Big Ten: Jon Davis

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Tags:

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, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Football Recruiting, Maryland Terrapins, Jacob Pedersen, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Devin Smith, Tony Jones, Tony Lippett, Corey Brown, Jeremy Gallon, Duwyce Wilson, Keith Mumphery, Justin Sinz, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Evan Spencer, Gabe Holmes, Kofi Hughes, Jared Abbrederis, Kyle Carter, Nick Stoner, Jordan Fredrick, Sam Arneson, Matt LaCosse, Ted Bolser, Steve Hull, Kenzel Doe, Christian Jones, Jon Davis, Jamal Turner, Shane Wynn, Josh Ferguson, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess, Josiah Price, Cody Latimer, Drew Dileo, Quincy Enunwa, Stefon Diggs, Jordan Westerkamp, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, MacGarrett Kings, Austin Appleby, Michael Thomas, Adam Breneman, Tevaun Smith, Isaiah Roundtree, Isaac Fruechte, Drake Harris, Cameron Dickerson, Dominique Booth, Jalin Marshall, Jake Duzey, Danny Etling, Allen Robinson, Dan Vitale, Danny Anthrop, Martize Barr, Damond Powell, Dontre Wilson, James Clark, Robert Wheelwright, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Taariq Allen, Richy Anderson, Sam Burtch, Chris Godwin, Deon Long, Garrett Dickerson, Johnnie Dixon, Saeed Blacknall, Alex Erickson, Maxx Williams, Geronimo Allison, Cethan Carter, Cameron Posey, DeAngelo Yancey, Geno Lewis, Brandon Felder, Brandon Coleman, B1G spring positions 14, Jordan Fuchs, Miles Shuler, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, Amba Etta-Tawo, Dave Stinebaugh, Marcus Leak, Tyler Kroft, Quron Pratt, Leonte Carroo, Ruhann Peele, Carlton Agudosi, Andre Patton

Be honest. You did a double take when watching Illinois ball-carriers sprinting into the open field last Saturday against Southern Illinois.

Were those guys in the orange helmets the same ones who seemed to play in a studio apartment last season?

The most mind-blowing stat that came out of Illinois' season-opening win wasn't quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's career-high 416 pass yards or the two 100-yard receiving performances (Ryan Lankford and Josh Ferguson) or team record 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by V'Angelo Bentley.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNathan Scheelhaase and the Illini offense struggled last season but looked sharp in the opener under new coordinator Bill Cubit.
Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer in its 42-34 win, equaling its total from all of last season. Digest that for a minute. The Illini offense, which finished 119th out of 120 teams in both yards and scoring last fall, had only six true explosion plays in 12 games.

Only high-powered Oregon had more plays of 30 yards or longer in Week 1. Was it a starting point for the Illini offense? You bet.

"That was the one thing we got Saturday," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit told ESPN.com. "We had 10 big plays of over 20 yards throwing the ball and over 12 running the ball. If you don't have those big plays, it's just more difficult."

The Illini far exceeded their big-play goals in the opener, loosening the reins and getting results.

"Our players bought into the things that we felt were necessary to take some deep chances," head coach Tim Beckman said. "As we progress we hope to be able to gain those big chunk yardage plays.”

Saturday's home test against Cincinnati will provide a much better gauge of the Illinois offense and its big-play potential. Cincinnati thumped Purdue 42-7 in last week's opener, limiting the Boilers to just 57 plays and 226 yards.

But this much seems clear: Ilinois has a better idea of what it is after one game under Cubit than it did all of last season, as a rudderless ship never made it out of port.

"We have an idea of our identity," Scheelhaase said. "We're game-planning week to week, and at times will look different and will want to look different because of the players we have. ... It's nice to be able to put guys in different positions and throw different formations out there and make things more difficult on the defense. It's our job to be as comfortable as possible out there on Saturday."

Scheelhaase, who struggled with the rest of the offense in 2012, looked much more at ease last week. He completed 28 of 36 passes. Two of his incompletions were throwaways because of pressure. Two others were dropped.

Cubit liked how quickly Scheelhaase delivered the ball, a major emphasis point for a system where Cubit wants the ball out within 2.2 seconds. Although Scheelhaase threw an interception and was responsible for one of the five sacks Illinois allowed, he performed well for his first time in Cubit's offense.

"I was encouraged," Cubit said. "He's smart and he understands college football. There's really not too many defenses he doesn't know, so it was easy for me to communicate with him and not have to explain what a coverage is. He understands it right away and what the weaknesses are."

Illinois hopes Scheelhaase is surrounded by more weapons to exploit those weaknesses. Lankford posted a career high in receiving yards (115) against Southern Illinois, and Ferguson eclipsed 100 receiving yards for the first time in his career.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Ferguson accounted for three explosion plays, including a perfectly executed 53-yards touchdown on a screen pass, and finished with 152 all-purpose yards on only 13 touches.

"He's one of the game-breakers who can make a big difference," Cubit said. "If you don’t have one of those guys, it's hard to drive 90 yards."

Tight end Jon Davis, who had a 15-yard touchdown catch and an 11-yard run, also brings explosiveness to an offense that completely lacked it last season. The 6-3, 240-pound Davis saw time at tight end, wide receiver and running back last season and could boost Illinois in the red zone.

"Another guy who's so versatile," Scheelhaase said. "He ran the ball, caught the ball, split out, played in tight. He's one of the best players in the conference. Obviously, he dealt with some injury stuff last year, but he's a player who makes everyone around him better."

With more weapons and a clearer vision, Illinois' offense will improve after bottoming out in 2012. Cubit has raised the standard. According to Scheelhaase, only three or four players graded out against SIU.

"He wants it to be difficult for us to grade out," Scheelhaase said. "It raises our intensity each week."

That's a good thing. Cincinnati is coming to town.

CHICAGO -- Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit knows what he represents: another round of changes for players who have experienced plenty of them.

