without question.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue's media day begins later Thursday morning, and I'll be there to check in with Heisman candidate Curtis Painter, coach-in-waiting Danny Hope and the rest of the Boilers.

First, I give you the links on the other 10 teams. 

  • My appearance at Camp Rantoul made Bob Asmussen's daily practice recap in The [Champaign, Ill.] News-Gazette. Thanks, Bob. Much more newsworthy items include a note on Illinois center Ryan McDonald and the fact several projected starters will appear on special teams this fall. Zook's best recruits at Illinois have come from the Washington, D.C., area, but he's also going back to his Ohio roots for talent. No big secret here, but the 2008 season hinges heavily on quarterback Juice Williams.  
  • Forget about Iowa's history of bouncing back from bad seasons on and off the field. Want a reason to be optimistic about the Hawkeyes? Wide receiver Andy Brodell is back in the fold, Susan Harman writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Brodell is a difference-maker. Forbes magazine calls Iowa's Kirk Ferentz the worst value in college football, given his salary. I still think Iowa had to finalize Ferentz's contract at the time.
"The most overpaid coach is Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who made $3.4 million last year despite lackluster results on the field, for a score of 71. Just how lopsided is Ferentz's deal? During the last three years he's pocketed $10 million, including a record $4.7 million in 2006, but has led the Hawkeyes to just a 19-18 record."
  • Mitchell Evans came to Indiana with an open-minded attitude about where he'd play. The Hoosiers are putting that approach to the test by moving Evans to wide receiver, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. A couple of more previews on Indiana, which wants to get back to a bowl game and win it this time.
  • Rich Rodriguez might not be beloved on the practice field, but he also keeps his door open for his new players, the AP's Larry Lage writes. Nebraska's Bo Pelini isn't the only big-time coach looking to rebuild the walk-on program at his school. RichRod wants all the help he can get, John Heuser writes in The Ann Arbor News. 
  • Michigan State running back A.J. Jimmerson is no stranger to competition at his position, Chris Solari writes in the Lansing State Journal. A nationally televised opener at Cal gives the Spartans a chance to make an early statement, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press.
  • Running back is a big concern at Minnesota, but a healthy Jay Thomas should help matters, Myron Medcalf writes in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. Two years ago, Jeff Tow-Arnett and Adam Weber worked on the quarterback-center exchange as young scout teamers at Minnesota. Now they're in the spotlight as starters, Marcus Fuller writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times' Jim O'Donnell checks in from Camp Kenosha, where Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees his defense improving and his new-look offensive line coming together. The Wildcats' bowl hopes hinge heavily on senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, Jay Taft writes in the Rockford Register Star.
  • Despite two national title misses, Ohio State's coaches aren't concerning themselves with the past, Rob Oller writes in the Columbus Dispatch. Probably a good thing. Defensive tackle could be a weak spot for the Buckeyes, but defensive coordinator Jim Heacock likes what he has, The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog. Buckeyes center Jim Cordle could fool defenders at the line by snapping the ball with both hands, Ken Gordon writes in the Columbus Dispatch.
  • Tyrell Sales is filling some big shoes as Penn State's linebacker leader, Ron Musselman writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The starters look set in Penn State's secondary, but watch out for reserve safety Drew Astorino, The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News' Bob Flounders writes in his blog. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane has a rundown of the improvements at Beaver Stadium this fall.
  • Wisconsin cornerbacks Allen Langford and Aaron Henry have walked parallel paths following ACL surgery. Both men are back in the mix for starting jobs, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Defensive end O'Brien Schofield, a projected starter opposite Matt Shaughnessy, will miss 1-2 weeks of practice after suffering an ankle injury. End Kirk DeCremer remained out of both Wednesday practices, while quarterback Allan Evridge could return today, Potrykus writes in the Badgers Blog.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to open the mailbag. You ask, I answer.

Here we go:

Brian from parts unknown, writes:

Hey Adam-lets talk some Badger Football-do you think the scheduling of Cal Poly will cost the Badgers a shot in the BCS? They have a favorable schedule-if they stay healthy and with a couple of breaks, they could be a very dangerous team later in the season. They have a lot of the skilled positions back, including the best groups of running backs in the Big Ten, maybe even the country. There are high expectations here in Wisconsin, your thoughts??

