Big Ten: Kyle Prater

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM ET
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter dash events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Treyvon Green, Sr., 5-10, 215; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200; WR: Kyle Prater, Sr., 6-5, 225

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
Wide receiver has been a bit of an albatross for the Big Ten, although last season brought a mini renaissance with four 1,000-yard receivers and another (Illinois' Steve Hull) who nearly got there (993 yards). The bad news is all five of those players depart, leaving question marks on the perimeter. There are more certainties at tight end as players such as Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman, Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Minnesota's Maxx Williams, Northwestern's Dan Vitale and Penn State's trio of Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman all return. Whether you believe Michigan's Devin Funchess is a wide receiver or a tight end, he's back, too. And he's really good.

Our position previews continue with the wide receiver/tight end group.

Best of the best: Maryland

The Big Ten rookies face some challenges in their new conference, but the Terrapins bring a talented and extremely deep group of receivers. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long lead the way as both men return from broken legs that shortened promising 2013 seasons. Levern Jacobs, Nigel King and Amba Etta-Tawo all did nice jobs last season, as each eclipsed 30 receptions. The return of Marcus Leak, who showed the ability to stretch the field in 2012 before missing last season, provides yet another option for senior quarterback C.J. Brown. Wide receiver undoubtedly will be Maryland's strength entering the season, and in terms of depth, no other Big Ten squad comes close. The Terps need a tight end to emerge after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Next up: Michigan State

I considered several teams here -- Nebraska, Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, even Iowa -- but few programs are bringing back more than three reliable options in the passing game. Michigan State, a laughingstock at receiver in 2012, bounced back nicely last season as the offense stabilized behind quarterback Connor Cook. The Spartans had six receivers or tight ends finish with 17 or more receptions and six players with multiple touchdown receptions in 2013. Five of those players are back as only wide receiver Bennie Fowler, MSU's leader in receiving yards (622) and receiving touchdowns (6), departs. Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings lead the group after combining for 87 receptions last year. Aaron Burbridge and Keith Mumphery also return along with tight end Josiah Price, who emerged late last fall. DeAnthony Arnett finally could be ready to contribute. Good depth here.

Sleeper: Northwestern

We've been high on this group for years but the production hasn't been there on a consistent basis. A two-quarterback system and a primary signal-caller (Kain Colter) best suited to run the option made it tough for the wide receivers and tight ends to truly blossom. Things should change this year with a single quarterback (Trevor Siemian) and an offense that should have much more of a passing lean. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are both proven receivers whose numbers should climb this fall. Like MSU's Arnett, Prater also could be on the verge of big things several years after transferring in, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler fills the all-important slot role. Tight end Dan Vitale has 62 receptions in his first two seasons and could be a star this fall.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

The Badgers barely had enough wide receivers to get through practices this spring, but they'll need a significant boost on the perimeter when the season kicks off. Gone are top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and top tight end Jacob Pedersen, who accounted for 63.7 percent of the team's receiving yards in 2013. Factor in the loss of running back James White (39 receptions for 300 yards last season), and Wisconsin returns only one player, Jordan Fredrick, with 10 or more receptions last season and none with more than 150 receiving yards. The Badgers need a lot of help here: Fredrick and Alex Erickson to develop, Kenzel Doe to build on a good spring, Robert Wheelwright to stay healthy and blossom and several incoming freshmen -- keep an eye on Krenwick Sanders -- to contribute immediately. Veteran Sam Arneson likely steps into the top tight end role.
It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
5:00
PM ET
Welcome to another edition of the Monday mailbag. Adam is on vacation this week, so I'm going to attempt to fill his Friday slot as well as my usual Wednesday 'bag this week. But I need questions to pull that off, so make sure to send them here or hit us up on Twitter.

To your queries ...

Aaron from Washington, Iowa, writes: I feel like Ty Issac signing at Michigan hasn't gotten as much attention as it should have. I feel like Michigan's RBs could have a huge year if the pieces fall into place. Your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Isaac, who transferred from USC, is potentially a big boost for the Wolverines. But it remains to be seen whether Isaac will receive a waiver from the NCAA to become immediately eligible. He's from Shorewood, Illinois, which isn't exactly next door to Ann Arbor. The NCAA, though, has been pretty lenient on waiver cases of late, so we'll see. We should also have learned by now to exercise caution with hyped transfers. Remember all the hoopla about Kyle Prater transferring from USC to Northwestern, or DeAnthony Arnett going to Michigan State from Tennessee? Neither has had much of an impact yet in the Big Ten, though there's still time.

There is absolutely no doubt that Michigan has to improve its rushing attack after averaging just 3.3 yards per carry last season. Derrick Green should be better as a sophomore, especially with a more streamlined body. De'Veon Smith is pushing him. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is emphasizing the north-south running game, and the Wolverines simply can't win at a high level without it. The question, of course, is whether the offensive line can coalesce and create enough holes for the back to plow through. If not, it won't matter who is carrying the ball.


