Big Ten: Jim Harbaugh
Spring practice is generally a time to analyze and get excited about the new, and there is plenty of that in Ann Arbor this year. A new battle for the starting quarterback job started this week. There are new potential stars like defensive back Jabrill Peppers and running back Ty Isaac expected to make an impact next fall. And of course, there is the new coaching staff.
But it’s the offensive line, the only group that returns fully intact from a year ago, that might determine how much and how fast the Wolverines can improve. Two years of serving as the program’s on-field whipping boys leaves the linemen eager to practice whatever its coaches preach.
"There’s something special there," said Tim Drevno, who will coach the line along with his play-calling duties as offensive coordinator. "They want to be taught, and they want to be coached, and they want to be demanded on. You couldn’t ask for anything better. There is nobody resisting what we’re doing."
Drevno was aware of the criticism his charges have faced during the past couple years. The relatively young group floundered through the better part of the past two seasons. In 2013, the Wolverines finished near the bottom of national rankings in sacks allowed (109th) and rushing yards (103rd). Those numbers improved to the middle of the pack last fall, but not enough to quiet the disparaging remarks.
Harbaugh and Drevno have transformed more inept offenses together in the past. In 2007, they left the University of San Diego to take over the Pac-10’s worst offense at Stanford. They turned the Cardinal into a BCS bowl winner in four years. The offensive line and its power running game served as an effective sledgehammer for that remodel, and remain one of Stanford’s biggest strengths almost a decade later.
Michigan’s current skill players -- an inevitably inexperienced quarterback, young receivers and well-stocked backfield -- make the same type of power offense the program’s best bet for fast results.
"The biggest thing is just getting a great knowledge of the offense and where we want to go with it," Drevno said. "Finding out our personality on offense and who we’re going to be and what schemes we’re going to run."
The first step in that process is developing a tough mentality on the line, something Drevno says the new coaching staff will demand from his players.
"Yeah, you demand it from them," he said. "You get them to trust you. You invite them over to your house for a barbecue. You tell them that you love them. You get them to play for you. It’s pretty cool when it happens."
All of Michigan’s coaches have made a point to say they want to evaluate players without any preconceived notions of who fits where. None of the five returning starters is guaranteed his spot this season. Drevno said the first thing he wants to see from his players is how well they translate what they learn in meetings to the field. Though they are just two practices into the spring, he said he has been happy with his group’s desire to learn and willingness to be active in meetings.
"They’re going to come off the football. They’re going to know where to go," he said. "They’re going to have a want-to, a brotherhood, they’re going to take control in the room, and they’re going to lead us."
Of course, it was about Harbaugh.
“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever been around,” U-M offensive coordinator Tim Drevo told reporters Thursday night after the Wolverines’ second practice of the spring.
What, not the smartest man in the world?
It should be noted that Drevno, 45, worked with Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007 to 2010. If you take him at his word on Harbaugh, it’s safe to assume Drevno didn’t get out and about much on the Stanford campus, which is full of its share of smart people.
Otherwise, in this opening week, Drevo said he likes what he’s seen from Michigan, which returns its entire offensive line.
Drevno, who will call plays next season and coaches the line, told the Detroit News:
“There’s something special in there. Are we there yet? No. It’s Day 2, but there’s something special in there, and I’m excited about it.”
Ah, the optimism of spring.
Some intriguing data and excellent analysis here by Joseph Juan of numberFire on the NFL combine results of Melvin Gordon.
According to the numbers, the former Wisconsin All-American compares favorably to many of the great running backs of this generation.
Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. ... As a testament to the rarity of Gordon’s collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth for (build, speed, power and explosiveness.)
The writer finds, in conclusion, that Gordon “appears that he’s primed for a breakout rookie season.”
Full disclaimer: While I enjoy the NFL draft, I’m not sold on the predictive ability of the combine, pro days or individual workouts. I think a player’s body of work in college serves as the best indicator of his NFL potential -- and Gordon couldn’t have done much better in that category.
Stats and measurements can be interpreted to make just about any argument. Nevertheless, the numberFire breakdown of Gordon is solid.
I agree that he’s got a chance to join the backs to whom he’s compared in this article. But the organization that drafts him in May likely ranks as the top factor in determining his shot to make a rookie splash.
A Friday trip around the rest of the Big Ten:
- The quarterback competition is just getting started at Northwestern.
- Mark Dantonio is understandably bullish on Michigan State's chances to maintain its top-five status from the past two seasons.
- Indiana's cornerbacks under the spring spotlight.
- Doran Grant will be difficult to replace for an Ohio State secondary that made huge strides in 2014.
- Nebraska's 2015 roster is the best in the Big Ten West, according to this analysis.
- Penn State running back commitment Miles Sanders added a scholarship offer from Alabama.
- A spring preview of Rutgers from the Big Ten Network.
- Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Brad Craddock is the only repeat member of Maryland's leadership council, the Terps' version of captains.
- Social media can be a friend or enemy to college athletes.
And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.
The conference’s plan to circulate a white paper regarding keeping football and basketball players off the field for their first year on campus has become a hot topic for anyone involved with college sports this week. Reactions have ranged from cautious support to complete dismissal to “I don’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
The Big Ten’s release was flushed out with a handful of ideas that Delaney and his athletic directors would like NCAA members to mull over in the next year leading up to the organization’s national convention. Of the brainstorming icebreakers -- which included time commitments, length of season and academic requirements – the only one to gain much attention was the most outlandish and improbable: freshman ineligibility. Maybe that was the point.
