Big Ten: John Gill

It's Super Bowl week, and here in Chicago, we're celebrating the hiring of Mike Martz as Bears offensive coordinator after a month-long search. Hope Jay Cutler has a life insurance policy.

OK, moving on to less depressing topics, like the Big Ten and Super Bowl XLIV.

Once again, the Big Ten has plenty of connections to the game, including 20 former players on the two teams, more than any other conference.

All 11 member schools will be represented by a player and/or coach participating in the game. Michigan has the highest number of former players (four), followed by Ohio State (three) and then six teams -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin -- each with two former players. Penn State and Minnesota will have former coaches on the sideline Sunday.

Both head coaches have Big Ten roots, as the Colts' Jim Caldwell played at Iowa and served as an assistant at Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State. The Saints' Sean Payton had a one-year stint as an Illinois assistant in 1996.

Here's the full lineup of Big Ten links to Super Bowl XLIV, courtesy of the league office:

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Players

Kelvin Hayden, DB, Illinois
Dallas Clark, TE, Iowa
Bob Sanders*, DB, Iowa
Mike Hart, RB, Michigan
Marlin Jackson*, DB, Michigan
Ervin Baldwin, DE, Michigan State
John Gill, DL, Northwestern
Anthony Gonzalez*, WR, Ohio State
Curtis Painter, QB, Purdue
Jim Sorgi*, QB, Wisconsin

Coaches

Jim Caldwell, Head Coach (Played at Iowa from 1973-76; Assistant at Iowa in 1977, Northwestern in 1981 and Penn State from 1986-92)
Larry Coyer, Defensive Coordinator (Assistant at Iowa from 1974-77 and Ohio State from 1991-92)
Gene Huey, Running Backs (Assistant at Ohio State from 1988-91)
Tom Moore, Offensive Coordinator (Played at Iowa from 1957-60; Assistant at Iowa from 1961-62 and Minnesota from 1972-73 and 1975-76)
Ray Rychleski, Special Teams (Assistant at Penn State in 1991)
Bill Teerlinck, Defensive Assistant (Assistant at Indiana from 2003-04)
John Teerlinck, Defensive Line (Assistant at Illinois from 1980-82)

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Players

Pierre Thomas, RB, Illinois
Tracy Porter, CB, Indiana
Courtney Roby, WR, Indiana
Adrian Arrington, WR, Michigan
Jonathan Goodwin, C, Michigan
Zach Strief, OT, Northwestern
Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State
Will Smith, DE, Ohio State
Drew Brees, QB, Purdue
Jonathan Casillas, LB, Wisconsin

Coaches

Sean Payton, Head Coach (Assistant at Illinois in 1996)
Greg McMahon, Special Teams (Assistant at Minnesota from 1983-84 and Illinois from 1992-2004)
Bret Ingalls, Running Backs (Assistant at Northwestern from 2006-08)
Aaron Kromer, Offensive Line/Running Game (Assistant at Northwestern from 1999-2000)
Mike Mallory, Assistant Special Teams (Played at Michigan from 1982-85; Assistant at Indiana from 1986-87 and Illinois from 2001-05)
Terry Malone, Tight Ends (Assistant at Michigan from 1997-2005)

*-Injured reserve

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Patience is the theme right now for Corey Wootton, and for Northwestern fans anticipating huge things from the senior defensive end.

Wootton isn't quite up to game speed as he comes off of ACL surgery. Those constant double teams don't help, either. But he feels it coming back slowly.
 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Corey Wootton is trying to return to the form that helped him record 10 sacks last season.


"I don't feel like I'm quite there yet, but every week it's getting better," Wootton said after Wednesday's practice. "After being out for six, six-and-a-half months before I could train again, it's just going to take time. It gets frustrating, but I just try to push through it."

Wootton has one tackle and two quarterback hurries in Northwestern's first two games, though he didn't play much in the team's season-opening romp of Towson. The burst that helped him record 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 2008 hasn't shown up consistently, but he isn't far away.

Defensive line coach Marty Long admits he hasn't had enough time to truly assess Wootton's situation. Wootton reached the point of attack seven times in last week's game against Eastern Michigan. A better gauge comes Saturday when the Wildcats head to Syracuse (ESPN360, 7 p.m. ET).

"What he went through was traumatic, and his body's feeling a little different than it did at this time last year," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "So now he's got to get used to it and comfortable with it, and he's close. He's really close.

"What I'm most proud of is what he's fought through overcoming this injury. A lesser man, seven months in, would never have gone through camp. A lesser man would not be playing right now."

(Read full post)


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Welcome to a new feature on the Big Ten blog, to appear every Monday afternoon the rest of the season. I'll hand out thumbs ups and thumbs downs to players, coaches, teams, position groups and anything else Big Ten-related from the previous week of games.

Let's hope Roger Ebert doesn't sue me for copyright infringement.

Thumbs up, Ohio State's defensive line -- The Buckeyes won the matchup of strength vs. strength with USC's offensive line for most of Saturday's game. Tackle Cameron Heyward was a dominant force in the middle, and the Buckeyes put constant pressure on Matt Barkley. If the D-line had received just a bit of help from the offense, Ohio State would have won.

Thumbs down, Northwestern's defensive line -- What figured to be one of the team's strongest units has underperformed so far. Is star end Corey Wootton still limited by his surgically repaired knee? Northwestern clearly misses John Gill in the middle and needs to step things up against Syracuse.

Thumbs up, O'Brien Schofield -- The Wisconsin defensive end recorded four tackles for loss, including a sack, and led the team with 11 total tackles against Fresno State. Schofield is stepping up both on and off the field for Wisconsin.

Thumbs down, Wisconsin's third-down defense -- The Badgers were miserable on third down against Fresno State, which converted 11 of 18 attempts. Wisconsin won't win many more games if that percentage doesn't change.

Thumbs up, Minnesota's linebackers -- Led by Nate Triplett, the National Defensive Player of the Week, the Gophers had all three starting linebackers record double digits in tackles against run-happy Air Force. Triplett led the way with 17 stops, plus a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown, followed by Lee Campbell (11 tackles, 1.5 for loss) and Simoni Lawrence (10 tackles).

