Big Ten: Markus Zusevics

Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

(Read full post)

Several Big Ten players who didn't hear their names called in New York during the weekend still received some good news about their football futures. As soon as the NFL draft concluded, the undrafted free agent scramble began.

Here's an initial list of Big Ten UFA signings. Every Big Ten squad except Indiana had a player signed through free agency. We'll be sure to post more as they become official.

ILLINOIS
IOWA
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
NORTHWESTERN
OHIO STATE
PENN STATE
PURDUE
WISCONSIN

Several players seem to be in good situations, whether it's playing for their hometown team (Kinnie, Netter) or near a family member (Lynn, whose dad, Anthony, coaches running backs for the Jets). It's still shocking to see Brewster on this list rather than the draft one. I'm also surprised Moye, Wiggs, Linthicum and Dimke didn't get drafted.

Other Big Ten players have tryouts with NFL squads, such as Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (Tampa Bay), Minnesota wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (Minnesota Vikings), Indiana offensive lineman Chris McDonald (Miami, Green Bay) and Minnesota safety Kim Royston (Minnesota Vikings).
The NFL draft is a little more than 24 hours away, and our analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. have come out with their final mock drafts.

(Let's pause here for a moment of silence for the 2012 mock draft process. May it rest in peace. But never fear, the 2013 mocks are just around the corner!).

There's not a ton of change in Kiper's final first-round mock Insider. Iowa's Riley Reiff is still the top Big Ten player off the board, now at No. 18 to San Diego. Kiper has Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus one spot behind Reiff, to the Bears. The only other Big Ten player he has going in the first round is Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, at No. 30 to San Francisco.

McShay, along with Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl from Scouts Inc. have undertaken the massive enterprise of mocking the entire seven rounds of the draft Insider. Whew. Here's where they have Big Ten products heading:

Round 1

No. 13: Reiff
No. 25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
No. 28: Mercilus
No. 30: Zeitler

Round 2

No. 34: Jeff Allen, OT, Illinois
No. 35: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
No. 43: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
No. 44: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
No. 47: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
No. 51: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
No. 63: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois

Round 3

No. 89: Mike Martin, DT, Michigan

Round 4

No. 96: Mike Daniels DT, Iowa
No. 97: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
No. 99: Adam Gettis, G, Iowa
No. 106: Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
No. 118: Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa
No. 120: Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
No. 121: Markus Zusevics, OT, Iowa
No. 123: Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
No. 126: Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State
No. 132: Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska

Round 5

No. 137: David Molk, C, Michigan
No. 150: Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
No. 161: Trent Robinson, S, Michigan State
No. 163: Michael Brewster, C, Ohio State
No. 165: DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State

Round 6

No. 207: Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State

Round 7

No. 211: B.J. Cunningham, WR, Michigan State
No. 216: Aaron Henry, S, Wisconsin
No. 219: Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State
No. 221: Derek Dimke, K, Illinois
No. 223: Tyler Nielsen, LB, Iowa
No. 231: Marcel Jones, OT, Nebraska
No. 244: Junior Hemingway, WR, Michigan
No. 247: Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin
No. 248: Kevin Koger, TE, Michigan

A few notables not listed on this seven-round mock: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, and QB Dan Persa; Penn State WR Derek Moye; Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight, Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen, Wisconsin OT Josh Oglesby.

How accurate are these mock drafts? It is almost time to find out. Let's do this for real.

Q&A: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
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Change is in the air this spring at Iowa. The Hawkeyes have two new coordinators for the first time in Kirk Ferentz's tenure, one from the outside (OC Greg Davis) and one from within the program (DC Phil Parker). Ferentz also hired two new assistants, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz and linebackers coach LeVar Woods, and moved offensive line coach Reese Morgan to defensive line. For an Iowa staff built on continuity, this represents a a major shakeup. The coaches also will be working with a very young roster, as evidenced by the pre-spring depth chart issued this week. It all should make for an interesting spring in Hawkeye Country.

[+] EnlargeIowa coach Kirk Ferentz
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallCoach Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes will enter the season with a revamped coaching staff.
The Hawkeyes opened practice Wednesday, and ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Thursday.

