Big Ten: Lawrence Thomas

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Sweat beads coalesced on Ron Burton's shaved head as he paced a packed ballroom at the Kentucky International Convention Center on Sunday night.

Coaches from just about every level of the game, from small high schools to major FBS programs, squeezed into the room and peppered Burton with questions during a "buzz session" at the American Football Coaches Association national convention. They wanted nuggets of wisdom from the man who has overseen one of the top position groups in the country as Michigan State's defensive line coach the past two seasons.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Scott Boehm/AP ImagesMichigan State defensive line coach Ron Burton welcomed the news Sunday that end Shilique Calhoun will return for his senior season.
Burton was happy to share some of his secrets. At one point, a coach asked about the Spartans' "pre-practice plan," and Burton swiped a page on his tablet and pulled up a detailed checklist on all the drills Michigan State's defensive linemen go through before and during practice.

"Merry Christmas," he said, as several attendees snapped cell phone pictures of the document from the overhead projector.

The 22-year coaching veteran also dished out pointers on how the Spartans teach minutiae such as stance and hand placement, how defensive linemen are taught to split double teams and execute a twist. But he didn't empty the entire cupboard.

He got tight-lipped when one coach asked how Michigan State uses its defensive ends to stop a power-read play. When another convention-goer asked a follow-up question about keying on the quarterback on that play, Burton shut it down.

"I'm not sharing that," he said. "That's all I'm going to tell you. I've got Iowa sitting here [in the crowd]. I got Tennessee sitting here. I see Nebraska over there. Let's not be first-graders."

Still, sessions like these at the convention are unique in that some of the experts in the coaching profession offer a master class in the finer points of the game to all who are interested. It helps grow the game.

"It's a motivating tool," Burton told ESPN.com afterward. "We've got a lot of competition. But it's all verbiage and how it's being taught. What I try to do is be as simple as I can while also being able to share and and not give away anything serious. Let them know the fundamentals of the game and the way it needs to be played. And do it in a fun way that forces people to think."

Burton was already having a great day Sunday. Earlier in the afternoon, star defensive end Shilique Calhoun announced he would return for his senior year rather than enter the NFL draft. Burton was in Louisville when Calhoun texted him the news.

"He's one of the key parts of this program, and I was glad to see him come back," Burton said. "I was pulling a hammy [celebrating], that's for sure."

Calhoun's return should help the Spartans field yet another dominant defensive line. They lose invaluable senior end Marcus Rush but bring back Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, rising sophomore Malik McDowell and others.

"We expect Malik to continue maturing this spring," Burton said. "We've got a nice group."

As he told the crowd at his buzz session, Burton wants first and foremost for his defensive linemen to attack up the field. Michigan State plays a 4-3 scheme and, he said, "We keep it simple because we ask our kids to play fast."

Some other things he told the coaches gathered in that ballroom:

  • "With youngsters, teach them to pass-rush first. Make them attack the line of scrimmage. That allows you to put a lot of young kids [out there] who are wild. That's what we do, and we take the good with the bad."
  • "Our defense was so-so this year. We flashed a couple times."
  • "We played 12 guys [on the line] my first year and 10 this past year. The fresh guy is better than the tired guy. ... Fans [will say] "Who's that in the game?" But we believe in that. We got into that situation in the Oregon game, where we had some tired guys. We didn't have that problem against Baylor."
  • "You've got to have a motor to play for us. If you don't have a motor, we've got a problem."

As he wrapped up his 45-minute presentation, Burton handed out one last piece of advice, and maybe the most important bit.

"Remember: What's our lifeblood?" he asked. "Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. It's like shaving -- you've got to do it every day."

Big Ten morning links

August, 25, 2014
8/25/14
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Game week is here. Let that sink in. Revel in it.

With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:

1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.

The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.

2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.

3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.

4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.

"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."

East Division
West Division
Notable

Big Ten lunch links

July, 25, 2014
7/25/14
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The Big Ten season unofficially begins Monday with media days. So enjoy the weekend, and then let's get after it.
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Cooper
Raj Mehta/USA TODAY SportsDemetrius Cooper has some talented players ahead of him on the depth chart, but he could be a real force on the Spartans' D-line.
Our series turns next to the defending champion Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans.