Several theories about the proposal’s actual intent have been floated in the past few days: Maybe this week’s meeting was purely a public relations stunt so Delaney and other could proudly tout the Big Ten’s commitment to academics. Maybe it was to try to nudge the NBA toward raising its minimum age requirement. Or maybe it was an attention-grabbing idea designed to stir up enough interest that smart minds started thinking about more logical solutions.
The possibility of the idea actually becoming an NCAA rule seems both unrealistic and counterintuitive. This is an all-or-nothing deal, and the vast majority of Div. I universities that don’t deal with one-and-done players don’t have the resources (or the motivation) to give all their student-athletes an extra year of scholarship money. The NCAA already created a rule that will keep academically at risk athletes off the field as freshmen. It goes into effect in 2016. Does it make sense to punish the freshmen that are ready to handle school and sport by making them sit out a year too?
If the schools are genuine in their academic-first approach, shouldn’t they focus on the other ideas that create an environment where the workload for athletics is manageable for all student-athletes regardless of their year? Doesn’t the “Year of Readiness” discourage student-athletes from finishing their degrees in four years? Why rush when you know you’ve got five years on campus? And doesn’t that set student-athletes apart from all of their other peers? Isn’t that the perception the NCAA is trying to avoid in the first place?
The Big Ten’s idea, which has been endorsed by commissioners from the Big 12 and the Pac-12 as well, raises plenty of questions. If that was the point, then kudos, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And now, onto your links…
- The quarterbacks and offensive linemen are players to watch as Northwestern gets spring practice started this week.
- A film room-style breakdown of how Ohio State’s offense got better during the 2014 season.
- Penn State ticket prices for 2015 are out. Michigan and Rutgers will be the most expensive games of the year for fans.
- A good week at the NFL combine reflects well on Michigan State’s program, says Mark Dantonio.
- It’s the more, the merrier at quarterback for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan this spring.
- The majority of Rutgers’ fans are ready to forgive Ray Rice and welcome him back to campus.
- Maryland’s football team is warming up for spring practice with a little dunk contest.
- The assistant coaches at Wisconsin are getting a small bump in salary under new coach Paul Chryst.
- Brian Stewart brings college and professional experience to his new role with the Cornhuskers.
- Could Iowa’s Brandon Scherff follow in the footsteps of former college tackle and current All-Pro guard Zack Martin?
Jim Harbaugh’s first day on the practice field at Michigan -- four hours of work that flew by for him, but maybe not his players – was void of specific details. Right now, the new coach and his staff are just looking for ballplayers.
Players, to some degree, are free to start working at the position they feel suits them best. Harbaugh doesn’t have any timetable yet for when he wants players to settle into their spots or when he wants the staff to rank them in some form of a depth chart. He said he had not given those types of deadlines any thought leading into Tuesday’s opening practice.
There are new schemes to learn and plenty of position battles yet to be settled for the Wolverines, starting with the quarterback, but those are not top priorities for Harbaugh’s first spring. The coach has made a career out of rehabbing football teams in relatively short order. The first step is usually establishing the expectations and culture for everyone involved.
A lack of talent or specific, technical skillsets are not what held Michigan to a losing record last fall. They won’t be the focus while trying to build a foundation this spring. For Harbaugh, winning starts with overcoming bite-sized obstacles on a daily basis.
“Our expectations are really high,” he said. “They were high for a great practice today and they’ll be high for a great practice on Thursday and great meetings on Wednesday. We’ll try to make them the best of the year if we can.”
Harbaugh filled the void of football information during his first post-practice Q&A session with his unique and quirky enthusiasm – unbridled excitement over returning to Michigan and “rolling the balls out there and letting the fellas compete.” When asked to describe how he felt about his first day back in cleats he ripped off a string of analogies likening the experience to most substantial memories in a person’s life. Birthdays, holidays, first days of school and “the birth of Christ” were all included.
Michigan started its spring practices earlier than any other Big Ten team this season (Northwestern begins Wednesday). Harbaugh said that was in part because the team hadn’t put on pads since November without a bowl game or December practices to stretch their schedule. His description of getting started, though, leads one to believe that the real reason for the early schedule is the coach couldn’t bear to go much longer without getting his hands on a football.
While Harbaugh’s unconventional answers are fun for onlookers, don’t mistake them for unintentional or uncalculated. The message he is sending in front of microphones is the same he is trying to relay to his team: Don’t worry about the hurdles to come or when they’ll be cleared, just hit the ground running as fast as you can.
The specifics will be addressed eventually. Harbaugh said he plans to both evaluate his players and spend time with the more technical aspects of a new coaching staff such as installing schemes during the next month of practice. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, it’s more about coaching enthusiasm than expertise.
Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.
Wednesday's roundtable topic: What's the biggest surprise among the Big Ten coaching job rankings?
Dan Murphy: Wisconsin at No. 24
The Badgers checked in at No. 24, which seems a little bit high given the recent turnover rate in Madison. In the past three years, Wisconsin has lost head coaches to Arkansas (No. 21) and Oregon State (No. 50). At least part of the reason for that attrition has been tougher recruiting requirements than most places and a smaller budget to go find players. The program has had plenty of recent success because of stability that goes beyond the head coach, but there are uphill battles to be fought when it comes to attracting talent to a Northern school with fewer resources than its competitors. If we're going to get nit-picky, I would drop the Badgers just a few spots.