Here are his thoughts.

What is the atmosphere like this spring being on the field with this group after all the changes?

Kirk Ferentz: Certainly we have a lot of learning to do for two reasons. Number one, our youth and inexperience, and secondly, with some of the staff changes. We have a lot of different elements involved. It's certainly different than when we finished up in December. It's a lot of positions, and some of it's schematically and that type of thing. We're all on edge a little bit, and that's good.

You made some of your hires fairly recently. How do you feel about where the offensive and defense schemes are at this point?

KF: We're pretty well down the road that we need to be on. We've had some really good meetings over the last several weeks. A little bit more intensive on the offensive side with Greg being hired at the end of February, but I think we've had good meetings. He certainly has a good grasp of what he likes to do and what he's comfortable with. We've been able to blend and mesh things. I think we're pretty much on the same page right now. It's been fun actually, just invigorating to re-examine some things. And the players, they always pick it up faster than the older guys.

When you sat down and talked with Greg, how close was your offensive philosophy to his?

KF: One of the things that really impressed me so much is his experience with various styles of offense. He's been with a lot of different types of players, quarterbacks, going back to Eric Zeier at Georgia, the guys he worked with at North Carolina, and at Texas, they ran several styles of attack. There was a lot of evolution when they got Vince Young. The thing is, he has a system that's been proficient and that he's comfortable with. It really is very flexible and adaptable. That part has all been good.

Very impressed with Greg, starting with all the recommendations I got, people who I have a lot of respect for in football who spoke so highly of him as a coach and so highly of him as a human being. And after a month of being with him, I can see why all of those things were said. He's really been tremendous. We've been fortunate to have great coaches here. You're always a little nervous when you lose somebody as good as Ken, but Greg has been outstanding.

I read your comments from the other day and wanted to clarify something. Did you expect to make some changes even if you didn't have the coordinators leaving?

KF: Absolutely. I was entertained a bit reading the reports of the press conference. The headlines were a little bit overstated. But that was something Ken and I had talked about, and Norm [Parker] and I had talked about as the year went on last year. You're 13 years into it, and we're all feeling good about being here such a long period of time. The great thing about stability is we all know each other.

But the other point, too, and every year you look back at things, but I remember specifically in Cleveland one year in '94 where we looked back and went through our playbook step by step. Steve Crosby had become our coordinator after the '93 season. We went through everything. The advantage of doing it is if you've been somewhere for a while, you add this one year and then you add that, and things don't always mesh or make as much sense as they should, so there's a cumulative effect there. So it's a good exercise to do, and I think it was time for us to do that regardless. And in the case of getting new coordinators, you have to do that anyway. It's been really healthy, it's been invigorating, and hopefully we'll be a more efficient operating group here moving forward.

You've talked about wanting to see better execution. What can you stress in the spring to help you execute better as a team?

KF: That's always the challenge in football. There were complaints about us. The perception is we're a conservative offense, and we threw the second-most amount of passes we had in 13 years last year, so I said they must have been conservative passes because we didn't get any credit for that. But overall, that's the name of the game, whatever you're doing, offensively, defensively or special teams, the key is how you execute those things. Certainly what you call can affect that, but at the end of the day, it's about the team that executes the best. That's the never-ending battle.

You have some guys out on the defensive line, but it's definitely one of the younger groups you've had there. With Reese Morgan moving over to that side, how do you see that group shaking out in the spring, and how will Reese's experience help there?

KF: It's maybe not identical, but it's similar to what we went through in 2005. We graduated four guys that were all in NFL camps after that season. Three of those guys are still active players -- Jonathan Babineaux, who's done a good job in Atlanta; Matt Roth's had a nice career; Derreck Robinson continues to be rostered; and Tyler Luebke is the other guy, was with the Redskins as a free agent. That's the price you pay when you graduate some good players. The last two years we've had a high number of seniors go out both years, and some NFL players in that group. It's something we anticipated, we knew it was going to be a challenge, but all that being said, we're optimistic.

