Big Ten: Kurt Mattes

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern's post-spring depth chart is out, and there aren't too many revelations.

Senior Mike Kafka remains the top quarterback and junior Stephen Simmons the top running back. Sophomore Jeravin Matthews and redshirt freshman Alex Daniel are competing for the No. 2 running back spot, though I could see either player claiming the top job at some point.

The only significant change is senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen moving into a starting job at inside receiver ahead of Charles Brown. Northwestern boasts good depth at superback (tight end/fullback), with Josh Rooks still the starter ahead of both Drake Dunsmore and Brendan Mitchell.

Position battles to watch include right tackle (Kurt Mattes or Desmond Taylor) and defensive tackle (Adam Hahn or Marshall Thomas or Jack DiNardo). The starting linebacker corps appears set, though Northwestern might want to take a look at Matthews as a kickoff return man alongside Simmons and Sherrick McManis.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- The sun was shining, AC/DC had been cranked up and Northwestern players gathered for the always entertaining "board drill" just as I rolled up to the practice field.

What perfect timing.

For those who don't know, the board drill is the ultimate display of testosterone. It calls for a series of offensive and defensive players to line up across from each other, separated by a board. The object is pretty simple: push the other guy back.

Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who absolutely loves this drill, determined the winners. Not surprisingly, the defense seemed to have the edge in Thursday's session. As "Thunderstuck" played in the background, cornerbacks Jordan Mabin and Mike Bolden, and defensive tackle Niko Mafuli won their board-drill matchups.

Other thoughts from Northwestern's hyped-up workout:

  • Running back is the team's biggest question after the loss of four-year starter Tyrell Sutton, and junior Stephen Simmons took most of the reps with the first team. Simmons performed well during team drills, showcasing his skills as both a runner and a receiver, much like Sutton did. He caught several screen passes and had a 15-yard touchdown run during the red zone work.
  • Redshirt freshman Alex Daniel is a bit banged up, so sophomore Jeravin Matthews got a lot of work at running back with the second-team offense. Matthews, one of only two true freshmen to see the field last fall, moves over from wide receiver and brings top-end speed to the backfield.
  • Projected starting quarterback Mike Kafka looked good to me, firing several passes to senior Andrew Brewer, the starting slot receiver who might finally be ready to be a No. 1 target. I heard after the workout that Kafka wasn't thrilled with his performance, but I didn't see too many mistakes. He hit Brewer on a deep out route early in team drills and had a touchdown run late in the workout.
  • Quarterback Dan Persa got a lot of work and looked very strong both on throws and as a runner. Persa made a nice throw to Zeke Markshausen on a post route and hit superback Brendan Mitchell for a touchdown during the red zone portion.
  • It's no secret that the defense will be the strength of this team once again this fall. Though All-American candidate Corey Wootton watched from the sideline -- he's recovering from ACL surgery -- several players stood out. Senior safety Brendan Smith recovered a fumble against the second-team offense, and cornerbacks Mabin and Sherrick McManis both broke up passes.
  • Northwestern will be deep in the secondary, and Brian Peters, who was very active Thursday, provides a third option at safety behind Smith and Brad Phillips. Ben Johnson also has generated some buzz at linebacker, as well as Jack DiNardo at defensive tackle.
  • Athletic director Jim Phillips stopped by to chat about a variety of topics. He plans to meet Chicago Cubs chairman Crane Kenney and several architects in the next few weeks at Wrigley Field to determine whether the field is large enough to accommodate a college football game. If so, Phillips said Northwestern definitely will play a late-season game at the Friendly Confines, most likely in 2010 or 2011. He wants to have enough time to promote the game and ensure all the logistics are in place at a stadium that hasn't held a football game since 1970.
  • Phillips also said a new contract/extension for Fitzgerald is "No. 1 on my to-do list." Conversations are under way and going well, so expect something to be finalized before preseason camp in August.
  • Defensive tackle Adam Hahn hobbled onto the field on crutches with a large cast over his right foot. Hahn broke a bone in his foot the first week of spring ball and had surgery. D-line coach Marty Long doesn't expect him to be out long. Defensive tackle Corbin Bryant and Wootton both are making progress following knee injury, with Bryant already starting to jog a bit.
  • The first-team offense: Mike Kafka at quarterback, Stephen Simmons at running back, Andrew Brewer at wide receiver, Sidney Stewart at wide receiver, Charles Brown at wide receiver, Kevin Frymire at wide receiver, Al Netter at left tackle, Doug Bartels at left guard, Ben Burkett at center, Keegan Grant at right guard and Kurt Mattes at right tackle. Desmond Taylor, a candidate to start at right tackle, is out for the spring with an injury. When Northwestern used superbacks, Brendan Mitchell and Josh Rooks got most of the work.
  • The first-team defense (keep in mind several starters are injured): Vince Browne at defensive end, Kevin Watt at defensive end, Jack DiNardo at defensive tackle, Marshall Thomas at defensive tackle, Ben Johnson at linebacker, Nate Williams at linebacker, Chris Jeske at linebacker, Sherrick McManis at cornerback, Jordan Mabin at cornerback, Brendan Smith at safety, Brian Peters at safety.
  • Jeske's work with the first-team defense is notable. He came to Northwestern as a blue-chip recruit but endured recurring back problems that have kept him on the field. Linebacker is the one thin position on the defense, so Jeske could provide a major boost.
  • After a play finished a little too close to where we were standing on the sideline, Fitzgerald ordered all spectators to the bleachers overlooking the practice field. The coach then came over and singled me out, joking that he didn't want to pay ESPN's insurance bill if I went down. Thanks, Fitz.