Spring breakout player: DE Demetrius Cooper

The sound you hear is the collective sigh of the Big Ten offensive coordinators, who are saying, "Oh, great. Another Michigan State defensive playmaker."

The Spartans have been pumping them out like a nearby Detroit factory line recently, and Cooper is the latest model. The 240-pound redshirt freshman turned heads all spring and then was a hurricane of disruption in the team's spring game. Coach Mark Dantonio has already compared him to reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Shilique Calhoun -- or at least when Calhoun was a freshman who flashed his talent on occasion.

The big question is where Cooper will find playing time, as Michigan State already has the best pair of veteran defensive ends in the league in Calhoun and senior Marcus Rush, not to mention the still-unfulfilled-but-tantalizing potential of Lawrence Thomas. Spartans coaches said after the spring game that Cooper could be used in third down pass-rushing situations, which would make sense for a young player who hasn't learned all the intricacies of the game yet.

The offense also found a potential breakout player in tight end Jamal Lyles, a former defensive end who made the switch to offense and could present matchup nightmares. Lyles could have an easier path to playing time than Cooper. But when betting on breakout players for Michigan State, it's usually wise to look toward their defensive assembly line first.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 16, 2014
4/16/14
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Is this heaven? Nope, still Iowa. But happy to be back.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 2, 2014
4/02/14
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Warren Buffett called. My bracket was so bad, he says I owe him $1 billion. D'oh!
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
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One week until Christmas. My early gift to you all: this mailbag.

Grant from San Francisco writes: I couldn't be happier about the news that Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi are apparently staying in East Lansing, and with Dantonio's desire to turn the MSU coaching job into a destination position as Tom Izzo has done with the basketball coaching job. With our dominating defense last year, and some pretty good recruiting wins on that side of the ball moving forward, the perception of stability that this decision gives to the program will be a great motivation tool for the squad heading into the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Max Bullough
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State loses several senior defenders in 2014, including linebacker Max Bullough.
My question is regarding the players that will remain on the defensive roster next year after the departure of seniors Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis, Micajah Reynolds, and Tyler Hoover. That means that almost half of our defensive starters will be replaced by their understudies. Of that group, who do you think will be the toughest to replace, given the future candidates for those positions?

Brian Bennett: Grant, Michigan State will have the best coaching move of the offseason if Narduzzi stays. I say "if" because the coaching carousel is far from over, and if the dominoes fall he could still be picked to lead another program. But as of right now, it looks as if Narduzzi will come back because there's not a great fit for him out there.

As for the players departing, the Spartans do lose a lot on defense. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun says he won't leave early for the NFL, which is a boost. The great thing for Michigan State is that the program has been able to build depth and move forward when players leave. Look at how Calhoun filled in for William Gholston, for instance. Trae Waynes has a chance to be the next great cornerback. Young guys like Ed Davis, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas show a lot of promise.

This is a special group of seniors, however, so it won't be easy to simply plug in new guys. I think the biggest void will be left by Bullough. Narduzzi will tell you he's the on-field brains of the defense and makes checks and adjustments on his own before the coaching staff does. A guy like that is difficult to find. Maybe Riley Bullough, who's moving back to defense, can begin to fill his older brother's shoes.

Rob from New York writes: After a legendarily humiliating season of nothing but complete failures and disastrous breakdowns in front of bleachers where tickets to the half-full first row cost a mere 40 cents at one point, just about the only thing Purdue fans have to be thankful for is that we didn't have any NCAA violation-related scandals this year, and that we managed to spend an entire year without one player tearing their ACL. Please give us Boilermaker fans some pointedly-lowercase hope: First, name one on-the-field task or position (other than punting, since Cody Webster is graduating) where Purdue's football team was at least able to consistently compete at the level that a Big Ten team is expected to do so. Second, if Purdue seems likely to win at least two games next year, name two reasons why this is so. Third, name three reasons why Morgan Burke shouldn't fire Darrell Hazell if he fails to garner a single victory against a Big Ten opponent or against Notre Dame next year.