Cubit is Illinois' fourth offensive play-caller and fourth offensive coordinator in the past three seasons (Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales shared play calls and the coordinator role in 2012). No unit in the Big Ten has endured more recent transition than the Illini offense. Cubit understands what his players have been through, but he's not decelerating the learning curve this spring. Just the opposite.

"Like I told those guys, what you did in the past really doesn’t make a bit of difference," Cubit said Friday before Illinois held a spring practice/scrimmage at Gately Stadium on Chicago's South Side. "We've just got to get this thing done. ... Ohio State, Penn State, Northwestern, none of these people really care. You've got to face the facts."

The facts are Illinois had one of the nation's worst offenses in 2012. The Illini finished 119th nationally in both yards per game and points per game, 107th in passing and 97th in rushing. Big Ten play brought even greater struggles for Illinois, which averaged just 272 yards and 11.8 points in eight league contests.

Cubit, a longtime offensive coordinator before spending the past eight seasons as Western Michigan's head coach, is tasked to turn things around in a hurry. He's not wasting any time installing his system, and not downplaying what it entails for the players.

"The system is vastly different from what they've done," he told ESPN.com. "The routes are vastly different. The quarterback reads, the quarterback steps are vastly different. We're going to play underneath the center at times."

Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, who are competing for the starting job, are absorbing the brunt of the changes under Cubit. In addition to taking more snaps under center, both are working on getting the ball out quickly.

Cubit's target is 2.2 seconds, typically out of a five-step drop. He notes that even the slightest delay, like holding the ball at chest level rather than shoulder level, where it can be quickly released, makes a big difference.

"I don't think we have the personnel that we just sit back there and take seven-step drops and guys will be open," Cubit said.

Scheelhaase and O'Toole also have had to change their footwork and throwing mechanics, a process which, according to Cubit, has been fairly easy. Because neither quarterback worked much under center before, they haven't had to break longtime habits.

Although Scheelhaase has a major experience edge (36 career starts), Cubit said the quarterbacks are "about equal" so far this spring. Cubit is focused more on installing his system than evaluating a potential starter, and the competition likely will last through the summer and into preseason camp. It's highly unlikely Illinois will use a rotation at quarterback.

"Let’s find the one guy we know we can win with and go," Cubit said, "and prepare that other guy in case something happens."

Whomever emerges will need a lot of help, as Illinois struggled to find playmakers in 2012. Cubit likes the potential of the tight end group: Evan Wilson, Matt LaCosse and, when he gets healthy, Jon Davis. Running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young have had good springs.

There are bigger questions at wide receiver. Although Illinois returns a few familiar names (Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris), it needs others to emerge and could be turning to several players who have switched positions (Steve Hull, Miles Osei) as well as a junior-college arrival (Martize Barr).

"The biggest change has been Steve Hull moving from defense to offense," wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy said. "He's polished, he's excited, he's energized, he's competitive. He's making big plays."

Head coach Tim Beckman called the offensive line Illinois' "biggest concern" after a season where the group surrendered a league-worst 39 sacks and the Illini averaged a league-low 3.5 yards per carry. The silver lining is players like Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic and Ted Karras have experience under their belts. Alex Hill has moved from guard into the top center spot this spring.

Cubit has tried to tailor his scheme to help out the offensive line.

"We've got to play to their strengths also," he said. "The one thing I see there is willingness. Probably a scarred group, like the whole offense. When you’re next to last [nationally] in offense, you're going to have some gaps out there. But I just keep on telling them how good they can be. And they can.

"They've got a shot."

Big Ten lunch links

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
12:00
PM ET
Two days till Big Ten football, three days till Bearmageddon in Chicago.
It's Depth Chart Monday around the Big Ten as most teams revealed new or updated depth charts for their upcoming season openers. Indiana and Iowa released depth charts last week, while Nebraska's won't come out until later this week. A few more teams unveil new or updated depth charts Tuesday, and we'll break down those as they file in.

While we won't break down the depth charts each week of the season, the first installments always carry a bit more weight as players have jockeyed for position during camp.

Here are some notes and thoughts from what we learned today:

MICHIGAN

Depth chart (page 13)
  • Suspended players Fitz Toussaint and Frank Clark both are listed -- Toussaint is the starting running back, Clark as a backup weakside defensive end -- but their status for the opener against Alabama is yet to be determined. Coach Brady Hoke will make a decision soon. While it seems highly unlikely Clark will play, Toussaint's status will be a big story this week.
  • Roy Roundtree is listed as a starter at receiver despite missing a chunk of camp following knee surgery. Although Michigan has some decent other options at wideout, it really needs "Tree" on the field at JerryWorld. Speaking of receivers, backup quarterback Devin Gardner is listed as a third-string receiver and should see a bit of work there against the Crimson Tide.
  • Depth is a bit of a concern for Michigan entering the season, and it's the main reason why the Wolverines list 12 true freshman on the depth chart, four in backup roles. Expect freshmen like linebacker Joe Bolden and safety Jarrod Wilson to see plenty of field time.
  • As for position battles, Quinton Washington claimed a starting defensive tackle spot, moving Jibreel Black back to the end position. Will Hagerup and Matt Wile are listed as co-starters at punter, but Hagerup will get the starting nod against Alabama.
OHIO STATE

Depth chart
  • Regarding position battles, Reid Fragel, a converted tight end, claimed the starting right tackle spot ahead of freshman Taylor Decker. Travis Howard maintained his starting cornerback spot ahead of Doran Grant. The team's starting wide receivers entering the fall are Corey Brown, Devin Smith and Jake Stoneburner, a converted tight end. Ohio State's only unsettled position is tight end, where freshman Nick Vannett and sophomore Jeff Heuerman are listed as co-starters.
  • Like Michigan, Ohio State will have plenty of youth on the field this fall. Coach Urban Meyer lists 13 freshmen on the depth chart, including highly touted defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, spring game star Michael Thomas at backup receiver and backup middle linebacker Camren Williams. The Buckeyes have three freshmen listed as backup offensive linemen, underscoring the depth issues there.
  • With projected starting running back Jordan Hall (foot) out at least a week, Ohio State will start Carlos Hyde at running back. Freshman Bri'onte Dunn will back up Hyde.
WISCONSIN