Big Ten internal affairs: Week 7

October, 8, 2008
10/08/08
8:37
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time for our weekly look inside five Big Ten teams.

Illinois -- Judging solely by his size -- 6-foot-5, 250 pounds -- Jeff Cumberland should be a tight end. But after seeing the junior struggle with blocking and other trench duties in 2007, Illinois coach Ron Zook moved Cumberland to wide receiver. The switch worked last week as Cumberland, who missed time earlier this season with a foot stress fracture, had a 77-yard touchdown on his first reception of the fall. "He just wasn't doing the job down in the briar patch like we wanted him to do in terms of blocking and so forth," Zook said. "He's a very athletic guy that we knew we needed to get on the field so we talked to him about moving to the outside."

Iowa -- Redshirt freshman quarterback Marvin McNutt is auditioning at wide receiver, a spot where his athleticism could be better utilized this year. McNutt wasn't a major factor in the quarterback competition ultimately won byRicky Stanzi , but he continues to take some snaps should an emergency arise. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said the 6-foot-4, 210-pound McNutt welcomed the change but has taken time to adjust. "His legs are trying to catch up a little bit," Ferentz said. "He's been through two years of inactivity as a quarterback, so he's got sore feet, sore knees, sore everything else right now."

Michigan State -- The Spartans likely will be without starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker against Northwestern, but their secondary gets a big boost with the return of cornerback/safety Kendell Davis-Clark. Boasting 15 career starts, Davis-Clark has been out of action since sustaining a shoulder injury in the season opener at Cal. A major key Saturday will be the health of safety Otis Wiley, the Spartans' defensive catalyst who left last week's game against Iowa with a lower leg injury. Wiley leads the Big Ten in both interceptions (4) and passes defended (11) and ranks second in punt return average (11.9).

Northwestern -- The bye week gave the Wildcats a chance to get healthy, particularly on the offensive line. Right tackle Kurt Mattes will return from a knee injury, and guard Keegan Grant also could return from an ankle injury. Both players were projected starters heading into the season, and offensive line coach Bret Ingalls will have some playing-time decisions to make for Saturday's game against Michigan State (ESPN2, 3:30 p.m. ET). Junior Desmond Taylor has played well at both right tackle and right guard, and Northwestern is tied for fifth nationally in fewest sacks allowed (two in five games). Then again, the Wildcats aren't running the ball like they'd like to and could benefit from a greater rotation of linemen.

