Big Ten: John Thompson

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Several Big Ten teams might have a case of the Mondays, but you shouldn't. The most exciting month in college football is right around the corner. 

Here are some links to get you through the day. 

  • Illinois coach Ron Zook wasn't happy the day after a loss to Wisconsin, calling out his team and quarterback Juice Williams, Bob Asmussen writes in The News-Gazette. 

"This is what Juice doesn't sometimes maybe understand, one minute everybody tells him how good of a player he is," Zook said. "Somebody brought up the thing about coming out at the end of three years. Let me tell you something, he better worry about next week. Then he better worry about the next week."

  • Some good Michigan State nuggets from Joe Rexrode's blog in the Lansing State Journal. Running back Javon Ringer and safety Otis Wiley both should be available Saturday against Wisconsin. Also check out this post on Michigan State's mostly civil postgame celebration at Michigan. Roland Martin = hilarious.
Tonight, civility and competitiveness returned to this rivalry at once. Not that there wasn't some woofing. Roland Martin said U-M's players were doing a lot of it during the game. He said linebacker John Thompson called him "Uncle Roland" a couple times.
"Uncle Roland gave you a spanking, son," Martin taunted back afterward.
  • Northwestern saw the risk-reward to using its quarterback on the move against Indiana, and Minnesota is toeing the same line with Adam Weber, Kent Youngblood writes in the Star Tribune.  
  • For the first time, Ohio State lost the gamble of playing Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. The toughest challenge will be picking up the freshman after a crushing loss, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.  
After the Purdue game, Pryor said the college game was just like high school, only faster, even as teammates reminded him that this wasn't high school. If Pryor jukes Penn State's Mark Rubin in the open field after that bounce and hits the end zone, he's a hero this week. In high school, undoubtedly that's how it would have gone down. At this level, the other guys are pretty good, too. So Pryor fumbled. And that was it.
  • After Michigan's latest loss, coach Rich Rodriguez might have come to the conclusion that he simply needs better players to turn things around, Mark Snyder writes in the Detroit Free Press. 
  • Even though Penn State has stepped up this fall, the Big Ten doesn't deserve another team in the title game,'s Tom Dienhart writes. 

Big Ten helmet stickers

September, 28, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

An exciting first weekend of Big Ten play is in the books. Penn State has established itself as the class of the conference, while Ohio State could be surging soon behind Beanie Wells and Terrelle Pryor. Michigan resurrected its season, while Northwestern and Michigan State continue to roll.

Helmet sticker time.

Penn State WR Derrick Williams -- The senior became the first Penn State player under coach Joe Paterno to rush for a touchdown, catch a touchdown pass and score on a special teams return in the same game. Williams made six catches for 75 yards and had a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that put Penn State up 31-17 in the fourth quarter. Williams is averaging 36 yards per runback this season.

Michigan State RB Javon Ringer -- By this point, this guy deserves his own custom-designed helmet sticker. Ringer continued his feverish pace against Indiana, rushing for 198 yards and a touchdown on 44 carries. Ringer's 681 rushing yards in the last three games marks the best three-game stretch for a Spartans running back in team history.

Michigan's defense -- Too many contributors on this unit to pick just one. The Wolverines survived myriad miscues by the offense and performed in pressure situations in a historic comeback against No. 9 Wisconsin. From defensive end Brandon Graham (3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) to nose tackle Terrance Taylor (8 tackles, fumble recovery) to linebacker John Thompson (INT return for touchdown), Michigan's defense stepped up big.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

 AP Photo/Tony Ding
 Michigan cornerback Morgan Trent (14) pulls down Wisconsin receiver Kyle Jefferson (7) during the second quarter of the Wolverines' stunning 27-25 win Saturday.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- They're called sudden-change situations, and Michigan defenders have grown quite accustomed to them during the first four games this season.

"It's when we have to run on the field unexpectedly when the ball's on our side of the 50," Wolverines defensive coordinator Scott Shafer explained.

Shafer's defense entered five sudden-change situations in the first half Saturday against No. 9 Wisconsin. Five times the Wolverines kept the Badgers out of the end zone.

The defense's damage control bought enough time for a sputtering offense to stage an incredible second-half turnaround and rally to a 27-25 victory at Michigan Stadium. The constant back-to-the-wall jams usually take a mental toll on a defense, but the opposite effect holds true for the Wolverines.

"That's what's different from last year," said nose tackle Terrance Taylor, who had eight tackles and a fumble recovery in the comeback win. "We want to be out there when it's crunch time. It's fun. We like situations like that, sudden change and we've got to stop them for a field goal. The game's on the line. Stuff like that, that's what we play for."

