Big Ten: Kyler Reed

Only 22 Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2013 NFL draft, the league's lowest total in nearly two decades (it had 21 draftees in 1994).

But as soon as the draft ended Saturday, the free-agent signings began. And there were plenty around the Big Ten from all 12 squads.

Here's our first look list of free-agent signings or team tryouts from the conference. As a reminder, this is not a final list, and we'll have updates later on either here on the blog or on Twitter.

Here we go ...

ILLINOIS

C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints

INDIANA

C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons

IOWA

WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings

MICHIGAN

WR Roy Roundtree, Cincinnati Bengals
S Jordan Kovacs, Miami Dolphins
LB Kenny Demens, Arizona Cardinals
DE Craig Roh, Carolina Panthers
OL Elliott Mealer, New Orleans Saints
OL Patrick Omameh, San Francisco 49ers
OL Ricky Barnum, Washington Redskins
LB Brandin Hawthorne, St. Louis Rams
(WR Darryl Stonum, dismissed before the 2012 season, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs)

MICHIGAN STATE

CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots

MINNESOTA

CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings

NEBRASKA

DE Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints
LB Will Compton, Washington Redskins
TE Ben Cotton, San Diego Chargers
TE/FB Kyler Reed, Jacksonville Jaguars
K Brett Maher, New York Jets
DE Cameron Meredith, Oakland Raiders

NORTHWESTERN

OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)

OHIO STATE

CB Travis Howard, Houston Texans
S Orhian Johnson, Houston Texans
FB Zach Boren, Houston Texans
TE Jake Stoneburner, Green Bay Packers
DE Nathan Williams, Minnesota Vikings
DL Garrett Goebel, St. Louis Rams
LB Etienne Sabino, New York Giants

PENN STATE

OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers

PURDUE

CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WISCONSIN

CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
12:00
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Happy Friday.
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.
Taylor Martinez/Montee BallUS PresswireNebraska's Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin's Montee Ball both have experience playing in title games.
After the different -- but equally painful -- ways in which Nebraska lost Big 12 title games in 2009 and 2010, you wouldn't have blamed the Huskers for clamming up this week.

Their league championship memories aren't exactly rosy ones.

"We've kind of seen everything but a victory," senior tight end Ben Cotton told ESPN.com.

But Cotton and other Huskers veterans have been more than willing to rehash the past in recent days. They use their failings as fuel as they prepare for the third league title game in their careers Saturday night, when they face Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

Nebraska players don't need to be reminded of the last time their storied program captured a conference title. And they hope to party like it's 1999 on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"Me and [fellow tight end] Kyler Reed, we were talking, and in our opinion, we should have one or two rings on our hand already, and we let 'em slip away," Cotton said. "As a senior group, as the leaders of this team and as a team as a whole, we're going to do everything that we can to scratch and claw our way to that victory on Saturday."

They'll have to claw past a Wisconsin team that also is no stranger to the title game stage. Although the Big Ten championship is in just its second year, Wisconsin played in the inaugural event last December, outlasting Michigan State 42-39.

Michigan State outplayed Wisconsin for much of the game, but the Badgers did enough to win and earn their second straight trip to the Rose Bowl.

"I remember it being a lot of fun, being down there in Indy, but the game itself was a dogfight," Badgers center Travis Frederick recalled.

While Frederick downplays Wisconsin's previous title game experience, his teammates see benefits.

"It's important," Badgers junior linebacker Chris Borland said. "It'll calm guys' nerves a little bit, understanding we’ve been there before. It's almost like a bowl game atmosphere in a lot of ways. So guys will be able to deal with it well, and the older guys will help the younger guys who weren't there last year, who didn't contribute last year.

"Last year's experience is going to a long way to help us be comfortable come game time."

Although this year's title game isn't generating as much attention as its predecessor -- in large part because Wisconsin didn't win its division and has five losses -- the stakes haven't changed. The winning team punches its ticket to Pasadena.

"The environment was incredible -- the whole lights and cameras and just the fans screaming," said Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who had 137 rushing yards and three touchdowns, plus a receiving touchdown, in the 2011 championship game. "It was something that was very special. Just the energy we had on our sideline was great, and I'm really hoping that the same thing happens this weekend."

While Ball and the Badgers happily recall their title game appearance, the burn remains for Big Red. In 2009, the Huskers seemingly had No. 3 Texas beaten in the 2009 title game, thanks to one of the most dominant performances by a defender (Huskers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh) in recent college football history.

