Big Ten: Mark Staten

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
10:00
AM ET
It's the second-to-last week of the season, and it's the first time all year that all 14 Big Ten teams are in action against one another in conference play. (Still hate you, double bye.) And there are no night games, so you'll have to be on top of your remote control game in the early afternoon.

Here's a look at what's on tap Saturday (all times ET):

Noon

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon and Wisconsin are looking to punch their tickets to Indianapolis in Iowa.
No. 25 Minnesota (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) at No. 23 Nebraska (8-2, 4-2), ESPN: The Gophers can win the Big Ten West by winning their final two games. But first they'll have to get through a Nebraska team that should be fighting mad after last week's embarrassment in Madison. Bo Pelini said this week that Ameer Abdullah might not be 100 percent the rest of the year.

Rutgers (6-4, 2-4) at No. 11 Michigan State (8-2, 5-1), Big Ten Network: League championship dreams are all but over for the Spartans, but they can still win 10 games and get to a major bowl. The Scarlet Knights are looking to score an upset over one of the upper-tier teams in the league, but they're going bowling regardless.

Indiana (3, 7, 0-6) at No. 6 Ohio State (9-1, 6-0), BTN: The Buckeyes are around a five-touchdown favorite, and understandably so. This one might be about style points for the selection committee, and not much else.

Northwestern (4-6, 2-4) at Purdue (3-7, 1-5), ESPNU: After a surprising upset in South Bend, the Wildcats now have a bowl game in sight if they can win this one and close out the season against Illinois. But Purdue had a week off to prepare, and Northwestern has had a habit of playing up or down to its competition.

Penn State (6-4, 2-4) at Illinois (4-6, 1-5), ESPN2: Tim Beckman's last stand? The Illini have to win here to have any hope of getting to a bowl game and potentially saving their coach's job. Christian Hackenberg is scuffling for Penn State, but is Illinois' defense enough to lift his doldrums?

3:30 p.m.

No. 16 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) at Iowa (7-3, 4-2), ABC/ESPN2: The Heartland Trophy game has enormous West Division implications. If Wisconsin wins, it can do no worse than tie for the division title and could clinch a spot in Indianapolis with a Minnesota loss. Melvin Gordon, who originally committed to Iowa, will look to add to his Heisman Trophy credentials after his 408-yard day last weekend.

Maryland (6-4, 3-3) at Michigan (5-5, 3-3), BTN: Can Brady Hoke lead Michigan to a bowl game? He'll almost certainly have to win this one to do so, since the Wolverines' finale is in Columbus. Maryland already has wins over Penn State and Iowa, and would solidify a nice first season in the Big Ten by winning in the Big House.

Required reading
Week 13 predictions | Bold calls

Ohio State offensive line again rises from the ashes

J.T. Barrett speeds toward Heisman race

Minnesota, Nebraska fight to move forward

Revised image suits Michigan's Jake Ryan

Rutgers not satisfied with bowl eligibility

'Chevy Bad Boys' power Wisconsin's No. 1 D

The cold truth: Embrace the B1G weather

Big Ten's second act worth watching

West Division title scenarios

"Dilly Bar Dan" enjoys his brush with fame

Bowl projections

Awards race tracker

Big Ten morning links

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
8:00
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We’re now a week removed from “The Season” and the best performances from the best players in college football history, but I have to get something off my chest, Big Ten nation.

We talked about Illinois’ Red Grange and Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. We even mentioned modern players like Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Purdue’s Drew Brees. But there’s one guy I feel we skipped over, one player who has never really gotten the due he deserves.

Michigan running back Willie Heston (1901-1904).

Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe not. BTN’s Dave Revsine wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and mentioned player compensation and past precedents like “Willie Heston Cigars.” Adam Rittenberg recently alluded to the same anecdote, as well. But Heston is not exactly a household name.

Sure, you’ve heard plenty about other old-time legends, like Yale’s Walter Camp and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. But what about Heston? Why should you care? Well, Camp named him to four of his All-American teams (two on his first team). And Heston was so good, give a listen as to what Rockne had to say about him:
“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all-time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”

That’s right – one of college football’s coaching legends just said Heston was better than Grange. That’s high praise. But look at the numbers. In Grange’s career, which spanned from 1923 to 1925, he finished with 2,071 rushing yards, 5.3 yards a carry and 34 total touchdowns. Heston? 2,339 rushing yards, 8.4 yards a carry and 72 touchdowns.

Still not impressed? Well, did I mention most of Heston's rushing stats only came from 17 – let me emphasize that again, 17 – of Heston’s career games, since the NCAA couldn’t confirm numbers from them all? Some estimate Heston actually rushed for 5,000 yards in his career; others go as high as 7,000 yards.

Heston’s on-field exploits read like a comic book hero's. He could reportedly outrun gold medalist Archie Hahn in short races, he helped Michigan win four national titles and outscore opponents – this isn’t a typo – during his career by 2,326 to 40. He went 43-0-1 in four years and was just as tough on defense.

I’ll stop listing details before you start accusing me of hyperbole. But I’m sure by now you’re wondering why on earth you don’t know the Wolverines’ Superman. Well, when Heston played, we were still nearly 20 years away from the official start to the NFL. Heston tried his hand at coaching following his U-M career, then went into law and real estate.

In many ways, his football career – at least the most important part of it – lasted just four seasons. That counts for something when it comes to seeping into the national consciousness. If that's incorrect, Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz – who played incredible college ball but sparingly in the NFL due to an injury --would still be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Ham.

My point is simply this: There are a lot of great players in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of unsung heroes. None tower above Heston. And he deserves to be remembered.