Thumbs down, Minnesota's skill players not named Eric Decker -- Take away Decker's 10 catches for 113 yards, and Minnesota's offensive numbers against Air Force look pretty gruesome (214 total yards). Whether it's DeLeon Eskridge, Duane Bennett, Troy Stoudermire or someone else, the Gophers need to find more offensive weapons.

Thumbs up, Kirk Cousins -- Cousins looks and acts the part of Michigan State's offensive leader, and he played pretty darn well against Central Michigan, completing 13 of 18 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore has earned the right to play more snaps ahead of Keith Nichol.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Leave it to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a die-hard Chicago White Sox fan, to use a baseball reference to describe the keys to a good defense. 

"It's important to have a great catcher, pitcher and center fielder," Fitzgerald said Wednesday.

Translated to the football field, that means having formidable defensive tackles, a productive middle linebacker and two do-it-all safeties. When Fitzgerald surveys Northwestern's depth chart, he likes what he has at those spots. 

Though standout tackle John Gill departs, the Wildcats return three veteran interior linemen in Marshall Thomas, Adam Hahn and Corbin Bryant, who started eight games last fall before a knee injury ended his season at Michigan.

Like All-Big Ten defensive end Corey Wootton, who tore several ligaments in his knee in the Alamo Bowl, Bryant faced a long rehab process but is 100 percent for camp.

"We're like the anchors of the defense," Bryant said of the defensive tackles. "It goes through us. When they pass the ball, we have to get pressure on the quarterback so we can interceptions for [the defensive backs]. And then during the run, we have to be stout, we have to be tough up there. 

"We're going to be as solid as we were last year, if not even better."

Nate Williams returns at middle linebacker after starting the final six games last fall. Williams recorded 56 of his 66 tackles in the six games after taking over for the injured Malcolm Arrington. 

Next to Ohio State's Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell, the Wildcats return one of the Big Ten's top pairs of safeties in Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips, both of whom have started two seasons. Phillips led the team with 109 tackles and three interceptions last year, while Smith recorded 82 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including the game-winner at Minnesota.

"The playmaking ability of Smitty and Brad is as good a tandem as anybody in this league," Fitzgerald said.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

They're baaaaack. Many of you who checked out colleague Heather Dinich's ACC position rankings asked when I'd be doing the same for the Big Ten. Well, Big Ten media days are done and we have a bit of a break before the first preseason practice begins Aug. 6 at Illinois. This seems like the perfect time to rank the positions heading into the season.

Defensive line is up first. There's only one elite group on paper, but no truly bad units, either. Really not much difference between Nos. 4-11.  

1. Ohio State -- The group has drawn comparisons to the 2002 line that helped Ohio State win a national title. Ohio State looks loaded at defensive end with Cameron Heyward, Thaddeus Gibson and Lawrence Wilson, a one-time starter who comes off of two major leg injuries. Gibson should have a big year after coming on strong late last fall. The tackles have been a bit iffy in recent years, but Doug Worthington boasts a ton of experience and should shore up the middle with Todd Denlinger, Dexter Larimore and Garrett Goebel.

2. Penn State -- Larry Johnson's body of work is simply too powerful to overlook, even though Penn State loses a lot from a group that led the Big Ten and ranked eighth nationally against the run (93.2 ypg). Jared Odrick is the Big Ten's most dominant interior defensive lineman, and he'll lead a group of promising young players. Hopes are extremely high for sophomore end Jack Crawford, and juniors Kevion Latham and Eric Latimore hold down the other end spot. Depth is a bit of a question, but Penn State should get a boost from a healthy Jerome Hayes. 

3. Iowa -- The Hawkeyes are another team dealing with major personnel losses as four-year starting tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul depart. But what Iowa loses inside, it makes up for on the edges with ends Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard. Clayborn recorded eight tackles for loss last year and should contend for All-Big Ten honors. It'll be interesting to see how Karl Klug and Mike Daniels adjust to playing more on the inside.

4. Northwestern -- A lot depends on Corey Wootton's durability after the senior defensive end tore his ACL in December. Wootton is probably the Big Ten's most versatile lineman, applying pressure to quarterbacks and also clogging pass lanes with his 6-foot-7 frame. Sophomore Vince Browne is primed for a big season at the other end spot. Replacing standout tackle John Gill won't be easy, but the Wildcats have veterans in Corbin Bryant, Marshall Thomas and Adam Hahn.

5. Wisconsin -- I'm taking a bit of a chance here, seeing how the Badgers lose three multiyear starters up front. But the line dominated Wisconsin's offseason program and boasts several exciting pieces, including Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt, who can play either end or tackle. O'Brien Schofield is a solid leader at defensive end, and young linemen Brendan Kelly and Louis Nzegwu should blossom.     

6. Illinois -- The Illini lose their top four sacks leaders from last year, but they should be much better against the run, an area that really hurt the defense in 2008. With Josh Brent back in the fold, Illinois boasts arguably more depth at defensive tackle than any Big Ten team. Corey Liguet showed a lot of potential as a true freshman, and senior Sirod Williams returns from a torn ACL.  There are some questions at end aside from Doug Pilcher.

7. Michigan -- Senior end Brandon Graham should be the Big Ten's most dominant pass-rusher this fall, and if he gets some help from his teammates, he'll be even better. Michigan is very young elsewhere on the line but boasts a good deal of talent. Sophomores Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin showed promising signs in the spring, and it'll be interesting to see how much true freshman William Campbell gets on the field. 

8. Michigan State -- This is the only area of Michigan State's defense that doesn't wow me, but senior end Trevor Anderson leads a decent group. Anderson should build off of a nice junior season (8 sacks, 10.5 TFLs), but the Spartans need a second pass-rusher to emerge. Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw will be missed, and it'll be up to Colin Neely, Oren Wilson and others to fill the void. 

9. Minnesota -- The Gophers tied for the league lead in sacks last fall (34) but lose standout end Willie VanDeSteeg, who accounted for 10.5 of those sacks. Minnesota's strength is inside with senior tackles Garrett Brown and Eric Small. If Cedric McKinley or someone else develops into a reliable pass-rusher, Minnesota should finish the year higher on the list.