Penn State -- Head coach Joe Paterno hoped to play speedy junior A.J. Wallace at both cornerback and as a reserve wide receiver before the season, but a hamstring injury before the opener changed the script. For Wallace, the setback might have been a blessing in disguise, as he started at right cornerback last week at Purdue and has been elevated to a co-starter with Lydell Sargeant on this week's depth chart. "Sargeant, [Wallace] and [Tony] Davis, they're three good corners and they all should play, keep them fresh," Paterno said. "Nowadays, when you have to be ready for a lot of spread, you need that extra defensive back."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Wisconsin starting left tackle Gabe Carimi could return for Saturday's clash with No. 6 Penn State (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) despite leaving the Ohio State game with a right knee injury. Carimi returned to the field on crutches last Saturday night, but head coach Bret Bielema said the sophomore's status improved on Sunday.

Redshirt freshman Josh Oglesby replaced Carimi against the Buckeyes and would start Saturday if Carimi cannot go.

Badgers cornerback Aaron Henry (knee) will redshirt the season barring a personnel emergency, but tight end Garrett Graham (foot) will return to practice this week.

"Our expectation, unless anything happens during the course of the week, is we'll probably as healthy as we've been since camp," Bielema told reporters. "Travis Beckum had no ill-effects and performed fairly well. Garrett -- I saw him in the pool this morning -- is going to make it a go tomorrow and he feels a lot better than he did a week ago at this time."

Michigan's injury report now includes starting wideout Martavious Odoms (shoulder), starting defensive end Brandon Graham (leg infection), tackle Perry Dorrestein (head) and starting cornerback Donovan Warren (quadriceps). Coach Rich Rodgriguez expects Warren to play and Odoms and Dorrestein to practice this week. The Wolverines will decide after practice this week whether or not to redshirt promising wideout Terrence Robinson (knee).

"Graham still has a leg infection, and we'll limit him a little bit and see how that progresses," Rodriguez said at his weekly news conference.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald expects right tackle Kurt Mattes (knee) and running back Stephen Simmons (ankle) to play Saturday against Michigan State (ESPN2, 3:30 p.m. ET). Guard Keegan Grant (ankle) and wide receiver Andrew Brewer (undisclosed) ran well at practice Sunday night and could be back.

"We're as healthy as maybe we've been five weeks into the season in a couple years," Fitzgerald said at Monday's news conference.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A couple of quick Northwestern notes. The Wildcats' game Saturday night at Duke will be broadcast online by ACC Select. Single-game passes cost $5.95. Here's the link to sign up and the direct link to the game.

Also, Northwestern's injury report is below:

Player Injury Status

David Arnold, S, Knee, Out

Drake Dunsmore, TE , Knee, Out (season)

Kevin Frymire, WR, Ankle, Out

Keegan Grant, G, Ankle, Out

Chris Jeske, LB, Knee, Out

Niko Mafuli, DT, Shoulder, Out

Bryce McNaul, LB, Leg, Out

Grant is a potentially significant loss because Northwestern doesn't have much experience on the offensive line. But right tackle Kurt Mattes didn't appear on the report, meaning he'll likely return after missing the season opener with a sprained knee. Mattes and Desmond Taylor likely will start at right tackle and right guard. The coaches love Arnold at safety, but the redshirt freshman hasn't been able to stay healthy in his career.

Big Ten internal affairs

September, 3, 2008
9/03/08
12:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Welcome to the first edition of internal affairs, which will take an inside look at five key developments around the Big Ten every Wednesday during the season.