Dale from Los Angeles writes: I'm a firm believer that certain units of Big Ten teams may look impressive during the season, but it is only because they are playing against Big Ten opponents. For instance, according to the numbers, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa all had top-20 rush defenses in 2013. But look at the bowl performances. MSU held their opponents to 2.85 yards per carry, but Stanford ran for 4.5 ypc against MSU. South Carolina ran for 3.44 ypc against Wisconsin's 3.22 average. LSU ran for 4.31 ypc against Iowa's 3.51 average. Ohio State's rushing D performed the worst relative to their average ypc allowed, as Clemson ran for more than 5 yards per carry and more than 2.2 yards/carry above the average OSU opponent. As soon as they played real teams, the shine rubbed off these so called "elite" rush defenses.

My question is: I know you guys (and most college football analysts) think Ohio State's D-line is the best unit in the Big Ten. But how do you think they measure up nationally? I think Clemson's line is head and shoulders better, considering that this Tigers front blew up Ohio State's allegedly great offensive line for five sacks and 10 (10!!) tackles for loss in the Orange Bowl. Is Ohio State's D-line even in the nation's top 20?

Brian Bennett: It's always going to be tough to compare college football teams directly against one another statistically across conferences because they all play such different schedules. Also remember that no team plays elite competition every week; statistical measures like yards per carry allowed are always going to be boosted by games against weak nonconference opponents, league bottom-feeders, heavy passing teams, etc. It would be surprising if a team like Michigan State didn't give up more rushing yards than its season average against a team like Stanford, which had one of the nation's better ground games last year and features a powerful attack that is unlike most FBS teams.

It also works in reverse. You mentioned, for example, Wisconsin's game against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Badgers rushed for 293 yards and for 6.8 yards per carry in that game, numbers that were way above the Gamecocks' season defensive averages. Does that mean that South Carolina's defense was overrated? What about the impact on Big Ten defenses that had to face Wisconsin?

There's very little question about the talent on Ohio State's defensive line. You've got two of the top returning defensive ends in the league in Joey Bosa and Noah Spence (when he returns from suspension). Defensive tackle Michael Bennett is being projected as a first-round NFL draft pick. Adolphus Washington is also extremely skilled, and there is promising depth behind the starters. The Buckeyes could have three or four first-round picks on that unit this fall. That's why everyone is so high on that defensive line, though, of course, the group still needs to prove it on the field against the best of the best.


Jerry D. from Dublin, Va., writes: I am amazed at the lack of coverage you are giving Maryland, unless it's some kind of negative press. Maryland finished 7-5 last year with a severely crippled team. Maryland will shock the Big Ten when Ohio State crosses the Mason-Dixon and loses to the Terps. Then the other heavyweight, Michigan State will be "blacked out" by the nighttime atmosphere at Byrd Stadium. Not the biggest stadium in the country, but can be one of the loudest! Go Terps!

Brian Bennett: Love your optimism, Jerry. A couple of things -- for one, it's the summer time, and things are pretty slow everywhere. There hasn't been a lot of news out of College Park in a while. Maryland doesn't officially even join the Big Ten (along with Rutgers) until July 1, at which time we hope to have some more coverage of the Terps. Maryland fans have also been very quiet -- we haven't heard much from you guys on Twitter on in the mailbags. I think Randy Edsall has an interesting team on his hands and one that can make some noise if it can stay healthy. It's a pretty simple equation around here: The more you win and have an impact on the league, the more we're going to talk about you.


Xavier from Paoli, Ind., writes: I would love to know why Indiana offensive players don't get any respect. I get IU won five games last year, but you can't blame the offense that was ninth in the nation. Nate Sudfeld and Tevin Coleman are two of the top players at their respective positions. Nate Sudfeld threw for 21 TDs and 9 INTs in 322 attempts last year. Only Connor Cook and Joel Stave threw for more TDs, but Stave threw four more INT's and attempted 336 passes and Cook attempted 380 passes. Coleman rushed for 958 yards in nine games and averaged 7.8 yards a carry, which was tied for eighth in the nation with Carlos Hyde. I truly think both should be getting more respect than they do, because they get just about zero. Maybe they need to put on a Michigan or Ohio State jersey to get it?

Brian Bennett: We're well aware of Indiana's offensive prowess, Xavier, and we mention those guys a lot around here. We're doing some statistical projections in the next few days, and the Hoosiers will be well represented. If you're talking about national respect, it's all about winning games. When a team has been out of the postseason since 2007, like IU, it becomes pretty irrelevant nationally. Its games don't receive spotlight broadcast times, and individual accomplishments get overlooked. Indiana needs to pull off a couple of Big Ten upsets for its players to get noticed nationally. Sudfeld and Coleman need to deliver in games against Ohio State, Michigan State and other top contenders.


Cameron from San Diego writes: Brian, the Big Ten's ban on FCS schools makes sense for the most part. No self-respecting Ohio State team should be playing Florida A&M. I know there is a bit more of a gray area with matchups like Minnnesota-NDSU and the like. But one that I think absolutely needs to be played that I don't think I've ever heard anyone mention is Rutgers-Princeton in 2019. That's right -- the 150th anniversary of college football. From what I hear there are no talks about it. I don't even know if anybody knows or cares, but I think it would be perfect! It needs to happen! It would be a great thing for the Big Ten to capitalize on as well.

