Big Ten: Jeff Hecklinski

Devin GardnerAP Photo/Carlos OsorioFor Michigan to have success, it needs junior quarterback Devin Gardner to stay healthy and make plays because the depth chart behind him is a bit scary.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Meet Devin Gardner. No. Seriously. You should. And if you like Michigan, you really should look into protecting him as much as possible in every situation imaginable.

The one non-negotiable thing about Michigan’s season is if Gardner is hurt for any length of time, the Wolverines’ chances of winning any of those games almost disappears. Any Michigan offense without Gardner this season would be an adventure in experimentation at best.

So go buy some bubble wrap, pad the walls of his apartment or whatever else you want to make sure a random tree branch doesn't fell him. Michigan’s players, though, realize they can’t stop a random injury from occurring. They have enough faith Gardner can take care of himself.

“Random, freak injury, you can’t really control that,” senior receiver Drew Dileo said. “We look out for each other but if Devin rolls his ankle on a little bitty rock, I can’t control that. And vice versa.

“If I slip on the ice in the snow, I can’t control that.”

In other words, there won’t be an entourage accompanying Gardner to any of his graduate school classes this semester -- at least not for protective purposes.

Michigan can control how it uses Gardner during practices in the preseason. While the Wolverines aren’t isolating their starting quarterback or keeping him from making plays -- the repititions are too important for what he and Michigan hope to do this season -- having no healthy backup quarterback with even one snap of experience means more early practice snaps for freshman Shane Morris and redshirt freshman walk-on Brian Cleary.

It also keeps Gardner safe on the sideline.

Gardner might not be the most polished quarterback in the Big Ten or the most talented player on his own team -- that is left tackle Taylor Lewan. That lack of depth behind him, though, makes him more critical than any other player.

“He’s an important factor to the offense here,” senior receiver Jeremy Gallon said. “He has to set a tempo. He will set a tempo. His demeanor to the game is very important to us. How he comes out and performs and he’s willing to work hard for the team.

“That’s very important.”

Equally important is the lack of depth behind Gardner, which is why he is the most important player to stay healthy in the entire Big Ten. One could argue Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, but the Buckeyes have an experienced, serviceable backup in senior Kenny Guiton. But for what Michigan wants to do this season, it is Gardner -- and then a shoulder shrug of what would happen if he weren’t in the game.

So keeping Gardner upright and healthy is of supreme importance in Ann Arbor.

“That’s pretty obvious. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory,” Michigan receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski said. “Obviously we need to keep Devin healthy and that falls on all of us. Not just the offensive line, but the tight ends and wideouts getting open down the field in time so he doesn’t have to hold the ball and the running backs protecting him.”

The coaching staff doesn’t want to limit Gardner’s progress, though. If they start to have him lighten up in practice, it becomes almost an omen setting Gardner up for injury because they believe players are injured when they aren’t going hard enough and are concerned about it.

Gardner isn’t worried. He just keeps playing as he always has.

“I’m the same person on the field, practicing as hard as I can,” Gardner said. “Taylor [Lewan] sometimes tells me not to make certain cuts, but that’s just the way I play. You can’t get ready for the game unless you play the full speed, the way you’re going to play.”

Other than Lewan, Gardner said the only one who told him to maybe take it a little easy was Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach, Aaron Wellman.

Everyone else? They just want Gardner to play like he did over the final five games of last season, or even an improved version of that player. Keeping Gardner healthy does add a small amount of pressure, especially for those entrusted with protecting him.

“We have to make sure we are on our game with that pass protection-wise,” senior right tackle Michael Schofield said. “We don’t really verbalize it. That’s just kind of known.”

One day Morris or Cleary could end up as a good starting quarterback for Michigan. But for this season, the Wolverines have only one healthy non-freshman scholarship quarterback. They only have one quarterback who has any game experience. One quarterback who is designated and looked to as a leader.

That’s Devin Gardner. Michigan’s season rests on his health.
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.

Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 29, 2013
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of questions about division realignment. Let's dive in, and keep 'em coming ...