Adam Rittenberg: Most major-conference teams are dipping into the I-AA ranks for scheduling purposes, so the Badgers should be fine. A quick look shows that Ohio State plays Youngstown State, Florida plays The Citadel (a Wisconsin opponent last year), Oklahoma plays Chattanooga and West Virginia plays Villanova. The only thing that could hurt is that the Cal Poly game comes at the end of the season. Wisconsin's nonconference schedule isn't too treacherous, as a reporter pointed out to Bret Bielema last week, but a visit to Fresno State provides a major test in September. If Wisconsin knocks off Fresno in Fresno, it will have nothing to worry about regarding possible BCS selection.


John from Oneonta, N.Y., writes:

Adam, I couldn't help but notice your response to the PSU posters regarding PSU's DL and locking Wisconsin in as the #2 team in the Big 10 in your eyes. You mention something about PSU finding a reliable QB will be key. While that remains true, the QB situation at PSU is in better hands with Clark and Devlin than it was with Morelli. That said, who is the reliable QB in Madison this year? Everidge is no more reliable than Clark or Devlin. This is their third starting QB in three years.

Adam Rittenberg: Of the three quarterback vacancies in the Big Ten, Penn State appears to have the most stable situation. Projected Wisconsin frontrunner Allan Evridge has the most collegiate game experience of any candidate throughout the league, but most of it came three years ago at Kansas State. Clark's Alamo Bowl performance was encouraging for Penn State, and he definitely has the intangibles to command respect from Day 1. From talking to center A.Q. Shipley, it sounds like the offensive players would be comfortable with Clark as their leader. Still, there are questions about his ability as a passer. Someone needs to take advantage of Penn State's veteran receivers before they're gone.


Jack from Glen Ellyn, Ill., writes:

Re: your ranking of Big Ten O-lines. I'm a litle surprised to see my Illini as low as fourth. OSU I understand, and maybe I really don't know that much about Wiscy and PSU, but the Illini have a number of physically huge and talented young road-graders just ready to step in.

Adam Rittenberg: The loss of first-team All-Big Ten guard Martin O'Donnell and a few health concerns this spring caused me to drop Illinois to fourth, but that group can definitely finish higher. Wisconsin is very strong at both guard spots and has no questions at tackle; Illinois must replace Akim Millington on the right side. All of the top four teams are very strong up front, so the order could be tweaked by the end of the season.


Devon from Long Island, writes:

I'm a Penn State fan, but you are selling Adam Weber way short. Not only did he have 24 passing touchdowns, not 19, but he also had 5 rushing scores. Guys a crazy good athlete and can pass. He's, for me, the #3 or #4 in the Big Ten. But here's my question: What is the best case scenario for how Daryll Clark plays?

Adam Rittenberg: You're right about Weber's athleticism and frankly I'd be surprised if he doesn't finish the season much higher on the list. He was a lot like Northwestern's C.J. Bacher last season: big numbers, too many interceptions. If he can reduce his picks and continue to punish defenses with his legs, Minnesota will be dangerous on offense. What I worry about is the fact the Gophers have no proven running back and some questions on the line, which increases pressure for Weber. They need Duane Bennett or Jay Thomas to emerge as a reliable runner. As for Daryll Clark, the BCS (best-case scenario) is he makes defenses respect his arm enough so that he can burn them with his legs. Clark doesn't need to be Michael Robinson. He's got enough talent around him and a solid line. Penn State could win 10 games this fall with him at the helm.


Jordan from Marion, Ill., writes:

do you give Michigan a chance a competing for the Big 11 or are you like all the others that doubt them?How do you think Michigan will fare with Threet at QB?and do you see Justin Feagin starting QB by mid-season?

Adam Rittenberg: It all depends on the start. If the Wolverines survive a very difficult opener against Utah, beat a defensive-minded Miami (Ohio) team and then take care of Notre Dame in South Bend, they'll have a ton of confidence heading into Big Ten play. But I don't see them getting through that stretch unscathed. There are too many questions on offense and despite having talent, most of it is young and unproven. Michigan should be in the league's top half by November, but no Big Ten title. Threet has the intelligence to grasp RichRod's system, but will his physical skills allow him to effectively run the offense? Feagin is probably the best fit from a skills standpoint, but I highly doubt he'll be starting at any point this season.


