Big Ten: Keith Gilmore

Illinois has filled one of its coaching-staff vacancies with a familiar name.

The Illini will hire Greg Colby as their new defensive line coach, replacing Keith Gilmore, who left last month for a post with North Carolina. Colby's hiring should be official Monday. He has spent the past five seasons as the head coach at Division II Millersville University, which announced his departure Friday.

A former Illinois player who started for three seasons, Colby served as an assistant at his alma mater from 1988-95, coaching linebackers and special teams. He has extensive Big Ten experience, serving as Michigan State's defensive line/outside linebackers coach from 1995-97 and Northwestern's defensive coordinator from 2002-2007.

Colby, who grew up near Champaign in Danville, Ill., went 11-44 at Millersville.

Illinois has one vacancy left on its staff after wide-receivers coach Billy Gonzales left the program last week.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 28, 2013
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What a master class in acting, Mr. Stevens.
Illinois is losing one of the Big Ten's top assistants in defensive-line coach Keith Gilmore.

Rivals.com and others reported Saturday that Gilmore is leaving Illinois to join North Carolina's staff in the same capacity. He'll be reunited with North Carolina defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, with whom he worked at Illinois from 2009-2011. Gilmore was the only assistant Illini head coach Tim Beckman had retained from the previous staff -- and for good reason.

He mentored two NFL first-round draft picks in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Two of his linemen, tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan, are expected to be drafted in April. Although Illinois certainly has had its issues the past two seasons, defensive line hasn't been one of them. Gilmore is a significant loss for Beckman's staff.

It's hard to blame Gilmore for leaving as Beckman faces potentially a make-or-break season in 2013. Things are much more stable at UNC, and Gilmore's familiarity with Koenning makes him a good fit in Chapel Hill.

Illinois will have at least three new assistants in 2013 after bringing in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and new offensive-line coach Jim Bridge.

Defensive line has been the Big Ten's strongest position in recent years. The league has lost two respected D-line coaches this weekend after Michigan State announced Friday that it's cutting ties with Ted Gill.
This week, I asked you to select the Big Ten's strongest position and weakest position entering the 2012 season. The results are definitive and, quite frankly, not very surprising.

Strongest position: Running back (53 percent)

Weakest position: Wide receiver (59 percent)

Now it's time to explore position groups that could make the jump from good to great in 2012. Again, these aren't groups that are already playing at elite levels, but ones that could get there this coming season. Colleague Travis Haney provided the national view Thursday and included Ohio State's defensive ends among his "high-ceiling" groups Insider.

I'd expand that to include Ohio State's entire defensive line. While All-America candidate John Simon anchors the group at end, and decorated incoming recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington also play on the edge, the Buckeyes aren't too shabby on the inside, either. Junior tackle Johnathan Hankins, a potential first-round draft pick in 2013, is back in the fold alongside veteran Garrett Goebel and promising young players like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale. There's little doubt the Buckeyes' defensive line will take a big step in 2012.

Here are some other Big Ten groups that have high ceilings:

Illinois' defensive line: The Illini lose All-American Whitney Mercilus, but Michael Buchanan is ready to step into the lead pass-rusher role after a big spring. Akeem Spence is an underrated defensive tackle with legitimate pro potential, and Illinois returns experienced players like Justin Staples and Glenn Foster. Tim Beckman made an excellent move in retaining line coach Keith Gilmore from the previous staff.

Michigan's secondary: One of the nation's worst units a few seasons ago took a big step in 2011, and could take another one this fall. Michigan returns four players with starting experience, including safety Jordan Kovacs, the leader of the defense this fall. J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess form a very good cornerback tandem. Thomas Gordon gained valuable experience last year, and Michigan has recruited well to the secondary in recent years.

Northwestern's wide receivers: This has been a position of strength for Northwestern in recent years, but the Wildcats haven't had a group as deep as this one. Demetrius Fields leads the group, although Christian Jones might have the highest ceiling. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, while classmate Rashad Lawrence should be much improved as a junior. Cam Dickerson stood out this spring, and if USC transfer Kyle Prater gets his NCAA waiver, look out.

Michigan State's linebackers: The Spartans' front four once again figures to be among the Big Ten's top units, and the linebackers could get there, too. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen enter their junior seasons with a lot of game experience under their belts. Think Greg Jones-Eric Gordon, The Sequel. Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner add a veteran presence, and players like Taiwan Jones and TyQuan Hammock are in the mix as well.

Penn State's defensive line: A good group in 2011 could be even better this season. Jordan Hill anchors the line at defensive tackle, and Penn State gets a major boost by getting Pete Massaro back in the fold. If Massaro can stay healthy, he has a chance to provide the pass-rushing threat Penn State has lacked. The Lions have experience with senior end Sean Stanley and junior tackle DaQuan Jones, and they should be very excited about redshirt freshman end Deion Barnes.