Brian Bennett: Fun idea, Cameron. The Ivy League has steered clear of playing FBS teams in recent years. But this is one FBS-FCS matchup I could support, if only for the historical celebrations and ceremonies that could come with it.
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Wide receivers Kyle Prater and DeAnthony Arnett never expected to run routes like these.

Both players emerged from high school as top-60 recruits. Prater was the No. 9 wideout in the 2010 class according to ESPN Recruiting Nation; Arnett was the No. 9 wideout in the 2011 class. Both grew up in the Midwest but both elected to play for famous, faraway programs -- Prater at USC, Arnett at Tennessee -- that had produced great wide receivers over the years.

Then, in January 2012, both elected to transfer closer to home. Arnett, from Saginaw, Mich., transferred to Michigan State to be near his father, William, awaiting a kidney transplant. Prater, from Maywood, Ill., transferred to Northwestern and also cited family reasons, although he hasn't gone into detail.

[+] EnlargePrater
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern WR Kyle Prater feels that he's finally past the annoying injuries that have hamstrung his career to date.
Both fanbases celebrated the arrivals. The good vibes continued when the NCAA ruled that both Arnett and Prater could play immediately because of the circumstances that sparked their transfers. Each had three years of eligibility left.

Although their situations weren't ideal, both wideouts appeared to be back on track.

But they had more detours ahead. They have combined for only 23 receptions and no touchdowns the past two seasons. Prater dealt with a "plethora" of lower-body injuries that limited his effectiveness. Arnett took longer than expected to adjust to the offense and slipped down the depth chart as other receivers emerged.

Fans didn't forget them, but the buzz that existed when they arrived practically disappeared.

Prater and Arnett are still around and, after strong performances during spring practice, both could finally make the impact many expected two years ago.

"I'm looking forward to great things happening this year," Prater told ESPN.com. "I can honestly say I feel like I'm back, and I’m ready to go."

Added Arnett: "I had a big spring, so I’m continuing to build on that."

Both receivers drew high marks from their coaches during the spring, as they put themselves in the two-deep heading into the summer.

Prater's chief challenge was making it through the 15 practices intact, which he did. Despite a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, Prater hasn't been structurally sound during his college career. Injuries limited him at USC, where he had only one catch in two seasons, and have continued at Northwestern, where he recorded 10 receptions in 2012 and nine last season.

"You could not put together a worse script from an injury standpoint for a person," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It's been such a bad deal for him."

Prater hasn't had one single major injury, but several issues "built up to a degree where I couldn't perform where I wanted to." He thinks many of the issues could have been prevented with the right stretching or training regimen.

When Northwestern's training room opens at the ungodly time of 5:45 a.m., he's often the first one through the door. He has improved his flexibility and tried to lower his hips to create more explosion out of breaks.

"It's just being proactive," he said. "Like if it’s a hamstring, I'm going to do the things to not have [an injury], strengthening my glutes, all the areas around there."

[+] EnlargeDeAnthony Arnett
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State WR DeAnthony Arnett hopes to build on a strong spring to have a big 2014 season.
Arnett also has worked on his body, adding 18 pounds last season, when he appeared in just one game -- the opener against Western Michigan -- and had only one reception. But his challenge has been grasping the system and competing for time in a Michigan State receiving corps that improved significantly after the 2012 season. Dantonio said late in the 2012 season that he wished he had redshirted Arnett, who played as a true freshman at Tennessee and had 24 receptions.

This spring, Dantonio called Arnett the team's "most pleasant surprise" and noted his consistency, aggressiveness and run-after-catch ability. The suspension of Macgarrett Kings created more opportunities for Arnett, who had five receptions for 63 years during a mid-spring scrimmage.

"It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself," Arnett said. "I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."

Arnett is more relaxed, and his time on the sideline last season, while not what he hoped, allowed him to absorb the playbook. After a diet of pasta, steak, rice and iron -- the kind you find in the weight room -- Arnett expects to play this season between 190-195 pounds.

"I don't think just because I haven't been playing, the expectations should be lower," he said. "I want them to be high. I want to be in the situation where there's a lot of pressure on me to produce."

Fitzgerald called Prater "outstanding" this spring, and Prater thinks he surprised the coaches with his play. His next goal: silencing his doubters when the season begins.

"There's always a lot of naysayers, lot of people felt I didn't have it," he said. "They thought I wasn't there anymore, but I never stopped believing."

There were days when Prater wondered about all the injuries, why they kept happening, and whether he had a future in football. He admits the accolades he had coming out of high school overwhelmed him.

The last few years have brought growth and perspective.

"I look at the game as far as being more appreciative, having fun and being blessed that I'm out there," Prater said. "My whole career has been overcoming adversity. It shows a true test of my will that [I can] talk to you today and say I'm still here. I'm very confident in my ability to play. Everything I've been through has made me who I am now.

"This is the best I've ever felt, and I look forward to great things."

There are no guarantees for either Prater or Arnett this season, as both play on teams with multiple returning starters at receiver.

But if called upon, they'll be ready to finish their roundabout routes the right way.

