Big Ten: Joe Holland

Purdue spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
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2011 record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 4-4 (third place, Leaders Division) Returning starters: Offense: 9; Defense: 9; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
DT Kawann Short, CB Ricardo Allen, QB Caleb TerBush, QB Robert Marve, QB Rob Henry, RB Akeem Shavers, RB Ralph Bolden, DE Ryan Russell, WR Antavian Edison, DT Bruce Gaston, OT Trevor Foy

Key losses
LB Joe Holland, S Albert Evans, LT Dennis Kelly, OG Nick Mondek, WR Justin Siller, K Carson Wiggs

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Ralph Bolden* (674 yards)
Passing: Caleb TerBush (1,905 yards)
Receiving: Antavian Edison* (584 yards) Tackles: Joe Holland (94) Sacks: Kawann Short* (6.5) Interceptions: Ricardo Allen* (3)

Spring answers

1. Healthy QBs: After two years of dealing with injuries and inexperienced signalcallers, Danny Hope finally had enviable depth at the position this spring. With Robert Marve healthy, last season's starter Caleb TerBush a year wiser, and Rob Henry on the mend from a torn ACL, Purdue has three former starters at quarterback. Hope said the depth made for much improved offensive execution this spring, which should carry over into the fall. Now he just has to figure out whom to play and when, as it's likely more than one will see the field in the same game.

2. Defensive front and back set: The Boilermakers have a chance to be very good up front defensively, and it all starts with defensive tackle Kawann Short. He passed up the NFL draft, and could work his way into first-round status with a big senior season. Bruce Gaston returns along side him in the middle, and sophomore defensive end Ryan Russell looks like a future star after coming on strong at the end of last season. The secondary is also in great shape, with returning cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson possibly forming the best tandem in the league, according to Hope. Nickel back Normondo Harris had a big spring game, and Max Charlot returns at safety. Purdue should have the ability to generate a pass-rush and defend the ball in the air.

3. More confidence: There's little doubt that there's more confidence in the air around West Lafayette. That comes from the team making -- and winning -- its first bowl game under Hope last season, and returning 18 offensive and defensive starters. This is Hope's deepest team, and it should be his best. Some are picking Purdue as a potential Big Ten sleeper, and the players believe that talk is justified.

Fall questions

1. Linebacker Who? While the defense looks stout up front and in the secondary, questions remain at linebacker. Joe Holland, the team's leading tackler a year ago, graduated. Dwayne Beckford missed the bowl game after a DUI arrest, and his status for the fall remains in flux. Will Lucas is the only returning starter guaranteed to suit up in September. There's talk of using some 3-4 looks under new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar, who implemented his system in practices closed to the media this spring. Does Purdue have enough linebackers to make it work?

2. Offensive line chemistry: The Boilers' offensive line didn't get a lot of hype last season, but it produced two NFL draft picks in Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek. Trevor Foy is moving from right to left tackle, and Kevin Pamphile and Rick Schmeig worked at multiple positions this spring. Purdue will mix in some new faces and some veterans in new places this fall, and how well that unit comes together will have a large say in how the offense flows.

3. X-factors on offense: Some things we simply don't yet know include the following: Can Ralph Bolden successfully return from knee surgery? If not, is Akeem Shavers a capable every-down back? What will happen to leading receiver Antavian Edison after his arrest on weapons charges this week? Will fellow wideout O.J. Ross make it back from academic suspension? Can kick returning dynamo Raheem Mostert make an impact at receiver? Purdue has a lot more options on offense than in the recent past, but there also remains a lot of question marks.
Several Big Ten players who didn't hear their names called in New York during the weekend still received some good news about their football futures. As soon as the NFL draft concluded, the undrafted free agent scramble began.

Here's an initial list of Big Ten UFA signings. Every Big Ten squad except Indiana had a player signed through free agency. We'll be sure to post more as they become official.

ILLINOIS
IOWA
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
NORTHWESTERN
OHIO STATE
PENN STATE
PURDUE
WISCONSIN

Several players seem to be in good situations, whether it's playing for their hometown team (Kinnie, Netter) or near a family member (Lynn, whose dad, Anthony, coaches running backs for the Jets). It's still shocking to see Brewster on this list rather than the draft one. I'm also surprised Moye, Wiggs, Linthicum and Dimke didn't get drafted.