Nebraska's wide receivers/tight ends: Brandon Kinnie is the only significant departure in the group, which should be a bigger part of the offense if quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to progress. Speedster Kenny Bell looks like a No. 1 wideout, and Quincy Enunwa should see his numbers increase. Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence, and the Huskers have some talented young players in Jamal Turner and incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp. Nebraska also brings back two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed).
Assistant coach salaries are on the rise throughout college football, and the Big Ten is no exception. If you're interested in how much coin Big Ten assistants are making, be sure and bookmark this excellent list put together by Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal. Rexrode compiled assistant salary information from 10 of the league's 12 programs (Northwestern and Penn State don't disclose assistant coach salaries).

Most of this information has been publicized in team-by-team form, but it's interesting to examine from a league-wide perspective. Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are the league's highest-paid assistants, both earning $750,000. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges ($550,000) is next, followed by Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($500,000), who recently received a raise that more than doubled his previous salary ($233,000).

Several of the Big Ten's highest-paid assistants from 2011 -- Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning -- since have left the league for other jobs.

Here are the totals paid for assistants among the 10 schools reporting salaries:

1. Ohio State -- $3.22 million
2. Michigan -- $2.755 million
3. Illinois -- $2.314 million
4. Michigan State -- $2.18 million
5. Iowa -- $2.16 million
6. Nebraska -- $2.13 million
7. Wisconsin -- $1.973 million
8. Indiana -- $1.96 million
9. Minnesota -- $1.745 million
10. Purdue -- $1.61 million

When factoring in the head coach salaries, the rankings look like this:

1. Ohio State -- $7.22 million
2. Iowa -- $6.035 million
3. Michigan -- $6.009 million
4. Nebraska -- $4.905 million
5. Wisconsin -- $4.571 million
6. Michigan State -- $4.098 million
7. Illinois -- $3.914 million
8. Minnesota -- $3.445 million
9. Indiana -- $3.22 million
10. Purdue -- $2.535 million

The Big Ten had 40 overall coaching changes during the past offseason (head coach and assistant). Here are the highest-paid new assistants among the programs reporting salaries (not including assistants promoted internally).

1. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers -- $450,000
2. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman -- $420,000
T-3. Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty -- $400,000
6. Ohio State co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Ed Warinner -- $350,000
7. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis -- $300,000
8. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada -- $265,000
T-9. Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar -- $250,000
T-9. Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell -- $250,000

Some thoughts:
  • It's no surprise Ohio State paid top dollar for head coach Urban Meyer, but the school also has increased its commitment for assistant coaches. Former coach Jim Tressel had a fairly anonymous staff for a big-time program, and while there were good coaches on it, you knew the overall financial commitment would need to be increased. The Buckeyes have three assistants making more than $400,000. Interestingly enough, Illinois is the only other Big Ten squad listed here with three aides at the $400,000 mark.
  • As Rexrode points out in his post, Michigan State's staff was a major bargain before the recent raise. The Spartans paid approximately $1.6 million for a staff that helped them to 21 wins in the past two seasons. The pay increases put Michigan State fourth in the Big Ten in assistant coach pay, which sounds about right.
  • Illinois' athletic director transition from Ron Guenther to Mike Thomas didn't change the school's approach toward rewarding assistants. Guenther allowed former coach Ron Zook to open the coffers after a disappointing 2009 season and land high-priced coordinators (Petrino and Koenning). While new Illini head coach Tim Beckman ranks eighth in the league in salary, he was allowed to spend a lot for his staff, which includes just one holdover (D-line coach Keith Gilmore, who earns $200,000). It's why Illinois ranks third in the league in assistant coach pay.
  • Wisconsin's staff turnover after the Rose Bowl resulted in lower overall compensation, which isn't a huge shock because of Chryst's departure. It's a bit surprising that Badgers coordinators Chris Ash (holdover from staff) and Matt Canada (new addition) are near the bottom of the league in coordinator pay. Wisconsin did spent a good amount for new offensive line coach Mike Markuson ($255,000).
  • Some Nebraska fans I've heard from complain that Bo Pelini's staff lacks prestige, given the program's tradition and resources. The Huskers have a mostly young staff that ranks in the middle of the league in compensation. Pelini lured new secondary coach Terry Joseph for $230,000, while new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski made the move from Iowa and will earn $195,000. Kaczenski is a bargain in my view.
  • Anyone else find it odd that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, promoted during the winter from secondary coach, makes $1,000 more than new offensive coordinator Greg Davis? While it's nice for Iowa to reward Parker's loyalty as a position coach, the $1,000 difference seems a little trivial, especially since Davis has been a coordinator for decades.
  • Purdue pays less for assistant coaches than the nine other Big Ten schools reporting information here. Penn State obviously doesn't rank at the bottom in paying assistants, and I've been told Northwestern doesn't, either. Factoring in head coach Danny Hope's salary, and Purdue's overall coach compensation is significantly lower than others, including its arch-rival Indiana. Boilers fans, how do you feel about this?
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. First, they'll discuss the teams in the Leaders Division. A Legends Division email exchange will arrive in the near future.

Brian Bennett: Adam, I guess the biggest story in the Big Ten this spring was the culture change at both Penn State and Ohio State. You went to both places. What was your sense of how different things are there now, compared to your previous visits to State College and Columbus?