Michigan's transitioning offense has repeatedly put the defense in compromising positions. In the opener against Utah, the defense limited damage and gave the offense a chance in the fourth quarter. Two weeks ago at Notre Dame, the Wolverines committed six turnovers, including two first-quarter giveaways in their own end that the Fighting Irish converted for touchdown drives of 11 yards and 14 yards.

Taylor and his teammates weren't about to give away another game.

"The good defenses that I've coached have all been the same," Shafer said. "It's been, 'Just put the ball down. Put it down wherever you want and we're going to come after you hard.' ... You look at the first couple games, we had a ton of sudden-change opportunities and we stuffed 'em. I'm proud of those kids. Those percentages are way up there on our board. They are getting a good sense of pride in those tough situations."

The pride, Taylor said, comes from being in superior condition, which has shown in the second half.

Wisconsin's desperation touchdown with 13 seconds left marked the first offensive touchdown Michigan has allowed after halftime this season. Several Wolverines players felt they were in superior condition to Wisconsin down the stretch.

"It's not just the shape, it's also a mind-set," head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "The way we practice lends itself to getting in better shape as the season goes along. Sometimes it takes a win like this to maybe prove that and verify that, that, 'Hey, the reason we run so much and our practices are up-tempo is so the games are easier."

It was only fitting that the defense, which allowed just 34 yards in the third quarter, put Michigan on top for good. Linebacker John Thompson, who received stitches in his chin after a first-half injury, returned an interception 25 yards to the end zone.

"A swing can happen at any time," Thompson said. "Sudden change is part of the game. We've got to fight."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The man who will take the first snap for Michigan in the Rich Rodriguez era remains a mystery. So does the guy who will take the first handoff.

Rodriguez listed no definitive starter at either running back or quarterback on his depth chart for the season opener against Utah, which was released Monday.

It's no surprise that an "OR" separates quarterbacks Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan, but true freshmen running backs Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw also have the same designation. It's significant that both true freshmen were listed ahead of veterans Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown on the depth chart, showing Rodriguez's confidence in his young skill players, who might better fit his system than the returnees.

We aren't the only ones wondering who will start under center.

"I don't know who the quarterback is," junior wide receiver Greg Mathews said Monday. "I just try in practice to go with both of them, to get my timing down with both of them because you never know. One could go in there and throw a couple interceptions and then you have to bring the next one in. You have to be prepared for everything."

Mathews said both quarterbacks have been practicing with the first-team offense, as is the case for most of Michigan's skill players. Though the offense won't be huddling nearly as much as in years past, both quarterbacks have shown different styles of leadership so far.

"Nick's definitely a comedian," Mathews said. "He's the funniest kid ever. He just likes to keep everybody loose and joke around. Steven Threet, he's more of a serious guy, but I enjoy both of them."

This is notable because Mathews isn't the first player to describe the two quarterbacks in this manner.

Sheridan is the former walk-on with no recruiting hype who most thought would never come close to having a chance to start at quarterback, but he seems loose and confident. Threet is the guy projected to win the job all along. He's got the size, received a decent amount of recruiting attention coming out of high school and has some familiarity running the spread. But an all-business approach could be a sign of nervousness.

Here's how starting right tackle Stephen Schilling described the two when we talked last week.

"Nick might be a little more relaxed, laid back, trying to find guys. Steve's a little more serious. But they both want to work hard and they both want to bring a lot of energy to the huddle."

Other Wolverines depth chart notes include:

  • The starting spots at center and right guard remain open, though David Moosman is listed at both places and should start at one.
  • Freshman Martavious Odoms is the only wide receiver to have locked up a starting spot. Mathews and freshman Darryl Stonum continue to compete at the "X" receiver, while Stonum and junior LaTerryal Savoy are listed as potential starters at the "Z" spot. Expect Stonum to play and contribute immediately.
  • Junior Carson Butler and fifth-year senior Mike Massey continue to compete for the starting tight end spot. What's somewhat surprising -- other than Butler not cementing himself is the starter -- is that freshman Kevin Koger also could start there.
  • As expected, the defense is much more defined. Obi Ezeh is listed ahead of John Thompson at middle linebacker and will be flanked by Austin Panter and Marell Evans. The starting safeties are Stevie Brown at free and Brandon Harrison at strong.
  • Harrison and Morgan Trent are the primary kickoff returners and Donovan Warren will start off returning punts, but Odoms is in the mix at both spots.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Here's the second half of my interview with Michigan's new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.