Nebraska appeared to secure a 12-10 win when the clock ran out following a Colt McCoy incompletion. But officials put one second back on the clock and Hunter Lawrence nailed a 46-yard field goal to give Texas the 13-12 victory.

"We tasted what it was like to win a championship for a few seconds there," Nebraska senior linebacker Will Compton said.

Cotton added that Nebraska "could've, should've, would've had that game."

The heartbreaking loss spurred the Huskers in a dominant performance in the Holiday Bowl and throughout the offseason, according to Cotton. It's what made the second title game loss even tougher to deal with.

Nebraska built a 17-0 lead against Oklahoma but watched it vanish in a flurry of mistakes as the Sooners rallied for a 23-20 victory.

"That one was a little more emotional for me because we got up on them and we just weren’t able to finish," Cotton said.

Nebraska has finished games much better this season, four times rallying from double-digit deficits in the second half to win. Since 1996, only one team (NC State in 2000) has recorded more double-digit second-half rallies in a season.

Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez was instrumental in this season's comebacks. He's looking to atone for a rough performance in the 2010 Big 12 title game, where he threw an interception in the end zone, lost a fumble and was sacked seven times.

"It's very motivating for our team and for the whole state of Nebraska," Martinez said this week. "They haven't had a conference championship since 1999, and we're really excited to go out there and play for a third one in the past four years. ...

"Hopefully, we can bring this one home."

Huskers WRs are 'perimeter warriors'

November, 14, 2012
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Whenever wide receiver recruits visit Nebraska, Kenny Bell doesn't try to sugarcoat the truth.

"I tell them, 'If you want to jog around and only work when routes are being run, then don't come here,'" Bell told ESPN.com. "'We only care about winning football games, and the best way to do that is by having a strong running game.'"

Nebraska might be the school of Johnny Rodgers and Irving Fryar, but for decades the first job of any Cornhuskers wide receiver has been to block. It's no coincidence that the team's current wide receiver coach, Rich Fisher, was a former star linebacker at Colorado. In the receivers' meeting room, Bell said, the stats that are featured on the walls relay which player has the most successful blocks and the most knockdowns.

[+] EnlargeQuincy Enunwa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQuincy Enunwa and the Nebraska receivers take as much pride in their physicality as they do in their playmaking.
"We don't care about yards after catch or receiving yards or receiving touchdowns," Bell said. "That's definitely at the bottom of our priority list. Coach Fisher always talks about being perimeter warriors, about wreaking havoc out there."

The receiving corps' ability to clear traffic on the outside is an underrated reason why Nebraska leads the Big Ten and ranks among the nation's best in rushing yards, at 269.3 per game. When Taylor Martinez or Ameer Abdullah turns the corner, they often have an open lane.

That's nothing new for the Huskers. What's different this year is that those receivers aren't just good blockers. They're also highly productive in the passing game.

Bell leads the way with 35 catches for 653 yards, which already ranks as the ninth-most receiving yards in team history. Quincy Enunwa, known as the most physical of the wideouts, has had some big moments himself, including a 110-yard game at Northwestern. Jamal Turner has come on of late, catching the game-winning touchdown at Michigan State and adding another score last week against Penn State. Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed have added playmaking ability at tight end; Reed hauled in a crucial 56-yard third-down catch late in last week's win.

"Every one of the skill players at Nebraska can take it the distance when they touch the football," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's pretty scary."

Last season, the Huskers' passing game was inconsistent as the receivers struggled with drops and Martinez reverted to some bad habits. Both Martinez and his wideouts have made great strides this season, turning Nebraska's offense into a truly balanced attack.

"They've given us a lot of big plays," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I think they've steadily improved as the season has gone on. … We play a lot of guys at the receiver position, and they've responded well and I think they complement each other."

Playing receiver in Lincoln is not easy. You have to be in good enough shape to line up repeatedly in the Huskers' hurry-up style, and strong enough to battle cornerbacks and safeties at the line of scrimmage. Enunwa, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, relishes the challenge.

"When you're a big guy and you see those DBs who are much smaller, you have to take advantage of that," he said. "Then we get into the passing game, they're already worn out and we're running past them and getting touchdowns, so it just helps so much."

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says he asks a lot of his wideouts, and several plays demand that a single receiver blocks two defenders. Bell took that to an extreme in the Michigan State game, disrupting four different Michigan State defenders to help spring a 71-yard touchdown run by Martinez.

