Big Ten: Joel Nitchman

Poaching another idea today, this time from colleague David Ubben at the Big 12 blog. I'll be taking a look at several key players going, staying and coming into the program for each Big Ten team.

First up, Michigan State.

Going ...

Joel Nitchman, C: Nitchman helped anchor the offensive line last year and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches. He started three seasons for the Spartans and made 31 starts at center. John Stipek impressed the Michigan State staff this spring, he'll have some big shoes to fill.

Trevor Anderson, DE: Although Anderson never quite lived up to the hype he had after transferring from Cincinnati, he still recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks last season. Anderson earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in each of his two seasons as a Spartan. He also provided solid leadership in the locker room.

Staying ...

Greg Jones, LB: Jones' decision to return to Michigan State was one of few bright spots in a rough offseason for the program. Put simply, he's one of the nation's best and most accomplished defenders, and he should be even better as a senior. Jones has led Michigan State in tackles in each of his three seasons, recording 154 stops in 2009. He has added weight and looks considerably stronger, but he hasn't lost any speed and still closes extremely well on ball-carriers.

Keshawn Martin, WR: Martin gave the Big Ten a taste of what he could do on special teams last season. He'll make an even bigger impact as a receiver this fall and got a head start with six receptions for 109 yards in the spring game. Martin averaged 22.8 yards per reception last year and has the ability to go the distance any time he touches the ball.

Coming ...

William Gholston, LB: Gholston was the Big Ten's second-highest rated prospect, according to ESPN recruiting, and should make an immediate impact this fall. The ESPNU 150 selection checks in at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, but Michigan State fully intends to keep him as a linebacker. Gholston and classmate Max Bullough are part of the reason why Michigan State will use more of the 3-4 alignment this fall.

Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond,S : It's no secret that Michigan State struggled against the pass in 2009, and the secondary needs all the help it can get this fall. Both Lewis and Drummond both bring some exciting skills to the table and could compete for playing time right away if returning players don't step up.

Big Ten mailblog

May, 4, 2010
As Bill Raftery would say, send it in!

Josh from Minnesota writes: Adam, your blog keeps me going through organic chemistry class. Thanks! So I have an issue with the non-conference schedule's of teams you put ahead of the Gophers in your power rankings last year and this spring. I would love to see the Gophs go 9-3 via blasting Akron, Temple, etc. 63-0 the first few weeks like Iowa and Wisconsin do, but I would much more like to see the Gophers play USC, Cal, UNC, Texas, etc. Can we get some respect for playing quality opponents?!

Adam Rittenberg: It's somewhat unfortunate, Josh, but there's no RPI in college football, and nonconference schedules hardly ever matter for teams. I think it's great what Tim Brewster and Joel Maturi are doing at Minnesota by scheduling teams like USC, Texas and Cal. It's certainly a departure from the Glen Mason era, as Mase scheduled for 7-5 (3-5 Big Ten) seemingly every year. I look at Minnesota's schedule this year -- especially the home slate with USC, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa -- and think 6-6 or 7-5 would be pretty decent given the competition. But Minnesota fans are sick and tied of 6-6 or 7-5. The bottom line is actually winning those games, which Brewster hasn't done in his tenure. He needs to win trophy games, November games or games against elite nonconference foes like USC. Beefing up the schedule is great, but you only get respect if you win those games.

Kasey from Chicago writes: I noticed you have ILLINOIS ranked at number 10 in your latest power rankings. I have to admit that is a little disheartening for an Illini fan, but does Illinois like it? Illinois has a history of either under-achieving or over-achieving. Like in '03 or '07 when they weren't supposed to make it nearly as far as they did, or in the last two seasons when nearly everybody thought they would at least make it to a bowl game. My question is, do the Illini want to come in the under dog? I think Illinois can possibly lead the Big Ten in rushing yards, and upset one of the big three.

Adam Rittenberg: Illinois certainly is embracing the underdog, Kasey, and there is some history to the Illini doing better when expectations are low. Several Big Ten teams follow this pattern of exceeding expectations when they're low and falling short when they're high. Illinois will have its struggles at quarterback, but as you point out, there's a lot to love about the run game with Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford. I'm not sold on the defense, but Vic Koenning was a great hire and should have a positive impact.

Mike from New York writes: Hey Adam,I need a little clarification on ND. It sounds like they turned down an offer by the B10 a decade ago, but you wrote that if a school is going to join the B10, it needs to ask to join first, and then the B10 will vote on it. Are these rules different than they were before, or did ND ask to join, get voted in, and then snubbed the B10 at the last minute?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, you're right in that candidates first must apply for admission to the Big Ten before a vote can take place. But the Big Ten will formally discuss admission with any candidate before letting things get to the application process. Notre Dame ultimately didn't decide to apply, and so no vote was taken. But I'm sure the Big Ten made it clear to the Irish that if they applied, they would be admitted, as long as all parties agreed upon the terms. So Notre Dame turned down an offer to apply, not an offer for admission (because technically, these don't exist).

Matt from Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: Adam, I am trying to figure out where your unequivocal support of Michigan State football comes from. The Spartans finished last season with 6 wins. Among the teams they lost to: Central Michigan, Notre Dame, and Minnesota. No doubt, the team has some solid returners from last season. And, there are some good incoming freshman players who may see the field... but T-4 with Penn State in the BT Power Rankings? Starting the season 4-0? Explain to me how this team is so much different from last year's.

Adam Rittenberg: I realize that buying into Michigan State is a risky proposition, given the Spartans' history. But Michigan State probably loses fewer truly valuable seniors than any team in the Big Ten. Wide receiver Blair White and offensive linemen Joel Nitchman and Rocco Cironi had value, but other than that, I don't see many huge departures. Penn State, on the other hand, loses three valuable linebackers, a first-team All-Big Ten quarterback in Daryll Clark and the Big Ten's co-Defensive Player of the Year in Jared Odrick. Back to the Spartans, they totally shot themselves in the foot against Central Michigan, fell victim to inexperience against Notre Dame and lost one of the most bizarre games I've ever seen at Minnesota. No excuses, but it wasn't like they were torched by those teams. Michigan State has a much more stable situation on offense than Penn State, although the Lions will have a stronger defense. As for starting the season 4-0? Who will beat Michigan State in that stretch? A rebuilding Notre Dame team that must visit East Lansing? I'd be surprised if the Spartans weren't 4-0.