Depth chart (page 13)
  • The Badgers put out a depth chart last week but made a few changes, including junior Zac Matthias and sophomore Kyle Costigan being listed as co-starters at right guard. Costigan had been listed as the starter, but Matthias made a push late in camp.
  • Backup cornerback Peniel Jean will miss four to six weeks after fracturing his foot last week in practice and undergoing surgery. Redshirt freshman Darius Hillary moves into the No. 2 role behind Devin Smith and likely will be the team's primary nickel back.
  • Sophomore Kyle French is listed as the starter for both field goals and kickoffs (he only occupied the kickoffs role last week). Coach Bret Bielema said freshman Jack Russell (great name) also will see time as a kicker in Saturday's opener against Northern Iowa.
PENN STATE

Depth chart
ILLINOIS

Depth chart
  • Safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, the projected starters, aren't listed on the two-deep. Earnest Thomas and Pat Nixon-Youman are listed in their places. Both Hull and Sanni are week-to-week with injuries. Coach Tim Beckman said both would practice this week and likely will be game-time decisions.
  • Illinois shuffled its offensive linemen between positions throughout camp, and there could be more changes before game day. But ... Graham Pocic is listed as the starting center after playing mostly guard in camp. Pocic has started the past 26 games at center. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras, who has recovered from a foot injury, is listed as the starting right guard.
  • Tim Kynard will start at defensive end in place of Justin Staples, who will serve a one-game suspension against Western Michigan. Offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic also won't play Saturday for undisclosed reasons.
  • Illinois lists co-starters at both running back (Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson) and tight end (Jon Davis and Eddie Viliunas). Both Young and Ferguson should get plenty of carries against Western Michigan.
NORTHWESTERN

Depth chart (Page 7)
  • After a strong camp, Venric Mark will start at running back for Northwestern. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mark, who came to Northwestern as a return specialist, moved from wide receiver after the season. Mike Trumpy, who comes off of ACL surgery, is the backup, and Northwestern likely will spread the carries around. Treyvon Green has recovered from a scary neck injury midway through camp and will play at Syracuse.
  • USC transfer Kyle Prater is listed as a backup receiver. Northwestern will start Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones at receiver against the Orange. Prater saw some time with the first-team offense in camp and will be part of the rotation, but he still seems to be lacking a step as he gets back into game shape.
  • The Wildcats have no unsettled starting spots, and while there are a number of young players on the depth chart, only two true freshmen, defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale, made the two-deep. Heralded incoming freshman defender Ifeadi Odenigbo likely will redshirt and isn't listed on the depth chart.
PURDUE

Depth chart (Page 6)
  • The Boilers have four unsettled starting spots, three on the offensive side. Juniors Kevin Pamphile and Justin Kitchens are battling at the left tackle spot, while juniors Devin Smith and Cody Davis are co-starters at right guard. Junior Gabe Holmes and fifth-year senior Crosby Wright are still competing for the top tight end spot. The lone unsettled spot on defense is at end opposite Ryan Russell, as Ryan Isaac and Jalani Phillips continue to compete.
  • No surprises in the starting backfield as Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry are listed at quarterback in that order. It'll be interesting to see how Purdue uses Henry this year. It doesn't make much sense to waste his talents on the bench. No Ralph Bolden on the depth chart as the senior running back is still working his way back from the knee injury. The Akeems (Shavers and Hunt) will carry the rock against Eastern Kentucky.
  • The placekicking spot is also up in the air with three players -- Sam McCartney, Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows -- in the mix to replace standout Carson Wiggs.

More depth chart fun comes your way Tuesday, so be sure and check in.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Crosby Wright, Supo Sanni, Roy Roundtree, Kyle Prater, Brady Hoke, Paul Jones, Urban Meyer, Robert Marve, Quinton Washington, Devin Smith, Jake Stoneburner, Pete Massaro, Patrick Nixon-Youman, DaQuan Jones, Tony Jones, Carlos Hyde, Caleb TerBush, Shawney Kersey, Mike Trumpy, Jibreel Black, Devin Gardner, Corey Brown, Cody Davis, Carson Wiggs, Eddie Viliunas, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Rob Henry, Travis Howard, Alex Kenney, Tim Beckman, Jordan Hall, Earnest Thomas, Rashad Lawrence, Gabe Holmes, Peniel Jean, Venric Mark, Will Hagerup, Justin Staples, Jeff Heuerman, Demetrius Fields, Doran Grant, Alex Butterworth, Deion Barnes, Kevin Pamphile, Justin Kitchens, Steve Hull, Reid Fragel, Jalani Phillips, Akeem Shavers, Jon Davis, Akeem Hunt, Treyvon Green, Matt Wile, Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson, Eugene Lewis, Joe Bolden, Bri'onte Dunn, Noah Spence, Camren Williams, Thomas Meadows, Paul Griggs, Simon Cvijanovic, Ryan Isaac, Frank Clark, Kyle French, Evan Lewis, Darius Hillary, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jesse James, Taylor Decker, Trevor Williams, Steven Bench, Tim Kynard, James Terry, Jarrod Wilson, Kyle Costigan, Adam Gress, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Jake Fagnano, Ted Karras, Matt Marcincin, Dean Lowry, Jack Russell, Nick Vannett, Mike Farrell, Dan Vitale, Sam McCartney, Zac Matthias

In the Illinois offensive staff room, there's a board where the coaches list their top five playmakers. The goal is to identify which players need to touch the ball most often, and then to build the offense strategy and scheme around that.

How much has that list changed in the last several months?

"It's changed quite a bit since we got here," co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales told ESPN.com, laughing. "It's everchanging."

[+] EnlargeFritz Rock
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireThe Illini are looking to Fritz Rock to add depth at receiver.
The Illini want that top five to stay fluid to reflect competition. But there also haven't been as many candidates for that list as the coaching staff would like.