Brian Bennett: Michigan State at No. 20
I don't disagree with this ranking, but it's still a bit jarring to see the Spartans as a top-20 job, one spot ahead of a traditional power like Nebraska and three spots ahead of Miami. I don't think there's any way we would have considered Michigan State one of the 20 best jobs even 10 years ago, so this speaks volumes about the job Mark Dantonio has done. His program has been rolling along, finishing in the top 5 of the final wire-service rankings in each of the past two years while winning a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl and piling up at least 11 victories in four of the past five years. Facility upgrades have helped as well. Lots of people like to forecast a future drop-off for the Spartans, but Dantonio has built this into a program with staying power.
Mitch Sherman: Michigan at No. 14
Recent performance, of course, belies the notion that Michigan is a top-10 job, but history confirms it. Even after two straight losing Big Ten seasons -- the Wolverines have finished under .500 in league play, amazingly, five times in the past seven years -- this remains an elite job. Yes, it's his alma mater, but Jim Harbaugh wouldn't pass on the NFL for the 14th-best college opportunity. Really, there are six jobs in the SEC better than Michigan, the winningest program in college football history? No. With the right coach, it doesn't matter to Michigan that so much of the prep talent has migrated to the South. The Wolverines can recruit anywhere. Their brand is iconic, on par with Ohio State (No. 4 on this list). The Buckeyes deserve a higher spot than Michigan because of the current state of both programs, but U-M belongs in the top 10.
1. It's great to have football back, even if it's only spring practice. Michigan was the first Big Ten team to open spring drills on Tuesday, and Northwestern hits the field for the first time Wednesday.
What's also great is the, uh, unique way Jim Harbaugh answers questions. While Michigan likely will never be much of a fountain of information under its new head coach (or the previous one, or ...), at least Harbaugh gives some unorthodox quotes. Like his response to a Q&A on the school's website about what it's like to start spring drills:
It's like Thanksgiving. It's like New Year's Day. It's like a family reunion. And having it all rolled into one. Most people think of Jan. 1 as the start of a new year. To people who espouse to Catholicism and Christianity, they might correlate that with the birth of Christ. Us in football, the start of spring practice and the first day of summer training camp are what you look at as the New Year with fireworks going off, it's your birthday. It's being born back into football, it's a happening.
Q: So it's the birth of a new team?
Yeah, it's like coming out of the mother's womb. You're in a nice, warm, cozy environment -- safe. And now you are out into the chaos and bright lights. It's a happening. It's all those things rolled into one.
And it's also like the first day of school. You're so excited for that first day of school, and the night before you set out your clothes, you stuff your lunch into a lunch box, and off you go. It's the start. It's laying down a benchmark. Now we have a place to start from. We have a place to improve from. We have a place to go forward from, and you hope to lay that benchmark halfway up the mountain -- and not way down on the flat land.
Michigan's first practice was full of enthusiasm and energy, Harbaugh said.
2. Now that the NFL combine's over and we know who the top performers were, who rose and who fell from the Big Ten?
Much of that is subjective, of course, but just about everybody agrees that Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes helped himself the most. With his ridiculous 4.31 time in the 40-yard dash and other great showings in the drills, Waynes is rocketing up draft boards. According to NFL.com's Charles Davis, "Waynes has put himself in the top 10-15 territory."
Our Todd McShay is not as bullish as Waynes' former high school teammate, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. McShay writes that Gordon "had a decent workout but not a great one, putting up results that were average or above-average in every category." Still, our Scouts Inc. says Gordon still has a good shot to go late in the first round and adds that Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah emerged as a sleeper "who should land somewhere in the Day 2 range."
But analyst Mike Huguenin writes that Abdullah was one of five players who hurt his stock, thanks to his 4.6 time in the 40. Huguenin also includes Michigan's Devin Funchess in the stock down.
You know what they say: It only takes one team to fall in love with you.
Around the league ...
- Pat Fitzgerald gave a preview of what to expect at Northwestern's spring practice.
- Michigan State is a program about to decline? Mark Dantonio scoffs at that notion.
- Purdue's Gerad Parker has returned to his passion: coaching receivers.
- The salary pool for Wisconsin assistants will see a modest increase.
- Urban Meyer and the Ohio State cruise ship finally returned to port last night.
- James Franklin will be the headliner on Penn State's coaches caravan. A recruit received 107 letters from the Nittany Lions.
- Previewing the position battle at cornerback for Indiana this spring.
- Former Huskers have praise for new Nebraska defensive backs coach Brian Stewart.
- Athlon's list of running backs on the rise includes several Big Ten names.
Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.
Tuesday's roundtable topic: What Big Ten coaching job has the most upside?
Brian Bennett: Maryland
You can look at this question a number of ways. I chose to view it as a program that's not currently viewed in any way, shape or form as one of the nation's top jobs, yet has the potential for serious growth. That's why I picked the Terrapins. Granted, to do so means to ignore much of history, as Maryland's past couple of decades contain a lot of mediocrity (or worse). Ardent fan support isn't really there, either; this is anecdotal, but here at the Big Ten blog, we almost never hear a peep from Terps fans (and the ACC folks will tell you the same was true in their neighborhood).
Even still, this job has a lot of things going for it. The school is located in a fertile, if highly competitive, location for recruits. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank could be Maryland's version of Phil Knight, pouring money into the program and upping the "coolness" factor. Ralph Friedgen showed from 2001 to 2003 -- when the Terrapins went 31-8 and finished first or second in the ACC each season -- that very good things are possible in College Park under the right circumstances. It will be an uphill climb in the East Division, but the upside certainly exists.