Who do you think is an unsung hero? List him in the comments. But let’s move on to more current football now …

East Division
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall voiced disappointment with his receiving corps last week. Now? It's a different story in Week 2 of practice.
  • Indiana coach Kevin Wilson says this has been the Hoosiers' best summer and believes his team could be poised to break out.
West Division
  • Northwestern is remaining mum on the surprise transfer of Venric Mark but, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, "it seems apparent Mark would have faced more discipline beyond the two-game suspension ..."
And finally ...
Jack Conklin couldn't believe it, and neither could his dad.

As they traveled from camp to camp, trying open the eyes of major college coaches, they were met with blank stares. Jack, an offensive tackle with length, strength and athleticism -- he played stand-up defensive end in high school --- performed well on the field, but he might as well have been auditioning in an empty theater.

Coaches said they had no scholarships available. They flocked to more decorated recruits. They thanked Conklin for coming but gave limited or no feedback on his play.

[+] EnlargeJack Conklin
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State coaches have noticed Jack Conklin's ability to make quick adjustments to technique and scheme, and to effectively communicate.
"You get to a point where you think, 'Geez, maybe I don’t know. What do they not see that I see?'" said Darren Conklin, Jack's father and coach at Plainwell (Mich.) High School. "Being a parent muddles that as well, but I'm thinking, 'He's as big as these kids, his arms are longer, he's faster.

"We had more than one conversation where Jack said, 'I know I'm better than that kid.' We just couldn’t understand."

There's still a level of misunderstanding about Jack Conklin. It goes like this: How the #*!#@ did no FBS school offer him a scholarship?

Almost no one wanted the guy who started 13 games as a redshirt freshman -- 10 at left tackle, three at right tackle -- and didn't allow a sack for a Michigan State team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. After paying his own way for his first semester at MSU in 2012, the 6-foot-6 Conklin is so far ahead of schedule that he and his coaches have a new plan.

The All-Big Ten team is the next step. But there's another goal, one not discussed as openly but very much in Conklin's mind: to become the first Spartans offensive lineman selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Tony Mandarich went No. 2 overall in 1989.

"That's my dream," Jack said. "I feel like I can attain that."

Doubting Conklin isn't a wise move. Plenty of FBS coaches did during the recruiting process. It could have been because of his hometown. Plainwell is tiny (population: 3,804, as of the 2010 Census). Its location, between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, isn't on the typical recruiting circuit. The high school rarely produced FBS recruits.

The Spartans' coaches evaluated Conklin's tape, but they already had three tackles committed. Conklin dominated games -- 80 percent of Plainwell's runs went in his direction -- but the coaches couldn't truly gauge him because of the competition.

"He's beating the crap out of a guy," MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten said, "but that guy's 5-6 and 140 pounds."

Jack received preferred walk-on opportunities at Illinois and Western Michigan, but no scholarship offers. Darren remembers sitting with a Division II coach a week before national signing day.

"Man to man, coach to coach, I don't understand. Why hasn't he been picked up by a Division I program?" Darren, a preferred walk-on offensive lineman at Michigan in 1986, remembers asking. "The coach said, 'They've looked at him, they've evaluated him, and they flat-out don't think he’s good enough.'"

Jack, sitting alongside his dad, didn't accept the answer.

"I don’t care what he says," he told Darren. "I'm good enough."

The Conklins had an easier time convincing the coaches at Fork Union Military Academy, one of the nation's top prep programs. Less than an hour after Darren sent Jack's highlight film, he received a call asking how soon Jack could get there.

"They said they didn’t understand how I got overlooked," Jack said.

Jack appeared set for the prep school route, which could boost his stock for 2013, but that spring Michigan State offered him a spot. Jack would be put on scholarship no later than that following January.

He made his mark during practice in 2012, especially before the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. MSU defensive end William Gholston, who had nine tackles and a sack in the Spartans' win, told Staten, "It's that freshman tackle [Conklin] who helped me have such a good game."

Jim Bollman noticed Conklin "was a little bit different" as soon as spring practice opened that March. Conklin's ability to make quick adjustments to technique and scheme, and to effectively communicate, stood out to Bollman, the Spartans' new co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach. Being a coach's son didn't hurt him there.

Bollman, who coached Ohio State's offensive line from 2001-11, had seen players such as Nick Mangold and Rob Sims contribute early in their careers.

"But those guys were bigger-recruited guys," Bollman noted. "It's hard to find guys that fit into the exact mold of Jack. To come in as a walk-on like that and then the next year have the recognition he’s had, that’s hard for me to put into memory.

"This is a little unusual."

It's not unprecedented, though, especially for offensive lineman. Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, was a low-grade recruit from Rochester, Mich., who landed at Central Michigan, where he blossomed. Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, the Big Ten's only first-round pick in 2013, received few offers in high school but became the first true freshman lineman in Badgers history to start the season opener.

"You look at the Fisher kid, players like that," Staten said. "He's turning himself into one of those."

Jack always was extremely competitive, but his dad and his coaches think the recruiting snubs drive him even more.

"He's still got that mentality, like, 'Hey, I had to pay my way. I'm going to prove to everyone not only that I'm worth it, but I'm going to be one of the best, if not the best, to walk through this door,'" Staten said.

Conklin practices daily against Shilique Calhoun, a first-team All-Big Ten defensive end who is very much on the NFL radar. They've become good friends and compete at just about everything.

Calhoun counts himself among those stunned by Conklin's path to MSU.