Penn State -- Josh Gaines moved from defensive end to defensive tackle on several plays against Coastal Carolina and could continue to do so the rest of the season. It freed up Aaron Maybin (two sacks) for more pass-rushing opportunities, though Jerome Hayes got most of the playing time at Gaines' usual end spot. The Lions are a bit thin at tackle after the summer dismissals of Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, and the broken leg suffered by Devon Still. Gaines, the team's most experienced defensive lineman, collected four solo tackles in the opener.

Iowa -- Junior A.J. Edds is without a doubt Iowa's best linebacker, but his coaches are resisting the temptation to move him to the middle spot, where most top backers play. Edds says he can play all three linebacker positions but feels most comfortable on the strong side, where he can showcase his playmaking skills. "My natural home is the outside backer spot," said Edds, who recorded a safety and deflected a pass that led to an interception against Maine. "It's kind of a hybrid, playing on the D-line over a tight end a lot of the time, but you're also playing out there in coverage over some of the wide receivers. If the coaches didn't have faith in the other backers, I'm sure they would put me in the middle."

Indiana -- Mitchell Evans' days as a nomad appear over as the sophomore has found a home at wide receiver. Kellen Lewis' return from suspension and the decision to move Evans from quarterback to wideout is paying off already. As top receiver Ray Fisher battles a shoulder injury, Evans, a former safety, can step in and contribute. His size (6-3) and excellent hands give Indiana another option in the passing game. Also keep an eye on freshman Damarlo Belcher, who Lewis likens to a young James Hardy.

Michigan State -- The Spartans' depth on the defensive line and in the secondary helped produce lofty preseason expectations, but they're struggling to find capable bodies at running back and along the offensive line. Coach Mark Dantonio will use Javon Ringer as much as possible, but A.J. Jimmerson was held out of the Cal game and Ashton Leggett didn't touch the ball. Ringer is a horse, but he'll wear down fast if the Spartans don't find another back. The Spartans can't afford attrition up front, where Mike Bacon is listed as a possible starter at two positions (center and left guard).

Northwestern -- Don't be surprised to see junior offensive lineman Desmond Taylor in the starting lineup Saturday against Duke. Taylor has earned rave reviews throughout preseason camp and performed well in place of injured right tackle Kurt Mattes against Syracuse. Now Taylor could take Mattes' job or the one belonging to guard Joel Belding. Though Mattes and Belding are Northwestern's only two returning starters on the line, Taylor has plenty of experience and will see significant time at tackle or guard.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Happy Labor Day. It's a day off for most of you (I hope), but not me. I'll be back with updates throughout the day. Before looking ahead to Week 2 and a set of Big Ten games unlikely to make your must-see list, here's a quick look at the best from the first weekend.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern offensive line coach Bret Ingalls looks at redshirt freshmen Al Netter and Ben Burkett and knows that they'll do big things down the road. Ingalls looks at true freshmen like Nick Adamle and Brian Mulroe and knows that the future of the Wildcats' line is in good hands.

The only problem is Northwestern can't wait around for those young offensive linemen to ripen. With a stockpile of senior skill players led by quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton, the Wildcats need their front five to produce right away.

It might be sound unfair to say Northwestern's season hinges on the offensive line. Too bad. Northwestern's season hinges on the offensive line.

"They're ahead of maybe what I thought, and yet we've still got to play a game," Ingalls said of his group. "We're making some progress, but until we play somebody different, it's hard to know."

The Wildcats lose three starters up front, including mainstays Trevor Rees and Dylan Thiry. Bacher will receive snaps in the shotgun from a redshirt freshman (Burkett) and have his blind side protected by another redshirt freshman (Netter) and a guy who spent the last three seasons playing defense (Keegan Kennedy).

Throw in the fact that Northwestern has a new offensive coordinator (Mick McCall) and will often operate in the no-huddle, a strategy that produced stellar results in 2000 but with a veteran line leading the way. Is it a little daunting? No doubt. But Ingalls doesn't want his linemen over-thinking, which became a problem for a more seasoned unit at times last year.