"I knew I was going to get at least two, and I just got lucky with the other two guys who were flowing to the play," Bell says. "There wasn't too much praise that went around. I did my job. That's how we're coached."

It takes some coaching to get receivers prepared for Nebraska's style, as many wideouts don't do a lot of run blocking in high school. Divas need not apply. The program has not produced too many true star receivers over the years, and has never had a player post 1,000 yards receiving in a season. Heisman winner Rodgers holds the team record at 942 yards in 1972.

Running backs, mobile quarterbacks, the Blackshirts defense and even the offensive line are far more illustrious positions in Huskers history than receiver. Enunwa said he didn't know much about the history of the position group when Nebraska recruited him out of California.

"When I looked them up, it was all about blocking more than it was passing," the junior said. "This year, we worked on making both those things big."

So far so good for the Cornhuskers' perimeter warriors.
If you believe the Big Ten is truly a slow conference, a step or two behind the nation's elite leagues, tune into Saturday's game between Nebraska and Michigan State.

Keep a close eye on Nebraska receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner, as they line up against Michigan State cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. And prepare to change your mind about Big Ten speed. There will be plenty of it on the field at Spartan Stadium.

"Johnny Adams can run like the wind," Bell told ESPN.com this week. "He's the first guy in our conference that I can see who can legitimately run with every single one of our wide receivers. Dennard is a great athlete, physical guy, makes plays in the open field. ... I'm really looking forward to seeing our offense vs. their defense."

The Big Ten's top two units match up -- Nebraska leads the league in offense (489.1 ypg), while Michigan State is No. 1 in defense (267.4 ypg) -- and it should be especially intriguing to see who has the edge on the perimeter. Bell is the Big Ten's top big-play wideout, averaging a whopping 21.1 yards per reception with six touchdowns. Turner averages 13.6 yards per catch, while Enunwa averages 12 yards per catch. Tight end Kyler Reed also averages 13.3 yards per catch.

Bell has 10 receptions of 20 yards or longer, and Nebraska has recorded at least three such passes as a team in six of its eight games.

"Those guys are very, very good receivers," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Kenny Bell, I believe he's the third leading receiver in the conference. He's got great hands, a dynamic player ... They're big, physical guys that catch the ball very efficiently and go downfield with it. It'll be a challenge for our guys."

Michigan State surrenders just 5.5 yards per completion. Unlike some Big Ten corners who play off the line against the speedy Husker wideouts, Adams and Dennard will challenge them.

"It's just one of the important matchups," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "... I like our our receivers. I think they're really good players. They're going to be challenged. Those guys [Adams and Dennard] get up in your face and play hard.

"Like a lot of other matchups, it's going to be one of the ones that we want to win."

Martinez engineers Nebraska rally

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
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LINCOLN, Neb. – Statistically, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez fared only slightly better in the second half Saturday night than the first.

He rushed for 42 yards before halftime, 65 after. He completed 10 of 13 throws before halftime, 7 of 16 after.

Reality, though, tells it differently. Martinez, the junior quarterback, continued to come of age at Memorial Stadium. He led the Huskers from a pair of 17-point deficits to a 30-27 victory over Wisconsin by producing perhaps his most courageous effort in three seasons as the Nebraska starter.

“There are games like this for Taylor where he has been in a tailspin and gone the other way,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “Not this time. Not tonight. You have to be proud of that kid.”

Martinez, after fumbling on the Huskers’ opening possession of the third quarter, directed a pair of touchdown drives on the next two drives that flipped momentum.

It was a performance unlike even what he did a season ago as Nebraska rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Ohio State. The Huskers relied more on big defensive plays and the legs of I-back Rex Burkhead in that one.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Nati Harnik"He made plays when he had to," one Nebraska coach said of Taylor Martinez. "He did what a good quarterback does to win."
This was clearly Martinez’s comeback.

With the Huskers down 27-10 after Montee Ball scored following the third-quarter Martinez fumble, the QB took Nebraska on a four-play, 77-yard march. He connected with Kenny Bell for a 20-yard completion and handled the final 38 yards with a rush through the heart of the Badgers’ defense.

“I thought that was a big answer,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It got momentum going for us.”

Pelini said the Huskers were “kind of asleep” early on Saturday night as Wisconsin jumped to leads of 14-0 and 20-3.

If so, Martinez awoke them.