The team is switching to the spread offense this season under new coach Tim Beckman, and that's an attack that usually requires lots of depth at the skill positions. Illinois, though, doesn't have that luxury and continues to look for more playmakers, especially at receiver.

"We are extremely, extremely thin there," said Gonzales, who oversees the receivers. "Depth is a major need for us, and we have to go out and recruit that. Of the guys we have right now, I probably feel comfortable with three of them, and they are the three with experience at the Division I level. After that, it's a dogfight."

Gonzales said a spread offense should ideally be four deep at each of the three receiver spots and added that the Illini "are not even close to that right now." He also said the Illini have "not by any means" identified a true No. 1 receiver among those they are sure will contribute. A big key for the staff, he said, will be to continue to develop young wideouts like sophomore Fritz Rock and redshirt freshman Kenny Knight.

While the receiver position is a big question mark, there are higher hopes at some of the other skill positions.

Gonzales said the running back group, considered a weakness going into the offseason, is now "one of the strengths of our team." Though it's not particularly deep, the duo of Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young has Gonzales excited. He said there are packages where both will be on the field at the same time.

"Donovonn played for us last year, and Josh understands what's expected of him after this spring," he said. "Both of those guys have the ability to run the ball in our offense, and both of them are strong and powerful."

The tight end spot is another area for optimism. Gonzales feels the team is four-deep at that position with Evan Wilson, Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse and Eddie Viliunas. The tight ends, he said, "have had a really good football camp," and you could see multiple tight end sets this fall even in a spread offense.

"We've got to put our best 11 players on the field, and if the best 11 players includes tight ends over receivers or running backs over receivers, that's what it is," Gonzales said.

Gonzales also said that quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has had a good preseason and has "really embraced a leadership role." He declined to say whether there was a plan to play backup Reilly O'Toole, as the team did last year, and said that the goal is just to get both quarterbacks and Miles Osei prepared to lead the No. 1 offense, if necessary.

There are still plenty of questions for the Illinois offense, questions that probably won't be answered until there are more players earning serious consideration for that top five list.

"Some of our guys are starting to step up, and that gives a little more flexibility to our offense," Gonzales said. "If we can get more guys to step up, that will make for a pretty good offense."
On Wednesday, we ranked the top individual wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten heading into 2012. So of course that means it's time to look at the position group as a whole throughout the league. Remember, we're weighing past performance heavily here with consideration given to potential.

It's go time.

1. Northwestern: We didn't rank a single Wildcat in our top 10 individual receivers or tight ends, yet we have the group No. 1. Have we lost our minds? Well, maybe. But we really like the depth of this group, even with star Jeremy Ebert off to the pros. Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Venric Mark are all very good, and if Kyle Prater gets eligible this might be the deepest receiving corps in the league. The drawback is the lack of an experienced tight end to take over for Drake Dunsmore, but that's less important in a spread offense.

[+] EnlargeChristian Jones
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireNorthwestern's Christian Jones helps form one of the best wide receiver groups in the Big Ten.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers might not be the most prolific passing team, but they've got a lot of options. Kenny Bell emerged as a real weapon last season, and Quincy Enunwa, Jamal Turner and Tim Marlowe all bring something to the table. Add to that one of the league's top tight end duos in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, and this is a strong group.

3. Wisconsin: Bonus points here for star power, as receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen enter the season as the top-rated players at their respective position. There are a lot of other question marks at receiver, though the Badgers have a large cast of candidates. And they're loaded at tight end.

4. Iowa: Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley form one of the best returning receiving tandems in the Big Ten. C.J. Fiedorowicz could become a star at tight end. Marvin McNutt is gone, but James Vandenberg should still have plenty of targets.

5. Purdue: The Boilers bring back three of their top four pass-catchers from a year ago, led by Antavian Edison. They need to stretch the field more, and perhaps star kick returner Raheem Mostert can add more playmaking ability to the group. They have a deep group of tight ends that could be one of the strengths of the offense.

6. Michigan: Junior Hemingway is gone, but the Wolverines are hopeful Roy Roundtree can fill his role. Jeremy Gallon is tiny but manages to make big plays. Michigan will need a third receiver to emerge and for someone to take over for Kevin Koger at tight end. Brandon Moore is the top candidate for that.

7. Penn State: Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option, but the loss of Curtis Drake and Devon Smith hurt the depth. Penn State's tight ends have mostly been anonymous, but that -- along with overall passing game production -- should change with the new staff.

8. Indiana: There's talent here, if the Hoosiers can harness it. Kofi Hughes can be one of the league's top receivers and is complemented by Duwyce Wilson, Cody Latimer and the diminutive Shane Wynn. Ted Bolser had a nice spring and looks ready to be very productive at tight end.

9. Ohio State: By now, you know the stat. No Buckeye had more than 14 catches last year. No matter how many times you hear it, it's still a little hard to believe. At least Ohio State has talented players to work with in guys like Corey Brown, Devin Smith and freshman Michael Thomas. And Jake Stoneburner could thrive under Urban Meyer at tight end. Expect the group's numbers to soar.

10. Illinois: It was almost A.J. Jenkins or bust for the Illini receivers last year. They'll need to find new playmakers in the spread offense. Darius Millines has to step up, along with Spencer Harris. Jon Davis had a promising freshman year at tight end.

11. Michigan State: The Spartans lost their top three receivers and their starting tight end, so no wonder they're so low on this list. The addition of Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett helps, and Andre Sims Jr. and Keith Mumphery had good springs. Still, playing time here is wide open, and true freshmen will get a chance to contribute. Dion Sims has as much physical talent as any Big Ten tight end.

12. Minnesota: Quick, name a Minnesota receiver. If you're not a Gophers fan, you probably are still thinking. This is a group of largely unknown guys who'll have to raise their profile this fall. Brandon Green, Malcolm Moulton and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the leading returning receivers. Transfer Isaac Fruechte and some youngsters will be counted on to contribute. Senior John Rabe brings experience to the tight end spot.
Back in May, Brian Bennett wrote about the tight end position being a potential strength for the Big Ten in 2012. Last season wasn't a banner year for Big Ten tight ends, but the combination of returning players and new coaches (Bill O'Brien, Urban Meyer) who feature tight ends in their offenses suggests an uptick is on the way.