Marcus A. from Peoria, Ill., writes: You wrote, "the good news is that the Big Ten is sure to schedule crossover games between the Huskers and the Eastern powers as much as possible." Isn't the schedule set to a more or less fixed rotation? Without protected rivalries we should see the same number of games, over time, against each team. Or does the Big Ten not use math anymore?

Brian Bennett: As Jim Delany told Adam on Sunday, "In the first 18 years, you're going to see a lot of competition between teams at the top of either division. We call that a bit of parity-based scheduling. You'll see Wisconsin and Nebraska and Iowa playing a lot of competition against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan." Big Ten leaders aren't dummies. They know that more Nebraska-Ohio State, Wisconsin-Michigan type games are good for TV and good for overall business. They'll do everything they can to make sure those games happen as much as possible without tipping the scales of competitive balance too far.

Lance S. from Greensboro, N.C., writes: I'm surprised you put Wisconsin as a winner [in realignment]. As a lifelong Badger fan, I respect the MN rivalry because of its history, but the teams I REALLY want to beat are Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, in that order. I'd take annual games against any of those three over Iowa any time. The new divisions render the Badgers' regular season as "ho hum". Now the only thing to look forward to will be the Championship game and the bowl game. What a shame!

Brian Bennett: There's no question in my mind that Wisconsin made out well. Let's face it: the Badgers belong in the same division with Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, and they are a bit of an outlier in the Leaders. The path to the Big Ten title game looks much, much easier in the West, although Wisconsin doesn't need a lot of help these days. The drawbacks are fewer games with Ohio State and Michigan State, both of which have become good rivalries of late. Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives for Wisconsin.

Hollis Jr. from Supercool Underground Lair writes: If MSU was in the West we would lose even more recruits to big dorky brother and OSU. Collectively the teams in the East seem much closer. For instance, I would go to Maryland for a game, check out the monuments in DC and eat some crab in Annapolis while listening to a local band. I wouldn't go to Nebraska or Iowa under any circumstances.

Brian Bennett: Well, there's the bright side for the Spartans, I suppose. Michigan State does have more in common with its new East Division brethren, and Mark Dantonio's staff recruits Ohio hard. I'm curious to see whether teams in the East will gain a recruiting advantage over time by having more regular exposure in the New York and D.C. recruiting areas. Fans will enjoy the annual games against Ohio State and Penn State, as well as of course Michigan. I like what Mark Hollis told the Detroit Free Press: "Coach Dantonio often talks about seeing the glass half full, and it’s very true in this case. We have a great opportunity before us, and that’s how this entire athletic department is looking at it. We’re viewing this as a positive.” The Spartans have no choice but to embrace this, but it's painfully obvious that their path to Pasadena is about to become as difficult as it's ever been.

Bill from Windy City writes: The Legends and Leaders are dead, and there will be much rejoicing. But is the even-year/odd-year home-game scheduling a little over-determined? "[T]he East division teams will play five Big Ten home games and four Big Ten road games in even-numbered years . . . . The West division teams will play five Big Ten home games and four Big Ten road games in odd-numbered years." Different teams have different scheduling needs to get to seven home games. My Huskers will have to renegotiate the NIU game at Soldier Field. Iowa will have to buy a non-conference home game. Wisconsin has maximum flexibility, but will find it hard to keep an away date with Va Tech. Meanwhile, if the East had only 4 conference home games in 2016: Michigan would already be set for 7 home dates, and 0SU and PSU would only need to flip-flop home-and-home arrangements with Oklahoma and Pitt, respectively, to get to 7. (I guess you could write a whole post on this stuff!) Bottom line, it just seems excessively formalistic. What's the benefit?

Brian Bennett: It's not entirely clear why the Big Ten decided on having the East have the five home games in even-numbered years and the West in odd years. It may have just been random; we'll check on that. But what is clear is that Big Ten schools needed to know when their league games would be so they could start scheduling nonconference opponents. There had been a moratorium on scheduling while this stuff was sorted out, and with opponents often booked years in advance, schools needed answers. Now everybody knows exactly what years they will have only four conference home games, which will most likely mean those schools have to schedule at least three non-league home games in those years. Flipping the odd-even years would have worked out better for Michigan State and Purdue in regards to Notre Dame, but there was no way to do it that wouldn't have affected someone. The athletic directors I talked to were just happy to have some concrete information so they can go about putting together those future schedules.