10. Purdue -- It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Purdue finished the year much higher on the list, but there are quite a few questions entering the fall. The Boilers know what they have in end Ryan Kerrigan and tackle Mike Neal, but the other two spots are mysteries. There are high hopes for Kawann Short and Gerald Gooden, but I need to see more evidence in games before bumping up the Boilers.     

11. Indiana -- We all know the Hoosiers can rush the passer with standout ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton. But can Indiana stop the run? There are some major question marks at defensive tackle entering preseason camp, and Bill Lynch needs a bona fide run-stopper to emerge. Junior tackle Deonte Mack needs to step up after missing spring ball with a hip injury.

Northwestern spring wrap

May, 6, 2009
5/06/09
9:20
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern Wildcats

2008 overall record: 9-4

2008 conference record: 5-3

Returning starters

Offense: 5; Defense: 8; Special teams: 1

Top returners

LT Al Netter, C Ben Burkett, DE Corey Wootton, S Brad Phillips, S Brendan Smith, CB Sherrick McManis, LB Quentin Davie

Key losses

QB C.J. Bacher, RB Tyrell Sutton, WR Eric Peterman, WR Ross Lane, WR Rasheed Ward, DT John Gill, LB Prince Kwateng, LB Malcolm Arrington

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Tyrell Sutton (890 yds)
Passing: C.J. Bacher (2,432 yds)
Receiving: Eric Peterman (737 yds)
Tackles: Brad Phillips* (109)
Sacks: Corey Wootton* (10)
Interceptions: Jordan Mabin and Brad Phillips* (3)

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 Towson
Sept. 12 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 19 at Syracuse
Sept. 26 Minnesota
Oct. 3 at Purdue
Oct. 10 Miami (Ohio)
Oct. 17 at Michigan State
Oct. 24 Indiana
Oct. 31 Penn State
Nov. 7 at Iowa
Nov. 14 at Illinois
Nov. 21 Wisconsin

Spring answers

1. Matthews impresses -- The competition at running back remains open entering the summer, but speedy sophomore Jeravin Matthews made a strong push this spring. One of only two true freshmen to see the field last fall, Matthews moved from wide receiver to running back and brings top-end speed to the backfield. He had a game-high 90 yards and a touchdown in the spring scrimmage.

2. Backers set -- Northwestern left the spring with its starting linebacking corps set. Middle linebacker Nate Williams and strong side backer Quentin Davie were likely starters following the 2008 season, and Ben Johnson emerged at the weak-side spot in practice. Johnson has impressed head coach Pat Fitzgerald with his speed on the outside.

3. O-line develops -- With several skill positions up in the air, Northwestern will lean on a line that returns four starters. Left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett anchor the group after turning in solid performances this spring. Northwestern has recruited better to offensive line than any other position, and several redshirt freshmen (Neal Deiters, Brian Mulroe, Nick Adamle) will provide depth.

Fall questions

1. Wootton's health -- All eyes will be on All-Big Ten defensive end Corey Wootton this summer as he returns from a torn ACL. Reports on Wootton's rehab are promising, but there's no certainty he will return to the form he showed last season. Wootton projects as a first-round draft pick if healthy, and Northwestern needs him to anchor the pass rush in 2009.

2. Quarterback competence -- Mike Kafka has proven himself as a runner, but his consistency as a passer remains a question entering the summer. Kafka has a so-so spring and still must improve on the short to intermediate routes that spur Northwestern's offense. Coordinator Mick McCall has a good track record of developing quarterbacks, but both Kafka and backup Dan Persa need to make a jump this summer.

3. Receiver rotation -- The wide receiver depth chart is written in pencil at this point, and several spots might not be settled until the Sept. 5 opener. Andrew Brewer seemed better suited to the outside receiver spot this spring, but Northwestern will need another option or two to emerge inside alongside Jeremy Ebert, who returns from a hip injury.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern offensive line coach Adam Cushing recognizes that Al Netter still has "a million miles to go" in his development, but the sophomore left tackle has physical tools to get there.

"He has the pro body," Cushing said. "He's got the ability, no doubt, with the way he's built."

Molding that body has been the key for Netter, who started all 13 games last fall as a redshirt freshman and bookends a Wildcats line that returns four starters.

He was tall and lean in high school, topping out no more than 250 pounds. Good enough for the Cardinal Newman Cardinals, but not Northwestern. As soon as Netter arrived on campus, he was asked to gain weight. 

"We asked him to do it the right way," Cushing said, "but you naturally have to have a spike in body fat to do it. Now he's gotten back to the lean weight and muscle mass."

Netter checks in this spring at 6-foot-6 and 295, barely heavier than where he finished last season. But his body fat has dropped and both his strength and speed have improved.

He's back to being a lean left tackle, yet big enough to stop Big Ten pass-rushers. 

"A big goal for me was to cut down on some of the bad fat and turn it into good fat," Netter said. "I'm not the kind of the lineman who's 320 pounds. I'm more lean and I go with my athleticism. You want to keep the athleticism."

Netter spent the winter months eating six meals a day. He ingested sandwiches before and after meals, and "made sure I'd eat a big meal after dinner."

If we were all so lucky. 

His diet was heavy on milk, other dairy, eggs and tuna -- "good protein weight," he explained. 

"He's done an unbelievable job with his diet," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's taking it to heart. It's like anything. You can give a guy a great weightlifting program. If he doesn't do it as hard as he can, he's not going to get stronger. Same thing with our diet plan.

"Al falls in line with the big guys here who have had success -- John Gill, Barry Cofield, Luis Castillo -- who took to heart what the nutritionist said and had an unbelievable amount of response to it."

Castillo and Cofield went on to earn starting jobs at defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants. Gill, another defensive tackle, could get picked up in this weekend's draft.

It's pretty good company for Netter, who hopes to take another step toward the next level this fall. 

"My confidence is just way up this year," he said. "You know the system better. You know you can go and play football again, whereas last year you're just holding on, going through it and learning as you go. I feel like I'm through all that now. I'm ready to keep getting better."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three Big Ten teams held their annual pro scouting days last week, including the major talent showcase at Ohio State. In case you missed what went down, here's a look at the key developments at each school. 