The John Mackey Award selection committee evidently agrees.

Six Big Ten tight ends appear on the preseason watch list for the Mackey Award released Tuesday. Only the SEC (7) has more candidates than the Big Ten.

Here's the B1G contingent:
Other than Pedersen -- and, in a strange way, Stoneburner (14 receptions, 7 TDs) -- none of these players had big numbers in 2011. But all six could have much bigger roles in their respective offenses this fall. Fiedorowicz, Sims, Pedersen and Stoneburner all play for teams lacking many proven weapons at wide receiver. New Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis has raved about Fiedorowicz, and while Stoneburner isn't with the Buckeyes now because of his June 2 arrest, he's expected back for the season and should have a bigger role.

Reed had a nice year in 2010, recording a team-high eight touchdown receptions, and while his numbers dipped last fall, he should be more comfortable in the offense this season. Fellow Huskers tight end Ben Cotton didn't make the watch list despite putting up similar numbers to Reed's in 2011.

Like Reed, Bolser had a bigger year in 2010 (27 catches, 405 yards, 5 TDs) than in 2011. But like Reed, Bolser will be in the second year of a new offensive system and should see his production increase.

One intriguing question is whether Penn State will have any tight ends in consideration by the end of the season. New Lions coach Bill O'Brien loved to feature the tight end position as New England Patriots offensive coordinator. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Illinois' Jon Davis or Evan Wilson work their way into contention.

The Mackey semifinalists will be announced Nov. 12 and the finalists on Nov. 19. The winner will be announced Dec. 6 at the Home Depot College Football Awards.

Minnesota's Matt Spaeth (2006) is the last Big Ten winner of the Mackey Award.
When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeaki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.

Illinois spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
11:30
AM ET
2011 record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 2-6 (fifth, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, C Graham Pocic, WR Darius Millines, LB Jonathan Brown, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, CB Terry Hawthorne, DT Glenn Foster

Key losses

WR A.J. Jenkins, LT Jeff Allen, G Jack Cornell, DE Whitney Mercilus, LB Ian Thomas, CB Tavon Wilson, K Derek Dimke

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (624 yards)
Passing:
Nathan Scheelhaase (2,110 yards)
Receiving: A.J. Jenkins (1,276 yards)
Tackles: Jonathan Brown* (108)
Sacks: Whitney Mercilus (16)
Interceptions: Terry Hawthorne* (3)

Spring answers

1. Front loaded: How good is Illinois' defensive line? The Illini lose a first-round draft pick for the second consecutive year and should be just fine for the next season. Although All-America end Whitney Mercilus leaves a big production void, Illinois is loaded up front with Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster, Justin Staples and others. Buchanan and Spence both have NFL potential and should be the mix for All-Big Ten honors. While Illinois has a new coordinator in Tim Banks, the scheme changes aren't dramatic and new head coach Tim Beckman wisely retained line coach Keith Gilmore.

2. Ferguson emerges: The Illini are short on proven offensive weapons (more on that later), but they came out of the spring game feeling a bit better after watching freshman Josh Ferguson run for 130 yards and record a game-high six receptions. Ferguson, who redshirted last season after being slowed by a hamstring injury, brings top-end speed to the offensive backfield. He could form a nice tandem with Donovonn Young this fall.

3. Versatility abounds: Beckman is open to using versatile players in multiple roles, and two options emerged this spring. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who has seen time on returns, played some receiver during the spring game and hauled in a 29-yard touchdown pass. Hawthorne played both corner and receiver in high school and could be a "slash" player for the Illini. Reserve quarterback Miles Osei also showed he can be effective at multiple positions (running back, receiver).

Fall questions

1. Offensive weapons: The offense's struggles in the second half of 2011 stemmed in large part from the fact Illinois developed no consistent weapons other than wideout A.J. Jenkins, a surprise first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Depth is a major concern at both running back and receiver. Darius Millines has shown promising flashes, but he struggles to stay healthy. Although the coaches aren't afraid to audition players from other positions, Illinois would really benefit if wide receiver Ryan Lankford and tight ends Evan Wilson and Jon Davis stepped up. The Illini also need a third option at running back behind Young and Ferguson.

2. Special teams: Beckman didn't mince words when evaluating Illinois' special teams from 2011, calling them "terrible." He's being kind. The Illini couldn't catch punts, and they finished last in the FBS in kick return average (15.7 ypr). Standout kicker Derek Dimke departs, and Illinois must find a replacement. Illinois has too much talent to be so lousy in the kicking game, and Beckman stressed the basics this spring. He must continue to see progress this summer as Illinois tries to become a more complete team.

3. Quarterback efficiency: Illinois wants to regain its swagger on offense after flat-lining down the stretch of last season, and it starts with the quarterback spot. Nathan Scheelhaase has started two seasons under center, but he's transitioning to a new system and looked a bit shaky throwing the ball in the spring game. Arm strength is a question mark for Scheelhaase, who will need to spread the ball around in the new system. Reilly O'Toole also is in the mix after playing a decent amount as a backup in 2011. O'Toole will continue to compete for time.
Our postseason rankings of each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season took a short hiatus last week as signing day madness placed its grip on all of us.

Never fear, though, as the rankings are back in full force today, moving on to the receivers and tight ends as we round out our offensive skill positions.

We're looking for depth and not solely star power at the top here. This is how the preseason rankings looked. Some of these groups were undoubtedly hurt by inexperienced or underachieving quarterbacks, so we had to figure out how to weigh their performances in that light. Let's see how the list shakes out after the year ended:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had the best combo at wideout with seniors B.J. Cunningham, a physical deep threat and No. 1 receiver, and Keshawn Martin, a speedster who could do all sorts of different things in the offense. Together, they combined for 2,083 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. Keith Nichol provided a solid third option who made the catch of the year in the Big Ten, if not all of college football, against Wisconsin. Tight end Brian Linthicum had 364 yards receiving and played a key role in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.