"I went against him a couple times and went, 'What, this guy doesn't have a scholarship?'" Calhoun said. "I thought there was no way. He's a guy you can tell has a lot of talent. Last year was just the start.

"He's about to sprout his wings now."

Conditioning has been the offseason focus for Conklin, who played the Rose Bowl at around 330 pounds but checks in now around 310. He has overhauled his diet -- he eats 300 grams of protein per day -- and expects a speed increase this season.

Bollman poses the pivotal question about Conklin: "To have the kind of success he's had the first two years, now where does it go?"

League honors are the minimum expectation this season. But why stop there?

Darren said Jack often thinks about players like Eric Fisher. When they talk about Jack's journey, Darren sees the same look in his son's eye, the one that showed up when coaches ignored him in recruiting.

"I've always had a chip on my shoulder," Jack said. "I'm not done trying to prove to people what I can do."
The true assessment for Michigan State's Jack Allen doesn't come during games but immediately after them.

After the clock expires, Allen, the Spartans' 6-foot-1, 300-pound junior center, heads to midfield with his teammates for the traditional postgame exchange with their opponent. He will look for the defensive players with whom he mashed plastic, metal, skin and bone for three-plus hours. If they approach him with right hands extended, he'll reciprocate.

Deep down, he hopes they look the other way.

[+] EnlargeJack Allen
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesCenter Jack Allen brings a wrestling mentality to the Michigan State offensive line.
"If the other guy at the end of the game shakes my hand, I didn't do a good enough job," Allen told ESPN.com. "There were a few games where defensive tackles and linebackers didn't want to see me ever again.

"I've done my job when they don't want to go out there any more."

The postgame escape, in Allen's mind, is football's version of tapping out, a term he knows well as a state champion wrestler in high school.

Allen was a three-time all-state wrestler at Hinsdale Central High School in Illinois, winning the Class 3A state title at 285 pounds as a senior. He holds Hindsale Central's record for career wins (143) and had second-place finishes at the state meet as a junior and a sophomore.

The success on the mat has shaped Allen's approach on the field: You’re going to get beat up, but come back tomorrow so you can get beat up a little less. When a guy’s not as good, you’re supposed to beat him bad. You try to pound everybody.

"Just finishing plays," MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten said, "to the last vibration of the whistle."

Allen helped Michigan State finish its best season in decades with Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships in December and January. After starting 12 games as a redshirt freshman at center and left guard, Allen solidified himself at center in 2013, starting the final 12 games for a line that limited sacks (17, tied for third-fewest in the league) and wore down opponents late in games.

He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors (media) and recorded 68 knockdowns.

"He was the bulldozer," Staten said, "the guy that kept things going, brought that bit of nastiness every single play. He cannot stand to lose; it doesn't matter if it's a play, a series or a game.

"As combative as he is with the wrestling, it just suited us."

Allen's approach traces to the mat, where his bloodlines run deep: his father, John, wrestled at Purdue in the early 1980s; uncle Jim Zajicek wrestled and played football at Northwestern and coached Jack at Hinsdale Central; younger brothers Brian and Matt both wrestle. Brian Allen not only has followed his brother's wrestling success, winning the Class 3A 285-pound title as a junior, when he went 48-0, but will play center at MSU. Brian arrived on campus Monday and will live two blocks from Jack. He'll wear No. 65 for the Spartans and occupy the locker next to Jack's (No. 66).

John Allen didn't push his sons toward wrestling. He simply wanted them expending their endless energy in some athletic endeavor, mainly to spell their mother, Leslie. "He wanted to give my mom some time to get away from all the nuts-ness," Jack said. The boys played everything -- basketball, baseball, soccer -- but gravitated toward two: wrestling and football.

"We never played any soft sports," Jack said. "It was always contact."

John Allen, a self-described "wrestling homer," sees parallels between wrestling and football, especially when he watches his eldest son. The emphasis on balance, the importance of the first step and hand position and mental toughness translate between the sports.

"Every time you snap the football," John said, "it's like a wrestling match for the first couple seconds."

Wrestling undoubtedly prepared Jack for Big Ten football, but it wasn't his only driver.

Just 215 pounds as a high school sophomore, Allen didn't find himself on the football radar for major college teams. He wanted to play at a Big Ten school, but for a while, wrestling seemed like his ticket to get there. He didn't start to gain weight until he was a junior, when then-MSU assistant Dan Roushar began targeting him.

"If I had a nickel for every guy who told me he was too small I could buy a lot of coffee," John Allen said. "I was grateful that Coach [Mark] Dantonio gave him a chance, but it came later for him. People kind of passed over him."

Allen's top goal last season was to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. He came up short. His second goal: to play with a chip on his shoulder and never get pushed around.

Mission accomplished.

"A lot of people didn't believe he could do what he's trying to do," John Allen said. "He plays kind of angry. Sometimes, it's scary."

It's also what Michigan State's offensive line needs.

He's our physicality, he's our mentality and he's our attitude.

-- Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten, on center Jack Allen
Dantonio has built the program on an aggressive, stifling defense that consistently ranks in the top 10 nationally. But few Big Ten programs take the next step with an unremarkable offensive line, which MSU had until last year.

"We're going to hit you and keep on hitting you," Spartans tackle Jack Conklin said. "Teams start to give up after you beat them up so many times, and it starts from [Allen]."

MSU returns quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and almost all of its top offensive skill players from the Rose Bowl team. But the Spartans lose three line starters, including guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain.

To maintain the standard, Allen needs an even better season. He improved from the neck up this spring, diagnosing safety depth, linebacker alignment and any tells from the down linemen while making all the line calls for MSU.