Mitch Sherman: Penn State
The Nittany Lions haven’t gone more than five straight years without a 10-win season since the early 1960s -- a streak in jeopardy in 2015 after a tumultuous stretch in the wake of tragedy, scandal and two coaching changes. Are there 10 wins on Penn State's schedule in 2015? If coach James Franklin can fix the offense during the offseason, maybe. Regardless, Penn State is a 10-win program -- and it can reach greater heights in special seasons, which remain within reach amid the rigorous East Division. Its combination of fan support, resources, natural recruiting ground and history match that of the best programs in the Big Ten.
Three years ago, Penn State wasn’t a top-five coaching job in the league. The work of Franklin, predecessor Bill O’Brien and the school administration has repositioned the Nittany Lions to emerge from this dark period and make strides as significant as any Big Ten team during the next two to three years.
Dan Murphy: Michigan
Michigan's program isn't in the top tier of the Big Ten right now, but it offers the biggest reward for the coach who can boost this team up a level. Much like at Penn State, all of the resources (financial and human) that come with a winning tradition are in place in Ann Arbor. It only takes a little bit of momentum for those advantages to start working in Michigan's favor. If and when they do, the infrastructure is in place for the Wolverines to eventually compete for conference titles and playoff spots. The Michigan coach has opportunities to take incremental steps forward (a bowl game one season, a win over a hated rival the next, etc.) to keep that momentum rolling in the right direction. Jim Harbaugh is already considered one of the top coaches in the game, but a speedy turnaround at Michigan would launch him to exalted status in the Mitten State.
There are more than enough projects and plans to keep Harbaugh busy in his first month of practices at his alma mater. Michigan, coming off a 5-7 season, must replace its starting quarterback, leading tackler and biggest threat in the passing game.
Schedule: The team met Monday and camp will officially open Tuesday, making Michigan the first group in the Big Ten to get started. The Wolverines plan to take a week off during spring break next month and wrap up with the spring game on April 4.
What’s new: If you’re just tuning in for the first time in the past couple months, you may want to sit down. Nine of Michigan’s 10 coaches are new (former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the lone holdover). Jim Hackett, the athletic director who took over in November, is also still getting comfortable in his new role. The change in leadership has altered the attitude around campus, which was needed if the program is eventually going to pull itself out of its nearly decade-long funk.
On the field, Michigan has to replace its starting middle linebacker and a pair of effective pass rushers on a defense that served as the team’s bright spot last fall. Young and talented players have a chance to emerge this spring on the defensive line and in the secondary.
The offense struggled in 2014 (115th nationally in total yardage), but at least won’t have to go through a major personnel overhaul to fit the style of offense Harbaugh and his staff have used in the past. An experienced offensive line is new for Michigan. All five starters from a slowly improving group return this spring, which should provide a bit of stability amid wide-open battles for reps at almost every skill position.
Biggest question: Will a starting quarterback emerge from the pack?
Michigan’s top three options heading into Tuesday’s practice are junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and early enrollee Alex Malzone. Morris is the only signal-caller on the roster with game experience. Harbaugh promised the competition would be a “meritocracy” with everyone starting on an equal plane. Spring won’t likely end with a starter in place. The pecking order, though, should be more clear by the beginning of April. Any one of that trio can do himself (and Michigan’s entire offense) a big favor by separating from the others in the coming few weeks.
Three things we want to see:
1. How will the secondary shake out? More than 80 percent of Michigan’s defensive backfield was listed as a “DB” on the team’s spring roster rather than given a more specific role at cornerback or safety. That list includes redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who was expected to be an instant impact player before injuries ended his debut season in September. Peppers intimated he would be moving to safety, and more experiments with position shifting may occur this spring while the staff attempts to put together what could become a very athletic secondary.
2. Progress in the running game. Stanford’s turnaround under Harbaugh was in large part thanks to an offense that closely resembled a battering ram. Michigan has the potential to take strides in that direction this season with big backs like Derrick Green (234 pounds) and Ty Isaac (240 pounds) leading the way. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno played a big role in upgrading the Cardinal’s offensive line. The speed with which he can push Michigan’s line in the right direction will be a deciding factor in the outlook for the Wolverines’ final record in 2015.
3. The Durkin/Mattison collaboration. Mattison remains on staff but hands the keys to his defense to 35-year-old D.J. Durkin, who most recently served as interim head coach at Florida. Durkin is a rising star in the coaching profession and is known for his aggressive mentality in play-calling. The potentially awkward situation of a former and current coordinator working together isn’t expected to be a big issue. Mattison was the consummate team player under Brady Hoke, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be under Harbaugh. It will be more interesting to see how the veteran and well-respected defensive mind meshes with the up-and-coming Durkin and what results they produce together on the field.
Why do I feel like everyone on Twitter is talking to Jim Harbaugh these days?
The Wolverines will be warm and cozy at practice inside Al Glick Field House. Northwestern also starts this week. Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska open drills next week, which makes now as good a time as any to review staff openings around the Big Ten.
Presumably, all 14 programs will get back to full strength for spring practice. For now, three teams remain down a man.
Since we last took a divisional look at offseason changes in the East and the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin lost assistant coaches. Brian Stewart left Maryland as defensive coordinator to take the opening at Nebraska.