Brian Bennett: Thanks for asking a Purdue question, Rob, since we haven't gotten many of those around here lately. I sense you're not exactly optimistic, and understandably so since the Boilermakers were just dreadful this past season.

The area of hope for the Boilers is in the passing game. Danny Etling showed a lot of promise as a freshman quarterback despite not having a great offensive line. He threw for 241 yards against Northern Illinois, 223 yards versus Penn State and a whopping 485 yards and four touchdowns vs Indiana. Granted, none of those defenses were actually very good against the pass, but for a 19-year-old to do that in his first collegiate season was still pretty impressive. Purdue also has some decent young receiving targets in DeAngelo Yancey, B.J. Knauf and Danny Anthrop. This program needs to get back to the Joe Tiller days of being able to chuck the ball all over the field.

You should expect some improvement in 2014, though it's probably going to be a slow process. Purdue has Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois on the nonconference schedule, so that's much easier than this year's tough slate. Hazell's team will also compete in the West Division, which looks a little bit easier than the East on paper (though missing Rutgers and Maryland is a bummer).

This was Burke's hire, and much like Mike Thomas at Illinois, he's going to give Hazell every chance to succeed. Two years is too early to bail on any coach unless there's some sort of scandal or gross mismanagement. Hang in there, Rob.

Benny N. from West Palm Beach, Fla., writes: In regards to the Selection Committee next year, how will the season rankings be determined? Will the committee determine rankings from week 1 on, or similar to the BCS will the committee come in midway through the season and give the "official" rankings? Yes, my Buckeyes still have a game to play but my mind can only think about next season.

Brian Bennett: At least your Buckeyes are playing close to your home, Benny. I'm excited about going down there and enjoying some warm weather and what looks like a pretty fun Discover Orange Bowl.

Anyway, according to what the committee has said, it will release a collective Top 25 every other week during the second half of the season. I find this wholly unnecessary. Why do we need to know who the committee thinks is ranked No. 25 when the members will only select four teams? Why does the committee need to start forming opinions about how to rank teams in October when it should consider a team's full body of work in December?

We've seen how the pollsters become entrenched on teams they ranked higher than others earlier. The basketball selection committee does not release any kind of poll and picks 68 teams for its tournament. This seems like a bad idea that will only serve to generate controversy and fodder for sports columns and blogs.

Wait. I mean, it's a great idea!

Bob N. from Grand Ledge, Mich., writes: You don't think the Coach's Poll is valid because "there still would be inherent conflicts of interest involving teams in a coach's own conference, his opponents, friends, etc." That may be true, but I trust coaches' knowledge of football far more than I do sports writers' knowledge. In fact most AP voters vote for teams they have never seen play and, therefore, have zero knowledge of more than a few teams. The writers are also obviously extremely prejudicial also about the conferences they write for,e.g., the SEC and ACC writers are all in for teams below the Mason-Dixon Line, but have disrespected the Big Ten all year, especially MSU. If sports writers knew what they think they do, they would be football coaches.

Brian Bennett: Bob, I've never pretended to know anywhere near as much about football as the coaches. Nor do I want to be a coach, because I like sleeping for more than three hours per night. If the coaches spent time watching lots of games from around the country, they would do a great job voting in a poll (although there would still be ridiculous conflicts of interest).

But the fact is coaches have insane tunnel vision. They know their team, and they know their opponents, and that's about it. This has happened many times before: A reporter asks a coach about another team in his own conference during the season, and if that team either isn't on the schedule or doesn't appear on the schedule for several weeks, the coach will say he hasn't seen that team and knows nothing about it. The only time coaches really ever watch anyone outside of their own schedule is on bye weeks, and it's a known fact that many coaches have their sports information directors or operations guys fill out the ballot for them.

All polls are horribly flawed. The coaches' poll just happens to be the most flawed. And its usefulness has ended.

Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: If you had to a pick a "Freshman Future All American" team right now, who from the B1G would be on it? In other words, which freshmen can you see being All Americans in the next year or so? Joey Bosa just turned into a beast this year. Michigan's Butt seems like a really good player, too. Anyone else?