OHIO STATE

  • Running back Chris "Beanie" Wells had the biggest day of any Buckeye, improving on his so-so 40-yard dash time from the NFL combine (4.59 seconds) by running around a 4.4 or below before scouts from 29 pro teams. Wells solidified himself as one of the top two running backs and could be taken ahead of Georgia's Knowshon Moreno in April.
  • Linebacker Marcus Freeman continued his pre-draft push with another strong performance. Freeman improved his 40 time and likely boosted his stock after turning heads at the NFL combine. 
  • Linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins made slight improvements in their 40 times from the NFL combine. Wideout Brian Robiskie put up similar numbers to the combine, which bodes well for him. The big issue for Jenkins is whether he'll be asked to play cornerback or safety at the next level.
  • After being spurned by the NFL combine, defensive tackle Nader Abdallah stepped up on pro day. His numbers in four of the six drills would have been among the top defensive tackles at the combine. Abdallah also has dropped about 20 pounds, which should help him on draft day.

NORTHWESTERN

"Get to a mini-camp," said Sutton, predicted to be a sixth- or seventh-round pick. "Getting drafted means nothing. A lot of guys in the league have gone undrafted and proven a lot." 
  • It was somewhat surprising that John Gill didn't get a combine invite, but the defensive tackle seems to be building his case. Gill, considered a legit pro prospect before the 2008 season, put up better numbers in the short shuttle and 3-cone drill than any defensive tackle at the combine. He also has met with the Chicago Bears, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Brad Biggs.  
  • Wide receiver Eric Peterman was interviewing for a job at American Airlines in December, but he might have a shot at an NFL roster after a strong pro day performance. According to the Sun-Times, Peterman ran 40 times of 4.45 and 4.47.

PURDUE

"I may have done these drills before over the course of my training but when you're out here doing the real thing and everybody is watching you, it's different," Heygood said. "Usually, I'm really good under pressure but I didn't have the day I wanted."
  • Defensive tackle Alex Magee boosted his stock in front of representatives from 23 NFL teams, according to profootballtalk.com.
  • Quarterback Curtis Painter also seemed pleased with his performance after a solid effort at the combine last month.
"This was probably one of my best workouts through this offseason and my training," Painter said. "I feel good about what I've done both here and at the Combine and hopefully I'll get some opportunities for some individual workouts between now and the draft."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The seemingly interminable wait for college football gets a little easier about a month from now, when Michigan steps on the practice field for spring ball. The other 10 Big Ten squads will follow soon after as spring practice gets in full swing.

There are no shortage of spring story lines around the league, from Danny Hope's first workouts as Purdue head coach to six new coordinators to teams like Ohio State and Penn State trying to replace sizable senior classes. Six teams will feature some degree of competition at the quarterback spot, and position battles abound throughout the league.

Here's some can't-miss information about spring ball and a team-by-team look at what to watch:

Illinois Fighting Illini

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The defense needs leaders to emerge after a subpar year and with the graduation of first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Brit Miller. Martez Wilson is an obvious candidate to claim a greater role, but the immensely talented linebacker comes off surgery in December after being stabbed outside a bar. The defensive line loses three starters and top cover man Vontae Davis left early for the NFL draft, creating opportunities for young players to step up.
  • For the second consecutive spring, the running back position will be in the spotlight. Illinois never truly got settled at running back last year, as Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford split carries. Both players had their moments, as Dufrene averaged 5.7 yards a carry and Ford scored eight touchdowns, but it would be nice to see one man emerge as a featured back alongside quarterback Juice Williams.
  • New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz steps in, and former outside receivers coach Kurt Beathard will work directly with Williams, who was extremely close with former coordinator Mike Locksley. It's vital for Williams and his teammates to jell with Schultz and the offensive nuances he'll bring to spring practice. Illinois remains one of the league's most talented offenses, but the players must get on the same page this spring.

Indiana Hoosiers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 18

Watch to watch:

  • Healthy bodies, at least a few more than at the end of last season. Indiana's roster was wiped out by injuries during Big Ten play, and the Hoosiers should get a better gauge of their strengths and weaknesses this spring. Quarterback Kellen Lewis struggled with injuries for much of the season, and it will be interesting to see if he regains the form he showed in 2007, when he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Lewis might need to reclaim the starting job after splitting time with Ben Chappell last fall. Safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk will miss spring ball with injuries, giving other players a chance to shine.
  • The Hoosiers' defense must take a step forward this spring, especially with so much experience and talent returning in the front seven. Defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton each have had breakout seasons, and Matt Mayberry at times looks like one of the league's best linebackers. With weak-side linebacker Will Patterson and others back in the fold, there's no reason Indiana can't be serviceable on defense in 2009.
  • Lewis can't continue to be Indiana's primary rushing option, and with Marcus Thigpen gone, a capable back or two must emerge. The competition this spring will feature players like Bryan Payton and Darius Willis, a heralded recruit who redshirted last year. Demetrius McCray will be limited in spring practice.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: TBA

What to watch:

  • Everyone knows Shonn Greene is gone, but the more damaging departures likely will come at defensive tackle, where Iowa loses four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul. The spotlight will be on the interior defensive line as players like Karl Klug try to fill the void. Arguably no position competition matters more than the one at defensive tackle, especially since Iowa appears strong everywhere else on defense.
  • Ricky Stanzi established himself as the starting quarterback, but Iowa would like the rising junior to take another step and become more consistent. Interceptions were a problem at times for Stanzi last fall, but he should benefit from a full spring as the starter and being able to work with the first-team wide receivers.
  • Rising sophomore Jewel Hampton is the likely choice to succeed Greene after rushing for 478 yards and five touchdowns as his backup last year. But head coach Kirk Ferentz likely wants to see what he has with the other backs, namely Jeff Brinson, who redshirted in 2008. There should be some healthy competition for carries throughout the spring and into preseason camp.