Chris from Arlington, Va., writes: Hey Adam,Love the blog, check it everyday. Could you put a list together of all the Big10 undrafted Free agents? I'm a PSU fan and I'd like to say that I'm casting my vote for [Matt] McGloin right now. I dont' think they need someone to win games for them, just to distribute to the WRs and Royster/Green/Redd(if they don't redshirt him.) I feel that if they can get him under control and not "trust his arm" so much, that he can be solid until Paul Jones or Robert Boldin get their feet under them. As for Newsome, just use him as a wildcat threat...What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, I'm still waiting for all the official lists of free-agent signings to come out before posting a master list with Big Ten players. But thanks for reminding me. Penn State certainly could survive with a game manager at quarterback if it can run the ball effectively with Evan Royster and company. I'm not sure McGloin can be that guy and still avoid costly interceptions. He certainly made some questionable throws in the spring game, although that's only one scrimmage. Honestly, I don't think any of us can cast our votes right now. We need to see more from McGloin, Newsome, Jones and maybe even Robert Bolden in fall camp. Let's be patient with that position.

Will from St. Paul, Minn., writes: I understand, do not agree with, but understand why you put the Gopher's at number 9 on your power rankings. I was a little confused with your opening though. Did you mean to say that there is a huge gap between the bottom teams in the conference compared to the middle like the gap between top and middle? If so, you truly believe that Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan are a clear level above Minnesota, how?

Adam Rittenberg: I think there's a gap, but not a huge one. Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana all have some major question marks on defense, and both the Gophers and Illini are coming off of miserable performances on offense in 2009. Is Michigan way ahead of those teams? No, especially from a defensive standpoint, but the Wolverines will score a lot of points this fall, I'm fairly certain of that. I can't say the same about Minnesota or Illinois. And I have major doubts that Indiana will be able to stop anyone, because the Hoosiers haven't done so for more than a decade. Northwestern is a solid middle-of-the-pack team, and Purdue ended 2009 strong and, despite the injuries, leaves me with fewer questions than Minnesota, Illinois or Indiana. Can Minnesota rise to the middle of the Big Ten? Absolutely, but I need to see more.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Last spring, all eyes were on the quarterback position at Michigan State, with an occasional glance toward the running backs.

Both backfield positions are pretty much settled this year, as Kirk Cousins is the clear No. 1 quarterback and sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will share carries at running back. The Spartans are also well stocked at both wide receiver and tight end, losing only one major contributor in Blair White and gaining a potential star wideout in converted quarterback Keith Nichol.

[+] EnlargeDantonio
Brett Davis/US PresswireMark Dantonio knows he has some holes to fill on his offensive line.
So where's the drama for Michigan State's offense in spring ball? Look no further than the offensive line.

The Spartans lose three linemen with significant starting experience -- center Joel Nitchman, tackle Rocco Cironi and guard Brendon Moss -- from a front five that allowed the fewest sacks (14) in the Big Ten last fall. Head coach Mark Dantonio will lean on left guard Joel Foreman and left tackle D.J. Young, and center John Stipek started three games while Nitchman was out with an injury.

But other than those three, the Spartans have plenty of question marks up front, which means plenty of competition this spring.

"You'd like to have your two-deep solidified coming out of [spring practice]," Dantonio said Tuesday. "We have enough people. Guys have made strides. But the key is, have they been playing? Have they been coached? Have they actively been doing this?"

The right side of the Spartans' line is wide open, as a large group of players competes at both spots, including Jared McGhaha, Chris McDonald, J'Michael Deane, John Deyo and Antonio Jeremiah, a converted defensive lineman. Several redshirt freshmen also are in the mix, including tackles Henry Conway and David Barrent.

"There's some youth in there that we're trying to polish up," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said.

Dantonio said McGaha is "making a move" at tackle this spring, while McDonald is working as the team's starting right guard right now. Redshirt freshman Nate Klatt is pushing Stipek for the starting center spot.

Both Dantonio and Treadwell singled out Klatt for his play this spring.

Michigan State finished second in the Big Ten in passing last fall, while the run game slipped to 73rd nationally. Don't expect those trends to continue, as the Spartans want to re-establish the run behind Caper, Baker and, hopefully, a solid line.

"We didn't run it as well as we needed to run it, that's the bottom line," Dantonio said. "We've got numbers [at offensive line] and they've all improved, and you see the result of that."
Here's the second half of my interview with Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. For Part I, click here.

Toward the end of last year, you had some defensive linemen emerge, guys like [Jerel] Worthy and [Blake] Treadwell. Who are you excited about up there?

Mark Dantonio: We got two great young players last year in Treadwell and Worthy playing pretty well. They'll only get better, although Worthy's a bit jammed up because of an injury. At defensive end, Tyler Hoover's a guy who will begin to play more and better. He's going into his third year now, he's 6-foot-6, 265, he's an outstanding athlete. Denzel Drone, Corey Freeman, Colin Neely comes back with a lot of time under his belt. And Kevin Pickelman, he's up to 280 pounds now, and he's going to have an outstanding spring. Really, we've got 13 players back on defense with substantial time as a starter at one point in time. And 13 on offense who have started at one point in time. We do have players back, but we have to solidify depth issues.

How about the secondary? You lost a couple guys there, but you have quite a few who have played. How does that unit need to improve?

MD: We have four guys back with plenty of experience. They've all started at one point in time, whether it was [Trenton] Robinson or [Chris L.] Rucker or Marcus Hyde or Johnny Adams. So that gives us a nucleus on which to build. And then guys like Jairus Jones are going to come in and play, and some of our young freshmen, Dana Dixon. We need to get better at the back end. We need to get better as a football team.

When you talk about defense, you talk about points scored, and usually you look at third-down efficiency, how you play in the red zone, and turnovers. When you look at us, we were No. 2 in the conference in sacks [35]. Third-and-long, we were fine, 75-80 percent. But third-and-short and third-and-medium is where we fell down. We didn't play well enough in the red zone, and then we didn't come up with enough turnovers. So that's where it starts to look you in the face statistically. I'm not that concerned with the yards, as long as it doesn't lead to touchdowns. You never know where those yards come from. But you need to get off the field on third down, you need to have turnovers, you need to play well in the red zone, and we'll work to correct that.