Brian Bennett: Bosa would be up there. I'm wildly impressed with him, and it's hard to not get a J.J. Watt/Ryan Kerrigan vibe while watching him. The obvious name here is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. He could wind up setting a bunch of career records if he stays four years with Bill O'Brien as his coach. His teammate, Adam Breneman, also has all the tools to be one of the nation's best tight ends if he keeps developing.

Watch out for Wisconsin's Corey Clement as well. If Melvin Gordon goes pro early, Clement would likely have the Badgers' starting tailback job next year, and that usually translates into big numbers. It was a solid year for freshmen in the league, as highlighted on our all-freshman team. And that doesn't even count the guys who redshirted this year.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
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One more win, and it's on to the World Series.
We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.

Next up: the Michigan State Spartans.

SportsNation

What do you expect out of Michigan State in 2013?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,763)

Why they're contenders: Three words: Defense, defense, defense. The Spartans have had the best defense in the Big Ten -- and one of the best in the country -- the past two years, and that figures to continue in 2013. They're still deep and talented on that side of the ball, led by linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Pat Narduzzi will add some younger playmakers to the mix like Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Trae Waynes, and there's no reason to suspect that the defense will fall off from its elitel level. Even though Michigan State went just 6-6 in the regular season, it wasn't far away from contending, losing five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. A few key breaks went against Mark Dantonio's team -- ahem, that pass interference call vs. Nebraska -- and that luck could surely go the other way in 2013. Furthermore, after playing one of the more difficult schedules in the league last year, the Spartans catch a break with this season's slate. They don't play Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin from the Leaders Division, instead drawing Illinois, Purdue and Indiana as crossover opponents. All the Spartans really need to contend is some competency from the offense, which has a more experienced offensive line, more seasoned receivers and some actual competition at quarterback.

Why they're pretenders: Three words: offense, offense, offense. Michigan State simply couldn't score or move the ball when it needed to at times last season, and now its best two playmakers -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- are waiting for their NFL draft calls. Both running back and tight end were shaky positions this spring, so much so at tailback that linebacker Riley Bullough moved there late in spring ball and became the top option. The quarterback situation remains muddled, as Dantonio says Andrew Maxwell will go into fall camp at No. 1, with Connor Cook pushing him. Both guys struggled to complete passes in last week's spring game, and their receivers had problems with dropped balls, suggesting the passing game hasn't made that much progress. So new offensive playcaller Dave Warner will have to design an attack that works with shaky quarterback play, unproven running backs and tight ends and receivers who underperformed a year ago. At least the offensive line is veteran, though it's pretty much the same guys who didn't live up to expectations last year.

Final verdict: Contender. Michigan State might not always be pretty to watch this season because of that offense, but the Spartans will be a team no one wants to play because of that hard-hitting defense. Again, all they have to do is be mediocre offensively, because the defense will keep them in every game. And with that schedule, Michigan State should remain in the thick of the Legends Division race deep into the fall.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 24, 2013
4/24/13
12:00
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In honor of "College Football Playoff," I'm calling this intro line "Lunchtime Links Intro Line."
We're previewing the three-pack of spring games taking place Saturday afternoon around the Big Ten. You've already seen what Wisconsin and Penn State have on tap.

It's time to check in on the annual Green-White Game at Michigan State.

When: Saturday, 2:35 p.m. ET

Where: Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

Admission: Free. Parking is free in n Lots 79, 62W, 63E/W, 67, 56, 39/40, 41; Ramps 2 and 5; Lot 62E has been reserved for disabled parking. Stadium gates (B, C, J and K) open at 1 p.m. ET.

TV: Big Ten Network (live) and BTN2go.com

Weather: Partly cloudy, 42-44 degrees, winds at 13-14 mph

What to watch for: The Spartans are a team with a multitude of questions on offense and very few on defense, so fans will spend most of Saturday studying one side of the ball. Although the quarterbacks won't be live like they have been in other spring scrimmages, Saturday marks the final chance for Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor to impress the coaches before fall camp.

Michigan State's seniors drafted teams for the spring game earlier this week. Maxwell will play for the White squad, Cook will quarterback the Green team and O'Connor will take snaps for both sides.