Michigan Wolverines

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:

  • Quarterbacks, quarterbacks, quarterbacks. Any improvement on this team must start with the quarterback spot, and the competition during spring ball will be crucial. Steven Threet's decision to transfer shifts the spotlight to true freshman Tate Forcier, who enrolled in January and will practice this spring. Nick Sheridan remains in the mix after starting four games last season, but Forcier seems better suited to run Rich Rodriguez's offense. A strong spring could make him the frontrunner when fellow freshman Denard Robinson arrives this summer.
  • New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson starts working with a unit that finished 10th in the league in points allowed (28.9 ypg) last fall. Robinson seems less concerned about scheme changes and more focused on instilling a new attitude with the group. There could be an adjustment period on both sides, as players get to know a new coach and Robinson works as an assistant after overseeing an entire program the last four seasons at Syracuse.
  • Robinson undoubtedly will devote much of his attention to the defensive line, which loses three starters, including both tackles. The spotlight will be on young players like Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and even early enrollee William Campbell as Michigan looks for answers up front. The Wolverines also need increased leadership from All-Big Ten end Brandon Graham, their only returning starter on the line.

Michigan State Spartans

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The Spartans feature arguably the Big Ten's most intriguing quarterback competition. Third-year sophomore Kirk Cousins performed well behind Brian Hoyer in 2008 and seems to have the intangibles to lead the offense. Keith Nichol is a dual-threat quarterback who has a year in the system after transferring from Oklahoma. A decision on a starter might not be made until preseason camp, but the two players will start competing this spring.
  • Running back also is a mystery after the departure of Doak Walker Award finalist Javon Ringer. Michigan State didn't develop a second option behind Ringer, so players like Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett will get a chance to prove themselves before true freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper arrive this summer.
  • Michigan State doesn't lose much on the defensive side, but co-captains Otis Wiley and Justin Kershaw both depart, leaving a void in leadership. The coaches will lean more on linebackers Greg Jones and Adam Decker this spring, and the secondary needs a new front man to replace Wiley, who led the team in interceptions (4) and ranked third in tackles (78). Danny Fortener came on strong last year, but the Spartans will look for another safety to emerge.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The offense begins a new chapter under new coordinator Jedd Fisch and new line coach/run game coordinator Tim Davis. Minnesota wants to return to its roots as a running team and employ a pro-style offense. It will be interesting to see how players adjust in practice, and how Fisch and the influential Davis work together.
  • New arrival Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee take over a defense that made major strides under Ted Roof but showed some cracks down the stretch. Cosgrove will be working with experienced players at linebacker and in the secondary, and their ability to grasp his scheme will be huge this spring.
  • Starting quarterback Adam Weber will be held out of contact drills following shoulder surgery, giving the coaches a chance to evaluate heralded recruit MarQueis Gray. The multitalented Gray left the team last year because of questions about his ACT score. He has returned and will get a chance to learn Fisch's offense and establish himself as the team's No. 2 option.

Northwestern Wildcats

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • It has been at least four years -- and likely more -- since the running back position has been so wide open. Stephen Simmons will get a chance to establish himself as the top back this spring after filling in behind Tyrell Sutton late last season. Scott Concannon and Jacob Schmidt also will be in the mix before several freshmen arrive in the summer.
  • Mike Kafka enters the spring as the starting quarterback after helping Northwestern to a season-turning win last year at Minnesota. But Kafka must develop as a passer to complement his excellent running ability. With a mostly unproven group of wide receivers, Kafka needs to establish a rhythm and become consistent on the short throws that make the spread offense move.
  • Two starters are gone and star end Corey Wootton is nursing a surgically repaired knee, putting pressure on Northwestern to identify another playmaker on the defensive line. The defensive tackle spot will be in the spotlight as Northwestern looks for an elite run stopper to replace John Gill.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Spring practice starts: Week of March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • Ohio State needs a featured running back, and Dan Herron has a chance to be the guy. A strong spring from Herron would be beneficial before heralded recruits Jaamal Berry and Carlos Hyde arrive. The Buckeyes could go with a committee system this fall, but Herron showed promise at times last year and could claim the job.
  • The offensive line was one of the team's bigger disappointments last year, and the group must come together this spring. Michigan transfer Justin Boren should step into a starting role right away, and sophomore tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts could join classmate Mike Brewster on the first team. This group has a ton of young talent, but it must be molded.
  • Keep an eye on the linebacker and cornerback positions all the way until Sept. 5. Ohio State loses national award winners James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins, as well as All-Big Ten selection Marcus Freeman. Three and possibly four starting spots are open, so the competition should heat up.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Spring practice starts: Week of March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The Big Ten's best offensive line loses three all-conference starters, including Rimington Trophy winner A.Q. Shipley. Line coaches Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney have plenty of work to do this spring as they try to build around holdovers Stefen Wisniewski and Dennis Landolt. With a formidable run game in place, replenishing the line will be
    Penn State's top priority.
  • Penn State's young wide receivers are gearing up for a wide-open competition as the team loses multiyear starters Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. Can Brett Brackett and Graham Zug emerge as reliable possession-type guys? Can Chaz Powell be Penn State's deep threat? Those answers could come this spring.
  • Lions fans are confident that defensive line coach Larry Johnson will develop another first-rate pass rusher. The process begins in spring ball as Penn State must replace starters at both end spots as well as reserve Maurice Evans, a former All-Big Ten selection.

Purdue Boilermakers

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • The Danny Hope era begins this spring, and it will be interesting to see what imprints the new head coach puts on the program. He's a Joe Tiller disciple but brings in two new coordinators and wants to make immediate upgrades to the team's speed and athleticism. Purdue loses starters at the skill positions on offense as well as its most productive defender (linebacker Anthony Heygood), so there's plenty of work ahead.
  • Quarterback could feature an interesting competition between Joey Elliott and Justin Siller. Elliott seems like the favorite to take over after backing up Curtis Painter the last three seasons. But the multi-talented Siller could fit the new mold Hope is trying to create with the Boilers' personnel. Siller had a big day against Michigan last year and brings the mobility Purdue could use at the quarterback spot.
  • With the secondary more or less intact, new defensive coordinator Donn Landholm will focus on the front seven. Landholm needs to build around defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, a potential All-Big Ten performer this fall. Heygood will be missed, but Joe Holland is a solid contributor and if Jason Werner can finally get healthy, the linebacking corps should be strong.