Northwestern spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
7:00
AM ET
The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Northwestern.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • The offense has a quarterback and an identity: The two-quarterback system Northwestern used with mixed results in 2012 and 2013 is dead, at least for now. Senior Trevor Siemian established himself as the top signal-caller and a team leader with a strong spring. Siemian has less mobility than recent Wildcats signal-callers but a stronger arm. Northwestern likely will return to its pass-first roots this season after never establishing a consistent identity last fall.
  • The secondary should be a strength: Northwestern historically has struggled in the back end of its defense, but it returns all four starters from a decent group last season and boasts unprecedented depth. The emergence of redshirt freshmen like Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Keith Watkins II this spring allows the Wildcats to go two or three deep at all four positions. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell leads the group, which will be expected to generate takeaways.
  • Shuler, Prater add to receiving corps: This group has teased us before, but the combination of returning players, newcomers and a pass-driven quarterback/offense suggests big things are on the way. Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler is a natural playmaker who could star at the slot position, like Jeremy Ebert did in 2010 and 2011. Another one-time transfer, former USC Trojan Kyle Prater, is finally healthy and turned in a solid spring at the outside spot. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Prater provides size on the edge.
Three questions for the fall

  • Defensive line health: Like the offensive line last spring, Northwestern's defensive front went through the session with limited bodies following offseason surgeries to four players, including tackle Sean McEvilly, a projected starter, and ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Everyone will be healthy for a vital preseason camp as Northwestern tries to firm up its run defense, a weakness during Big Ten play last season.
  • Venric Mark's role: A 1,300-yard rusher and All-America punt returner in 2012, Mark essentially has played one full game since the 2013 Gator Bowl. He should be a major addition on special teams, but his role in the offense remains to be seen. Mark had his most success running the zone read with Kain Colter, but Siemian has different strengths. Northwestern needs a stronger inside run presence, a role Mark relishes despite his size. Above all else, the Wildcats need Mark to stay on the field throughout the season.
  • Firming up the offensive line: The line took a significant step backward in 2013, possibly because of all the injury issues in the previous offseason. Northwestern had all of its linemen on the field this spring and ramped up the competition, as senior tackle Jack Konopka, a two-year starter, worked with the reserves. Center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen provide leadership for the group, but most spots remain open entering the summer.
One way-too-early prediction

Northwestern returns to the postseason and makes some noise in the West Division. Just about everything went wrong for the Wildcats from an injury and fortune standpoint in 2013. They had leadership issues that players acknowledged this spring. They had no identity on offense. Most of the core pieces return and the leadership appears much stronger. If Northwestern remains relatively healthy, it should win at least seven games and possibly challenge Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska in the West.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Two years ago, the Big Ten blog ranked Northwestern's wide receivers and tight ends as the league's best. The Wildcats proceeded to finish 106th and 69th in passing the next two seasons.

Whoops.

Our prediction clearly missed the mark back then, mainly because Northwestern became more of a zone-read run-driven offense led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But maybe we jumped the gun on the Wildcats.

[+] EnlargeTony Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTony Jones is part of a deep and talented group of receivers at Northwestern.
After watching Northwestern's practice Thursday, a case can be made that the receivers and tight ends, while lacking a bona fide superstar, should be among the Big Ten's best this fall. There were familiar faces like Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler made play after play downfield, showing that the Wildcats have another deep threat alongside Tony Jones.

Wide receiver Kyle Prater, a one-time elite recruit who has battled myriad injuries during stints at both USC and Northwestern, is finally healthy and contributing. Sophomore Mike McHugh provides another presence outside, and Jayme Taylor complements Vitale at the superback (tight end/fullback) spot.

An offense that struggled to find playmakers in 2013 now might have a surplus.

"We're going to attack you with waves of people," coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "And we've proven over time that when we have that in place, I don't know how you stop us."

The Wildcats couldn't produce second and third waves of passing weapons in 2013. It might not have mattered with the way their offensive line was pushed around, but Christian Jones logged too many snaps without a break. So did Vitale.

The depth issues especially hurt with an up-tempo offense, Fitzgerald noted, because you want to rotate personnel more often. When Northwestern had to pass more after injuries to both Mark and Colter, it couldn't deliver.

"When guys got dinged, and that's going to happen, we didn't have the depth we needed," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Now we can run the same personnel, but wave two is coming at you. We're still going to have our starters and they're going to get to play, but it's nice to bring some of those other guys along.

"Right now, the ball's getting spread around a lot more."

Northwestern's deepest position actually might be running back, especially when Mark and Stephen Buckley return to action this fall. Treyvon Green, the team's leading rusher in 2013, and Warren Long took most of the carries this spring. Several heralded freshmen arrive in the summer.

But it's becoming fairly apparent that Northwestern's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who left no doubt about his starter status this spring, boasts a strong arm and much less mobility than Colter. The offense could look a lot more like the units in 2007 and 2009, which ranked in the top 15 nationally in passing.

"We still have the option, but our next option off of a run play is maybe to throw something," McCall said. "That's the way it's always been in this system. When we had an option quarterback, you could pitch it off of that. Now they load the box and we pull the ball and we're going to throw it."

McCall is quick to note that during his tenure, Northwestern has yet to make it through the season without an injury to a quarterback or a running back.

Translation: the Wildcats will need all of their options.

"We have a lot of talent across the board," Shuler said. "Speed, size, quickness. We have a lot of depth, so I'm really excited."
We're previewing all of the Big Ten spring games, even the ones that are not quite spring games, like Northwestern's practice on Saturday.