He directed a 10-play, 75-yard drive after the touchdown run, hitting Jamal Turner for 27 yards, then tight end Kyler Reed for a 10-yard score on third-and-4 with 3:47 to play in the third quarter.

“He put in a spot only I could catch it,” Reed said. “It was a tight window.”

A pair of field goals by Brett Maher put the Huskers ahead for good.

Martinez, on those scoring drives, helped his team by avoiding the mistake. Too often in that situation, he’s forced throws or lost composure. It happened Sept. 8 in the second half against UCLA, a 36-30 Nebraska loss.

“Taylor has gotten so much more confident,” tight end Ben Cotton said. “He’s matured so much.”

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Martinez ran as hard against Wisconsin as in any game he’s played at Nebraska.

“He made plays when he had to,” Beck said. “He did what a good quarterback does to win.”

Martinez deflected credit. He praised Beck. He recognized the Nebraska defense for holding Wisconsin to seven points in the second half and for stopping the Badgers on their final drive that ended on Ball's fourth-down fumble near midfield with just more than one minute to play.

“We’ve been in that situation before,” Martinez said.

Maybe so, but he had never responded with such resolve.

Despite his spot in second place on the all-time Nebraska total-offense chart and status among 25 quarterbacks in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and throw for more than 4,000, Martinez faces plenty of critics.

They question his throwing mechanics and ability to win with his arm.

In the days before this game, Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert was harsh in his analysis of Martinez.

Martinez heard.

Gilbert got the third-quarter sack of Martinez, forcing the fumble that Chris Borland recovered. But Martinez got the final word.

So did he say anything to Gilbert?

No, Martinez said with a big smile after the game.

“Wish I did,” he said. “Should have.”

But that’s football, Martinez said. He’s glad Gilbert talked. Maybe it played a role in the comeback -- and the quarterback’s big night.

Big Ten lunch links

August, 2, 2012
8/02/12
12:00
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Which links made it to the medal stand today?
CHICAGO -- Bo Pelini has relayed a simple message to Nebraska’s players this offseason.

It's time.

After no conference championships since 1999, Nebraska is focused on ending the drought in its second year as a Big Ten member. Although several Huskers players spoke openly this spring about winning a national title, Pelini made it clear that the first step is getting to Indianapolis on Dec. 1 -- and winning.

"We've been too close to not have a championship right now," senior tight end Kyler Reed told ESPN.com. "It started with Bo, and it spread throughout the team. That was the first message he had for us this winter, after training started. It's been since '99 that Nebraska had a conference championship. That's the goal. We're not even talking national. Just Big Ten championship."

Nebraska reached the Big 12 title game in 2009 and 2010, falling seconds shy of a victory in the first game and taking an early lead in the second before collapsing. The Huskers moved to their new league pegged by many as the preseason favorite, but they ended up finishing third in the Legends division.

Although division competitors Michigan and Michigan State likely will enter the season rated higher than the Huskers, Nebraska returns its core on offense and could be a deeper defensive team. The Huskers are undoubtedly more comfortable in their second Big Ten go-round.

"You don't want to put that added pressure on," senior running back Rex Burkhead said, "but [a league title] is our expectation. If we don't achieve it, we feel like we've fallen short. Especially being in those two Big 12 title games and being so close, we feel like it is time.

"Coach Bo's done a tremendous job here, and we don't want to let him down."
On Wednesday, we ranked the top individual wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten heading into 2012. So of course that means it's time to look at the position group as a whole throughout the league. Remember, we're weighing past performance heavily here with consideration given to potential.

It's go time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Minnesota: Quick, name a Minnesota receiver. If you're not a Gophers fan, you probably are still thinking. This is a group of largely unknown guys who'll have to raise their profile this fall. Brandon Green, Malcolm Moulton and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the leading returning receivers. Transfer Isaac Fruechte and some youngsters will be counted on to contribute. Senior John Rabe brings experience to the tight end spot.
The Big Ten has announced its player lineup for preseason media days and the annual kickoff luncheon, to be held July 26-27 in Chicago. All 12 head coaches will be in attendance.

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will speak on behalf of the players at the kickoff luncheon July 27. He has a very tough act to follow (Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins hit a home run with his speech in 2011), but it's great to see Robinson, shy and reserved at the start of his career, reach this point.