Other Big Ten players have tryouts with NFL squads, such as Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (Tampa Bay), Minnesota wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (Minnesota Vikings), Indiana offensive lineman Chris McDonald (Miami, Green Bay) and Minnesota safety Kim Royston (Minnesota Vikings).
Purdue is getting a little bit of a buzz as a sleeper team for 2012 after breaking through with a bowl game (and win) in 2011. The Boilermakers opened spring practice last week and went for a couple of days straight before taking off for spring break. I had a chance to catch up with Purdue head coach Danny Hope to talk about how things are going in his program and the areas of concentration this spring.

Did you sense any different attitude this offseason after getting to that bowl game last year?

[+] EnlargeDanny Hope
Andrew Weber/US PresswireCoach Danny Hope said the momentum from boilermakers' bowl win last season has carried over into the spring.
Danny Hope: I think we ended the season on a high note and with some momentum, and I think it carried over into the offseason. I think we're really hitting on all cylinders with our new director of sports performance, whom we hired last year about this time. It's the first time since I've been the head coach at Purdue that we're going into spring with a quarterback that's healthy that's played any football. Caleb TerBush wasn't penciled in as the No. 1 [quarterback], but he became No. 1 about a week before the opener. He had to get his feet wet and learn throughout the course of the season, but by the end of the season he was playing pretty good. That momentum carried right over into the bowl preparation and the win carried right into the weight training offseason and that carried into spring practices. And having experienced quarterbacks is important. It's the first time since I've been here we've been able to do something as simple as getting signals in early in spring. It's a little different tempo out there right now as a result. We've got some good players back and we've got some confidence as a football team.

You have quite a few experienced quarterbacks now, in fact. How are you splitting up the reps for them this spring?

DH: Well, Sean Robinson is playing on defense right now. It's hard to get four quarterbacks ready in spring ball, and he wasn't going to get as many reps as he needed to. So we're going to try him some at the linebacker position. That leaves TerBush and Robert Marve, who's finally healthy. I think Robert did some good things last year, but I think he's in position to take some big steps in his development because this is the first time since he's been here that he's been able to get a lot of reps without concern about an injury or an eligibility situation. Then Rob Henry is back. He's a little bit limited right now because he's coming off knee surgery, but I'm really pleased with where his recovery is, and most of the time when he's out there right now you can't tell much of a difference. But you have to limit his reps a little just because you don't want to overdo it and create a swelling issue. So the numbers are kind of taking care of themselves in some ways. We went into the spring with TerBush as No. 1 and all those other guys are competing.

Your leading rusher, Ralph Bolden, tore his ACL again, but you have two pretty good running backs in Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. How do you feel about the depth at running back this spring?

DH: We had a real strong running attack last year. We were fifth in the Big Ten in rushing. The past couple of years, we've been able to establish a strong running game. I like the progress that we've made and having good running backs is a big part of that, and any more, having a couple of running backs you can play is a big part of it. We had a lot of different guys rush for us last year, probably 10 different guys who were utilized as ball carriers. We really like Akeem Shavers. He's a fast, physical back who finishes runs. Akeem Hunt is an excellent sprinter who's a member of our track team and was a state champion track performer in Georgia. So he's a class sprinter in a lot of ways for a football player.

We've also got a kid we redshirted last year in Doug Gentry, and he's a skilled player. We have Gavin Roberts, who has good size but was injured last year. He's a big back we can utilize in the backfield. Then we've got a couple fullbacks in Derek Jackson, who weighs about 240 pounds, and Kurt Freytag. So we've got some guys still in the stable even though Ralph is out. And we've utilized Antavian Edison and Raheem Mostert some as ball carriers out of their slot position, and both those guys are really skilled players. So we've got some athletes who can tote the mail, and we spread the wealth out around here.

Were you upset about the new kickoff rules because you have such a weapon at kick returner in Raheem Mostert?

DH: Well, we all play by the same rules. You'll have to make decisions about bringing some out, so the return man is going to have to be a good decision-maker. From a kickoff standpoint it might change some things. You can kick them all deep and try to force the touchback if you want to, but you're going to be giving the opponent the ball at the 25. Or you can kick the ball high and deep and try to pin them down and do a great job covering. So there's going to be some game planning and schemes involved. I think it will all even out. ... I don't think it's going to shut down all kick returns, but I think there will be about 25 percent less, is my guess.