"We go as he goes, I always tell him," Staten said. "He's our physicality, he's our mentality and he's our attitude."

Allen embraces the increased responsibility.

"I need to have a lot of good days," he said, "to do what we want to do this year."

Good days for Allen consist of two things: Spartans victories and no handshakes afterward.

Top Big Ten recruiters 

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
10:00
AM ET
Want to dominate on the recruiting trail in Big Ten territory? You better be long in experience because the conference’s best have lengthy track records that often stretch for more than a decade. These rankings are dominated by three Ohio State assistants, which might explain why the Buckeyes always manage to reel in plenty of ESPN 300 prospects.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
12:00
PM ET
Dayton was an incredible appetizer. Time for the buffet.
  • With Braxton Miller on the shelf, Ohio State is getting a close look at his backups as it tries to replace the invaluable services of Kenny Guiton.
  • There may be plenty of ground to make up, but freshman quarterback Wilton Speight is impressing early as he tries to learn Michigan's new playbook.
  • Illinois is battling through injuries to its top tight ends, but that is opening up reps elsewhere for younger guys trying to make an impact.
  • Penn State coach James Franklin is in favor of an early signing period.
  • Sorting through its cornerbacks will be one of the most critical aspects of spring practice at Rutgers.
  • Mark Pelini had a veteran who helped him manage the growing pains when he joined the Nebraska roster as a walk-on center. Now it's his turn to be a leader.
  • Michigan State has to replace three senior starters on the offensive line when spring camp opens. Position coach Mark Staten said to "ask in a couple weeks" who is stepping up to fill the void.
Michigan State goes into Saturday's game against Michigan with the same ferocious defense as a year ago and some improved quarterback play. But the biggest difference for the Spartans this time around might be the offensive line.

Head coach Mark Dantonio wasn't making excuses but recounted some of the youth on that line in last season's 12-10 loss to the Wolverines.

"Donavon Clark got the start -- he was a redshirt freshman," Dantonio said. "Blake Treadwell was playing for the first time really fulltime, and Jack Allen was in his second game. So we're a different offensive line than we were last year."

[+] EnlargeNick Hill
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsThe Michigan State offensive line has cleared big holes all season and helped the Spartans average 196.5 yards rushing per game.
That's true in more ways than one. This particular Spartans line is as deep and experienced as Dantonio has had during his tenure in East Lansing, and it is playing like potentially his best.

While many expected the Michigan State running game to fall off after Le'Veon Bell jumped to the NFL, the opposite has happened. The Spartans are averaging 196.5 rushing yards per game, compared to 149.4 last season. They have also given up just six sacks in eight games, tying them with Iowa for the fewest allowed in the Big Ten. And that has happened with a first-year starting quarterback in Connor Cook.

Treadwell, the senior starting guard, had a simple explanation for the improvement in the line's play.

"We've been gelling a lot more compared to last year," he told ESPN.com, "as well as nobody's had any catastrophic injuries."

Ah, yes, injuries. It's hard to write about the Michigan State offensive line without mentioning them, as that has been a constant problem the past several years. The injury bug has not disappeared this year, as veteran Skyler Burkland had to retire because of persistent health problems, and tackle Fou Fonoti missed time earlier in the year.

But the injuries that ravaged the unit last season presented a hidden benefit in that more players got game experience. This year, Dantonio has seven offensive linemen who have started games, and Michigan State rotates eight guys through the line during games. It includes veterans like fifth-year seniors Treadwell, Fonoti and Dan France as well as talented younger players like redshirt freshman left tackle Jack Conklin and sophomore center Allen.

"If anything, having that rotation helps us from taking a lot of body blows that we've had in the past few years," Treadwell said. "Guys are a lot fresher for games, and everyone else is just that much more into it knowing they're going to play as well."

Offensive line coach Mark Staten mixes and matches, and Treadwell said competition for playing time is so intense that "it keeps everybody on their toes." He saw the beginnings of a potentially special offensive line this summer and said the Youngstown State game is when he felt like the group really started to come together. Running back Jeremy Langford has enjoyed the holes the line has provided for him, as he has rushed for more than 100 yards in three straight games.

Offensive line has been a sore spot for years in East Lansing. Dantonio hasn't had a single player drafted from the position, and it has lagged behind other well-recruited areas on the team. But this year looks different.

"I think it's our deepest," he said. "I don't want to disrespect anybody else who's played here, but this is as much experience as we've had."

Dantonio said whether it's the best line depends on how the unit finishes the season. A strong performance against Michigan would go a long way toward boosting that claim.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 3, 2013
7/03/13
5:00
PM ET
Since tomorrow is the Fourth of July, my usual Thursday mailbag is coming at you a day earlier. Adam is on vacation next week, so if you have any questions you want answered in a timely fashion, send them to me here.

A.J. from Madison, Wis., writes: Brian, Phil Steele's projections gave me an interesting thought: If Wisconsin finishes with the same record as division winner Nebraska, who loses to an undefeated Ohio State that makes the BCS title game, does Wisconsin or Nebraska go to the Rose Bowl? On one hand, as you've written before, conference championship losers rarely make BCS bowls. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much the Rose Bowl would want Wisconsin due to the fact that they've just dropped three in a row. Also, is there a chance that the Rose Bowl skips out on them both?