Bill from West Lafayette, Ind., writes:

Adam - love your blog. I read it daily and love to hear about what you have to say about the big 10. I know a lot of people have been down on my Purdue Boilermakers - saying we will be lucky to win 6 games this year. Granted, we aren't going to be the 2000 or 2004 teams, but I think we have a chance to really make a stir in the big 10, your thoughts? You are right about Tiller (we call him T-bone around here) being a character ? what a guy. Being his last season should mean a lot to this team and town.

Adam Rittenberg: Bill, your Boilers are a bit of a mystery entering the season. They have a senior quarterback in Curtis Painter, which always helps, but the personnel losses at wide receiver/tight end and the health of the line raises red flags. I just got off the phone with offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher, who expects the linemen to be healthy for the start of camp. If the new juco receivers catch on quickly (pun intended), the offense should be solid. The big reason people are down on Purdue is the schedule. Oregon is always tough, Central Michigan's offense is very good Notre Dame has improved and will host game in South Bend. Then they open Big Ten play with Penn State and Ohio State. Purdue never wins enough big games, but it has plenty of chances early. If Painter can lead the Boilers to a win against Oregon or Notre Dame on the road, he'll have a ton of confidence heading into Big Ten play.


Hamza from Chicago writes:

Why don't people have Todd Boeckman on their heisman watch list i mean he did lead a very good Ohio State Team last year?

Adam Rittenberg: Boeckman is in a tough spot. People are more interested in the guy lining up behind him (Beanie Wells) in the backfield or one of the guys behind him on the two-deep (Terrelle Pryor). But you're right, he led Ohio State to the national title game last season. If he exploits big-play threat Brian Robiskie for some highlight-reel touchdowns in September, particularly against USC, Boeckman could get some Heisman hype. Then again, if he's not being talked about now, he probably has no chance.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After an extended examination of the Big Ten quarterbacks, from conundrums at four schools to stability at others, it's time to start rolling out position rankings. Let's begin with a look at the league's running backs.

For several positions, such as running back, wide receiver and linebacker, I'll break up the rankings into individual (top 10) and team. For offensive line, it will only be team. The reason? Beanie Wells is the Big Ten's best running back, but Wisconsin's four-pack might be the strongest group.

The Big Ten had four teams rank among the top 30 nationally in rushing offense, and despite losing standouts Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Hart, the league looks solid in the backfield.

INDIVIDUALS

 
 AP Photo/Terry Gilliam
 Beanie Wells rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 TDs last season.

1. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Jr., Ohio State -- Heisman contender enters his junior season as the league's premier back. Wells was consistently productive last season despite playing most of it with a bad ankle and a broken bone in his left wrist. His offensive line returns virtually intact, putting Beanie in line for another 1,500-yard season.

2. Javon Ringer, Sr., Michigan State -- Excellent slasher could push Wells for the league's rushing title. Last fall, Ringer rushed for 1,447 yards and six touchdowns -- big man Jehuu Caulcrick usually got the call near the goal line -- and expects to get more carries this season. Caulcrick's absence could hurt, but Ringer has thrived in the team's run-first offense.

3. P.J. Hill, Jr., Wisconsin -- The Badgers will throw different looks at defenses, but Hill is undoubtedly the first option. Hill finally enjoyed a healthy offseason and was able to increase his strength in the weight room. Despite being banged up last fall, Hill still rushed for 1,212 yards and 14 touchdowns. If he stays on the field, his combination of size and speed is hard to contain.

4. Tyrell Sutton, Sr., Northwestern -- After winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2005, Sutton has left center stage, struggling in an anemic offense as a sophomore and missing most of last season with a high ankle sprain. He's fully healthy and headlines an offense stocked with veteran skill players. If a new-look line jells, Sutton will show why he's still one of the league's best backs.

5. Evan Royster, So., Penn State -- Teammate Stephfon Green has Happy Valley buzzing, but defenses better not forget about Royster. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry last season as Rodney Kinlaw's backup, and enters the summer as Penn State's No. 1 back. Royster is a strong between-the-tackles runner but, like Green, has breakaway ability, as he showed with a 38-yard touchdown in the Alamo Bowl.