When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.

What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.

And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.

Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.

There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.

Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.

Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.
Yesterday, we took a look at five players from the Leaders Division who have a lot to prove in the 2013 season. That can only mean one thing for today: it's time to turn our attention to those who have something to prove this fall in the Legends Division.

And it goes a little something like this ...

1. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: What does Martinez have to prove after earning All-Big Ten first-team honors (from the coaches) and leading the league in total offense last season? Well, it's true that he will likely end his career owning every major Nebraska quarterback record. But he still must prove that he can win big games on the road, that he can avoid the fumbling problems that have plagued him and that he can deliver a long-awaited championship to Lincoln. That's a whole lot to put on one player, especially considering that the Huskers' defense will probably have a bigger say in the outcome of the season. But we know this: Martinez's tenure will be viewed much differently if he could finish it with a conference title or at least a BCS bowl.

2. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: Here's another Legends quarterback, albeit one who's far less accomplished than Martinez and isn't even guaranteed to start in 2013. Maxwell is now a fifth-year senior, but the last time we saw the Spartans, he was benched for their two-minute drill against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl for Connor Cook. Mark Dantonio has said that Maxwell retains the edge -- for now -- in the quarterback race heading into fall camp. But he'll get lots of competition from Cook and possibly incoming freshman Damion Terry. If he keeps the job, Maxwell will have to win over a disgruntled fan base by completing better than 52.5 percent of his passes, as he did a year ago.

3. Fitz Toussaint, RB, Michigan: The Wolverines senior had seemingly proved himself with a 1,000-yard season in 2011. But he followed that up with just 514 yards last year (on a career-low 4.0 yards per carry) before breaking his leg late in the season. So if you're scoring at home, Toussaint has to prove that last year was an aberration, that he's fully healthy and also that he's good enough to hold off top recruit Derrick Green for the Michigan starting tailback job. And he'll have to do all of that with a mostly inexperienced offensive line and without Denard Robinson as a fellow rushing threat in the backfield.

4. Kyle Prater, WR, Northwestern: Prater arrived in Evanston backed by a ton of hype, given his recruiting rankings and his transfer from USC. Teammates started calling him "Megatron" because of his 6-foot-5 frame. Yet Prater didn't make a huge impact last season, catching just 10 balls for 54 yards. He's had trouble staying healthy and missed spring practice because of an injury. The Wildcats could use a true No. 1 receiver this year, and they would love to see Prater start fulfilling his immense potential.

5. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota: Hageman has attracted a lot of positive attention this offseason for his work in the weight room and in spring practice. That's a great sign, but the senior must deliver on that promise. He had a very good year in 2012 as he started to figure out the defensive tackle position, finishing with six sacks. For the Gophers to take the next step, Hageman has to elevate his performance to great. He's got all the tools to be the top interior defensive lineman in the Big Ten and a potential high-round NFL draft pick.
Northwestern will be without at least three projected starters when it opens spring football in the Big Ten with the first of 15 practice sessions Wednesday in Evanston.

The Wildcats announced Monday that three projected starters will miss the spring session with injuries: cornerback Nick VanHoose, middle linebacker Damien Proby and offensive tackle Jack Konopka. Several other players who filled reserve roles in 2012 but could claim starting jobs in 2013 also are out, including offensive tackle Paul Jorgensen, wide receiver Kyle Prater, defensive tackle Will Hampton, defensive end Deonte Gibson and guard Matt Frazier.

All 13 players out for the spring are expected back for fall camp and the season. Most are recovering from postseason surgeries.

VanHoose missed three games late last season with a shoulder injury, so his absence for spring isn't a major surprise. Prater also didn't look 100 percent healthy in 2012. Konopka started at right tackle in 2012 and could be moved to the left side to replace the graduating Patrick Ward.

Both Proby and Konopoka started all 13 games last season.

Both Jorgensen and Frazier played behind offensive linemen who graduated following the 2012 season, so their absence this spring should ramp up the competition at those positions.

Both Gibson and Hampton, who started three games last season, figure to be in the mix for starting defensive-line positions, although they'll have to make up for lost time this summer.

Northwestern practices nine times before finals and spring break in mid-March. The Wildcats return for four more sessions before wrapping up with their spring game on April 13.
After a brief break for signing day, the postseason position rankings return with the wide receivers and tight ends. The Big Ten had only one team (Indiana) rank in the top 30 nationally in pass offense, and the league's overall depth at receiver and tight end wasn't good at all, but a few groups of pass-catchers stood out.

As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season and factor in both star power and depth. Here's a look at our preseason rundown.

There's clear separation with the top three groups, while the bottom four could be rearranged just about any way you want (if you enjoy that sort of thing).

Now let's get started ...

[+] EnlargeCody Latimer
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Cody Latimer should have a productive season in Indiana's pass-oriented system.
1. Indiana (Preseason ranking: 8): The Hoosiers attempted 58 more passes than any other Big Ten team, but they had plenty of reasons to do so and merit top billing here. Speedster Shane Wynn led the squad in receptions with 68, but Cody Latimer emerged into the star of the group, recording 51 receptions for 806 yards and six touchdowns. Like Latimer, Kofi Hughes stretched the field and averaged nearly 15 yards per reception. Tight end Ted Bolser also made nice contributions (41 catches, 445 yards). IU had five receivers or tight ends finish with at least 23 receptions.