Here's the full lineup:

ILLINOIS

Michael Buchanan, DE, senior
Graham Pocic, C, senior
Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, junior

INDIANA

Larry Black, DT, senior
Will Matte, C, senior
Adam Replogle, DT, senior

IOWA

James Ferentz, C, senior
Micah Hyde, CB, senior
James Vandenberg, QB, senior

MICHIGAN

Jordan Kovacs, S, senior
Taylor Lewan, OT, junior
Denard Robinson, QB, senior

MICHIGAN STATE

Max Bullough, LB, senior
Andrew Maxwell, QB, junior
Chris Norman, LB, senior

MINNESOTA

Keanon Cooper, LB, senior
MarQueis Gray, QB, senior
Ed Olson, OT, junior

NEBRASKA

Rex Burkhead, RB, senior
Will Compton, LB, senior
Kyler Reed, TE, senior

NORTHWESTERN

Kain Colter, QB, junior
Brian Mulroe, G, senior
David Nwabuisi, LB, senior

OHIO STATE

Zach Boren, FB, senior
Etienne Sabino, LB, junior
John Simon, DE, senior

PENN STATE

Jordan Hill, DT, senior
Silas Redd, RB, junior
John Urschel, G, senior

PURDUE

Ricardo Allen, CB, junior
Kawann Short, DT, senior
Caleb TerBush, QB, senior

WISCONSIN

Montee Ball, RB, senior
Mike Taylor, LB, senior
Ricky Wagner, OT, senior

Some quick thoughts:
  • Of the years I've covered Big Ten media days, this is one of the better player contingents. It includes seven quarterbacks, which is a so-so number, but Robinson, Vandenberg, Gray, Scheelhaase, Colter and TerBush are all recognizable names, and it's good to see Michigan State acknowledging Maxwell's leadership role by bringing him to media days as a first-year starter. Ball is an obvious choice, and it's good to see him on the list.
  • That said, there are always players I'd love to see at this event who aren't attending. Michigan State defensive end William Gholston is at the top of my list. He's a national awards candidate and a guy who would get a lot of attention in Chicago. Would he hug it out with Michigan's Lewan? Unlikely. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez isn't the best talker, but he seems to be slowly warming up to the media. It'd also be great to see Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, although he's just a sophomore. If someone from Nebraska can get wide receiver Kenny Bell to Chicago, my fellow scribes and I would be eternally grateful.
  • Purdue bringing TerBush is significant, as it further acknowledges him as a team leader and the top quarterback entering fall camp. He exited the spring as the Boilers' top signal-caller, and while Robert Marve and Rob Henry are lurking, TerBush remains the man to beat.
  • Best talkers among the group: Scheelhaase, Hyde, Vandenberg, Lewan, Gray, Nwabuisi, Compton, Redd, Short and Ball.

What are you thoughts on the media-day rundown? Any surprises?
Back in May, Brian Bennett wrote about the tight end position being a potential strength for the Big Ten in 2012. Last season wasn't a banner year for Big Ten tight ends, but the combination of returning players and new coaches (Bill O'Brien, Urban Meyer) who feature tight ends in their offenses suggests an uptick is on the way.

The John Mackey Award selection committee evidently agrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota's Matt Spaeth (2006) is the last Big Ten winner of the Mackey Award.
This week, I asked you to select the Big Ten's strongest position and weakest position entering the 2012 season. The results are definitive and, quite frankly, not very surprising.

Strongest position: Running back (53 percent)

Weakest position: Wide receiver (59 percent)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebraska's wide receivers/tight ends: Brandon Kinnie is the only significant departure in the group, which should be a bigger part of the offense if quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to progress. Speedster Kenny Bell looks like a No. 1 wideout, and Quincy Enunwa should see his numbers increase. Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence, and the Huskers have some talented young players in Jamal Turner and incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp. Nebraska also brings back two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed).
The calendar has flipped to June, so it's time to check the Big Ten 2013 recruiting scorecard once again. There haven't been too many changes from the last scorecard, although teams like Illinois have made a surge, and others have picked up pieces here and there. Individual recruiting grades also have been updated throughout the ESPN database.

Michigan still leads the FBS in verbal commits with 18, although teams like Georgia and Texas A&M are closing the gap. The Wolverines have a bigger advantage in ESPN 150 commits with 11 total, three more than any other squad.

Ohio State is tied for fifth nationally in ESPN 150 commits with five, and Penn State is tied for 10th with three.

Scorecard time ...

