Big Ten: Lance Smith

 
 AP Photo/Andy Manis
 Can P.J. Hill eclipse the 1,212 rushing yards he racked up last season?

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

P.J. Hill doesn't know who started the tradition at Wisconsin, but he'd like to find out.

It could have been Brian Calhoun, the nation's fourth-leading rusher in 2005. Or maybe it was Anthony Davis, who eclipsed 1,400 rushing yards in both 2001 and 2002. Perhaps it traces all the way back to Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, the most decorated running back in team history.

At the end of each practice, Hill and the other Badgers running backs get together and chant, "Dog pound, woo!" before heading to the locker room.

"I don't know how long it's been here," Hill said, "but I think it's pretty good. Dogs are a tough group, very tough, and that's what we want to be, as tough as a dog pound."

The Badgers certainly look the part.

Hill, a 236-pound junior, headlines the group after leading the team in rushing the last two seasons. The Badgers also bring back capable reserve Zach Brown, who started the final four games as a true freshman last season, racking up 450 rushing yards and four touchdowns in that span. And Wisconsin fans finally get a look at John Clay, a 6-foot-2, 237-pound redshirt freshman who many consider the back of the future.

A fourth running back, Lance Smith, was expected to contribute as well this season before being dismissed from the team Aug. 4. Despite Smith's loss, Wisconsin will rival Ohio State for the Big Ten's deepest and best rushing attack this fall.

"When we have the ball in our hands, we do a lot," Hill said. "Very talented, different types of skill. That's what I like about this group. We have nothing against each other. It's like a brotherhood."

The Badgers backs also benefit from a system designed to feature them. The trendy spread offense hasn't reached Madison, and Wisconsin runs a scheme designed to punish and wear down defenses with big backs and bigger offensive linemen.

"Everybody else is running the spread," Brown said, "and for us to do something different, it makes other defensive coordinators put more work in to try and stop it. This type of offense is smash-mouth football, but to be unique is great. I love it."

Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst acknowledged that Smith, who rushed for 429 yards last year in only eight games, had the most distinct skill set of the runners. Though the Badgers might miss having a change-up back, they benefit from having experience with both Hill and Brown.

Hill finished with 1,212 rushing yards last season but took some heat from some fans for his size and not staying healthy. He made it through his first offseason program without any injury issues and looks to become the fifth Badgers running back since 1946 to lead the team in rushing in three consecutive seasons.

"We certainly know what Zach is and P.J. is, but also, it's a new year for them," Chryst said. "How have they changed?"

Brown maintains he and the other backs aren't concerned about how carries will be divided this fall. Opposing defenses will have to worry about all of the backs.

"It's always going to be a change of pace because it's fresh legs," Brown said. "They're not going to know what to expect."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten preseason has seemed downright boring compared to the rest of the country.

There's no Mark Sanchez or Ben Olson crisis in this league, and though Ohio State has endured a few recent off-the-field incidents, the Buckeyes have nothing on Georgia. None of the four major quarterback competitions -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- are settled, and the one in Ann Arbor could drag on for some time. Wisconsin dismissed running back Lance Smith, but the Badgers remain well-stocked at the position. Penn State dismissed defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Chris Baker but still have depth at the position.

If the first two weeks of preseason practice have revealed anything, it's that a position that seemed weak in the league could be much better than forecasted.

The Big Ten lost seven of its top 10 receivers from last season, a group that included three-time league receptions leader Dorien Bryant, big-play dynamo Devin Thomas, Indiana career receiving leader James Hardy and Michigan stars Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Aside from Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern, every Big Ten team entered camp with some degree of uneasiness about the wide receivers.

Michigan State and Indiana lost superstars. Michigan lost almost everybody. So did Purdue. Illinois and Minnesota needed second options. Iowa welcomed back several prominent pass-catchers from injuries. Wisconsin was very young at the position.

The anxiety level has dropped quite a bit.

Illinois, which will stress the pass more this fall, has produced several good candidates to complement Arrelious Benn, including juniors Jeff Cumberland and Chris Duvalt, sophomores Chris James and Alex Reavy and freshmen Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott. Highly touted Fred Smith will make an impact this fall at Michigan State, but he's been overshadowed a bit by classmate Keshawn Martin. Michigan's young wideouts impressed first-year coach Rich Rodriguez from the get-go, and the Wolverines will lean on players like Darryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Toney Clemons and Junior Hemingway come Aug. 30.