(Read full post)

Big Ten lunch links

February, 24, 2012
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A real man swallows his vomit when a lady is present.
We continue our postseason position rankings today as we move on to the linebackers.

Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.

Away we go ...

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges led a deep group of Penn State linebackers this past season.
1. Penn State: We thought this group could be the deepest linebacking corps in the league this past season, and that depth proved both true and invaluable when starter Michael Mauti went out in the fourth game of the season. Even without him, the Nittany Lions' linebackers played great, led by first team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, who had a breakout campaign. Nate Stupar filled in nicely for Mauti, and Glenn Carson was solid in his first year as a starter in the middle.

2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.

3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.

4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.

5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.

6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.

9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.

11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.

Big shoes to fill: Purdue

February, 22, 2012
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As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next, Purdue.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Dennis Kelly, LT

[+] EnlargeDennis Kelly
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDennis Kelly started 37 consecutive games at left tackle for the Boilermakers.
Why: Purdue returns most of its skill players on offense but must fill gaps along the line, none bigger than at left tackle. Kelly started every game the past three seasons, a streak of 37 consecutive games protecting the quarterback's blind side. He also served as a co-captain last fall. Kelly is a big body at 6-foot-8 and 306 pounds, and his backup in 2011 was Trevor Foy, the team's starting right tackle. Purdue doesn't have many proven players at tackle entering spring practice. Although the Boilers return four quarterbacks with starting experience, they need someone to protect them.

Replacement candidates: Trevor Foy (6-7, 287, Jr.); Justin Kitchens (6-4, 275, Jr.); Jack De Boef (6-7, 284, So.)

The skinny: Kitchens moved from defensive line to offensive tackle last spring and started the first four games before moving behind Foy on the depth chart. Purdue could move Foy to the left side and move Kitchens into a starting role or given Kitchens a shot a succeeding Kelly. De Boef is a big body but lacks experience. It should be a very interesting spring along the offensive line.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Joe Holland, LB

Why: No player has started more games for Purdue in the past four seasons than Holland, who started 48 of 49 games in his career. He led the team in tackles with 94 in 2011 and finished in the top three in tackles all four seasons. A co-captain last season, Holland finished second on the squad in both tackles for loss (10.5) and passes defended (9), recording an interception and 1.5 sacks. Although linebacker hasn't been the strongest position at Purdue, Holland's durability, leadership and production will be missed in 2012.

Replacement candidates: Nnamdi Ezenwa (6-2, 225, Sr.); Joe Gilliam (6-1, 211, So.); Mike Lee (6-2, 220, So.)

The skinny: Purdue should be fine at the other two linebacker spots with Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas, but Holland leaves a void because he was always on the field. Gilliam appeared in 11 games last season and recorded seven tackles, while Ezenwa, listed as Holland's backup on Purdue's depth chart, had six tackles in five games. The Boilers didn't have a ton of linebackers see the field in 2011, so it'll be important for Lee and other younger 'backers to get up to speed this spring.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 7, 2012
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As Carlos Boozer would say when grabbing an uncontested rebound, "Gimme dat!"
Let's put a final bow on bowl season with our choices for the 2011 Big Ten All-Bowl team. As usual, some positions had more than enough worthy selections, such as defensive line, while other positions -- safety, offensive line -- left us scrambling a bit.

Despite a 4-6 bowl performance by the Big Ten, the league had some nice individual performances.

Here's the bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin: Though he threw a costly interception late, Wilson completed 19 of 25 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. That performance was good enough for him to finish the season with the NCAA record for pass efficiency.

RB: Akeem Shavers, Purdue: With leading rusher Ralph Bolden injured, the Boilermakers needed another back to step up. Shavers responded with a career high 149 yards on 22 carries in the Boilermakers' 37-32 Little Caesars Bowl victory over Western Michigan.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball racked up 164 yards on the ground and scored his 39th TD of the season in the Rose Bowl.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin: Ball carried 32 times for 164 yards against Oregon, and his touchdown gave him 39 on the season, tying Barry Sanders' Football Bowl Subdivision record. Ball was quieted late as the Ducks' defense made adjustments against the running game.

WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Like Wilson, Abbrederis had a costly second-half turnover, but his overall performance stood out in the Rose Bowl. The sophomore had four receptions for a team-high 119 yards and a touchdown and also had 227 return yards in the game, including a 60-yard kickoff runback.

WR: Junior Hemingway, Michigan: He only had two catches in the Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech, but both went for touchdowns. He caught the first one in traffic then juked his way toward a 45-yard score. He made a leaping grab near the back of the end zone for the second one.

TE: Brian Linthicum, Michigan State: The senior picked a good time to have a career day, coming up with seven catches for 115 yards against Georgia plus a catch on a two-point conversion. He took a tight end screen pass 50 yards during the fourth quarter for the longest play of his career.

OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin: Konz made his first appearance since Nov. 13 and didn't look rusty after rehabbing a dislocated ankle. The All-Big Ten selection keyed a Badgers offense that racked up 212 rush yards, 23 first downs and 508 total yards against Oregon. Konz performed well in what turned out to be his final game as a Badger.

OL: Dennis Kelly, Purdue: The Boilers' offensive line overpowered Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, and Kelly, a mainstay at left tackle during his career, helped lead the charge. Purdue racked up 265 rush yards on 56 attempts and steamrolled the Broncos despite not having top running back Bolden (knee).

OL: David Molk, Michigan: A foot injury in warmups wasn't going to keep Molk from playing his final game with the Wolverines. The Rimington Trophy winner, who some thought wouldn't return to the field, missed only one series and did his part for the Michigan offense in its win against Virginia Tech.

OL: Jeff Allen, Illinois: Allen keyed an Illinois offense that showed some life in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after fading down the stretch of the regular season. He helped the Illini rush for 178 yards, while UCLA had only one sack in the game.

OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin: Like Konz, Zeitler delivered a typical performance in Pasadena and helped Ball and the ground game get going. Wisconsin's physical play along the offensive line gave Oregon problems for most of the game.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston seemed unstoppable in Michigan State's win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
DL: William Gholston, Michigan State: The sophomore announced himself as a likely breakout star in 2012 with a huge performance against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Gholston had five tackles for loss, including two sacks, plus a fumble recovery in the Spartans' victory.

DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: The nation's sacks leader went out with a bang before declaring for the NFL draft. Mercilus registered 1.5 sacks in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA, tying him with Simeon Rice for the school single-season record of 16. He finished with three tackles for loss and gave the Bruins offense fits.

DL: Mike Martin, Michigan: The Wolverines repeatedly stuffed Virginia Tech in the red zone, and Martin was a big reason why. The senior had 10 tackles and 0.5 sacks while helping control the interior of the defensive line.

DL Mike Daniels, Iowa: The Hawkeyes defense showed up in the Insight Bowl, and Daniels led the way with five tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Oklahoma came into the game having allowed just nine sacks all season, but Daniels had two in the first half.

LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska: Though the Huskers lost to South Carolina, David had his usual brilliant game. He finished with 11 tackles and two sacks in the losing effort to cap a terrific career.

LB: Joe Holland, Purdue: The senior delivered in his final game as a Boiler, recording team highs for tackles (9), tackles for loss (2) and pass breakups (3) against Western Michigan. Holland was always around the ball and spurred a play-making Purdue defense in Detroit.

LB: Ian Thomas, Illinois: Like Holland, Thomas had a big performance in his final collegiate game as Illinois held UCLA to seven points through the first 59 minutes. Thomas finished with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, as well as a pass breakup against the Bruins.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: He got burned on a long pass in the first half but made up for it with two second-half interceptions, including one he returned 38 yards for a touchdown, in the win against Georgia. Dennard tied the Michigan State bowl record with the two picks.

CB: Terry Hawthorne, Illinois: Hawthorne's 39-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter gave Illinois its first lead against UCLA. It marked the second pick-six of Hawthorne's career and the first since 2009. He also had five tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan: Kovacs capped a breakthrough season in the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a a team-high 11 tackles in the win against Virginia Tech. He helped limit the Hokies to just one touchdown on six red zone possessions and finished the season with 75 total tackles.