David from Nashville, Tenn., writes: Regarding your column on Michigan's WR recruiting; yes they really are upgrading the size. But contrary to the seeming implied tone (maybe I'm just misinterrepting it), speed is not always forgotten regardless of what the WR coach says. ... Jehu Chesson was a two time state champion in the 300m hurdles, and his senior year won the state championship in the 100m and 110 hurdles. Da'Mario Jones ran a 10.8 or 10.9 100m in junior year in track. In comparison, Braylon Edwards ran track at Michigan with a personal best of 10.8 in the 100m (ran a 4.38 40 at combine I believe), and he was generally considered a pretty fast dude, and a legitimate downfield threat to out run defenses. Drake Harris doesn't have track times, but he's the only WR in the state of Michigan history to break the 2,000 yard mark, which he did by running away from a lot of defenders (he was also heavily recruited by OSU who you point out very much values speed).

Brian Bennett: Some people probably read too much into Jeff Hecklinski's quote from February and may have thought I was implying Michigan wasn't recruiting fast wide receivers. That's not the case. I think what he meant was that you don't want just track guys who can run fast in a straight line. There is a whole lot more that goes into being a good receiver, as we've seen time and time again. Michigan wants guys with great hand-eye coordination, body control, etc., as well as size. The difference is that in the spread, sometimes speed is the absolute No. 1 priority. What Michigan is doing with the height of its receiving recruits is unique in the Big Ten right now. And the difference between its philosophy at the position and Ohio State's is really interesting and will be fun to track.

John from Madtown writes: Brian, in the contender/pretender post on Michigan State, you indicated contender largely on the play of MSU's defense. In the Big Ten draft post, both you and Adam were bullish on the Buckeye defenders, despite OSU replacing nearly all of their starting front seven. As good as MSU's D has been are you expecting the Buckeyes to have the better D?

Brian Bennett: Good question, John. Remember, in that imaginary draft, eligibility mattered. For example, Ohio State's Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, both sophomores, would be more valuable in some ways than proven seniors, and Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier, a junior, would have one more year than Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough. But you hit on an interesting point. I'd say the Spartans will have a stronger defense this season, simply because they have fewer question marks than Ohio State, which is replacing its entire front four from last year and needs some guys to step up at linebacker. But the Buckeyes probably have more star power than the Spartans, with guys like Shazier and Bradley Roby and possibly Spence and Noah.

As good as Michigan State's 'D' has been the past couple of years, it has been viewed as more of a team effort than one led by individual stars. Only three Spartans defenders made the first team All-Big Ten team as voted by the coaches last year (and none were on the coaches' second team), while none made it on the media's first team. And that was from a Top 5 national defense. For whatever reason, the individual accolades haven't necessarily accompanied Michigan State's success as a total defense.

Anthony from Iowa City writes: I know Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis is wanting vertical passes (doesn't everyone here) but.....I see another offense where sideways passing is going to happen. There just isn't any playmakers that can make those verticle catches (unless a reciever comes out of nowhere) I see Damon Bullock get a pass to the side and rely on C.J. Fiedorowicz and Mark Weisman to block. I'd love to see them only have to make 4 plays to move the field 60-80 yards and back up the defense quick, but I also have that feeling that we're going to see a lot of nothing from the offense again. But hey, if Johnny Football can come out of nowhere and win the Heisman, why not Jake Rudock?

Brian Bennett: Well, that is most assuredly the first time I've heard Jake Rudock's name mentioned in conjunction with the Heisman Trophy, so kudos on that. Look, Davis understands as well as anyone that Iowa isn't blessed with great wide receivers who can create tons of separation. The goal is for the running game to be so good that teams have to load up the box, freeing receivers down the field on play-action. If that sounds overly ambitious, just remember how wide open many of Wisconsin's wide receivers have been in recent years. The Hawkeyes have a ways to go to produce like Wisconsin on the ground, but with an experienced offensive line and a deep -- for now -- stable of running backs, it is possible.

Anthony Z. from South St. Paul, Minn., writes: What excuse do you or or counterpart have for not making it up to Minnesota?. Went to Nebraska, Wisconsin, and if Iowa would have gone to a bowl game rest assured either one of you would have been there. So what's the deal? Lazy?