Pass defense, it's a total team thing, so you need to be able to transition from the defensive line, from playing the run to stopping the pass, to create a pass rush in a four-man scheme. Our linebackers also have to play better. On the flip side of it, we were 25th in the nation versus the run, and that's something we can build on.

Greg Jones, in talking about why he was coming back, mentioned how he wants to improve in pass coverage. Are there things you can see him doing to be more involved there?

MD: He made a statement for our football team, not just as a player but as a captain, as a team member, being unselfish and coming back here. Everyone always can improve. Certainly I can improve. So when you're in the same place in the same system, you always look for major improvement. Greg's a pass rusher, too. He had 9.5 sacks, so you can't negate that aspect of our defensive football team, but he will become better at the [middle] linebacker, having been full time in there last year. And that's the exciting thing. He provides a catalyst for our defense, and we can play around him.

I wanted to ask you about the offensive line. It's tough when you lose players like Rocco Cironi and Joel Nitchman. How do you see that group shaping up? And also Arthur Ray, how is he progressing? Will he be able to play?

MD: Arthur is able to run, he's able to jog, he's able to do some drills on his own. He's able to, at this point in time, lead a normal life, and that's a tremendous thing for a young man who has been on crutches for the last year and three quarters. His bone is healing. He hopes to play in the near future, within maybe a year. We'll have to petition the Big Ten office for that. We would have room for that at this point, but that's something the doctors have to decide on, and his family. But me, personally, and our entire football staff and team, are thrilled to have Arthur out there every single day, just seeing him walk and catch a ball and run around. He's reconditioning himself to be a football player. Where that takes him? Time will tell. But I can look at him now and say, 'There is a possibility.' So we'll have to make that decision probably next spring at this time.

And then just with the offensive line as a whole, what's your outlook there?

MD: Offensive line and kicker are the two areas where we have to develop the most. We have a kicker with no experience back. [Dan] Conroy kicked one field goal [in 2009], but for the most part, it's been [Brett] Swenson's job for four years. So Kevin Muma and Conroy will compete for that, and it'll be interesting to see how that plays out. Offensive line wise, we have progressed and we have been able to take the past program's offensive linemen and they've been very, very productive for us. Joel Foreman has been the only guy that we've recruited that we've used extensively last year, although D.J. Young is a guy who came on with us. So two guys. But for the most part, Cironi, [Brendon] Moss, Nitchman, they were the last staff's young people.

So it's time now for our guys. Two of our guys have three years in, four others have two years in, and then we have some guys that have one year in. They have to grow up, they have to get experience and that experience has to show in spring, fall camp and then through our first couple games. That will be a work in progress, but I do think we have talent at that position. There's so many moving parts there that they have to understand what to do and do it at a high rate of speed.
Spring practice is about to get under way at Michigan State, and four players convicted in last year's residence hall assault have been reinstated to the team.

Head coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday that cornerback Chris L. Rucker, offensive linemen J'Michael Deane and wide receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, all of whom received probation and community service after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault, are back on the team. Wide receivers Donald Spencer and Chris D. Rucker, suspended for being present at the Nov. 22 incident but never charged, also are back for the spring.

Dantonio confirmed that wide receiver Myles White and nose tackle Oren Wilson will transfer. White was sentenced Monday to probation and community service, and Wilson faces sentencing March 31. The status of wide receiver Fred Smith, sentenced Friday to five days in jail plus probation and community service, will be determined when his legal issues are over. Eleven current or former players pleaded guilty in the incident, and six -- White, Wilson, Ashton Leggett, Jamiihr Williams, Glenn Winston and Roderick Jenrette -- are no longer with the program.

I fully expected reinstatement for Cunningham, Dell, Deane and Chris L. Rucker, who had no prior indiscretions. White and Wilson deserved heavier punishment, potentially dismissal from the team, because their involvement in the assault didn't come to light until January. Wilson even played in the Alamo Bowl, a privilege he didn't deserve. But it's all moot now as both players will be transferring.

I spoke with Dantonio moments ago, and while I'll have a two-part Q&A with the coach this afternoon and Wednesday, a few notes and quotes for now.
  • Dantonio, on the off-field problems Michigan State has faced: "You’re going to fall down at times. We have the same problems that society has in a lot of ways, and because we live in a fishbowl a little bit, there's going to be higher consequences, more public scrutiny and things of that nature. But you do always have to believe in your young people. That helps them grow, and that’s what we’ll do."
  • During the winter, Dantonio put a greater emphasis on the team's Unity Council and held 90-minute weekly seminars for players that featured guest speakers, including former players and a criminal justice professor. "We talked about the law, talked about our players’ rights, talked about consequences," Dantonio said. "When you make a decision, it’s not a quick fix judiciously. Our players need to understand that. It’s not over and done with when you do make a mistake. We're just trying to educate and be proactive, and I think it draws our team together."
  • The big personnel news of the day is Keith Nichol's move from quarterback to wide receiver. Nichol remains an option at quarterback, but with greater depth behind Kirk Cousins this spring, he has a better chance to make big contributions at receiver. Nichol played some wideout during the Alamo Bowl but will spend much more time there this spring. Dantonio said Cousins has earned the starter's tag entering the spring after a solid sophomore season. Nichol is listed as both a first-team wide receiver and a second-string quarterback on the team's spring depth chart. "Keith is an outstanding athlete," Dantonio said. "He's played quarterback for us and he should continue to be thought of in that light somewhat. He would always be able to move back in there. ... But I also think that he can be an outstanding wide receiver, as proven in bowl practice. ... He needs to get on the football field for us."
  • Dantonio identified offensive line and kicker as the two most critical areas to develop in spring ball. The Spartans lose three starters on the offensive line, including standout center Joel Nitchman, as well as first-team All-Big Ten kicker Brett Swenson.
  • Some wonderful news about Spartans offensive lineman Arthur Ray Jr., who has kept his dream of playing football alive after battling bone cancer. Ray is finally off crutches and able to run and do individual drills. "His bone is healing," Dantonio said. "He hopes to play in the near future, within maybe a year. We'll have to petition for that. We would have room for [Ray on the roster]. That's something the doctors have to decide on. Me, personally, and our entire football staff, are thrilled to have Arthur out there every single day. ... I can look at him now and say there is a possibility [of him playing]." There are plenty of folks rooting for Ray, myself included.
  • Defensive end David Rolf is transferring to be closer to his family. Defensive tackle Cameron Jude's status is unclear as he works through academic and personal issues.
  • Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy doesn't appear on the spring depth chart because he underwent offseason shoulder surgery and will be limited in practice
After a brief break, the spring superlatives series marches on with Michigan State, which opens spring practice next week. Obviously, a lot hinges on whether seven suspended players are reinstated, but I would expect most of them to be back before the season. Although four of the suspended players are wide receivers, most or all should return for 2010, making the position less of a concern.