S: Brian Peters, Northwestern: Peters made a nifty interception against Texas A&M, his Big Ten-leading fifth pick of the season, and added seven tackles against the Aggies. He finished his career with 12 interceptions, the third-highest total in team history.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Brendan Gibbons, Michigan: Gibbons nailed all three of his field goal attempts, including the 37-yarder in overtime to win the game for the Wolverines.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: Sadler was big in the field position battle against Georgia. He averaged 50.1 yards on eight punts, placing four of them inside the 20-yard line.

KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue: Mostert returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the win over Western Michigan. It marked the longest kick return in Purdue bowl history and helped Mostert finish the season as the nation's leading return man (33.5 ypr).

PR: Venric Mark, Northwestern: Not too many choices around the Big Ten, but Mark broke off a 47-yard return in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. He also had a two-yard rushing touchdown in the game.

Halftime: Michigan 22, Purdue 7

October, 29, 2011
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It has been an odd game at the Big House so far, although Michigan has to like the result at halftime after some bumps along the way.

Despite allowing an easy touchdown drive to open the game and committing two turnovers, the Wolverines have a comfortable lead. Fueled by opportunistic defense and big plays on offense, Michigan scored 22 unanswered points to end the half.

Wolverines senior defensive tackle Mike Martin had a huge first 30 minutes. He recorded a safety to bail out teammate Devin Gardner, who threw an ugly interception, and had another sack to force a Purdue punt late in the half. The NFL prospect has been dominant. The Wolverines also were helped by a Courtney Avery interception in the red zone to stop a Purdue drive.

It was a bizarre half for the Michigan offense, which piled up 294 yards and 16 first downs but didn't always look smooth. Running back Fitz Toussaint (9 catches, 75 yards, TD) and receivers Jeremy Gallon (2 catches, 65 receiving yards) and Roy Roundtree (2 catches, 61 yards) have been impressive, but ...

Denard Robinson continues to make head-scratching decisions in the passing game. He threw an interception in Purdue territory, his 11th of the season, matching his total from all of last season. Coordinator Al Borges continues to show creativity with his play calls, but he pushed his luck with the deep pass by Gardner, which Purdue easily intercepted.

Purdue's offense looked great on the opening series but picked up 67 of its 119 first-half yards on the possession. Caleb TerBush completed 4 of 5 passes for 64 yards and a touchdown, but Purdue also has used Robert Marve under center. The Boilers' run game has been practically invisible, and coordinator Gary Nord must find a way to get Ralph Bolden and the other backs going in the second half.

Big Ten stock report: Week 9

October, 26, 2011
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Occupy this post.

Stock up

Kenny Bell: The Nebraska redshirt freshman receiver went 82 yards on his first career rushing attempt, a reverse that went for a touchdown against Minnesota. Bell also had four catches and nearly connected with Taylor Martinez on another couple of deep passes. Just what the Huskers' opponents wanted to see: more speed.

Gerald Hodges: Another in a long line of Penn State defenders who have raised their games this season, Hodges had 14 tackles against Northwestern on his way to being named Big Ten co-defensive player of the week. Joe Paterno said Hodges is a great athlete who could have played a number of positions. Looks like linebacker was a good call.

Purdue's defense: After getting thrashed by Notre Dame 38-10 on Oct. 1, the Boilers have bounced back in a big way on defense. Their three Big Ten opponents are averaging just 18 points and a little more than 315 yards per game. Kawann Short is tough to handle up front, Joe Holland leads the linebacking corps and Ricardo Allen is a playmaking cornerback. A defense that returned nine starters from a year ago is starting to show its experience and talent.

Tre Roberson: The true freshman made his first start at Iowa and completed 16-of-24 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown while running for another 84 yards. Kevin Wilson said Roberson exudes calm and confidence and has gotten better each week, though the Indiana coach stopped short of naming him his definite starter going forward. Roberson has plenty of room to grow, but shows potential that may lessen the loss of recruit Gunner Kiel.

Jared Abbrederis returning punts: The Wisconsin receiver ranks first nationally in punt return average with more than 22 yards per attempt, a staggering figure when you consider only one other player in the Big Ten is averaging more than 8.6 yards per return. The Badgers' offense usually doesn't need that much help with field position, but Abbrederis gives it to them.

