Big Ten: Jeff Wills

ESPN's NFL draft guru Mel Kiper recently completed an extensive and very cool project: ranking the top draft-eligible prospects for each FBS team Insider.

Remember, draft-eligible doesn't mean freshmen or sophomores, even if those guys have the highest NFL ceilings on a team. Here's a look at Kiper's take on every Big Ten team Insider.

You need to be an ESPN Insider to read the whole story, but Kiper's choices are listed below:

Illinois: WR Jarred Fayson
Indiana: QB Ben Chappell
Iowa: DE Adrian Clayborn
Michigan: DT Mike Martin
Michigan State: LB Greg Jones
Minnesota: LT Jeff Wills
Northwestern: LB Quentin Davie
Ohio State: DE Cameron Heyward
Penn State: G/C Stefen Wisniewski
Purdue: DE Ryan Kerrigan
Wisconsin: LT Gabe Carimi

A lot of the usual suspects here, although there are a few surprises as well such as Illinois' Fayson and Minnesota's Wills. I also expected Indiana wideout Tandon Doss instead of Chappell (not a slight against Chappell).

What's your take?
D.J. Burris doesn't need to be reminded of the way it used to be at Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers weren't just a good rushing offense, but a record-setting one. Minnesota didn't just produce good offensive linemen, but great ones like All-Americans Greg Eslinger and Ben Hamilton.

D.J. Burris
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMID.J. Burris & Co. are looking forward to running an offense that emphasizes the power run.
The team's history isn't lost on Burris and his linemates this spring.

"We're definitely aware of the tradition here about running the football," said Burris, Minnesota's starting center. "That's why we're taking it upon ourselves to get it back."

Pride is the word Burris and even non-linemen like quarterback Adam Weber use to describe what's happening up front this spring in Minneapolis. The team's running game hasn't merely slipped off its perch, but plummeted to the bottom of the Big Ten.

The last two seasons have seemed extremely un-Gopher-like:

  • 2008: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten and 104th nationally in rushing offense (103.8 ypg)
  • 2009: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in rushing offense (99.5 ypg)

Part of the problem has been a lack of continuity. Minnesota ran the spread offense under Mike Dunbar in 2007-08, and then switched to a pro-style system, designed to emphasize the power run, under Jedd Fisch last season.

The Gophers are adjusting to another new coordinator this spring, as Jeff Horton takes over the offense. But Horton's top goal, one the players clearly appreciate, is simplifying a convoluted system and identifying the hallmarks for the unit to succeed.

"We know where we're going as an offense," said Burris, who started at guard as a freshman before moving to center the last two seasons. "Our playbook's a lot thinner, and we know exactly what we're doing on every play now, so it's nice. Every season, it's been something new, something new, and then this year we simplified it with what we've already been doing.

"That makes us a lot more comfortable."

Head coach Tim Brewster didn't hide the fact he wanted more toughness from the line this spring, and he has seen the group respond. All five starters are back and continuing to work in the top spots, but they're being pushed by players like Ed Olson and Brooks Michel. Returning starters like Matt Carufel and Jeff Wills are healthier, and massive tackle Jeff Wills has slimmed down a bit.

During an April 10 scrimmage, the line started slow but got stronger as things went along, creating holes for backs DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett.

Weber, who has a vested interested in the line's performance, has seen a difference this spring.

"They’re playing with confidence and they’re playing with pride," he said. "You can definitely tell, when it’s third-and-1, when it’s fourth-and-1, they can sense that they need to pick up their game a little bit, and we've been winning a lot of those battles."

After being pushed around too much the last two seasons, Burris and his crew expect to turn the tables this fall.

"As an offensive line, that's where your pride comes from, when you can walk into a game and you can run the ball up and down the field," he said. "That's when you feel good about yourself."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 16, 2010
4/16/10
4:00
PM ET
Just a quick note about e-mails before I get started. Feel free to write as long as you'd like, but if you want to see something posted in the mailblog, try to keep it as brief and to the point as possible. It also helps me read through things a little faster if you write shorter.

OK, now let's get started.

Sam from Minneapolis writes: Hey Adam-Would love to hear about anything Gopher related that doesn't have to do with the QB competition or Brewster's hot seat. Any other positions or matchups that you can break down for us?Thanks

Adam Rittenberg: Sam, I'll get into this more next week, but Minnesota's offensive line seems to be turning a corner this spring, which is a very good sign. From talking with center D.J. Burris, the linemen know their play the last few years hasn't been up to par, and they've really rededicated themselves to becoming better run blockers and playing as a unit. Quarterback Adam Weber told me he sees a clear difference with the line this spring, and Burris pointed to a more simplified offense under coordinator Jeff Horton as being beneficial. I was also struck by this quote from tackle Jeff Wills to the Star Tribune about former coordinator Jedd Fisch: "Last year [Fisch] preached running the ball. But we knew, deep down, he wasn't into running the ball. I think this coach [Horton], with his history, we know he's down to run the ball. He wants a physical team." Pretty candid stuff there from Wills.