One of my motivating factors for moving Reese over to that spot is Reese is just a tremendous teacher. That's the No. 1 thing I saw in him when we hired him here. He took Pat Flaherty's spot. He's a real builder, and he's done that with the offensive line. You look at last year, we had Riley Reiff, who people are talking about, but we also had Markus Zusevics and Adam Gettis, who both I think are going to get drafted here. They were both roughly 225, 230 [pounds] when they came out of high school and built themselves into players. Reese was a key component of their development, and that's what he does a great job of. I think we've got the right guy with the right group. We've got a lot of work to do, but at the end of the day, that group will be fine, just like in '05.

What would you like to see out of James [Vandenberg] during the spring?

KF: Just continued improvement. We expect him to play his best football next year and lead even better than he did. He played well last year and he led well, but he's going to have to do better. With a young team like this, it's going to be imperative that our most experienced guys play their best and lead our football team. It sure helps when you're playing better. And he's totally capable. We have confidence in James.

Is Keenan [Davis] another guy who fits into that category, needing to play his best as an older guy?

KF: Most definitely. If you look at the improvement Marvin McNutt made throughout his career, from making a move [from quarterback] in the middle of the '08 season, to the records he set, it didn't happen just by accident or just by him hanging around. He worked hard, he got better each year, and his hard work and effort, certainly in production and yardage, that's what we need from Keenan. Marvin's not here, quite obviously, so Keenan has to be the guy and take a very prominent role as a receiver. And he's certainly capable, so we expect to see that growth from him.

What would you like to see from the running back group by the end of the spring?

KF: Development and maturation. We have three guys that are working at that position who are talented enough. They're all capable, but they're young. Jordan Canzeri missed a significant amount of time last year with a hamstring issue. Damon Bullock, we moved him around enough that it probably rendered him ineffective. We'll let him settle at the running back position. And we think De'Andre Johnson has potential as well, but he's got to mature. He missed his first year because he was coming off an ACL injury from high school, so he's a little bit behind that way. But he's got every opportunity to develop and be a good player. It sure would help our football team.

When you're this young, are you more tempted to play freshmen if they come in and show that ability, or do you have to work with the guys who have some experience?

KF: We'll have a better grip on where we are at the end of spring practice. We're going to need some help at some spots, that's a given. Bottom line is for the most part, the guys that demonstrate they can play and help us, they're going to get that opportunity. We had the case with Allen Reisner. Back in '07, we had to throw him in. He was a true freshman. He wasn't necessarily ready to go, but we ran out of guys, so he had to go in there. We hopefully won't be in that situation. But anybody [who] can help us win next year, if it's special teams or on offense, defense, we'll give them an opportunity.

Greg came in from the outside, while Phil Parker has been there. What's it been like seeing him in this role? Do you see him putting his personality on the defense?

KF: We're early into the process right now. To the casual fan, it's not going to look a lot different, probably, but there will be some subtleties and some things not only Phil, but the entire staff talked about. It's like anything else, you're always trying to evolve and progress, move forward a little bit without losing your identity. That's probably what you'll see from that group. Phil's a veteran coach. He's had several chances to leave here for BCS coordinator positions and has chosen to stay here, so I don't think there's any question he's ready to go. He'll do a great job. He's very detailed and he's a good leader.

From a leadership standpoint, do you have some guys in mind, especially on defense, who you could see moving into those roles this spring?

KF: Most definitely. The guys that we're really counting on, you start with Micah Hyde. He's probably our most experienced player on defense, most proven, so we're counting on that from him. James Morris and Chris Kirksey, they're only third-year students next year, but they've played a lot of football, too, and good football. They're playing a leadership position at linebacker. And up front, I'd say Steve Bigach's a guy we're really counting on to really help set the tempo of the group. He's already been doing that, and I think he'll do a good job.
The postseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. No position group is evaluated more as a collective unit, and the Big Ten had a mix of strong offensive lines and shaky ones. There were some individual standouts, such as Michigan center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and Wisconsin center Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler, who earned AP All-America honors.

It was important to consider quarterback rushing when evaluating the offensive lines, as most Big Ten teams had signal callers who could take off and run. The ones who didn't paid the price in some statistical categories, even though the line play wasn't too bad.

