Big Ten: Joel Belding
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Welcome to the first edition of internal affairs, which will take an inside look at five key developments around the Big Ten every Wednesday during the season.
Penn State -- Josh Gaines moved from defensive end to defensive tackle on several plays against Coastal Carolina and could continue to do so the rest of the season. It freed up Aaron Maybin (two sacks) for more pass-rushing opportunities, though Jerome Hayes got most of the playing time at Gaines' usual end spot. The Lions are a bit thin at tackle after the summer dismissals of Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, and the broken leg suffered by Devon Still. Gaines, the team's most experienced defensive lineman, collected four solo tackles in the opener.
Iowa -- Junior A.J. Edds is without a doubt Iowa's best linebacker, but his coaches are resisting the temptation to move him to the middle spot, where most top backers play. Edds says he can play all three linebacker positions but feels most comfortable on the strong side, where he can showcase his playmaking skills. "My natural home is the outside backer spot," said Edds, who recorded a safety and deflected a pass that led to an interception against Maine. "It's kind of a hybrid, playing on the D-line over a tight end a lot of the time, but you're also playing out there in coverage over some of the wide receivers. If the coaches didn't have faith in the other backers, I'm sure they would put me in the middle."
Indiana -- Mitchell Evans' days as a nomad appear over as the sophomore has found a home at wide receiver. Kellen Lewis' return from suspension and the decision to move Evans from quarterback to wideout is paying off already. As top receiver Ray Fisher battles a shoulder injury, Evans, a former safety, can step in and contribute. His size (6-3) and excellent hands give Indiana another option in the passing game. Also keep an eye on freshman Damarlo Belcher, who Lewis likens to a young James Hardy.
Michigan State -- The Spartans' depth on the defensive line and in the secondary helped produce lofty preseason expectations, but they're struggling to find capable bodies at running back and along the offensive line. Coach Mark Dantonio will use Javon Ringer as much as possible, but A.J. Jimmerson was held out of the Cal game and Ashton Leggett didn't touch the ball. Ringer is a horse, but he'll wear down fast if the Spartans don't find another back. The Spartans can't afford attrition up front, where Mike Bacon is listed as a possible starter at two positions (center and left guard).
Northwestern -- Don't be surprised to see junior offensive lineman Desmond Taylor in the starting lineup Saturday against Duke. Taylor has earned rave reviews throughout preseason camp and performed well in place of injured right tackle Kurt Mattes against Syracuse. Now Taylor could take Mattes' job or the one belonging to guard Joel Belding. Though Mattes and Belding are Northwestern's only two returning starters on the line, Taylor has plenty of experience and will see significant time at tackle or guard.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Northwestern offensive line coach Bret Ingalls looks at redshirt freshmen Al Netter and Ben Burkett and knows that they'll do big things down the road. Ingalls looks at true freshmen like Nick Adamle and Brian Mulroe and knows that the future of the Wildcats' line is in good hands.
The only problem is Northwestern can't wait around for those young offensive linemen to ripen. With a stockpile of senior skill players led by quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton, the Wildcats need their front five to produce right away.
It might be sound unfair to say Northwestern's season hinges on the offensive line. Too bad. Northwestern's season hinges on the offensive line.
"They're ahead of maybe what I thought, and yet we've still got to play a game," Ingalls said of his group. "We're making some progress, but until we play somebody different, it's hard to know."
The Wildcats lose three starters up front, including mainstays Trevor Rees and Dylan Thiry. Bacher will receive snaps in the shotgun from a redshirt freshman (Burkett) and have his blind side protected by another redshirt freshman (Netter) and a guy who spent the last three seasons playing defense (Keegan Kennedy).
Throw in the fact that Northwestern has a new offensive coordinator (Mick McCall) and will often operate in the no-huddle, a strategy that produced stellar results in 2000 but with a veteran line leading the way. Is it a little daunting? No doubt. But Ingalls doesn't want his linemen over-thinking, which became a problem for a more seasoned unit at times last year.
"Regardless if we're beating our guy each time," he said, "we need to be able to come back, snap after snap and have some confidence, play fast and just let 'em go. If they let up because they don't have that confidence, they're probably in for a long day. So as long as they're playing hard, I'm going to feel good.