And Purdue hired Terry Malone over the weekend to coach tight ends.
Malone made it to a 6 a.m. workout Monday with the Boilermakers.
He is an intriguing hire for Purdue. Most recently the tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints, where he was instrumental in the development of 2013 first-team All-Pro pick Jimmy Graham, Malone coordinated Michigan's offense from 2002-05 and also worked under Lloyd Carr as offensive line coach.
Michigan won five league crowns in Malone's nine seasons. He brings an NFL pedigree and a history of success in the Big Ten. Pretty good place to start for the Boilermakers, who have won one Big Ten game in two seasons under coach Darrell Hazell.
The imminent Stewart hire at Nebraska, to replace Charlton Warren as secondary coach, also makes sense for Mike Riley, who generally picks coaches that he or his assistants know. Stewart served a solid stint in 2007-08 with the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator. Also on that Dallas staff was Bruce Read, Nebraska's special teams coach and a longtime Riley assistant.
Stewart is a San Diego native and coached the secondary for the Chargers before his stint in Dallas; Riley, former head coach of the Chargers, and his staff have numerous San Diego ties.
Of little relevance, Stewart, as the Cowboys coordinator, succeeded Mike Zimmer, who -- after the 2003 season -- interviewed for the Nebraska head-coaching job. It went to Bill Callahan, who spent 2012-14 with the Cowboys.
And of minor relevance, Stewart would be the only full-time member of the Nebraska staff to coach a game at Memorial Stadium. He spent three seasons at Missouri, losing to the Huskers in 1996 and 2000 in Lincoln and in 1999 at Mizzou.
Here's a rundown of the programs with open positions:
- Illinois still has an opening after the January firing of two assistant coaches. The spot yet to be filled was vacated by special teams coach Tim Salem, though coach Tim Beckman might hire for a different position. Beckman said recently that he had interviewed internal candidates and likely would assign Alex Golesh, the Fighting Illini recruiting coordinator who worked last season with running backs and tight ends, to handle a heavy load on special teams next season.
- Maryland needs an assistant to replace Stewart. Inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski was promoted to defensive coordinator.
- Wisconsin must hire a running backs coach to replace Thomas Brown, who left for alma mater, Georgia. John Settle, who coached the position for the Badgers from 2006-10 and for Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh last season, has been mentioned in reports as a candidate.
- Michigan features a bigger backfield as spring practice opens. How will Harbaugh's big personality impact the Wolverines?
- A few Northwestern players decide to support their basketball team -- in full pads.
- Former Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes had a great day at the NFL combine.
- Ex-Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon mmight land in the first round of the NFL draft.
- Yet another reason for the Hawkeyes to be proud of Hayden Fry's contributions to Iowa.
- The coach of Ohio State running back recruit Mike Weber feels much better now about Urban Meyer.
- A review of Minnesota's three former stars at combine.
- Five players with the most to gain for Nebraska this spring.
- As the Big Ten mulls the eligibility of true freshmen, here are five rookie performances that helped Rutgers.
- Former longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is headed to UCLA after one season at West Virginia.
Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford turned in the best 40-yard dash time of any running back at Lucas Oil Fieldhouse. He topped out at 4.42 seconds, one of the 10 fastest times at any position so far (defensive backs don’t run until Monday), giving most of the population of East Lansing their opportunity to say: “Told you so.”
Langford’s record-breaking senior season at Michigan State went largely unrecognized because of a well-balanced Spartan offense and an overabundance of running back talent in the league this season. His back-to-back 1,400-yard seasons were overshadowed this fall by video game numbers from Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman. Ezekiel Elliott and Ohio State stole the spotlight in the postseason, outshining Langford’s three touchdowns and 162 yards in a Cotton Bowl win over Baylor.
“I’ve been the underdog my whole career,” Langford told reporters in Indianapolis. “I’m excited to get to perform on the same platform as everybody else and let that do the talking.”
Michigan State has earned a reputation for unearthing hidden gems on the recruiting trail and turning them into elite college players. Now, despite the team’s success, it seems their stars are staying under the radar on their way to the next level as well. Combine results are hardly a foolproof indication of future success, but Langford’s underrated speed and tough running style set him up well to be the next Spartan to make a splash in the NFL.
The rest of the Big Ten didn’t disappoint in Indianapolis either. One of the conference alums finished first in six of the seven events tests by pro scouts at the Combine. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah made up for a slower-than-expected 40 time by topping the charts in the vertical leap, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle. Gordon edged him by 0.18 seconds to finish first in the 60-yard shuttle.
The weeklong meat market doesn’t close its doors until the end of the day Monday. But with the majority of players finished with their workouts, few fared better as a group than the touted Big Ten running backs.
And now, on to the links…
- Pat Fitzgerald admitted the unionization movement hurt Northwestern last offseason.
- Purdue added former Saints assistant Terry Malone to its coaching staff.
- Bo Pelini complained that Michigan State's defense was clapping to disrupt Nebraska's snap count this season. Turns out he was right.
- Penn State’s football players had some while helping to raise more than $13 million at THON this year.
- The parade of big names visiting Jim Harbaugh at Michigan will continue in March when his brother, John, headlines the team’s coaching clinic.
- Rutgers redshirt junior Chris Muller got his invite to a Notre Dame recruiting event a few years too late.
- Former Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart might be landing on his feet in Lincoln in the near future.