"Regardless if we're beating our guy each time," he said, "we need to be able to come back, snap after snap and have some confidence, play fast and just let 'em go. If they let up because they don't have that confidence, they're probably in for a long day. So as long as they're playing hard, I'm going to feel good.

"The tempo is a lot faster, so they've got to be able to finish a play. Eye on the football, run to it, let's go."

Ingalls has some flexibility with the group but decided to leave returning starters Kurt Mattes and Joel Belding at right tackle and right guard, the positions they played last season. Netter nearly played last fall at tackle as a true freshman, and Kennedy won the starting spot at left guard after being low on the depth chart at defensive tackle.

"Just a hunger to want to play," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Kennedy, a senior. "He's earned that opportunity. He's just chomping at the bit, but he knows he has a lot to learn."

Lack of starting experience is an obvious concern, but depth might not be. Ingalls praised the preseason performances of junior tackles Desmond Taylor and Mike Boyle, and former walk-on Keegan Grant has pushed Belding for a starting position.

Though Ingalls likes what he has seen from the true freshmen, who headlined Northwestern's 2008 recruiting class, he hopes he doesn't need to play any of them.

"Certainly you want to five to glue together and go play," Ingalls said, "but right now, our depth might be better than it's been."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Week 1 depth charts are gradually coming out around the Big Ten. Here's a look at two.

INDIANA

  • As expected, no starting quarterback has been named for the Western Kentucky game. It will be Ben Chappell or incumbent Kellen Lewis.
  • Redshirt freshman Chris Adkins has won the second starting cornerback spot opposite Chris Phillips. Donnell Jones and Richard Council are the second-stringers.
  • Fifth-year senior Marcus Thigpen remains the starter at running back ahead of Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray. Freshman Darius Willis isn't listed on the depth chart but coach Bill Lynch expects him to play this fall.
  • Florida transfer Jerimy Finch, cleared to play this season, is listed behind Austin Thomas as the second-string strong safety.
  • Sophomore Brad Martin is the starting tight end ahead of promising redshirt freshman Max Dedmond.
  • I was a little surprised not to see freshman wideout DaMarlo Belcher on the two-deep. He was the most impressive player at last Wednesday's practice and should see the field this fall.

NORTHWESTERN

  • The new-look starting offensive line reads as follows: left tackle Al Netter, left guard Keegan Kennedy, center Ben Burkett, right guard Joel Belding and right tackle Kurt Mattes. That means C.J. Bacher's blind side will be protected by a redshirt freshman (Netter) and a guy (Kennedy) who played the better part of three seasons at defensive tackle. It's a little scary, but Northwestern has been impressed with both players and especially Burkett at center.
  • Reserve wide receiver Jeremy Ebert is the lone true freshman on the two-deep -- a telling sign about Northwestern's returning experience. Ebert also will start at kickoff returner with Stephen Simmons. The Wildcats will start Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, Andrew Brewer and Rasheed Ward at the wide receiver spots.
  • Sophomore Josh Rooks has moved into the top spot at superback (tight end-fullback hybrid) after the season-ending knee injury to Drake Dunsmore. Junior Brendan Mitchell is behind Rooks.
  • Sophomore Corbin Bryant will start the Syracuse game at defensive tackle in place of suspended star John Gill. Bryant had five tackles last season.
  • Senior Kevin Mims holds a starting spot at defensive end ahead of hard-charging redshirt freshman Vince Browne.
  • Peterman will open the season as the starting punt returner ahead of safety Brendan Smith.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Sorry for the lengthy delay. I just got back from watching Northwestern's practice and listening to coach Pat Fitzgerald address the media. I spoke with both new coordinators (Mike Hankwitz and Mick McCall) and several players at practice, so check back throughout the afternoon for updates.