2. Nebraska (Preseason ranking: 2): The Huskers' multitude of big-play threats nearly put them in the top spot, as they helped Nebraska finish with the Big Ten's top offense (460.8 ypg). Wideout Kenny Bell led the way with 863 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 50 receptions (17.3-yard average). Receiver Jamal Turner and tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton all averaged at least 13 yards per reception. Quincy Enunwa became a nice No. 2 target with 42 receptions for 470 yards.

3. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 7): Few saw this coming before the season, and our preseason capsule about the Nittany Lions began with, "Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option." Whoops. Even though Brown transferred in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, Penn State found surprise stars in wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Kyle Carter. Robinson won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award after leading the league in receptions (77), receiving yards (1,013) and touchdown catches (11). Carter (36 catches for 453 yards) might have been the league's top tight end, a position where Penn State had unparalleled depth. Players like wideout Brandon Moseby-Felder and tight end Matt Lehman emerged later in the season.

4. Purdue (Preseason ranking: 5): There's definitely a drop-off after the top three groups, but Purdue had a nice crop of receivers who likely would have put up bigger numbers if quarterback Robert Marve had stayed healthy all season. Wideouts O.J. Ross (56 receptions, 454 yards) and Antavian Edison (58 receptions, 682 yards) both finished in the league's top five in receptions, while Gary Bush also eclipsed the 40-catch mark. Young wideout Dolapo Macarthy showed promise, and tight ends Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright combined for 47 receptions.

5. Michigan (Preseason ranking: 6): No offense to Denard Robinson, but Michigan's receiving corps truly got its chance to shine once Devin Gardner took control at quarterback. Michigan became a much more pass-oriented offense and stretched the field with several players. Jeremy Gallon turned in a very solid junior season with 49 receptions for 829 yards and four touchdowns (16.9-yard average). Roy Roundtree came on strong late in the season and made the catch of the year in the league against Northwestern to force overtime. Michigan received nice contributions from wideout Drew Dileo and young tight end Devin Funchess (five touchdowns), and Gardner himself made some plays early on before switching permanently to QB.

6. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 9): Coach Urban Meyer is looking for much more from Ohio State's perimeter players, but in a pass-challenged league like the Big Ten, Ohio State's receivers and tight ends finish in the middle of the pack. Corey Brown quietly produced a 60-catch season, finishing fourth in the league in receptions (5 rpg). Devin Smith had half as many receptions as Brown but finished with nearly the same yardage total (669-618) as he became Braxton Miller's top deep threat. Jake Stoneburner had four touchdown catches, while sophomore tight end Jeff Heuerman showed some promise.

7. Northwestern (Preseason ranking: 1): Thanks to the emergence of Venric Mark, Northwestern became a much more run-driven offense than we anticipated before the season, although the receiving corps underachieved a bit. The Wildcats had no true stars, although they boasted some nice balance as four players recorded at least 29 receptions. The big bright spot late in the season came from freshman tight end Dan Vitale, who recorded 28 receptions for 288 yards and two touchdowns. USC transfer Kyle Prater wasn't much of a factor (10 catches, 54 yards). Quarterback Kain Colter might have provided the best performance from a Northwestern receiver when he moved there against Indiana and recorded career highs for both receptions (9) and receiving yards (131).

8. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 11): It says something about the Big Ten when Michigan State's receivers, who received heavy criticism for much of the season, finish in the top two-thirds of the rankings. But the Spartans simply produced a lot more than the groups below them. They had arguably the league's top tight end in Dion Sims, who recorded 36 receptions for 475 yards before opting to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. Freshman Aaron Burbridge emerged at receiver during Big Ten play (29 receptions, 364), and the Spartans had three receivers record at least 36 receptions and two -- Keith Mumphery and Bennie Fowler -- with more than 500 receiving yards.

9. Wisconsin (Preseason ranking: 3): Wisconsin had a major shortage of depth, which hurt during a season where three different players started at quarterback. The Badgers had one of the league's best wide receivers in Jared Abbrederis (49 receptions, 837 yards, 5 TDs), and Jacob Pedersen won the Big Ten's Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award, albeit in surprising fashion. But no other players recorded 20 receptions and Wisconsin ended up finishing last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in passing.

10. Iowa (Preseason rank: 4): The Hawkeyes struggled to consistently pass the ball, and getting into the end zone proved to be nearly impossible as they finished with just seven receiving touchdowns. Kevonte Martin-Manley, the group's bright spot with 52 catches for 571 yards, was the lone Hawkeye with multiple scoring receptions in 2012. Keenan Davis fell short of expectations and while C.J. Fiedorowicz put up nice numbers for a tight end (45 receptions, 433 yards), many expected more from him as well. Like several Big Ten squads, Iowa struggled with depth at receiver.