Here's a look at the strongest position and weakest position for the Spartans, who return a lot at the skill spots but look thin on both lines.

Strongest position: Linebacker

  • Key returnees: Greg Jones (154 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery); Eric Gordon (92 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick); Chris Norman (11 tackles, 1 tackle for loss).
  • Key losses: Brandon Denson (68 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception); Adam Decker (14 tackles, 1 fumble recovery).
  • The skinny: Jones' return for 2010 provides a major jolt to a defense that must improve upon last year's performance. The Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year owns 359 career tackles, and he's constantly in the opposing backfield. Jones wants to become a bigger factor in pass coverage, which would help a suspect Spartans secondary. Gordon is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and should be ready for a big senior season. The Spartans must fill one starting spot, and Norman will compete with Steve Gardiner and several others for playing time there.
Weakest position: Offensive line

  • Key returnees: Guard Joel Foreman, guard Jared McGaha, right tackle D.J. Young, tackle/guard J'Michael Deane (suspended)
  • Key losses: Center Joel Nitchman, left tackle Rocco Cironi, guard Brendon Moss
  • The skinny: Some might point to the secondary, which significantly underachieved last fall, or spots like defensive end or kicker as greater concerns, but Michigan State must replace three fifth-year senior starters up front. I wasn't blown away by the Spartans' offensive line last year, but Nitchman stood out and Cironi's value showed after he went down with a fourth-quarter injury in the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech. You never want to replace both your left tackle and your center in the same year, so Michigan State has a big challenge ahead this spring. Foreman, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2009, needs to lead the group this fall.
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:


Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • The quarterback competition. Four-year starter Juice Williams departs, and a host of young players (and one older one) are in the mix to replace him. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to shape his system around the starting signal-caller, so he'll be looking for some separation this spring. Jacob Charest got valuable playing time behind Williams in 2009, and Eddie McGee, a part-time wide receiver, has extensive playing experience at quarterback. They'll compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee.
  • Fixing the defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brings an impressive résumé to Champaign, but he'll be challenged to fix a unit that hasn't been right since J Leman and Co. left following the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Koenning wants to identify leaders on defense this spring and will look to players like end Clay Nurse and linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Illinois' most pressing needs likely come in the secondary after the team finished 100th nationally against the pass in 2009.
  • Line dance. Illinois needs to get tougher and better on both lines to turn things around in 2010. The Illini tied for eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall, and while the run game got going late, top lineman Jon Asamoah departs. Perhaps a bigger priority is finding a pass rush on defense after finishing last in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Rebuilding the back seven on D. Indiana loses three starters in the secondary and two linebackers, including blog favorite Matt Mayberry. The Hoosiers brought in three junior college defenders, two of whom, linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerback Lenyatta Kiles, will participate in spring practice. Needless to say, jobs are open everywhere, and coordinators Brian George and Joe Palcic will be looking for playmakers to step up. Several players are moving from offense to defense, including wideout Mitchell Evans to safety.
  • End game. Indiana loses a lot of pass-rushing production as multiyear starters Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton depart. Both starting jobs at defensive end are open this spring, and IU will look to Darius Johnson, Terrance Thomas and others to step up and make plays.
  • Willis watch. Indiana hopes 2010 is the year when running back Darius Willis becomes a superstar. Getting him through spring practice healthy will be a key first step. Willis has been impressive on the field, but he has struggled with injuries for much of his career. IU's passing attack should be very strong in 2010, and if Willis can elevate the run game, the Hoosiers should put up a ton of points.

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • The offensive line. Rebuilding the offensive line is far and away Iowa's top priority heading into the 2010 season. The Hawkeyes are stacked at running back and boast a strong passing attack, but they'll struggle if things aren't solidified up front. Tackle/guard Riley Reiff blossomed last season and guard Julian Vandervelde also returns, but Iowa will look to fill three starting spots this spring.
  • Refilling at linebacker and cornerback. Iowa's defense has been one of the nation's most opportunistic units the last two seasons, and players like Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Amari Spievey were three big reasons why. All three depart, so Iowa needs to reload at linebacker and find a shut-down corner (Shaun Prater?). The spotlight will be on guys like Prater, Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian this spring.
  • Sorting out the running back spot. Iowa is absolutely loaded at running back, but there's only one ball to be carried on a given play. The Hawkeyes likely will use a rotation in 2010, but who will be the featured back? Jewel Hampton will try to reclaim the top spot, which he lost because of a knee injury last summer. Adam Robinson filled in extremely well for Hampton in the lead role, and Brandon Wegher was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl win.