Brian Bennett: You can call us Big Ten bloggers a lot of things, but I don't think "lazy" is one of them. I mean, just look at our output. I think I can speak for Adam when I say spring trips are one of the highlights of our year, because we get a chance to talk to a lot of players and coaches, watch practices and gather tons of information in a setting where everyone is more relaxed and often more open than during the season. If it were solely up to us, we'd visit every school and spend several days on each campus. Unfortunately, in the real world there are things like travel and expense budgets, and our editors have to approve our trips. As much as we've both been dying to get to Minneapolis, it's not an easy drive for either of us and the Gophers haven't won enough lately to merit national coverage. Hopefully, that will be changing soon.
Remember two years ago, when Michigan created a lot of big plays by having Denard Robinson basically throw a jump ball that his receivers would somehow go up and grab? Well, by the looks of things, that might become a staple of the offense in the future. Only those receivers won't have to jump too high.

The Wolverines' strategy when it comes to recruiting receivers these days could be summed up in three words: super size me. On Thursday, Detroit wideout Maurice Ways became the latest player to commit to Brady Hoke. Ways is 6-foot-3.

He joins current Class of 2014 commits Drake Harris, a 6-foot-4 receiver, and Ian Bunting, a tight end who's been listed as tall as 6-foot-7. Meanwhile, Michigan's celebrated 2013 class included three skyscraper receivers: 6-foot-4 Jaron Dukes, 6-foot-3 Csont'e York and 6-foot-2 Da'Mario Jones. They'll join current redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson (6-foot-3) and sophomore Amara Darboh (6-2) in Ann Arbor.

There's no secret to what's going on here. Michigan is moving on from its spread offense days and diving full bore back into the pro style system. Offensive coordinator Al Borges wants rangy, lanky athletes on the outside, both for the mismatches they create and their ability to block for the running game.

The Wolverines got great production out of the 6-2 Junior Hemingway the last two years, but their top returning receiver this year is Jeremy Gallon, who's only 5-foot-8. Gallon is an excellent player, but future Michigan receivers will likely look less like him and more like former great Braylon Edwards (6-3). Unlike the days of Rich Rodriguez's spread, the Wolverines appear to be valuing size over speed.

"Speed is overrated," receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski told reporters in February. “All of our guys, if you watch them on high-school film, they have great hands, they adjust to the ball, they track the ball very well in the air and they go up and they catch it. We can judge that on film, so let’s get the best hand-eye coordination guys, guys that can catch the football, let’s bring them in here and let’s develop them in other areas.”

Michigan's chief rival, and the other Big Ten team that's been cleaning up on the recruiting trail of late, is taking a different approach. Sure, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wants guys with great hand-eye coordinator and catching ability, too. But he really wants blazing speed for his system. Just look at the receivers the Buckeyes landed in the 2013 class: Jalin Marshall (5-11), Dontre Wilson (5-10), James Clark (5-11) and Corey Smith (6-1). Receiver seems to be one position where Michigan and Ohio State are not in direct competition for the same players.

It will be interesting to see what kind of matchup problems the Wolverines' height at receiver poses for Big Ten defenses. Just take a look at the listed sizes of some of the top cornerbacks in the league the past two seasons:

Michigan State's Johnny Adams: 5-11
Purdue's Ricardo Allen: 5-9
Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard: 5-11
Ohio State's Bradley Roby: 5-11
Iowa's Micah Hyde: 6-1
Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard: 5-10
Iowa's Shaun Prater: 5-11

Size, of course, doesn't always matter. There's also leverage, separation, route running, catching ability and several other factors that go into being great receivers. Former Michigan stars Desmond Howard (5-10) and Anthony Carter (5-11) did just fine without towering over people.

But Michigan is clearly taking its receiver position to new, um, heights. It will be fun to see how the strategy pays off in the near future.

Where have star B1G receivers gone?

February, 27, 2013
It was just a coincidence that our Big Ten postseason Top 25 player rankings wrapped up the same week when players were showing off their skills at the NFL combine.