I was extremely impressed after watching Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath, a big-play threat with tremendous speed. Though I didn't see Purdue practice after media day, junior-college transfer Arsenio Curry certainly looks like he can contribute alongside Greg Orton. Playmaker Andy Brodell is back in the fold at Iowa, and sophomore Colin Sandeman looks to be pushing incumbent Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the starting job. Ray Fisher and Andrew Means headline a group of Indiana wideouts that also include some promising freshmen.

There has been so much buzz about the spread offense sweeping through the Big Ten. It looks like the league will have the moving parts to make those schemes work this fall.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- I'm headed home, but I'll have much more on Purdue, Illinois and the rest of the Big Ten in the coming days.

There was some news today out of Wisconsin, where former Badgers running back Lance Smith was sentenced to 20 days in jail. Smith, dismissed from the team Aug. 4, violated the terms of a first-offender program he entered after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of battery and disorderly conduct. He was arrested last July following a physical altercation with his girlfriend. Here's more on the case from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Capital Times.

Elsewhere:

Big Ten mailbag

August, 12, 2008
8/12/08
1:41
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Another overdue mailbag. I'll run some gassers later today.

As Charlie Weis would say, fire away.

Dan from Minneapolis writes: Adam, you pointed out the unique nature of first time coaches in the UM - MSU rivalry. I also wanted to point out uniqueness about first time coaches in the UM - OSU rivalry. Aside from Cooper, going back to WW Hayes, first time coaches have WON their first meeting in the series. Correct me if I am wrong but that is quite impressive

Adam Rittenberg writes: You're correct, first-time coaches have fared well in the Michigan-Ohio State series, perhaps because the games typically are played later in the season when coaches have a better feel for their teams. Woody Hayes lost his first meeting with Michigan, 7-0, in 1951, but Earle Bruce beat the Wolverines in 1979 and Jim Tressel did the same in 2001. The Buckeyes went through four coaches during the 1940s who went 1-2-1 against Michigan. Michigan hasn't had a coach lose his first game against Ohio State since Harry Kipke in 1929. Kipke's first game, interestingly enough, was played midway through the season on Oct. 19. Rich Rodriguez will have a tough task to keep Michigan's run alive, but it helps that the game is at the end of the season.


Zach from Sumpter, S.C. writes: Adam, I'm a Purdue Boilermaker grad and Air Force officer stationed down in the heart of SEC and ACC country. Its rough being a Big Ten fan down here and not getting the usual dose of Big Ten and Purdue football news that was readily available back when I was living in West Lafayette, so I appreciate your blog. My question to you is this: who would you pick to be the top three darkhorse teams to crack the top three spots in the conference aside from the preseason list of favorites like Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State; and provided darkhorses do emerge how would you forecast the conference standings to look at the end of conference play? Finally, I have one sort of "biased" question for you. Do you see Purdue cracking the top three in the conference as a darkhorse candidate? We are returning a ton of seniors to both offense and defense this year and while not all are returning starters, this large corps of seniors will be leading our talented juniors and sophomores. If injuries are kept to a minimum and things go well on and off the field, I feel Purdue could have a strong showing this year. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg writes: Zach, thanks very much for the note. I would put Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan in the "dark horse" category, though I wouldn't call Illinois a dark horse after last season's Rose Bowl run. Michigan State has some momentum after last season but a lot of preseason hype to back up in its opener at Cal. Michigan will be a big mystery until Aug. 30. Purdue could make a run, especially if the offensive line stays healthy, but I don't see the Boilers finishing in the top three. The schedule is brutal with Oregon, Central Michigan and Notre Dame to go along with trips to Ohio State and Michigan State. A lot depends on how quarterback Curtis Painter performs in those big games. 


Ross from Minneapolis writes: Do you have any interviews with Iowa players or coaches coming up in the B10 blog? I love the blog, but I haven't seen many interviews with any Hawkeye players or coaches, aside from a very good interview with Ferentz right before B10 Media Day. Have they not available for comment? Thanks.

Adam Rittenberg writes: I've received several e-mails about this and wanted to address it. Iowa has very limited access to players and assistant coaches during the preseason. I was sent to Michigan's practice the day of the Hawkeyes' media day [Aug. 4], and because of a conflict, I can't attend the scrimmage this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. I've been informed that coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't permit players to do phone interviews before the first game. The blog will definitely feature the Hawkeyes more after the season gets underway, but for now, I'll do what I can.  