11. Illinois (Preseason ranking: 10): We had concerns about Illinois' skill-position talent and depth before the season, and it proved true. Although the Illini had four players record at least 25 receptions, two of them -- receptions leader Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson -- play running back. Ryan Lankford was the team's top wideout with 469 receiving yards and five touchdowns, while Darius Millines once again struggled to stay healthy. Spencer Harris contributed 21 catches for 252 yards and two scores, but Illinois needed much more to spark the league's worst offense.

12. Minnesota (Preseason ranking: 12): Like many of their Big Ten brethren, the Gophers lacked playmakers on the edge to provide balance on offense. Their best threat, A.J. Barker, left the program in not-so-quiet fashion after a spat with head coach Jerry Kill. Barker appeared in only eight games but still had 11 more receptions than any other Minnesota player. Receivers like Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Devin Crawford-Tufts showed flashes, and tight end John Rabe had four touchdown grabs, but Minnesota needs a lot more from this group going forward.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
5:00
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It's cold outside. Warm up with a piping hot cup of mailbag:

Bob K. from Chicago writes: Everybody keeps talking about how the Big Ten needs to move South to recruit, but I just saw that the number 1 receiver in the country, who is from Illinois, went to an SEC school and that the top receiver in Pennsylvania, who is ranked the number 25 player in the country, went to Alabama. I believe we have great players in the Northeast and Midwest and still have a very large population area. I believe that we need to concentrate on keeping these players in our area from going elsewhere before we start worrying about Southern talent.

Brian Bennett: That's a very good point. The sheer number of top prospects in the Midwest and Northeast might not be as high as those in Florida, Texas and California, but there are still a lot of great players available. The Big Ten has to make sure those players don't leave the region. I believe Big Ten teams need to supplement their rosters -- especially at some of the skill positions like receiver and quarterback -- with kids from the south and the west. But it's awfully hard to get those players to leave their areas, and most Big Ten teams aren't going to have high numbers of players from those regions in a given year. The core of the league teams still must come from the Midwest, and that means keeping the best players in their own backyards first.




Jon from Madison, Wis., writes: I've read several articles on realignment ideas from writers that I believe to be respected and authority figures on the B1G. Most believe in a primarily geographical realignment and if at all possible doing away with protected crossovers just as I do so we minimize the extended time periods without playing teams in other divisions. However, most realignment ideas I've seen don't accomplish reasonable competitive balance without splitting one of these three rivalries: Mich/MSU, Ind/Pur, Ill/NW. So my question is how unreasonable would it be to ask Ind/Pur or Ill/NW to have a "non-conference" matchup outside of the B1G schedule that didn't count in the conference standings? I don't think this should be considered for Mich/MSU. Before scoffing, note that Mich/MSU did this a couple of times several yrs ago in Mens BB when they were only on each others schedule one time for a 2 yr period. So it wouldn't be completely unprecedented.

Brian Bennett: It wouldn't be unprecedented, and there are occasional times where it might make sense. But as a consistent strategy? No way. Let's just take Indiana and Purdue as an example. Purdue already plays Notre Dame in the nonconference schedule. You think the Boilers want to play a Big Ten rival as a non-league game and then add on eight or possibly nine conference games? Only if the school was masochistic. In my re-alignment proposal, only Michigan and Michigan State would absolutely need to be a protected crossover game. And I think that's workable.




Jeremy from Columbus writes: With the bowl tie-ins expiring soon, do you think the Big Ten will go for more neutral-site bowl games? I feel like every conference would want at least one bowl in California, Texas, and Florida for the national exposure, so do you think we'll be able to play the SEC in California, PAC12 in Florida, ACC in Texas, and maybe Big 12 in New York? Or are those other conferences not interested in traveling? Obviously the Rose Bowl is stuck in enemy territory, but I'd like to see every other bowl in our lineup in a state without any teams of the opposing conference (except the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, in which the Big Ten and MAC are both "at home").

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure I agree with your term of "neutral site." If the Big Ten plays Washington in the Rose Bowl, do the Huskies have a major home-field advantage? Or West Virginia in Texas? Arkansas in Florida? I'm hopeful that what we will see, and what conference commissioners and athletic directors are kicking around now, is that the leagues will work together with the bowls to create the best matchups and the best sites. You want to avoid teams going back to the same cities or states multiple years in a row. Add in some variety and new destinations, not just for Big Ten fan bases, but for all leagues.




Three-time champs from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I get that I'm supposed to care an inordinate amount about OSU and UM, but with all this talk of a UM/OSU rematch in the championship game and the need to design conferences around this idea, it hasn't happened. Actually the rematch part has happened. The Big Ten championship game has been a rematch each year with Wisconsin. I think UW should get a conference of its own to prevent rematches. I get the feeling that UM and OSU thought they would dominate in their respective leagues and that hasn't happened, so now they are reconsidering their separation.

Brian Bennett: I see what you did there. Yes, some rematches are going to be inevitable, but they are a lot more palatable when they are repeats of games we saw in September or October than the same two teams playing two weeks in a row. No, Michigan and Ohio State haven't made that happen yet, but it's only been two years. It's bound to occur at some point. Even better, putting them both in the same division means their rivalry game on the final weekend has huge conference title implications -- which it did not have the past two years -- and possibly allows the loser to still be considered for the four-team playoff if both have outstanding seasons, like in 2006.