Vince from San Diego writes: How about Iowa-PSU to end the season? The PSU-MSU game has not been competitive or even watchable the last two years. PSU won 6 of 8; of those six wins, four wins were by 54, 24, 31 and 28. It makes for an anticlimactic ending to the Big Ten regular season. Iowa has had their way with Minnesota and its not like their is any tangible rivalry there. The Big Ten could end with OSU-UM and PSU-Iowa for a really good last weekend of football to tide us over until the bowl season.

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting thought, Vince. Since I'm not as emotionally tied to the rivalries as Big Ten fans, I'll throw this out there for you folks to debate. Send me your responses for Tuesday's mailblog. I doubt Penn State and Michigan State would mind moving their game. I'd imagine there would be a little more resistance for Iowa and Minnesota fans, since their rivalry has much more history and goes back generations. The Iowa-Minnesota rivalry is real, but the recent games haven't been memorable. Since I've started this blog, the Iowa-Penn State rivalry has certainly grown and will continue to do so for future years. It would be a fun end-of-season game.


Jordan from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: I wanted to know your take on the eye black/taunting rules approved by the NCAA. I for one think taunting is tacky...looking at you SEC and Pac 10 (2-5 bowl record complaining about the weather and the officials, could you tell Ted Miller to suck it up)... and I must say I'm pretty impressed with the class the Big Ten players and coaches display by winning the right way. As for the eye black...not such a big deal for me, but it seems a little too much to make it a rule.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't like the taunting rules, unless it's a real blatant case. You need emotion to play college football, and 19-year-olds shouldn't have to tone it down so some geezers can feel better about watching games. Again, if it's blatant and disrespectful, throw a flag. But I hated seeing what happened to Jake Locker a few years ago against BYU. Terrible call there. As for the eye black, I don't have a strong opinion either way. These players know they get a ton of exposure, and they'll find ways to get their messages out there.


Greg from East Lansing, Mich., writes: I?ve always read your blog with a skeptical eye. You being a California native who didn?t start out covering the Big Ten, I always kind of assumed one of the Big Ten biased media had Trojan horsed his way into a Big Ten blog. But after you got a little feisty with that Oregon fan in your mail-blog, my respect for you grew. I know you?ll say that your comments on Big Ten defenses, and the bowl results, came from an objective, journalistic place?but I can?t help but feel that maybe you?re time blogging these past few years has Big Tenned you a little?

Adam Rittenberg: Wow, Greg, I'm surprised you remembered that much about my past. I try to keep my coverage as unbiased as possible, but I'm definitely a Big Ten guy now. Grew up rooting for Cal, but I've been in Big Ten country for almost 11 years now. Attended a Big Ten school and seen multiple Big Ten games on every campus. I love covering this league. I'll always defend the Big Ten when I think it's necessary, but when the league deserves some heat, I'll provide it without hesitation.


Michael from St. Louis writes: If the B10 adds another member, gets its championship game, but loses a BCS berth in the process the teams will end up splitting the same-sized pie more ways. Could expanding by 3 or more teams be a way to get the championship revenue AND keep the seemingly annual at-large BCS berth? Out of 14 teams the odds seem better that 2 will be in the top 10.

Adam Rittenberg: Good comment here, Michael. It would depend on which three teams you add. If you're adding three teams without much history of reaching BCS bowls, either with automatic berths or at-large berths, you're probably not helping. If one of those additions is Notre Dame, however, you greatly enhance your chances of an at-large berth because BCS bowls will take the Irish without hesitation as long as they're eligible (big question mark). So it has to be the right three teams. Do Rutgers, Connecticut and Pitt really enhance your chances? I'd feel better about Nebraska and Notre Dame.


Dustin from Clive, Iowa, writes: What's up with [Adrian] Clayborn not being on the Lott trophy watch list? Is it because of the misdemeanor he received for the incident with the cab driver? That would be the only thing I can think of, otherwise that is just a huge oversight by whoever chooses the watch list candidates.

Adam Rittenberg: You know, Dustin, I was thinking about this very thing while driving to Iowa City today. I don't know the ins and outs of the Lott Trophy selection, but I might give them a call to ask about Clayborn. The cab driver incident certainly could have played a role, but Clayborn has been portrayed as a model citizen and teammate by Iowa coaches and players. He's one of the Hawkeyes' team leaders, and he seems like a great guy in my interactions with him. That was a bit surprising to see him off the list.


Edward from Chicago writes:
Adam, saw you on campus at North Park today (unless it was your twin). I made a friendly wager with a close friend that my Illini will end the season with more wins than Michigan. Should I be worried?