"The tempo is a lot faster, so they've got to be able to finish a play. Eye on the football, run to it, let's go."
Ingalls has some flexibility with the group but decided to leave returning starters Kurt Mattes and Joel Belding at right tackle and right guard, the positions they played last season. Netter nearly played last fall at tackle as a true freshman, and Kennedy won the starting spot at left guard after being low on the depth chart at defensive tackle.
"Just a hunger to want to play," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Kennedy, a senior. "He's earned that opportunity. He's just chomping at the bit, but he knows he has a lot to learn."
Lack of starting experience is an obvious concern, but depth might not be. Ingalls praised the preseason performances of junior tackles Desmond Taylor and Mike Boyle, and former walk-on Keegan Grant has pushed Belding for a starting position.
Though Ingalls likes what he has seen from the true freshmen, who headlined Northwestern's 2008 recruiting class, he hopes he doesn't need to play any of them.
"Certainly you want to five to glue together and go play," Ingalls said, "but right now, our depth might be better than it's been."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Week 1 depth charts are gradually coming out around the Big Ten. Here's a look at two.
- As expected, no starting quarterback has been named for the Western Kentucky game. It will be Ben Chappell or incumbent Kellen Lewis.
- Redshirt freshman Chris Adkins has won the second starting cornerback spot opposite Chris Phillips. Donnell Jones and Richard Council are the second-stringers.
- Fifth-year senior Marcus Thigpen remains the starter at running back ahead of Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray. Freshman Darius Willis isn't listed on the depth chart but coach Bill Lynch expects him to play this fall.
- Florida transfer Jerimy Finch, cleared to play this season, is listed behind Austin Thomas as the second-string strong safety.
- Sophomore Brad Martin is the starting tight end ahead of promising redshirt freshman Max Dedmond.
- I was a little surprised not to see freshman wideout DaMarlo Belcher on the two-deep. He was the most impressive player at last Wednesday's practice and should see the field this fall.
- The new-look starting offensive line reads as follows: left tackle Al Netter, left guard Keegan Kennedy, center Ben Burkett, right guard Joel Belding and right tackle Kurt Mattes. That means C.J. Bacher's blind side will be protected by a redshirt freshman (Netter) and a guy (Kennedy) who played the better part of three seasons at defensive tackle. It's a little scary, but Northwestern has been impressed with both players and especially Burkett at center.
- Reserve wide receiver Jeremy Ebert is the lone true freshman on the two-deep -- a telling sign about Northwestern's returning experience. Ebert also will start at kickoff returner with Stephen Simmons. The Wildcats will start Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, Andrew Brewer and Rasheed Ward at the wide receiver spots.
- Sophomore Josh Rooks has moved into the top spot at superback (tight end-fullback hybrid) after the season-ending knee injury to Drake Dunsmore. Junior Brendan Mitchell is behind Rooks.
- Sophomore Corbin Bryant will start the Syracuse game at defensive tackle in place of suspended star John Gill. Bryant had five tackles last season.
- Senior Kevin Mims holds a starting spot at defensive end ahead of hard-charging redshirt freshman Vince Browne.
- Peterman will open the season as the starting punt returner ahead of safety Brendan Smith.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Sorry for the lengthy delay. I just got back from watching Northwestern's practice and listening to coach Pat Fitzgerald address the media. I spoke with both new coordinators (Mike Hankwitz and Mick McCall) and several players at practice, so check back throughout the afternoon for updates.
Here are some items of interest from practice:
- Starting running back Tyrell Sutton sat out practice after sustaining a minor leg/ankle injury Wednesday, but he should be fine in a few days. I spoke to Sutton and he expects to practice next week when the team heads to Kenosha, Wis., for training. Though any sort of leg problem is a concern after Sutton missed five games last season with a high ankle sprain, the senior wasn't wearing any brace and seemed to be walking fine.
- Promising redshirt freshman defensive end Vince Browne also missed practice with a minor injury.
- As expected, junior defensive tackle Marshall Thomas practiced with the first-team defense in the spot normally reserved for John Gill, who is suspended for the first week of practice and the season opener for violating team policy. Thomas and classmate Corbin Bryant are the likeliest candidates to start against Syracuse on Aug. 30. Gill is working out independently at the football complex and was spotted on his way to the locker room.