Brian Bennett: Fascinating hypothetical there, A.J. It's difficult to provide a definitive answer since so many variables would be in play. Wisconsin and Nebraska would both have to finish in the top 14 of the BCS standings to qualify for an at-large Rose Bowl bid. The Rose would be free to select any team in the top 14 if it lost the Big Ten champ to the title game, but would there be a sizable difference in the rankings between the Huskers and Badgers, especially right after a Nebraska loss, in your scenario? With its schedule, I doubt Wisconsin would be in line for a high BCS ranking with more than two losses and would probably have to be 11-1. That means Nebraska would be 12-1 or 11-2 in your hypothetical; a close loss to an undefeated Buckeyes team in the Big Ten championship game could keep the Huskers in play for a BCS at-large, but history is against it. (Look what happened to Georgia after last year's heartbreaking loss to Alabama).

I believe there is some Wisconsin fatigue with the Rose Bowl and vice versa, and Badgers fans already seemed a little tapped out about traveling to Pasadena last year. Would they continue to be excited about a fourth straight trip, especially to follow a team that failed to win a division title? Nebraska fans would definitely travel, though there would be a hangover from the Big Ten title game loss (and more questions about Bo Pelini and winning the big one). Such a scenario could prompt the Rose to take a team outside of the Big Ten if there is a worthy marquee program like Texas or Oklahoma out there. Then again, with this being the last year before the playoff arrives and the Rose Bowl becoming a semifinal site in some years, it might want to assure itself of a Big Ten participant. So, so many variables at play here, which is why this is interesting.




John from Omaha writes: In response to your article about the new B1G teams MD and Rutgers: There will never be buzz about Maryland and Rutgers because no one in the current B1G footprint wants to watch their football teams. Even worse, I don't believe anyone in New Jersey or Washington D.C. care about college football, much less Rutgers and Maryland. The addition of Rutgers and Maryland is a money grab for the Eastern market, one that may not even work given the stranglehold professional sports have in New York, New Jersey, and D.C. I believe the addition of Rutgers and Maryland will water down the quality of football in the B1G. In short, the B1G's addition of MD and Rutgers represents all that is wrong with the direction of college football and expansion. I don't plan on watching the B1G games that are not competitive, just games I find interesting, like Nebraska-Penn State, or Nebraska-Wisconsin, etc. If it were up to you, would you honestly add Maryland and Rutgers to the B1G?

Brian Bennett: Some fair points here, John, and I've never been a fan of the Rutgers and Maryland additions. I understand what the Big Ten is trying to do with these moves, and I've learned to trust Jim Delany's vision when it comes to growing the conference and its reach. This could ultimately mean much more revenue, exposure and new recruiting grounds for the Big Ten, all of which are good things. As for the teams themselves? It's hard to get very excited. I do believe Rutgers has the potential to become a very strong program, and it appears headed in that direction already. There's no reason the Scarlet Knights can't compete right away with the likes of Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, etc. I'm much less enthused about Maryland's prospects, at least in the short term. Speaking of which ...




Jerry from Bethesda, MD, writes: Brian, in case you haven't noticed Maryland will be bringing a number of programs with a long history of excellence at the national level. With Mark Turgeon now recruiting top 5 classes, it's only a matter of time until Maryland men's basketball is again a regular top 10 program. Brenda Frese already has the women's basketball program there. Both programs will do very well in the Big Ten. Maryland's men's lacrosse program will dominate the Big Ten, and the Maryland's women's program will give Northwestern more than they may want. Maryland men's soccer program is and has been for many years a top 5 program that will make life very challenging for Indiana's program. And Maryland's women's soccer program has emerged in recent years as a viable top 10 program. Maryland's field hockey program will dominate the Big Ten. So, while it may take Maryland a few years to get its football program to a genuinely competitive level in the Big Ten, in many other areas it's the Big Ten programs that will be chasing Maryland.

Brian Bennett: That's great, Jerry. But the Big Ten didn't add Maryland because of the women's lacrosse team or men's soccer team. Expansion is all about football, and really nothing else. Plus, you might have noticed this is a football blog, so we'll concern ourselves about whether Randy Edsall can make the Terrapins competitive.




Dave from East Lansing, Mich., writes: It seems that everybody thinks that one of the few bright spots for MSU on offense will be the Offensive Line. With the reported loss of Skyler Burkland, does that change the optimism or is there depth to fill that potential loss?

Brian Bennett: There's still no definitive news about whether Burkland will play again for the Spartans. It would be a shame if Michigan State's projected starting right tackle had to hang it up because of injuries. Still, the line boasts experience and talent, especially if left tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson are all the way back from last year's injuries. Their health problems last year allowed some younger players to see time, which adds to the overall depth this season. I'll be taking a wait and see approach with this group, as the offensive line has yet to really come together and be an elite-level unit under Mark Dantonio's watch. But the pieces do appear to be in place, and the Spartans now have two veteran assistants who know offensive line play in Mark Staten and co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman.




Jayme from Wichita, Kan., writes: Regarding the email yesterday sent to Adam, Harvey Perlman didn't hire Bill Callahan, Steve Pederson did. So really you have to give Perlman a mulligan for Pederson (he did bring T.O. back too). I am also really tired of hearing about 10-4 seasons being unacceptable. I grew up watching the Huskers in the '90s, and still consider 10 wins to be a successful season. Yes, I cringe and want to kick anything that gets in the way of my meltdown after a terrible loss, but.............the bad losses to me are a result of a less then stellar recruiting class in '08 and '09, and a transition to a different league. (Think trying to fit a square peg in a circle whole). Maybe this year, maybe next year, but the defense will improve to the point of Blackshirt/ish. I'll put money on the offense continuing to have success. When all of that happens everyone will be talking about Bo Pelini, and what a good coach he is. We are graduating players, for the most part staying out of the bad press, and shouldn't have anything but pride in our program.