Adam Rittenberg: Ha, that was me! My wife works at North Park, and we were out enjoying what likely will be the last 80-degree day in Chicago until July. As for your bet, it could be tough. While Michigan has a ton of issues and scrutiny right now, the Wolverines boast more talent than Illinois and should be potent on offense. Illinois really needs to surprise people on both sides of the ball, especially after all the changes. Maybe your bet will come down to the No. 6 game between the Illini and Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. That would be fun.


Kelly from Manassas writes:
One of these days you will come to grips with the fact that I know more about what is going in at Michigan than you do. 10 wins is what he needs to keep his job, and those are not my words but rather a former player and booster who I will not name.

Adam Rittenberg: Kelly, I came to grips with that a long time ago. I'd be highly surprised if Michigan fires Rich Rodriguez after a 10-2 season, and somewhat surprised if he goes after a nine-win season. Eight wins is sort of the hazy area in my mind. Would they keep him at 8-4? Depends on the NCAA stuff and who the wins came against. Anything less than eight wins, and it'd be tough to see this staff back in 2011.
Competition will be in the air Tuesday as Minnesota kicks off spring practice. The Gophers lose 11 starters from a team that reached the Insight Bowl, and the depth chart is wide open entering the spring. Much of the attention will be on the quarterback spot, as three-year starter Adam Weber tries to hold off MarQueis Gray and Moses Alipate. On defense, the Gophers lose all three starting linebackers, both starting cornerbacks and both starting defensive tackles.

Head coach Tim Brewster took some time Monday to preview spring ball.

[+] EnlargeTim Brewster
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTim Brewster would like to have the quarterback depth chart sorted out by the end of spring practices.
What are you looking forward to seeing when you get back on the field Tuesday?

Tim Brewster: This is really going to be a good group for us. It's a young group, a lot of talent in the group, they've really done a great job in the winter conditioning program. Guys came back off spring break in great shape. We had a great 6 a.m. run this morning. We've just got to do a great job as a staff this spring of developing these young guys. There's nothing complicated about what we're going to try to accomplish. Really just the fundamentals of the game, we'll spend a good deal of time on situational work, and then the thing that's going to be exciting for us is the competition. For the first time since we've been here, we've got some really good competitive situations at a lot of different spots. That's really exciting for us as coaches.

What are a couple of those key competitions we'll see?

TB: Obviously, the quarterback position, how that's going to play out, and see Adam Weber continue to grow and see him compete with MarQueis [Gray] and Moses Alipate. We're going to have great competition at the tailback position with DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett here now, and three young guys coming in this fall who are talented and have a chance to jump in the mix immediately. We've got some real good situations at linebacker: Sam Maresh and Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis, Spencer Reeves, Aaron Hill, Keanon Cooper, Brent Singleton. The linebackers are young, but they're talented. That's going to be good to see.

For Weber, he's in a unique position, being the starter for three years and now competing for the job. How do you keep his confidence level up? What's his mental approach going into the spring?

TB: I couldn't be more excited about adding [new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach] Jeff Horton. Jeff is an outstanding teacher. I love his demeanor. Never gets too high, never gets too low, very down the middle. He's got a very quarterback-friendly personality. The system, there's nothing complicated about what we're going to try to accomplish, and it's really going to allow Adam to go out and play well. It's going to allow MarQueis a chance to compete for the quarterback position. And it'll be exciting to see Moses Alipate. But certainly Adam's experience gives him a leg up. Again, I've been really pleased with Jeff's control there at that position. Those guys are really going to benefit from Jeff's experience.

Do you have a timetable in mind of where you'd like to be at quarterback by the end of the spring?

TB: You'd love to see the position sort itself out by the end of spring practice. You'd love to have your starter in place. We're not going to go into training camp with a quarterback competition. We want to go in with a guy who is our starter, and I certainly think it'll play itself out that way. They're all going to get plenty of opportunity this spring to show what they can do. We're going to have some situations with the quarterbacks where the quarterback will be live [able to take on contact]. We haven't done that in the past. It will give us a chance to really evaluate the position well.

You've talked a lot about the offensive line and needing to upgrade there. What do you expect from that group this spring?

TB: There's really good competition there, and Tim Davis is going to continue to do a good job in developing that group. We've got to get better up front, and I certainly believe we will be better with another year under Tim and in the system. Ed Olson is really a talented young redshirt freshman offensive tackle. He's going to really push Jeff Wills. We've got competition at center, we've got competition at guard. We're in a situation now where we've got a little depth, and it'll also be interesting, we're bringing in some really talented offensive linemen in this recruiting class. I understand that it's not easy for a freshman to come in and contribute, but it's done. You look across the country and there's a number of young guys that step in and help. We're really excited about Jimmy Gjere. He's a very talented young kid. He'll be here in June, he'll be with us all summer. He's weighing 310 pounds now, he's almost 6-foot-8, very athletic. I'll tell you a guy who's going to get your attention, a tight end we brought in named Tiree Eure, from Lackawanna Junior College. He's been very, very impressive to this point in the conditioning program. He's 6-6, he's 250 pounds and he runs. He's very athletic. We think he's going to help us a bunch as well.