[+] EnlargeMax Bullough
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMax Bullough, above, was an All-Big Ten linebacker for Michigan State last season, but his younger brother Riley might be worth keeping an eye on in the Spartans' spring game.
Keep an eye on Riley Bullough, the younger brother of Spartans All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough. Riley began the spring as Max's backup at middle linebacker but recently moved to running back, where the Spartans have a pressing need after losing Le'Veon Bell. He appears to have made a strong impression, as Max drafted Riley with the first pick of the spring game draft, saying it had little to do with bloodlines.

"I picked him because he's earned it -- nothing to do with being my brother," Max Bullough said. "He's definitely earned it. He's a guy that, he's picked up the offense very quickly. He's run downhill, he's made plays where other guys haven't, and we want him on our team."

Running backs Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford, who started the spring taking most of the first-team reps, will play for Green and White, respectively.

The Spartans' wide receivers took a lot of criticism last season for dropped passes, and it will be interesting to see who steps up in the scrimmage. Bennie Fowler and Aaron Burbridge will play for the Green squad, while Keith Mumphery, the first wideout drafted, will suit up for the White along with AJ Troup, who was picked ahead of Tony Lippett.

It might be tough to get a good read on the offensive line as the projected starters have been split up (more White than Green).

There's less intrigue with a defense that once again should be among the nation's elite, but fans should watch defensive end Shilique Calhoun and cornerback Trae Waynes, two players who coach Mark Dantonio said secured starting jobs with their play this spring. Lawrence Thomas, the first underclassman defensive tackle selected in the draft, is another interesting player who could take on a bigger role this fall.

The White team appears to have the edge in personnel, but we'll see how things play out Saturday afternoon.
In anticipation of spring practice kicking off Tuesday, Michigan State on Monday released its depth chart for the session, while head coach Mark Dantonio addressed the media.

Here are some notes:
  • Three players will miss spring ball after offseason surgeries, including two projected starters in linebacker Denicos Allen and offensive lineman Jack Allen. Top cornerback Darqueze Dennard also is banged up but should return to the field for the final two weeks of practice, Dantonio said.
  • The depth chart reflects several changes along the offensive line. Dan France, who has started 24 games at left tackle the past two seasons, is listed as the starter at right guard. Fou Fonoti, who opened the 2012 season as the starting left tackle before suffering a season-ending foot injury in September, is listed as the No. 1 left tackle, while Skyler Burkland is the top right tackle. Fonoti and top center Travis Jackson both are 100 percent following leg injuries, which could be a major boost for the line. Blake Treadwell is listed as the starting left guard, but Allen could fill that spot when he returns from injury.
  • Michigan State also moved safety Jairus Jones to outside linebacker, where he's listed as the backup to Taiwan Jones. Dantonio said injury issues at linebacker spurred the move and that Jones can switch back to safety, but the Spartans have excellent safety depth with starters Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond, reserves RJ Williamson and Demetrious Cox and others. Dennard's injury means two largely unproven players, sophomores Trae Waynes and Arjen Colquhoun, open the spring as the team's top cornerbacks. But Dantonio on Monday sounded very excited about the team's young defensive backs.
  • Dantonio said the quarterbacks all will take contact during scrimmages, a move you don't see often in the spring. The coach didn't say whether the quarterbacks would evenly split repetitions, but they all will compete against the No. 1 defense. As expected, Andrew Maxwell is listed as the No. 1 quarterback, followed by Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor.
  • Michigan State's defensive staff visited LSU earlier this spring. Both teams finished in the top 10 nationally in defense in 2012. Dantonio hopes the offensive staff can do a similar visit after spring ball (the offseason shuffle made it difficult to do so before).
  • Nick Hill is the team's top running back, followed by junior Jeremy Langford and redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins. Bennie Fowler led the team in receiving yards last season (524), but he's listed on the depth chart as a backup to Keith Mumphery. Aaron Burbridge and Tony Lippett are listed as the other No. 1 receivers, and Dantonio said Monty Madaris will be in the mix at wideout as well.
  • Lawrence Thomas started three games at fullback last season but appears as a backup defensive tackle behind Tyler Hoover on the depth chart. Dantonio told ESPN.com last week that Thomas could move back to offense if needed.
  • Linebacker/fullback TyQuan Hammock is finished with his career and soon will graduate, while guard Nate Klatt will take a medical hardship/disqualification because of several concussions.
  • Dantonio singled out redshirt freshmen linebackers Riley Bullough and Jamal Lyles as players to watch this spring.
A Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU took the sting off of a mostly disappointing season for Michigan State. Picked by many (ahem) to win the Big Ten, the Spartans went 7-6, dropping five games by a total of 13 points, including all four Big Ten home contests. Mark Dantonio's squad resumes its primary mission -- to claim a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance -- when it returns to the practice field Tuesday. Dantonio shuffled his offensive staff after coordinator Dan Roushar left for the NFL's New Orleans Saints, and Michigan State will have competition at quarterback, running back and other positions. The defense once again looks very good but needs to fill some gaps.