Brian Bennett: Sorry, Jayme, but the buck stops at the president's desk for every major hire, and besides, Perlman couldn't have made a much worse blunder than in hiring Pederson in the first place. I get where you're coming from on the state of the Huskers. Most programs would kill to have a nine- or 10-win season every year. I also get why Nebraska fans, who have been spoiled by great tradition and have only one program in the state to root for, are upset about not winning a conference championship since 1999 or going to a BCS bowl in more than a decade.

Can you blame some recruiting misses and transitioning to a new league for some of that? For sure. But who was recruiting those guys in 2008 and 2009, and why hasn't Nebraska developed top-flight defensive linemen of late, a position that translates into any conference when it's good? Pelini has done a lot of good things, and the perception of him would be much different if Texas didn't get an that second put back on the clock in the 2009 Big 12 title game. At the same time, the Huskers shouldn't be losing 70-31 to Wisconsin or 63-38 to Ohio State. Those kinds of results sap the goodwill quickly.
Michigan State's offensive line received good news Sunday night as right tackle Fou Fonoti announced he will take a medical redshirt and return in 2013.

Fonoti suffered a broken foot in practice Sept. 13, two days before Michigan State's Week 3 showdown against Notre Dame. He underwent surgery the following day. There was a possibility the senior could return late in the year, but he has opted to come back next fall for a full season.

"It's been difficult to watch my teammates go through this grind and all of those nail-biting losses, but we remain positive," Fonoti said during Spartan Football All-Access, which airs on FOX Sports Detroit. "A lot of teams face adversity during the course of a season, but the important thing is how a team responds. I feel like we have ingredients to have a great team next year. Guys will remember how this season feels and all of the struggles, but we'll be positioned to take a huge step forward."

Fonoti, a junior-college transfer, started 11 games in 2011 and the first two this season before the injury. He has been a significant loss for Michigan State's offensive line and for an offense that ranks 11th in the Big Ten in scoring.

"Fou's ability to stay an extra year will help us tremendously," offensive line coach Mark Staten said. "He has game experience, a high football IQ and great leadership ability. Fou has the unique ability to pull the best out of everybody around him. He will help make the 2013 season very special."
Coaching changes defined the Big Ten's offseason, but one of the most significant moves in the league was made to keep a key assistant in place.

Michigan State retained defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi after he turned down a lucrative opportunity to go to Texas A&M in the same role. Narduzzi, who earned $233,000 last year, would receive a substantial raise to stay in East Lansing.

That raise is now known, as the Detroit Free Press first reported. Narduzzi will be paid $500,000, more than doubling his previous salary. All of Mark Dantonio's assistants received salary increases following a season where the Spartans won the Legends Division title and the Outback Bowl, and recorded 11 victories for the second consecutive season.

As expected, Narduzzi received the biggest increase ($267,000), although his salary ranks behind several Big Ten assistants, including Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($750,000) and Michigan coordinators Greg Mattison ($750,000) and Al Borges ($650,000). Given Narduzzi's success the past few seasons, his compensation seems reasonable, given the market.
"I think coach Narduzzi's going to be a head coach," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said Thursday. "I think coach Narduzzi believes in this program. What we did is we sat down and said, 'Here's a compensation that gets you in the frame, but also an opportunity for you to achieve what you really want to achieve, which is a head-coaching position.' He and some of the other [assistant] positions were very far off from the norm, and now I believe they're in the norm."

Some of the other reported raises include a $75,000 bump for offensive coordinator Dan Roushar from $230,000 to $305,000; $33,000 raises for secondary coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers/secondary coach Mike Tressel, from $170,000 to $203,000; and $30,000 raises for offensive line coach Mark Staten and running backs coach Brad Salem from $170,000 to $200,000.

Dantonio often credits Michigan State's success to staff continuity. The only assistants who have left the program in his tenure -- Don Treadwell and Dan Enos -- did so for FBS head-coaching positions elsewhere.

Narduzzi's time will come soon, but Michigan State took an important step by keeping its top assistant in East Lansing for another year.
Urban Meyer has been receiving a lot of accolades for his recruiting work at Ohio State. But don't forget the hard work his assistants did in compiling one of the best classes in the country.

ESPN.com has named Buckeyes assistant Mike Vrabel as its 2012 Big Ten recruiter of the year.
"Vrabel moved from linebackers coach to defensive line coach with the hire of Urban Meyer. And in the process the two-year assistant helped secure one of the nation's best defensive line classes. Five-star prospect Noah Spence was the biggest signing in the class, but four-star prospects Adolphus Washington, Se'Von Pittman and Jamal Marcus give the Buckeyes four of the nation's top 16 players at the defensive end position. Vrabel deserves much of the credit for that."

It's an impressive achievement for the former New England Patriots star linebacker, who only became a college coach last summer following his retirement from the NFL. Vrabel should have a lot of fun coaching up the talent on that Ohio State defensive line.