Wisconsin Badgers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • Big surprise, another quarterback competition. After never truly finding stability at the quarterback spot in 2008, Wisconsin once again looks for a leader for the offense. Part-time starter Dustin Sherer will have to ward off Curt Phillips and true freshman Jon Budmayr, who enrolled early. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst didn't settle on a starter last spring, but he would like some separation to occur.
  • Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge will have a busy spring as he tries to replace three starters up front. Players like Jeff Stehle, Patrick Butrym and Brendan Kelly, who emerged last fall before an injury, will get a long look this spring.
  • P.J. Hill's early departure to the NFL draft puts John Clay in the spotlight as the Badgers' featured running back. Can the immensely talented Clay take the next step in his development to master the offense and his assignments? He also must work with a new-look offensive line that must replace three starters.
Tags:

Big Ten Conference, Keith Nichol, Corey Wootton, Curt Phillips, Jewel Hampton, Dustin Sherer, Ashton Leggett, Joe Holland, MarQueis Gray, Kellen Lewis, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Mike Locksley, Charlie Partridge, Illinois Fighting Illini, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan Wolverines, Ryan Kerrigan, Joe Tiller, Michigan State Spartans, Purdue Boilermakers, Brian Hoyer, Nick Sheridan, Bryan Payton, Stefen Wisniewski, Ryan Van Bergen, Paul Chryst, Brendan Kelly, Iowa Hawkeyes, Martez Wilson, Mike Brewster, Demetrius McCray, J.B. Shugarts, Jason Werner, Jeff Brinson, Andre Anderson, Shonn Greene, Ben Chappell, Justin Kershaw, Jason Ford, Brett Brackett, Adam Decker, Matt Mayberry, Kirk Cousins, Dennis Landolt, Graham Zug, Maurice Evans, Carlos Hyde, Tyrell Sutton, Jeff Stehle, Northwestern Wildcats, Dan Herron, Kirk Ferentz, Denard Robinson, Donn Landholm, Mike Martin, Deon Butler, Ricky Stanzi, Danny Fortener, Jammie Kirlew, Marcus Thigpen, Indiana Hoosiers, Larry Caper, Dick Anderson, Brandon Graham, Juice Williams, Greg Robinson, Big Ten Conference, Stephen Simmons, Jordan Norwood, Chaz Powell, Steven Threet, Will Patterson, Jon Budmayr, Brit Miller, spring primer 0902, Larry Johnson, Patrick Butrym, Darius Willis, Mike Schultz, Jacob Schmidt, Justin Siller, Marcus Freeman, Justin Boren, A.Q. Shipley, Derrick Williams, Vontae Davis, Malcolm Jenkins, Otis Wiley, Tate Forcier, Adam Weber, Daniel Dufrene, Jaamal Berry, Bill Kenney, Austin Thomas, Scott Concannon, William Campbell, Penn State Nittany Lions, Ohio State Buckeyes, Edwin Baker, Kurt Beathard, Mitch King, Curtis Painter, Joey Elliott, Jedd Fisch, Kevin Cosgrove, Mike Kafka, Danny Hope, Greg Jones, Matt Kroul, Greg Middleton, Anthony Heygood, Javon Ringer, Mike Adams

Big Ten players at the NFL combine

February, 2, 2009
2/02/09
12:45
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The official list of players invited to the 2009 NFL scouting combine later in Indianapolis has been finalized. The Big Ten will be sending 46 players to Indianapolis from Feb. 18-24.

Not surprisingly, Penn State and Ohio State led the way with eight participants each, followed by Wisconsin (7), Illinois (5) and Iowa (5). Minnesota is the lone Big Ten team not sending a player to Indy.

Here's the team-by-team rundown.

ILLINOIS (5)

  • Cornerback Vontae Davis^
  • Defensive end Will Davis
  • Tackle Xavier Fulton
  • Defensive end Derek Walker

INDIANA (1)

IOWA (5)

  • Center Rob Bruggeman
  • Cornerback Bradley Fletcher
  • Running back Shonn Greene^
  • Defensive tackle Mitch King
  • Guard Seth Olsen
MICHIGAN (4)
  • Long snapper Sean Griffin
  • Defensive end Tim Jamison
  • Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor
  • Cornerback Morgan Trent

MICHIGAN STATE (3)

  • Quarterback Brian Hoyer
  • Running back Javon Ringer
  • Safety Otis Wiley

NORTHWESTERN (1)

  • Running back Tyrell Sutton

OHIO STATE (8)

  • Tackle Alex Boone
  • Linebacker Marcus Freeman
  • Wide receiver Brian Hartline^
  • Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins
  • Linebacker James Laurinaitis
  • Wide receiver Brian Robiskie
  • Cornerback Donald Washington
  • Running back Chris Wells^

PENN STATE (8)

  • Wide receiver Deon Butler
  • Tackle Gerald Cadogan
  • Defensive end Maurice Evans^
  • Defensive end Aaron Maybin^
  • Wide receiver Jordan Norwood
  • Cornerback Lydell Sargeant
  • Center A.Q. Shipley
  • Wide receiver Derrick Williams

PURDUE (4)

WISCONSIN (7)

  • Tight end Travis Beckum
  • Linebacker Jonathan Casillas
  • Running back P.J. Hill^
  • Guard Andy Kemp
  • Linebacker DeAndre Levy
  • Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy
  • Guard Kraig Urbik

^--Underclassman

Who got snubbed from the combine? Here are a few names surprisingly left off the list: Illinois center Ryan McDonald, Iowa defensive tackle Matt Kroul, Minnesota punter Justin Kucek, Northwestern defensive tackle John Gill, Penn State guard Rich Ohrnberger, Purdue linebacker Anthony Heygood and Wisconsin cornerback Allen Langford.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After studying the All-Big Ten selections for 2008, it's clear the Big Ten is much stronger at some positions than others. The fact that it was hard to choose a second-team All-Big Ten quarterback tells you something about the league's troubles under center. On the flip side, there are 10-15 defensive linemen worthy of All-Big Ten status.

With the regular season wrapped up, here's a closer look at the Big Ten positions, from strongest to weakest.

Defensive line -- The depth at both line positions is astounding and will be reflected in the next few NFL drafts. Beginning with end, you have Penn State's Aaron Maybin, Minnesota's Willie VanDeSteeg, Michigan's Brandon Graham, Northwestern's Corey Wootton and Indiana's Jammie Kirlew. Guys like Michigan's Tim Jamison, Illinois' Derek Walker, Michigan State's Trevor Anderson, Wisconsin's Mike Newkirk, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan and Penn State's Josh Gaines would be all-conference in most leagues, but not the Big Ten. The tackle spot might be even more stacked. Iowa's Mitch King leads the way, but he's joined by teammate Matt Kroul, Penn State's Jared Odrick, Michigan's Terrance Taylor, Northwestern's John Gill and Ohio State's Nader Abdallah.