- Former Big Ten tight ends Maxx Williams (Minnesota) and Jesse James (Penn State) both stood out during drills this weekend.
- A look at how three former Nebraska players got their invites to Indianapolis (subscription required).
- A hamstring injury ended Iowa lineman Brandon Scherff’s workout in Indianapolis prematurely.
On to our next subject. You may have noticed the parade of visitors this week to see Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor.
First, quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Bryce Petty stopped by for some advice en route to the NFL combine.
QBs Jameis Winston (FSU) & Bryce Petty (Baylor) are preparing for the NFL Combine at Schembechler Hall. pic.twitter.com/2ICM9XMVrc— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) February 17, 2015
Then, Ndamukong Suh rolled through Schembechler Hall Thursday, wearing zebra pants, to chat it up with Harbaugh -- and we can only assume to gain wisdom about his upcoming NFL free-agency situation.
Is this brilliant marketing by the Wolverines or just an indication of Harbaugh's natural magnetism? It got us thinking, who's next to visit Harbaugh. Our best guesses:
1. Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett
No problems here; after all, you've gotta keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Harbaugh would welcome a visit from the Ohio State triumvirate. And what aspiring quarterback wouldn't enjoy a relaxing afternoon with Andrew Luck's former college coach? Harbaugh, as a pro QB, battled through broken ribs, shoulder, groin and finger injuries, so, no doubt, he could counsel Barrett and Miller on their rehab plans. Just one catch: Urban Meyer can't come inside. And Miller, if he liked what he saw in Ann Arbor, would be welcome to stick around until, say, December.
2. Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen
You know it's only a matter of time. Brady, as a Michigan Man 13 years behind Harbaugh in school, surely wishes -- like Winston -- that Harbaugh could have coached him. Well, Brady could live the dream for a few days in March, even reuniting with old pal John Harbaugh, who will speak at the Michigan Spring Football Clinic on March 13. The Baltimore Ravens' coach is sure to go over the basics of receiver eligibility and could use Brady as a prop in the exercise. That is, if his supermodel wife lets him out of her clutches for a few hours this offseason. Brady could even bring his Super Bowl rings for the Michigan coach to admire.
3. Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence and Tom Crean
Harbaugh has been a fixture at Crisler Arena this winter, supporting the Wolverines on the basketball court, even hanging out in the student section. His passion is legendary, so we figure if anyone can unite Judd, a Kentucky fanatic, and Louisville fan Lawrence, it's Harbaugh. They could all get together to eat pizza, talk fashion and get behind Michigan on the hardwood. Harbaugh's brother-in-law, Indiana coach Tom Crean, who's been hanging out with Bill Belichick, could join the party. Crean might be an even tougher nut to crack, but if anyone can get to him, it's Harbaugh.
4. The cable-TV Rob Lowes
There's no one better than Harbaugh to cure the ills of Overly Paranoid Rob Lowe, Super Creepy Rob Lowe and Peaked in High School Rob Lowe. Look, no one's perfect. Not even Harbaugh. Sure, he's never been sick, but he's lost a few football games, and he could coach Lowe's alter egos back into top form in short time. What football coach hasn't drilled through cheese in search of a listening device. And every former star athlete has displayed his trophies past their expiration dates. Harbaugh, who played Screech's cousin on an episode of "Saved by the Bell," would definitely hit it off with these guys.
5. Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton
Primary season for 2016 is right around the corner. Harbaugh has dabbled in presidential politics and owns an approval rating in Michigan that makes him the envy of any candidate. He's reportedly a Republican, but his endorsement might mean enough to lure contenders on both sides of the aisle to visit Gerald Ford's old stomping grounds on a campaign swing through the Big Ten country.
Other potential visitors include Chuck Norris, whom Harbaugh could mentor on toughness; Lorne Michaels, in search of ideas for the 50th anniversary of SNL; A-Rod, looking for advice on his public image and Richard Sherman, needing parenting advice and the cure for a Super Bowl hangover.
The Michigan Wolverines are under the microscope.
2014 record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Three-year record: 20-18
Coaching situation: After a promising start, the Brady Hoke era went downhill in a hurry and Michigan dumped Hoke on Dec. 2. Interim athletic director Jim Hackett scored the coaching coup of the offseason in bringing Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback, to Ann Arbor. Harbaugh brings instant credibility to Michigan after leading turnarounds at both Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers. He hired assistants with a good mix of college and NFL experience, while wisely retaining Greg Mattison from Hoke's staff.
Roster situation: The Wolverines lose only 12 seniors and one underclassman departure to the NFL (wide receiver Devin Funchess), so they will have more of a veteran roster in 2015. Harbaugh's first season hinges on his ability to get more from the roster he inherits especially at spots like offensive line, running back, wide receiver and linebacker. Michigan loses its best player in linebacker Jake Ryan and a veteran quarterback in Devin Gardner. If the coaches can get more from the running backs, a group that will include USC transfer Ty Isaac, it will take pressure off of the quarterback spot.
Recruiting situation: Michigan signed the smallest recruiting class (14 players) of any Power 5 program -- second smallest nationally behind Colorado State (13) -- and lost several prospects during the coaching transition. This likely won't be a program-changing class but there are several intriguing pieces, especially quarterbacks Zach Gentry (a one-time Texas recruit) and Alex Malzone. Michigan also added perimeter speed with Brian Cole and bolstered a struggling offensive line with ESPN 300 tackle Grant Newsome. Former Houston quarterback John O'Korn transferred to Michigan but must sit out the 2015 season.