ESPN.com caught up with Dantonio this week to talk spring ball.

What are some of your primary objectives for the spring?

Mark Dantonio: The first thing we have to do is address where we're at and look forward. We have a new staff member on each side of the ball, and there's no question that we can improve on both sides of the ball. With that being said, there's a lot of experience coming back. There are areas every football team needs to address. Some of that is concept-based. We're going to try new things and move from there. Our objectives will be to get out of there without getting people hurt and move forward as a program, allow our young players, the guys who redshirted, to make a move on the depth chart and then solidify our No. 1s.

What will be different offensively with Dave [Warner] the lead play-caller and Jim [Bollman] coming in from the outside?

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio's squad will look to improve on their disappointing 2012 season.
MD: Everybody is unique with their thought process, so you can promote from within or bring from the outside, and there's going to be some difference. With the addition of Jim Bollman, you bring in a guy who has experience at Michigan State (he was a Spartans assistant from 1995-97), not just experience offensively. Dave already knows what we do. But that's going to bring new ideas into what we're doing. Brad Salem, he'll be working with the quarterbacks, so it's a little bit of change. Mark Staten will still be with the offensive line and Terry Samuel will be with the wide receivers. There is change. We have a base of where we're at, and we'll move from there. It's not like we're reinventing the wheel. We have a base, and we need to grow from that base to improve.

What areas need to be improved on that side of the ball?

MD: When you look at where we were at last year, we need to improve in the red zone, obviously. We have to catch the ball, protect the quarterback more consistently. But we've got to score touchdowns in the red zone. We had too many field-goal attempts. We had 32. So it's not that we're not getting down there. We're getting down there and stalling out. We're going to work toward that. And then we've got to do some things conceptually that takes you forward.

We need change. There's no question we need some change in some areas, but there's also a lot of good things we've done. We've won a lot of football games here. When you look at last season, we were so close in so many different areas from having another 10-, 11-win season.

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Michigan State has hired Air Force assistant Ron Burton as its new defensive line coach. He replaces Ted Gill, whose contract was not renewed.

Burton is a 21-year coaching veteran who has spent the past 10 years tutoring defensive linemen at Air Force. He has also worked at Indiana, coaching linebackers from 1997-2001, Eastern Michigan and Grand Valley State.

“He brings a wealth of knowledge to the position," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said in a statement released by the school. “Ron played four years in the NFL and has been around some of the game’s top coaches at both the professional and collegiate levels. In the pros, he played for Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson and Gene Stallings, and he started his tenure at Air Force under Fisher DeBerry, one of college football’s great coaches.

“He was simply dynamic during the entire interview process. We had an opportunity to share some ideas last year in a professional development setting, and we believe Ron is a natural fit in terms of defensive terminology and concepts. He also brings great energy and management skills to the coaching staff."

Burton said in the school's release that he gained respect for the Spartans' staff during last year's meeting.

“We sat and talked football, and I was simply amazed at how the staff handled things," Burton said.

The Spartans lose three starters off last season's defensive line, including early draft entrant William Gholston, but Burton should still have a lot to work with. Junior Marcus Rush will be a third-year starter at defensive end, while young players like Joel Heath, Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas show a lot of promise.

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