Here are some items of interest from practice:

  • Starting running back Tyrell Sutton sat out practice after sustaining a minor leg/ankle injury Wednesday, but he should be fine in a few days. I spoke to Sutton and he expects to practice next week when the team heads to Kenosha, Wis., for training. Though any sort of leg problem is a concern after Sutton missed five games last season with a high ankle sprain, the senior wasn't wearing any brace and seemed to be walking fine.
  • Promising redshirt freshman defensive end Vince Browne also missed practice with a minor injury.
  • As expected, junior defensive tackle Marshall Thomas practiced with the first-team defense in the spot normally reserved for John Gill, who is suspended for the first week of practice and the season opener for violating team policy. Thomas and classmate Corbin Bryant are the likeliest candidates to start against Syracuse on Aug. 30. Gill is working out independently at the football complex and was spotted on his way to the locker room.
  • The defense looked significantly more aggressive than in past seasons, a possible result of Hankwitz's arrival. Junior safety Brendan Smith, who earned a medical hardship last season because of a shoulder injury, leveled several big hits. Redshirt freshman linebacker Kevin Watt also delivered some punishment on running back Jacob Schmidt.
  • Smith staged an entertaining competition with wide receiver Andrew Brewer, another projected starter who comes off an injury. Brewer, a former starting quarterback for the Wildcats, will be a major threat on deep routes, as he showed by leaping to snag a pass.
  • I spent some time with Northwestern's new athletic director Jim Phillips, who is working to upgrade the school's facilities. After seeing what's going on at Michigan and Michigan State, it's crucial for Northwestern to catch up and keep pace. Phillips also said general ticket sales for the football season are up 56 percent from last year. He's driving up to Green Bay on Friday to visit with his Northwestern predecessor, Packers president Mark Murphy, who has been a little busy lately with some Favre guy.
  • The safeties stood out more than any other position during team drills. Smith, Brad Phillips and redshirt freshman David Arnold all recorded pass breakups, and sophomore James Nussbaum picked off a pass.
  • Northwestern hasn't used its tight ends much in the spread offense era, but that could and should change this fall. Drake Dunsmore and mammoth sophomore Josh Rooks looked good at the superback position, a tight end-fullback-wide receiver mix. Both players are threats down the middle of the field.
  • Senior Rasheed Ward is projected to start with the first-team offense, but sophomore Sidney Stewart took his place at Thursday's practice.
  • With players in shorts, it was hard to get a great read on the offensive line, the team's biggest question entering the season. The first team consisted of tackles Kurt Mattes and Al Netter, guards Joel Belding and Keegan Kennedy and center Ben Burkett.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Tackle Alex Boone is one of four returning starters on the Buckeyes' offensive line.

All of the previous positions I ranked (quarterback, running back, wide receiver/tight end) matter little without sturdy offensive lines to block for them. And despite lingering questions about its speed, the Big Ten continues to churn out elite linemen. The league has had three offensive linemen selected in the top 5 of the NFL draft in the last two years, including former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in April. Several elite players return this fall, including Ohio State tackle Alex Boone and Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, but offensive lines should always be graded as a group. Four teams look very solid up front. The rest of the league? Not so much.

Here's the rundown:

1. Ohio State -- Led by Boone, who passed up NFL bucks for another national title push, the Buckeyes bring back four of five starters up front. Sophomore Bryant Browning emerged at right tackle in spring ball and joins a group that helped Beanie Wells finish 11th nationally in rushing last season. If the first-team unit stays healthy, the offense will surge this fall.

2. Penn State -- All five starters return to a unit that mirrored Ohio State in both sacks allowed and rushing production last season. Shipley and guard Rich Ohrnberger solidify the interior line along with Stefen Wisniewski, who last year became the first true freshman offensive lineman to start at Penn State since 1999. Hopes are high for whip-smart left tackle Gerald Cadogan.