Steve from Hoboken [I'll assume it's N.J.] writes: What is your take on the Justin Boren situation? I'm a UM alum and tend to believe the scuttlebut that Boren never seemed fully committed to the program, but I also can't tell the extent to which it's sour grapes. I do find it interesting that all the cheap shots have been fired by the Boren camp. (I suppose that comment could be construed as sour grapes also)

Adam Rittenberg writes: Every coaching change prompts transfers and unhappy players. Obviously the difference here is the guy transferred to Michigan's archrival. I doubt RichRod and his staff keep things G-rated during practice, but on the other hand, this is football. As the late Randy Walker used to say, "it's not koom-ba-ya out there." My guess is Boren won't sound off too much more until the Michigan game, though you've got to wonder how much his comments rankled his former teammates. This will be a hot story the next three years until Boren graduates.


Brendan from Maryland writes: What kind of QB system do you think penn state will employ, and how would each QB affect the team when they are on the field?

Adam Rittenberg writes: Penn State will use more of a spread offense this season, and the idea is not to have too much variation between the two quarterbacks, if the Lions choose to play both. It means Daryll Clark, the likely starter, needs to prove himself as a passer and exploit the senior-laden receiving corps. It also means Pat Devlin needs to display his ability as a running threat. If a quarterback, especially a first-year starter, can be categorized, defenses will find a way to stop him. That's why Penn State will look for versatility from both candidates. 


Greg from Princeton, N.J., writes: Are the Badgers' running back corps still the best in the Big Ten even after Lance Smith was dismissed from the team. How will this affect Wisconsin this season?

Adam Rittenberg writes: A Wisconsin source told me the group dynamic among the running backs has improved without Smith. Though he certainly would have helped this fall, Wisconsin is still pretty stacked back there. It puts a little bit more pressure on backup Zach Brown, who has a different body type and style from starter P.J. Hill and John Clay. Smith and Brown are comparable. Ultimately, the key for Wisconsin could be Clay, who has all the tools to be a star but is still grasping the system. A couple times during Saturday's scrimmage he didn't know where to line up. One time he found his place at the last minute, took the handoff and still gained about seven yards.


Bill from Terre Haute, Ind., writes: Why no love for the hoosier in any of your rankings? You need to look harder into what they got coming back. Dont be surprised if they end up with 9 wins this year, especially if Finch is cleared to play.

Adam Rittenberg writes: Jerimy Finch would certainly provide a boost if the NCAA allows him to play [not sure how much luck Indiana will have], and safety Austin Thomas is a nice player. But cornerback will be a mystery until the opener. You can't discount what Indiana lost at that position -- Tracy Porter was very underrated around the country. As for the team as a whole, the schedule is beneficial, with eight home games and no Michigan or Ohio State. I'm still not sold on the defense, but 7-8 wins is definitely possible.