Let's get to the list:

[+] EnlargeKevin Zeitler
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireAll-American Kevin Zeitler was a member of an O-line that helped Wisconsin lead the Big Ten in scoring.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise here as the Thick Red Line keeps steamrolling the opposition. Despite losing three starters and two All-Americans from the 2010 unit, Wisconsin's offensive line once again delivered as the unit put up huge numbers once again. The Badgers led the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense. Although pass protection was an issue at times, and the unit missed Konz down the stretch, there's little to complain about. Four starters earned league or national honors.

2. Michigan: Although the defensive line got more attention for its boost under Brady Hoke, Michigan's offensive line turned in a strong 2011 campaign. Molk led the charge at center as Michigan finished second in the league in both scoring and rushing and third in total offense. The Wolverines also allowed just 18 sacks, the third-lowest total in the Big Ten. Michigan's linemen seemed to embrace the transition to a more pro-style, downhill offense.

3. Nebraska: Despite injuries and inexperience, the Huskers' line held together pretty well in 2011, especially when you consider they operated in a new offensive system. Nebraska finished third in the league in rushing, as the front five paved a path for Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez. Nebraska did a decent job limiting sacks and tackles for loss and kept Martinez healthy for the season.

4. Iowa: It's tough to know what to make of Iowa's offensive line in 2011. The Hawkeyes had a future top-10 NFL draft pick at left tackle in Riley Reiff, who surprised no one in January by forgoing his senior season to turn pro. Iowa also had some solid pieces in Adam Gettis, Markus Zusevics and James Ferentz. The big knock is that Iowa ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing, although the team had a nearly 1,400-yard rusher in Marcus Coker. Iowa allowed 29 sacks but only 59 tackles for loss, and the team passed the ball well. Still, it's fair to expect more from this group.

5. Penn State: The Lions' line has taken a lot of heat in recent years, and the offense's overall struggles in 2011 would seem to suggest another rough season. But we believe Penn State's biggest problems occurred immediately behind the line rather than along it. The line helped sophomore running back Silas Redd turn in a strong season. Penn State allowed the fewest sacks (14) and fewest tackles for loss (49) in the league.

6. Michigan State: The Spartans had a similar profile to Iowa, which isn't surprising as neither team had a rushing threat at quarterback. Michigan State ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing for much of the year and ended up 11th, ahead of only Iowa. But the Spartans protected Kirk Cousins well, allowing only 16 sacks, and they finished 34th nationally in tackles for loss allowed with 72. And while All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman led the way, Michigan State dealt with injuries and inexperience for most of the season.

7. Purdue: Danny Hope branded the offensive line as the team's strongest unit entering the season, and at times it looked that way. Purdue used multiple running backs and finished fifth in the league in rushing. The Boilers ranked sixth in passing, and the line finished in the middle of the pack in sacks allowed. Purdue had too many negative-yardage plays overall, finishing 101st nationally in tackles for loss allowed (89).

8. Northwestern: One of the nation's most experienced offensive lines once again showed it can excel in pass blocking and struggles to generate push in the run game. Although Northwestern finished in the middle of the league in rushing offense, the unit remained passing-centric. The Wildcats allowed 43 sacks, and while some could be attributed to a quarterback (Dan Persa) who wasn't 100 percent and held the ball too long, it's still too many. The line had its moments, like the Nebraska win, but looked leaky at times.

9. Indiana: The Hoosiers might not have been dominant up front in 2011, but they improved as the season went along. After a rough start to Big Ten play, Indiana racked up 200 rush yards or more in four of its final six contests. The line looked strong against both Iowa and Northwestern, although the team lost both games. Indiana allowed too many negative-yardage plays and needs to be more consistent with its run-blocking going forward.

10. Ohio State: This unit undoubtedly would be higher had left tackle Mike Adams been eligible all season. Adams sparked the Buckeyes after returning from suspension and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media despite missing the first five games. Things were brutal up front early on, especially in losses to Miami and Michigan State. Ohio State surrendered a league-high 46 sacks and 90 tackles for loss, which ranked 104th nationally.