How would you describe your philosophy on defense, and how have the guys responded to that so far? Did it come right away or was it a while?

SS: The biggest thing we've focused on is controlling the controllables. As much as schemes are important, what's more important is the way we approach a daily practice, a daily meeting, a daily lifestyle. We always talk about controlling your attitude, controlling your effort and controlling your enthusiasm. Regardless of your ability level, those three things, those three core values within the framework of our characteristics as a football player are the things we really push hard on. At times, early on they looked at us cross-eyed because we were asking a lot of 'em. They'd do something they thought was pretty good and we'd be taking the approach that it's not as good as it can be. So really, more than anything, [we're] focused on controlling the things they can on a daily basis and understanding that we're looking for them to play the best football of their careers here. The only way to get to that point is to have your coaches push you and as an athlete, relish those opportunities that coaches throw out in front of you, to be pushed harder than you ever have.

When did you see guys responding to those expectations from you and the other coaches, or is it still to come?

SS: There were glimpses of that, that you'd look at each other as a staff and say, 'OK, that was pretty good.' And then there's other times. They say conditioning can make a coward out of anyone, and there are times where you can see that come out. But the good thing is they kept coming back day after day, wanting to be better, wanting to become a better player. They're ready for us to start coaching them the way we finished up spring. I feel like there's a real positive air about the kids that's exciting for us as coaches.

As far as the linebackers, are there some young guys in the mix there? Will there be a lot of competition there or do you feel somewhat set?

SS: If you look across the board, we have two seniors, John Thompson and Austin Panter are two kids we have high expectations for, but they're going to be competing against guys. Obi Ezeh is ready to fight for the starting Mike [middle linebacker] job with John Thompson. Marell Evans and Jonas Mouton are two kids, they're going to be battling as well for that outside linebacker [spot]. Those are the five kids that know going into it, they're going to have to fight for playing time, five for three positions. And they're going to have to learn two positions at times. There's a lot of similarity in the positions, so that's not going to be a real concern. Going into it, those are the five guys we're focused in on.

And with the secondary, I'm sure you're excited about the two cornerbacks [Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren]. Is safety a little bit less of a certainty?

SS: I think we can have a good secondary, I really do. Stevie Brown, he's a real underrated player and he's really bought into the defensive package and likes what we do. Brandon Harrison, he had a little shoulder surgery and he's fine, he's stronger than he's ever been. I'm excited to see him on the field. Charles Stewart's a senior and he's had a great summer. He just looks good. I walked by him the other day. It's his senior year, and there's something to be said for the seniors. With Harrison and Stewart, you have two guys that are in their last go-round and I think that those two kids are really looking forward to showing up. The opportunity that's in front of them hasn't been there, as far as fighting for a starting position. And then at the corners, Donovan Warren and Morgan Trent can be good corners in this conference. And then Troy Woolfolk is a guy that had some real good interceptions in the spring, especially the second half of the spring. Things started to really click for him. And then we'll see what the young kids do.

I know you guys are focused on yourselves, but in terms of being ready to go by Aug. 30, is there almost a greater sense of urgency there just because the offense will be making such a big adjustment?

SS: I know it sounds cliché, but if I were to focus on anything other than ourselves, I wouldn't be practicing what I'm preaching to the kids. The focus as a coaching staff, starting with me on the defensive side, is the same as the kids - control the controllables. Put together a great practice plan, put them in good situations that give them a chance to learn as well as they've ever learned and get as much in as we can before Utah. That will be the approach that we take every day here.

Three questions for Michigan

August, 4, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Michigan begins preseason practice Monday at 2:30 p.m ET, here are three questions to monitor throughout the next three and a half weeks.

1. Will Steven Threet cement himself as the starting quarterback, or will another candidate make the coaches' decision tougher?

Threet, a transfer from Georgia Tech, appears to be the man to beat. As the valedictorian of his high school, he's certainly capable of grasping Rich Rodriguez's system. But are his feet as quick as his mind? Rodriguez needs a mobile quarterback, and Threet doesn't exactly fit the mold. It will be interesting to see how freshman Justin Feagin, a more prototypical Rodriguez quarterback, performs on the practice field this month.

2. How will the team's strength and conditioning upgrades translate to the practice field, particularly for the offensive linemen?

By now everyone knows Mike Barwis is God's gift to the weight room, and Michigan appears to be a stronger and faster team than it was in 2007. The most immediate dividends must come on the offensive line, which returns only one starter [Stephen Schilling]. If players like Mark Ortmann, David Moosman and Tim McAvoy display the athleticism needed to run this offense, Michigan could survive some early growing pains under center. It also will be interesting to see if highly touted freshmen Ricky Barnum and Dann O'Neill factor into the mix this summer.