Stock down

Penn State and Purdue attendance: Despite a 7-1 record, attendance has gone down at Penn State's Beaver Stadium this year. Two games have seen crowds below 100,000 for the first time since 2001, and the Purdue game drew the smallest homecoming crowd (100,820) in a decade. This week's Illinois game is not sold out. Paterno says the economy and a new ticket plan that required fans to pay more for better seats are to blame. Meanwhile, large swaths of Ross-Ade Stadium were empty for last week's homecoming win against Illinois. The Boilermakers announced a crowd of just more than 45,000 in a facility that seats 62,500.

Illinois' offense: What has happened to an attack that once looked like one of the most explosive in the Big Ten? Illinois has scored just 21 points in its past two games combined and has needed late touchdowns in both games just to get there. The rushing game has slowed and Nathan Scheelhaase has made uncharacteristic mistakes. That's why the Illini have lost two straight.

Vince Browne: A second-team All-Big Ten performer last year, the Northwestern defensive end was named to several preseason watch lists and at least one All-America team. But Browne has only 21 tackles and two sacks on the season, and last week he was one of four starters benched by Pat Fitzgerald in an effort to shake up the defense. The Wildcats' defensive struggles aren't all Browne's fault by any means, but somebody needs to step up and take charge of that unit.

Jared Abbrederis playing defensive back: Let's just say Abbrederis' could use a little practice defending Hail Marys. The fact that he was basically the first and last line of defense on the Michigan State miracle speaks of some secondary depth problems for Wisconsin.
Purdue linebacker Joe Holland has some personal motivation to beat Notre Dame this week. Both of Holland's parents and his grandfather graduated from the school in South Bend, and though the Irish recruited Holland out of high school, "they didn't recruit me like Purdue did," he says.

Holland doesn't want to finish his Boilermakers career without beating Notre Dame, so stopping the three-game losing streak in this rivalry is a high priority. But while Holland might be the happiest guy in Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday night if Purdue wins, he realizes this game is more than just personal. It's an important opportunity for the entire program.

"The stage is definitely set," he told ESPN.com. "It's a huge game because of the opponent, it's a huge game because of the stage we're on. It would mean a lot for our team to get this one and to get some momentum going into the rest of the season."

[+] EnlargeJoe Holland
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireJoe Holland (30) knows what a win over Notre Dame would mean for the Purdue program.
Forward momentum has been hard to come by lately for the Boilers. They haven't had a winning season since 2007 and failed to make a bowl game in each of coach Danny Hope's first two years. Hope's first season included an upset of then-No. 7 Ohio State at home and a road triumph over Michigan. The team beat Northwestern on the road last year with a true freshman quarterback starting.

But Purdue (2-1) comes into this week with a six-game losing streak against BCS AQ teams. The program has been beset by injuries and hasn't registered on the national radar for a while now. Simply put, Hope and the players need something positive to happen. While Notre Dame is unranked and already owns two losses, beating the Irish would provide a good start.

"A win against Notre Dame would be a signature win," Hope said. "It would create great confidence for our football team. It certainly would receive a lot of national attention, and I think it would be a great sign for the direction the program is going in. It could also impact recruiting in some ways."

It's hard to say just how good this Boilermakers team is. It beat Middle Tennessee in the opener by blocking a field goal attempt on the last play, then lost the following week at Rice when its own late field goal try was rebuffed. A 59-0 win over Southeast Missouri State was good for confidence building and saw the return of quarterback Robert Marve to the lineup, but Southeast Missouri State has about as much in common with Notre Dame as West Lafayette does with Rio de Janeiro.

"We're still developing," Hope said. "This football team has great potential. I think it's one of those teams that will get better and better."

Purdue hangs its hat on its running game, which ranks 11th nationally with 258 yards per game on the ground. The return of Ralph Bolden from a knee injury and the addition of junior college transfer Akeem Shavers has given the backfield two fast, powerful ball carriers. Junior quarterback Caleb TerBush was pressed into starting duty when Rob Henry went down with a knee injury in preseason camp. TerBush has played well enough to retain the starting job over the veteran Marve, though Hope plans to play both quarterbacks.

The defense has solid experience on the back end and is led by its interior playmakers up front. Kawann Short and sophomores Bruce Gaston and Ryan Isaac have been disruptive from their defensive tackle positions.