- The defense looked significantly more aggressive than in past seasons, a possible result of Hankwitz's arrival. Junior safety Brendan Smith, who earned a medical hardship last season because of a shoulder injury, leveled several big hits. Redshirt freshman linebacker Kevin Watt also delivered some punishment on running back Jacob Schmidt.
- Smith staged an entertaining competition with wide receiver Andrew Brewer, another projected starter who comes off an injury. Brewer, a former starting quarterback for the Wildcats, will be a major threat on deep routes, as he showed by leaping to snag a pass.
- I spent some time with Northwestern's new athletic director Jim Phillips, who is working to upgrade the school's facilities. After seeing what's going on at Michigan and Michigan State, it's crucial for Northwestern to catch up and keep pace. Phillips also said general ticket sales for the football season are up 56 percent from last year. He's driving up to Green Bay on Friday to visit with his Northwestern predecessor, Packers president Mark Murphy, who has been a little busy lately with some Favre guy.
- The safeties stood out more than any other position during team drills. Smith, Brad Phillips and redshirt freshman David Arnold all recorded pass breakups, and sophomore James Nussbaum picked off a pass.
- Northwestern hasn't used its tight ends much in the spread offense era, but that could and should change this fall. Drake Dunsmore and mammoth sophomore Josh Rooks looked good at the superback position, a tight end-fullback-wide receiver mix. Both players are threats down the middle of the field.
- Senior Rasheed Ward is projected to start with the first-team offense, but sophomore Sidney Stewart took his place at Thursday's practice.
- With players in shorts, it was hard to get a great read on the offensive line, the team's biggest question entering the season. The first team consisted of tackles Kurt Mattes and Al Netter, guards Joel Belding and Keegan Kennedy and center Ben Burkett.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|C.J. Bacher will have new faces protecting him in 2008.|
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern is finishing up its morning practice and holds media day in a few hours. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald will address reporters around 12:30 p.m. CT.
Here's a look at three questions facing the Wildcats this fall:
1. How will a new-look offensive line fare in protecting quarterback C.J. Bacher?
Northwestern hasn't been this deep at its offensive skill positions in some time, but the line is a major concern after the loss of three starters. Redshirt freshman left tackle Al Netter has the pressure-packed assignment of protecting Bacher's blind side, while classmate Ben Burkett get the first shot at center, a position of stability in recent seasons. Both guard spots are open, though returning starter Joel Belding should keep one of them. Bacher has looked a bit shaky under pressure, so firming up the line will be the team's top priority in training camp.
2. Will veteran coordinator Mike Hankwitz be the savior for Northwestern's defense?
The shotgun spread offense has been Northwestern's hallmark since 2000, but at what cost? The defense has suffered significantly since the spread arrived, finishing no higher than 68th nationally in yards allowed. Hankwitz, a defensive coordinator for six teams before coming to Northwestern, is seen as the coach who can reverse the trend. The zone-blitz specialist must extract more from a defensive line that has tons of experience but little to show for it. The secondary also has depth and experience but needs to overcome big-play breakdowns.
3. Can the no-huddle help the Wildcats return to their rushing roots?
This spring, new offensive coordinator Mick McCall implemented the no-huddle, which Northwestern used in 2000, when it won a share of the Big Ten title and finished third nationally in total offense (475.6 ypg). The Wildcats produced a 1,900-yard rusher (Damien Anderson) that year, and they hope for similar results from senior running back Tyrell Sutton. Despite putting up big yards last season, Northwestern got away from the run game, partly because of Sutton's ankle injury and partly because of offensive coordinator Garrick McGee. McCall likely will lean on both Sutton and backup Omar Conteh more this fall, and a fast tempo should help.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Here's the second half of my interview with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Who are some of the young guys on defense you're excited about?
Pat Fitzgerald: Seventeen out of the 19 [freshmen] redshirted [last season], so they're a year older, a year hungrier. Vince [Browne] will be a young man you'll see play a lot of football for us. You'll see Ben Johnson play a lot on special teams initially, and then where does he go? Very gifted athlete at linebacker. I'm excited about [Bryce] McNaul. He was a little banged up his freshman year, but I'm excited to get him out there full time. Both [Jordan] Mabin and (Mike) Bolden at corner, and then [Brian] Peters and [David] Arnold at safety.