Dave from East Lansing, Mich., writes: Everyone always organizes the new Big Ten divisions as East and West. How about North and South? I like this combo. North: Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue. South: Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers. I feel like these are fairly balanced and could be a good solution. (Could swap Nebraska and Purdue, but I thought this was better).

Brian Bennett: This could work, and the divisions you mentioned are fairly balanced. But it's also hard to picture any Big Ten teams as being "South." The split between east and west is much easier to visualize and understand. For example, if I asked you to arrange Lincoln, Iowa City, Evanston and Ann Arbor by north-south directions, you could probably do it. But you'd have to think about it.




Rich from Des Moines writes: Regarding division names, the pretentious L&L names need to go. Geographic names like Great Lakes/Plains are poetic, but open for more mocking because of the locations of Rutgers, Maryland and the next two schools, presumably in the South. If a "pod" system comes about, North, South, East, West might work. But the B1G being the B1G, more colorful monikers will probably be chosen. I kinda liked the NHL's old division names honoring important figures from the league's formative years. I think the B1G could do the same. My idea is to use the names of the first four B1G players to win the Heisman as names of the four divisions. Berwanger, Kinnick, Harmon, Smith. Another route could be the first four Silver Football winners: Grange, Lowry, Friedman, Rouse. I prefer the former because the names are more familiar, but ultimately it doesn't matter. Moreover, since all these men are deceased, there would never be an embarrassing situation arise making a name change necessary. Your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: The Big Ten's stated reason for not using division names like "Bo" and "Woody" is that it wanted to be more inclusive. Your plan would draw the same objections, in that 10 teams could feel excluded (or 11 with the Heisman winners, since Jay Berwanger played for the U. of Chicago). It also doesn't solve the issue of easing the understanding of which teams are in what division. If you thought Legends and Leaders was confusing, just wait until you try to figure out which teams are in the Harmon or Friedman pods.




Kevin from Twin Cities writes: Slightly tongue in cheek, but how about The Animal Division (Badgers, Gophers, Hawkeyes, Nittany Lions, Terrapins, Wildcats and Wolverines) and the People Division (Boilermakers, Buckeyes, Cornhuskers, Hoosiers, Illini, Spartans and Scarlet Knights)?

Brian Bennett: I love it, though it's a slight stretch to say Buckeyes are people, and no one can say for sure what a Hoosier is. But there would be no confusion on who played where. Plus, then we could have the Peoples' champion vs. the lord of the Animals for the Big Ten title. We could call it Man vs. Food.




Simon from Evanston writes: Big Wildcat fan here, but my question is more general. A recent study just came out that claimed DI schools spend 3-6 times more on student athletes than the general population. We all love sports and I know that building an national image brings in more students and donations, but is there a line? I worry that this financial "arms race" will cause a variety of problems down the road. Would you be in favor of NCAA rules that limit spending on athletics to a certain percentage of a budget or perhaps a absolute dollar cap of some sort?

Brian Bennett: Simon, you've merely hit on the ethical dilemma of college sports in general. Do we spend too much time, money and attention on sports at our universities instead of academics? Of course. At the same time, college athletes -- at least in football and often in basketball -- bring in great amounts of revenue, unlike regular students. Would Joe Six Pack give money to his state school if it had no football team? These are, naturally, huge questions. But as long as we're going to use the system we have, I think it's difficult to put any sort of arbitrary caps on spending, especially on salaries and things like that. Let the market decide.




Quinn from Moline, Ill., writes: As you know, Kyle Prater transferred to Northwestern last season from USC. A former 5 star recruit, he didn't get a whole lot of playing time last year. Do you think he could become a threat for the Northwestern offense this next year given Kain Colter's lack of arm strength?

Brian Bennett: Prater didn't have a huge impact for the Wildcats in 2012, catching 10 passes for 54 yards and managing just three receptions in the final 10 regular season games. Prater was still recovering from injuries that held him back at USC, including a broken left foot, and he had to learn a new system while fighting for playing time in a veteran receiving corps. He did provide some nice blocking on the edge, and Northwestern didn't have a great downfield passing game. He could become more of a weapon in 2013 as he should be at full strength, and perhaps that will allow the Wildcats to stretch the field a little more.




John from DC writes: Brian -- don't get too carried away with Josh S. from Waverly's comments. There are a lot of sportswriters out there who have really stepped up their game as far as stinking up the place. For you to repeat, you need to stay focused! Keep your eye on the prize!

Brian Bennett: You're right. The competition for worst sportswriter is steep. I've got to make sure I don't get cocky and lazy. I've just got to take it one day at a time, or as Bret Bielema might have said, go 0-1 every week.

Video: Winter spotlight -- Northwestern

January, 17, 2013
1/17/13
10:00
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Northwestern looks for a strong winter from Kyle Prater and the wide receivers, as well as from Dean Lowry and other young defenders.
It's Depth Chart Monday around the Big Ten as most teams revealed new or updated depth charts for their upcoming season openers. Indiana and Iowa released depth charts last week, while Nebraska's won't come out until later this week. A few more teams unveil new or updated depth charts Tuesday, and we'll break down those as they file in.

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

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

MICHIGAN

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

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

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

Depth chart
ILLINOIS

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

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

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

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

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