Adam Rittenberg: There's definitely a new energy in both football complexes, Brian. Change can be tough on fans, especially at a place like Penn State where they've only known their program under Joe Paterno's watch, but the players seem to be excited about the new ways things are operating. At Penn State, they're excited to play for a coach (Bill O'Brien) who comes straight from the NFL and has made some much-needed modernizations to certain areas of the program (strength program, offensive philosophy). The enthusiasm about strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald and his philosophy really stood out to me at Penn State. I was also impressed by some of the younger players like freshman tight end Jesse James and redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWisconsin is one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten, thanks in part to running back Montee Ball returning for another season.
The changes aren't as dramatic at Ohio State because Urban Meyer retained so many assistants from the previous staff. On the other hand, the thought of Ohio State running a true no-huddle, spread offense amazes players as much as it does the rest of us after so many years of TresselBall. One welcome change with both programs is greater accessibility for the media (and, through us, the fans). I had to pinch myself a few times while watching a Penn State practice.

You made your first visit to Madison, where, judging by the pictures you posted on Twitter, you likely gained 15 pounds and lost that Kentucky twang. What stood out about your time in Mad-city?

Brian Bennett: I'm just now shedding the last of those cheese curds from my system. Change was not really a buzzword with the Badgers, even with a slew of new assistant coaches and some turnover at key positions. This program has a system it believes in and will continue to do the same things year in, year out with new faces.

Wisconsin is still all about running the ball, and Montee Ball looked terrific during the practice he participated in while I was there. If possible, he's even a step faster, and backup Melvin Gordon is going to be a star someday as well. The quarterbacks and receivers weren't nearly as impressive or consistent, but Danny O'Brien wasn't there and Jared Abbrederis was out with his foot injury. I am intrigued by the size of some of the Badgers wideouts, like Marquis Mason (6-foot-4) and Chase Hammond (6-5). The Badgers could be effective throwing some jump balls to those guys, and with their tight ends and offensive line, their offense is going to be just fine.

There are more questions on the defense, but I liked what I saw from the defensive tackles and the secondary, which looks a little more athletic. We know the linebackers will be good with Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. If David Gilbert or someone else can come back and give them a pass rusher from the defensive end spot, this team should be loaded for a run at repeating in the Leaders Division.

I see Illinois as a bit of a mystery team in the division, with a new coach and a new system. How much progress did the Illini make in learning the spread under Tim Beckman, and do they have enough offensive playmakers to run it?

Adam Rittenberg: I don't think they do, although running back Josh Ferguson's performance in the spring game raises hope. Illinois also has some versatile players in cornerback Terry Hawthorne and quarterback Miles Osei who can fill in at receiver and/or running back if need be. But Beckman has been candid about the lack of depth at running back, and we both saw how that offense fared after opposing teams limited A.J. Jenkins' effectiveness. I do think quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase could end up being a good fit for the spread. He obviously has the mobility you need at that position, and while his arm strength is a question mark, he should be able to spread the ball around if enough weapons emerge. I think it's critical for receiver Darius Millines to stay healthy. He really had stood out in practices, but he just can't stay on the field.

I liked what co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said about the offense needing to regain its swagger. It's still hard to pinpoint exactly what happened to the unit last year, but I know when a spread offense establishes a nice tempo, it's awfully hard to stop. But here's the thing with Illinois: it might only need to score 20-24 points a game. The defense should be really, really good, and potentially better than last year's crew. The coaches are really excited about Michael Buchanan at end, and the front seven could be the best in the Big Ten.

You also spent some time in the Hoosier State this spring. Purdue coach Danny Hope feels this is his best team. Things couldn't get much worse for Kevin Wilson at Indiana after a 1-11 clunker in 2011. What sense did you get from being in West Lafayette and Bloomington?

Brian Bennett: I sensed quite a bit of confidence coming out of Purdue's camp. That will happen when you have 18 starters back, three healthy quarterbacks and are coming off a bowl win (granted, only against Western Michigan, but it beats the alternative).

The Boilermakers didn't let reporters watch any meaningful parts of spring practice because they're installing Tim Tibesar's new defensive system, so I didn't learn as much about them as I'd like. Still, it's clear this team has experience and some major talent with guys like Kawann Short and Ricardo Allen on defense. I think Purdue is very much a sleeper in the division, though we're going to need to see this team cut down some of its mental mistakes and play with far greater consistency than it has in the Danny Hope era.

The best thing I saw from Indiana was competency on defense. Wilson played so many freshmen last year, and the benefit is that those guys are now a year older and know the system. They were able to execute it much better this spring, and the juco kids will help a lot. The Hoosiers have some nice players on offense, like young quarterback Tre Roberson, running backs Stephen Houston and Isaiah Roundtree and tight end Ted Bolser, and I think Seth Littrell's system will play well to their strengths. Yet you look at the roster and compare it to the upper echelon of the Big Ten, and it's clear that Indiana has a long way to go to catch up and be any sort of factor in the league race.

I came away from the spring still thinking Wisconsin will win this division, but I also believe it will be a tight race and that Penn State could very well take it. Ohio State might end up being the best team in the Leaders but can't play for the league title. Did your spring visits make you feel any differently about the division?