"The games where we've been able to completely shut down the run have been our defensive tackles' best games," Holland said. "Kawann is a monster up front, and he's stringing together a couple of really good seasons. Bruce and Ryan are younger guys who are very, very developed and very strong. Both have the potential to be great players inside."

Purdue will need to play its best game to stop a Notre Dame team that could be undefeated if not for all its turnover problems. The Boilers have had an extra week to prepare thanks to a bye last week. It came at a good time, because they got to focus their attention on what looks like a key game in the program's trajectory.

"If things don't work out right, it's not the end of the world," Hope said. "But a win on Saturday could change our world in some ways."

Video: Purdue LB Joe Holland

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
10:00
AM ET

Adam Rittenberg talks with Purdue linebacker Joe Holland.

The Big Ten on Thursday announced its list of players appearing at preseason media days, which will be held July 28-29 in Chicago.

This announcement is probably bigger for media types than fans, but it gives an idea of who teams view as leaders and positive representatives for their programs.

Here's the list:

ILLINOIS
  • Jeff Allen, Sr., OL*
  • A.J. Jenkins, Sr., WR
  • Tavon Wilson, Sr., DB*
INDIANA
IOWA
  • Mike Daniels, Sr., DT*
  • Marvin McNutt, Sr., WR*
  • Tyler Nielsen, Sr., LB
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
  • Rex Burkhead, Jr., RB*
  • Jared Crick, Sr., DT*
  • Lavonte David, Sr., LB*
NORTHWESTERN
  • Jordan Mabin, Sr., CB*
  • Al Netter, Sr., OT*
  • Dan Persa, Sr., QB*
OHIO STATE
  • Mike Brewster, Sr., C*
  • Orhian Johnson, Jr., DB
  • Andrew Sweat, Sr., LB
PENN STATE
PURDUE
  • Albert Evans, Sr., S
  • Joe Holland, Sr., LB
  • Carson Wiggs, Sr., K/P*
WISCONSIN
  • Patrick Butrym, Sr., DT
  • Aaron Henry, Sr., S*
  • Nick Toon, Sr., WR*

*previous All-Big Ten or All-Big 12 (Nebraska) selection

Thoughts: Not a lot of surprises here. Six teams took the all-senior route with invitations, and no sophomores made the list. Three sophomores I hoped to see were Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin RB James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. It's a little surprising that neither White nor fellow running back Montee Ball made Wisconsin's list. ... There's a pretty good quarterback presence overall with Cousins, Denard Robinson, Gray and Persa. I was interested to see if Iowa would bring James Vandenberg, who has been tabbed as a team leader. ... As for charismatic personalities, there's not a Jay Valai on this list, but another Badger, Henry, should provide some entertainment. Other quotable players include Crick, Mabin, Gray, Cousins, Mauti, Trenton Robinson, Jeff Allen and Marvin McNutt. I'm sure I'll add a few names by the end of media days. ... Cousins will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon July 29. ... Purdue's Wiggs is the lone specialist making the trip to Chicago, just like Michigan State punter Aaron Bates was last year. ... The list includes 18 former All-Big Ten selections, while all three Nebraska players earned All-Big 12 honors in 2010. Six first-team all-conference honorees will be in attendance. ... The list likely includes the preseason offensive and defensive players of the year. I'd expect Denard Robinson or Persa to earn offensive honors and Crick or David to take home defensive honors.
It's time to jump back into our preseason position group rankings. We've made our way through the offenses and the front line of the defenses. Now it's time to take a look at the linebackers.

As always, this is a ranking of the entire position group, so depth matters in addition to individual star players.

Away we go:

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Lavonte David led the Big 12 last season with 152 tackles.
1. Nebraska: Lavonte David set the school record with 152 tackles last year, best in the Big 12. He also added 15 tackles for loss and six sacks on his way to second-team All-America honors. David was a one-man wrecking crew last year but should get more help this year. Will Compton returns after an injury-shortened season, and Sean Fisher is back after a broken leg cost him all of 2010. With an excellent defensive front leading the way, the Cornhuskers' linebackers should make plenty of impact plays.