Tuesday in Part II: Outlook at wide receiver, linebacker, defensive line and the secondary.
Minnesota had the Big Ten's most experienced roster in 2009, and there are quite a few holes to be filled this spring. The Gophers must replace nine starters on defense as well as All-Big Ten wide receiver Eric Decker, a team record-holder.

The spring features a competition at quarterback between Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray and plenty of opportunities for young, highly recruited players to step up.

Here's a look at Minnesota's strong point and weak point heading into spring ball, which kicks off March 23.

Strongest position: Safety

  • Key returnees: Senior Kyle Theret (73 tackles, 3 INTs, 7 passes defended); senior Kim Royston (86 passes, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 7 passes defended); senior Ryan Collado (34 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 pass defended).
  • Key departures: None
  • The skinny: Minnesota boasts the Big Ten's top safety tandem in Theret and Royston. The two finished the 2009 season on a high note in the Insight Bowl. Theret had two interceptions and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt, while Royston recorded a career-high 15 tackles, including a forced fumble. Collado provides depth behind them. Although the Gophers lose both starting cornerbacks (Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels), the veteran leadership at safety combined with some exciting young players should fill in the gaps.
Weakest position: Offensive line

  • Key returnees: Tackles Dom Alford, Jeff Wills and Ryan Wynn; guards Matt Carufel, Chris Bunders and Trey Davis; and center D.J. Burris.
  • Key departures: Tackle Matt Stommes, center Jeff Tow-Arnett
  • The skinny: It would be easy to spotlight linebacker or defensive tackle, positions where the Gophers lose multiple starters from 2009. But until the offensive line starts stepping up, this team is going to struggle. Minnesota has ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing yards in each of the past two seasons, which is simply unacceptable for a program steeped in running tradition. The Gophers have experience, but whether these linemen are good enough or tough enough to execute a new scheme remains to be seen.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The final seven Big Ten teams open preseason camp, including defending co-champs Penn State and Ohio State.

Here are three questions for the remaining seven squads during the next four weeks. If you missed Part I, check it out.

MICHIGAN

Camp opens: Monday

1. Will true freshman Tate Forcier create some early separation in the quarterback competition?

Forcier enters camp as the frontrunner after a solid spring, and he could further cement himself as the Wolverines' top quarterback in the coming weeks. He'll face some real competition now as junior Nick Sheridan returns from a broken leg and athletic freshman Denard Robinson joins the mix.

2. Who will step up alongside Brandon Graham on the defensive line?

Michigan brings back a potential All-American in Graham, who has 18.5 sacks the past two seasons. He'll need help up front, though, and the Wolverines need strong camps from Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and William Campbell.

3. How many true freshmen see the field this fall?

The Wolverines will be much more experienced at several positions, but head coach Rich Rodriguez brought in a strong recruiting class, and several freshmen should contribute immediately. Along with Forcier, Robinson and Campbell, running back Vincent Smith impressed this spring and hopes are high for safety Vladimir Emilien. Defensive end Craig Roh also could be one to watch.

MICHIGAN STATE

Camp opens: Monday

1. Will we see any separation at quarterback before Sept. 5?

Head coach Mark Dantonio isn't planning on it and fully intends to play both Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol during non-league play. The two signal-callers paced one another throughout spring ball, but there's a chance one man might be ready to take the job.

2. Can true freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper emerge as the top running backs?

None of Michigan State's older players really took charge in the spring, though Caulton Ray's emergence is intriguing. Many expect Michigan State's heralded recruits to emerge as potential starters by the end of training camp.

3. How will the secondary look by the end of camp?

Dantonio has a very good problem in the secondary -- loads of experience. Eight returning players have starting experience, and that doesn't include safety Trenton Robinson, the story of the spring on defense. The competition in the back four should be fun to watch.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Everything on offense starts with what happens up front, and line play will make or break the season for several Big Ten teams. The league loses a handful of standout linemen, including Rimington Trophy winner A.Q. Shipley, but several teams should reload nicely.

There's a lot to like about the top three, and I don't see any truly bad units in the league.

1. Iowa -- Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back last year, but he had plenty of help. Iowa returns three starters and several key reserves from a line that propelled Greene to 13 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Junior Bryan Bulaga is the league's premier left tackle, while Kyle Calloway provides depth on the other side. The Hawkeyes boast more guard depth than any Big Ten team, a group that includes Dace Richardson, who has resurrected his career after a string of injuries.