2. Wisconsin: Depth? Hardly. But the Badgers got the most out of their front-line players. Starting wideouts Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis combined for 1,859 yards yard and 18 touchdowns. Eight of tight end Jacob Pedersen's 30 catches went for touchdowns. And don't underestimate the importance of the receivers and tight ends in the Wisconsin running game.

3. Northwestern: The Wildcats' wideouts likely would have put up better numbers if Dan Persa had stayed healthy all season. As it stood, Northwestern still got another outstanding year out of Jeremy Ebert (75 catches, 1,060 yards, 11 TDs). Kain Colter, when he wasn't playing quarterback or running the ball, managed 466 receiving yards. Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones were among the other contributors. First-team All-Big Ten tight end Drake Dunsmore was the team's No. 2 pass-catcher with 455 yards and six scores.

4. Iowa: Marvin McNutt was good enough to elevate this entire group. He led the Big Ten in receiving yards, finishing with 82 catches for 1,315 yards and 12 scores. Keenan Davis contributed 50 catches for 713 yards. But Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley didn't help enough after strong starts to the season. Iowa didn't get a lot of production in the passing game out of its tight ends, either, with C.J. Fiedorowicz leading the way at 16 catches.

5. Michigan: The Wolverines didn't have any receivers finish in the top 10 in the league in the key categories, but what they had was a fairly deep group that knew how to go up and get Denard Robinson's throws. Though Roy Roundtree's numbers went way down from 2010, Junior Hemingway (699 receiving yards) emerged as a big-time playmaker. Jeremy Gallon came up with some key plays in huge spots as well. Tight end Kevin Koger gave Robinson a reliable safety valve and was a key cog in the offense.

6. Illinois: At first glance, A.J. Jenkins' tremendous numbers (90 catches, 1,276 yards, eight TDs) would make you think the Illini deserve to be ranked higher. But Jenkins did most of his work in the first half of the season; like the rest of the Illinois offense, his stats fell off a cliff in the second half. And he didn't have much assistance, as Spencer Harris and Darius Millines combined to record only half his number of catches. Jon Davis was the team's third-leading pass-catcher at tight end.

7. Purdue: It was quantity over star power for the Boilermakers, whose top four pass catchers — Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross and Gary Bush — all had at least 29 receptions and 300 yards. Edison led the way with 584 yards. Tight ends Crosby Wright and Gabe Holmes combined for 29 catches. Purdue needs more playmaking ability from the tight end spot, something the team tried to address in this recruiting class.

8. Penn State: Evaluating the Nittany Lions receivers is tricky because the quarterback play was so inconsistent. Derek Moye was once again one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, but a foot injury and an overall inability to get him the ball limited his production to 654 yards and only three scores. Justin Brown, who will likely be the team's go-to guy in 2012, put up good stats, while Devon Smith got a chance to flash his speed and averaged 16.1 yards per catch. The tight ends were rarely used in the passing game; expect that and a whole lot more to change under Bill O'Brien.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers must improve their overall passing game to take the next step as a program, and that includes a receivers group that had an up-and-down season in 2011. The good news is that Kenny Bell emerged as a potential star as a redshirt freshman. But Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed failed to build on strong 2010 campaigns and were invisible for large stretches. Nebraska must hope Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner develop to go along with Bell.

10. Indiana: No one was more disappointing at this position in 2011 than the Hoosiers, whom we had pegged at No. 4 in our preseason list. DaMarlo Belcher, who led the league in receptions in '10, got himself booted off the team in midseason. Injuries hit the group hard as well. Kofi Hughes paced the group with 536 yards and found the end zone three times. Tight end Ted Bolser made only 14 receptions. We expected more from a Kevin Wilson offense.

11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill made finding playmakers at receiver a top priority in this recruiting class, and it's easy to see why. Da'Jon McKnight had a decent season (51, 760 and 4). After that, though, things dropped off quickly and the Gophers lacked players who could stretch the field. Tight end Eric Lair managed fewer than one-third the amount of catches he had in 2010.

12. Ohio State: Injuries, inexperience and suspensions combined to make this a difficult year for Buckeyes' receivers. No one had more than 14 catches all season, and no one topped 300 receiving yards. Things would have gone better if DeVier Posey hadn't been suspended for all but two regular-season games. Devin Smith showed potential as a true freshman, including his game-winning grab against Wisconsin. Tight end Jake Stoneburner scored seven times, but most of those came early in the year.
Earlier today, we revealed a handful of our top freshmen from 2011. Now it's time to unveil the entire Big Ten All-Freshman team from the season.

Some positions were easier to find players than others, but this crew should be worth watching in years to come. Both true freshmen and redshirt freshmen were considered for the team.

Without further ado ...

OFFENSE

QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Donovonn Young, Illinois
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
WR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa
TE: Jon Davis, Illinois
OL: Travis Jackson, Michigan State
OL: Bernard Taylor, Indiana
OL: Michael Heitz, Illinois
OL: Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern
OL: Tyler Moore, Nebraska

DEFENSE

DL: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DL: Ryan Russell, Purdue
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: Ben Perry, Minnesota
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan
LB: Desmond Morgan, Michigan
CB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
CB: Blake Countess, Michigan
S: Mark Murphy, Indiana
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Matt Wile, Michigan
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

There were some tough choices, and several positions had more candidates than others. Cornerback, for example, featured several promising freshmen contributors. Michigan State's Tony Lippett and Penn State's Adrian Amos were close to making the cut. Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson is another player meriting mention, although Miller deserved the nod at quarterback.

Not surprisingly, it was a struggle to fill out the offensive line as most freshmen linemen don't see the field. Like we did with the general All-Big Ten team, we didn't assign positions for the O-line and simply picked the best five players. It also was a bit unusual not to have a full-time freshman place-kicker. Michigan's Wile handled kickoffs and some punting, but Brendan Gibbons kicked field goals for the Wolverines.
Today ESPN.com's recruiting experts take a look back on the 2011 ESPNU 150 class -- our list of the top prospects in the country -- and see how they fare in their rookie seasons.