Other recruiters who earned honorable mention in the ESPN.com evaluation were Nebraska's John Garrison, Northwestern's Randy Bates, Michigan's Jeff Hecklinski and Michigan State's Mark Staten.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his pregame news conference Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here are some notes and nuggets:
  • Cornerback Darqueze Dennard will return to the starting lineup after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. Dantonio said Dennard practiced all week and is full-go. Redshirt freshman Tony Lippett would be the next man in at cornerback. Safety Kurtis Dummond (head) also will play and split time at nickel safety with Jairus Jones.
  • Dantonio had roses placed at each player's locker this week to remind them of what's at stake Saturday night: the program's first trip to the Rose Bowl in 24 seasons. "We've got Rose Bowl things up around our facility," Dantonio said. "[Assistant coach Mark Staten] was out there recruiting in the summer and brought back a bunch of rocks from the Rose Bowl. So we gave everybody a little rock. We'll do whatever it takes to keep that focus in front of them."
  • Dantonio had high praise for sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis, who is tied with fellow Spartans safety Trenton Robinson for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. Lewis is an Indianapolis native. "Isaiah Lewis is, to me, one of those guys who can take over a football game and be an impact player," Dantonio said. "... He's one of our finest football players as a sophomore, and he has great things in store for him as a player in this league, and has a future beyond this league. He tackles, great ball skills, big-play ability. He will make some big plays out there tomorrow night."
  • Although Michigan State will be the home team Saturday night, Dantonio had the team prepare for a normal road game this week. The routine didn't change, and Dantonio reiterated a point he has made about stress vs. pressure. "Pressure is good," he said. "You can succeed with pressure. It makes you have greater attention to detail. You're more focused. Stress is not. Stress is the enemy. We don't want to stress out about this."
  • One oddity of Michigan State's season is that the Spartans won the Legends division despite having the Big Ten's worst rushing offense (139 ypg). Dantonio stressed the need to be balanced against Wisconsin and get top backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker in space. "We've got to have explosive plays," he said. "When we get eight-plus explosive plays, we're 37-5 as a program."
  • Dantonio talked this week with Spartans men's basketball coach Tom Izzo, whose team played at Lucas Oil Stadium in the 2009 NCAA tournament. Izzo also talked to Dantonio about facing the same team multiple times in a season.
  • Dantonio talked about how Michigan State is changing its regional and national perception, pointing to the team's 14-2 mark in Big Ten play and its 24 Big Ten wins in the past four seasons -- the most in the league (Ohio State vacated its seven wins from 2010). Despite these numbers, the Spartans are once again underdogs heading into the title game. "We've been underdogs in six games this year, five or six, whatever it is," he said. "We're sort of unfazed by it. I tell our players, 'Don't worry about what the so-called experts say. The experts are in that locker room, and they're the coaches. We're the people who study that football field. We're the people who have to go out and play in it, live it. And in Wisconsin's locker room, they're the experts.'"
  • Dantonio on Wisconsin: "The respect is there for the University of Wisconsin and how they play. We recognize they're a very big challenge for us. They’re always going to be up there. They've got a great program, they’ve risen up the ranks and I think both of our football teams are going to be on top for a while."
If there's one major question surrounding Michigan State this season, it's the offensive line.

The Spartans must replace three starters from last year's group, including both tackles and their center. To get a feel for how things are shaping up with that unit, I checked in with offensive line coach Mark Staten, who's optimistic but still shuffling things around before next Friday's opener against Youngstown State. Here's my conversation with Staten:

With about 10 days until kickoff, how do you feel in general about the state of the line?

Mark Staten: We are lacking in game experience, but I like the unity and the way they've been working together. The neat thing to watch is our two older guards, Joel Foreman and Chris McDonald, who've played quite a bit. They're taking the younger guys and continually working the combination blocks and just being real leaders. That's been real promising, and with that spawns some leadership out of the younger guys.

That's the nice thing about the room right now. It's not like you mess with egos a lot on the offensive line. You kind of get your work done behind the scenes in a cold, dark room, then go out there and get it done -- and be criticized when you mess up and go hug the guy when he scores a touchdown. They're an athletic bunch -- maybe as athletic a group as we've had here in five years. They can get from Point A to Point B in a hurry. We've just got to make sure they get to the correct Point B.

They're going to see different schemes and different things in each of their first three games. Hopefully as we move through those and get to the Big Ten schedule in game five, we will have corrected things and made things better, and the guys will be comfortable.

Have you locked down the starting spots, or is there still competition going on?

MS: They're still competing. I thought the left tackle was one way. Dan France, who came over from the defensive side, really, really stepped forward [in the spring]. Then he -- I don't want to say he got overwhelmed, but I don't know what happened. Then Jared McGaha, the senior, kind of started stepping it up a little bit. So they're still battling there.

The right tackle spot, Big Fou [junior college transfer Fou Fonoti] and Big Sky [redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland] continue to battle. Yet they help each other out. They sit there and talk and watch each other in team periods. They ask each other questions like, "Did you see this? Did you see that?" So they're competing but they're doing so with the common theme of team and what we preach about family values and what being a Spartan is all about. It probably sounds like baloney coach-speak, but these guys believe in it and so do I.

We're young. But God willing, we'll be coming into next year saying, "Boy, we have a lot of experience on the O-line." And we won't have to read the things we have to read whenever they pop up.

How about at center? Is Travis Jackson still leading there?

MS: Travis has been doing really well. And that's given us the opportunity to take Blake Treadwell and say, "OK, we want to see you at the guard positions." The nice thing about Blake is -- and I don't know if it's being a coach's son with his dad, Don, who I was fortunate enough to coach with the last six years -- is that he's a knowledgeable kid, and he's going to sit out there and work at it until he gets it right. So we moved him around to the guard spots to see how he fits into those spots.

Travis has stepped up his game. It's kind of unique to see a young man who's a redshirt freshman, the way he leads. He doesn't necessarily lead vocally but in how he goes about his work and the questions he asks in the film room and the notes he takes and his attention to detail. That's what's impressive about Travis.

It sounds like while you're lacking experience, you have some depth.