Running back -- If not for the overwhelming depth on the D-line, this group would be No. 1 on the list. The Big Ten boasts three of the nation's top seven rushers in Iowa's Shonn Greene, Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells. Penn State's Evan Royster also had a fabulous year. When guys like Purdue's Kory Sheets, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, Michigan's Brandon Minor and Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton aren't even on the radar for all-conference, you've got a pretty solid group.

Linebacker -- This was another group that caused some tough choices for first-team all-conference. Ohio State's James Laurinaitis was a shoo-in, but Illinois' Brit Miller, Penn State's Navorro Bowman and Michigan State's Greg Jones are all in the mix for the other two spots. Iowa's Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds, Ohio State's Marcus Freeman, Wisconsin's DeAndre Levy and Indiana's Matt Mayberry add depth.

Offensive line (interior) -- Three centers were listed on the media's all-conference team, illustrating the depth there. Penn State center A.Q. Shipley earned Offensive Lineman of the Year honors, and Iowa's Rob Bruggeman and Illinois' Ryan McDonald also were recognized. The guard spot might be even stronger with Iowa's Seth Olsen, Penn State's Rich Ohrnberger and Stefen Wisniewski, Wisconsin's Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp and Michigan State's Roland Martin.

Punter -- This was another group that stirred some debate about All-Big Ten selections. Michigan's Zoltan Mesko was the obvious choice, but Iowa's Ryan Donahue, Michigan State's Aaron Bates and Penn State's Jeremy Boone also were in the mix. Freshmen Brad Nortman (Wisconsin) and Chris Hagerup (Indiana) had terrific seasons, and I was also very impressed with Ohio State's A.J. Trapasso, Minnesota's Justin Kucek and Northwestern's Stefan Demos.

Cornerback -- I didn't fully grasp how strong the league was at cornerback until reviewing the All-Big Ten lists. Everyone knew about Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins and Illinois' Vontae Davis, but several other players add depth, namely Wisconsin's Allen Langford, Iowa's Amari Spievey and Bradley Fletcher, Minnesota's Traye Simmons, Northwestern's Sherrick McManis and Michigan State's Chris L. Rucker.

Offensive tackle -- There weren't any off-the-charts performances here, but it's a solid group overall. Penn State's Gerald Cadogan moved past Ohio State's Alex Boone as the league's premier tackle. Boone didn't have the dominant year many expected, but he wasn't the main problem on Ohio State's underachieving line. Add in players like Iowa's Bryan Bulaga, Illinois' Xavier Fulton and Wisconsin's Eric Vanden Heuvel, and it's a decent group.

Safety -- Michigan State's Otis Wiley might be the only surefire NFL draft pick from this crop, but several other players turned in strong performances. Ohio State's Kurt Coleman should have been second-team All-Big Ten for both the media and coaches, and Northwestern's Brad Phillips has a major beef for being left off the list. Other standouts include Iowa's Brent Greenwood, Wisconsin's Jay Valai and Minnesota tandem Kyle Theret and Tramaine Brock.

Kicker -- A decent group overall, led by Penn State's Kevin Kelly and Michigan State's Brett Swenson, both of whom should have been Lou Groza Award semifinalists. Wisconsin's Philip Welch quietly had a very solid season (17-for-20), and Northwestern's Amado Villarreal also performed well.

Tight end -- Not the best season for tight ends, though it didn't help that Wisconsin All-American Travis Beckum was hurt for most of the fall. His replacement Garrett Graham had a nice year, as did Iowa's Brandon Myers, Michigan State's Charlie Gantt, Minnesota's Jack Simmons and Illinois' Michael Hoomanawanui, but it wasn't a great group overall.

Wide recever -- Minnesota's Eric Decker and Illinois' Arrelious Benn will be solid NFL players, and Penn State's Derrick Williams also will get to the next level. But quarterbacks and wide receivers are intertwined, and neither position sizzled this season. Penn State's three seniors (Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood) performed well, as did Purdue's Greg Orton and Wisconsin's David Gilreath. But not much depth here.

Quarterback -- This was the worst quarterback crop
in recent memory. Penn State's Daryll Clark was fabulous in his first season as the starter, and both Illinois' Juice Williams and Minnesota's Adam Weber showed growth at times. But it was legitimately difficult to choose a second-team all-league quarterback. Several fifth-year seniors struggled this fall, though there's hope for next year with players like Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.

Tags:

Big Ten Conference, Corey Wootton, Terrelle Pryor, Bradley Fletcher, Kory Sheets, Stefan Demos, Tim Jamison, Mike Newkirk, Kyle Theret, Kevin Kelly, Michael Hoomanawanui, Illinois Fighting Illini, Wisconsin Badgers, Nader Abdallah, Michigan Wolverines, Terrance Taylor, Bryan Bulaga, Navorro Bowman, Michigan State Spartans, Justin Kucek, Garrett Graham, A.J. Trapasso, Eric Vanden Heuvel, Stefen Wisniewski, DeAndre Levy, Iowa Hawkeyes, Arrelious Benn, Jack Simmons, Ryan Donahue, Aaron Bates, Josh Gaines, Jeremy Boone, Eric Decker, Shonn Greene, Brandon Myers, Traye Simmons, Chris Wells, Matt Mayberry, Aaron Maybin, Charlie Gantt, Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern Wildcats, Deon Butler, Ricky Stanzi, Jammie Kirlew, Pat Angerer, Indiana Hoosiers, Brandon Graham, Juice Williams, Amado Villarreal, Xavier Fulton, Rich Ohrnberger, Daryll Clark, Gerald Cadogan, James Laurinaitis, Roland Martin, Sherrick McManis, Jared Odrick, Rob Bruggeman, Big Ten Conference, Evan Royster, Jordan Norwood, Seth Olsen, Travis Beckum, Brit Miller, Chris Hagerup, Tramaine Brock, Brad Phillips, Kraig Urbik, Brad Nortman, Marcus Freeman, Chris L. Rucker, A.Q. Shipley, Derrick Williams, Vontae Davis, Purdue Boilermakers Ryan Kerrigan, Malcolm Jenkins, Zoltan Mesko, Otis Wiley, Adam Weber, Kurt Coleman, Derek Walker, Brent Greenwood, Greg Orton, Amari Spievey, Penn State Nittany Lions, Philip Welch, Mitch King, David Gilreath, Brett Swenson, Greg Jones, Matt Kroul, Ryan McDonald, Alex Boone, Allen Langford, Minnesota Golden Gophers Willie VanDeSteeg, Trevor Anderson, Javon Ringer

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After a disappointing 6-6 season, Northwestern set out to restore two program pillars that had started to show cracks.