3. Wisconsin -- The Badgers lost no starters and feature All-Big Ten candidates throughout the line. So why isn't this unit rated higher? Wisconsin finished 91st nationally in sacks allowed with 33 last season, a number that must go down with a new starting quarterback. Four-year starter Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp form the league's best guard tandem, and sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi held his own last fall after succeeding Joe Thomas.

4. Illinois -- If not for two vacancies, the Illini would be higher on the list. They allowed just 16 sacks last fall, the second fewest in the league, and had the Big Ten's top rushing attack. All-conference candidates Ryan McDonald and Xavier Fulton return. If Ryan Palmer solidifies the right tackle spot, this group will have a big season.

5. Michigan State -- Replacing all-conference left tackle Pete Clifford became a priority this spring, and Michigan State filled the gap with talented junior Rocco Cironi. If Cironi can effectively protect Brian Hoyer's blind side, the interior line should be solid with returning starters Roland Martin and Joel Nitchman. Depth is a concern, and several incoming freshmen could help.

6. Purdue -- Health is the biggest question for Purdue after mainstay Sean Sester, Zach Jones and Zack Reckman missed spring practice with injuries. Head-coach-in-waiting Danny Hope needs all three returning starters at full strength in camp. The all-important center spot could feature an intriguing competition, as freshman Andrew Brewer joins the mix with Cory Benton and Jared Zwilling.

7. Iowa -- A veteran group could definitely climb the list, but after hemorrhaging for 46 sacks last fall, significant improvement is needed. Guard Seth Olsen anchors the line in his third season as a starter. Though several other full-time or part-time starters return, Olsen's spot appears to be the only safe one entering preseason camp.

8. Michigan -- Strength coach Mike Barwis will try to work his magic with a group that returns only one starter, right tackle Stephen Schilling. A lot hinges on junior Mark Ortmann, who succeeds Long at left tackle. If Ortmann steps in smoothly and David Moosman locks up the center spot, the Wolverines might be fine. Coach Rich Rodriguez needs linemen who can fit in his system, and if need be, he'll look to incoming freshmen like Ricky Barnum.

9. Indiana -- The left side looks strong with Rodger Saffold and Pete Saxon, but there are questions elsewhere. A lot is riding on a talented group of sophomore linemen that includes potential starters Alex Perry and Mike Stark. Sacks were a problem at times last season, and the Hoosiers must generate a stronger rushing attack outside of quarterback Kellen Lewis.

10. Minnesota -- Of all the Gophers' problems last season, the offensive line wasn't one of them. Minnesota allowed a league-low 13 sacks and ranked third in pass offense. But the departures of left tackle Steve Shidell and center Tony Brinkhaus raise questions up front. Hopes are high for sophomore left tackle Dominic Alford, but a young group must build chemistry.

11. Northwestern -- The Wildcats lost mainstays at both center and left tackle, and right tackle Kurt Mattes is the only returning starter who secured his job. A lot is riding on three young players -- freshman left tackle Al Netter, sophomore left guard Keegan Grant and freshman center Ben Burkett. If those three step up, a veteran group of skill players will put up points.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Here's the second half of my interview with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Who are some of the young guys on defense you're excited about?

Pat Fitzgerald: Seventeen out of the 19 [freshmen] redshirted [last season], so they're a year older, a year hungrier. Vince [Browne] will be a young man you'll see play a lot of football for us. You'll see Ben Johnson play a lot on special teams initially, and then where does he go? Very gifted athlete at linebacker. I'm excited about [Bryce] McNaul. He was a little banged up his freshman year, but I'm excited to get him out there full time. Both [Jordan] Mabin and (Mike) Bolden at corner, and then [Brian] Peters and [David] Arnold at safety.

Where was your confidence level in the offensive line coming out of the spring?