Big Ten power rankings

August, 5, 2008
8/05/08
11:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten Power Rankings
RankTeamAnalysis
1.Easily the Big Ten's most complete team, the Buckeyes have few position competitions and many more answers than questions in preseason practice. They must figure out how to use freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor and identify a third starting linebacker [Ross Homan?] alongside standout tandem James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman.
2.The Badgers' hold on the No. 2 spot is a bit shaky. Lance Smith's dismissal provides one less option out of the backfield, though Wisconsin remains very strong in the run game. The key here is health, particularly along the defensive line and in the secondary. Can Allan Evridge finally separate himself in the quarterback competition? We'll find out soon enough.
3.Depth is a bit of a concern at defensive tackle after coach Joe Paterno dismissed Phil Taylor and Chris Baker, but junior Jared Odrick and sophomore Ollie Ogbu have ample experience there. Penn State has options at the offensive skill positions and, unlike some teams, could benefit from a two-quarterback system as Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin bring different strengths.
4.The defense could be one of the league's sleeper units, as ends Will Davis and Derek Walker fortify the front and NFL prospect Vontae Davis anchors the secondary. Running back remains the biggest question, though junior Daniel Dufrene will have every chance to win the job. A reliable running back and another strong receiver could move Illinois up the list.
5.The freshman offensive skill players impressed coach Rich Rodriguez on Monday and give Michigan more options. There will undoubtedly be growing pains at quarterback, but if the offensive line jells after getting into better shape this spring and summer, the offense could be serviceable by Aug. 30. If a few solid linebackers emerge during the coming weeks, Michigan's defense should be among the league's best.
6.Is this the year Michigan's "little brother" overtakes the Wolverines? Michigan State enters the fall oozing optimism after an encouraging 2007 season. If several receivers emerge and coach Mark Dantonio puts a greater imprint on the defense, Michigan State could back up the preseason hype and cause a stir throughout the Big Ten.
7.The Boilermakers could have a tough time holding their place, as the schedule doesn't do them many favors. Then again, having a senior quarterback with video-game statistics [Curtis Painter] always helps. Purdue needs its veteran offensive linemen healthy when camp opens Sunday and must find a third linebacker to complement Anthony Heygood and Jason Werner.
8.Stocked with offensive skill players, the Wildcats turn their focus to the line in camp. If several capable players emerge by Aug. 30, Northwestern should be potent in the no-huddle spread shaped by new coordinator Mick McCall. Linebacker is the area of concern on defense, though new coordinator Mike Hankwitz must find a way to get more out of a defensive line that has underachieved in recent years.
9.Quarterback Jake Christensen's job appears safe for now, but the spotlight will be on a group of running backs that welcomes back former Hawkeye Shonn Greene. If Greene regains his 2006 form and the offensive line jells, Iowa could easily move up the list. But there are far too many questions in the backfield and at cornerback after the losses of Charles Godfrey and Adam Shada.
10.Once again, here's a team that could move up, especially with quarterback Kellen Lewis back in the fold. The questions here are typical for a team coming off a breakthrough after a lengthy layoff. How will pass rusher Greg Middleton respond to increased attention? Can Ray Fisher and baseball standout Andrew Means fill the void left by James Hardy at wide receiver? Is Matt Mayberry the answer at linebacker? We'll find out soon.
11.New defensive coordinator Ted Roof says there are no quick fixes, but an influx of junior-college transfers gives the Gophers a chance to stop people, something they rarely did last season. Minnesota needs a reliable running back to complement talented quarterback Adam Weber, and a group of incumbents on defense should have added motivation to keep their jobs -- and move up the list.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- My Big Ten tour continues Tuesday at Michigan State, which begins its media day around 8 a.m. ET. Offensive players and coaches are up first, followed by defensive players and coaches. Head coach Mark Dantonio meets the media at 11:30 a.m. ET, and I'll head to watch the first portion of practice this afternoon. 

For the e-mailers ragging me for flooding the blog with Michigan material Monday, this is how it's going to work. When I'm at a particular school, that school's team will be featured throughout the day. I'll try not to neglect what's going on around the league, but one team will take precedence. The good thing is I'm going to visit almost every Big Ten school before the season, so if you're wondering when Ohio State or Penn State get top billing, just be patient.

It was a busy Monday around the Big Ten as 10 teams opened practice. Here's a look at each one:

ILLINOIS

INDIANA

IOWA

MICHIGAN

  • Michigan's media rights belong to IMG, which paid $86 million in a 12-year deal, John Ourand writes in Sports Business Journal. IMG already owns Michigan's radio rights but will pick up corporate sponsorships and coaches' endorsements.

MICHIGAN STATE

  • Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones has bulked up during the summer, the Lansing State Journal's Joe Rexrode writes in his blog. 
  • The team on the field isn't the only thing looking glossy at Michigan State. The football team's new headquarters is getting rave reviews, Steve Grinczel writes. 

NORTHWESTERN

  • Former Kansas City Chiefs star center Jack Rudnay, a Northwestern alum, addressed the team on the first day of practice. 

OHIO STATE

PENN STATE

  • Who will win Penn State's quarterback job? Who steps up at defensive tackle after the dismissals of Phil Taylor and Chris Baker? The Philadelphia Enquirer's Jeff McLane takes a look
  • Mark Wogenrich of The (Allentown) Morning Call weighs in on what to watch in Penn State's camp.

WISCONSIN

  • Reserve running back Lance Smith has run out of chances at Wisconsin after his latest slip-up. He remains eligible and will look to play elsewhere, but his Badgers' career is over. Coach Bret Bielema really had little choice here after sticking his neck out for Smith last summer. The Badgers still have enough depth at running back, though an injury to P.J. Hill or Zach Brown could raise the anxiety level. 
  • The Capital Times' Jim Polzin breaks down the first day of practice. Junior cornerback Josh Nettles and two incoming freshmen aren't on the roster,

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Hope you enjoyed Hater Tuesday. There will be a little carry-over today, as I boldly make predictions on the league's top rivalries. But first, here's a look at what's happening around the league.