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Defense, defense, defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez always will be known for his spread offense, but he won't be around much longer at Michigan if the defense doesn't significantly improve. A unit that ranked 82nd nationally last season loses its two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) and must find contributors at linebacker, safety and cornerback. Help is on the way from the 2010 recruiting class, but Michigan can't afford a bad spring on defense.
  • Devin Gardner. The heralded quarterback recruit enrolled early and will enter the mix this spring. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are the front-runners at quarterback, but Gardner might be the ultimate answer for the Wolverines. His ability to pick up the system and push Forcier and Robinson this spring will determine whether he sees the field in the fall or takes a redshirt.
  • Running back. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor depart, but Michigan once again should be good at the running back spot. Vincent Smith will miss spring ball as he recovers from knee surgery, but several others, including Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint, will be competing throughout the 15 workouts. Shaw, who scored two touchdowns on 42 carries in 2009, could create a bit of separation with a good spring.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Team morale. The residence hall incident and the subsequent fallout really rocked the Michigan State program. Head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to address the status of several suspended players, and the final outcome could impact the depth chart, particularly at wide receiver. It's important for Michigan State's team leaders -- Greg Jones, Kirk Cousins and others -- to unite the locker room in the spring and do all they can to prevent further problems.
  • Line dance. Michigan State needs to improve on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2010, and it all starts this spring. The Spartans must replace left tackle Rocco Cironi and center Joel Nitchman, and they also lose top pass-rusher Trevor Anderson at defensive end. As strong as the Spartans should be at the skill positions, they need to start building around linemen like Joel Foreman and Jerel Worthy.
  • Keith Nichol. The versatile junior could be moved to wide receiver, but he'll get a chance to push Cousins at quarterback this spring. Nichol's skills are too valuable to waste on the sideline, particularly if Michigan State has a pressing need at receiver, but he still could be a factor at quarterback if his improves his accuracy. The speedy Nichol could run the Wildcat in addition to serving as a wide receiver, if MSU chooses to go that route.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • The coordinator and the quarterbacks. Minnesota will welcome its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, though Jeff Horton doesn't plan to overhaul the system like Jedd Fisch did a year ago. Horton's primary task will be developing quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray, who both struggled last fall in the pro-style system. Weber has the edge in experience, but he needs to regain the form his showed in his first two seasons as the starter. Gray brings tremendous athleticism to the table but must prove he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
  • The offensive line. Head coach Tim Brewster has insisted that when Minnesota gets the offensive line on track, things really will get rolling. The Gophers need better players and arguably tougher players up front, and the line should benefit in Year 2 under assistant Tim Davis. The group should be motivated by finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
  • Young defenders. Minnesota loses most of its starting defense from 2009, but fans are more excited about the young talent returning on that side of the ball. Spring ball could be huge for players like Michael Carter, D.L. Wilhite and Keanon Cooper as they transition into leading roles. The Gophers' biggest losses come at linebacker, as all three starters depart.

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Identify a running back. The Wildcats produced an impressive string of standout running backs under former coach Randy Walker and at the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, but they struggled in the backfield in 2009. Northwestern returns the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive line, so identifying a primary ball carrier or two this spring is vital. Arby Fields and Scott Concannon showed a few flashes last year but must get more consistent, while Mike Trumpy will be an interesting addition to the mix.
  • Polishing Persa. Dan Persa steps in at quarterback for second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka, and he’ll try to walk a similar career path. Kafka transformed himself in the offseason a year ago to become an extremely consistent passer, and Persa will need to do the same. Persa could be the best running quarterback Northwestern has had since Zak Kustok, but his size and the nature of the offense suggests he’ll need to make strides with his arm. NU also needs to see progress from backup Evan Watkins, as it lacks overall depth at quarterback.
  • Reload in the secondary. Northwestern loses three starters in the secondary, including all-conference selections Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. Fitzgerald will lean heavily on cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters to lead the group, but he needs a few more players to emerge this spring. Defensive backs like Justan Vaughn have experience and must transition into featured roles.

Spring practice starts: April 1

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Running back competition resumes. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron finished strong in 2009, but they can’t get too comfortable. Several young running backs, including Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin and Carlos Hyde, will be competing for carries this spring. Saine likely has the best chance to lock down a featured role at running back, but if the hype about Berry pans out, it’ll be a dogfight.
  • Pryor’s evolution. After Ohio State’s victory in the Rose Bowl, both Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel talked about the game being a key juncture in Pryor’s development. The junior quarterback must build on his performance this spring, especially from a passing standpoint. Ohio State can be a more balanced and more effective offense in 2010, but Pryor needs to keep making strides.
  • Safety squeeze. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much from the 2009 team, but the safety spot took a hit as first-team All-Big Ten selection Kurt Coleman as well as key contributor Anderson Russell depart. Jermale Hines looks like the answer at one spot, and he’ll enter the spring with high expectations. Ohio State needs to build around Hines and identify playmakers for an increasingly opportunistic unit.

Spring practice starts: March 26

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. No surprise here, as Penn State’s quarterback competition will be one of the Big Ten’s top storylines until September. Two-year starter Daryll Clark departs, leaving a major void under center. Sophomore Kevin Newsome played a bit last fall and has been in the system for a full season. He’ll enter the spring with a slight edge, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones also will be in the mix before Robert Bolden arrives this summer.
  • Getting better up front. All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that will have more experience and needs to make strides this spring. The line struggled against elite defensive fronts last year (Iowa, Ohio State) but should have more cohesion after another offseason together. The tackle spots will be interesting to watch, as Dennis Landolt departs. Penn State’s defensive line needs to shore up the middle after losing Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick.
  • Linebacker U. put to the test. Penn State has a proven track record of reloading in the defensive front seven, but it loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker. All three starting spots are open this spring, and the spotlight will turn to players like Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Chris Colasanti and others to fill the production and leadership gaps left by Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Marve watch begins. The starting quarterback job is open, and all eyes will be on Miami transfer Robert Marve. One of the nation's most decorated recruits in 2007, Marve started for the Hurricanes in 2008 but ran into problems and transferred. Slowed by an ACL injury last summer and fall, Marve will have every chance to establish himself this spring as he competes with Caleb TerBush.
  • Wide-open secondary. All four starters depart in the secondary, creating plenty of competition back there this spring. Players like safety Albert Evans and cornerback Charlton Williams will be in the spotlight as they try to nail down jobs. Purdue should be better in the front seven in 2010, but you can bet opposing quarterbacks will attack an unproven secondary.
  • The run defense. It's a huge priority for Purdue to improve against the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Jason Werner's return for a sixth year is huge, and Purdue boasts one of the Big Ten's top D-linemen in Ryan Kerrigan. Those two must provide leadership and foster more cohesion from the younger players around them. New D-line coach Gary Emanuel will be instrumental in the process this spring.

Spring practice starts: March 13 (break from March 29-April 2)

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • The secondary. Wisconsin looks pretty solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, so getting the secondary up to par will be key this spring. Safety Jay Valai is a vicious hitter, but can he become an All-Big Ten-caliber safety? Aaron Henry joins Valai at safety after struggling at cornerback in 2009. Wisconsin also will look for continued progress from corners Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley.
  • Replacing Schofield. Bret Bielema told me earlier this week that the competition at defensive line is once again heating up this offseason. Wisconsin must replace first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield, who ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) in 2009. J.J. Watt has superstar written all over him, but Wisconsin will look for more pass-rush ability from David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu.
  • The wide receivers/tight ends. Wisconsin showed at times last fall that its passing attack could be dynamic, and it will look for big things from several players this spring. Wideout Nick Toon certainly has what it takes to be a star in the Big Ten, and Lance Kendricks showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he's a capable successor for Garrett Graham at tight end. The Badgers will look to David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson to fill the No. 2 wideout spot.