Adam Rittenberg: I agree that Wisconsin remains the team to beat, but I came away thinking the division could have greater depth. The Legends still looks stronger with Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska up top, and every Leaders Division team has some flaws. But Wisconsin knows how to win, returns a nice core and added a key piece in O'Brien. Ohio State will be a better defensive football team -- end John Simon is poised for an enormous senior season, and hopes are high for tackle Johnathan Hankins, too -- and while there will be some growing pains on offense, it's not as if the Buckeyes set an impressive benchmark in 2011. They were mostly awful.

Penn State and Illinois are very similar teams to me. Both have new coaches whose hiring elicited some skepticism. Both look extremely strong in the defensive front seven. Both retained excellent D-line coaches from the previous staff (Larry Johnson, Keith Gilmore). Both have standout linebackers (Gerald Hodges, Jonathan Brown) and stout defensive tackles (Jordan Hill, Akeem Spence). And both have major question marks on offense: Penn State more so at quarterback, Illinois more so at running back/receiver. Still, if the defenses perform to their capability, Penn State and/or Illinois could really make some noise in a wide-open division.

Illinois spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
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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.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- As Illinois' starting center for the past few seasons, Graham Pocic has mashed limbs with some of the nation's best defensive tackles.

Penn State's Devon Still, Purdue's Kawann Short, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Michigan's Mike Martin are among those who have lined up across from Pocic. But Pocic's toughest opponent is a man he never faces on Saturdays.

[+] EnlargeAkeem Spence
Michael Heinz/US PresswireAkeem Spence is following in the footsteps of several Illini turned NFL defensive linemen before him.
"I get to go against the best D-tackle in the conference every day [in practice]," Pocic said. "It's awesome."

Pocic is biased, but don't be surprised if his teammate, Akeem Spence, earns the same label from the NFL talent evaluators a year from now. Spence has been on the NFL radar for the past two seasons, earning a starting job as a redshirt freshman and starting all 26 games he has played at Illinois.

The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Spence built on his freshman-year numbers (45 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) by finishing fourth on the squad in tackles (69) last fall. He had 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for an Illinois defense that finished seventh nationally in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed.

"His explosiveness off the ball, his strength, he's pretty athletic for his size," Pocic said. "He's just a powerful dude. If you're not ready when you go against him, he's going to get under you and make some plays in the backfield."

The Illini have had defensive linemen selected in the first round of the past two NFL drafts: tackle Corey Liuget in 2011 (No. 18 overall pick) and end Whitney Mercilus last week (No. 26 overall pick). Spence is already being mentioned as a top candidate to enter the NFL draft after his junior season this fall.

Asked last month how motivated he is to be Illinois' next elite next-level prospect, Spence's face lit up.

"I'm real motivated," he said. "I'm just working real hard, doing everything that they did, do everything right. When it's time to step up, I want to be that guy making a big sack, making a big tackle for loss, making a big turnover. That's what I'm working toward."

Spence remains in touch with Liuget, who he started alongside in 2010. Although they've had similar career arcs at the same position -- Spence actually has played more than Liuget did in his first two years -- they're different players.

"He's a lot taller than I am," Spence said.

Only two inches to be exact, but it makes a difference in the trenches.

"Corey was a little more agile and faster," Pocic said, "but Corey doesn't have the strength that Akeem has. Corey's probably a little more explosive, but Akeem's just so strong and physical inside. It's tough to deal with."

Like several other veteran defenders, Spence had concerns about the unit's direction after head coach Ron Zook's firing coordinator Vic Koenning's departure for North Carolina. He was relieved to learn the new scheme under coordinator Tim Banks closely resembles its predecessor. Illinois also retained defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the lone holdover from the previous staff.

Spence will play mostly the 3-technique and 1-technique in Banks' scheme with some spot work out wide at the 5-technique.

"You're creating a culture of great defensive line play," Banks said. "Those kids want to uphold that standard. You talk about those guys [Liuget and Mercilus], they were just here. It's not like 10 years ago. Our guys know who they are. They say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' There's been greatness in that room."

Spence wants to continue that legacy before he walks out the door.

Big Ten NFL draft roundup

April, 30, 2012
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After a historically slow start to the 2012 NFL draft, the Big Ten ended up having 41 players selected during the three-day event. It's a strong overall total, one behind the SEC, the league with the most picks (42). Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin led the way with six picks each, followed by four teams -- Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State -- with four selections. Michigan had three players selected, and both Purdue and Northwestern had two. Neither Minnesota nor Indiana had a player drafted this year.