  • High praise for Ohio State's Beanie Wells from two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, who thinks the junior running back is "the closest thing to Jim Brown that I've ever seen," The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog.
  • Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr sounded off on several topics, including Rich Rodriguez's nasty departure from West Virginia and the outlook for the season.
  • Mike Barwis isn't the only strength coach in the state of Michigan, Dave Dye writes in The Detroit News. The Michigan State notebook also has an item about running back Javon Ringer possibly returning kicks this fall. Interesting.
  • A big check is supposed to travel from Ann Arbor to Morgantown by Thursday night, Mickey Furfari writes in The (Martinsburg, W.Va.) Journal.
  • In case you missed it, Illinois basketball player Jamar Smith may be in trouble again. If the allegations are true, this brings even more embarrassment to a program that should have cut ties with Smith a long, long time ago.
  • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus continues his position-by-position look at Wisconsin. Next up are the running backs, considered the team's deepest position group despite the legal problems of junior Lance Smith.
  • Joe Paterno's reaction to the Outside the Lines piece about Penn State's off-field issues could play a role in getting the longtime coach out the door, Bob Smizik writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  • Interesting but sad story about former Minnesota star Dominic Jones, who has gone from wearing No. 2 as a cornerback to wearing No. 00425759 as an inmate serving time for sexual assault, Rochelle Olson writes in The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.
  • Missed this one from CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd, who lists five things to watch in the Big Ten this fall. He likes Ohio State and Wisconsin, while Michigan should expect seven or eight wins in RichRod's first season.
  • After losing stud offensive tackle David Barrent to Michigan State, Iowa's 2009 recruiting needs a boost in a hurry, Andy Hamilton writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
  • Michigan State's Brian Hoyer hasn't forgotten the Champs Sports Bowl, as if anyone would let him, Alex Altman writes in The State News.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After being suspended indefinitely from the Wisconsin football team last week, running back Lance Smith faces a sentencing hearing Aug. 14, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus writes on the Badgers Blog. Smith was removed from a first-offender program for failing to meet requirements, and could receive up to a year in jail.

This certainly isn't good news for a player who seemed to dodge major trouble last season by pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of battery and disorderly conduct. He entered the first-offender program, which, if completed, would clear his record.

After appearing in home games last fall, Smith figured to push Zach Brown for the backup running back spot behind P.J. Hill in training camp, but now his future is very much in doubt.

Assuming Smith doesn't return in the immediate future, redshirt freshman John Clay will take on an even larger role in the Badgers' offense. Clay is a taller version of Hill and could be the team's back of the future.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

CHICAGO -- The first day of the Big Ten media meetings is in the books. Before seeing daylight for the first time since 7 a.m., I've got a couple of items. First, the day's biggest news came well after the coaches' interview sessions, as Wisconsin announced the suspension of junior running back Lance Smith.

Smith, as you might remember, was prohibited from playing in away games last season after being arrested and charged with battery of his girlfriend.

"It has come to my attention that Lance has failed to meet certain requirements relating to the first-offender program he was placed in last fall," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said in a statement.

Wisconsin didn't release any more information about Smith, citing FERPA.

Smith, who rushed for 429 yards last season, has been barred from games and practicing with the team. He remains on the roster. The junior was expected to share carries with starter P.J. Hill and reserves Zach Brown and John Clay this season.

Other notes from Day 1:

  • Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced that senior tackle Dace Richardson had another setback with his knee during the summer. Richardson, a highly rated recruit who was part of Iowa's stellar 2005 class, isn't expected to play again. "You always feel terrible any time someone's career has ended prematurely," Ferentz said.
  • Michigan running back Kevin Grady has been suspended following his drunken driving arrest earlier this month. Grady isn't allowed to train with the team but could rejoin the squad at some point. "He has to do certain things, and once he does that, there will be some playing-time penalties as well," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Then he's on a strict watch from there. He has to earn his way back."
  • Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was asked about the terse comments he made after last year's loss to Michigan. Dantonio had been set off by Michigan running back Mike Hart, who suggested the Spartans were Michigan's "little brother." "Hopefully, I've put that to bed," Dantonio said. "I spoke out of emotion. Rivalries are good for college football. We're going to embrace that rivalry."
  • Bielema, on Michigan being left out of the top three in the Big Ten preseason media poll: "It's probably a misprint."

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