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Keith Nichol, Terrelle Pryor, Jewel Hampton, Jermil Martin, Jerel Worthy, Anderson Russell, Ian Thomas, Riley Reiff, Mitchell Evans, Arby Fields, Joe Palcic, Randy Walker, Ryan Kerrigan, Justan Vaughn, Navorro Bowman, Clay Nurse, Paul Jones, David Gilbert, Jon Asamoah, Joel Nitchman, Chris Colasanti, Louis Nzegwu, Garrett Graham, Lance Kendricks, Stefen Wisniewski, Martez Wilson, Nate Stupar, Tim Brewster, Robert Marve, Darius Johnson, Evan Watkins, Brian Peters, Brandon Wegher, Devin Smith, Rich Rodriguez, Albert Evans, Jason Werner, Michael Carter, Michael Shaw, Pat Fitzgerald, Chandler Whitmer, Jermale Hines, Jeff Horton, Kyle Jefferson, Robert Bolden, Matt Mayberry, Zak Kustok, Kirk Cousins, Jordan Mabin, Dennis Landolt, Jacob Charest, Carlos Hyde, Caleb TerBush, Dan Herron, Denard Robinson, Bret Bielema, Rocco Cironi, Jammie Kirlew, Pat Angerer, Jim Tressel, Keanon Cooper, Tyler Nielsen, Brandon Graham, Jeff Tarpinian, Juice Williams, Daryll Clark, Mike Trumpy, Niles Brinkley, Sherrick McManis, Jared Odrick, Devin Gardner, Shaun Prater, Nathan Scheelhaase, Isaac Anderson, D.L. Wilhite, Matt McGloin, Brandon Minor, Bani Gbadyu, Aaron Henry, Darius Willis, Brad Phillips, Kevin Newsome, Mark Dantonio, Tate Forcier, Adam Weber, Jaamal Berry, Eddie McGee, Kurt Coleman, Scott Concannon, Amari Spievey, Brian George, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Brandon Saine, Donovan Warren, David Gilreath, Carlos Brown, Mike Kafka, Greg Jones, Julian Vandervelde, Joel Foreman, Greg Middleton, Trevor Anderson, O\'Brien Schofield, Adam Robinson, Jordan Hall, Terrance Thomas, Paul Petrino, Jeff Thomas, Lenyatta Kiles, Gary Emanuel, 2010 spring what to watch

Big Ten team recruiting needs

January, 20, 2010
National Signing Day is right around the corner, and Big Ten teams will look to add depth and identify a few immediate contributors in the upcoming recruiting classes. What do these squads need the most?

Here's a look:


Offensive line: The line hasn't been great the last two seasons, and Illinois loses standout Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block. Illinois looks strong at running back in 2010, but someone needs to create rushing lanes.

Safety: The Illini defense hasn't been the same since the departures of safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison following the 2007 season. Ron Zook could really use a safety or two who could step in and contribute right away against the run and in coverage.


Defensive end: The Hoosiers lose two multiyear starters at end: Jammie Kirlew, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and Greg Middleton, who led the nation in sacks in 2007. Indiana's pass rush will suffer unless it builds depth at end and throughout the line.

Secondary: Indiana loses starting safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk as well as its top cornerback, Ray Fisher. Expect the Hoosiers to go very heavy with defensive back recruits as they try to shore up an area that has been problematic during the last decade.

Offensive line: The situation on the line certainly is better than it was a year ago, but the departure of talented left tackle Rodger Saffold creates a void. Indiana is the type of team that always could use more depth up front so the drop-off between starters and backups isn't so dramatic.


Offensive line: Iowa loses four linemen who started most or all of its games last year, including All-Big Ten performers Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. The Hawkeyes can't expect freshmen to come in and start right away up front, but they need some insurance if injuries crop up.

Linebacker: Standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds depart, and while Iowa has some guys ready to step in, it can always use depth in the defensive midsection. The Hawkeyes defensive line should sizzle in 2010, but they need sure tacklers at linebacker, too.


Secondary: There's no mystery here, as the Wolverines really struggled with breakdowns in the back four and lose standout cornerback Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. Michigan needs to bolster its talent level at both cornerback and safety to have improved results in 2010.

Linebacker: The Wolverines linebackers struggled in 2009, and there are opportunities for young players to step in here and contribute. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are back, but it's obvious this is another area Michigan must upgrade this coming season.

Specialists: Michigan loses both of its starting specialists, including All-Big Ten punter Zoltan Mesko, a Ray Guy Award finalist. This is always an area where a strong true freshman can step in and contribute immediately.


Trenches: Line play was a weakness for the Spartans in 2009, and they'll be looking to upgrade on both sides of the ball. They lose top pass rusher Trevor Anderson as well as left tackle Rocco Cironi, center Joel Nitchman and guard Brendon Moss on the offensive line.

Secondary: This unit turned out to be a major disappointment, considering the preseason expectations. Michigan State loses safety Danny Fortener and corners Ross Weaver and Jeremy Ware, and there should be ample opportunities for freshmen to step in and play.

Linebacker: Probably not a critical need, but Michigan State needs to start preparing for life after Greg Jones. The Spartans also lose Adam Decker and Brandon Denson from the 2009 team, and Eric Gordon will depart with Jones after 2010.


Cornerback: The Gophers lose both of their starters, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, and will be looking to build depth behind Michael Carter in 2010. I'm very excited about what Minnesota returns at safety, but the situation at corner seems a bit unsettled.

Offensive line: Minnesota will stick with the pro-style offense no matter who becomes its next coordinator, but for the system to truly click, the Gophers really need to upgrade their line. The team returns quite a few linemen for 2010, but it'll look for improved depth up front.

Running back: After finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing each of the last two seasons, Minnesota certainly will look to get better here. Kevin Whaley's departure creates a spot for a newcomer to compete with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge for carries.


Secondary: The Wildcats lose three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten honorees Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. They'll need to build depth around safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin to avoid a major drop-off.