Where was your confidence level in the offensive line coming out of the spring?
PF: I felt great about the spring that Kurt Mattes had. He went through the whole year last year and every week was a growing experience. Going against Corey Wootton every day makes you a bit better, too. There was a great competition at guard with Joel Belding and Keegan Grant, and Keegan Kennedy is a third guy in the mix. Joel can also play center, so his flexibility helps. But I was really encouraged with Ben Burkett this spring. We've been fortunate to basically have two centers in eight years with Trevor [Rees] and Austin King. Am I ready to anoint Ben in that position? Not yet. But he's very athletic, he's got great functional strength, he understands our offense well. And then at left tackle, there's really good competition between Ramon Diaz and Al Netter, but Al won the job in spring, so Al's going to be the starter as we come into camp. Are we ready to be a fist yet? No. Those 20-something practice opportunities we're going to have in camp are going to be pretty critical.
When you hear about Big Ten running backs, you hear about Beanie [Wells], Javon [Ringer], P.J. Hill. Tyrell [Sutton] was a guy people talked about a couple years ago. Can he get back in the discussion?
PF: He couldn't control getting hurt. All he could control was how hard he worked and he got back faster than we anticipated. We had talked about a point of no return, maybe redshirting him last year, but we didn't get to that point and I'm proud of the way he fought to get back. It was in discussions with him and our doctors, where we were going to go, but he was adamant that he wanted to play, and I don't blame him. It's frustrating for him. He wanted to play badly. As I look at it, maybe the two bookends, the front end of his career where he had such a great start with 1,500 yards and we went to a bowl game, and now the back end of his career, I'd like to see a similar outcome.
The Big Ten has taken some hits nationally for Ohio State's performance in the title game and other teams not measuring up to the Buckeyes. When you look at the league, is there a huge a gap between Ohio State and everyone else, or is it closer than people think?
PF: Everyone's looking up at Ohio State, there's no question about that. All I know is they're the only team to play in back-to-back national championship games, so everyone was looking up at 'em. Not only us in our league, but everybody in the country. You want to win your last game. We didn't do our job last year to get that done, and they didn't, but at the end of the day, they were where everybody aspires to be, playing for a national championship.
I see you have a magazine on your desk with Rich Rodriguez on the cover. How will his arrival at Michigan impact the league?
PF: It will be a huge change for Michigan football. I've gotten to be around Rich a couple times and I'm very impressed with him as a person. I'm very impressed with his demeanor and his humility. A coach that who's been a head coach since a young age, has been very successful in his time as a head coach. The success that he had at West Virginia is incredible. To bring that mind-set and what they do to Michigan, it's going to be a great challenge for all of us. I'm not looking forward to competing against him. He's had great success. It's just going to take him a little bit of time, like it takes everybody when you go to a new university, to get all his pieces into place. But I'm sure he's got an acceleration plan to get that ready this fall.
Illinois surprised a lot of people last year. Is there any team under the radar that you're looking to for some surprises?
PF: If you look at Minnesota last year and you saw the games that they were in, our game as one of them, a lot of their games could have gone either way. Coach [Tim] Brewster has recruited well. He's a very passionate person. Outside of our team, I would think maybe the other team under the radar screen is going to be Minnesota.
Is Northwestern always going to be under the radar?
PF: I don't know. There's only four teams that have a winning record against us since 1995. Are we challenging for the championship right now? Not as we sit here today. We'll get that going in August. But we've been bowl-eligible now a number of times since '95. We're still in the infant stage of our tradition. We have a great tradition that dates back, but a big time period there where we didn't necessarily have success on the field. It's going to take us as much time as that period took, of success, to overcome that. I think we're right in the middle of that right now.
Is that just getting through the nonconference unscathed, winning a bowl game? Are those the things you need so people don't automatically think of the losing?
PF: You need to be successful on the field, you need to continue to have the integrity and what you stand for not change. I think we've had that now since '95, so we're only talking about 12, 13 years, and not every year being in a bowl game, and not every year having a winning record. So you've got to fill in those blanks. It may be a little bit longer time. Winning records, bowl games, bowl victories, putting that together consistently, will then erase some opinions.