2. Ohio State -- A major disappointment in 2008, Ohio State's line should be much improved thanks to experience, the addition of guard Justin Boren and some excellent recruiting. Boren brings a much-needed spark to the line and impressed just about everyone this spring. Center Mike Brewster is a year older, and senior Jim Cordle has shown impressive versatility in shifting to right tackle. The left tackle spot concerns me a bit, but Ohio State has recruited extremely well here.

3. Wisconsin -- The Badgers lose starting guards Andy Kemp and Kraig Urbik, but they always find a way to control the line of scrimmage and return several key pieces. Center John Moffitt and left tackle Gabe Carimi will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and Bill Nagy looks solid at one of the guard spots. If right tackle Josh Oglesby takes a step forward and lives up to his potential, Wisconsin will once again have one of the league's top lines.

4. Northwestern -- The team hopes its skill-position losses will be offset by a much better offensive line, which returns four starters. Northwestern did a good job of limiting sacks last year but should be much better at staying on blocks and buying time for athletic quarterback Mike Kafka. Left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett are both All-Big Ten candidates, and the Wildcats boast plenty of depth after recruiting extremely well to this position.

5. Michigan -- No group will make a bigger jump in Year 2 of the spread offense than the line, which returns four starters. Michigan should be very solid up the middle with center David Molk and guards Stephen Schilling and David Moosman. If the Marks (Ortmann and Huyge) hold up at the tackle spots, a run game led by Brandon Minor will surge. Despite several player departures, Michigan has recruited several standout linemen who will provide depth this fall.

6. Michigan State -- I like the Joels (Foreman and Nitchman), and left tackle Rocco Cironi returns from a shoulder injury, but this group still needs to prove itself. Despite Javon Ringer's success last fall, the line was just average and must fill several gaps. Hopes are high for J'Michael Deane and Jared McGaha after spring ball, and if those players make progress Michigan State will move up the list.

7. Penn State -- The line rivals the secondary as Penn State's biggest concern entering the fall. In addition to Shipley, the Lions lose tackle Gerald Cadogan and guard Rich Ohrnberger. Only one starter (right tackle Dennis Landolt) returns to the same position he occupied in 2008. Stefen Wisniewski will be fine at center, but Penn State needs tackle DeOn'tae Pannell and others to make a lot of progress during camp.

8. Illinois -- With so much talent at the skill positions, expectations will be high for the Illini line, which drew mixed reviews in 2008. Right guard Jon Asamoah will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and Illinois really likes young right tackle Jeff Allen. The team must fill a big hole at left tackle, though veteran Eric Block slides over from guard to center. This could end up being a very respectable group.

9. Minnesota -- Perhaps no offensive line in the Big Ten intrigues me more than Minnesota's, which is going through a major transition in both scheme and technique with assistant Tim Davis. The Gophers are returning to their roots as a power-run offense, but they'll have to adjust quickly to all the changes. Left tackle Matt Stommes could be a pro prospect if things fall right, and the mammoth Jeff Wills lines up on the other side of the line. Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel joins the mix as a starting guard.

10. Purdue -- Injuries decimated the two-deep last year, and Purdue used seven different starting lineups up front. The Boilers are much healthier entering the fall and should be much better. Young players like right guard Ken Plue gained valuable experience last fall, and he rejoins veterans Jared Zwilling, Zach Reckman and Zach Jones. The big question is how quickly the group jells as Purdue wants to stress the run game more this fall.

11. Indiana -- Much like Purdue, injuries hit Indiana's line especially hard last fall. The Hoosiers have two proven veterans in left tackle Rodger Saffold and center Pete Saxon, both of whom have started for three seasons. If those two can lead the way and young players like Justin Pagan and Will Matte continue to develop, Indiana will be much improved here.

Minnesota spring wrap

May, 6, 2009
5/06/09
9:25
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2008 overall record: 7-6

2008 conference record: 3-5

Returning starters

Offense: 10; Defense: 8; Special teams: 0

Top returners

QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, WR Ben Kuznia, DT Garrett Brown, LB Simoni Lawrence, CB Traye Simmons, CB Marcus Sherels, LB Lee Campbell

Key losses

TE Jack Simmons, DE Willie VanDeSteeg, LB Deon Hightower, P Justin Kucek

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: DeLeon Eskridge* (678 yds)
Passing: Adam Weber* (2,761 yds)
Receiving: Eric Decker* (1,074 yds)
Tackles: Lee Campbell* (80)
Sacks: Willie VanDeSteeg (10.5)
Interceptions: Traye Simmons* (4)

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 at Syracuse
Sept. 12 Air Force
Sept. 19 California
Sept. 26 at Northwestern
Oct. 3 Wisconsin
Oct. 10 Purdue
Oct. 17 at Penn State
Oct. 24 at Ohio State
Oct. 31 Michigan State
Nov. 7 Illinois
Nov. 14 South Dakota State
Nov. 21 at Iowa

Spring answers

1. Gray day -- Heralded recruit MarQueis Gray finally got on the practice field for the Gophers this spring, and he lived up to the hype. Gray won't take the starting quarterback job away from junior Adam Weber, but he'll definitely be a part of the offense this fall. Minnesota likely will have some special packages for Gray, who completed 8 of 10 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

2. Defensive depth -- Minnesota loses only three starters from an improved defense, and new coordinator Kevin Cosgrove should have plenty of options this fall. Cedric McKinley appears ready to step into a primary pass-rushing role with Willie VanDeSteeg departing, and the defensive tackle spot will be a strength with co-captains Eric Small and Garrett Brown. Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston should see time at safety after a strong spring.