1. Winning close games
2. Performing well in the fourth quarter

Last fall, Northwestern went 4-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, but the record was somewhat deceiving because the team had blown fourth-quarter leads in three other games and lost by wider margins. Opponents held a 90-79 edge in fourth-quarter scoring, which kept the Wildcats out of a bowl game.

Add a 59-24 fourth-quarter scoring deficit from 2006, and the Wildcats seemed to have lost the crunch-time confidence they displayed during former coach Randy Walker's tenure. 

"We put a huge emphasis on the fourth quarter, from the minute we got done last season, all the way until today, we've been talking about it," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Football games in the Big Ten are played for 60 minutes, and you've just got to hang around long enough to make the fourth quarter significant.

"We've done that enough times to put ourselves in position to have a special year." 

Northwestern can attribute its 7-2 record to much-improved play in the fourth quarter, particularly on the defensive side. The 24th-ranked Wildcats haven't allowed a point in the fourth quarter seven times this season, including each of the last two weeks, and hold a 51-24 overall edge in fourth-quarter scoring. 

(Read full post)

It's game day at the Metrodome

November, 1, 2008
11/01/08
11:03
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Metrodome, or, as I affectionately call it, the Hump Dump. Sorry, but after touring TCF Bank Stadium on Friday afternoon, I can't wait to see Minnesota move out of this place.

  

It isn't all bad, though. Going through the revolving doors is fun, and the football press box has some of the best sightlines around.

Kind of a sleepy atmosphere around the stadium today, largely due to the 11 a.m. local time kickoff. Minnesotans take Halloween seriously, folks. There were some interesting costumes around my hotel last night. A guy dressed up as an Olympic speed skater gets high marks. It takes a real man to wear Spandex in public.

I stayed in the same hotel as Northwestern and rode the elevator with about 15 players this morning. Despite concerns about the weight limit, we made it safely, and running back Omar Conteh looked ready to go.

Conteh and junior quarterback Mike Kafka are expected to start for the Wildcats, who enter the game at 6-2 but come off a devastating loss at Indiana. A source told me quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) will play only in an emergency situation. Bacher is on the field warming up, though. The key for Northwestern's new-look starting backfield will be ball security, as Minnesota leads the nation in both takeaways (24) and turnover margin (plus-1.88).

Minnesota comes in at 7-1 and is quite possibly the biggest surprise in the country after a 1-11 campaign in 2007. The Gophers look for their second victory against a team with a winning record and try to march closer toward a once-unthinkable January bowl game.

Here are some things I'll be watching today:

  • Minnesota's defense. How do the Gophers do it? The nation's worst unit in 2007 has led the turnaround this fall. The Gophers emphasize takeaways at every Tuesday practice, and I'm interested to see how these guys consistently make plays. Junior college transfers Tramaine Brock and Traye Simmons will be on my radar, and defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg likely will be applying the pressure on Kafka.
  • Both offensive lines. In many ways, both teams have survived problems with these groups. Minnesota has been banged up pretty much all season but continues to protect quarterback Adam Weber and move the ball. Northwestern has the youngest and least experienced line in the Big Ten, which has made Mick McCall's play calling more conservative. Both teams boast strong pass-rushers (VanDeSteeg, Corey Wootton and John Gill for Northwestern), so the line that protects better likely wins the game.
  • Coaching. Northwestern will have to tweak its offensive scheme for Kafka and likely will use more option and designed quarterback runs. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz might have some surprises today as he tries to force mistakes from the very disciplined Gophers offense. It wouldn't shock me if Minnesota defensive coordinator Ted Roof heavily blitzes Kafka, forcing him to make quick decisions.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As Northwestern endured a maddeningly inconsistent season last fall, the communication gap between players and coaches seemed to widen.

One high-ranking assistant told me toward the end of the season that he had run out of ideas for how to motivate his group. Multi-year starters regressed on defense, while a sink-or-swim offense put too much on the passing game after losing star running back Tyrell Sutton to an ankle injury in Week 2.

When head coach Pat Fitzgerald reviewed a disappointing 6-6 campaign, the 33-year-old elected to relinquish some control while increasing the competition level. Every element of Northwestern's offseason program -- from running to lifting to academics to community service -- had competition built into it. But the players were the ones driving the competition, splitting into 10 groups and electing leaders from every position group and academic class.

By successfully creating what he called "an environment of ownership," Fitzgerald got his players to bond better with one another and with the coaching staff, which included two new coordinators. The results are showing this fall, as Northwestern has started 5-0 for the first time in 46 years.

"There's a lot of things that are going the way we want it because we're taking control of this team," Sutton said. "The coaches are backing off and giving us a lot more control than we have in the past."

Competition remains a focal point, particularly on a defense that has transformed behind new coordinator Mike Hankwitz, ranking fifth nationally in sacks (3.4 per game) and ninth in scoring (12.4 ppg).

A line that boasted more career starts than notable plays has seen improvement from holdovers (Corey Wootton, John Gill) and newcomers (Vince Browne). Linebackers Malcolm Arrington and Quentin Davie are much improved and the secondary isn't a liability for the first time in years.

"Our guys have great confidence in each other," Fitzgerald said. "Through that competition, we've built trust. A lot of guys have stepped up."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Tuesday blog was a little Buckeye heavy -- apparently they have a big game this week -- so it's time to see what else happened around the league. Let's see ... bad news at Minnesota, no news at Penn State.

Read on.

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