Defensive line: Corey Wootton's departure leaves NU without a proven pass rusher who can command double teams. The Wildcats also will look to build depth at defensive tackle after losing Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas.


Safety: This is one of few spots where Ohio State loses two long-time contributors in Kurt Coleman, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and Anderson Russell. Though Jermale Hines played a lot in 2009, the Buckeyes want to build depth around him.

Wide receiver: If the Buckeyes' offense builds off of its Rose Bowl performance, the wideouts figure to be more involved. Ohio State should be fine for 2010 with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but it could lose both after the season and needs to start grooming replacements. These recruits also could help the return game, where Ohio State loses Ray Small and Lamaar Thomas.


Quarterback: Two-year starter Daryll Clark is gone and Pat Devlin transferred following the 2008 season, creating a wide open competition at quarterback heading into 2010. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will compete, but Penn State always wants others in the mix there.

Linebacker: Penn State rarely has trouble reloading here, but it loses all three starters, including back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman. The Lions will look to build depth and identify an early contributor or two for the 2010 season.

Tight end/wideout: The Lions lose both Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, so expect them to add a tight end or two in the incoming class. Quarless was a major part of the passing attack and Shuler hauled in two touchdowns, so Penn State won't neglect this position.


Secondary: A no-brainer here, as Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, which has ranked in the upper half of the league against the pass. The Boilers likely need a newcomer or two to contribute right away in 2010.

Linebacker: Jason Werner hopes to return for a sixth year, but Purdue can't take any chances with a position that has struggled a bit the last two seasons. Danny Hope likes his young linebackers (Antwon Higgs, Dwayne Beckford), but he's looking for more.

Wide receiver/tight end: Purdue can never have enough pass receivers, and Hope will look to build around All-Big Ten performer Keith Smith in 2010. The Boilers lose No. 2 wideout Aaron Valentin, and Smith and tight end Kyle Adams depart after 2010.


Defensive line: All-Big Ten defensive end O'Brien Schofield departs, and the Badgers will be pretty young up front in 2010. It's important that Wisconsin builds depth behind players like J.J. Watt and Jordan Kohout.

Tight end: Lance Kendricks certainly eased concerns about this spot in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Wisconsin still loses All-Big Ten selection Garrett Graham as well as reserve Mickey Turner. No team in the Big Ten features the tight end spot as much as Wisconsin, so it'll be important to find a few recruits.
Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

When it comes to providing information and media access, Michigan State is one of the more open programs in the Big Ten. But not this week.

Head coach Mark Dantonio didn't issue a depth chart, citing lingering injury questions from the Spartans' loss to Minnesota. And he only allowed team captains to talk to the media, a departure from the standard routine, when all players are available for interviews.

The Detroit News' Eric Lacy called it a "bunker mentality."

Clamping down on media access isn't uncommon for major college programs, but you usually see it before national showcase games or major rivalries. Michigan State on Saturday hosts Western Michigan, a 4-5 Mid-American Conference team.

If it feels like the tension is mounting for the 4-5 Spartans, it is.

"Any time you have a football team that is all of a sudden 4-5 after nine games, you begin to lose a little bit of respect," Dantonio said. "I think that's natural. What we want to try to do is make sure we're regaining that respect."

Dantonio rarely discusses injuries, but health is a concern after running back Larry Caper and safety Danny Fortener suffered head injuries against Minnesota. Offensive lineman Joel Nitchman (knee) and defensive end Trevor Anderson (ankle) also left the game. Dantonio said the absence of the depth chart had nothing to do with performance issues, and he quickly dismissed a question Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconference about replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins.

"We have to see where we're at," Dantonio said. "It's purely are we going to play this guy over here, this guy over here, how are we going to align things based on injuries, that type of thing."

Big Ten lunch links

September, 18, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Minneapolis is beautiful this time o' year.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State starting center Joel Nitchman is listed as day to day with a sprained knee sustained in Saturday's opener against Montana State.

Head coach Mark Dantonio said Nitchman's status is up in the air for this week's matchup against Central Michigan.
"What you miss is experience," Dantonio said. "He's a guy who’s been there, done that and he’s done that well. But he's proven to be a very quick healer. The last time this happened, he was out for four days. So I think he can work through these types of things."

The Spartans likely can survive without Nitchman against Central Michigan, but they need him back for a Sept. 19 trip to Notre Dame. If there's a weakness on this team right now, it's probably the offensive line, which is breaking in several new starters. Nitchman's presence in the middle means a lot for MSU.

Redshirt freshman Ethan Ruhland likely would get the nod at center if Nitchman can't go.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Can the Big Ten have a repeat winner for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's top center?

Five players hope to make it happen. 

Penn State's A.Q. Shipley took home the hardware last fall. Here are the five Big Ten centers named to the Rimington Trophy preseason watch list:

  • Ohio State sophomore Mike Brewster
  • Northwestern sophomore Ben Burkett
  • Wisconsin junior John Moffitt
  • Michigan sophomore David Molk
  • Michigan State senior Joel Nitchman

A very solid group overall, and what really stands out to me is the fact that the center spot in the Big Ten appears to be a strength for years to come. Only five sophomores made the watch list, and three are from the Big Ten.

Many will notice that Shipley's successor at Penn State, junior Stefen Wisniewski, does not appear on the watch list.  Wisniewski, a second-team All-Big Ten guard last season, moved to center during the offseason. According to Penn State, the Rimington folks were hesitant to include Wisniewski because he hasn't played center during his first two seasons, a decision Penn State respected. Wisniewski will be able to earn consideration for the award with a strong performance this season.

Brewster obviously has tremendous upside and should contend for the award each of the next three years. Burkett and Molk both will be part of much-improved offensive lines this fall, and Moffitt and Nitchman will be looked to as leaders for their respective teams.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten top 30 player rankings are finally complete, and it's time to take a look back at the rundown during the last few weeks (I feel like I channeled my inner David Stern with how long the series dragged on).

There were two basic parameters for evaluating players -- past performance and future potential. Here's the team-by-team and position-by-position breakdown:

Penn State -- 6
Iowa -- 4
Ohio State -- 3
Minnesota -- 3
Illinois -- 3
Wisconsin -- 2
Michigan State -- 2
Northwestern -- 2
Michigan -- 2
Indiana -- 2
Purdue -- 1

LB -- 6
DE -- 6
QB -- 5
RB -- 3
WR -- 2
S -- 2
CB -- 2
OL -- 2
TE -- 1
DT -- 1

Let's take a look at some of the trends/surprises in the rankings.