Here's the full rundown:

ROUND 1 (four selections)


No. 23 overall: Iowa T Riley Reiff, Detroit
No. 26: Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus, Houston
No. 27: Wisconsin G Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals
No. 30: Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins, San Francisco

ROUND 2 (seven selections)


No. 44: Illinois G Jeff Allen, Kansas City
No. 48: Illinois S Tavon Wilson, New England
No. 51: Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy, Green Bay
No. 53: Penn State DT Devon Still, Cincinnati
No. 55: Wisconsin C Peter Konz, Atlanta
No. 56: Ohio State OT Mike Adams, Pittsburgh
No. 58: Nebraska LB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay

ROUND 3 (three selections)


No. 68: Ohio State WR DeVier Posey, Houston
No. 75: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson, Seattle
No. 82: Michigan DT Mike Martin, Tennessee

ROUND 4 (five selections)


No. 102: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Washington
No. 121: Michigan State WR Keshawn Martin, Houston
No. 122: Wisconsin WR Nick Toon, New Orleans
No. 126: Nebraska DT Jared Crick, Houston
No. 132: Iowa DE Mike Daniels, Green Bay

ROUND 5 (six selections)


No. 141: Iowa G Adam Gettis, Washington
No. 149: Penn State G Johnnie Troutman, San Diego
No. 153: Purdue T Dennis Kelly, Philadelphia
No. 156: Iowa CB Shaun Prater, Cincinnati
No. 157: Wisconsin FB Bradie Ewing, Atlanta
No. 158: Penn State DE Jack Crawford, Oakland

ROUND 6 (seven selections)


No. 180: Michigan State S Trenton Robinson, San Francisco 49ers
No. 183: Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham, Miami Dolphins
No. 191: Ohio State RB Dan Herron, Cincinnati Bengals
No. 194: Iowa WR Marvin McNutt, Philadelphia Eagles
No. 195: Purdue T Nick Mondek, Houston Texans
No. 197: Ohio State S Nate Ebner, New England Patriots
No. 207: Wisconsin P Brad Nortman, Carolina Panthers

ROUND 7 (nine selections)


No. 217: Iowa CB Jordan Bernstine, Washington
No. 224: Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard, New England
No. 227: Michigan C David Molk, San Diego
No. 230: Penn State LB Nate Stupar, Oakland
No. 233: Northwestern TE Drake Dunsmore, Tampa Bay
No. 234: Nebraska T Marcel Jones, New Orleans
No. 235: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, New England
No. 238: Michigan WR Junior Hemingway, Kansas City
No. 250: Michigan State RB Edwin Baker, San Diego

POSITION BREAKDOWN

Wide receiver: 8
Offensive tackle: 5
Defensive tackle: 4
Guard: 4
Cornerback: 3
Defensive end: 3
Safety: 3
Center: 2
Quarterback: 2
Running back: 2
Linebacker: 2
Fullback: 1
Tight end: 1
Punter: 1

We'll post some of the free-agent signings later today, but first some thoughts and themes on the draft.
    [+] EnlargeMichigan State's Kirk Cousins
    AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWith Robert Griffin III on the roster, one has to wonder about Kirk Cousins' future in Washington.

  • Many had projected Cousins to be the first Big Ten quarterback off of the board, but Russell Wilson went ahead of him to Seattle. Cousins was one of the more intriguing third-day picks as he went to Washington, which selected Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall selection. Griffin is the future of the Redskins franchise, and it leaves Cousins in a potentially tough spot on the depth chart. The selection surprised Cousins, who didn't know the Redskins were interested and told the Detroit Free Press, "I think Robert is in their immediate plans and the long-term hope for their fan base, but they wouldn't have selected me unless they believed in me."
  • The verdict on Ron Zook always seemed to be great recruiter, average coach, and this draft validated it. Illinois was the only Big Ten team with two first-round picks and had four of the first 48 overall selections, yet the team went 7-6 last season after a 6-0 start. Talent clearly wasn't the problem during Zook's tenure in Champaign. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore is on a roll with back-to-back first-round picks (Corey Liuget and Mercilus). He has two more potentially big-time prospects (Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan) this year.
  • The Houston Texans clearly like what they see from Big Ten country. After drafting Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt with the No. 11 overall pick last year, the Texans added Mercilus, Posey, Keshawn Martin, Crick and Mondek. Watt welcomed the group on Twitter, tweeting, "Big Ten takeover. Welcome to the Texans." The Cincinnati Bengals also had a nice Big Ten haul with Zeitler, Still, Prater and Herron.
  • Posey, who last week told me he had no idea where he'd be drafted, had to be pleased with a third-round selection after appearing in only three games last fall because of suspension. Teams didn't shy away from the Ohio State star too much because of his off-field issues. Posey's Buckeyes teammate, Mike Adams, meanwhile, appeared to pay a bit of a price for his off-field issues, falling to the late second round.
  • On the flip side, Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the Big Ten's defensive back of the year in 2011, slipped all the way to the seventh round. Keep in mind some draft gurus, including ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., once projected Dennard in the first round. But after being ejected from the Capital One Bowl, failing to impress in predraft events and getting arrested the weekend before the draft for allegedly punching a cop, Dennard plummeted to No. 224. At least he'll have no trouble getting motivated to prove himself.
  • Dennard wasn't the only Big Ten player selected later than expected. Michigan's David Molk, who called himself the best center in the draft, also fell to the seventh round. And Ohio State center Mike Brewster, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010, didn't hear his name called at all. While Brewster's play slipped during his senior season, he seemed like a mid-round candidate.
  • Other players I expected to be picked earlier: Mercilus, David, Adams, Mike Martin, Cousins, Daniels, McNutt, Hemingway and Baker.
  • Some players I expected to be picked later: Jenkins, Allen, Russell Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Posey.
  • Although the Big Ten had more wide receivers drafted than any other position, only one (Jenkins) went in the first two rounds and only two, Jenkins and Posey, went in the first three rounds. With only two quarterbacks and two running backs drafted, none in the first two rounds, it's fair to question whether the Big Ten is producing enough elite-level offensive skill players. It will be interesting to see which Big Ten running backs can rise up the draft boards in 2013. Running back might be the league's strongest position group this coming season.
  • I'll be very interested to watch how Worthy and Still fare at the next level. Both men have first-round talent, but both seemed to slip to the second round because of questions about their motor. If they don't take plays off in the NFL, they both could be extremely disruptive for the Packers and Bengals, respectively.
  • Wisconsin had players selected in each of the first six rounds and had the Big Ten's lone fullback (Ewing) and punter (Nortman) selected in the draft.
  • Ohio State's Ebner was one of the more interesting third-day picks. He didn't play football at all in high school -- he starred in rugby -- and spent most of his Buckeyes career on special teams. His selection shows the premium some teams place on the third phase.
Tim Beckman's first pivotal recruiting venture at Illinois didn't take place in a living room or at a camp for prep players.