2. Penn State: Is this the return of Linebacker U? The Nittany Lions technically only return one starter at the position but have plenty of talent. The unit got hit by injuries last year, including one that knocked Michael Mauti out of the lineup for several games. He's one of the best in the Big Ten when healthy, which he should be in 2011. Senior Nate Stupar led the team in tackles last year. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt are among the skilled youngsters battling for playing time. This could wind up as the deepest linebacking corps in the league.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost two starters, including leading tackler Brian Rolle. But the Silver Bullets usually reload at linebacker. Senior Andrew Sweat should emerge as the unit's leader, and hopes are high for Etienne Sabino after he took a redshirt year in 2010. Sabino showed promise this spring and locked down a starting job. The battle is on for the third starting position. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant could make a sudden impact.

4. Wisconsin: Much depends on the health of Chris Borland, who missed nearly all of 2010 and sat out the spring with a shoulder injury. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will move to middle linebacker and should anchor the unit if he's sound. Mike Taylor finished second on the team in tackles for loss and interceptions last year, and Kevin Claxton is expected to take over at the strongside spot. The Badgers like what they have seen from redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.

5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost a lot of experience from the 2010 team, including leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter. While there's some concern about the leadership void, Iowa has good young building blocks here. James Morris was pressed into service as a true freshman and was terrific; another year of development should only make him better. Tyler Nielsen was missed down the stretch when he suffered a neck injury, and the senior provides a veteran presence. Players like Bruce Davis, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens need to take on bigger roles.

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesReplacing two-time All-American Greg Jones will be a tall order for the Spartans.
6. Michigan State: It would be difficult to overstate how much the Spartans will miss two-time All-American Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, who combined to start 95 games in their illustrious careers. But life goes on. The lone returning starter, Chris Norman, is a dependable veteran. The Spartans hope Max Bullough and Denicos Allen build on their potential, and TyQuan Hammock inspired confidence with his play this spring.

7. Minnesota: An experienced linebacker group could be the strength of the Gophers defense this season. All three starters -- leading tackler Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis -- are back. Rallis needs to stay healthy after only appearing in 12 games the past two years because of injuries. Florida transfer Brendan Beal should provide a boost.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers are led by senior Joe Holland, who has 35 career starts under his belt. Junior Dwayne Beckford finished second on the team with 85 tackles a year ago. Will Lucas could break out after an excellent true freshman campaign. Senior Chris Carlino adds veteran depth.

9. Michigan: The Wolverines struggled defensively last year, and the linebackers shouldered some of the blame. They lost Jonas Mouton to the NFL. Cam Gordon moves down from safety and adds some playmaking ability. Kenny Demens had 82 tackles last year at middle linebacker. Freshman Jake Ryan should contribute right away. This group still has a lot to prove.

10. Illinois: The Illini have to rebuild after losing a pair of NFL draft picks at the position in Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Senior Ian Thomas now becomes the veteran leader. Sophomores Johnathan Brown and Houston Bates -- who had a strong spring -- will be counted on to step forward.

11. Indiana: Fifth-year senior Jeff Thomas could be the centerpiece of the Hoosiers defense. Another fifth-year senior is Leon Beckum, though he lacks top-end speed. Overall, there isn't a lot of depth here.

12. Northwestern: Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. Bryce McNaul needs to recover all the way from shoulder surgery and has to stay healthy. Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast.
Eight Big Ten defenders have been named to the preseason watch list for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, awarded to the nation's top defender.

The honor recognizes players who excel both on and off the field and reflect the following values (IMPACT): Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.

Here are the Big Ten contenders:
  • Nebraska DT Jared Crick
  • Nebraska LB Lavonte David
  • Wisconsin S Aaron Henry
  • Iowa LB Tyler Nielsen
  • Purdue LB Joe Holland
  • Michigan S Jordan Kovacs
  • Ohio State DT John Simon
  • Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy

The ACC led all conferences with 11 selections, followed by the SEC (8), the Big Ten (8), the Pac-12 (6) and the Big 12 (6).

Big Ten players have claimed the Lott Trophy in two of the past three seasons. Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt took home the hardware in 2010, and Ohio State LB James Laurinaitis won it in 2008.

Nebraska's Crick was on the Lott Trophy watch list last season and looks like the Big Ten's top candidate heading into 2011.

Not a bad list overall, though I would have like to have seen more Big Ten defensive backs (Shaun Prater, Alfonzo Dennard, Jordan Mabin, Antonio Fenelus, D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay) earn consideration.

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