3. Who steps up at linebacker and safety?

The defense needs to be a stabilizing force early on, and a lot depends on finding capable starters in the back half. Linebacker might be the most intriguing position competition outside of quarterback, as two seniors (Austin Panter and John Thompson) try to ward off several talented sophomores (Obi Ezeh, Marell Evans, Jonas Mouton). Stevie Brown made a strong push this spring at safety, and Brandon Harrison tries to lock down the other starting spot in his final season.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The position rankings resume with the linebackers, which is usually a strong position in the Big Ten but one that lacks headliners this season. Ohio State boasts two standouts in preseason Defensive Player of the Year James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, but most teams welcome new players to their defensive midsection. Illinois lost All-American middle linebacker J Leman, Michigan lost backfield beast Shawn Crable and Penn State lost standout Sean Lee to a season-ending knee injury this spring. But I'll get to the individuals later.

Here's a look at the linebacker groups in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State -- Laurinaitis and Freeman passed up the NFL for one final season together and one final stab at the national championship. The star tandem has combined for 429 career tackles, easily putting Ohio State in the top spot for linebackers. Sophomore Ross Homan, a candidate for the third starting spot, could be the next great Buckeyes linebacker.

2. Wisconsin -- This group admittedly underachieved a bit last season, but better things are on the way with all three starters back. Senior Jonathan Casillas led the team in tackles last season and looks to regain his playmaking form of 2006, when he had a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss. DeAndre Levy provides leadership and should flourish under new coordinator Dave Doeren.

3. Illinois -- Leman's production can't be replaced and Illinois also lost second-leading tackler Antonio Steele, but there is plenty left over at linebacker. Veteran Brit Miller, who has slimmed down this offseason, slides over to middle linebacker, a position he's played before. Miller has the personality to lead and will be able to mentor highly touted sophomore Martez Wilson.

4. Penn State -- The Lions undoubtedly would have been higher with Lee leading the way, but they still have some playmakers here. Penn State needs big things from veteran outside linebacker Tyrell Sales, who had three sacks last season. Promising sophomore Chris Colasanti will play a larger role along with junior Josh Hull, who appeared in every game last fall.

5. Indiana -- Despite boasting the league's best pass rusher in end Greg Middleton, Indiana's campaign for a better defense hinges on this unit. Incumbents Will Patterson and Geno Johnson return, and there's plenty of buzz about junior Matt Mayberry. Patterson recorded three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries last season.

6. Michigan -- This appears to be the weak point of the Wolverines defense, which will miss All-Big Ten selection Crable and Chris Graham. But Obi Ezeh has experience at middle linebacker and will be pushed by John Thompson. Sophomores Marell Evans and Jonas Mouton bring speed to the weak side.

7. Iowa -- A.J. Edds is a budding star at outside linebacker after ranking second on the team in tackles last season. But after Edds, there are questions. The Hawkeyes must replace two productive players in Mike Humpal and Mike Klinkenborg and need promising sophomores Jacody Coleman, Jeff Tarpinian and Jeremiha Hunter to step up.

8. Michigan State -- Here's another young group that could finish higher but needs more than one proven commodity. Greg Jones is on his way to a stellar career after a strong freshman season. His move to the middle should help the Spartans, but they need more from returning starter Eric Gordon as well as a reliable player to emerge at the third spot.

9. Purdue -- Anthony Heygood has been productive at outside linebacker, racking up 15 tackles for loss last season. If Heygood continues to cause havoc and Jason Werner takes another step after a strong spring, Purdue could soar up this list. Werner showed good durability in spring ball, but he must avoid injuries after back problems nearly ended his career.

10. Northwestern -- Linebacker is usually the strongest position group on a weak defense, but for the second straight year there are questions. The Wildcats lose Adam Kadela, the league's No. 3 tackler last season, and need Malcolm Arrington to build off a decent 2007 season as he shifts to middle linebacker. Senior Prince Kwateng hasn't reached his potential thus far, while promising young players like Bryce McNaul and Nate Williams are ready to step up.

11. Minnesota -- Despite some strong additions this offseason, last year can't be overlooked. The Gophers return experience with Steve Davis and Deon Hightower, and hopes are high for junior-college transfer Rex Sharpe. But run-stopping was a disaster in 2007, so until Minnesota shows otherwise, it will linger at the bottom.