3. Troy's time -- After showing impressive speed on kickoff returns last fall, sophomore Troy Stoudermire will be asked to do much more for the Gophers in 2009. Stoudermire saw time as a wide receiver this spring and accounted for 274 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Head coach Tim Brewster is looking for playmakers, and Stoudermire fits the description.

Fall questions

1. Running back -- The Gophers will emphasize the power run in their new-look offense, but who carries the ball remains to be seen. Projected starter Duane Bennett was held out of contact this spring and both DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon missed time with injuries. Redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley showed some promise in the spring game with 63 rush yards and a touchdown, but the position remains a bit of a mystery.

2. Offensive line -- Not surprisingly, the offensive line endured some growing pains this spring as it adjusted to the new scheme being implemented by line coach Tim Davis and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. The Gophers return four starters up front, but several players have been moved around and two new tackles (Matt Stommes and Jeff Wills) likely will start the season.

3. Maresh musings -- Everyone in Minnesota is pulling for freshman linebacker Sam Maresh, who practiced this spring less than nine months after undergoing open-heart surgery. Maresh played a decent amount in the spring game and showed some potential. If he can avoid any further setbacks, he could be in the mix at linebacker this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As we begin to wrap up spring practice, here's a snapshot of some things I thought I'd see around the Big Ten this spring and how they actually turned out.

1. The quarterback position improves in the league -- It couldn't get much worse after last year, but the Big Ten should be much better under center in 2009. Not only did starters like Penn State's Daryll Clark, Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi have strong springs, but other teams (Michigan State, Minnesota) can feel better about their depth at quarterback heading into the summer.

2. Kirk Cousins creates some distance in Michigan State's QB race -- Cousins showed moxie as Brian Hoyer's backup last year, and his experience figured to give him an edge against Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol. While Cousins had a strong spring, so did Nichol, and the two sophomores matched stats (357 pass yards, 4 TDs) in the spring game. The competition is neck-and-neck entering the summer.

3. Some growing pains with Minnesota's offense -- The Gophers made a dramatic shift in offensive philosophy with new coordinator Jedd Fisch and line coach/run-game coordinator Tim Davis, and there figured to be a few bumps in the road this spring. The offensive line struggled a bit to adapt to the pro-set, power-run scheme, but Minnesota saw several young skill players, namely backup quarterback MarQueis Gray and wideout Troy Stoudermire, step up in the spring game.

4. Jewel Hampton establishes himself as Iowa's top running back -- Overshadowed by Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene last fall, Hampton turned in a very solid freshman season (463 rush yards, 7 TDs, 5.1 ypg). He has what it takes to be a featured back for the Hawkeyes, but injuries this spring slowed his progress a bit. Hampton still enters the summer as the projected starter at running back.

5. Personnel losses sting Penn State -- I was wrong about the departures at the defensive line, as sophomore Jack Crawford and others look capable of continuing Penn State's tradition up front. The Lions also made some progress at wide receiver, but they struggled in the secondary and along the offensive line. The line should jell over time, but the rebuilt secondary could be a major problem entering the season.

6. Newcomers/transfers make an impact -- Back in February, I listed five players in the spotlight this spring: Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, Michigan State quarterback Keith Nichol, Ohio State guard and Michigan transfer Justin Boren, Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips and Minnesota tackle Jeff Wills. Forcier established himself as the frontrunner for Michigan's starting job, Nichol kept pace with Cousins, Boren set the tone for Ohio State's offensive line, Phillips made a late push to put pressure on Dustin Sherer and Wills emerged as Minnesota's starting right tackle.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota offensive lineman Jason Meinke has decided to leave the program, head coach Tim Brewster announced Wednesday afternoon. 

Meinke, a 6-5, 278-pound offensive tackle, appeared in 17 games for Minnesota and started eight games last fall. The Gophers have restructured the offense behind new coordinator Jedd Fisch and line coach Tim Davis, and they opened spring practice Tuesday with Matt Stommes and junior college transfer Jeff Wills as the first-team tackles. 

"Jason has decided to leave the program to focus on academics and finish work on his degree here at the U.," Brewster said in a statement. "We thank Jason for his contributions and his hard work and wish him the best." 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- There's a noticeable buzz around Minnesota football right now, with a new on-campus stadium opening this fall and plenty on the agenda for spring practice, which began Tuesday. The Gophers welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a new offensive system, which will look more what fans are used to in the Twin Cities.