It happened at a California hotel in late December. His targets already wore the Orange and Blue. The group gathered before the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl to meet with a man who, at that point, was their head coach only by title.

"They didn't know me, and I didn't know them very well," said Beckman, hired Dec. 9 as Illinois' coach. "I had met with them because I met with everybody on the football team. I had watched practices. But it wasn’t my job to interfere with them for their bowl game.

"It was kind of a scary situation because I wanted all of them to stay."

[+] EnlargeMichael Buchanan
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIllinois will look to senior Michael Buchanan to be a leader on defense.
They were Illinois juniors who had the potential to enter the NFL draft after the bowl game. The group included defensive end Michael Buchanan, cornerback Terry Hawthorne, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and center Graham Pocic. Buchanan earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011, while Hawthorne earned honorable mention honors and Spence displayed next-level ability.

All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus, pegged as a potential first-round pick, also met with Beckman.

The meeting was part information session, part recruiting session. Beckman wanted to give each player an idea of his draft prospects. He fast-tracked the paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board and received the evaluations as soon as he could. Beckman leaned on his father, Dave, who had worked in the front office with the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers, and other contacts to speed up the process.

"I tried to formulate as much information as I possibly could so they could make an educated decision, from Whitney to all of them," Beckman said. "I wanted all of them to stay. I wanted all of them to be able to say they played their senior year at the University of Illinois and had the opportunity to be a champion."

Despite that desire, Beckman didn't come on too strong.

"Not as much as you'd expect a coach to," Pocic said. "He showed us what kind of person he was and just talked about the opportunity we had if we came back."

Mercilus entered the draft after the bowl game, surprising no one, but the other four players opted to stay. They're now building blocks for Illinois as Beckman and his staff hope to make a transition without losing any ground.

What did Illinois retain?

  • Spence has started every game the past two seasons, while Buchanan has started 20 of 26 contests. Although Mercilus made the big splash in 2011 with insane numbers, Buchanan quietly racked up 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Spence recorded 69 tackles and a forced fumble and clogged the interior for the nation's No. 7 defense.
  • Hawthorne has made starts in each of the past three seasons, including 11 last fall. He led the team in both interceptions (three) and passes defended (11) in 2011, and finished sixth in tackles (60). On a team that has some issues at safety, Hawthorne's presence as a potential shutdown corner looms large.
  • Pocic has started Illinois' past 24 games at center and provides leadership for a youngish line that loses mainstay Jeff Allen at left tackle. Having a veteran center to help make line calls during the transition to a new offense is a luxury for the Illini.

After Beckman told the players of their NFL grades, he gave them the floor.

"It was funny," Spence said of the December meeting with Beckman. "Me, Terry, Mike and Graham, we were sitting there scared to ask the first question. But we had to because this is our future. I was trying to find out what the deal was going to be, what type of defense, his plans for us and the team."

Spence eventually asked Beckman if the team's defense would suit his game like the previous scheme had. Although Beckman hadn't hired his defensive coordinator, he had announced that defensive line coach Keith Gilmore would be retained.

After the meeting, Spence remembers talking with Buchanan and Hawthorne about their decisions.

"We all wanted to come back and be leaders," Buchanan said.

Beckman doesn't downplay the significance of their decisions.

"It's huge," he said. "To look out there and see No. 1 [Hawthorne] running around, and 99 [Buchanan] and 94 [Spence] and 76 [Pocic], those are guys who have played, who have been involved in two bowl games and understands a little bit of what it takes to be successful."

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
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After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...

ILLINOIS

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
The Big Ten had three head-coaching changes in recent weeks, and new leading men have stepped in at Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State. We will be sharing our thoughts on the three new coaching staffs as they become complete. First up is Illinois, as head coach Tim Beckman finalized his staff earlier this week with the hiring of Tim Banks as defensive coordinator.