MICHIGAN

2013 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Fellow offensive line recruits Logan Tuley-Tillman and Kyle Bosch have been in the headlines this week following Tuley-Tillman's letter-burning incident, but Michigan has secured the nation's No. 1-rated guard in David Dawson from Cass Tech in Detroit. Dawson is the No. 2 player in the state behind fellow Wolverines commit Shane Morris.

ESPN 150 selections: 11

Highest rated: Shane Morris, QB (Grade of 87)

OHIO STATE

2013 verbal commitments: 11

Spotlight: Ohio State might solidify the cornerback position for years to come in the 2013 class. Both of the Buckeyes' top-rated prospects, Eli Woodward and Cam Burrows, play cornerback. Ohio State will have one vacancy at cornerback after the 2012 season, and Woodward and Burrows have the skills to see the field early in their careers.

ESPN 150 selections: 6

Highest rated: Eli Woodard, CB (Grade of 89)

ILLINOIS

2013 verbal commitments: 10

Spotlight: May was a productive month for the Illini, who picked up four commitments, including one from another Detroit Cass Tech player, defensive tackle Kenton Gibbs. At 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, Gibbs won't need to get much bigger to help Illinois on the interior defensive line.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: Aaron Bailey, QB (Grade of 80)

IOWA

2013 verbal commitments: 8

Spotlight: Defensive end David Kenney III seems to fit the mold of previous Iowa defensive linemen. He might be able to play both line spots, and has the ability to power rush off of the edge. Along with defensive tackles Brant Gressel and Nathan Bazata, Iowa is putting together a strong group of defensive linemen in this class.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: David Kenney III, DE (Grade of 80)

PENN STATE

2013 verbal commitments: 8

Spotlight: The Lions hope defensive tackle prospect Greg Webb is their next dominant defensive tackle. But Webb will have to bounce back from an injury setback after he tore his ACL in February. Webb recently told Statecollege.com that his recovery is going well, and that he's ahead of schedule.

ESPN 150 selections: 3

Highest rated: Christian Hackenberg, QB (Grade of 89)

NEBRASKA

2013 verbal commitments: 8

Spotlight: The Huskers lose two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed) after this season, but they're replenishing the position with Greg Hart from Bo Pelini's home state of Ohio. Hart already is a big target at 6-4, 225, who should fit in well with Tim Beck's offense.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: Tre'vell Dixon, Athlete (Grade of 82)

MICHIGAN STATE

2013 verbal commitments: 7

Spotlight: Michigan State's last superstar linebacker named Jones, Greg Jones, attended Cincinnati's Archbishop Moeller High School. The Spartans are hoping for the same success with commit Shane Jones, a 6-1, 220-pound linebacker. Jones will join another Moeller alum, defensive end Marcus Rush, in East Lansing.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: Damion Terry, QB (Grade of 82)

WISCONSIN

2013 verbal commitments: 6

Spotlight: Defensive end Chikwe Obasih continued Wisconsin's pipeline to Brookfield, Wis., with his verbal commitment in late April. He'll play multiple positions in a 3-4 defense as a senior before joining the Badgers' 4-3 scheme in 2013.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

Highest rated: Jack Keeler, T and Garret Dooley, LB (Grade of 79)

NORTHWESTERN

2013 verbal commitments: 2

Spotlight: Matt Alviti resembles recent Northwestern quarterbacks in that he lacks height but makes up for it with speed, arm strength and competitiveness. A Dan Persa clone? Wildcats fans would be thrilled if that's the case.

ESPN 150 selections: 1

Highest rated: Matt Alviti, QB (Grade of 84)

PURDUE

2013 verbal commitments: 2

Spotlight: Defensive end Randy Gregory originally committed to Purdue in 2011 before heading to a junior college in Arizona. Several other schools pursued Gregory, but he pledged again to the Boilers, and will suit up in 2013.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

MINNESOTA

2013 verbal commitments: 1

Spotlight: Cornerback Keelon Brookins is Minnesota's only verbal so far, but the Gophers had only two players committed at this time last year. So it's too soon to press the panic button. It will be interesting to see how well second-year coach Jerry Kill and his staff do within the state. They had 10 Minnesota players in last year's class.

ESPN 150 selections: 0

INDIANA

2013 verbal commitments: 0

Spotlight: The Hoosiers are one of four major-conference programs -- Iowa State, Oregon State and Wake Forest are the others -- without a commitment for 2013. This is a departure from the end of the Bill Lynch era, when Indiana was among the Big Ten's leaders in early commits.
When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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