Trajectory: Up. Michigan hasn't won the Big Ten in more than a decade, owns just one win against Ohio State since 2003 -- it came against the worst Buckeyes team in a generation, mind you -- and turned in an immensely disappointing season last fall. But landing Harbaugh changes the trajectory because of his track record both at the college and NFL levels. He can achieve the man-ball offense Hoke preached about but never fully established. He has an excellent defensive staff that inherits a group with enough talent to take a step. Michigan likely won't contend for the East Division this fall -- Ohio State and Michigan State are simply too strong -- but Harbaugh has shown he doesn't need much time to get good results. He has everything he needs at Michigan to win relatively soon.
Purdue is lowering season-ticket prices for nearly 90 percent of the seats at Ross-Ade Stadium in 2015. You can get a ticket to seven home games for less than $100 after attendance dropped in 2014 by 28 percent to 35,269 per game -- the lowest figure since 1951, according to the Lafayette Journal and Courier.
The university issued a news release Wednesday, quoting athletics director Morgan Burke, who opened with this: "We want our fans back."
Hey, at least he's not sugar-coating it.
The Boilermakers have won four games since Darrell Hazell took over two years ago, including one in Big Ten play – and it came on the road at Illinois last year.
If you wondered about the importance of next season for the third-year coach, wonder no more.
Meanwhile, at Ohio State, they're dropping ticket prices, too, though not quite like Purdue. The national champs are rolling prices to 2010 for the April 18 spring game to $5 per seat.
Five bucks to see the Bucks -- that's the best deal in the Big Ten. Apparently, this is happening in response to last year, when OSU tried to charge $20 a seat for the spring game, only to slash prices at the last minute.
Or maybe Ohio State is just preparing its fans for the letdown of a scrimmage without Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett.
I admit, if I followed Dwayne Haskins Jr., the nation's No. 2-rated pocket-passer quarterbacl, on Twitter, I would not have understood his reference to Maryland's tribute to a Drake album cover.
I thought Drake was an FCS program in Des Moines. So yeah, I'm out of touch with some of these kids. Fortunately, people exist in the media out there who can explain this stuff to me.
If you're reading this it's too late.. pic.twitter.com/6GYsHk0Kik— Dwayne Haskins, Jr (@dh_simba7) February 17, 2015
Now, Jameis Winston and Bryce Petty are talking up Michigan's facilities and coach Jim Harbaugh in a part-genius, part-propaganda campaign by the Wolverines with two of the nation's premier quarterback prospects for the NFL draft.
If you didn't already notice, Winston and Petty visited Ann Arbor this week to work out at Al Glick Fieldhouse and meet with Harbaugh in advance of the NFL combine.
They attended a basketball game, and Winston gushed over Harbaugh on camera for the school-run website, saying, "I wish I could have played for" the former 49ers coach.
Harbaugh and George Whitfield, personal coach for Winston and Petty, have some history together; Whitfield served as an intern with the 49ers last year.
Curious minds want to know: What do Jimbo Fisher and Art Briles think of this little exercise?
On with the rest of the links:
- Remember that business mogul and Rutgers booster, Jeff Towers, who was up for the job to lead the Scarlet Knights' recruiting operations? Yeah, that's not happening.
- Did Penn State seriously want to hire 70-year Bill Parcells to replace Joe Paterno? No surprise, they noticed this story in New Jersey.
- Place-kicker Rafael Gaglianone highlights this look at the Wisconsin special teams in 2015.
- Nebraska announces details for its April 11 spring game. Tough times for former Husker defensive back Rickey Thenarse.
- Defensive end Khalid Kareem backs away from his early commitment to Michigan State.
- Former Iowa offensive tackle Andrew Donnal met Wednesday with the Texans at the combine -- no surprise, considering the strong connections already formed between the Houston franchise and the Hawkeyes.
- Former Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams is a popular guy in Indianapolis.
Brian Bennett: It's a good time to review this process, since things will be different with the College Football Playoff in the 2015 season. Because the Rose Bowl is not a semifinal host -- that distinction this season belongs to the Orange and Cotton bowls -- the Big Ten is guaranteed to have a team in Pasadena, California, on Jan. 1, 2016. If the Big Ten champion does not make the playoff, it will go to the Rose Bowl. But if the Big Ten champ is in the four-team field, then the Rose Bowl gets to pick "the next best team." That doesn't necessarily mean the next highest-ranked team in the selection committee rankings, as the Rose will have some discretion on who it selects to replace from the Big Ten (and the Pac-12, as the Rose is assured of a traditional matchup).
@BennettESPN If a B1G team goes to CFP, does Rose Bowl take runner up? How does Rose Bowl fill spot if B1G Champ is playing in CFP? Thanks— John Caldwell (@John_Caldwell) February 18, 2015
Two things here. One, losing in the Big Ten championship game could be a real detriment to a team, as bowls traditionally don't like teams coming off a loss. And two, I'm still interested to see whether the Rose holds the same appeal if/when a conference runner-up makes it there. It's not unprecedented, of course, and teams still seemed excited to play in the New Year's Six games this year (well, maybe not you, Ole Miss). But I wonder if fans will gobble up tickets and travel to California -- which isn't exactly cheap -- the same way they once did if the Rose Bowl is basically a consolation prize.
Bennett: Ooh, I love this question.