But the convergence of the two raised one pressing question: Where are all the star Big Ten wide receivers?

Only one Big Ten product was invited to the NFL combine to work out as a wide receiver, and that was Michigan's Denard Robinson. He, of course, spent almost all of his career at quarterback, finishing with three catches during his four years as a Wolverine. Maybe he'll turn into a productive receiver at the next level, but he doesn't really count.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
Rich Barnes/US PresswirePenn State's Allen Robinson was the lone wideout from the Big Ten to reach the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards last season.
Meanwhile, our Big Ten player rankings contained only one receiver: Penn State's Allen Robinson, who checked in at No. 11. That shouldn't come as a surprise to those who watched the league this year. While Robinson had a huge breakout year with 1,018 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, no other Big Ten player ranked among the top 71 FBS performers in receiving yards per game, the top 58 in total receiving yards or the top 50 in receptions per game.

In some ways, it was a transitional year for Big Ten receivers. The 2011 season saw four players top 1,000 receiving yards and two others go for at least 925. The NFL drafted six Big Ten receivers last April, including Illinois' A.J. Jenkins in the first round. Iowa's Marvin McNutt and Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham finished their careers as the most productive pass-catchers in school history.

So 2012 was just a blip after a bumper crop, right? Maybe, maybe not. While players from the 2011 group still have time to develop, none of them made much of an impact in the pros last year. Jenkins didn't catch a single pass for the San Francisco 49ers. McNutt spent most of the year on the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad. The Miami Dolphins cut Cunningham a few months after drafting him. Michigan State's Keshawn Martin had the most successful rookie year of the bunch, catching 10 passes for 85 yards and a score for the Houston Texans. But we weren't exactly witnessing the second coming of Lee Evans, David Boston, Terry Glenn, Plaxico Burress or Braylon Edwards. Not yet anyway.

There are some promising young talents at receiver in the Big Ten. Robinson and Nebraska's Kenny Bell are both entering their junior years and could break most of their school records by the time they're finished. Indiana has a terrific trio in Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn and Kofi Hughes. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis has a chance to end his career with more than 3,000 yards despite arriving as a walk-on.

League wideouts were also no doubt hampered at least in part by a lack of prolific pocket passers in the conference. The two top quarterbacks in our rankings were Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, who are more athletes right now than precision throwers. Michigan's receivers were nearly invisible until Devin Gardner took over for Denard Robinson. And Allen Robinson was able to put up big numbers thanks in large measure to the pro-style passing offense Bill O'Brien installed at Penn State.

Still, while the Big Ten is never going to be the Big 12 when it comes to producing eye-popping passing stats, the league appears to be trailing other conferences in developing superstar receivers. That's a little troubling at a time when football at every level is becoming more and more reliant on the passing game.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer talked about his program's lack of difference-makers at receiver last year, so it was good to see the Buckeyes land what ranked as the top receiver/athlete haul in the 2013 signing class. Recruits like Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith could make an immediate impact. It was also encouraging to see Michigan, which has a great tradition at the position, bring in some big-bodied receivers in this class (though it was a bit odd to hear Wolverines receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski say "speed is overrated" for wideouts).

Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota saw what a difference having stud receivers can make in their bowl games. Unfortunately, those star wideouts were on the other sideline. To beat the best teams in the country, it's essential that Big Ten teams recruit and develop standout players at the receiver position.
Every good conference boasts some coaching villains, and the Big Ten has several men who fill the role. No one will confuse the Big Ten with the SEC, where all 12 coaches have voodoo dolls of one other and dart boards with their opponents' heads as the bull's-eyes. But let's not forget the Big Ten produced Woody and Bo, two men who certainly played the villain when they set foot on opposing soil. The Big Ten may never see Woody versus Bo, Part II, but you get 12 Type A personalities competing for championships in a high-stakes sport, and it's going to get heated.

Last month, we asked you to weigh in on the most disliked Big Ten coach. Not surprisingly, the three highest vote-getters also earned our nod for their villainous traits. Remember, this is all in fun, and it's important to note that it's hard to be a coaching villain if you don't win a lot of games or tick off multiple fan bases.

Let's take a look.