11. Illinois: It was a disappointing season for an Illinois line that entered the year with high hopes. While many are to blame for the offense's decline in the second half of the year, the struggles up front seemed to be the most surprising. Illinois eclipsed 200 rush yards in four of the first six games and then failed to do so the rest of the season. The Illini surrendered 36 sacks and 89 tackles for loss. Despite some talented individuals like tackle Jeff Allen, the line as a whole fell short of expectations.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers simply need to get a lot better at a position where they've thrived for much of their history. Minnesota scored a league-low 14 rush touchdowns, four fewer than any other Big Ten squad, and finished last in the league in both scoring and total offense. The Gophers did a nice job limiting negative-yardage plays, but they need to move the ball forward with greater efficiency. The good news is several promising young linemen return in 2012.
My apologies for posting this a bit late, but the initial invitations list is out for the 2012 NFL scouting combine, which takes place next month in Indianapolis. This list does not include the five Big Ten juniors who have declared for the draft.

Let's check out which players made the initial list (a full list will come out later this month).

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Wide receivers
Offensive linemen
Defensive tackles
Defensive ends
Outside linebackers
Cornerbacks
Safeties
  • Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
Kickers
Punters

There are no Big Ten tight ends, inside linebackers or long snappers on the initial list.

I'm a bit surprised not to see several names, including Penn State WR Derek Moye. Still, wide receiver was a position of strength for the Big Ten in 2011, along with defensive tackle.

Big Ten lunch links

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
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What's on the menu today?

Big Ten lunchtime links

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
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For what it’s worth, I think you would make an incredible brunette. Ron Swanson.

Big Ten lunchtime links

June, 30, 2011
6/30/11
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Happy Nebraska Day Eve:
The preseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. Team rankings are below, and we'll take a look at the individual rankings for tackles, centers and guards early next week.

Looking at the league landscape, offensive line could be a major strength throughout the Big Ten this season. Although standout players such as Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and All-American Stefen Wisniewski depart, I see improved depth for several teams as well as quite a few multiyear starters.

Honestly, there aren't any bad lines in the league; just some with more question marks than others.

Let's get to the rundown.

1. Wisconsin: Talk about an ability to reload. The Badgers lose All-Americans Carimi and John Moffitt, plus the versatile Bill Nagy, and they still shouldn't take any steps backward. Injuries have allowed Wisconsin to build depth the past few seasons, and four of the five spots look extremely solid. Tackle Ricky Wagner, center Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler lead a group that will block for the league's top running back tandem. Wisconsin's track record up front is impossible to ignore, and this year's line should continue the trend.

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
David Purdy/Getty ImagesWill arm length be an issue for former Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff in the NFL?
2. Iowa: The line is undoubtedly Iowa's biggest strength and should be one of the nation's elite units in 2011. Iowa returns starting experience at all five positions and should have decent depth. Left tackle Riley Reiff, projected as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, will enter the fall as a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy. James Ferentz is one of the league's top centers, and Markus Zusevics is poised for a big year at right tackle.

3. Ohio State: Depth is the only reason the Buckeyes' line isn't higher in the rankings. Ohio State boasts arguably the nation's top center in Mike Brewster, and first-team All-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams will be back after a five-game suspension to begin the season. The Buckeyes need big things from tackle Andrew Norwell during Adams' absence, and tackle J.B. Shugarts must play like a veteran. After struggling to put two sets of capable linemen on the field this spring, Ohio State has to find more depth in preseason camp.

4. Michigan: This is another group that could climb up the rankings by season's end. Center David Molk is a terrific piece to build around, and if gifted players like Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh continue to develop, Michigan's line will be a major strength. The concerns are Molk's ability to stay healthy and an adjustment to a new offensive system under Al Borges. The line did an excellent job of protecting Denard Robinson in 2010, allowing a league-low 11 sacks.

5. Illinois: The Illini flat-out punished opponents at the line of scrimmage on several occasions last season, and I really like the potential for the front five in 2011. The biggest reason? Left tackle Jeff Allen, one of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen. Allen and center Graham Pocic will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and if Corey Lewis gets healthy, this should be one of the league's top offensive lines.