 
  Jeff Gross/Getty Images
  Minnesota coach Tim Brewster is excited about the depth he has coming back this season.

Head coach Tim Brewster saw the team improve its record by six games last fall, but the Gophers ended on a five-game slide, including a 55-0 thrashing at the hands of archrival Iowa. With 10 offensive starters back and several playmakers on the defensive side, Minnesota hopes to take another step forward this fall, but will negotiate what appears to be a much tougher schedule. Here are Brewster's thoughts on the squad as spring ball gets under way.

It seems pretty ambitious what you guys are doing this spring, with the new guys, the scheme tweaks and changes. Is it one of the more ambitious spring practice sessions you've been a part of?

Tim Brewster: I just don't think it's quite as ambitious as you think. We installed quite a bit of the offense before the bowl game. To me, what's exciting about where we're at is we've got some depth, we've got some experienced players, but more importantly, some really talented players coming back. And then when you add to the mix guys like [linebackers] Keanon Cooper, Spencer Reeves and Gary Tinsley, some of these guys particularly on defense, that's really an exciting thing for us.

You said you wouldn't trade [quarterback] Adam [Weber] for anybody in the country. You also think highly of MarQueis Gray. Do you envision MarQueis just sitting and waiting the next two years?

TB: No, no. We're going to incorporate MarQueis into every game. We'll go in with a plan on how we're going to utilize him. I brought [Texas offensive coordinator] Greg Davis up here from Texas, and I talked to Greg about how they incorporated Vince [Young] into the game plan in Vince's redshirt freshman year. He played every game, but what was the real thought process that went into it. We really had some good conversations on how to do that. It's a tough thing because of the flow of the game. You say, 'I want him to play the third series.' Well, something may dictate that the third series, you want to keep Adam in the game. But he'll make a contribution. Heck, MarQueis could play wide receiver. MarQueis could be a running back. There's a lot of different ways to utilize a player of his ability.

Does it help to have that reference point with Vince Young?

TB: Very strong similarities between the two. But the biggest challenge is this: We've been really lucky. Adam Weber's taken every snap. At some point, injuries happen. Is MarQueis Gray ready to step in and drive this car and run this offense? That's the biggest challenge that [new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch] has, making sure MarQueis Gray is ready to be a full-time quarterback. He's the No. 2 quarterback at worst right now, so that's a real challenge.

It seems like line play is going to be a focus on both sides of the ball.

TB: Yes, and I think we're going to be much better up front. It really helped moving [left tackle] Dom Alford inside. Ryan Wynn is a very talented guy who was playing right tackle. He doesn't need to be a right tackle. He'll play at center, possibly at guard. Matt Carufel, also [at guard]. And then you look at the development of [left tackle Matt] Stommes. Stommes' measurables, shoot, the NFL people who have come in here have said, 'Who the heck is that?' It's kind of like the guy's come out of nowhere. And [right tackle Jeff] Wills' development is going to be big. Is he putting himself in a position where he can be a starter?

Some people would look to the secondary and say look what you guys did there last year, but it sounds like you're almost more excited about the D-line and the linebackers.

TB: I really am. The front seven for us has got a chance to be really good. I think we'll be good on the back end, too. We're just a little thin. A kid like [cornerback] Michael Carter coming in, Michael's going to have to play as a freshman. And we've got some other guys. Today it's so hard to find defensive linemen, and particularly the young inside guys, Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey, they've got a chance to be really good. And then you've got [Eric] Small and [Garrett] Brown. So we've got four inside guys. And then I think we'll be better on the edge. D.L. Wilhite's a kid who redshirted last year and has got really good speed. And with [Cedric] McKinley, [Derek] Onwuachi, we've got some guys there.

The spring gives you a chance to find some playmakers, too, especially with Weber limited and Eric Decker playing baseball.

TB: Eric Decker's going to be ready to play. What I'm concerned about is somebody else being ready. That's how you've got to look at it, a positive thing and not a negative thing.

You mentioned last year's team was significantly improved. Is that the same goal for 2009?

TB: This year, we want to make the same improvement, but it's a tougher step, a much tougher step, particularly with a much tougher schedule.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota kicked off spring ball this afternoon as the team held its first practice indoors at Rod Wallace Field. Players and coaches seemed amped up to get started, and here are some notes from the Gophers' first workout.