MS: We've got some guys. I've had a blast, an absolute blast being in that room. It's an honor to coach those young men. I'm not saying we're not going to mess up now. I'm not saying we're not going to get some exotic blitz or things of that nature. But day by day and step by step, we'll continue to get better.

While I'm sure you like competition, how soon would you like to have a definite starter at the two tackle spots?

MS: We'd like to by the rehearsal scrimmage [this week]. Afterword, I'll talk with [offensive coordinator Dan Roushar] and [head coach Mark Dantonio] and make sure we're all on the same page. Then we can go into next week and say, "This is how we're doing it, guys." And then being able to tell those who haven't won the spot, "Hey, you're getting in on the third series or the first series of the second quarter, whatever it might be."

Last question: How does having an experienced quarterback like Kirk Cousins help the offensive line?

MS: It helps tremendously. Kirk's presence in the huddle, as well as Joel Foreman, who's started for four years at left guard, those guys have the ability to settle things down and calm things down. Then when we get up on the line, they've been there for a while. So they can look around and see the depth of the safeties, see maybe the positioning of a 'backer or an alignment and help with some calls or changes that need to be made. So it's truly a blessing.
Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State Spartans hit the practice field later Tuesday for the first of 15 spring workouts.

Let's take a quick look at the defending Big Ten co-champs this spring:

The big story: Taking the next step. Michigan State broke through by winning the Big Ten title for the first time in two decades. But with a chance to, as Dantonio put it, "measure up" in the Capital One Bowl, the Spartans got crushed by Alabama. The Big Ten should be wide open this fall, and if the Spartans repeat as champs, they'll cement themselves as an upper-tier program. The first step: upgrade play along both lines. Sure, Michigan State must replace two standout linebackers (Greg Jones and Eric Gordon), a gifted cornerback (Chris L. Rucker) and some valuable pass-catchers (Mark Dell and Charlie Gantt), but if the Spartans don't get to a Wisconsin/Iowa/Ohio State level with their lines, they'll hit a ceiling as a program.

Position in the spotlight: Offensive and defensive line. No surprises here as Michigan State tries to firm up both units. The offensive front loses both starting tackles (D.J. Young and J'Michael Deane) and its starting center (John Stipek), creating plenty of competition this spring to fill the gaps. Most of Michigan State's top defensive linemen return, including tackle Jerel Worthy, but the coaches will be looking for more pass rushers to emerge.

Coaching changes: Only one but it was significant. Offensive coordinator/receivers coach Don Treadwell departed to become head coach at Miami (Ohio). Dantonio promoted offensive line coach Dan Roushar to coordinator and hired Terrence Samuel from Central Michigan to work with the receivers. Mark Staten now will coach the line. Roushar will run a similar system as Dantonio wants to maintain continuity.

Keep an eye on: Le'Veon Bell. After a brilliant start to his college career, Bell seemed to hit the freshman wall in mid-October and had only 56 rushing yards in his final seven games. The Spartans want to emphasize the run more and will look to complement Edwin Baker with another dangerous back. Bell enters his second spring hoping to make big strides.

Spring game: April 30
Here's the second half of my conversation with new Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar.

Also check out Part I.

It seems like in the Big Ten, it all starts with the offensive line. Where do you see that group going and what needs to happen for you guys to reach a higher level?

Dan Roushar: We're going to have to develop more consistency. We think we've got some young players who are very, very talented, who have the makeup we're looking for, but they haven't had an opportunity to go out and prove themselves. So they've kind of been waiting in the wings and at times, getting closer. I do know this: When you look at the Big Ten or anywhere, it starts up front on both sides, your offensive and defensive lines. It'll be important that we develop guys who have playing experience through the year. We have to find two tackles to start, we get both guards back and we have to find somebody to play center, but I think we have those types of kids in the program.

What will your involvement be with the offensive line?

DR: I'm going to be involved with the offensive line. Mark Staten and I worked together up front. He's been technically the tight ends/tackles coach and I've handled the offensive line. You'll see more of a role reversal so that I can be involved in the entire offense, including the passing game, and have the opportunity to have relationships with each guy at every position. Sometimes in that offensive line room, you can get consumed with those five guys you're coaching and the 16, 18, 20 guys on the team who play that position.

You've been a play-caller before, but what will be the adjustment going back to that role?

DR: I'm looking forward to it. Sometimes as a play-caller, you can get far too much credit and far too much criticism. From an offensive coordinator standpoint like [Don Treadwell] did, you become a leader. You use all your resources including your coaches and develop the single most important part: your plan, your plan of attack going in on Saturday and then implementing and practicing that plan throughout the week. I've been very fortunate to be a play-caller at every school I've worked at except for Cincinnati, so I'll draw on those experiences. Like having a bad play, you'll have a bad call, but at the end of the day, you've got to be able to move past that. The key is playing to your strengths and also recognizing where you aren't as strong and protecting your weaknesses.

What's your relationship like with Kirk [Cousins]? How much have you worked with him in the past?

DR: I never felt like I've been removed from our skill guys. The offensive line and the quarterbacks, [QBs coach] Dave Warner and myself, we've worked very, very closely together. I've had the opportunity to be around Kirk at his very best moments. He's got a lot of passion for football. Over the course of the last couple years, he and I have had a lot of opportunities to share thoughts and go back and forth. We've got a relationship, and I'm looking forward to having that relationship grow. We're very lucky to have coach Warner coaching the quarterbacks, very lucky to have Kirk returning and we've got a talented guy in there behind him in Andrew [Maxwell]. So that's a positive thing.

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