6. Purdue: Expectations are high for a line that coach Danny Hope thinks will be Purdue's strength in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is an All-Big Ten candidate with NFL potential who has started the past 24 games. Center Peters Drey and tackle Nick Mondek help anchor the group. The big question is whether mammoth guard Ken Plue, a multiyear starter, can get out of Hope's doghouse to help lead the way. Plue will be pushed by James Shepherd this summer. The combination of experience up front and the return of running back Ralph Bolden bode well for the Boilers.

7. Northwestern: The Wildcats boast the nation's second most experienced line (137 combined career starts), but experience must start translating to production. This group still must prove it can spark a decent rushing attack after several years of decline. Left tackle Al Netter is an All-Big Ten candidate and center Ben Burkett enters his fourth season as the starter. If Northwestern gets more consistent play from right tackle Patrick Ward and others, it should be a solid group.

8. Penn State: This is a big year for Penn State's O-line, which has heard the criticism and has vowed to erase it in 2011. The tackle spots look solid with Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but Penn State needs to shore up the interior after losing Wisniewski, a mainstay for the past four seasons. If veterans like Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell step up and turn in consistent performances, the line should hold up nicely.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers ranked ninth nationally in rushing last season but have quite a few question marks up front. Center Mike Caputo is a building block and sophomore tackle Jeremiah Sirles is a returning starter, but Nebraska has little proven experience. The Huskers will benefit from a healthy Marcel Jones at right tackle, and Yoshi Hardwick adds depth. This could turn out to be a decent group, but the experience issue combined with a scheme change creates some uncertainty.

10. Michigan State: Not to put too much pressure on the line, but arguably no position group will have more influence on Michigan State's season. The Spartans must replace both starting tackles and their starting center, never an easy task. All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman returns to lead the group, but Michigan State needs immediate contributions from unproven players. The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism up front by moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell over from the defensive side.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers boast a mix of veterans and youth, and it'll be interesting to see whether the group comes together this fall. Hopes are high for young tackles Eric Olson and Jimmy Gjere, but they'll need help from seniors like Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders on the interior. Minnesota needs to regain its swagger as an elite rushing offense, and it starts up front this fall. This is a group that certainly has a chance to make strides.

12. Indiana: I like some of Indiana's individual pieces, but as a group, the Hoosiers must show they can create space for the running backs. Indiana switched to the pistol offense in hopes of sparking the ground game but produced barely 100 rushing yards a game in 2010 (112th nationally). The line allowed only 12 sacks and must continue to protect its unproven quarterbacks this fall, but getting the run game going is paramount. Returning starters Will Matte, Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald give Indiana hope.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 23, 2011
6/23/11
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You are the weakest link -- goodbye!

Video: Iowa OT Markus Zusevics

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
4:45
PM ET

Iowa offensive tackle Markus Zusevics talks about the Hawkeyes' line taking the lead this spring, setting a higher standard, building confidence in the running game and more.
Tonight, it begins.

The wait is over and we finally get to see Big Ten teams play games that count. As opening weekend begins a little early with three games tonight, here are 10 things to watch around the league.

1. Quarterback questions at Michigan, Penn State: Two of the league's traditional powers likely will be evaluating multiple quarterbacks in their openers. True freshman Robert Bolden was named a surprise starter for the Nittany Lions, but sophomores Matt McGloin and Kevin Newsome also are likely to get some work. Denard Robinson could be poised to take control at Michigan, but head coach Rich Rodriguez expects to play more than one signal caller, so sophomore Tate Forcier and true freshman Devin Gardner likely will take some snaps in the spotlight. Penn State has to see what it has under center before a Week 2 trip to defending national champ Alabama.