I'm going to rule out Jim Harbaugh. As I wrote in last week's edition of the ol' mailbag, I think some people are being overly optimistic about the Wolverines this fall and that it will take Harbaugh some time to sort things out. I still believe he can get Michigan to, say, 8-4, but that's not going to be good enough to win this particular contest.
So that leaves Riley vs. Chryst. I admit I'm not quite sure what to make of the 2015 Cornhuskers and what Riley will bring to Nebraska. Will his more veteran hand help Big Red avoid the dramatic ups and downs we saw under Bo Pelini? Or will we learn that Pelini was underappreciated for his nine-wins-a-year consistency?
The safest choice among the three, then, is Chryst. Wisconsin will miss Melvin Gordon but brings back the nucleus of an outstanding defense. There won't be a dramatic change in systems with Chryst on offense and with Dave Aranda returning as defensive coordinator. Sure, the opener against Alabama is daunting, but the rest of the schedule is very manageable, with cross-division games again against Rutgers and Maryland. I could easily see the Badgers going 9-3 or 10-2 in Chryst's first year, so he's my pick.
Bennett: Well, let's first of all agree that none of the position groups were bad last year, obviously, or else the Buckeyes wouldn't have won it all. And with so much veteran talent returning and more young studs on the way, Urban Meyer's 2015 team should be scary good with very few weaknesses.
@BennettESPN What position group at Ohio State do you think will improve the most next year, and which will take the biggest step back?— Mark Walker (@MarkovWalker) February 18, 2015
But if there's a group I see making a leap, it's the linebackers. We already saw that position make a major jump forward in the postseason, and another year of experience for Darron Lee can only help him become one of the top defensive playmakers around. Joshua Perry should be the leader of the group as a senior, and it will be time to unleash the crazy potential of sophomore Raekwon McMillan at middle linebacker. Five-star incoming freshman Justin Hilliard should contribute as well.
I don't see many position groups ripe for a backslide, but one I'll be paying attention to is receiver. Devin Smith was so special at being a deep-ball threat that it could be hard to replicate, and Evan Spencer was one of the team's MVPs with his do-it-all versatility. Ohio State still has plenty of young talent and speed to burn, though, so receiver shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Bennett: $10k, eh? Well that's novel, if not exactly something I could see the NCAA getting behind. Not to mention the fact that some position coaches might have to take out loans to make that work. I believe you're overthinking things here, Ed. It's a difficult proposition to limit anybody's ability to change jobs, because so many factors go into that. The simplest solution is to let players exercise an out clause in their letter of intent if the head coach, their coordinator and/or position coach leaves before they arrive on campus. That's a rule that needs to happen, especially with a proposed early signing day in December.
Such was the implication when it was revealed on Tuesday that the new Michigan coach was in Ann Arbor helping former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and ex-Baylor star Bryce Petty prepare for this week’s NFL combine.
QBs Jameis Winston (FSU) & Bryce Petty (Baylor) are preparing for the NFL Combine at Schembechler Hall. pic.twitter.com/2ICM9XMVrc— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) February 17, 2015
It turns out that Winston and Petty were directed to Michigan via quarterback guru George Whitfield after training in San Diego in order to get acclimated to the time zone and weather and throwing in an indoor facility before they head to Indianapolis. (Though why they'd need to adjust to the weather is a mystery). Harbaugh and Wolverines quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch met with both players on campus.
Though it was a bit odd to see players from other schools get advice from Harbaugh, it was also brilliant in many ways. Harbaugh has a great and well-deserved reputation for developing quarterbacks and understanding the position, given his playing career and previous players he has coached. This will merely enhance the perception of him as a teacher of quarterbacks, especially given that Winston could be the No. 1 player taken in the draft.
And what's Michigan's biggest need right now? Developing a quarterback, naturally. Despite getting a very late start in recruiting this year, Harbaugh was able to flip Zach Gentry away from his Texas commitment based no doubt largely on Harbaugh's track record. The Wolverines are in hot pursuit of more star quarterbacks in the 2016 class. It sure doesn't hurt for prospects out there to see these images of Harbaugh bestowing his wisdom on future NFL quarterbacks. (And it was probably also no coincidence that Petty and Winston were at the Michigan State-Michigan game in Crisler Arena at the same time as a bunch of important in-state recruits).
Of course, the guy who Harbaugh will be chasing, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, is viewed as one of the best developers of quarterbacks in the business. If there was ever any doubt about that, Meyer showed it last season with how both J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones were able to take over at a moment's notice.
Two other new head coaches in the Big Ten, Nebraska's Mike Riley and Wisconsin's Paul Chryst, have earned praise in the past for their ability to teach quarterback play. That's a great harbinger for the league's future, since the most important position on the field seemed to slide a bit in recent years throughout the conference. Now, though, the Big Ten might just be flush with quarterback whisperers.
Around the league ...
- Another wrist surgery could make Ezekiel Elliott even better next year. J.T. Barrett has a couple of screws loose, and that's a good thing.
- John Settle is the leading candidate to be Wisconsin's new running backs coach, a job he previously held. Previewing the Badgers' special teams unit for 2015.
- Penn State saw an attendance increase at Beaver Stadium in James Franklin's first year.
- An injury will keep Indiana's Tevin Coleman from working out at the NFL combine.
- Could Michigan State's Trae Waynes go in the top six of the NFL draft?
- Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover offers some updates before spring practice starts.
- A New Jersey quarterback is becoming a regular on Rutgers' campus.
- Some Big Ten spring storylines to watch.