  • Linebacker Sam Maresh participated in his first practice as college player after battling back from open heart surgery last summer and a benign tumor in his left calf discovered this winter. Maresh worked with the third team and ran a bit gingerly, but he looks strong at 6-foot-3 and 235 and should improve throughout the spring. The first-team linebackers consisted of Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence, while Gary Tinsley and Ryan Grant alternated at the third spot. Freshman Keanon Cooper certainly brings speed to the group, but he's a bit undersized at outside 'backer.
  • The Gophers' four new coaches are fun to watch, particularly offensive line coach Tim Davis and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who employs some creative teaching techniques. The line will be a focal point throughout the spring as Minnesota transitions to a pro-style, power run offense. The first-team line consisted of left tackle Matt Stommes, left guard Dom Alford, center Trey Davis, right guard Matt Carufel and right tackle Jeff Wills.
  • Stommes, who made a meteoric rise to a starting tackle position after switching from defensive line, passes the eye test. He flat out looks like an athlete at left tackle. Wills, a junior college transfer, is huge but probably needs to improve his conditioning just a touch. Tim Davis rode him pretty hard for not finishing a drill.
  • The NCAA prevents teams from hitting during the first three practices, so starting quarterback Adam Weber (shoulder surgery) participated alongside backup MarQueis Gray, who looks every bit 6-foot-4 and showed good arm strength on several throws. Fisch spent time working with the quarterbacks on quick releases and at one point had them throw passes any way but overhand, to expand the types of throws (sidearm, flips) they need to make in games. "Turn that double play," Fisch told Weber and Gray while working on their releases.
  • Running back Duane Bennett, who comes off ACL surgery, ran with the first-team offense along with fullback Jon Hoese, wide receiver Brandon Green and others.
  • The best line of the practice came from defensive line coach Tim Cross after several players jumped early on a drill with the blocking sled. "You can't make a mistake being an assassin," Cross said. "One shot, one kill."
  • David Pittman, Green and Marcus Sherels (out for spring ball after shoulder surgery) worked as return men during a special-teams period.
  • Guard Ned Tavale definitely makes my early All-Big Ten hair team. Nice 'do.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The spring practice primer continues today with five newcomers to watch as Big Ten teams return to the field next month.

All five of these men could play critical roles come September.

Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier -- The true freshman from San Diego, who enrolled early, is considered the frontrunner for the starting job after incumbent Steven Threet transferred earlier this month. Forcier boasts the skill set to run Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. If he catches on quickly this spring, he'll likely be the man to beat when fellow freshman Denard Robinson arrives in the summer.

Michigan State quarterback Keith Nichol -- Nichol sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma and will begin competing this spring for the starting job alongside Kirk Cousins. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Nichol ran Michigan State's scout team last year and fits the Drew Stanton-like mold as an adept runner as well as a passer. Cousins enters the spring with a slight edge after backing up Brian Hoyer last year, but Nichol isn't too far behind.

Ohio State guard Justin Boren -- He's hardly a newcomer to the Big Ten, but the news-making transfer from Michigan hits the practice field this spring seeking a starting job. The 6-3, 320-pound Boren, who started all 13 games for Michigan in 2007, may very well emerge as Ohio State's best offensive lineman this spring. He could cement himself as a starter on a line that underperformed last fall.

Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips -- A heralded recruit from Tennessee, Phillips joins a wide-open competition under center after redshirting last season. Named Wisconsin's offensive scout team player of the year in 2008, the strong-armed Phillips could be the long-term answer at quarterback that the Badgers sorely need. He'll compete alongside incumbent Dustin Sherer, Scott Tolzien, James Stallons and true freshman Jon Budmayr, another key newcomer.

Minnesota tackle Jeff Wills -- As the Gophers resurrect the power run game this spring, Wills should play a key role on a line that struggled for much of last season. Coming from the same junior college that produced Bryant McKinnie, Wills has excellent size (6-7, 350) and will compete for a starting position right away. "He may be one of the biggest humans I've ever been around," head coach Tim Brewster said of Wills.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota will add six players to its roster when spring practice begins March 24, including highly touted 2008 commits MarQueis Gray and Sam Maresh.

The Gophers also announced Thursday that starting safety Tramaine Brock will miss spring ball, though head coach Tim Brewster expects Brock to re-enroll during the summer and be eligible for the 2009 season.

Gray, a gifted dual-threat quarterback, left the team last season after the ACT board flagged his test scores. The Indianapolis native passed the ACT in November and should be the front-runner to back up Adam Weber next season.

Maresh, a standout linebacker, underwent heart surgery in June to repair his aortic valve but has recovered in time to begin practicing with the team this spring.

"Sam and his story are amazing," Brewster said in a statement. "It is truly a blessing for the state of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota to have him representing the university and playing football. He's been through a great deal. I'm just thankful and excited that he's healthy, doing well and ready to join our program."

Linebacker Spencer Reeves, another decorated 2008 recruit, also will rejoin the team for spring ball along with junior college transfer Jeff Wills, an offensive tackle. Minnesota also welcomes two transfers, former Notre Dame guard Matt Carufel and former Wisconsin safety Kim Royston, both of whom sat out last season in compliance with NCAA rules.

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