It's way too early to make judgments about these players' careers. But in some instances, we can already see the promise being delivered. In others, we wait for a major impact.

Here's a look at the players from the ESPNU 150 list who signed with Big Ten schools in February and how their first season on campus turned out:

[+] EnlargeAaron Green
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireIt appears Aaron Green will have to fight for playing time in his sophomore year.
No. 11: Aaron Green, RB, Nebraska: "With an experienced group of tailbacks above him on the depth chart, Green was the fifth-leading rusher for the Cornhuskers. He rushed 24 times in 2011 for a 4.4-yard per carry average and two touchdowns. He'll have to continue fighting for playing time because carries in Lincoln should be hard to come by in the foreseeable future." Green will have to sit behind Rex Burkhead another year and has classmates Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard at the same position. Wouldn't be surprised to see one of them change positions.

No. 30: Steve Miller, DE, Ohio State: "Miller played in two games this season, finishing with one tackle. The defensive end came into Ohio State as one of the Buckeyes' most-heralded recruits but sat behind a few upperclassmen. With a year to get bigger and stronger, look for Miller to have an impact season as a sophomore a year from now." Guess we'll have to wait for the Columbus version of the Steve Miller Band.

No. 46: Curtis Grant, ILB, Ohio State: "Grant played in eight games as a freshman. He made just two tackles but made several big plays on special teams. He recovered a fumble against Wisconsin off a blocked punt that helped the Buckeyes upset the Big Ten champs. He's expected to compete for a starting job at inside linebacker next fall." Grant showed flashes, but it was another freshman linebacker who really impressed for OSU. More on that in a bit ...

No. 50: Jamal Turner, ATH, Nebraska: "Turner graduated high school early and was able to enroll at Nebraska in January and participated in spring practice. After being recruited as an athlete, Turner played receiver for the Huskers and had a solid freshman season. He caught 15 balls for 243 yards while averaging a little more than 16 yards a reception." Turner had some nice moments but also disappeared in the middle of the season as his coaches didn't think he was practicing hard enough.

No. 54: Angelo Mangiro, OG, Penn State: "Mangiro did not play for Penn State this season, but he will have a chance to make an impact next season as a redshirt freshman, as the Nittany Lions will lose both their starting guards."

No. 80: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: "A true freshman, Miller has taken the reins as the starting quarterback and will lead the Buckeyes in the Gator Bowl against Florida on Jan. 2. Miller has thrown for 997 yards and 11 touchdowns, and rushed for 695 yards and seven scores." There were 79 better prospects than Miller last year?

No. 81: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State: "Shazier has been a major contributor on an improving Ohio State defense. He recorded 48 tackles and a team-high three sacks. Shazier isn't a regular returner on special teams, but he has returned a punt 25 yards." Here's the linebacker I referenced earlier. Shazier really came on strong late while filling in for Andrew Sweat and showed grit while battling through a knee injury against Michigan.

No. 106: Evan Spencer, WR, Ohio State: "Spencer played in 11 games, caught three passes for 78 yards and had one touchdown reception. He started one game, against Illinois." Classmate Devin Smith (12 catches, 247 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner against Wisconsin) was much better.

No. 108: Christian Jones, WR, Northwestern: "Jones played in all 12 games, catching 16 passes for 195 yards and averaging 13.9 yards per catch, which ranked second on the team. He earned his first career start against Iowa."

No. 109: Charles Jackson, CB, Nebraska: "Jackson's high school coach, Drew Svoboda, said Jackson never made it to Lincoln because the NCAA questioned some classes he retook over this past summer. He's working on passing the test in an effort to get qualified. He's also staying in shape at home in Klein, Texas. 'The bottom line is they said he didn't qualify,' Svoboda said. 'His clock has not yet started, and he's working towards meeting those standards and gaining his eligibility. He's still optimistic that he will be there [Nebraska] for spring ball. That's his plan.' Nebraska could use some depth at CB with the loss of Alfonzo Dennard.

No 115: Bubba Starling, QB, Nebraska: "On Aug. 14, Starling signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract with the Kansas City Royals; he had been the No. 5 pick in June's Major League Baseball draft. The Nebraska commit was an all-state selection in football, baseball and basketball."

No. 127: Michael Bennett, OG, Ohio State: "Bennett played all 12 games at defensive line this season and was tied for third on the team in tackles for loss (5) and sacks (3). He had 16 tackles." Bennett looked impressive at times and should help continue the defensive line tradition in Columbus. And with a great last name like that ...

No 132: Bill Belton, ATH, Penn State: "Belton played in seven games this year with 27 rushing yards on seven carries. He also attempted a pass (incomplete) and had a 15-yard kick return." Played a huge role in the Wildcat formations that led the Lions to a win at Ohio State. Will be interesting to see how he's used next season and beyond.

No. 138: Jon Davis, ATH, Illinois: "Davis played all 12 regular-season games and was third on the team in receptions (21) and fourth in yards (187). Davis also caught a touchdown pass." And touchdowns were hard to come by the final six games for Illinois.

No. 150: Lawrence Thomas, ILB, Michigan State: "Thomas injured his shoulder early in summer camp and was forced to take a redshirt." All three starting linebackers return for Michigan State next year, so Thomas will have to earn his way into the lineup.
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino entered the season brimming with confidence, and for good reason.

His unit had set team records for scoring (423 points) and points per game (32.5) in 2010 and returned most of its key pieces, namely quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Most of the questions about Illinois rested with a defense that had lost three players to the NFL draft, including first-round pick Corey Liuget.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQB Nathan Scheelhaase, 2, and the Illinois offense have struggled the past three games.
"We're always going to set our expectations high," Petrino told ESPN.com in August. "We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year."

Petrino looked prophetic through the first six games, as Illinois averaged 34.7 points and 447.7 yards. The Illini recorded 32 plays of 20 yards or longer. Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection, as Jenkins soared to the top of the national receiving chart with 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

A surprisingly effective defense complemented the offense, and Illinois swept its first six games to get off to its best start since 1951.