[+] EnlargeRobert Marve
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesFormer Miami quarterback Robert Marve and his new team have a tough test in South Bend.
2. Opportunity knocks for Marve, Boilers: No team in the Big Ten has a better opportunity to make a national statement than Purdue. All eyes will be on South Bend -- really, when aren't they? -- as Notre Dame kicks off the Brian Kelly era, but Purdue can ruin the fun by upsetting the Fighting Irish. Quarterback Robert Marve has done all the right things in West Lafayette since transferring from Miami, and he boasts a big arm and plenty of weapons to attack a suspect Notre Dame secondary. Marve should flourish in the spread offense, so expect a strong debut. It might not matter, though, if Purdue can't upgrade its run defense and protect a new-look secondary from Dayne Crist and Michael Floyd.

3. Heisman push begins for Pryor, Clay: When we last saw Terrelle Pryor in a game, the Ohio State quarterback was at his best, winning Offensive MVP honors at the Rose Bowl. By all accounts, Pryor made strides during the offseason and said he has a greater grasp of the offense and what it takes to be a leader on the big stage. His accolades heading into the season -- Big Ten preseason Offensive Player of the Year, Heisman Trophy candidate -- are based largely on hype and potential, but Pryor finally gets a chance to produce some hard evidence against Marshall. Wisconsin running back John Clay has been largely overlooked in the preseason, but he also could help his Heisman candidacy with a strong debut at UNLV, which ranked 112th nationally in rush defense a year ago.

4. Mystery team makes debut in St. Louis: Who's the Big Ten's mystery team this season? Illinois. The Illini have new offensive and defensive schemes, a new starting quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and plenty of unknowns on both sides of the ball. Missouri typically brings out the worst in Ron Zook's squad, and Illinois will need to show some resiliency in the Edward Jones Dome. Scheelhaase is young but skilled and athletic, and it'll be interesting to see how he handles the spotlight in an NFL stadium. Illinois' secondary faces Blaine Gabbert and Missouri's high-powered passing attack without two starters (safety Supo Sanni, cornerback Terry Hawthorne), so linebacker Martez Wilson and others need to step up.

5. Iowa's new-look offensive line: The Hawkeyes shouldn't have much trouble beating Eastern Illinois, although after last year's roller-coaster ride, you never know. The opener should give a new-look offensive line time to get comfortable and create holes for running back Adam Robinson. Iowa will start three new players up front -- right tackle Markus Zusevics, right guard Adam Gettis and center James Ferentz -- and needs to get comfortable before bigger tests the next two weeks against Iowa State and Arizona. Running back Jewel Hampton sits out because of a suspension, but Iowa really needs to get the run game going with Robinson and adequately protect quarterback Ricky Stanzi.

6. Spartans' secondary in spotlight: Most point to the secondary as Michigan State's biggest weakness in 2009, and for good reason. The Spartans ranked last in the Big Ten in pass yards allowed (267.6 ypg), allowed 11 more passing touchdowns (32 total) than any other Big Ten squad and recorded only six interceptions, the second-lowest total in the league. Several underperforming players are gone, and Michigan State hopes to be younger but better in the back four this fall. Cornerback Johnny Adams returns to the mix, and hopes are high for Trenton Robinson, Chris L. Rucker and others. The secondary needs to step up Saturday against Western Michigan, which loses standout quarterback Tim Hiller but returns top wideouts Robert Arnheim and Jordan White.

7. Line dance in the Volunteer State for Gophers, Wildcats: Both Minnesota and Northwestern boast veteran offensive lines that need to upgrade their run-blocking ability this fall. Minnesota ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing for the second straight year in 2009, while Northwestern finished eighth and had no big plays in the ground game. It'll be very interesting to see how both lines perform in what likely will be balmy weather in Tennessee. Minnesota opens Thursday night at Middle Tennessee, while Northwestern visits Vanderbilt in Nashville 48 hours later. Both squads have multiple backs competing for carries, but the performance of the two lines will go a long way toward showing what the upcoming season will hold.

8. Brock Mealer leads Michigan out of the tunnel: Doctors told Brock Mealer he'd never walk again after being paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident that killed his father and the girlfriend of his brother, Elliott, an offensive lineman for Michigan. But Brock never gave up hope and worked with Michigan strength and conditioning coaches Mike Barwis and Parker Whiteman to work his way out of a wheelchair. Saturday, he'll be walking out of the tunnel at Michigan Stadium as he leads the Wolverines onto the field for their opener against Connecticut. "He's that one percent," Wolverines defensive tackle Mike Martin told me. "People said he'd never walk again, and he's proving people wrong right there. We’ve got to come out right behind him and show what we've got."