PF: I felt great about the spring that Kurt Mattes had. He went through the whole year last year and every week was a growing experience. Going against Corey Wootton every day makes you a bit better, too. There was a great competition at guard with Joel Belding and Keegan Grant, and Keegan Kennedy is a third guy in the mix. Joel can also play center, so his flexibility helps. But I was really encouraged with Ben Burkett this spring. We've been fortunate to basically have two centers in eight years with Trevor [Rees] and Austin King. Am I ready to anoint Ben in that position? Not yet. But he's very athletic, he's got great functional strength, he understands our offense well. And then at left tackle, there's really good competition between Ramon Diaz and Al Netter, but Al won the job in spring, so Al's going to be the starter as we come into camp. Are we ready to be a fist yet? No. Those 20-something practice opportunities we're going to have in camp are going to be pretty critical.

When you hear about Big Ten running backs, you hear about Beanie [Wells], Javon [Ringer], P.J. Hill. Tyrell [Sutton] was a guy people talked about a couple years ago. Can he get back in the discussion?

PF: He couldn't control getting hurt. All he could control was how hard he worked and he got back faster than we anticipated. We had talked about a point of no return, maybe redshirting him last year, but we didn't get to that point and I'm proud of the way he fought to get back. It was in discussions with him and our doctors, where we were going to go, but he was adamant that he wanted to play, and I don't blame him. It's frustrating for him. He wanted to play badly. As I look at it, maybe the two bookends, the front end of his career where he had such a great start with 1,500 yards and we went to a bowl game, and now the back end of his career, I'd like to see a similar outcome.

The Big Ten has taken some hits nationally for Ohio State's performance in the title game and other teams not measuring up to the Buckeyes. When you look at the league, is there a huge a gap between Ohio State and everyone else, or is it closer than people think?

PF: Everyone's looking up at Ohio State, there's no question about that. All I know is they're the only team to play in back-to-back national championship games, so everyone was looking up at 'em. Not only us in our league, but everybody in the country. You want to win your last game. We didn't do our job last year to get that done, and they didn't, but at the end of the day, they were where everybody aspires to be, playing for a national championship.

I see you have a magazine on your desk with Rich Rodriguez on the cover. How will his arrival at Michigan impact the league?

PF: It will be a huge change for Michigan football. I've gotten to be around Rich a couple times and I'm very impressed with him as a person. I'm very impressed with his demeanor and his humility. A coach that who's been a head coach since a young age, has been very successful in his time as a head coach. The success that he had at West Virginia is incredible. To bring that mind-set and what they do to Michigan, it's going to be a great challenge for all of us. I'm not looking forward to competing against him. He's had great success. It's just going to take him a little bit of time, like it takes everybody when you go to a new university, to get all his pieces into place. But I'm sure he's got an acceleration plan to get that ready this fall.

Illinois surprised a lot of people last year. Is there any team under the radar that you're looking to for some surprises?

PF: If you look at Minnesota last year and you saw the games that they were in, our game as one of them, a lot of their games could have gone either way. Coach [Tim] Brewster has recruited well. He's a very passionate person. Outside of our team, I would think maybe the other team under the radar screen is going to be Minnesota.

Is Northwestern always going to be under the radar?

PF: I don't know. There's only four teams that have a winning record against us since 1995. Are we challenging for the championship right now? Not as we sit here today. We'll get that going in August. But we've been bowl-eligible now a number of times since '95. We're still in the infant stage of our tradition. We have a great tradition that dates back, but a big time period there where we didn't necessarily have success on the field. It's going to take us as much time as that period took, of success, to overcome that. I think we're right in the middle of that right now.

Is that just getting through the nonconference unscathed, winning a bowl game? Are those the things you need so people don't automatically think of the losing?

PF: You need to be successful on the field, you need to continue to have the integrity and what you stand for not change. I think we've had that now since '95, so we're only talking about 12, 13 years, and not every year being in a bowl game, and not every year having a winning record. So you've got to fill in those blanks. It may be a little bit longer time. Winning records, bowl games, bowl victories, putting that together consistently, will then erase some opinions.

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