Here's the new Illinois staff:

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezNew Illinois coach Tim Beckman has high expectations for his team as it begins spring practices.
Tim Beckman -- head coach
Tim Banks -- defensive coordinator/safeties
Billy Gonzales -- co-offensive coordinator/receivers
Chris Beatty -- co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Luke Butkus -- offensive line
Steve Clinkscale -- cornerbacks
Keith Gilmore -- defensive line
Alex Golesh -- tight ends/specialists/recruiting coordinator
Tim Salem -- running backs/special teams coordinator
Mike Ward -- linebackers

So Today's Take Two topic is: How did Beckman fare in putting together his staff at Illinois?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

There were a few bumps along the way, namely Jon Tenuta's hiring as defensive coordinator and subsequent change of heart, but Beckman eventually got his staff in place. The youth of the staff certainly stands out, as six of the nine assistants are 40 years old or younger. This certainly could help Illinois on the recruiting trail, and by all accounts Beckman has added some strong recruiters to the mix. He made a good move in retaining Gilmore, who helped defensive linemen Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus become stars the past two seasons. Banks also comes in with a strong background, especially after helping the Cincinnati defense lead the nation in tackles for loss and rank second in sacks during the 2011 season. Although Mercilus departs, Banks inherits talented defenders like linebacker Jonathan Brown who can pressure the quarterback. This isn't the most experienced offensive staff, and it will be interesting to see how Gonzales and Beatty fare as co-coordinators. Illinois' offense fell apart late in the 2011 season, and the coaches need to get quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and others back on track. Butkus is a former Illinois player with a famous name, but he'll be taking on a key position group by himself for the first time in his career. Salem is certainly the veteran on the offensive side, and he looks like a strong addition to help the running backs and also Illinois' special teams, which really struggled in 2011. I felt defensive coordinator would be Beckman's most important hire after Illinois lost Vic Koenning to North Carolina. Banks looks like be a strong addition. I'm really interested to see if the offensive staff can prove itself in Year 1.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

Youth is definitely the buzzword on this staff. Banks and Beatty are in their late 30s, Gonzales is 40, Butkus is 32 and Golesh graduated from Ohio State less than six years ago. They should be able to relate to the Illinois players and fare well on the recruiting trail. They should also bring a lot of energy, something that will be needed to keep up with the naturally caffeinated Beckman. While many of the assistants are young, they have some intriguing résumés. Gonzales worked for Urban Meyer at Florida and was part of two national title teams and nearly won another one this year at LSU. I know Beatty from my old beat on the Big East, and West Virginia people thought he was a promising up-and-coming young coach. Neither has called plays at the FBS level and will be asked to run Beckman's spread offense; even though Beckman has a defensive background, I'd expect him to be highly involved in the offense. Banks was a nice hire after turning around Cincinnati's defense in 2011. A lot of these assistants will have to prove themselves in some ways, whether it's in a new role or against tougher competition. Few seem to have strong connections or history in recruiting the state of Illinois, which will be a key for the program's long-term success. Beckman might not have brought in a lot of high-profile names, but a young, hungry staff might be just the thing to help him move the Illini forward.
In a move that was widely expected, Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus announced Tuesday that he'll skip his senior year and enter the 2012 NFL draft.

Mercilus came from way under the radar to post an outstanding year. He led the nation with 16 sacks, tying Simeon Rice’s single-season school record, and forced a Big Ten record nine fumbles, second-most in NCAA history. His 22.5 tackles for loss also led the Big Ten. Mercilus won the Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end and was a consensus first-team All-American.

He capped his season with a solid performance in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win against UCLA, recording 1.5 sacks. Mercilus's high motor and instincts for the ball turned him into a star.

Mercilus issued this statement:
“First, I want to congratulate my teammates and coaches for a great win against UCLA in the Fight Hunger Bowl — it was a great feeling to get back to winning, especially with a defensive performance like we had. With that said, after a lot of prayer and discussion with my family, I have decided the time is right for me to forgo my senior year and enter the 2012 NFL draft.

I want to thank coach [Ron] Zook, coach [Vic] Koenning, coach [Keith] Gilmore and the entire Illini staff for helping me get to this point. To the entire Illinois community — students, professors, athletic department and fans — thank you for all of your support during my time here in Champaign; these have been some of the best times of my life and I will never forget all that this university means to me. Finally, thank you to my teammates — without you guys, I would not be in the position to make this decision. I have faith that Illinois will rise to the top and I will be there to support you.”

Mercilus is the seventh Illini player in the last five years to enter the draft early. The previous six all were taken in the first three rounds, including three first-rounders. The latest was defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who was selected by the San Diego Chargers in 2011.

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore had this statement:
“I’m very proud of Whitney for the amount of work he put in to be in this position. He really matured during the season and became a terrific leader not only for the defensive line, but for the entire defense. Whitney had an incredibly productive season and is a great role model for our other players in doing things the right way and putting in the extra effort. The entire Fighting Illini family wishes him nothing but the best as he moves on to the NFL.”

Even though he had only one standout college season, Mercilus' stock was never going to be higher. Leaving for the NFL is the right move, especially as the Illini go through a coaching transition that will include a new defensive coordinator. New head coach Tim Beckman will not only have to right an offense that struggled over the final seven games, he'll have to try and keep the defense at a high level with new assistants. And without the team's biggest defensive star.

Illini assistants make right decision

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
11:45
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I have a contract with ESPN.com. It has a start date and an end date. It has a predetermined salary structure. It includes job expectations, company policies and, like any contract, a lot of legalese. But the important things are spelled out clearly.