Bret Bielema, Wisconsin (six seasons, 60-19 overall and at Wisconsin)

Any coach who plays college ball, has his team's logo tattooed on his leg, and then ends up coaching a major rival is predisposed to be a villain. Bielema, a former Iowa defensive lineman, still sports the Tigerhawk stamp on his leg, but he's very much a Badger these days. While Bielema might not be a favorite son in Iowa, he has ticked off others around the league a little more.

In 2010, Bielema ignited a flap with Minnesota when he called for a 2-point conversion attempt with Wisconsin ahead by 25 points in the fourth quarter. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster confronted Bielema after the game and later said Bielema made "a poor decision for a head football coach." Bielema claimed he was following the coaches' card of when to go for two or not, but given tension with Brewster and the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, few bought his explanation. The Wisconsin coach didn't help his rep a few weeks later when the Badgers' record-setting offense put up 83 points against Indiana, although the sportsmanship complaints seemed hollow as Indiana totally packed it in that day.

Then came national signing day in February, when Bielema at a news conference referred to "illegal" recruiting tactics by new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Many incorrectly interpreted Bielema's comments as sour grapes about losing a recruit (Kyle Dodson) to Meyer, but Bielema didn't publicly specify what he meant or why he contacted Meyer to discuss the situation. The allegations didn't sit well with Meyer or Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, although the situation put to rest the ridiculous belief about a "gentleman's agreement" among Big Ten coaches.

Bielema is relatively young, highly successful and never short on confidence. He's very media savvy and knows how to get his message across. He may fill the villain role for several fan bases, but he's the one going to Pasadena every year.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State (first season, 104-23 overall in 10 seasons)

Meyer hasn't coached a single game as Ohio State's head man, but he still received the most votes as the league's most disliked coach. Unlike the others in the Big Ten villain mix, Meyer sparks ire in other parts of the country, particularly in a little place they call Gator Country.

He left Florida after the 2010 season -- after nearly stepping away the previous year -- citing health concerns and a desire to spend more time with his family. Some saw him taking the Ohio State job, undoubtedly another pressure cooker, just a year after leaving Florida, as disingenuous. More Florida fallout arrived this spring in a Sporting News story that showed Meyer as the overseer and enabler of a mess in Gainesville.

Meyer's Big Ten villainy stems mostly from his immediate success on the recruiting trail after being hired in late November. In two months he put together the Big Ten's top-rated recruiting class, which included several players who had flipped from other programs to the Buckeyes. His surge drew comments from Bielema and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and the perception that Meyer has rocked the boat in the Big Ten remains very much alive.

Although Meyer and Michigan coach Brady Hoke have been cordial to this point -- they have the same agent, Trace Armstrong -- it's only a matter of time before things get spicy. Ohio State set off a mini blaze by displaying a sign in the football complex comparing its players' academic majors with those of Michigan's.

Buckle up.

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (five seasons, 44-22 at MSU, 62-39 in eight seasons overall)

The seemingly permanent scowl. The deep, borderline monotone voice. The willingness to stick up for players who make mistakes and fuel rivalries. In many ways, Dantonio looks and sounds more like a villain than any of his Big Ten coaching brethren. Warm and fuzzy he is not, and while he has a unique sense of humor and can be charming, he comes off serious, intense and, some would say, confrontational.

Dantonio has made some notable statements about archrival Michigan in his five seasons in East Lansing. Who can forget his "pride comes before the fall" response to Mike Hart after the 2007 Michigan State-Michigan game? After last season's personal-foul fest against Michigan, a game Michigan State won 28-14, Dantonio drew criticism for not suspending defensive end William Gholston, who had punched a Wolverines player and twisted the helmet of another (the Big Ten later suspended Gholston for a game). In January, he interrupted Michigan assistant Jeff Hecklinski during a presentation to state high school coaches. And this spring, he set off some fireworks by telling Brian Bennett, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?"

Some Michigan fans still dismiss Michigan State as not a real rival, but Dantonio has certainly gotten under the skin of Wolverines backers, especially because he keeps beating the Maize and Blue.

Dantonio also was looped into the Meyer/Bielema flap in February, although his general comments about recruiting were misinterpreted by a reporter.