6. Kory Sheets, Sr., Purdue -- Fumbling problems have prevented Sheets from becoming Purdue's featured back, but he could claim the lion's share of the carries as a senior. Sheets averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns last fall, finishing ninth in the league with 859 rushing yards. If he can hang onto the ball this fall, Sheets should have a strong finish to his career.

7. Jaycen Taylor, Jr., Purdue -- Taylor is definitely tough enough to be Purdue's featured back. He returned to the field last fall just four games after breaking his left arm. The next step is consistent production, which Taylor showed at times in 2007. Sheets' ongoing fumbling problems caused coach Joe Tiller to give Taylor the slight edge on the depth chart coming out of spring ball.

8. Marcus Thigpen, Sr. Indiana -- Everyone knows Thigpen has elite speed, but he hasn't proven to be a viable threat out of the backfield. The senior figures to get more carries this fall as Indiana tries to complement quarterback Kellen Lewis with another rushing threat. Thigpen proved he can step up in big games, rushing for 140 yards in a bowl-clinching win against Purdue last November.

9. Stephfon Green, Fr., Penn State -- He hasn't played a college game yet, but his speed and big-play potential have Penn State fans counting the days until Aug. 30. Green will play behind Evan Royster, but if he duplicates his spring-practice highlights in a meaningful setting, he'll dash past a lot of backs on this list.

10. Lance Smith-Williams, Jr., Wisconsin -- Teammate Zach Brown merits a mention here, but consider what Smith-Williams did last season. Suspended from playing in away games, he rushed for 429 yards and three touchdowns on only 71 carries (6.0 ypc average). Allowed to travel with the team this season, Smith-Williams provides an excellent complement to Hill in the run game.

TEAM

1. Wisconsin -- The variety of size, skill and depth provided by Hill, Smith-Williams, Brown and hyped redshirt freshman John Clay can't be matched in the league. A new starting quarterback will have plenty of help.

2. Ohio State -- Beanie Wells is a workhorse, but the Buckeyes have plenty of talent behind him in Maurice Wells, dynamic sophomore Brandon Saine and promising redshirt freshman Dan "Boom" Herron.

3. Penn State -- If Green backs up his hype on the field, the Lions could jump up the list. Royster and Green give Penn State two formidable threats alongside a new starting quarterba
ck.

4. Purdue -- Sheets and Taylor have competed forever, with neither man cementing the No. 1 spot. But as a tandem, they give pass-happy Purdue another strong dimension.

5. Michigan State -- Ringer is a proven star who can punish defenses with his slashing speed. Though the Spartans lost Caulcrick, the league's eighth-leading rusher last season, hopes are high for A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett.

6. Northwestern -- The Wildcats should get back to their running roots under new offensive coordinator Mick McCall. Sutton is dangerous when healthy, and versatile senior Omar Conteh filled in nicely last fall.

7. Michigan -- No proven commodities here, but offensive coordinator Calvin Magee has a track record for producing all-league backs. Brandon Minor looked good this spring, and Carlos Brown returns from a broken finger. If Kevin Grady resolves his legal troubles, he gives the Wolverines a big, versatile body in the backfield.

8. Illinois -- Quarterback Juice Williams is a running threat, but Illinois didn't identify a replacement for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall in spring practice. Junior Daniel Dufrene likely will get the first shot at the top job, with both Troy Pollard and freshman Mikel LeShoure also in the mix.

9. Indiana -- When opponents prepare for Indiana's run game, they talk about quarterback Lewis. It's up to the running backs -- Thigpen, Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray or freshman Darius Willis -- to put another name in the scouting report.

10. Minnesota -- Here's another team with the quarterback (Adam Weber) as its leading rusher. Jay Thomas comes off his second ACL surgery and will compete with promising sophomore Duane Bennett for the job. Both men have potential, but there's little depth behind them.

11. Iowa -- Albert Young and Damian Sims are gone, and the Hawkeyes ended spring with a walk-on (Paki O'Meara) as their top running back. Yikes. Shonn Greene returns to potentially stabilize things, and incoming freshmen Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton will get looks in camp.

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