As much as I've ragged on the quarterback play in the league, many of you were understandably surprised to see five signal callers on the list and two in the top eight. We'll see what happens this fall, but the quarterback position should be much improved. I've heard a lot of good things about Ricky Stanzi from football people around the league. Adam Weber had no offensive line last year and still threw for 2,761 yards. People forget that Juice Williams was probably the Big Ten's offensive MVP for the first half of last fall. Terrelle Pryor should make a major jump this season, and Daryll Clark doesn't get nearly enough credit for what he did as a first-year starter in 2008. Keep in mind that while Penn State imploded for much of the Rose Bowl, Clark had a pretty decent game against the heralded USC defense.

It's rare to see a top 30 list not filled with Buckeyes -- or Michigan Wolverines, for that matter -- but Ohio State lost a lot of star power during the offseason. Running back Chris Wells likely would have topped the rankings had he stayed for his senior year, and linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and left tackle Alex Boone also would have been in the rankings. I fully expect the end-of-season rankings to include more Ohio State players -- Dan Herron, Brandon Saine, Justin Boren, Mike Brewster, Anderson Russell, Ray Small and Dane Sanzenbacher are all possibilities -- but there is still a lot to prove.

I've heard from several Big Ten traditionalists out there who are shocked that a list of the league's best could include only two offensive linemen. Keep in mind that 30 players isn't that many, and the league returns many more proven players at defensive end, linebacker and even running back. I see a lot of good offensive linemen in this league, but not a ton of great ones right now. Do I expect more than two offensive linemen in the end-of-season rankings? Absolutely. This season provides an excellent opportunity for players like Boren, Brewster, Iowa's Kyle Calloway, Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, Michigan's Stephen Schilling, Penn State's Dennis Landolt, Michigan State's Joel Nitchman and others to cement themselves as elite linemen.

The Big Ten was hardly an offensive juggernaut last fall, especially next to the Big 12 or Pac-10, so some were surprised to see so many offensive players at the top of the rankings. By almost any measure, the Big Ten has two of the best wide receivers in America in Arrelious Benn and Eric Decker, and those two deserve to be at the top of the list. Clark made very few mistakes last year and led an offense that finished 14th nationally and 11th in scoring. Royster is on the cusp of very big things if he gets the ball more. And Iowa's Bryan Bulaga has legit NFL potential and could be one of the nation's top left tackles this fall.

I've heard from many of you wondering why a certain player or two didn't make the rankings. I'll reiterate that 30 players really aren't that many, but here are some guys who just missed the cut and should be in the mix of the end-of-season rundown.

Iowa -- RT Kyle Calloway, DE Adrian Clayborn, LB A.J. Edds
Michigan -- P Zoltan Mesko, LB Obi Ezeh, RT Stephen Schilling
Michigan State -- PK Brett Swenson
Northwestern -- CB Sherrick McManis, S Brendan Smith
Ohio State -- LG Justin Boren, C Mike Brewster, S Anderson Russell, DE Cameron Heyward
Purdue -- DT Mike Neal
Wisconsin -- PK Phillip Welch, LT Gabe Carimi

Michigan State spring wrap

May, 6, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State Spartans
2008 overall record: 9-4

2008 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters

Offense: 7; Defense: 8; Special teams: 2

Top returners

WR Blair White, WR Mark Dell, C Joel Nitchman, TE Charlie Gantt, LB Greg Jones, DE Trevor Anderson, S Danny Fortener, K Brett Swenson

Key losses

RB Javon Ringer, QB Brian Hoyer, RT Jesse Miller, DT Justin Kershaw, DE Brandon Long, S Otis Wiley

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Javon Ringer (1,637 yds)
Passing: Brian Hoyer (2,404 yds)
Receiving: Mark Dell* (679 yds)
Tackles: Greg Jones* (127)
Sacks: Trevor Anderson* (8)
Interceptions: Otis Wiley (4)

Spring answers

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 Montana State
Sept. 12 Central Michigan
Sept. 19 at Notre Dame
Sept. 26 at Wisconsin
Oct. 3 Michigan
Oct. 10 at Illinois
Oct. 17 Northwestern
Oct. 24 Iowa
Oct. 31 at Minnesota
Nov. 7 Western Michigan
Nov. 14 at Purdue
Nov. 21 Penn State
1. Quarterback options -- The Spartans' quarterback competition is far from over, and that's not a bad thing. Sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both performed well this spring and put up the exact same totals (357 pass yards, 4 TDs) in the Green-White game. The coaches are comfortable with either player, and both quarterbacks have the athleticism that will allow the offense to expand.

2. Safety depth -- Several key contributors in the secondary missed spring ball with injuries, but the Spartans bolstered their depth at safety with Trenton Robinson. The redshirt freshman continually impressed head coach Mark Dantonio, who mentioned Robinson every time he met with reporters. Robinson could push for a starting spot alongside Danny Fortener or Kendell Davis-Clark.

3. High and tight -- The tight end spot might be phased out for many college teams, but not Michigan State. The Spartans could have more depth at tight end than any Big Ten team -- Wisconsin's right there, too -- as Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum joins Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek.

Fall questions

1. Ringer's replacement -- Arguably no player in the Big Ten did more for his team last fall than running back Javon Ringer, and Michigan State continues to look for a capable successor or two. None of the four candidates created much separation this spring, and incoming freshman Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will have opportunities to compete in preseason camp. Head coach Mark Dantonio wants to identify 2-3 reliable backs.

2. Offensive line -- Dantonio saw promising signs from a revamped line toward the end of the spring, but some doubt still remains. Junior J'Michael Deane and sophomore Jared McGaha must continue to develop on the right side of the line. Left tackle Rocco Cironi also returns from a shoulder injury and needs to re-establish himself.

3. Pass-rush help -- The Spartans finished eighth in the league in sacks last season (26) and need to identify a second pass-rusher to complement Trevor Anderson. The starting end spot opposite Anderson remains up for grabs, and redshirt freshman Tyler Hoover could land it after a solid spring. Colin Neely also is in the mix.