Before agreeing to the terms, ESPN’s legal department sends me the contract to review. I read it over. Usually several times. And then I sign it and send it in.

It's all right there in print -- no gray area.

[+] EnlargeJeff Brohm
Michael Heinz/US PresswireJeff Brohm is among the Illinois assistant coaches who will fulfill their duties during Friday's bowl despite a contract dispute.
Four Illinois assistant coaches are steamed because they put pen to paper before fully studying what was written on the paper. They thought they had two-year rollover contracts and were surprised to learn recently that their deals had been reworked in the summer of 2010 and as a result, they no longer would be paid after Feb. 28. Illinois fired head coach Ron Zook on Nov. 27, and only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) is remaining on staff with new boss Tim Beckman.

The assistants were irate and lashed out. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert called the situation "very unprofessional." They even threatened to boycott Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA, adding even more controversy to a game filled with it.

But the Bizzaro Bowl Boycott won't be taking place.

Zook told ESPN colleague Gene Wojciechowski on Friday night that his former aides will show up Saturday at AT&T Park.
"They're going to coach," said Zook, when contacted by ESPN.com Friday evening. "They're [the assistants] frustrated. But they're going to coach. They know it's about the kids. But they were trying to make a point. They've got careers, family, all of those things. They're class guys. And it's important that everyone knows they're really good people."

More from the story:
The dispute centers around a contract promise that Zook said was made to several of his assistant coaches by him and former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther. According to Zook, the assistants -- Jeff Brohm, Ron West and Chip Long -- were told they would receive two-year deals which would run through the 2012 regular season. Assistant Joe Gilbert has told SI.com that he also was promised a multiyear contract.
"Somewhere -- I'm not sure how -- a couple of the contracts got changed," said Zook. "I truly believed they had two-year contracts. ... I'm not exactly sure how things got changed. I feel awful about it. They're great people and they did a great job. I don't know where it went wrong. I was under the understanding that they had two-year contracts."

I feel for the Illinois assistants. It's a bad deal for them, but it's because they signed bad deals. As athletic director Mike Thomas told SI.com, "We have a contract that's pretty clear, and we intend to honor that contract. We assume they'll honor it as well."

Boycotting would have been worse for the coaches and for the Illini players than it would have for the administration. If you want to stick it to your bosses, boycotting the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl probably isn't the best move. If you want to stick it to your players, boycotting is the way to go.

Plus, these assistants are looking for jobs. They have good credentials. But no employer wants to see "quitter" on a résumé.

Who knows what to expect Saturday afternoon in San Francisco? But at least the Illini assistants with be with the players they've coached all season.
Vic Koenning has made his decision, and it's not the one Illinois fans had hoped to hear.

Koenning won't remain Illinois' defensive coordinator on the staff of new head coach Tim Beckman, who offered him the job earlier this week. Koenning instead will take a position at another school, reportedly at North Carolina. He still will serve as Illinois' head coach in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31 against UCLA.
"I was very honored to be considered by coach Beckman to remain at Illinois," Koenning said in a prepared statement. "After a great deal of prayer and discussion with my family, I feel it is best to explore other opportunities. Coach Beckman could not have been better during the process. I know the reason we had success the past two years was the players and coaches who all shared common goals and work ethic. It will be a positive for the returning players to have a new beginning with coach Beckman and his new staff. The support of the Illini Nation has been tremendous and hopefully they will continue to support this team in San Francisco and in the future."

Koenning has done an excellent job at Illinois since arriving after the 2009 season. He has coached two star defensive linemen in Corey Liuget, a first-round pick in April's NFL draft, and Whitney Mercilus, an All-American this season. Other players like Martez Wilson and Jonathan Brown also have developed under his watch.

Illinois ranks in the top 10 nationally in total defense, pass defense, sacks and tackles for loss this season. Although the team dropped its final six games, the Illini defense held up its end of the bargain. Koenning has ties to the ACC as he served as Clemson's defensive coordinator from 2005-08, so the North Carolina job seems to make sense.

Credit Beckman for trying to keep Koenning, who spoke Tuesday about the strong support he has received from Illinois players and fans. He also noted the importance of retaining his defensive staff with the Illini, which could have been a tougher sell for Beckman. New coaches want to have a say over their staff and often don't retain more than 1-2 of the previous coaches.

Then again, Beckman announced that defensive line coach Keith Gilmore will remain on staff in the same role.
"The defensive line was the strongest area of the team and coach Gilmore did a great job," Beckman said in a statement. "Whitney Mercilus' improvement this season under Keith was obvious, as he has been named an All-American by just about everyone. He also played a big part in Corey Liuget’s development into a first-round draft pick last year. He is a strong recruiter and will be a great asset for the program."

It will be interesting to see where Beckman turns for his defensive coordinator. His top offensive coordinator target, Toledo's Matt Campbell, is replacing Beckman as Rockets head coach.

Although Beckman's background is on the defensive side, his defenses at both Oklahoma State and Toledo weren't elite. Koenning's replacement will be crucial as Illinois returns some talented players on the defensive side.

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