The hyper intense Dantonio has some villain in him. And if he keeps winning at Michigan State, the image will continue to grow.
Urban Meyer has been receiving a lot of accolades for his recruiting work at Ohio State. But don't forget the hard work his assistants did in compiling one of the best classes in the country. has named Buckeyes assistant Mike Vrabel as its 2012 Big Ten recruiter of the year.
"Vrabel moved from linebackers coach to defensive line coach with the hire of Urban Meyer. And in the process the two-year assistant helped secure one of the nation's best defensive line classes. Five-star prospect Noah Spence was the biggest signing in the class, but four-star prospects Adolphus Washington, Se'Von Pittman and Jamal Marcus give the Buckeyes four of the nation's top 16 players at the defensive end position. Vrabel deserves much of the credit for that."

It's an impressive achievement for the former New England Patriots star linebacker, who only became a college coach last summer following his retirement from the NFL. Vrabel should have a lot of fun coaching up the talent on that Ohio State defensive line.

Other recruiters who earned honorable mention in the evaluation were Nebraska's John Garrison, Northwestern's Randy Bates, Michigan's Jeff Hecklinski and Michigan State's Mark Staten.

Video: Michigan's Jeff Hecklinski

February, 1, 2012

Tom VanHaaren talks with Michigan wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski about the Wolverines 2012 recruiting class.
My apologies for not posting last night -- was out and about -- but Michigan coach Brady Hoke announced the hiring of seven assistant coaches, including both coordinators.

We already knew Hoke was bringing offensive coordinator Al Borges with him from San Diego State. The big move came Tuesday night as Hoke named Greg Mattison as his defensive coordinator. Mattison most recently served as Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator and returns to Michigan, where he served as a Wolverines assistant with Hoke in the 1990s. Mattison coached Michigan's defensive line from 1992-96 and served as the team's defensive coordinator in the final two seasons.

Like Hoke, Mattison still has a strong bond with the Michigan program.
[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Greg Mattison
AP Photo/Rob CarrGreg Mattison has been the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator the past two seasons. He'll take the same job at Michigan.
"He has loved Michigan since working there earlier in his career," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a statement. "We will miss him because he's a great coach, but also an even better person. The students there are the lucky ones. Not only will he teach them football to the highest level, he will influence them to be the best persons they can be. Greg is one of the good people you are fortunate to meet in your life. We are disappointed that he will not be coaching our defense, but we know that he is following a true love by returning to the Wolverines."

The thing that jumps out about Mattison is his experience:

  • 14 years as a defensive coordinator (12 in college, the past two with the Ravens)
  • served as co-defensive coordinator and D-line coach at Florida from 2005-07, helping the Gators win a national title in 2006
  • has held positions at three different Big Ten schools -- Michigan, Northwestern and Illinois -- in addition to spending eight seasons on Notre Dame's staff

Mattison has seen just about everything in his career and faced all sorts of challenges. He encounters a difficult one at Michigan, which comes off of the worst defensive stretch in team history.

The Wolverines ranked 110th nationally in total defense this year and finished 108th, 77th and 84th nationally in points allowed in the past three seasons. Youth and lack of depth certainly played roles, but Michigan also had players who simply didn't improve, and that falls on the coaching staff.

It will take more than a good scheme to get Michigan on track. Mattison and his defensive staff must get back to the basics (tackling, alignment, angles to the ball). They inherit some good pieces like nose tackle Mike Martin, defensive end Craig Roh and cornerback Troy Woolfolk, but their real work takes place with the younger players to build depth.

I like the Mattison hire. Michigan needed a coach with loads of experience and a promising track record. He'll command respect from the players, and he understands the difficult task at hand.

In addition to Mattison and Borges, Hoke announced the following staff additions:

  • Dan Ferrigno (tight ends and special teams coordinator)
  • Darrell Funk (offensive line)
  • Jeff Hecklinski (receivers)
  • Mark Smith (linebackers)
  • Fred Jackson is the lone assistant retained from Rich Rodriguez's staff and will continue to coach running backs
  • Aaron Wellman takes over as head strength and conditioning coach

Aside from Mattison and Jackson, all the staff members are holdovers from Hoke's staff at San Diego State.



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