But the Illini since have backslid, dropping three straight games. While the defense continues to perform well, the offense has disappeared.

Illinois has scored only 28 points during the losing streak, including none in the first half and only seven before the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Illini had more yards and more first downs than any of its past three opponents -- Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State -- and dropped all three contests.

What's wrong with the Illini offense? It's not complicated, according to Petrino.

"Blocking, protecting, throwing and catching -- the basics," Petrino told ESPN.com. "You've got to block people. You've got to hit people when they're open. You've got to catch the ball. And then you've got to run through some tackles. Just the basic stuff we've got to do better. We've kind of hurt ourselves from that standpoint in the last three games.

"We've got to do it better."

They need to start Saturday against No. 24 Michigan at Memorial Stadium. Illinois' once-promising season could go down the drain if the offense doesn't resurface.

A potential turnaround for the Illini starts with the offensive line, considered one of the Big Ten's best before the season. Illinois boasts experience up front and continuity, as there has been only one change in the starting lineup all season.

But Illinois' front five has struggled against some of the Big Ten's best defensive linemen, allowing too many negative-yardage plays. Opposing teams have recorded 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks during Illinois' losing streak.

"A lot of times we've been getting beat up front," Petrino said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it's always the O-line. Sometimes it's the tight end or the back, [and the] quarterback a couple times needed to get the ball out of his hands quicker."

Petrino also is looking for more big plays. Jenkins and Scheelhaase provided a bunch of them early in the season, but defenses have done better at limiting Jenkins' effectiveness the past three games.

Illinois has recorded just three plays of 20 yards or longer in the past three games -- all passes from Scheelhaase to Jenkins.

"Some of the other guys have got to do it, too," Petrino said. "Darius Millines did it early in the year and he was hurt for a while, but I think he's getting back, being closer to being 100 percent, so that will help. Jon Davis, our freshman tight end, has made some plays for us. Ryan Lankford has got to start making some plays.

"And then in the running game, we've got to bust through the holes and get some long runs, also."

Senior running back Jason Ford has been a bright spot, recording 183 rush yards on 34 carries in the past two games. But Ford's longest run this season is just 18 yards.

"Bottom line, defenses are too good this day and age if you go three, four yards the whole time," Petrino said. "You've got to get some big plays."

Illinois also needs to start games better, especially against a Michigan team that has improved as games go along. The Illini averaged 17.5 points in the first half through the first six games, but they've since limped out of the gate.

"We haven't played worth a darn in the first quarter of the last three games," Petrino said. "It's something we take pride in. We script our opening plays and we work on them all week.

"So we've got to go out and play fast and definitely get going early."

Saturday would be a good time for a better start.
Two more Big Ten teams have produced their depth charts for Week 1. Let's take a look at Illinois' depth chart for the opener against Arkansas State, and Minnesota's depth chart for its opener at USC.

ILLINOIS

Depth chart (Page 10)
  • As expected, redshirt freshman Michael Heitz has earned the starting strong-side offensive tackle spot. Scott McDowell and Simon Cvijanovic will serve as backups at tackle.
  • Sophomore receiver Darius Millines earned a starting spot with a very strong performance in preseason camp. Classmate Spencer Harris also is listed as a starter at receiver alongside veteran A.J. Jenkins. Ryan Lankford, who had a strong spring, is listed as a backup to Jenkins.
  • Senior Jason Ford is the No. 1 running back, while three players -- senior Troy Pollard and true freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson -- are listed as co-backups. Don't be surprised if Young gets significant playing time behind Ford.
  • Interesting to see Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne listed as co-starters at cornerback opposite senior Tavon Wilson. Hawthorne has been pretty impressive when healthy, but Green is right there in the mix.
  • After starting last season at safety, Trulon Henry is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker. Sophomore Jonathan Brown enters the season as the top weak-side linebacker ahead of redshirt freshman Houston Bates.
  • Sophomore Miles Osei and freshman Reilly O'Toole are listed as co-backups at quarterback behind Nathan Scheelhaase.
  • No major surprises on the starting defensive line, as senior Craig Wilson steps into the tackle spot vacated by first-round draft pick Corey Liuget.
  • Hawthorne is the team's No. 1 punt returner, while Pollard and Millines are the top two men on kickoff returns.
  • Illinois has a good number of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen on the depth chart, including tight end Jon Davis, and defensive tackles Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe.
MINNESOTA

Depth chart (Page 22)
  • Junior college transfer Malcolm Moulton has made quite an impression. Moulton is listed as the starter at two receiver positions (the "Z" and "V"); freshman Marcus Jones is the backup at both spots. Senior Collin McGarry is listed as another starting receiver alongside All-Big Ten candidate Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Ryan Wynn and Zach Mottla are listed as co-starters at center, the result of Wynn battling a sprained ankle during preseason camp.
  • Although Minnesota's interior offensive line might feature three senior starters, the top tackles are a sophomore (Ed Olson) and a redshirt freshman (Jimmy Gjere). Two other freshmen, Sean Ferguson and Foster Bush, are listed as Gjere's backups.
  • The depth chart includes another redshirt freshman starter in defensive end Ben Perry. Minnesota is very young along the D-line, as tackles Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey are the only seniors listed among the top three players at each position.
  • Freshman quarterback Max Shortell has won the backup job behind MarQueis Gray.
  • Not many surprises among the linebackers, although Florida transfer Brendan Beal is just a co-backup with junior Ryan Grant at middle linebacker.
  • Eric Lair, who stood out at tight end for Minnesota in 2010, is listed as the team's starting H-back/fullback.
  • Sophomore Brock Vereen appears as the team's No. 1 cornerback opposite senior Troy Stoudermire. Shady Salamon and Kim Royston are the starting safeties.
  • Not surprisingly, freshmen and redshirt freshmen fill coach Jerry Kill's Week 1 depth chart. Quite a few young players will get their college football baptism Saturday afternoon at the L.A. Coliseum.

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