9. Indiana's new-look defense: The Hoosiers' season likely hinges on whether a historically porous defense can improve. IU will use the 3-4 alignment more this season, but the coaches also are excited about defensive ends Darius Johnson and Fred Jones. Tyler Replogle provides excellent leadership at linebacker, but Indiana needs three junior college transfers -- linebacker Jeff Thomas and defensive backs Andre Kates and Lenyatta Kiles -- to make an immediate impact. A strong debut against Towson is key.

10. Quarterback-turned-receivers: There was a time when Michigan State's Keith Nichol, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray and Purdue's Justin Siller looked like the potential answers for their teams at quarterback. All three players now will play prominent roles at wide receivers on opening weekend. All three received strong reviews in training camp as receivers, and all three could start on Saturday. Gray is the likeliest to be called upon as a quarterback, as he remains Adam Weber's backup for the Gophers. Siller makes his first appearance since 2008 after being suspended from school for the 2009-10 academic year.
If you're looking for links about this weekend's scrimmages, check out my post from earlier today. For more Big Ten links, keep reading ...

"Even though their schedule is tougher than it has been, I don't think anyone would be -- or should be -- shocked if the Gophers won six games. At 6-6 their record would be, well, mediocre again. The difference this time around is that the bar has been lowered so much by all these gloomy predictions, that 6-6 will feel like an amazing accomplishment."

Opening camp: Iowa

August, 6, 2010
8/06/10
11:15
AM ET
Schedule: Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes hit the field for their first practice at 11:30 a.m. ET today.

What's new: The offensive line certainly has a new look after the departures of Bryan Bulaga, Kyle Calloway, Dace Richardson and Rafael Eubanks. Iowa will be breaking in a new right tackle, most likely Markus Zusevics, and the center spot is up for grabs between Josh Koeppel and James Ferentz. The only other spot that gets a major overhaul is linebacker, as standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds both depart. Iowa is one of only 11 FBS programs to return its coaching staff fully intact for 2010.

Sidelined: Iowa enters camp relatively healthy, although linebacker Ross Petersen won't participate in full-contact drills for at least a week because of a torn pectoral muscle.

Key battle: The competition at center between Koeppel and Ferentz should be good, but Iowa really needs to identify a second starting cornerback opposite Shaun Prater. Amari Spievey leaves a huge void, and the Hawkeyes will be looking to players like Micah Hyde and Jordan Bernstine to step up. Bernstine missed all of last season with an ankle injury, but he played as a reserve in his first two seasons. The situation at running back also should be very interesting to watch during camp.

New on the scene: Iowa doesn't typically play many true freshmen, but heralded tight end recruit C.J. Fiedorowicz should see the field following the departure of standout Tony Moeaki. Homegrown product A.J. Derby is a very interesting young prospect, but indications suggest he'll redshirt this fall.

Back in the fold: Jewel Hampton entered last summer as the projected successor to All-American Shonn Greene at running back, but a series of knee problems ended his season before it began. Hampton is back in the fold but must beat out Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher for the starting job. He'll miss the season opener because of a suspension, but we should finally see Hampton's return in Week 2 against Iowa State.

Breaking out: Iowa opened up its passing attack last season and saw Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos emerge as legitimate deep threats in the Big Ten. Johnson-Koulianos likely will finish as Iowa's all-time leading receiver, and McNutt averaged 19.8 yards per reception with eight touchdowns. Both players could have even bigger years in 2010. Along the defensive line, everyone knows about Adrian Clayborn, but watch out for Broderick Binns, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard, who should see increased opportunities to make plays this fall.

Quotable: "We tend to be a developmental team. We were 9-0 at one point last year, and we were a good team, we had played some great football, but we weren't a great team at that point. In January, we were a pretty good team. We really grew. So it's a race against time. I don't know where we stack up in that race right now." -- Head coach Kirk Ferentz

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